Saturday, April 27, 2013

Saturday, April 27, 2013 - 4 comments

In the Market for a Father-in-Law

I parked my scooter in my usual spot beside the old shoe shine guy and the man who sells chicks out of a cardboard box.  Stashing my helmet and sunglasses in the baggage compartment, I locked the back wheel and, with a nod to the shoe shiner, headed into the covered Thursday Pazar to buy my fruit and veggies for the week.  

My strawberry guy didn’t have any this week (I’m not usually fussy about “organic” but his truly are the best) so I had to settle for cheaper ones that will likely turn to mush by the weekend.  My greens guy had some nice spinach that, while its muddy state caused me to inwardly groan at the thought of the work it would take to clean it, I bought out of loyalty.  I was happy to find one stall still selling broccoli, as well as some sweet red peppers that didn’t look too squishy.  I’m excited about all the fruit that summer brings, but I grieve the end of the season for my favourite winter veggies.  I just don’t know how to plan a menu without red peppers.

When I’d loaded my arms up with as many bags as I could hold, I headed back to my bike to deposit my purchases and head back in to look for carrots and cucumbers, the last two items on my list.  Imagine my surprise when, as I approached, I discovered a man of about sixty perched quite comfortably on my bike, leaning over the handlebars and chatting happily with the shoe shine guy.  

As I got closer, I tried to think of a polite way to ask him to please remove himself from my scooter so I could put my veggies away.

Amca, müsaade eder misiniz?”  (I figured “Uncle, could you please make way?” was more respectful than, “Gramps, what makes you think you can just hang out on my bike like that?!”)  I raised the bags in my hands, indicating that, if it wasn’t too much trouble, I’d like to have access to the compartment under his bottom please.

“Of course, of course,” he accomodated, not looking the least bit embarrassed.  He smiled in the shoe shiner’s direction.  “We were standing guard for you.”  

I decided that playing along would be better than making a scene.

“Ah, thank you,” I said as I fit what I could into the “trunk” and the hold under the seat and hung the rest off the handlebars.  “No one tried to steal it, inshallah?”

“No, no, we would never allow it!” he replied gallantly, revealing a mouthful of crooked teeth, some gold, the others belying a lifelong tea habit.  “Are you leaving or do you have more to buy?”

“I have to grab a few more things.”  I motioned to the seat he’d been keeping warm.  “Carry on, carry on.”  Another nod to the shoe shiner and I made my way back into the crowded hubbub.  

When I returned a few minutes later with the last of my purchases, my sentry immediately rose from his place atop my bike with a sweep of his arms and a “Buyurun, buyurun.”  (Literally meaning “At your command,” but often used more like “Right this way, please.”)

I half expected him to ask for a tip for his services.

“Where are you from?”

Here we go, I thought.  The dreaded conversation I could have in my sleep because I have it just about every time I leave my house.  Or, at very least, every time I come to the pazar.


“Do you live here?”


I unlocked my scooter and arranged the bags so they wouldn’t fall off.



(I could’ve mouthed the next sentence along with him.)

“Don’t you think about getting married?”  (Duh.)

“Of course.”

“But he hasn’t appeared yet?”


By this point, I was wishing my fingers would work faster on my helmet clasp.  I knew what was coming next.

“My son is single.”  (Of course he is.)


“He’s an accountant.”


Helmet on, kickstand up.

“Do you want to meet him?”

“I’m very picky.”

“He has a car.”  (Oh, well, why didn’t you say so?)

Key in ignition....

“No, thank you.  Have a good day!”

And off I went, the shoe shine guy laughing in my wake.

I think I’d better park somewhere different next week.  Otherwise I might come out with my veggies and find an accountant sitting on my bike.....

Saturday, April 27, 2013 - No comments

View from the Backseat of a Wedding Car (Wedding Part 2)

“Turn that up, Samet!”  Nurcan tapped a French-manicured nail on his shoulder from the back seat.  He turned the radio dial and filled the car with a lively melody.  

“This one’s from our hometown,” she said to me proudly.  She began to wiggle her shoulders, satin and tulle vibrating to the beat of the darbuka.  I laughed as she  snapped her fingers, shaking off her wedding day stress, the gold bangles on her right arm clanging along to the music.  In the passenger seat, Ipek grooved along with her.  I’ve always been jealous of the way people in this country can shimmy.  I think they come out of the womb with something Canadians don’t.  

“Samet,” Nurcan leaned forward again.  “What kind of husband do you think Murat will be?”  

He was quiet for a moment, his eyes on the road.

“I don’t think he’ll beat you.  But,” he pushed up his glasses and turned left onto the dirt lane that led to the bride’s house, “just don’t make any waves or expect too much from him right in the beginning.”

She twisted the diamond ring on her right hand round and round.

“I know you’ve waited a long time for this.”

She exhaled.  “Ten years.”

“But he’s only been out a month.  He’s not back to normal yet.  He’ll get there.  Just be patient with him.”

I eyed her, wondering what it would be like to marry someone you’d loved since you were fourteen and pined away for while he spent five years in jail on false charges.  Probably a bit like marrying your first love and a stranger all at the same time.  

I’d only met Nurcan and her fiance, Murat, the previous night at the henna party.  A common friend had asked me to take pictures as a favour, and while I don’t usually do weddings, their story had intrigued me.  So I’d donned a sparkly outfit and fired up my flash for a long night of circle-dancing, henna-lighting, tongue-trilling, and and the traditional pinning of money on the happy couple.

We’d spent much of the afternoon shooting portraits at a park downtown, the bride practically melting in the late Mediterranean summer sun, the groom alternately smiling into his love’s eyes and looking like he was somewhere else.  Perhaps back in a cell with the friends he’d left behind.  

Having dropped Murat at friend’s place, we were now headed to Nurcan’s house to wait for the groom and his entourage to come and claim her from her family’s home.

We pulled up in front of the house - single-story, with peeling beige paint and a grapevine shading the entryway.  In the daylight, the empty lot next door looked even uglier than it had under the forgiving cover of darkness the night before when almost a hundred people had packed in for the henna party.  The ground was littered with candy wrappers and cigarette boxes and the uneven pavement was cracked and strewn with rocks.  It’s a wonder no one twisted their ankle dancing the halay in those long dresses and glittery high heels.

The door to the house opened and a squealing gaggle of sisters, cousins and aunts spilled out.  Nurcan wrestled her hoop skirt out of the car and let herself be enveloped in kisses and compliments.  I snapped into photographer mode and started clicking away, eager to capture every moment of the day that this bride had waited a whole decade to see.

In the living room, several more covered teyzes (aunties) sat stiffly on modern upholstery and leather couches that looked out of place next to the colourful woven carpets on the floor.  On the TV, Prime Minister Erdoğan an impassioned speech about  the martyred soldiers who had recently lost their lives fighting terror in the east.  

Nurcan bent down to kiss her mother’s hand and pressed it respectfully to her forehead.    “Maaşallah, maaşallah!” said her mother with a grin.  “May Allah protect you, my daughter.  You look beautiful.” 

“Let’s take some pictures of you and your parents,” I suggested.  Nurcan pulled her father and mother down onto the couch, arranged her tulle and smiled brightly.  A black velvet scroll decorated with glittery outlines of mosques and palm trees and the words “Memory of Cyprus” graced the otherwise bare wall behind them. 

“Me, too!  Me, too!” yelled Nurcan’s five-year-old neice, worming her way up onto her grandfather’s lap and striking a silly pose and causing everyone to laugh.  

A hundred or so bursts of the flash later, I had captured every possible combination of Nurcan and her relatives, each one presenting her with a piece of gold jewelry, her smile getting progressively more forced with every click of the shutter.   

The oldest teyze, her head wrapped in the white scarf reserved for someone who has been on the pilgimage to Mecca,  pointed to me and said something I didn’t understand.

“Speak Turkish, teyze.  She doesn’t know our language.”  Ipek turned to me.  “She says you should sit down and rest.  Your çay is getting cold.”  She motioned towards the tiny glass cup of dark red tea on the end table behind me.  

“I will, one sec,” I said, crouching down to get a few more shots of Nurcan by herself.  

More buzzing and glances my direction from the teyzes on the couch.  I took this as my cue to step out of work mode and into guest mode for a minute.  I stirred two sugar cubes into my tea and took a sip.  This seemed to put them at ease.

“What happens now?” I whispered to Ipek.

“The groom’s side comes to get the bride.  Then we’ll all go to city hall.”

Nurcan’s brother entered the room with a wide red ribbon in his hand.  The aunts and sisters clapped excitedly.  

“You’ll want to shoot this,” said Ipek, taking my tea cup.  

Her brother fumbled with the ribbon, trying to tie it around Nurcan’s waist.  She swatted him and said something in her language that I assumed to be the equivalent of “clumsy lout.”

“What is the significance of the ribbon?” I asked.

He shrugged.  “It’s just tradition.”

“It represents purity,” explained his mother.  “To show that we protected her namus until we gave her to the groom’s family.”

Just as the ribbon was finally successfully in place, there was a commotion and a loud knock at the front door.

“They’re here!” shouted a younger cousin who had been keeping watch at the window.

The room erupted into a flurry of motion.

“Quick, get the veil!”

“Who’s got my purse?”

“Someone turn off the tea!”

Nurcan’s brother placed a sequined red veil over her head, covering her face completely.  While sisters and cousins kept the crowd at the front door at bay, Nurcan made the rounds again, kissing the hands of her older relatives.  When she came to her mother, they leaned their heads close, the elder dabbing at her tears with the younger’s veil.  Amidst increasingly demanding cries of “Send out the bride!” they reluctantly pulled apart and made their way to the door.

Wiping her tears, Nurcan allowed herself to be engulfed by tongue trills and applause.  Murat stepped forward and kissed his almost-in-laws’ hands and then took that of his bride and led her through the crush of bodies to the waiting car, all decked out in tulle and rosettes.  

“You’re riding with us,” Ipek called to me as she slid into the front seat beside her father and brother in law.  I squeezed into the back beside Murat.  The late afternoon sun reflected off the silver sequins on my blouse, causing a pattern of light to dance on the car’s ceiling as we bumped off down the dirt road, a trail of cars honking exuberantly behind us.

As we pulled through the lot where the henna party had been, a clump of boys who had been waiting in ambush jumped out to block our path, demanding money before they’d let us pass.  Murat, who was obviously prepared for this, laughed and pulled out a wad of American one dollar bills, handing them to the driver to distribute to the mischievous urchins.  They pounded their fists on the side of the car, whooping and waving as we pulled away.

Murat leaned over to his bride and said something in their native tongue.  She leaned her head back and took a deep breath.  With Nurcan’s hoop skirt taking up half the back seat, there wasn’t much room for polite distance, so I did my best to hug the door and give the couple some privacy.  Then I laughed to my Canadian self; there were six of us crowded into the wedding car - clearly privacy was not a priority.  

“So, now we go to city hall?” I asked, wanting to get my camera settings right before we arrived.

“No, to my parents’ house,” said Murat.  “To kiss my mother’s hand.”

“Oh.  They’re not coming to the ceremony?”

A pause, a look exchanged with Vedat in the rear-view mirror.  

“No.”  He shifted uncomfortably.    “They’re not.  We’re distant relatives, Nurcan and I, and there’re some....bad blood between our families.  They’re not very happy about all this.”

He lit a cigarette, puffed and exhaled slowly.  Nurcan grabbed his wrist.  “I need one, too.”

Murat handed her the cigarette.  He carefully lifted her veil, holding it up while she took a drag, his face close to hers, whispering.  I looked away, feeling like I was intruding.  

A minute later, as we approached his parents’ house, she handed the cigarette back, pulling her veil over her face.  He took a few last puffs and then leaned over me to toss the butt out the open window.

Murat’s mother received the caravan with a gold-toothed smile, eagerly lifting the scarlet veil to kiss her new gelin.  Murat kissed her hands and tenderly patted her cheek, a farewell gesture.  His father never appeared.  Getting back into that wedding car cost him a lot, I imagined.

Nurcan’s gold bangles set off the metal detector at City Hall, but the security guard waved her on through with a smile.  In the “bridal room”, we shot dozens more family photos, Nurcan pacing nervously in between, everyone speculating as to whether or not they had time to run outside for a cigarette before our group, the last of the day, was called in.

A good half hour after the nikah was set to take place, the wedding official finally called them up.  And with a five minute ceremony, eager “yeses” from the bride and groom, and much clapping and ululating from the audience, their ten year wait was over at last.

Back in the wedding car (they insisted on driving me home, though I would’ve happily taken the bus) I no longer shared the backseat with a nervous engaged couple, but a relieved husband and wife.  As we pulled out of the parking lot, amidst waves and well-wishes, Nurcan leaned into Murat’s shoulder.  She exhaled, releasing the stress of the day and the years of tortured waiting in one long breath.  He whispered to her and wiped a tear from her cheek.  

After a moment, she pulled herself together.  “Look at this,” she smiled up at him, opening their marriage certificate.  “We’re married!”

At a red light, two boys knocked on the window demanding money.  Murat tore himself away from his bride and pulled a few bills from his wad.  Then we continued honking down the road, the entire caravan in tow.  

When we pulled onto my street, Murat and Nurcan thanked me for documenting their special days, and promised me a good, spicy Mardinli dinner as soon as they got their house set up.  I thanked them for allowing a stranger into the most intimate parts of their celebration and got out, leaving them alone in the back seat.

As they drove away honking, I was halfway disappointed that there were no neighbours around to witness the parade and ask what I was doing getting out of the back of a wedding car.

**Names have been changed.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Saturday, April 20, 2013 - 2 comments

Hennaed Hands and Houses in the High Hills (Wedding Part 1)

I don’t normally shoot weddings. Okay, I avoid it at all costs.  It’s mostly out of a preference for photographing inanimate objects, a hatred of the pressure (after all, you only get married once, inshallah) and a feeling of general terror with regards to using my external flash.  But when the request came for this one, I was intrigued.  

Friends of a friend, Nurcan* and Murat* (not their real names) have been in love for ten years, kept apart by feuding families and a not-always-just justice system.  When Murat, who spent five years in jail awaiting trial, was released on false charges last month, they decided not to wait a day longer than they had to, and friends and relatives threw a (rather impressive) wedding together in a matter of two weeks.

A few days before the big event, sitting on the floor of her apartment over dinner, our common friend Ipek* filled my roommate and I in on the plans.

“Have you ever been to one of our weddings?” she asked.  We hadn’t.  “It’s way more fun than a Turkish wedding.  The music is better, the dancing is better - everything’s better.”

“Sometimes things get a little out of control,” interjected Ipek’s roommate Kadriye*.  “Usually at least one fight breaks out.  But it’s nothing to worry about, really.”

My thoughts drifting to the Mardin wedding massacre of 2009, I hoped she was right.

“It’s not going to be anything big,” Ipek continued.  “Just ‘bizimkiler’.”  (“Our group.”)  “We’re not going to do a düğün (wedding party) - just a kına gecesi (henna party) with lots of dancing and then the nikah (official wedding ceremony) at city hall the next day.  Their family situation we’re putting the whole thing on.”  

It turned out “putting the whole thing on” meant setting up the couple’s new apartment, too.  

“The bedroom set arrived today and the kitchen is coming tomorrow.  You’ll have to come see it when this is all done.  Nurcan is from Mardin - she’ll make you some great food.”

When the yer sofrası (tablecloth for eating on the floor) had been shaken off the balcony and the tea served (“kaçak” - illegally imported - of course...none of that Turkish stuff!) the conversation turned to who was going to wear what, followed by an impromptu fashion show.  And, oh, the sequins that emerged from the closet!

When I confessed that weddings here make me nervous because I’m hopeless when it comes to the fancy footwork that goes into the traditional dances, this prompted a little living room dance lesson.  In no time, Ipek had found some wedding music videos in their mother tongue on YouTube and, linking pinkies all in a row, we clumsily attempted to follow them in the şemame and delilo.  

Having danced these dances at every wedding since they were in elementary school, it took the girls awhile to figure out how to break the steps down for us inexperienced yabancılar (foreigners), but eventually they got the hang of it and so did we.

Bir, iki, üç, dört! Bir, iki, üç, dört!  Relax your arms and don’t squeeze my finger so tight!  Careful of the tea pot.  That’s it!  Now, faster!”

It’s a miracle there was no broomstick-on-the-ceiling from the downstairs neighbours.  

Round and round we went, and when we could do it without looking at our feet, our teachers applauded with delight.  When it came to the çiftetelli - freestyle involving snapping and a whole lot of hip wiggling - I was pretty hopeless, but since I knew I’d be behind the camera most of the night anyway, I wasn’t too concerned.  

I left that night sweaty and giddy, armed with two borrowed sparkly tops and a new set of dance skills.  A pair of glittery blue flats I bought for 15 lira downtown completed the ensemble.  Now all I had to do was become friends with my flash.

In my experience, most henna parties take place the night before the wedding in the bride’s home with her close friends as well as female relatives from both her family and the groom’s.  This henna party was something else altogether.  “Bizimkiler” turned out to be more than a hundred people all crammed into the street in front of the bride’s house and the empty lot beside it.  

Plastic chairs were set up in a circle, the groom’s side commandeering three quarters of the lot while the bride’s relatives and a contingent of curious neighbours out for some free Friday night entertainment camped out in chairs on the end in front of the market.  The groom’s side, most of whom I knew, were all eager to have their pictures taken and they made sure I didn’t miss capturing a single sparkly dress or slicked back hairdo.  When I approached the bride’s side, however, I was met with clucking tongues and turned-away heads from the women, most of whom were covered.  They probably thought I was a curious tourist excited to have stumbled upon a wedding.  As if any tourist could have ever found that neighbourhood.

A live band had set up on the cement platform in front of the electrical boxes, and within minutes of our arrival, the speakers were threatening to render us deaf.  Conversation clearly impossible at this point, people started to take to the dance “floor.”  There was a group of five at first, all related, pinkies linked, moving their feet in a definite but almost imperceptible pattern as they slowly snaked their way counter-clockwise around the lot.  One by one, new people jumped in, either taking their place between two dancers or taking over the waving of the mendil (handkerchief) from the person at the end of the line.

It quickly became clear that we had a professional dancer among us.  While the movements and facial expressions of many of those dancing were indifferent, bored even, the middle-aged man at the head of the line was in his element, giving himself completely to the dance and playing to the crowd.  The way he moved his body was amazing.  Sometimes it looked like he was a puppet who suddenly had his strings jerked and he’d go flying, like there was a shot of electricity moving through him, causing him to jump like a piece of bacon.  Every so often, Mr. Folk Dancer was apparently overcome by the music and he’d break away from the line and move into the spotlight for a solo dance, swooping like a bird with his wings spread and then changing direction rapidly, dancing into the camera or egging on the band.  Another man would come and toss American dollar bills in the air over his head, sending all the kids scrambling in to collect the money, often resulting in fistfights and tears.  I found the whole thing to be a little much, but all night people kept asking me, “Are you getting shots of the guy at the head?  He’s a real dancer.  Isn’t he amazing?”

As more cars arrived, the line grew longer and the band sweatier, the music pausing only for the call to prayer.  Women occasionally grabbed the microphone to ululate, eliciting cheers from the crowd.  I jumped in for a spell, trying to keep up as my feet found the rhythm they’d learned a few nights before.  How all those women managed to dance in high heels without twisting their ankles on the stony ground, I’ll never know.  

Scanning the line, it seemed to me that any time a guy and girl were dancing next to each other, they were related.  Once, when the woman beside me pulled out, I ended up next to a guy I didn’t know.  We didn’t even make it a quarter of the way around the circle before one of my friends stepped in between us, giving the guy a look of death made all the more intense by her sparkly blue eyeshadow.  

Most of the women wore evening gowns, with little jackets invariably covering their shoulders.  Those in headscarves work the extra shiny kind, and the not-so-conservative ones had clearly all spent hours at the kuaför having their hair straightened or styled into elaborate up-dos.  The littlest girls pranced around in satin dresses or Ottoman costumes with “genie pants” and jeweled headbands, clearly excited about the chance to wear lipstick.  

Nurcan, the dazzling bride, wore a cream-coloured bindalı that reminded me of Princess Jasmine’s clothes in Aladdin.  It had a sleeveless satin bodice with large gold flowers embroidered along the edges and tiny droplets down the middle.  A matching piece of fabric formed a half-skirt the split down the front to reveal a pair of billowy pants that tapered towards the ankle, also fringed with gold.  Another sheath of satin extended from the back and was attached to jeweled wristbands, making for quite the elegant effect when she raised her gold-bangled arms to dance. She was crowned with a crystal-studded headband with a droplet gracing her forehead, her long dark curls cascading freely.

She and Murat danced some, but spent the majority of the evening receiving congratulations and having their photos taken at a table on the side.  All the little girls seemed to have hero-crushes on  Murat, draping their arms around his shoulders and fighting to hold his hand, and the boys were always looking for a chance to climb on his lap.  Most of them would’ve been too small to remember him before he went to jail, but clearly he was legendary in their eyes.

A tray of çay made the rounds about halfway through the night, though it only ever made it to the men.  Women passed around little baggies of nuts and sunflower seeds, which quelled my hunger but made me wish desperately for water.  

Several hours in, it was time for the main event:  the lighting of the henna.  All the younger women as well as several prominent older ones formed a tunnel, holding high lacy baskets and makeshift tin foil holders full of the creamy green henna paste, each with a candle in the centre.  Nurcan with a red veil over her face and Murat looking solemn, the bride and groom made their way under this glowing canopy amidst cheers and tongue trilling and then sat at a table in the middle of the lot.  

The girls pressed in close and moved in a slow circle around the couple as the band played “Hine Binin” - “Bring the henna” in their language.  When they switched to a canned version of the Turkish “Yüksek Yüksek Tepelere,” the kids belted it out like they were at a pop concert.

“Yüksek yüksek tepelere ev kurmasınlar
Asrı asrı memlekete kız vermesinler”

“Don’t let them build me a house high in the hills
Don’t let them send the bride to a far away country.....”

The song was meant to go on until the bride had shed tears over leaving her family’s home.  I think Nurcan was too happy to have her love out from behind bars to cry all that much, but she managed to squeeze out a few.  With Ipek’s mother standing in for Murat’s, who wasn’t present, the mothers pressed a blob of henna into Nurcan’s palm, with a coin in the centre for good luck.  They dipped Murat’s pinky into the mix, too, and then placed lacy red pouches over the Nurcan’s hennaed hands and a red ribbon around Murat’s finger to let the colour set overnight, the orangey dye marking them as sacrificing their lives to each other and their new families.

Next, a red sash was draped across Nurcan’s shoulders, and a white one across Murat’s, and the time for giving of gifts was announced.  No blenders or barbecue utensils - that’s for the families to take care of.  Gifts at weddings here are all cash and gold. Starting with the groom’s side, couples or individuals came up and pinned their gifts onto the sashes while the gift and giver were announced over the loudspeaker:  the groom’s Uncle so-and-so, one hundred lira; groom’s aunt’s sister, a gold bracelet;  bride’s father’s cousin, fifty American dollars.  No being a cheapskate here without risking public shame!

When it was the bride’s side’s turn, the announcer switched to their language.  After every name, he’d say a phrase that, literally translated, meant “Your house was flooded,” meaning “May blessing come on your house for your generosity.”  The bride didn’t smile much as the weight of her sash increased, but I did catch the groom counting a wad of bills on the side.  I suppose it’s bad form to look too excited about how much you’ve raked in!

The final event was the “çiftetelli” dance.  This was met with whoops and giggles from the girls, who eagerly jumped up and formed a circle around the bride, hips wiggling and fingers snapping in the air.  The group of men dancing around the groom were more subdued, clearly more comfortable with line dancing, though there were definitely a few talented ones in the bunch.  Different people took turns dancing in the middle while the others clapped around them, and then the bride and groom’s first dance was announced.

Seemingly out of nowhere, cannisters were produced and set up around the perimeter, shooting out waterfalls of white sparks that encircled the couple as they slow danced awkwardly, talking a little but not looking each other in the eye.  When we’d had our fill of gawking at them, more couples moved in to join them - husbands and wives, fathers and daughters, and pairs of women when there weren’t enough partners to go around.  This went on for about fifteen minutes, and I couldn’t help but think they were all much better at their traditional dances than the dispassionate semblance of a waltz with which the evening finished.

I don’t think there’s such a thing as a noise bylaw here, but the party wrapped up at a respectable hour, with the bride’s mother urging her to hurry up and quit posing for photos so she could head home and get some rest before the wedding ceremony the next day.  But it was her last night at home before her groom would take her away to their "house high in the hills" (or, rather, a high rise downtown) and, judging by the swarm of relatives streaming into her mother's house, I didn't think there'd be a whole lot of sleeping going on there that night....

(Stay tuned for Part Two:  The Wedding Day)

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Sunday, April 14, 2013 - No comments

The Last of the Winter Chestnuts

My two favourite things about winter here are sahlep and hot roasted chestnuts.  Preferably enjoyed together on a Bosphorus ferry.  Sahlep is a creamy drink made of crushed orchid roots, drunk hot and with a generous sprinkling of cinnamon on top.  And roasted chestnuts are, well, delightful little bits of winter all wrapped up in a shell.

It's hit and miss finding chestnut carts downtown where I live, but in Istanbul, they are all over the place in the winter, and I find them very hard to resist.  I think I am probably more attached to their sweet, smoky smell and the personal significance they have to my own heart than I am to the actual eating of them.  I love their flavour, but often they've cooled off or are underdone and get stuck in my throat.  It's not unlikely for me to buy a packet, eat a few, and then walk around the rest of the day with a half-eaten bag in my purse.  Still, I just like knowing they're there.  

Last week I was in Istanbul on a layover and was set to meet a friend and head up the Bosphorus to check out the Tulip Festival at Emirgan Park.  (Photos to follow.)  I had some extra time before she got out of class, so I got off the tram at Karaköy and took some picture of the fishermen on the Galata Bridge.  And lo and behold, there at the foot of the bridge was a chestnut cart!

It being April, I wasn't sure if they'd still be out.  We'd long since had our last "chestnut party" at our neighbours' house, and they've put their woodstove back in storage until next year.  But apparently Istanbul, even as its millions of tulips were bursting into bloom, was still enjoying the last of its winter traditions.

I always get a little sad at the change of every season, wanting to hang onto the last one as long as I can before welcoming the next.  (Actually, that's not entirely true.  Since I moved to the humid Mediterranean, I have never been sad to trade summer for autumn.)  So I was more than happy to give this guy some business and buy a comforting little bag of "transitional grace."

I've still yet to take the winter blankets off my bed, but judging by the appearance of all the Russians in bikinis who have appeared at the downtown beaches, summer is practically here.  Today we enjoyed a wonderfully lazy morning of catching up over pancakes and strawberries on the sunny terrace with a friend visiting from England, and not one but TWO loads of laundry dried on the line, proving that the seasons truly have changed.

Still, rumour has it rain is on its way tomorrow and the warm weather isn't quite here to stay.  And all this talk of chestnuts has me thinking I might should break out that carton of sahlep in the cupboard and bid winter just one more ceremonial farewell.....

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Saturday, April 06, 2013 - No comments

Bebek: Istanbul's Macaron Mile

Sometimes Google can lead you down the garden path.  A recent search to find the best macarons on Istiklal Street in Istanbul led me to a whole slew of articles about the police seizing hundreds of kilos of “makarons” that had been smuggled across the border.  

“Wow,” I thought, “the Turks have really gotten serious about their macaron habit!”

As it turns out, the word “makaron” refers both to the airy, ganache filled cookies I love so much, as well as the paper used to roll a cigarette.  It wasn’t boxes of cookies that cops seized in a raid, but paper, filters and cigarette rolling machines.  Now, that sounds more in line with the Turkish addiction I’m familiar with!

That said, I was amazed to discover how many cafes and bakeries in Istanbul DO offer the tiny French delights.  I’d set my heart on doing an Istanbul Macaron Crawl on a recent trip there, and Google Amca (“Uncle Google,” as he is called here) informed me that the district of Bebek is definitely the city’s macaron hot spot, with three different brasseries serving them, all within sight of each other.  I was especially excited that one of them was a Laduree, because I would have the world’s Makaron Ustası (expert) against which to measure all the others.

The Bosphorus sparkled like a sea of sapphires in the unexpected January sunshine as I made my way across to the European Side on the ferry the day of my Istanbul Macaron Crawl.  Perfect outdoor cafe weather.  I’d eaten a hearty breakfast, fortifying my stomach for the sugar-overdose I was about to inflict on it.  (My plan was to bring most of the specimens home to test with my Turkish family, but I had to try some of them at each establishment.  You know, to be able to rate the ambience...)  

Bebek is one of the Bosphorus “villages” that, with time, got eaten up by the metropolis of Istanbul.  Its name means “baby” but it is most definitely a playground for grown-ups.   Pleasure boats bob in the small harbour while women in pricey sunglasses, leggings and boots walk tiny dogs in designer sweaters on the promenade.  Patisseries and cafes line the shore road, their decks extending out onto the Bosphorus for a stunning view.  Bebek is a place to see and be seen.  And to indulge in sweet treats while you’re at it.

I was very disappointed to find this sign where the Laduree should have been:

A street sweeper told me that Laduree had closed down a few months ago.  There went my standard of excellence with which to compare the others.  And the violette cassis macaron I’d been dreaming of since London in November...

The other cafes on my list were Divan (a confectionary chain) and Kitchenette (a chill restaurant that has macarons on the menu.)  But as I strolled the main avenue to get the lay of the land and plot my sugary course, I was delighted to find that a chic looking cafe called Baylan also had macarons in their display window.  I decided to make this my first stop.  

I selected an assortment of flavours to bring home in a box - rose, apricot, strawberry, raspberry, lemon and pistachio - and then got a chocolate and a caramel to have with my latte out on the patio.  The sun on my back, Norah Jones on the radio, the purple-tipped yellow rose on my table and the laughter of the seagulls swooping over the waves let me forgive the cigarette smoke and the nasal Bağdat Caddesi accents of the women around me.  Most seemed to be locals, reading their papers with afternoon tea or checking Facebook on their smart phones and catching up with friends on a day that just begged to be enjoyed outdoors.

My macarons arrived at my table on a cute silver two-tiered truffle tower.  The chocolate one wasn’t nearly chocolate-y enough, and the only flavour that really came through was the almond in the cookie.  (Macarons may be made from almond flour, but if they actually taste like almond, that’s a loss of points in my book.)  Besides that, it was kinda chewy - gummy almost - which might be nice in a chocolate chip cookie, but certainly doesn’t suit a macaron.  The filling in the caramel one had a much stronger flavour which almost overpowered the almond flavour...but not quite.  And this one, rather than being gummy, was a little dry.  So...overall, the view was impressive; the macarons, not so much.  

Baylan's macaron selection
In Baylan’s favour, though, I have to say that their truffle and chocolate counter looked amazing, the jars of multicoloured Jordan almonds gave the place a candy-shoppe feel, and the street-side seating (complete with stand heaters for when the day feels like, well, January) was definitely stylish, so it still gets point for atmosphere.  

Next up was Divan.  The interior of the brasserie was classy and cute at the same time.  The area around the candy counter was dolled up with macaron trees and a mirror covered with macarons.  Seeing the three-tiered macaron-fringed cake, I asked if they did weddings, and the cashier seemed surprised, saying they didn’t.  But, seriously, how fun would a macaron wedding cake be? 

As all the other dine-in customers seemed to be outside on the balcony, I opted instead to sit at one of the storefront tables.  I watched the world stroll by through a display window still decked out with “New Years” fare - polar bears, snow flakes and baubles, mobiles of frosted cookies, all silver and white.  

I got a bergamot çay - wonderfully fresh - and one raspberry, one Turkish coffee, macaron to try on the spot, with vanilla, chocolate, lemon, mint, caramel and passionfruit to try at home.  The raspberry, while it had a nice, zingy flavour, was disappointingly hollow - so much so that the entire top of the shell came off when I took my first bit, revealing a whole lot of defrauding nothingness inside.  The Turkish coffee one, too, fell far below my expectations, tasting a lot more of almond than frothy coffee.  

Disappointingly empty shells at Divan
I did get some good intel from the waiter at Divan, though.  When I explained my Macaron Crawl, he told me to check out Pelit up the street, that they also sold macarons, “though not as good as ours.”  (That was setting the bar low, but for the sake of thorough research, I would give it a shot.)  He also told me that Laduree was no longer doing business in Turkey period.  I wondered why - so far the local competition had paled in comparison to the original.

Pelit was only a take-out confectionary, so I bought a box of six to try at home, with kavun (melon) and yaban mersini (blueberry) being the only variations from the usual flavours.  

I made my way up the street to my last stop, Kitchenette, wishing that the walk had been a little further to give me a chance to walk the edge off my sugar buzz.  Kitchenette differed from the previous establishments in that it wasn’t a patisserie but a swanky bistro that happens to have macarons on their dessert menu.  Case in point:  when I asked to see their selection, the obliging waiter led me past their patio diners and the pool tables, big screen TVs and laptop-users inside, up a flight of stairs to the completely empty second floor, behind the counter to the pastry fridge where he pulled out a dinner plate containing about fifteen macarons covered in plastic wrap that looked like they’d been sitting there a week.  Still, research is research, so I selected a chocolate and a passionfruit and asked for a çay to go with them.  

I settled in at a low table by the window with brown and blue damask cushions on short stools and enjoyed the jazz on the radio and the Bosphorus across the street.  I smiled when my çay arrived on the same little blue and white saucer that surely every Turkish housewife in the nation has sitting in her cupboard.  (Only in a place like this, they know that people like me will pay two lira and call it “nostalgic.”)  

My macarons were the most well-formed I’d seen all day, with tall “feet” and a good amount of filling.  The passionfruit (orange in colour, with chocolate ganache and some cocoa dusted on top) was a little dry, but the subtle tangy flavour came through slowly and made for a pleasant surprise.  Now it was down to the chocolate:  the last specimen of the day.  I stared at it for a good while, feeling like if I ate even one more macaron it might make for a very unpleasant scene on the ferry home.  When I finally got up the courage to take a bite, I found it to be like a not-too-sweet brownie in taste and texture.  The dull, matte look to the ganache (I’m a sheen-girl myself) was less than appealing, but it was the least almond-y I’d had all day (major bonus points there) and I declared it the best of the bunch.  

Chocolate and Passionfruit @ Kitchenette
The next day, after a prolonged photo session with my colourful little models (watched with amusement by a lady in her window across the street), my Turkish mom and sister and I sat down to rate and rank the selection of macarons I’d brought home.  Now, I have to say, these two were real troopers.  They dove in and took the point system very seriously and gave great commentary that, unfortunately, isn’t as funny translated.  Mom looked like she’d gone into a sugar coma by the end of it, and we all decided it was unwise to consume 16 macarons in one sitting, but we pushed through to the end and finished strong.

How we felt after 16 macarons.....
I’ll spare you the nitty gritty on each macaron and give you the highlights.

For all of Divan’s fancy mac decor and claims of being the best, none of us were impressed with them overall.  Cinnamon is not a flavour I would have picked for a macaron, but it was surprisingly good.  The mint, on the other hand, was toothpaste-y, the Turkish coffee too almond-y (what is WITH that?) and the vanilla was voted “an unnecessary waste of space in our stomachs” - so much so that between the three of us, we didn’t even bother to finish it. 

I didn’t expect to be a fan of Pelit’s macs (I truly think the sight of plastic wrap over a tray, just like at Kitchenette, made me set my expectations low) but there were several of theirs I really liked.  Had it not been so dry, the coffee one would’ve gotten a nearly perfect score from me.  (Finally someone conquered the almond issue and hit the mark on caffeinated ganache!)  The caramel elicited a “Bu ne be?” (“What in the heck is this supposed to be?”) due to the fact that, had I not written down what I’d bought, we wouldn’t have any clue what flavour it was trying to be.  My sister, who possesses a lifelong disdain for the taste of butter, declared most of them flops due to its prominence in their flavour, but we all gave the melon rave reviews for being original and tasting like “a cookieful of fresh fruit juice.”

I thought Baylan’s macarons needed a lot more filling and wasn’t a fan of the way their too-smooth surface lent an artificial air, but the rest of the jury agreed that “these guys really know what they’re doing.”  I guess they have a higher tolerance for almond flavour than I do.  The lemon had a near-perfect texture - just the right amount of crunch to the shell, with a nice “give” when you bit in, though we all agreed we would have preferred lemon jelly to the light cream filling.  I did forgive the almond faux pas, though, on the apricot, to which we all said, “Mmmmmmm......”  The best kind of winner is the one you don’t see coming, and the real bits of apricot inside knocked our socks off, scoring a 9.5 and two 10s from the judges. the end, I’d highly recommend Pelit’s melon and Baylan’s apricot.  I suppose which establishment you consider to be the Bebek Macaron Master depends on whether or not you’re a fan of almond, or butter, or plastic wrap.  And if I were to have to pick a favourite Istanbul macaron, it would actually be a more recently tasted caramel one from Beyaz Fırın in Kadıköy who, unfortunately, have yet to open a location on Bebek’s Macaron Mile.  Maybe they’ll open up shop where the old Laduree was and become the jewel in Bebek’s macaron crown!