At the Spice Market

From the sublime to the rabbit warren

Our aparthotel - the red brick on the far left
I'll have a close shave please

The bar in the basement next to the aparthotel


    'Stambool  on Liquor

Some people might think that because of the religion they will not find certain kind of amusement on the city. That is not truth. Those people are right when they think about religious matter, but anyway those very religious people are not part of the night life in Istanbul …
Islam forbids consumption of alcohol, but you can find beer, wine and a special national alcoholic drink called Raki ... I remind you Turkey is a laic country were religion and government do not walk together like some other Arabic countries. Turkish people enjoy eating, drinking and dancing. … Over the weekend you will see full bars and tea gardens with young and mature, women and man enjoying their tea, coffee or also beer and Raki.

The Bosphorus

Hagia Sophia
The Mediterranean

The Black Sea

The Blue Mosque

When we’d had our fill of Amsterdam which, it seems to me, was after about a week, we flew southeast to Istanbul

When we’d had our fill of Amsterdam which, it seems to me, was after about a week, we flew southeast to Istanbul. Why Istanbul? Well, for a couple of reasons: First, we thought it might be warmer (it wasn’t);  second, and more important, when I was in the engineering game years ago in Pittsburgh, I worked with a couple of engineers from Turkey.  Their given names were Algon and Erdum. They were going to school at Carnegie Mellon University and I believe they were taking a semester or two off to work and make some money.  This was probably in the late sixties or early seventies. They were very interesting guys: Algon, an out and out communist, Erdum… well, I don’t know, I guess just kind of a maverick. I would’ve been about 36 or so and moving between my socialist phase and my capitalist phase (which seems to have stuck).  Anyway, in between designing the structural parts of chemical plants we had lots of talks about politics.  I wonder what they are doing now and what their politics is, but I’ve lost touch with them. 

I’ve always enjoyed talking to people from other countries, and in Pittsburgh, where I then worked, I had plenty of opportunities to meet people I otherwise would not have, and to learn new things about the world. And I see now, writing these travel notes, that many of these fellows helped to expand my horizon more than I then realized.  Once, Algon and Erdum invited me to their apartment in Shadyside, an area near the Pittsburgh universities, for a party.  They promised that there would be good food, an authentic Turkish shish kebab dinner that they would make themselves from one of their mothers’ recipes, and plenty of beer of course; they were students. It lived up to its billing.

 

Again following my dynamic reprogramming plan, we check in at the five-star Intercontinental Ceylan hotel to enjoy ourselves very luxuriously for a few days while we nose around to see if we like the place and want to stay. There are three or four theme restaurants in this grand hotel, one of which, unsurprisingly, is Turkish. In the morning an elegant breakfast is served buffet style there, with virtually every breakfast cuisine known to man.  Interestingly, there’s even a section that serves Japanese breakfasts complete with miso soup and other specialties I cannot name, though I did taste them all, hesitantly. I suppose this reflects the hotel’s international business clientele, but somehow my culinary horizon does not extend very far into Japanese food. 

Since this is a very fancy hotel indeed, there were echelons of staff, uniformed and organized into a military-like hierarchy with uniforms to suit. One morning, during a lull, we became acquainted with the maitre de of this restaurant, a young Turkish fellow who spoke rather good English. He once asked why we’d come to Istanbul and I replied by recounting my acquaintance with the two Turkish engineers. Though it was not my intention, this somehow cemented a special relationship between us, and from then on he was very solicitous.

We had already decided we liked Istanbul and Tricia, as is her custom, then went walking, riding public transportation, and adventuring on the Internet, to find accommodations that we would enjoy and could afford for an extended stay. This sort of thing tires me and I spend more time just walking around, looking, tasting and sipping.

Istanbul is an old city, and a large one (about 10 million people), and there is much more to see here than we had imagined. Tricia was easily as captivated as I was.  Originally founded by the Greeks, who called it Byzantium, it later became the eastern part of the Roman empire thanks to Constantine.  It was apparently called New Rome for a short time, but that didn’t seem to stick and it became simply, Constantinople.  Later still, it was conquered by the Muslims and eventually renamed Istanbul.  The Muslims continued on to Vienna and very nearly took over Europe, but in the end their static boundary was established at Istanbul where it remains even today.  So here, on the Bosphorus, which nominally separates Europe from Asia, one has a considerable legacy of history and very many beautiful and intact monuments and structures still functioning after perhaps 1600 years, though most of the churches are now mosques. It is quite an impressive place and, though Turkey is perhaps the most secular of Islamic cities, it remains an exotic, interesting place to see.

 

There is a part of Istanbul called Taksim that is not very far from the Intercontinental hotel. It is a rabbit warren of interesting, small, apartments and hotels, and what, curiously, is known as aparthotels, a cross between an apartment and a hotel. This is a term used in Latin America as well.  Taksim is also a helter-skelter nest of cafes bars and restaurants, sometimes stacked two or three high, in other words it is my kind of place. One could not exactly call it a neighborhood; it is bigger than that. Perhaps district is the right term.

Though our interests centered around this area it was difficult to find just the right place, though Tricia had several possibilities in mind. One night, at the hotel, we were discussing these possibilities with our newfound friend, the maitre de, thinking that he would certainly know more than us. Unexpectedly, he offered to take us around and show us some places the next day on his morning off. Now ordinarily when traveling, this would perk up my sensors and I would suspect that perhaps he had some friends with apartments for rent, but if one is excessively cynical one never finds out anything out of the mainstream.  He asked us to meet him a block or so away the next day at a place we knew; it was against hotel policy for the staff to fraternize with the guests.

The next morning, right on time, he was where he said he would be, waiting for us in his small car, and we toured with him for most of the morning, visiting apartments for rent by the week.  Though many Turks speak so-so English, this sort of quest is amazingly easier when someone is along that speaks the language.  Yet we spent all morning at it but didn’t see anything that really took hold of us. So he dropped us back near the hotel and that was that. A little adventure. A day or so later, Trish said she had found something in Taksim to look at and I went with her to see it. It’s suited us perfectly, and it was affordable. We checked out of the Intercontinental and got in a cab. The driver threaded his way through streets that were so narrow and  busy that one could not understand how a taxi could get through. You might have to wait ten minutes while a truck unloaded, but it is done with no complaint.  Everyone there is used to it. We were now in the rabbit warren.

 

Once settled, we walked and walked and walked, as we usually do, seeing new things at every turn.  All the cafes and bars, at least the ones on the first floor, had outdoor seating and, no matter that it was still mid April and quite chilly, most of the tables were filled with people drinking tea, sweet Turkish coffee, or beer or wine.  Many of them were playing backgammon, which seems to be popular here, or chess. Everyone had sweaters on, or overcoats and tried to get the tables directly in the sun. But the weather really didn’t bother them, they had spring fever too, just like the people in Amsterdam.

Many of the restaurants here serve what one might naively call gyros, because they consist of meat on a rotating vertical skewer with a vertical heat source off to one side, as we in The States are used to. But in Turkey they don’t call them gyros, and they aren’t gyros; they consist of actual pieces of meat, not the highly spiced ground meat that we call gyros.  They call them Doners (dough-nairs). First of all, the pillar of meat, if it can be called that, is invariably built up by the restaurant from pieces of lamb or chicken and, while usually the finished product is about the size of the gyro spits that we’re used to seeing, some are quite grand.

In one restaurant I saw a tower of lamb meat that measured about 3ft. in diameter at the bottom and 2ft. in diameter at the top; it was all of 5ft. high. Early one morning I watched transfixed as a man—obviously a specialist—constructed this edifice. He began with a big plastic barrel of lamb pieces, easily 100 lbs, and another barrel, of equal size, of ground lamb. Beginning at the flat, circular, metal plate on the bottom, with a sturdy, vertical, pipe-like “skewer” projecting up from its center, the man first laid down a layer of lamb pieces. On this, using a trowel just as a cement mason would, he spread a layer of ground lamb on this, like mortar, and then another layer of lamb pieces, and then another layer of ground lamb, just as though he were building a masonry column. Eventually, with the aid of a small step stool, he got to the top.  When he was finished the fire was ignited as it was getting on towards late morning. The great column of lamb begin to rotate and cook on the outside. After a while, people who knew the place swarmed in and orders for doner came in hot and heavy. The chef would deftly slice cooked lamb with a huge knife from the periphery of the great column of meat and pile it generously on plates with a yoghurt sauce and pita bread on the side. My mouth was watering and I got in line quickly.

In China, if one orders “meat” one gets pork. And in The States you would probably get beef. In Turkey if one asks for meat, one gets lamb (chicken being poultry, or whatever the Turkish term is). On one popular “pedestrian” street where one could hardly walk—cars were permitted but only for unloading—nearly every other corner had a kind of restaurant that we might classify a cafeteria since one slides a tray down a line of prepared food and asks for what one wants. This is easy for foreigners because you can just point at something that looks good and you don’t need to know its name, which you probably couldn’t pronounce anyway.  I came to like these restaurants very much, partly because I like lamb, which was prepared in innumerable ways in these restaurants, but also because there were great many other vegetable dishes that I had never seen before of eggplant, zucchini, onions, potatoes and on and on including cold dishes of various dressed vegetable salads.  All were prepared and dressed in ways that were unfamiliar to me.  The cost of these meals, while not insignificant to a workman, was, compared to The Intercontinental anyway, practically cost free, maybe about $4.00 to $6.00 for an entire meal. I decided that this is really the kind of food I like.

 

After we became familiar with the area a little my thoughts went back to our Turkish friend at the Intercontinental that had been so kind to us. He had mentioned that his wife was trying to learn English. We wanted to do something nice for them so one day we went back to the Intercontinental hotel at a time when we knew he was working, had lunch, and invited he and his wife to dinner. I asked him to choose the place since he knew the area. So we arranged to meet them on his next day off at a certain time and place.

Our aparthotel is a small, narrow, neat, spare little place, with potted plants outside in the front. Like a hotel, there was always someone on duty.  Maybe there were a dozen or so apartments in the building. Ours is on the third floor reached by a little elevator into which about two people and maybe a suitcase could fit. You push the button for your floor and when it stops you open the door manually, step out with your things and then close the door so the elevator can go back down. The apartment has about three rooms including a miniature kitchen that I don’t believe we ever used, except perhaps for a small breakfast. It is rather dark and a little cramped, though it is not without charm. But we are here for the area, not for the hotel, and the area does not disappoint.

One morning I went out early by myself for coffee and a cimit (sort of a sesame seed-coated bagel), Tricia preferring cornflakes, tea and toast, as usual. Breakfast as we know it, that is to say bacon and eggs and toast, is not served in Turkey, except perhaps in four-star hotels.  Breakfast here seems to consist largely of coffee, Turkish coffee, sweet and dark, usually served in glasses, and sometimes with mineral water on the side, though one can often get normal espresso and tea, and possibly a flat bread of some sort which they will heat up for you on the spot.  It was a brisk morning and I wore a light jacket.  Stretching, waking up, I sipped my coffee standing at an outdoor table and just looked around, watching the street come to life. Delivery trucks everywhere threading slowly through the pedestrians, people walking hurriedly to the tram, destination unknown, other people going in and out of the restaurants that were open at this early hour.

Across the street an old man in a ragged sweater stepped out of a nondescript building with two white eggs in his hand. Immediately a cat came up to him, and I watched curiously; you could tell they were not unacquainted. He stooped over and petted the cat solicitously, she was rubbing her back along his leg endearingly. Then he bent over and cracked one egg on the sidewalk for the cat, and she began lapping it up immediately. Then he cracked the other egg against the side of the building and swallowed that one himself. It was obvious that this was a ritual that had been performed many times before. Thus do we all get along together here on planet earth.

 

Near our apartment I one day noticed a nice looking restaurant that specialized in shish kebab. That evening Tricia and I decided to try it. We walk in; there are booths around the outside of the room, but in the center, and obviously the focus of attention, is a low rectangular island with chairs around the two long sides which acted as counters. We were early, about 7:00, and there were only a few people here. Of course we sit at the counter. In between the two long parallel parts of the island a charcoal fire was burning at one end, a very large and beautiful copper hood taking away the fumes, leaving only the savor of the roasting lamb and chicken kebabs to spread around the room.  At the other end of that central space was a pile of charcoal ready to be used when needed.  These were not charcoal briquettes as we’re used to seeing, but rather small wooden sticks that had been turned into charcoal through some process.

The master chef, with a uniform that included a grand white hat, stood at one end of the counter, the end with the fire, and he adjusted it carefully while a waiter came around with menus. Soon we had drinks in front of us and a small bowl of dark, glistening olives as we studied the menu which consisted largely of lamb and chicken kebabs. The counter filled up quickly and we watched the chef while he prepared the food. Skewers of meat and chicken were laid over the fire straddling the space between the parallel counters.  He turned them occasionally and kept a careful watch on the fire. 

We placed our order, as I recall one lamb and one chicken kebab, and were then invited by the waiter to come to a little room in the back to select from a variety of side dishes. We filled small plates from the array of new-to-us and delectable-looking vegetables and salads, all at more less room-temperature, carrying them back to our seats at the counter. We sipped our drinks and nibbled, enjoying the warmth of the fire, watching the chef and our fellow diners and absorbing the restaurant’s unique ambience. When our kebabs were ready they were served, with rice of course, a rather dry kind of rice in the middle eastern manner. After dinner we were invited once more to the back room to select desert, which we took with coffee and tea.  We were certain to return.

 

One afternoon, walking along the narrow streets, and sometimes through narrow passageways that penetrated entire buildings, and trying, in the process, not to get lost, we explored farther and farther, stopping here and there for a drink, just wandering. Every few blocks we notice a store that in Latin America would be called a panaderia, that is, a place where bread is made. But this is flat bread, formed dexterously by women old and young, who quickly shape a small ball of dough into a flat circle using a very long and thin rolling pin. They do this on show, just inside the front window. They ignore onlookers like us and work so fast that it is obvious they had done this thousands and thousands of times. Somehow then, of course the flat bread rose slightly and was baked. In the end they look rather more like large tortillas than like pita bread.

In The States, barbershops have all but disappeared in favor of unisex hair salons. But here in Turkey are the barbershops of my youth with a slowly spinning striped pole on the outside of each shop. It seems that almost every block has at least one. Inside are large old-fashioned barber chairs, colored bottles of aftershave and pomade on the counters that line the back wall, and probably a pile of old magazines to take up the time while your wait your turn. All the paraphernalia of the trade are here and for good measure even a guy that will shine your shoes. And of course everyone in the shop is a man or a boy, as it should be in a barbershop.

When I was sixteen or so, my father smoked Chesterfield cigarettes and when I first began to smoke, guess what, I smoked Chesterfield cigarettes; they were close to hand.  Now, as far as I know, Chesterfields have long been extinct in the US, a casualty of Marlboros, cheap generic brands and the diminution of smoking in general. In Istanbul everyone over the age of 14 seems to smoke, man, woman and teenager and, I was amazed to notice, one of the cigarettes they smoke is … Chesterfield, apparently resurrected from whatever marketing hell it had been consigned to some decades ago in the US. I have no idea why they have been reincarnated here. I guess you can’t keep a good brand down.

Americans in Turkey, that is to say people from the US, are a-ok here. Turkey has a unique relationship with the US, and they’ve grown up on our TV shows and music and whatnot, though I think it is simply that they just admire, and aspire to, modernity. This is probably more true in Istanbul than it is in the rest of Turkey across the Bosphorus.  So when you say to someone that you’re from the US, you get a smile and as much English as they can muster. And you’re likely to hear of some brother or cousin that lives in New York.

Along the main street—nominally a “pedestrian” street except for the tram running down the center, the taxis dropping people off, the delivery trucks, and the miscellaneous cars, and motor-scooters threading their way very slowly through the pedestrians—were numerous music stores. Turkish pop music was sold from them in the form of CDs. These stores are usually located at street level, or even one level below that. Powerful loudspeakers outside the store blasted samples of their tunes. Most of them were heavily rhythmic, with a lot of drums and usually a vocalist. If there was “middle eastern” music here in the big city, that stuff that is high-pitched, slightly off-key and sing-songy, it wasn’t audible here. This stuff was high-energy pop with a distinctly Turkish flavor.

 

We take a day to go to another district, one full-up with museums, mosques, carpet sellers, bazaars (markets), and restaurants and cafes specializing in… well, tourists. On the way we stop at a money machine, put our debit card in, and get Turkish lira out. No problem. Today you can probably do the same thing in Hong Kong, Delhi, or Riyadh. I wouldn’t trust to my luck in Afghanistan however. We rarely carry much money when we travel, relying on these ubiquitous machines that have made travelers’ lives so much easier. I should mention, by the way, that though I have been to many places in the world I have never once been robbed or cheated. And that includes even New York City.  Sort of bumps-up your faith in man somehow.

Just getting around in Istanbul can be interesting. Tricia enjoys going on public transportation; I’m more of a taxi person myself. It seems so much easier. Though I see the thrill of the challenge that she faces up to and conquers, I see it the way I view mountains: while undoubtedly interesting, I’d rather see them from an airplane than climb them.

Once here, we first go to see the Hagia Sophia. Built in the fourth century as a Catholic church, it was burned down by rioters and rebuilt in the sixth. In the following centuries severe earthquakes took their toll, but repairs were made.  But then, to add insult to injury, not long after an unfortunate battle in the fifteenth century it was converted into a mosque. But it now is no longer even a mosque, merely a tourist attraction for people from around the world.

The Muslims, when they took over, were gracious enough to leave the stained glass windows in place with a picture of Christ held by the virgin Mary, but they asserted their dominance by placing large poster boards in Arabic script around the upper levels of the church cum mosque, rather tacky if I may say so.  I don’t know what these signs actually say as we declined to join any of the many tours of this huge, ancient place.

One constantly sees here, and is occasionally entangled with, small clusters of a few dozen tourists moving across the floor of the mosque, like amoebas, changing shape but somehow hanging together, led by a young man or woman holding a little flag and speaking the language of the cluster.  One can simultaneously hear French, German, Italian, English, and tongues unknown. 

The floors of course are all of marble slab, well worn by thousands and thousands of feet, with ornate designs embedded here and there that I am sure carry some iconic spiritual message. The church is large, about 100 feet wide and 250 feet or so long. It has an immense dome that, I have read, reaches to 184 ft. At the moment they are repairing this dome and have built scaffolding from the floor all the way to the top of the dome, a huge three-dimensional, stick-like erector set. It must take about half an hour to climb to the top. And then you have to work.

Across the way is the Blue Mosque:

The mosque was deliberately sited to face Hagia Sophia, to demonstrate that Ottoman and Islamic architects and builders could rival anything their Christian predecessors had created. The two buildings thus comprise a unique historical and architectural precinct.

Wikipedia

Exhausted by culture, we relax in an outdoor café for a while. Beer is good, the great smoother.  At a certain time we hear the Muezzins sing, their voices piped-out from loudspeakers situated at the tops of the mosque’s towers all around us and, presumably, from similar, if less grand, towers all over Istanbul. Time for prayer.  For some surely blasphemical reason, that exotic setting evokes the priests of my childhood “singing” high mass at SS Peter and Paul church in Naperville Illinois. The encouraging thought that I settle on while sipping my beer is that muezzins can’t sing any better than priests.

Another day we decide to take a boat ride up the Bosphorus and back. This is a very common activity for tourists and, surprisingly (to me), it was fun. Usually I like just to hang around bars and restaurants and streets, where I think I see more of what I want to see. This strange approach to absorbing culture is somewhat frustrating for Tricia as she seems to think, not unnaturally, that as long as one is here one ought to see something.  We usually compromise by me choosing a few things to go to see with her, and she, graciously, goes to see the many other things that interest her by herself.  She is an intrepid traveler.

Today, for the boat trip, we take a taxi to the dock, buy our tickets, and before long we get to board. It’s a medium-sized boat maybe 100ft. long or so. After a while, as the boat fills and people take their seats, the steam whistle blows, the loops are lifted from the dock’s poles, and we are off. There are a couple decks with seating though many people prefer to lean at the rail to watch the sights go by.  The Bosphorus is a narrow strait that connects the Black sea with the Mediterranean sea. It also separates Istanbul from the bulk of Turkey to the east. We head up toward the Black sea. It’s a nice day, though chilly the sun is out, the water beautiful. There are many interesting things to see shoreside, near Istanbul, and of course many boats and ships on the Bosphorus. Then, after a couple of hours, and long before we get to the Black sea (this is just a short excursion), we dock on the Asian side to take an afternoon lunch at a restaurant here. Unsurprisingly, this restaurant specializes in seafood. We spend a pleasant couple of hours here, and then the boat’s ready to head back. All in all, a pleasant day.

 

One morning, as I was out for coffee, a strange thing took place. On one of Taksim’s main streets, the one near our hotel and where the trams are, soldiers in dress uniforms, and with rifles, were lined up in a single rank all along one side of the street opposite me, hundreds of them, standing at ease, equally spaced, facing the street. The rank started about where I was standing and continued to my right for several blocks or more.  Military music is playing from somewhere.  What the hell is going on?  It’s early, but I pop into the McDonald’s which is not quite open yet and beg for a cup of coffee. I get it. And I go back outside to watch the drama along the street and sip my coffee. After I’d waited for quite awhile, the rank of soldiers all snap to attention, and a long Mercedes drives unopposed down the “pedestrian” street, and out of it comes… what, at least a general. The music stops.  He walks right up to face the first ten or so men who further tighten their stance. He says something to them loud and sharp in Turkish. They salute and jointly shout a response. He salutes. And moves to the right and to the next ten men. Replay…. My best guess is that they were personally, by tens, vowing obedience, man to general. At least that’s what it sounded like. Interesting place, Turkey.

Today is the day we are to take the maitre de from the Intercontinental and his wife to dinner. We have agreed to meet at a place not far from our little hotel. They arrive on time and walk with us only a few blocks to the small but very nice and typically Turkish restaurant he has chosen. We’re taken to the second floor.  The meal is purposefully slow, with many appetizers. They don’t serve beer or liquor here, but I go with the flow and, as I recall, a Coca-Cola; back to the long-lost habits of my youth. 

She is learning English, but so far I find she is up to about six words. Nevermind, he carries the conversation and it is pleasant. We talk a little weather. We talk about where they live.  We talk a little politics.  We talk about the Internet and how small the world has become.  Then we have our main course.  It is delicious, things I had never had before and that I cannot name now.  At that point I leave the table to go to the bathroom, but surreptitiously I go to our waiter to make sure he gives me the bill. “But,” he replies, smiling only slightly and obviously unsurprised “there is no charge for you.” My friend has arranged to pay the bill beforehand.  I return to the table and ask to pay the bill or help him with it. He replied with only a shake of the head. He was very gracious; dinner was to be on him. After the requisite sweet, and coffee and tea, we all take our leave together with much thanks to the staff, who have been very attentive. We walk with them to the main street. We exchange e-mail addresses. And he says in a meaningful way, “Don’t forget us.” And I knew from our previous conversations that by “us,” he meant Turkey.

 

The pinkish area is greater Istanbul
<BGSOUND SRC="_RefFiles/VefanameMercanDede.wma" loop=FALSE>