Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Tuesday, March 27, 2012 - No comments

The Distance from Here to the Bosphorus

I haven’t decided yet if it’s a cruelty or a comfort, but either way, I’m grateful for the way the door to my Turkish family’s apartment building makes a low groaning sound like a ferry horn right before it slams shut. More or less confined to the couch as I recover from ear surgery and the cold that preceded it, this is about as close to the Bosphorus as I’ve been all week.

Okay, that’s not entirely true. Knowing that I might feel crummy like this my whole time here, I purposely flew into the farther-out European-side airport just so I could take a ferry back across on my way to my Asian-side home. I knew it might be my only chance to get out on the water and enjoy the salty sea breeze and the dance of the seagulls as they chase the bits of simit tossed by passengers from Eminönü to Kadıköy, and I wasn’t about to miss out on the experience that, more than any other, represents life in this incredible city for me.

The day before my surgery, I did make it down to the seaside for a little while - long enough to have one last cup of çay at Haydarpaşa Station before they transform it from a glorious hundred-year-old railway station into something horrid like a mall or a bowling alley. But that day was more about bidding farewell to a building that holds an important place in both Istanbul’s history and my own. And besides, there was a crazy fog that day through which one could barely make out the tips of the minarets of the Blue Mosque through the haze, so it wasn’t much of a day for impressive views.

Today, after sleeping in til almost eleven (the doc says the anesthetic should be out of my system - when is this tiredness going to go away?) and slowly making my way through my breakfast and quiet time routine, I decided that even if I wasn’t up for a full-on gez (exploration, outing), I could at least handle a bus ride along the Asian shore of Bosphorus - just to remind myself that I’m here and it’s there.

I got all excited about taking the dolmuş (minibus) from Kadıköy to Üsküdar, passing familiar spots along the way, and then riding the bus up the coast to Beykoz for a cup of tea in the sleepy fishing village at the end of the line. It’s an appropriately gray day - the kind that’s perfectly suited to seagull cries and whitecaps and ferries gliding past steamed-up teahouse windows. All I was really going to do was ride a few buses, sit still, and ride those same buses home. Surely my body could handle that much.

But by the time I’d slurped down my soup and gotten myself dressed, the fuzziness in my head had overtaken the palpitating excitement in my heart, and I knew the only place I was going was back to the couch. In my pajamas once again, with a cup of tea in hand (Indian and milky, not Turkish and black like the seaside one I’d been anticipating), I dejectedly curled up under my blanket and sighed.

This was not how I wanted to spend this day.

For the past week I’ve been holed up at home, sleeping, reading and writing by day, partaking in the daily çay-and-a-dizi ritual by night. (“Dizi” is Turkish for “TV series with unbelievably convoluted plot that everyone and their mom are addicted to.”) In nearly every dizi (at least the ones set in the present day) there is someone who lives in a yalı (old wooden mansion) on the Bosphorus. And for those who aren’t wealthy enough to have a view of the sea and “the other side” from their breakfast table, they inevitably head down to a bench by the water to make out or make up with their boyfriend, deliver the ransom money that will save their kidnapped fiancée or shoot a bullet through their backstabbing brother-in-law’s heart.

The Bosphorus is at the centre of life here in Istanbul. At least it always has been for me.

But as I sit here reluctantly on the couch of my convalescence, the view from my window is entirely unlike that of the ladies on those dizis who call for a servant to bring them a fresh cup of çay as they read the morning paper and watch the freighters lumber their way down from the Black Sea. From here, I see smoke curling up from the chimneys of tiny houses warmed by woodstoves. Laundry flapping in the late afternoon breeze, soon to be snatched in before it is darkened by the coal-coloured haze that will settle over the neighbourhood at dusk. Little girls in blue uniforms with white collars and boys with loosened ties chasing soccer balls home from school.

And women. Everywhere, women.

The old lady with the black and white headscarf is sweeping onion peels from the flat roof of the two-storey house behind us, presumably having just cleaned several boxes-worth purchased at the pazar. A middle-aged woman is leaning out a window of the building across the street, shaking out a long, narrow carpet with the great skill that I envy but have yet to acquire. The clouds of dust sent flying by each strong flick of her wrists are sure to be followed by complaints from the lady whose laundry is hanging one balcony down. Further up the street, a woman is lowering a basket tied with string from the fourth floor to the bakkal below, for cigarettes or bread or both. Whether she has a baby sleeping in the house, food on the stove, or is just too tired to make the trek down the stairs and back, this basket system is the salvation of many a woman living on the upper floors of Istanbul’s tall apartment buildings.

All these women have gotten me to thinking.

My Istanbul and the Istanbul of my dreams, the Istanbul of those women in the wooden mansions on television....it’s a very different Istanbul than the one of the onion peel-sweepers and carpet-shakers and basket-lowerers. When is the last time any of the housewives in this neighbourhood took a bus up the Bosphorus just for the pleasure of a cup of tea and a little sea breeze? On a good traffic day, we’re less than ten minutes from the sea, and yet economic hardships, the demands of husbands and children, and that suffocating Turkish belief of “kader” (“destiny” or “your lot in life”) likely keep them from venturing much further than the corner store or a neighbour’s house, except on pazar day.

I have a friend here who owns a company that employs lower class women who make handcrafts to be sold at markets and fairs. I remember her once telling me that several of the ladies, even though they live in one of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities, had never been on a minibus before and don’t go anywhere they can’t walk to. Whether bus fare is too much or their husbands have defined strict limits on their comings and goings, the boundary lines of their worlds are drawn suffocatingly close to home. For some, staying within walking distance of their houses might be comforting; for others, it might be a whole lot like being in prison.

Even for the ones who work and are able to get out of the neighbourhood every day, a sit by the sea is not a commonly indulged-in luxury. If they’re anything like my Turkish mom, they get up while it’s still dark to head to the office and come home exhausted from answering phones or cleaning floors all day only to have to put food on the table before their husband’s complaining gets too loud. This past Sunday, my adopted Mom and I had talked about maybe taking a little field trip downtown to poke around a bookstore - something she’s been wanting to do for months - but a phone call from relatives who wanted to “pop by” meant she spent the day cleaning, dashing to the store for cookies, serving tea and emptying ash trays instead. A day off is just not in the cards for most Turkish women.

Maybe that’s why they’re all so hopelessly addicted to their dizis. Like this girl, confined to the couch with a bandage on her ear, the view out the windows of those rich ladies’ mansions is the only glimpse of the Bosphorus they can ever hope to get.

Kinda puts my own "confinement" in perspective.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Wednesday, March 21, 2012 - 1 comment

Sick in the City

When I was 17, I had the chance to experience a teenager’s dream come true: a day at Disneyland with sixty of my friends. We were road-tripping home from a youth conference and had stayed with host families the night before. In the car on the way to the Magic Kingdom, I wasn’t feeling so well and I threw up. Once we entered the park, I tried to shake it off and smile, but one disastrous ride on Space Mountain (which I otherwise love!) proved that my stomach was not up to the challenge, and I ended up spending the whole day in the nurses’ station.

I remember sleeping a lot, and appreciating the visits from friends as they ran between Splash Mountain and the Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse but wishing I could’ve been outside with them instead of lying in that bed. The only thing that really stands out to me about that day is a Russian man was having a heart attack and there was a big panic as they tried to find a translator. A grand disappointment all around.

I’m experiencing those same feelings of “missing out” today, only my grown-up Disneyland is Istanbul and I’m stuck home on the couch with a cold.

I came here knowing I’d only have a day or two before my ear surgery, so I wanted to make the most of my time in my favourite city before pain killers had me konked out in bed. I had big plans for these days - friends to see, photos to take, favourite spots to visit, new places to explore. I always arrive with a long list of Istanbul bucket-list items (ride the ferry to the spot where the Bosphorus meets the Black Sea, go to Ara Güler's cafe and ask the famous photographer if we can go shooting together, finally explore the towers and dungeons of the Yeditepe Fortress....) and try to squeeze the life out of every hour I have here. But right now I don’t have the energy for much more than changing the channel to see what else is on during “Öyle Bir Geçer Zaman Ki” commercial breaks.

This morning I had to go to the hospital to talk over the surgery with my doctor and do the pre-op blood tests and paper work. I’d hoped to head down to Kadıköy early, have a Turkish coffee at Fazıl Bey’s, my usual coffee house, then walk by the sea a bit before heading to my appointment. But my head hurt so much I didn’t think I could handle the bus ride down, let alone anything fun, so I just took a taxi straight to the hospital. I was pretty fuzzy headed as I went from office to office and had a bit of a hard time understanding everything that was said to me - particularly when the anesthesiologist kept speaking to me in German-accented English when I was expecting Turkish. (Don’t they know how much that confuses me?)

My pre-sickness post-appointment plan had been to head down to Haydarpaşa Station and take some pictures and chat with some workers before the sad and fast-approaching day when the trains no longer come and go from that gorgeous building. But by the time I left the hospital, my energy was spent, so again, I again skipped Kadıköy and took a taxi home.

I felt a bit like I was betraying my beloved by not taking a dip downtown - like I’d become one of those people who moves away and then, when they return, they wonder how they ever loved the crowds and the craziness and the noise. Normally when I return, I’m eager to take my place in the dance and float along with the other millions of people surging down the streets. But today the horns and the traffic and the throngs that normally give me life threatened to swallow me whole and I just couldn’t do it.

I trudged up to the third floor of my Turkish family’s apartment, turned the key in the door, and then closed it on my beloved city. That Disneyland disappointment only increased as I crawled into my bed and got ready to sleep away the hours I’d planned to spend out amidst the ancient wonder and modern curiosities outside. As I listened to the cries of the seagulls and the horns of the Bosphorus ferries, I thought to myself, “Istanbul is a rotten place to be sick.”

An hour or so later, I woke up when my Turkish sister got home from work. I had her key, so I had to get up to let her in. She looked at my sleep-matted hair and drowsy eyes and gave me a big, comforting hug. Then she proceeded to brew me some soothing mint-lemon tea with honey, set up blankets for me on the couch, make a pot of popcorn and pop in a movie for us to crash in front of.

And as I lay there, so well taken care of, my sweet "sister" by my side, I thought to myself, “Istanbul’s not such a bad place to be sick after all.”

Monday, March 12, 2012

Monday, March 12, 2012 - 1 comment

Converse in the Land of Plastic Slip-Ons

This morning when I walked out the door, I saw a bright turquoise scrap of fabric lying on the ground beside the car. There were leaves tangled up in its threads, and the elegant silk was full of snags and holes, inflicted, no doubt, by one of the neighbourhood strays. I sighed. It must have fallen out of my bag as we were unpacking the car in the dark last night. The scarf, while pretty, had been purely a pity-purchase. “Well,” I thought, “there’s fifteen lira gone to the dogs.”


Living where we do, within easy driving distance of the Mediterranean, several gorgeous waterfalls and the ruins of countless Roman cities, my roommate and I are always looking for excuses to take weekend day-trips. Last spring, after reading about Köprülü Kanyon - a narrow gorge where a still-traversable Roman bridge spans the width of the Köprü River - we hopped in the car one Saturday and set out to see it for ourselves.

The trouble with our little road trips is that getting on the road early is not our forte, and once we’ve set out, we like to stop at every little distraction along the way. Roadside honey-sellers and strawberry stands, bakeries selling heavy Trabzon bread from the Black Sea, statues of larger-than-life animals - all are acceptable excuses for a snack break or a photo stop. As it was, we got off to a late start (the luxury of Saturday) and by the time farming villages and orange groves had given way to pine-blanketed mountain and glimpses of the seafoam green river, it was well past lunchtime.

When we reached the town of Beşkonak, home to twenty or so rafting companies lining the riverbank, our best Google Maps guesstimate told us we still had a good fifty kilometres to go. Since we didn’t know if there would be food up ahead, we decided it would be best to fill up before reaching our destination and settled in at a table overlooking the river at one of the town’s fish restaurants.

The fish - trout rubbed with garlic, wrapped in laurel leaves and grilled over the fire - was delicious, and after a steaming cup of Turkish tea, that pleasant post-meal drowsiness set in. As we chatted with the proprietor and amused ourselves watching groups of rafters struggle to get their life-jacket-clad selves into the boats without taking each other out with their paddles, rain clouds that hadn’t been in the sky when we’d set out began to roll in. Another cup of tea seemed the best way to wait out the drizzle, so we sat a little longer, comfortable under our shelter and enjoying the view.

In the end, thinking we still had quite aways to drive and wanting to be safely out of the mountains by dark, we decided to declare the riverside restaurant the “destination of the day” and head for home. “It’s close enough,” we told ourselves. “We’ll come back.”

As so often happens with places that are “close to home,” it took us another two years before we finally headed back to Köprülü Kanyon yesterday. Some friends had visited there recently and they raved about the dramatic setting. This time, armed with snacks, overnight bags (in case there was so much to see that we decided to stay) and another friend by our sides, we got off to a (slightly) earlier start and determined that this time we’d make it all the way.

Our stomachs got rumbly right about the same spot as last time, so we stopped in Beşkonak for a rather familiar meal and view, though this time without the bustle of activity as it is just barely spring and far too early in the season for rafting. After lunch (but no tea - apparently it was too early in the season for that, too) we set off again for the canyon, and were surprised when, after driving no more than three kilometres, we came upon a sign for the canyon turnoff. (Surely there must be new signage since two years ago, or they fixed a glitch in Google Maps, because it’s always their fault, and never the navigator’s!)

Rounding a corner towards the river, we found ourselves behind two tractors waiting to cross a short stone bridge. “Is this it?” my roommate asked.

I strained to see the bridge. “It can’t be. It looked so much bigger in the pictures...”

But sure enough, as we neared the entrance to the bridge, a sign proclaimed that this was indeed the famous “Oluk Bridge,” built by the Romans during the “antique period.” (Translation: very old. Second century AD, to be exact.) As we made our way across the (surprisingly short) span of stone, recently reinforced with concrete, we started to chuckle, and then full-on laugh.

The bridge was a royal Roman disappointment.

Sure, the scenery was beautiful. The river squeezing its way between the rocks a dizzying distance below, framed by tall cliffs and lush green vegetation, was certainly photo-worthy. And, yes, the twenty-two metre bridge was an impressive engineering feat, both in its arch design and the fact that it is still useable.

I’m a firm believer in the journey being more important than the destination, but this with the price of gas and the preciousness of a day off, this destination just wasn’t worth driving two hours for. Twice.

At that point, all we could do was laugh at the fact that we’d been so close two years ago and yet turned back. Had we asked someone at the restaurant, we would’ve driven the three kilometres, snapped a few photos, checked it off the list and not come back. I made a mental note not to give too much weight to the ravings of newly arrived expats who have only seen a handful of Roman ruins and declare everything as “must-see.”

There was, however, a redemptive turning point in our misadventure. A sign on the other side of the canyon informed us it was eleven kilometres to Selge, which previous research had told us was an ancient Roman city that is now home to the Turkish village of Altınkaya. While my roommate hadn’t been so keen on seeing “yet another Roman city” when we’d first set out, we decided we’d better make this trip worthwhile, so off we went.

The road - a nightmare for the carsickness-prone - wound ever upwards, rewarding us with a stunning new view at every turn. We were surrounded on three sides by snowcapped mountains, and at the higher elevations, cypress trees grew in between and out of curious rock formations that a posted sign likened to the “fairy chimneys” of Cappadocia, presumably due to their wind-whipped, column-like shapes. Goats munched and cavorted on the hillsides and here and there determined spring wildflowers pushed through the crevices of the rocks.

When we were still several kilometres from Altınkaya, we encountered a village lady in baggy şalvar pants and a loosely tied headscarf making her way slowly up the steep road with a sack slung over her shoulder. When she caught sight of us, she began calling out something incomprehensible. Assuming she was one of the overzealous “souvenir-selling vultures” we’d read about, we carried on. But as we passed her, I caught her heavily accented Turkish: “Selge! Take me, too! Take me, too!”

Shoving jackets and half-empty bags of chips aside, we made room for her in the backseat. She smiled a grateful, almost toothless smile and informed us that she’d taken her goats down to graze and was now returning to the village. (I assumed the goats knew their own way home.... We certainly couldn’t have fit any in the car!) It was still three kilometres to the village, she told us. I glanced down at her plastic slip-ons and wondered what kind of calf muscles this woman must have.

Her house was near the entrance to the village, and when we deposited her there, she pointed us in the direction of the ruins. A deeply rutted dirt road led us between broken-down wooden stables and humble stone houses with red-tiled roofs, many of which had boulders on top to keep the tiles from flying away. Sheep and the occasional cow peeked their noses through ramshackle wooden fences to greet the foreigners, and a pack of little boys with homemade wooden “guns” paused their slaughtering of each other to “Hell-o!” us as we passed. There were maybe thirty houses altogether, and an elementary school, but no market or corner store. Signs written in German and English outside several front doors told us that the villagers welcomed people into their homes for tea and ayran (a salty yogurt drink) during tourist season.

When we reached the imposing amphitheatre, we were instantly swarmed by the Teyze (“Auntie”) Tourist Welcoming Committee - a colourful gaggle of floral şalvar and sweater-vest bedecked ladies eager to show us where to park. Mismatched headscarves were tied under the chins of sun-darkened faces and gold fillings glinted from behind boisterous smiles. Each woman had a cloth bag or bundle under her arm. I immediately noticed that they were all wearing the same cracked plastic shoes our hitchhiker had been wearing, either in blue or in green. I wondered how often the shoe-seller’s truck made it all the way up the mountain.

We were greeted as if they’d been waiting all day for our arrival. In truth, they probably had. Thrilled to discover that we spoke Turkish, hands were clasped and names exchanged. When I introduced myself to Emine Abla, a shy, round-faced middle-aged lady in a green polka-dot sweater, she exclaimed, “That’s my daughter-in-law’s name!” And from that moment on, she barely left my side.

These teyzes sure didn’t look like vultures to me.

It was clear from the get-go that they were going to be our self-appointed personal guides to the ruins, and they’d clearly rehearsed for the role.

“This amphitheatre can hold 10,000 people.”

“Over there is the temple of Artemis, and down there is where the ancient bazaar was.”

And the obligatory teyze-esque, “Be careful, you’ll fall!”

The amphitheatre really was impressive. While the front wall now lies in a heap of stone blocks, save for a few engraved pillars, the rows of seats are still very much intact, with staircases rising up to the “thrones” from where royalty would view performances and competitions. The backdrop of snow-covered mountains increased the sense of drama.

Surprisingly fit teyzes in tow, we climbed to the top of the arena where the ladies pointed out various graves on the hillside, ancient wells long dried up, and their own houses. They were pleasant and kind, and I found myself glad to have them along to add colour and a human face to the experience.

“What do you grow up here?” I asked.

“Wheat,” came the reply.

“What about vegetables? Do you take tomatoes and cucumbers down to sell at the pazar?”

“Too cold to grow vegetables. Just wheat. And sheep, before the Sacrifice Festival.” I hadn’t noticed until then that, unlike most of the rest of the province, there were no greenhouses in sight. Just a few barns and several plots of striped land in the centre of the village. The Romans must have had a good reason for building a city this high up, but for the Turks who call it home today, its inaccessibility and inhospitable soil seemed to keep it destined to stay bound up in subsistence living.

“Getting drinking water up here is a real problem, too.” Yes, I didn’t suppose they could just pick up the phone and have someone deliver a nineteen litre jug within the hour like we do in the city.

What would it be like to live somewhere so isolated, where the simplest of tasks might take all day?” I thought.

When the ladies of Altınkaya had exhausted their tidbits of information about the ancient city of Selge, they good-naturedly posed for photos and stood quietly as we admired the view. Then, completely in unison, as if someone had given a secret hand signal, they all began to untie their bundles, revealing stacks of silk scarves, tangles of beaded necklaces and knit woolen slippers.

Inwardly, I chuckled. These ladies were smart. They had us cornered on a platform at the top of the amphitheatre and it was clear that the only way out was to cough up some cash. And they were asking at least double the already ridiculous prices the same items go for downtown.

“This blue matches your eyes.”

“Come look at mine!”

“I’m old and poor and have no other way to put food on the table.”

The thing was, while I hated being manipulated, they really had won my sympathy. In spite of my normally merciful nature, years of living here have made me somewhat calloused to the tape-recorder mumblings of beggars and the dirty-faced kids selling roses and Kleenex in the park. But looking around at the village’s rundown shacks and forgotten-by-time poverty, I could hardly blame these women for looking at us with lira signs in those kind but desperate eyes.

No wonder they sit around waiting for tourists all day.

In much the same way that an owner coos to his dog, “Okay, you’re going to have a bath now” we used our best “oohing and aahing voices” to make a plan in English to divide up our purchases and try to buy something from everyone. Headscarves and doilies were definitely not high on my list of gifts to bring home, but I managed to find a necklace I might wear, and a beaded bracelet for a friend.

Having already spent more than I wanted to, I turned and realized I hadn’t bought anything from sweet Emine Abla. Nothing in her outstretched, sandpaper hands really appealed to me, but I chose a bright turquoise silk scarf anyway, and for my fifteen lira was rewarded with a broad smile that made her dark eyes twinkle.

When we’d made our purchases, there was a little more pleading and attempted arm-twisting, but in the end they politely accepted our “no”s. As soon as the bundles were retied, we were switched out of the category of “customers” and back into “friends,” and they happily chattered away all the way back to our car, careful to make sure their guests didn’t slip on the rocky path.

Regrettably, we had to turn down their offers of tea as there was no way we were going to try to navigate that switchback road down in the approaching darkness. Thus began the ritual kissing of withered hands and leathery cheeks. But when I got to the most wrinkled face in the bunch, she turned her face away and spat, “You didn’t buy anything from me.” With that, she squared her bony shoulders and huffed off towards home as quickly as her frail frame would take her.

Turks are famous for “kus-ing” each other - getting offended to the point of not speaking - but I’d never been kus-ed by someone I didn’t even know, and I wasn’t sure quite how to handle it. Shaking it off by telling myself I can’t hope to please everyone, I carried on with goodbye-ing.

As we pulled away from the ancient city of Selge, our band of teyzes waved us out of sight before returning to eking out their small existences against the backdrop of history. Aways down the muddy lane, we passed The Old Lady as she walked through her gate. I waved and gave her my friendliest smile, but she turned defiantly towards the house, her bundle of unsold trinkets under her arm.


Fingering a hole in my tattered silk scarf, I pictured Emine Abla’s warm face. After I’d bid farewell to all the ladies, I’d gone back to plant one more kiss on those smiling cheeks, finding myself genuinely sad to say goodbye to her. Maybe when it’s warmer I’ll go back and stay for a week and let her teach me how to milk goats.

I wonder how long fifteen lira worth of coal can heat a little stone house on the top of a mountain. And how long it will be until the next carload of tourists pulls into Altınkaya.

I hope that car arrives before the next snow.

And I hope someone in that car buys one of The Old Lady’s scarves.