Istanbul Roundup

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After the initial shenanigans regarding re-booking my flight I have to say it was an event-filled week or so in the metropolis. Istanbul, like New York, is worthy of the accolade ‘the city that never sleeps’. In hindsight, as I suggested in a previous post, it was mostly about connecting with people, both fellow travellers and residents. I mentioned the thoughtful Ayşe with whom I had corresponded with over the interim period between visits but neglected to say anything of the staff of the Stray Cat hostel where I stayed for the 9 nights I was in the city.

Istanbul, like New York, is worthy of the accolade ‘city that never sleeps’

There were four residents of Istanbul who worked the reception: Ur and a youngish girl, both Turkish, and Mhede and Hamet who were Iranian. The latter were both trying to get to France but had been denied visas. Therefore, Hamed informed me, they were obliged to find work in Istanbul whilst the uncertain wait continued.

Mhede had a ready smile, lank dark hair and a fashionably bushy moustache twirled at the ends in the old Ottoman-style. Hamed was approachable and equally helpful but with a slight air of sadness about him. I detected the pain of separation when he told me about how his plans were on hold whilst he reapplied for asylum in Europe.

The owner of the place, Sedat, was a tall, blue-eyed, bald-headed Turk who strode around purposefully or sat on the furniture scrolling through messages on his phone. He was a man of few words though he seemed fair in his dealings with the patrons of the hostel who often asked for concessions, cancellations or extra nights’ accommodation.

The owner of the place, Sedat, was a tall, blue-eyed, bald-headed Turk who strode around purposefully or sat on the furniture scrolling through messages on his phone.

Here I am sitting in a soggy UK and it all seems a world away from the Stray Cat and its motley crew. Every time I cast my mind back I think of someone else I might have mentioned or should still. Did I for instance elaborate on American Dave’s uncanny resemblance to a young Bob Dylan? Apparently he has been told this before and he is considering traveling with an acoustic guitar in future.

I know that I failed to mention Rosie and Fi, the intrepid Australian girls (aren’t they all?) and they ARE worthy of a mention. They arrived at the SC not long after me en route from a festival in Portugal. Prior to that they had been just about everywhere including Zimbabwe a few months earlier. How else would they know of the Matopos Hills and the lovely inhabitants (excluding all political types and those affiliated to them)? They spoke well of the place.

Before that they had been in Cape Town – not long after I had been there it transpired – for a festival called Africa Burn. Small world: my old school pal Sean and a group of his mates were just preparing for it when I was there in April. The ethos of the festival was all about giving to strangers, whether it be food, a gift or something else. I couldn’t really appreciate it except I was to understand that no money was to be exchanged. From Istanbul they would be heading to the mother of all Burn festivals, Burning Man in Nevada, the United States.

They were a colourful duo, like something out of the art nouveau era: scarlet lipstick and bright garments (can’t elaborate more) with the anomaly of laden backpacks slung over their shoulders. Hannah reckoned that the names Rosie and Fi were simply nom de Plumes and she also reckoned, after witnessing their largesse in the Grand Bazaar, that money wasn’t short. I wouldn’t go so far to say they had money to burn because that’s an awful pun… ok, so why would they be staying in a hostel if they were fabulously wealthy?

They were a colourful duo, like something out of the art nouveau era: scarlet lipstick and bright garments…with the anomaly of laden backpacks slung over their shoulders.

Like me they were probably there simply to enjoy the ambience of the hostel rather than the isolated luxury of a hotel. Hannah also expressed an inclination to name the two surviving kittens from a litter born at SC after these two impressive Sheilas from Melbourne. I liked the idea. They were actually lovely girls, unashamedly green in their worldly outlook and somewhat free spirits. Fi was suffering a spell of flu after the rigours of the festivals but didn’t make too much of it.

Like a number of other hostel patrons they disappeared off to Cappadocia for a couple of nights before departing Istanbul to see the famous fairy chimneys and catacombs of that unusual landscape. Just about every tourist who has spent any time in Turkey has seen them except me! It’s always good to leave something for the next trip…

I have mentioned a number of other Australian occupants of the SC whom I shared a drink or exchanged a story or two with but Rosie and Fi were probably the most memorable of them. Besides the Australians and the Americans I have already mentioned, Germans were the other most notable ethnic group in the SC.

Hannah, my soulful Canadian philosopher was herself half-German and now a resident of Heidelberg I think she said. I can’t remember most of what she and I talked of but she was one of those people I could just talk to about seemingly anything. Whatever I had read it seemed she had either read already. Her eyes were both kindly and uncannily honest and probing. She invited you to trust and in turn expected you to reciprocate. Like anyone who has spent any time digesting the enormity and breadth of human literature she had the wisdom of words and recorded knowledge.

I can’t remember most of what she and I talked of but she was one of those people I could just talk to about seemingly anything.

I will probably always best remember Ayşe in her summer hat and dress, smiling amiably as we crossed from Kabataş to Kadikӧy with my cohort of hostel-dwellers. As for Hannah, it will be the memory of her stroking her thick braid of dark brown hair and expounding on critical theory as we sat on a ferry plying the same route a few days later after an evening of smoking Nargile (Shisha) and playing Tavla (Turkish Backgammon).

I’m not sure if I mentioned my aspiration to take up teaching again a bit more seriously, more specifically as an English Teacher to non-native speakers? To this end I had made an inquiry from the UK before I left with an institution in Istanbul who provided business English tuition to their clients.

And so it was that on the day I had to try to re-book my ticket at Atatϋrk International I jumped off one stop away on the Metro for a meeting with the managing director of Global Ingilizce, a lady called Burcu. Like Hannah she had kind and lively eyes. ‘Why Istanbul?’ she asked me. ‘What would you like to achieve?’ She asked these and a number of other probing questions which had me on the back foot. Still, she was asking what was pertinent and after listening to my response she rather tactfully pointed out that Westerners did not always get the social-work balance quite right.

‘We have a very strong work ethic in Turkey,’ she continued. ‘Not all Westerners appreciate this. Ask me when I have last been to Taksim and I will tell you, not for 8 years!’ I raised my eyebrows and she continued in a more measured vein explaining the ins and outs of obtaining a work permit and the nature of the contracts that foreign teachers could sign up to. We parted with the assurance that I would get back to her once I had finished my next certificate (a TESOL or a CELTA).

‘We have a very strong work ethic in Turkey’‘… Not all Westerners appreciate this. Ask me when I have last been to Taksim and I will tell you, not for 8 years!’

Talking of Taksim, the hostel was only a stone’s throw away from the square, made somewhat famous on the global stage by the tenacity of the protesters in the adjacent Gezi Park a little more than a year back. I had arrived bang in the middle of the protests as I think I mentioned previously and it is worth contrasting the two occasions, then and now.

Last year Gezi Park was the heart of the protest movement standing up to the autocratic Erdogan, then Prime Minister (President, yet again, as of two weeks ago), seething at the audacity of the protesters who dared question his decrees. I remember the buzz of activity and the sense of community and camaraderie amongst those encamped there and the genuine interest of the public, especially in the cooler evening hours, as they strolled through the park, curious but perhaps not brave enough to stand side by side with the protest camp.

Now they were all gone, expelled by water-cannon and baton-wielding riot police, and the Park was curiously quiet. Although the graffiti, tents, and protesters were gone something tangible still lingered on the periphery of the place near where it merges into the broad paving slabs that constitute Taksim Square itself. It may have been the rough sleepers I saw sleeping there on pieces of cardboard mid-morning after breakfast at the hostel or the scratches on the outer flagstones, or maybe just the memory of what I had seen superimposing itself on the present. I can’t be sure, but it was there. ‘At least they actually attend to the gardens now’ Ayse had emphasized.

Now they were all gone, expelled by water-cannon and baton-wielding riot police, and the Park was curiously quiet.

On my last afternoon in the city I saw a very heart-warming scene: a little boy approaching an old vendor selling balloons and blow-up animated Disney characters, brandishing a lira coin and full of expectation. The old man untangled a blow-up ball and patiently blew into it before presenting it to the boy who was obviously delighted.

The old man had obviously had a long day and although he was gracious in this transaction once the little boy had gone he seemed to visibly deflate a little. Sales had obviously not been as good as he had hoped. He gathered the strings to his inflatable goods and made to move off. I thought that perhaps it could be a metaphor. Maybe the little boy represents Turkish Society, expectantly extending its cupped palms to the state. Then again perhaps the old man is not representative of Erdogan’s regime but rather the embodiment of the working man, slaving away to satisfy the burgeoning middle classes?

I never set out to ‘do’ Istanbul as some might attempt, seeking to tick off the major attractions as listed in a popular guidebook or magazine. The first time I was in the city last year I was there simply as a prelude to an assignment for a couple of days as I mentioned. No, I’ve taken Istanbul mainly as it saw fit to rise up and meet me. That’s not to say I didn’t have an agenda but it was primarily in the social domain.

After a few days hanging out with guys and girls from the hostel and because Ayşe was working and unable to join me I chose to wander a little off the beaten track. I felt I was rewarded in my meandering inspection of the old Theodosian Land Walls which straddle the European peninsula of the Bosphorus. These would have been a lot more prominent in ancient times when they were fully functional and citizens, traders and visitors going in both directions would have had to negotiate one or other of the gates along its length.

After a few days hanging out with guys and girls from the hostel … I chose to wander a little off the beaten track

Today they are crumbling in many places and most of the gates are bisected by roads or public transport systems, people hardly giving them a second glance as they whiz by. What were once moats are now fields of vegetables and buildings encroach upon them and in some cases overshadow them along almost the entire stretch.

As for the so-called Old City and Sultanahmet, I left that for the throngs of tourists. I had done the Aya Sofia and the Blue Mosque on the last visit and the Grand Bazaar I avoided on account of knowing that I probably wouldn’t be able to say no to the dozens of vendors and curio-sellers therein (and feeling terribly guilty as a result).

I did peruse the Spice Market and walked many of the surrounding streets but I haven’t taken many pictures of this area and if that’s what you want to hear about, I’m sorry to disappoint you! I regret not going to see the ancient cistern and water works but the queue was dismayingly long. Maybe because my interest was piqued last year whilst visiting the Armenian churches around the city of Van in the east and an amazing Byzantine-era church in Trabzon I decided to continue in this direction. As a result I stumbled across the small but impressively decorated Chora Church near the Golden Horn side of the city walls.

It was an interesting little adventure. I remember meeting a Spanish tourist in one of the convoluted side-streets in the vicinity a short time after having come out of it. He was evidently disoriented but seeing that I had a camera slung over a shoulder and a guidebook to hand he recognised me as a fellow traveller. He asked me if I knew where the church was and although I knew it must be close I couldn’t honestly hope to tell him how I had got to where I was because I myself was a rather lost.

‘Where are you from?’ he had asked and when I replied ‘England via Africa’ he said with a shake of his head and in broken English that I must be very lost indeed. What I neglected to mention was that the Church was closed to visitors at 6 pm and it had just passed the hour. I didn’t have the heart to tell him but who knows, maybe that day they stayed open a few minutes longer.

… when I replied ‘England via Africa’ he said with a shake of his head and in broken English that I must be very lost indeed.

Also worth a mention is one other character I met the year before, a Syrian named Samer. Samer hailed from Aleppo and worked in a small curio shop along a stretch of street which flanked the city walls alongside Topkapi Palace. I had stayed in a 2* hotel nearby the year before and we had become friendly, taking Chai every morning outside the shop as his potential clientele strolled by.

He was very good at picking out the different nationalities by their dress and appearance, alternatively trying to cajole them inside by chatting in French, German, Spanish, Italian or English. He may only have had a smattering of several of those languages but it was more than I had anyway.

Through the course of our discussions I discovered that he was a) gay and b) that Istanbul was only a waypoint in his quest to reach Western Europe. Whilst Turkey is a lot more tolerant of gay people than other Middle-Eastern countries, or so I am led to believe, he accused ‘them’ of being ignorant and rude.

My impression though was that he was surviving in a manner perhaps far better than many others could hope for at this difficult juncture in the region’s history. He smoked almost constantly and talked in hushed tones as if the effort of talking any louder was pointless. There were times he seemed to receded into his own thoughts but when pressed he talked quite openly of himself and his thoughts on matters.

On Syria he seemed to come down on the side of the present government; his elder brother had been ‘martyred’ (his words) whilst in combat serving with the national army. His parents and sister lived in Aleppo not far from where the Sheraton Hotel had recently been blown up he told me. ‘My father called me and told me there was a terrible noise and that they thought they were going to die in that moment.’ They hadn’t and that is where they still lived.

On Syria he seemed to come down on the side of the present government; his elder brother had been ‘martyred’ (his words) whilst in combat serving with the national army.

I didn’t press him much on the politics of the conflict but he volunteered his thoughts on the people opposing the government. ‘They are stupid people who will believe anything they are told’ he said to me, ‘but they can be taught the correct way of things given one or two years.’ What ‘the right way’ was I could only speculate having something to do with embracing Assad’s rule and the previous status quo.

At the end of this trip and can honestly say that I spent far more money than intended, than I probably should have, but that I met some inspirational and diverse people from many different places. I would love to have carried on the adventure and know that I will again most certainly. It was particularly hard coming back to my lodgings in the south of England after the communal loving experience even though I know it would have worn me out in the end… but here I am and richer for it so let me not count the monetary cost and instead appreciate these memories and experiences for what they are.

I would love to have carried on the adventure and know that I will again most certainly.

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