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.