Luxus in Istanbul
Wednesday, October 12 2005
setting: Old City, Istanbul, Turkey
Gretchen checked her email before we set out this morning and learned from our house sitter (CAS Kathy) that our dog Sally had been acting listless so she (Kathy) had taken her to the vet. The vet ran a test and Sally came up positive for Lyme Disease. Gretchen freaked out a little about this news, wondering if we should cut our vacation short by a day. I assured her that Sally was in good hands and would probably recover quickly on antibiotics. So we went on with our day. Later Gretchen got an email saying Sally was acting friskier and was seen carrying a bone "ready to play." From then on we kept uttering that cheerful expression, "ready to play," over and over whenever we wanted a little sunshine in our lives.
This morning we breakfasted at the place we'd breakfasted yesterday, the place downtown with the costumed woman in the window making flatbread (referred to on the English menu as "pancakes"). The woman wouldn't be ready to make pancakes for another fifteen minutes, so we spent the time walking around the neighborhood, a very central one for any would-be tourists. We'd been underwhelmed by our hotel the Sokullupasa Best Western, which was costing us about eighty dollars per night and had been arranged through a travel agent whom Gretchen knows through friends of her family. On a whim, Gretchen decided to find out the prices of hotels in this downtown neighborhood. With growing disgust, she was quoted ever-decreasing figures, some as low as $20 per night! If our travel agent had shown up on the street at this point, I couldn't have guaranteed her safety. She'd billed Sokullupasa as "centrally-located" and had claimed that staying elsewhere would be more expensive because of cab fares. But we'd found Istanbul to be amazingly easy to get around in on foot and besides, our hotel is far from centrally-located. The only direction we ever walk from it is north. This was our first experience dealing with a travel agent and it looks like it will be our last. What the fuck did she know about Istanbul? By now we felt like we knew it like the backs of our hands.
There is one hotel in downtown Istanbul called "Hotel Romance" that costs something like $150/night. Yesterday, even before we knew how much it cost, it had been the inspiration for one of Gretchen's jestful "If you really loved me..." comments.
Our morning activity was to take the ferry across the Bosporus to the Asian side of Istanbul, the neighborhood of Üsküdar, a word both Gretchen and I found delightful to pronounce (something we did with an exaggerated Swedish accent). Interestingly, even before the ferry had docked its passengers were jumping like mountain goats across the narrowing gap of water to the Üsküdar shore. This confirmed my growing suspicion that liability lawsuits are uncommon in Turkish civil courts.
While the Old City and Galata neighborhoods of Istanbul are on the European side of the Bosporus and are common destinations for European and American tourists, Üsküdar is on the Asian side and, though it looks and smells like a continuation of Istanbul, it's less international in flavor. There's a mosque near the Üsküdar ferry landing that, if you bust a shortcut through its courtyard, you'll come to a heavily-traveled archway so low that you'll have to duck if you're taller than five foot five. Everyone who is tall enough (about 15% of the Turkish population) just reflexively ducks as they pass through, since they've been doing it for generations, but somehow I can't imagine such an archway persisting on the European side, not with all the Swedish and German tourists constantly being hospitalized for concussions and broken noses.
The muezzin's call to prayer came as we walked down a busy Üsküdar street, and at that point I was shooting video with my camera. I panned across a small mosque graveyard full of feral cats and the strange columnar tombstones common in Turkish graveyards. An old man was doing some groundskeeping in the graveyard, and part of this involved putting out bags of bread for the cats. We've seen many bags of bread (and perhaps other food) put out for cats during the Ramadan fasting season, but this led Gretchen to wonder whether the cats are only fed when Ramadan surpluses are available.
We went shopping in Üsküdar stores for tampons and pain killers (it was my time of the month), I had Turkish-style coffee at an especially dreary cigarette-smoke-filled diner, and then we sailed back to Europe.
We walked down to the Spice Market, a smaller version of the Grand Bazaar near the New Mosque, and soon after we joined its scrappy consumer current we were inside a shop buying Turkish delight. I hadn't much liked Turkish delight I'd had back in North America, but this stuff was actually rather tasty. In the course of making this purchase, Gretchen learned that one of the guys working in the shop was a Turk who could actually speak Hebrew. That endeared him to Gretchen enormously, and we bought a bunch of small bowls from him for the price we'd been quoted for similar bowls we'd seen in the Grand Bazaar (unbeknownst to us at the time, though, these bowls were of much higher quality and yesterday's bowls had merely been knock-offs).
Retail in these bazaars is never the simple transaction familiar to shoppers in the West. In a place where simple eye contact is considered the beginning of a long and lucrative business relationship, an actual transaction is akin to marriage. The Hebrew-speaking shopkeeper insisted that we come upstairs to his poorly air-conditioned pottery showroom, where, after a long conversation about Isræli secularism, American Christian religious kooks, and our atheism, he tried to convince us to buy one of his expensive dishes, one of which had a pricetag of six hundred ytls.
We had a similar, though much briefer experience buying tea from a merchant hailing from Algeria, and then with a shop full of lamp merchants. All we wanted was a bag of tea and a single simple lamp, but we could have easily spent the entire afternoon in either place.
I took the afternoon off again while Gretchen explored the city, particularly the Galata neighborhood, alone and on foot. Both today and yesterday she discovered that a woman walking by herself in Istanbul attracts a lot of not-especially-wanted male attention. Today a café owner, after giving her lots of free tea, came around to something of a marriage proposal that probably would have seemed a lot smoother in its original Turkish.
The ultimate goal of Gretchen's solo adventure was to attend Kol Nidre services at an Istanbul Synagogue to observe the beginning of Yom Kippur. Neve Shalom, the particular synagogue she wanted to attend, is near the Galata Tower and isn't mentioned in the Lonely Planet Istanbul guide, perhaps in an effort to keep its location and profile discreet. It was, after all, one of two Istanbul synagogues bombed simultaneously by suicidal Al Qaeda operatives in 2003. In order to secure permission to attend services, Gretchen first had to fax a copy of her passport to synagogue security and then submit to an extensive personal interview and pass through a metal detector in two different directions. As with most synagogues outside the United States, the services were conducted in accordance to orthodox protocols, with men and women seated separately.
Back at the hotel, I was kicking it non-tourist-stylee. This involved beer, a shower, the internet,
and a nap. Eventually, though, I saw I had an hour to make it to Galata Tower, the place where Gretchen and I had arranged to rendezvous. Gretchen had suggested taking a streetcar, but that would have involved learning how it worked, so I just set off on foot.
Somewhere near the downtown district, the place that has all the banks, a couple guys walking next to me asked me something in Turkish. "Sorry?" I replied in English. "Oh, I thought you were Turkish," one of them said. They asked what I was up to and I told them I was going to meet my wife at the Tower. So then they wanted to show me how to get there, even though I'd been to the tower once before and could see it clearly on the horizon. As we walked they introduced themselves as Ahmed and Mohammed and they asked how I liked Istanbul. I said it was great, partly because it sort of is great and partly to be polite. Mohammed, the one who wasn't saying much because his English wasn't as good, asked if I'd been to Canada and I said yes, so he pulled out a business card a friend had given him. According to the card, the friend lives in St. John, Nova Scotia. For a moment I thought maybe Mohammed wanted me to keep the card, but why would he want me to do that? But then I saw him reaching for it again so I handed it back. Before I crossed Resadiye Cad they said goodbye, shook my hand, and headed off in some other direction.
On the Galata Bridge, somebody came up to me and asked for a cigarette and I said I didn't have one. His English wasn't great but it was enough to keep my attention. Wow, I was thinking, a gentleman walking alone in Istanbul sure does meet a lot of extroverted natives! Our conversation followed a similar trajectory to the one before, with this guy giving me helpful tips on how to get to Galata Tower, which now loomed much closer. Then I glanced down and noticed that he was holding a shoe shine kit under his arm. Oh shit! He had me! Tonight, like several other occasions on this trip, I was wearing my dress shoes. They're the same ones I'd worn to Dina's wedding, shoes I'd originally found in an alley in Brentwood, California. But in Istanbul the price of their comfortable stylishness has been the constant attention of the city's many shoe shiners. In all fairness, these particular shoes seem to plead for a shine, but it's not like I've had any spare money for such luxuries. It's easy to avoid the shoe shiners' gazes, but they're an unusually aggressive lot, even by the standards of Istanbul. One had shouted "Excuse me! Excuse me!" at me from a great distance, and I'd had to break into a trot to avoid his possible escalation to tractor beam. As for this shoe shiner, the one now talking to me, he was one smooth operator. He'd approached me asking for a cigarette and now he was building a friendship. Now, though, he could sense that I'd picked up on his intentions, and he lapsed into full on marketing mode, claiming now to want to shine my shoes for free. In his world, a world where a scuffed leather shoe is a blight on the planet every bit as bad as Love Canal or Chernobyl, he might well have done so and not even been upset when I failed to come through with a tip. But I couldn't owe this man anything. I just couldn't You wouldn't believe how hard it was to get away, but somehow I did. I felt bad for the guy, but I was not getting a shoe shine.
I actually ran into one other guy on the way to Galata Tower and he didn't try to get anything from me. In the Lonely Planet guide it talks about various swindles commonly pulled by the Istanbul natives on naïve single men, something I may have inoculated myself against whenever I claimed to be going "to meet my wife."
I waited for about ten minutes in the pleasant paved square at the foot of Galata Tower until Gretchen came out of Kol Nidre services. We actually walked past the synagogue on the way to İstiklal Caddesi and the street out in front still had several grim-looking security guys standing around with little radio wires slipped into their ears. I noticed that the building adjacent to the synagogue was completely gutted, devoid of even a façade. I wondered if this was to keep Al Qaeda from renting the space, packing it with explosives, and detonating it during some future Kol Nidre.
İstiklal Caddesi is that long pedestrian mall where we'd been on Sunday night. At the time we'd noted, for future reference, a particularly nice restaurant with good vegetarian options. Its name was Sarabi. That was where Gretchen wanted to dine tonight, despite the fact that she should have in the early hours of a 25 hour Yom Kippur fast.
While we were eating, we noticed that the two women on the other side of us were speaking English, and somehow we struck up a conversation. It turned out that they were in Turkey working as English teachers. One of them was a middle-aged American woman and the other was from Malaysia. They told us about a nightclub where they'd be going after dinner and suggested we go there too.
So we did. The nightclub was the kind of place one only goes to if one is in the know. To get there we had to go down a side street, take an elevator to the fourth floor of a building, and then climb two more stories using the stairs. At the top was a smoke-filled room with huge windows looking out over the sparkley acreage of Istanbul at night. There they were, the two women we'd been talking to at the restaurant, along with two incredibly gorgeous Turkish women, both of whom could speak excellent English.
The band they'd come to see was Luxus, a sort of Turkish jam band (if that makes any sense). They played endless jazz-rock improvisations with a strong Turkish accent, adding an accordion and a fiddle to the usual weapons of mass entertainment. It good dance music, though only the women were dancing, at least initially. (The American English teacher was the first person on the floor and seemed to be drawing from years of experience dancing in front of jam bands of the American variety.) It was a pretty liberal crowd, with lots of drinking and nary a head scarf in sight, but gender rules still seemed to have a distinctly Turkish flavor. Our table stuck out because I was the only man at a table with four women.
We were just about out of cash and were going to just walk home at the end of the evening, but when we said we were leaving and that we'd be walking, one of the hot Turkish women was horrified and gave us a ten ytl note and made us promise to stay longer. So we did, but she didn't talk to us for the rest of the evening until we actually did leave. The cab back to the Blue Mosque only cost us 5 ytl, meaning that our time in the nightclub had actually netted us a profit. If it weren't for the fact that our clothes now reeked of cigarettes, it would have been a perfect final night in Istanbul.
The Clarence-style kitten we first met yesterday, sleeping on the outdoor menu for our favorite breakfast restaurant, even though they couldn't figure out how to do a proper arugula salad.
Fishermen at the Üsküdar ferry landing on the European side of the Bosporus.
European Istanbul, viewed from the Üsküdar ferry.
The Bosporus, with the Old City of Istanbul in the background.
A little girl on the ferry to Üsküdar.
Cats and graves in a mosque graveyard in Üsküdar, on the Asian side of the Bosporus.
Click to watch the movie from which these frames were grabbed.
Fartox and other rat poisons for sale in Üsküdar.
Inside a grocery store in Üsküdar.
A mysteriously geometric diagram labeled with Arabic characters in Üsküdar.
[A reader wrote to draw my attention to the spike, which probably indicates that this is some sort of sun dial.]
Spices in the Spice Market.
The Spice Market.
Inside Sarabi, where we dined tonight.
Turks dancing tonight with Luxus. These were the only spaghetti straps I saw on Turkish women during the four days we were in Istanbul.
Hot, hip, modern Turkish ladies with the American English teacher we met. Luxus rocks!
A street sweeper with a decidedly old school broom on the Hippodrome.
The Hippodrome at night.
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