Saturday, February 21, 2015

Saturday, February 21, 2015 - No comments

So Close, and Yet So Far Away...

I recently saw a YouTube video portraying what could happen if we’d put down our Smart Phones, forget GPS and Google Maps and just ask for directions.  Maybe you’ve seen it.  It contrasts two different scenarios:  one in which the guy walks right past the pretty girl with his eyes glued to his phone, trying to sort out which way to go; the other in which he stops and asks her directions.  In the latter, she walks him to his destination and, as is prone to happen when you ask for directions, they fall in love and get married.

Though I certainly make use of the internet for road trip directions, I’m definitely of the opinion that if you want to truly experience a new place, you should stop and actually talk to people instead of going for the “insulated route” of simply relying on your device.  In Turkey, at least in smaller towns, the person you ask will often drop everything and take you all the way to where you want to go.  (Their hospitable nature won’t let them ignore a perplexed-looking foreigner for long.  I’ve made more than one friend by simply pulling out a map!)

Around here, until recently, online directions wouldn’t get you very far anyway.  Street signs were reserved for only the largest of intersections or, at best, scrawled on the side of a wall or an electric pole, so tracking with a map was a waste of time.  And with many women (who would be the ones I’d usually opt to ask) unable to read, directions via landmarks (left at the yarn store, right at the shoeshine guy...) is typical fare.

They say that, when in Turkey, you should always ask directions from two or three people, just to be sure.  Often someone will tell you in great detail how to get where you’re going, when in fact they have no idea and simply didn’t want to disappoint you by saying, “I don’t know.”  They’re not trying to be cruel - it’s just what’s “polite” in this culture.

The “two or three people” rule may be standard procedure, but recently my roommate and I experienced something a little over the top...  On our way up to Istanbul, we stopped to spend the night in Kütahya, a small Anatolian city famous for its beautifully painted porcelain.  Since we weren’t trying to cover more than five hours of driving our second day, we decided we had time to explore a little before hitting the road.  Over tea and Turkish breakfast at the Büyük Çınar Hotel, we got online and scouted the options in this very non-touristy town.  After axing several attractions like the “thousand year old chestnut tree” and the nearby “Roman ruins”, we finally settled on The Tile Museum:  a collection of the intricately painted works of art for which the city is renowned.

Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum at the front desk gave us the impression that finding the museum ought to be a piece of cake, so long as our intuition was correct.  

“The museum is right beside the Great Mosque.”

“Where’s the Great Mosque?” 

“Go straight down this road, keep going, keep going, then turn right and then left, and you’re there.”

“Turn right where?”

“’ll just know.”

Uh-huh.  Better ask again on the way, just to be sure.

We sidled up to a street sweeper a few hundred metres down the road and rolled down the window.

“Uncle, is this the way to the Tile Museum?”

“The Tile Museum....”

“It’s beside the Great Mosque, we hear.”

“Ah, yes.  Keep going this way until you get to downtown.  You’ll see it.”

Noting the curious absence of any turns in his directions, we decided to ask again once we hit “downtown.”

Direction-Giver #4 was a student and new to the town.  She had no idea what we were talking about.  

#5 and #6 - a pair of ladies in long coats and headscarves - looked mildly startled to be flagged down on the side of the road, but were eager to help.

“Oh, yeah, I’ve been there.  Do a U-turn and head down that road there.  Cross over the highway and it’s on the right.  Lots of beautiful tiles.  It’s big - you can’t miss it.”

Now we were getting somewhere.

We followed her directions and, sure enough, we couldn’t miss it:  a massive caravanserai (Silk Road Camel Hotel)-turned-touristy-tile-outlet-mall.  Plenty of intricately painted ash trays.  No museum in sight.

Determined to find what HAD to be one of the main attractions in the city, we pulled into a BP station.  Surely someone there would be good with directions.  #7, a pump attendant, could neither confirm nor deny the existence of any Tile Museum, but he was very certain he could tell us how to get to the Great Mosque.

Following his directions (back across the highway, right towards the centre of town...), we double checked with #8, whom we’ll call Loitering Man, to be sure we were on the right track. He peeled himself, cartoon-style, from the lamp post against which he and his cigarette had been leaning, and confirmed that we were almost there.

Once we hit downtown (How did we know we were there?  We “just knew”....), sure enough, we started to see signs for the Great Mosque.  By this point, we’d been driving around so long, they might as well have been signs for Krispy Kreme, we were so excited.  

As boxy apartment buildings gave way to wooden Ottoman houses, we knew we’d hit the historic district.  Figuring it couldn’t be far now, we grabbed the first parking spot we saw and got out of the car.  

We were parked in front of a “pilgrimage supply store”, its windows graced with prayer rugs the latest fashions in namaz dresses and white robes, and an ad for dates from Medina taped to the glass.   Not sure if it would be frowned upon to go inside without my head covered, I poked my face in the doorway and asked the bespectacled girl at the counter if we were close to the Tile Museum.  “Yes,” she answered, coming around to where I stood.  “Just go up to that corner and you’ll see the Great Mosque across the street on the right.  It’s behind that.”

Best news we’d heard all day.

Sure enough, when we rounded the corner, there was the Great Mosque.  (I suppose it had been there all along, but it sure felt as though it had been hiding from us...)  Not seeing any obvious signs pointing towards the Tile Museum, we made our way to the left of the mosque to have a look around back.  

#10 was the equivalent of that one wrong turn you take onto the highway where there’s no U-turn for 50 miles.

Tezye,” I called to the creaky old auntie climbing the hill behind the Great Mosque, laden with bags of produce from the pazar.  “We’re trying to find the Tile Museum and we know it’s right around here.  Could you tell us where it is?”

“You just have to go up this road a bit,” she smiled, setting her load down.  “Right up by my house.  I’m going that way.  Follow me.”

We laughed with relief.  “Let me carry that for you,” I said, taking one of her bags.  And off we went.  

Her headscarf was tied loosely, with a bit of gray peeking out above her big round glasses.  She wasn’t chatty - too winded for many words - so we trudged up the hill in silence, keeping in step with her pace, pausing for breath whenever she did.  My roommate glanced at me with a raised eyebrow - we were heading farther and farther from what could be considered “just behind the Great Mosque.”  I shrugged back.  We kept walking.  

“Just up here," she said, pointing up the hill aways.  “And that’s my house just there.”  

I glanced back down the hill we’d just climbed.  No minaret in sight.

“Here we are,” she said triumphantly a minute later, setting her bag down in front of a white wooden Ottoman house-turned-restaurant.  There were a few painted porcelain vases gracing the entryway - I’ll give her that.  But otherwise, just a dark wood foyer opening onto a garden with tables and chairs.  Nothing resembling a museum at all.

Buyurun.”  A drowsy looking man with a neat beard tore his eyes from the football game on a laptop at the front desk and rose to greet us.

“These tourists wanted to see the museum,” announced the old teyze.  “So I brought them.”  

The proprietor looked confused.  We shrugged back, offering sheepish smiles.

“Thank you, teyze,” my roommate nodded at the woman.

“Give those to me.”  She gestured at the sack of veggies in my hand.

“Can you manage,” I asked, handing them over, “or shall I walk with you to your house?”

“No, no,” she clucked.  I was going to do it myself anyway before you came.  Happy touring!”  And with that, she set off slowly across the street.  

“Uh....this isn’t the tile museum, is it?” my companion ventured, more of a statement than a question.  

The man scratched his beard.  “No, it’s a restaurant.  But you’re welcome to look around.  We have some beautifully restored rooms upstairs...”

We glanced across the street and waved back at the teyze, who was grinning at us as she unlocking the door to a tiny house painted blue on top and black on the bottom.  Best to let her think she’d been helpful to the poor tourists.

We agreed, and followed him up the narrow staircase to a dining room overlooking the back garden.  He was quiet, keeping a polite distance as we oohed and aahed over the carved wooden ceilings and latticework window shades.  

After showing the appropriate amount of appreciation, and knowing that if we weren’t going to be paying customers, we should let the man get back to his football match, my roommate motioned towards a painted porcelain plate nestled in a gracefully carved display case.  “So....we were hoping to see the Tile Museum...”

#11 looked back at us blankly.  

“It’s supposed to be down near the Great Mosque...” she supplied.

“Uh...I know there’s a museum down that way, but I’m not sure....”  (Here we go again.)  “Just follow the street you came up and I’m sure you’ll find it.”

We thanked him, wished him a day of good business, and headed back down the hill.  As soon as we were out of earshot, my roommate let out a groan.  “Is there even a Tile Museum IN this town??”  

I suggested we get off the main street and head back down through the neighbourhood.  At least if we couldn’t find the museum, we’d leave having seen some of the pretty old houses.  She walked ahead through the mostly empty lanes, admiring window grates and potted plants in the windows of old stone and wooden houses.  Some were crumbling, some restored and gleaming, all huddled together and leaning on each other for support.  I trailed behind with my camera, enjoying the strings of peppers hung out to dry, the peeling paint on ancient wooden doors and the bay windows on the upper stories of the old cumbalı Greek houses.   We passed a centuries-old hamam, all bulbous domes and steam vents, and a house adorned with giant prayer beads hung like a Christmas garland.

At one point, we came upon a building with a facade made completely of tile painted in the Ottoman tulip design, all teal and blue and red.  We weren’t quite “right behind the mosque” yet, but this could be it....  We approached with hesitant anticipation.  A sign above the white metal door read “Tiled Mansion - Culture and Art House” in peeling stick-on letters.  Hardly a mansion.  The tightly locked door, private electric and water customer numbers affixed haphazardly to the door frame and, above all, the lack of a ticket booth confirmed our suspicions.  Close but no cigar.  

At least now we could say we’d seen some of the famed Kütahya tiles.

My roommate checked her watch.  We’d now been looking for the museum for over an hour.  

As we continued our descent, two women wrapped tightly in long overcoats and carefully pinned headscarves approached from below, Qu’rans in plastic bags tucked preciously under their arms.  

“One more try?” my friend murmured to me.

I laughed.  “Why not?”

She got their attention.  “Excuse me.  We’re trying to find the tile museum.  We’ve been walking all over the entire neighbourhood.  Do you live here?  Do you know where it is?”

The women, both mousy-looking and shy, exchanged a puzzled glance.  Eager to help, #12 offered, “I think there’s a museum over that way.”  She pointed off to the right, the opposite direction of the mosque.  “You know the one?” she asked #13.

“Oh, yes!” her friend brightened.  “It’s a big building!  I’ve never been, but the tourists always go there.  It must be the museum!”  They gave us very animated directions  - just a turn and you’re there - and then offered to walk with us.  

A minute later, we came up to the front of a restored Ottoman mansion.  “Hungarian House” declared the sign out front.  We’d read about this place on the internet an hour earlier...and crossed it off the list.  

“Thanks so much,” my roommate smiled generously at them.  

“Our pleasure!” they replied, beaming.  We lingered at the front gate as they hurried off, giggling, and when they were out of sight, we both burst out in silent laughter.  

Forget the tile museum.  We’d had a comprehensive tour of Kütahya’s old quarter and met several of its helpful inhabitants....that might have to be chalked up as our visit to the city’s Ottoman wonders.

Rounding a corner, the Grand Mosque once again loomed large and imposing in front of us.  We’d come full circle.  And just as I was fancying a visit to the mosque’s loo before we hit the road, I heard my roommate laugh.  I turned to see what she was looking at, and lo and behold, there just off to our left, opposite the side of the mosque complex we hadn’t walked around the first time, right where it should have been, sat the Tile Museum.  

(Cue angels singing!)

The ticket man must have thought we’d driven halfway across the country specifically to see his tiles, so overjoyed were we to hand over our 5 lira and finally make our way inside!   

The museum was modest but satisfying - all the more so after having wandered all over creation trying to locate it.  We made our way through its vaulted galleries, admiring ice cream dishes and sugar bowls belonging to Sultan So-and-So, the tulip and swirl motifs on tiles reminiscent of those in the harem at Topkapı Palace, and, my personal favourite, a porcelain bowl painted with the likeness of Atatürk whose face, upon closer examination, turned out to be made up of the minuscule and painstakingly written words to his famous “Address to the Turkish Youth.”  Having once attempted to “paint inside the lines” on a demo piece at my friend’s porcelain shop in Selçuk, I had the utmost admiration for the skill and patience of the craftsmen who produced - and still produce - the gorgeous artifacts that put Kütahya on the map.

The last gallery showed examples of the porcelain as it goes through the various stages of the tile-making process, from mud to form to fire to painting to the final glaze.  A poem written by the governor of Kütahya in 1999 sings the praises of the town’s “Flowers that Bloom in the Fire.”  (In Turkish, it rhymes and sounds much prettier than my attempt at translation...)

“In İstanbul, the tulip; in Isparta, the rose,
In Konya, the daffodil; in Manisa, the hyacinth,
Every region has its famous flower,
But all of them fade and wilt in due time.

Our Kütahya flowers bloom in fire,
Not in nature, but by the artist’s hands are they born,
They want not watering, fertilizer or special care,
And if well-protected, they’ll last for generations.”

Rare flowers indeed, and well worth the treasure hunt.

On our way back to the car, we decided we really should make use of that mosque bathroom before we hit the road.  Not seeing an obvious entrance, I stopped to ask one of the amcas (old uncles) leaning on a cane in front of the mosque for directions.  

“Excuse me, can you tell me where the WC is?”

At the same instant he started to point his cane across the street, I looked up to see the gloriously large sign proclaiming “WC” on top the building he was indicating.

“Thanks, I see it!”  I chuckled with relief.

And looking both ways, we set off across the road to the washroom, confident we knew exactly where we were going.