From the sublime to the rabbit warren
The bar in the basement next to the aparthotel
'Stambool on Liquor
The Black Sea
The Blue Mosque
When we’d had our fill
I’ve always enjoyed talking to people from other countries,
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
We had already decided we liked
There is a part of
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
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
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.
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
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
In The States, barbershops have all but disappeared in favor
of unisex hair salons. But here in
When I was sixteen or so, my father smoked
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,
Just getting around in
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.
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
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
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.