Back to the Hatay

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I ‘d visited Antakya (formerly Antioch of old) and some notable attractions in the Hatay province back in 2013 when I’d last travelled the country beyond Istanbul. On that trip I clocked up a number or towns and cities along the Black Sea coast and further east, but Antakya stuck firmly in my mind as being somehow different. There was something about its history and assortment of communities that set it apart somehow.

I hadn’t even seriously considered visiting until by chance I fell in with a fellow traveller in Mardin, an Englishman called Ben. We were both travelling east to west and Antakya was firmly on his radar.

Antakya stuck firmly in my mind as being somehow different. There was something about its history and assortment of communities that set it apart somehow. 

During our brief stay of several days we occupied two of the guest rooms at the Katolic kilesesi off Kurtulus Rd, a stone’s throw away from the Asi River (Orontes of old) which divided the old city from the new. It was also in the proximity of a variety of other community organisations, both religious and secular. These included a Korean war veteran’s office – did you know that Turks were part of a NATO force sent to that conflict in the 1950s? – and a  peace-house which accommodates visitors from all walks of life.

I discovered that the founder of the peace-house, sister Barbara, had taken inspiration from the Taizé form of community. Taizé is an ecumenical order based in France and founded quite recently in the last century. Worship is through music (primarily choral but with instrumental accompaniments) and through contemplating the writings of mystics and other perceived sources of enlightenment (wisdom readings). 

Taizé … worship is through music (primarily choral but with instrumental accompaniments) and contemplating the writings of mystics and other perceived sources of enlightenment.

Backing onto the Catholic church was a mosque and Barbara informed us of a synagogue well hidden away nearby, although I never set eyes on it. The town also boasted a fairly large Greek Orthodox church and a Protestant church founded only 15 years ago.

I had taken along my clarinet with me which I played during the morning and evening prayers. Although I was unfamiliar with the Taizé format it was not difficult to follow. The instruments were mere accompaniments to a short choral verse of two or three lines of music, repeated several times or more, a bit like a mantra. The combination was very pleasing and despite some initial difficulty I came to enjoy the daily routine.

The instruments were mere accompaniments to a short choral verse of two or three lines of music, repeated several times or more, a bit like a mantra.

Melek working in Barbara's simple but tidy little kitchen.

Melek working in Barbara’s simple but tidy little kitchen.

Barbara had a paid helper in the form of Melek, a Christian lady from a village near the Syrian border. She had a sweet, harmonious voice and joined Barbara in singing whilst I played my clarinet and Barbara strummed her guitar.

Melek’s husband Bibe (pronounced Bee-beh) came on occasional but I got the impression he would rather have been elsewhere! He did odd jobs and helped Melek prepare the meals in the kitchen. Melek was a wonderful cook and I wish I’d taken some of her creations when I returned to Izmit the following week.

The surrounding neighbourhood on east bank of the Asi was a network of alleyways and cobbled streets, evidently very old. A good number of the buildings here are unoccupied and have been for many years Barbara told me. As a result many have fallen into disrepair and were, until relatively recently, deemed undesirable. Viewed from a vantage point to the SE (the city is flanked by steep hills) I could see how the urban sprawl proliferated on the far side of the Asi where acres of apartment blocks now stood.

The surrounding neighbourhood on east bank of the Asi was a network of alleyways and cobbled streets, evidently very old.

Times have changed and today, Barbara told me, parts of the old city that were previously overlooked have now become trendy for those of means. I for one can see the appeal. It is quite impressive what Barbara has done and continues to do with the buildings in the vicinity of her abode.

… parts of the old city that were previously overlooked are now becoming trendy for those of means.

She was presently employing several labourers and tradesmen to renovate an adjacent house, recently vacated by the occupants who decided to move to a more modern apartment. Plumbing, toilets, basins and electrics were being installed, roofs re-tiled and stone walls and floors repaired. During my stay most of the existing rooms were unoccupied but during the summer months she expected the numbers to increase considerably. With the new additions I guessed she could accommodate at least two dozen visitors.

Despite earlier intentions of spending my time in contemplation at the Taizé centre I found my days filled instead with long walks around the city, contemplating the buildings, businesses and people who inhabit it. Like most Turkish cities I have visited it is has a hustle and bustle about it which makes it photogenic and engaging.

Like most Turkish cities I have visited it is has a hustle and bustle about it which makes it photogenic and engaging.

Along the streets in the vicinity of the guesthouse there were a number of different artisans. Some wove woolen rugs on hand looms whilst others spun garments from silk cocoons. On the street corner near the Sermaye cami (the mosque I mentioned) was a cobbler who seemed to work arduously all week in his open-air stall, surrounded by an eclectic collection of inners, uppers, laces, threads and an antiquated machine of sorts. It was a street that was very much alive with creativity.

The nearby pazar (bazaar) was particularly vibrant. I loved the way it branched off every so often so that it was quite easy to get lost, but never such that you weren’t able to find your way back to a major artery after a few minutes. All the roads and alleyways sloped perceptibly towards the flanking hills which was another way of getting some sense of orientation. Within the pazar were numerous stalls mostly clustered in discrete zones: clothing stalls in one area, shoes in another and so forth. I enjoyed the spice and food stalls best.

On my second afternoon there I ventured off in search of the somewhat famous Sen Piyer Kilisesi, the cave-church from which it is reputed that the apostle Peter preached to the Christian community of Antioch. Separating legend from the facts is difficult and all that is really known is that St Peter spent some time in Antioch between AD 47 and 54, intrinsically involved in establishing one of the world’s first Christian communities with the apostles Paul and Barnabus. The site was closed for renovations on my previous visit. They had taken some two years according to Barbara.

… all that is really known is that St Peter spent some time in Antioch between AD 47 and 54, intrinsically involved in establishing one of the world’s first Christian communities …

Besides building an ugly concrete car park nearby the authorities had constructed a series of stone steps leading up to the cave entrance, itself fronted by an impressive stone façade (built previously). The remnants of an old olive grove and the exposed foundations of an ancient stone building occupied the ground directly before the cave, set as it was in an imposing, vertical rock cliff.  Nearby a shepherd casually tended his flock of sheep as they browsed the pasture on the other side of the new car park on which a group of local kids were playing football.

imageNot far off nestled in the midst of a cluster of buildings and road-side businesses an enormous concrete edifice was starting to take shape: the Hilton Hotel, Antakya. Incredible!

I can only assume that the powers that be saw in Antakya, its particular ambience and assortment of religious sites, Sen Piyer chief amongst them, the opportunity for a large influx of well-healed visitors. Whether this investment will pay dividends, and indeed its effect on the city and its people, only time will tell.

… an enormous concrete edifice was starting to take shape: the Hilton Hotel, Antakya.

Not surprisingly the building of the hotel itself had uncovered a wealth of sub-level archaeology which had apparently led to a cessation in building whilst the artefacts were properly recorded and excavated. It looked to me as though the construction had still not fully resumed.

imageAs for the cave itself it was a little underwhelming but this was I suppose in keeping with its humble origins. Besides a stone altar and a statue of Jesus Christ set back in the wall behind it the cave was fairly unadorned. The floor had been reinforced with concrete and although there had been some attempt to preserve the mosaics that were already present it was difficult to make out any detail.

A pair of simple stone pillars connected by arches supported the entrance in front of the façade and separate, wooden framed Turkish and English information sheets hung on either side. A quick perusal revealed a number of typing errors on the English language sheet whilst the Turkish information sheet looked more consistent from a cursory glance. At least there were no co-joined words that I could make out: the English info sheet was littered with them.

Besides a stone altar and a statue of Jesus Christ set back in the wall behind it the cave was fairly unadorned.

I only had a few minutes to myself before several families arrived simultaneously. The usual posing for mobile phone pictures ensued as the kids ran here and there and shattered the peace! I stepped outside for a while and took the opportunity to photograph the city from the vantage of the cave.

Below me an elderly man who I’d encountered earlier selling trinkets, stone carvings and crosses, gestured impatiently for me to return as I had promised. I smiled and tapped my wrist, imploring his patience. Indeed, he was still there when I left the church about 30 minutes later. I bought an iron Byzantine-style cross and a couple of smaller stone ones for 15 TL before starting my return to the guesthouse.

My indirect way home took me through some busy streets towards the centre, the pavements bustling with evening foot traffic, the vendors and food stalls doing a brisk trade. I looked longingly at the various pastahane (confectionary shops) but managed to resist the temptations. I settled for a cup of freshly-squeezed portakal (orange juice). My route home also took me past a brand spanking new shopping mall, one that hadn’t been there on my last visit.

My route home also took me past a brand spanking new shopping mall, one that hadn’t been there on my last visit.

The previous evening Barbara had taken me shopping at the Micros supermarket contained therein. I’d been bowled over by how new everything looked. No shop or store in there would have looked out of sorts in its European equivalent. They even had a variety of large Christmas ornaments still hanging from the upper level roofing. Micros was well-stocked but rather pricey. I noted with surprise that it even had self-service pay terminals like those many UK shopping markets had adopted in recent years.

I had come away with a modest selection of breakfast goodies for 50 TL (about 20 pounds). Barbara quite unashamedly admitted how happy she was to see European cheeses on the shelves: a lovely creamy cheese from Denmark and French Brie which she had been very much missed in the intervening years.

I thought about the chaos in neighbouring Syria, to which Hatay province had belonged until as recently as 1938, and how far removed this mall and its happy consumers were from what events there. I’ll leave those thoughts for my next post. By the time I passed the mall on this particular evening it was dark.

I thought about the chaos in neighbouring Syria … and how far removed this mall and its happy consumers were from what was going on there.

The buildings and businesses on either side of the Asi were lit up and river, dark and swollen from the recent rains, reflected the streetlamps and neon lights from either side. It was raining lightly but it didn’t prevent me from pulling out my camera and using its rather basic functionality to try capture the mood. Hopefully the pictures will show that I succeeded…

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The Taizé Mission and the Trouble Next Door

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When I questioned Barbara on her source of funding for the renovations she revealed that she was solely dependent on income derived from visitors to her guesthouses. She had originally come to Antakya in the mid-1970s to establish a Catholic church, now presided over by Fth Domenico, a Carmelite priest.

The church backed onto the Taizé guesthouse which she had established subsequently. She’d rented the various rooms and courtyards for several decades. She was by no means assured of keeping them indefinitely. In recent years wealthier individuals and families had begun to buy the older houses for restoration. She worried that her landlord/s might be enticed to sell one or other of the accommodation she rented were an attractive offer made by a prospective re-developer.

She worried that her landlord/s might be enticed to sell one or other of the accommodation she rented were an attractive offer made by a prospective re-developer.

On my first visit in the summer of 2013 I had met a number of NGO workers involved in the unfolding crisis across the border in nearby Syria (only some 50 km east of Antakya). By contrast in the winter months there were very few visitors. This time around I noticed a few, young NGO-types emerging from one of the guesthouse blocks. Barbara told me they were a French organisation who’d ‘accidentally’ become permanent lodgers.

On my second last evening I met a Polish girl called Paulina while eating out with Barbara. She worked for a Polish NGO involved with Syrian refugees. She’d originally lodged with Barbara and for a while the agency had used her premises as a headquarters. This was not ideal because Barbara forbade visitors from outside within her guesthouse commune so they had moved elsewhere once a suitable alternative had been acquired. I’m not sure what arrangement the French NGO had with her.

Paulina was a quirky, good-natured girl, probably around 30 years in age. She arrived from an afternoon break in Samandağ on the coast to join us at the Asi café. Barbara and I had already ordered. I chose a side from the limited specials section – some sort of spicy, beef stew. Barbara had chosen a Mexican steak but was informed by our young waiter a few minutes later that it was unavailable so settled for my dish instead. We requested that it not be too spicy when the waiter asked for our preference.

As it turned out it was full of fiery, eye-watering peppers. I blinked back the tears, alternating between sips of Effes lager and mouthfuls of stew and bread. Barbara seemed to be more stoic in her approach but admitted in her understated, Germanic manner that it was indeed “quite hot”. As for Paulina, she suffered a gluten intolerance couldn’t eat a dish supplemented by bread. She chose some sort of lamb dish that I’d been considering earlier. By this stage Barbara and I had finally concluded our respective duels with the fiery beef stew.

We requested that it not be too spicy when the waiter asked for our preference… As it turned out it was full of fiery, eye-watering peppers.

The obviously French-influenced architectural style of the building opposite the Asi Restaurant.

The obviously French-influenced architectural style of the building opposite the Asi Restaurant.

Poor, poor Paulina: what did she get? Exactly what we got, that’s what. I was about to interject when Barbara exchanged words with the waiter. She turned to us and shrugged saying something about the absence of lamb in the kitchen. She gestured for Paulina to begin and waved away the waiter. The poor girl looked down at her plate with an obvious lack of enthusiasm. “Ja, they are trying their best I think,” continued Barbara in defense of the restaurant (her choice).

Personally, I would have sent it back but that may have been culturally taboo. I really don’t know, except that I really felt for poor Paulina as she picked away at the stew for the next ten minutes with only a glass of wine to extinguish the flames. Her plate of bread sat forlornly to one side.

I really felt for poor Paulina as she picked away at the stew for the next ten minutes with only a glass of wine to extinguish the flames.

We fared better with the desert at a popular confectionery café just over the Ata Koprüşü (bridge). Barbara and Paulina had several blobs of ice-cream presented in proper fluted ice-cream bowls. I had a square of some sort of gelatinous, starchy pudding which I enjoyed with a blob of vanilla ice-cream. It was surprisingly filling. I asked Paulina if she felt safe travelling alone in the area as a woman. She laughed and made light of it but admitted that she was obliged to check in with her security person before going anywhere. She also confessed to feeling a certain tension in the city. Couldn’t I? I replied that I honestly couldn’t.

A little further into the conversation she hinted at the undue attention she got from men as a foreign female and I think this may have been the source of the tension she talked of. What I saw was a bustling city where everyone seemed to be doing something, whether he or she be behind a shop counter on the main street, running a stall or workshop in a bazaar or on a side-street, or simply selling simit (seeded bread rings) or fresh produce on a street corner. In other words it was much like any other Turkish town or city but with its own particular flavour.

What I saw was a bustling city where everyone seemed to be doing something, whether he or she be behind a shop counter on the main street, running a stall or workshop in a bazaar or on a side-street, or simply selling simit (seeded bread rings) or fresh produce on a street corner.

The only other NGO person I spoke to on my trip was an Irishman staying in one of the guesthouses. Barbara had mentioned him before I actually met him. He had an unusual name which sounded like Endar, though I’m not sure how it’s spelt. He had come down from Urfa for a few days. He was working with a Danish organisation, employed as some sort of community therapist or counselor. He looked over-worked.

In the first instance he had avoided eye-contact whenever we were in the vicinity of each-other but when we found ourselves together in the quiescence of Barbara’s computer/library room he was a bit more forthcoming. He bemoaned the fact that every NGO he had worked for seemed to suffer a repeated amnesia. “I spend my life putting out fires”, he gestured with flailing arms. “They never seem to learn.”

He bemoaned the fact that every NGO he had worked for seemed to suffer a repeated amnesia. “I spend my life putting out fires”, he gestured with flailing arms. “They never seem to learn.”

Part of the problem with his current employer he told me was the number of Syrians they had taken on to assist them. “These people are immersed in the problems of other families all day long and then they have to return to crowded houses where they have to deal with the issues of their own families without the luxury of any domestic privacy”. It sounded rather desperate. We talked about the general situation in the region. When I told him that I had managed to purchase some old Iraqi dinars from a Lebanese curio seller in town he shook his head.

A 250 Iraqi Dinar note I found in a souvenir shop in town.

A set of two 250 Iraqi Dinar notes and some other bits and pieces I found in a souvenir shop in town.

“What a mess, right? Thanks to old Tony Blair. Look at him now, not in the least bit remorseful.”

I asked him if he thought the Western efforts were bearing much fruit vis-a-viz the bombing sorties against the Islamic State.

“Are you joking?” he replied. “They (the UK government) don’t have a clue. They’re just doing what the Americans tell them.”

A few months earlier he’d witnessed IS driving up and down the hills across the border south of Urfa waving their black flags. He also claimed that the female accomplice to the recent shootings at the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris had actually been on the same domestic flight as him from Istanbul to Urfa a weeks ago. How had they not picked her up I wondered.

A few months earlier he’d witnessed IS driving up and down the hills across the border south of Urfa waving their black flags.

He intimated that the situation was spiraling out of control; that Western intelligence just couldn’t keep up any more. He didn’t offer up a solution. I doubt there is any magic bullet except to say that Western intervention in Iraq seems in hindsight to have been very shortsighted.

When, back in Izmit, I proudly showed Sofian my Iraqi dinars he nodded and smiled at Sadaam’s handsome suited image on the reverse side.

“We liked Saddam in Algeria. He was a strongman. The sort of man you need to keep a country like Iraq together. Not by killing people,” he hastened to add, “but by preventing religious violence.”

“We liked Saddam in Algeria. He was a strongman. The sort of man you need to keep a country like Iraq together. Not by killing people,” he hastened to add, “but by preventing religious violence.”

He had said the same about Gaddafi in neighbouring Libya. It seems to me as thought the good/bad, with us/against us, one or the other moral dichotomy offered up by the Bush-Blair alliance has obscured a far more complicated picture; one which the West or indeed anyone else has yet to rationalise in a manner conducive to peaceful coexistence.

Take Syria: On more than one occasion I heard people exclaim how surprised they had been at the outbreak of war and indeed the fact that it had dragged on for so long without an end in sight. Barbara herself shook her head sadly when contemplating the state of affairs.

“They were a model for us in a co-existence between different religions and ethnic groups. There seems to be a switch in the mind of human beings which can change just like that,” she continued. “We are all very shocked about what’s happened in Syria” (she pronounced Syria as Soo-ree-ah which is, I think, as it is in the Arabic tongue).

“They were a model for us in a co-existence between different religions and ethnic groups …” “We are all very shocked about what’s happened in Syria” (she pronounced Syria as Soo-ree-ah which is, I think, as it is in the Arabic tongue).

“And why did you choose Antakya?” I asked her. She expounded on the fact that it had a long history of religious interaction and something someone of religious importance had said to her about it being ‘ideally’ situated in this regard. I like the fact that the Taizé community worship chooses to incorporate ‘wisdom readings’ derived from other religions or sources of spiritual enlightenment.

Barbara encouraged me to find something from African folklore to share. I am not well versed in it but I did have a book of poems written by a man who had lived something of a hermit’s life in Zimbabwe. He had lived with and cared for lepers and his poems were an unusual mix of inspirations, from English literary traditions to biblical scripture to the African landscape and the people therein. I chose one of them to share the one evening. I think it went down well. In any event I left the book and another in her library for future travellers to read. In turn I took a book written by a contemporary novelist to read back in Izmit.

On the final day of my stay in Antakya, a Sunday, I wanted to attend a Mass at the next door Catholic church, the one that Barbara had originally established. They usually rang the bell at 0830 on weekdays but today they rang about half an hour later. Nevertheless, as I discovered on previous occasions, the imposing metal doors at the entrance remained closed. There was a buzzer to the one side but after ringing it and waiting till the intercom automatically switched off the connection to the inside I decided to try the Greek Orthodox Church on Hurriyet Caddesi instead.

I decided to try the Greek Orthodox Church on Hurriyet Caddesi instead … I was fortunate to find that the service was just getting underway when I arrived …

I was fortunate to find that the service was just getting underway when I arrived with several other members of the congregation. I explained to a man at the gate that I was a foreigner and after a quick appraisal he opened the gate to admit me,albeit without a smile.

I was concerned that I might stand out once in the church but no-one paid me undue attention. I had only attended one or two Greek Orthodox services previously, back in Harare. Zimbabwe still has a surprising number of Greeks. My father was born into the faith but had not been an active participant until it was required that he do so in order to facilitate his application for a Cypriot passport. Like his sons he adopted Catholicism, my mother’s faith. In fact, he became an enthusiastic proponent of the faith, even if he didn’t always put its teachings into practice.

My brothers and I had considered it a bit of a joke when he suddenly went through all the pomp and ceremony of adopting Greek Orthodoxy towards the end of his life. Shortly before he died back in 2006 he even married his long-time mistress and legal secretary in a home ceremony overseen by Father George of the Harare GO establishment (coincidentally our parish priest in the Catholic diocese had also been a Father George). Ultimately there were two funeral ceremonies for my father – one at our local Catholic parish, and another at the Orthodox cathedral. Along with another funeral and a wedding or two that was about the extent of my engagement with the GO church.

The congregation of the Greek Orthodox church emerge after the service to a wet and rainy morning.

The congregation of the Greek Orthodox church emerge after the service to a wet and rainy morning.

On this occasion, in Antakya, I found the surroundings somewhat familiar. There was some attractive iconography and lots of gold leaf embossing the visages of Jesus Christ, Mary, the Saints and other figures of religious significance. The alter was set back behind a screen comprised of the pictures I have just described and other embellishments. The priest, a middle-aged man, conspicuously clean-shaven, presided over the Orthodox Mass. He moved back and forth between a lectern in front of the screen and the alter set back behind it.

I found the surroundings somewhat familiar. There was some attractive iconography and lots of gold leaf embossing the visages of Jesus Christ, Mary, the Saints and other figures of religious significance.

I tried to soak up the sung liturgy which it seemed was recited in a mixture of Arabic and Turkish (Barbara confirmed this when I asked her late). This surprised me but, in retrospect, language has important connotations in Turkey. Whilst it wasn’t very long ago that Turks wrote in Arabic calligraphy (prior to Ataturk’s reforms) the language itself is rich in Arabic words. Greek on the other hand was the language of a traitorous minority who sort independence from Ottoman Turkey in Anatolia. Perhaps I’m going too far in my analysis. It’s just a guess.

All too soon Sunday evening came along and my final hours in Antakya were upon me. I finally got to enjoy the environs of the Mistik Cafe next door which I had been eyeing with curiosity ever since I had walked past the entrance earlier in the week. There was a spacious courtyard with several orange trees, one of whose branches hung over the wall, laden with succulent round fruit.

I finally got to enjoy the environs of the Mistik Cafe next door which I had been eyeing with curiosity ever since I had walked past the entrance earlier in the week.

Usually in the evenings there were an assortment of young adults and teens drinking coffee and smoking Nargile, as one could observe in just about any Turkish town or city. It was one of a number of cafes in the old town, testament to its growing appeal to the younger, more Bohemian members of society. This evening there were only one or two tables occupied, perhaps due to the rain which had been falling intermittently most of the day. We went upstairs to the dining area where I had an excellent tavuk (chicken) shish. The food was not only cheaper than the Asi Restaurant from the previous evening but better presented and, most importantly, you got what you asked for!

The food was not only cheaper than the Asi Restaurant from the previous evening but better presented and, most importantly, you got what you asked for!

We sat and chatted for some time after the meal. I gleaned some interesting morsels of information from Barbara about the situation as regards religion and the important role played by the relevant ministry/council in Ankara in mediating its practice and instruction in schools. I admired the secular nature of the Turkish state but wondered at the challenges presented in balancing theological laws and traditions with the secular constitution and judiciary. It wasn’t only with regard to the use of, and restrictions imposed in, Arabic language instruction in Hatay, but also the broader monitoring of Islamic Sharia as practised by more religious Muslims.

I admired the secular nature of the Turkish state but wondered at the challenges presented in balancing theological laws and traditions with the secular constitution and judiciary.

There was a slight misunderstanding as regards the terms of my stay which was a bit unfortunate but I suppose we should have discussed this at the beginning of my stay. In any event the daily rate was hardly unreasonable at approximately 10 pounds per day. I said goodnight to Barbara after settling up and returned to my room to complete the formality of packing up. Barbara is a quiet, serious lady; firm but not unkind. I think she is sensitive to other people’s opinion and feelings but does not always verbalise these thoughts. I would like to visit the guesthouse again in the future and hope that after all the years she has spent in building her community will continue to bear fruit.

I would like to visit the guesthouse again in the future and hope that after all the years she has spent in building her community will continue to bear fruit.

Back to Istanbul and a short hop to Izmit

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I’m back in Istanbul!

I’m back in Istanbul! That was me announcing my arrival (to myself of course) of a Sunday evening on the 18th of January, 2015. Although I hadn’t thought it at the time it was a rather auspicious date: my late mum was born that day back in 1952 and, coincidentally, my passport had been issued that day 4 years earlier (definitely not of great significance).

I had a good view of my previous place of employment as I flew out of London-Luton Airport – the manor estate called Luton Hoo (hotel, golf couse and spa) which borders on the one side of the airport – but not before I had to go through some unprecented formalities prior to check-out. You see, anyone traveling to Turkey today from mainland UK, especially men of a certain age, is deemed a potential Jihadist en route to Syria.

anyone traveling to Turkey today from mainland UK, especially men of a certain age, is deemed a potential Jihadist en route to Syria.

I assured them I wasn’t but the plain-clothes security officers still deemed it necessary to call through to spook HQ and check my passport details as well as grill me on the what, why and where-to of my intended trip. I left contact details with one of them and agreed to relay any information that might be of interest on the ground (should it be requested).

I arrived in Istanbul in the early evening not long after dusk. Having been to the city several times now I found it easy enough to negotiate the tram and metro to Gulhane (near Topkapi and the mosque complexes) where I checked into the Istanbul Harmony Hostel. This was a bit of a misnomer as I was to discover later that evening whilst talking to the Turkish owner of the establishment.

He employed quite a number of Syrians as staff but he didn’t have much good to say about them! I invited my friend Samer, a Syrian who worked in the vicinity, to come join me up top for a drink. If you had read my prior posts from Istanbul you might recall that I had bought an ornate box inlaid with tortoise-shell and mother-of-pearl from Samer a few months before.

Unfortunately he arrived right in the middle of my discourse with the proprietor who went so far as praising President Assad in bombastic terms. “Assad is Gud, only he knows the best way in this situation” he proclaimed, arms extended outwards. By “Gud” I understood him to mean ‘God’, although in retrospect he probably only meant ‘good’.

“Assad is Gud, only he knows the best way in this situation”

I am not sure what Samer made of all this but I recall him telling me that his brother died fighting with the government forces somewhere beyond Aleppo, his hometown. I get the impression that Syrians are used to being on the receiving end. That said they have much to be grateful for in Turkey.

Ironically enough, when I chatted to one of the Syrian staff manning the reception desk the following morning he laughed off his boss’s prejudice and told me not to listen to him and that he was, despite all that, “a good man”. I guess he was one of those gruff types who hides a softer heart.

Samer himself was well enough but now sleeping in his shop on an inflatable bed after being unable to afford the rent on his previous shared accommodation with an American lady. I think he has resigned himself to staying in Istanbul after his EU asylum application had been rejected (to the tune of 500 Euros which I find appalling). Before I departed the following day I gave him a set of earphones from my Walkman. His had been lost/stolen. That’s as much as I could offer in the circumstances.

his EU asylum application had been rejected … to the tune of 500 Euros 

On the Monday I took a quick tour of the area between the mosques. It was a bright, clear morning, around 14 or 15 degrees I suppose. Certainly not unpleasant. It wasn’t long before I was approached by an amiable young guy called Omar. He invited me to take a look at his carpet shop. I declined and instead went on a tour of the old subterranean waterworks beneath the steet-level just to the SW of the Aya Sofya mosque (formerly the Hagia Sofia cathedral, now deconsecrated and purely a monument).

It was really interesting and quite atmospheric. My pictures speak for themselves I think. When I emerged there was Omar, patiently waiting to nab me. I could hardly say no considering his shop was only a few yards away. To be honest looking around his shop was genuinely interesting.

In one corner someone had been working on a hand loom making a silk tapestry only a few feet across and perhaps 30 cm wide. Omar told me that it was the result of 5 months labour! Talk about a labour of love. Wow. I was then ushered to another room where there was an impressive array of woolen and silk rugs (kilim), and hybrid textiles of the two. Anything with silk was invariably more expensive. We were joined by another salesman and Omar left discreetly.

Someone had been working on a hand loom making a silk tapestry only a few feet across and perhaps 30 cm wide. Omar told me that it was the result of 5 months labour! 

I drank their apple tea, enjoyed some fruit cake, but resisted their efforts to get me to purchase anything, despite me mentioning my brother’s impending nuptials (what was I thinking!).

It was only later in the day, around 1345 hrs that I finally started moving in the direction of the coach station. I was in contact with Sofian via Messenger. He had been prepared to delegate a class of his to someone else but I told him not to. It wasn’t going to get to Izmit much before 5.

It wasn’t difficicult finding a coach and the journey was at least hastened by conversation with my neighbour, an electrical engineer called Mehmut, returning from a project in Saudi Arabia (building a Pepsi plant apparently). He was formally dressed with a the beginnings of an impressive beard. At first he was a bit stand-offish but after a few minutes of relentless questioning he yielded.

I discovered that stamp collecting was his real passion. He pulled out a new catalogue mailed to him from London and displaying all the previous year’s first day and commemorative covers. I used to be an avid collector so I could relate to his enthusiasm. There’s something magical about those little squares of paper and their depictions of countries and events far removed in place and time. It’s a form of escapism from the rigours of life I guess.

Mehmut was none to keen on getting married I discovered. His political views were conservative and looking out the window he expressed his disdain for modern Tukish architecture. “This is not the original Turkish style. We are trying to be too Western but we are not from the West. We are from the East. We are Ottomans,” he told me matter of factly.

“We are trying to be too Western but we are not from the West. We are from the East. We are Ottomans”

His views extended to the behaviour of women, their style of clothing, and young people in general. I tried to play the devil’s advocate but he wasn’t having it. I liked him nevertheless and on reflection there was a only a year between us after all.

I learnt that he had been in a relationship with a woman when he worked in Turkmenistan and it had evidently coloured his view of relationships and marriage. As for the inhabitants of that nation he blamed the previous Russian occupation and long-lasting influence for corrupting their traditional Muslim values. Apparently they enjoy drinking vodka, the women have no morals and the men all gamble!

As for the inhabitants … he blamed the previous Russian occupation … for corrupting their traditional Muslim values. Apparently they enjoy drinking vodka, the women have no morals and the men all gamble!

I am now in Izmit with my good friend Sofian. I have a fair bit of the city around the centre where I’m staying but of the surrounds only the nearby ski resort of Kartepe up in the mountains to the south of us.

Sofian shares an apartment with a diminutive Vietnamese-Canadian called Luan. They are only a stone’s throw from the school where they are teaching English. Over the last two weeks I have sat in and participated in a number of lessons where I think Sofian and his colleagues have been more than happy to have my augment their sometimes repetitive lessons.

As on previous occasions both in the UK and elsewhere the students seem genuinely delighted to have a native English speaker from the UK in their midst. I am at pains to dispel the illusion of complete authenticity and explain that I was raised in Africa in an English-speaking country. This usually raises a few eyebrows but I am helped by having a few other African teachers in their midst: Georg, a mixed-race young man from Botswana; and two part-time teachers, one from Zambia and another from Ghana.

I am at pains to dispel the illusion of complete authenticity and explain that I was raised in Africa in an English-speaking country. 

The Turkish youth have all the hopes and aspirations of their generations the world over. The classes are mostly composed of university students and recent graduates of both genders, most of whom want to learn English to further their chances of employment. It seems to me as though every second student is studying engineering or is a recent engineering graduate. I am not surprised to learn that Kogaeli University (Izmit is in the district of the same neame) is strong in the engineering disciplines.

Perhaps one of the most amusing anecdotes from my short time here comes from when I was chatting to an aircraft engineer during an outdoor activity session with one of Sofian’s classes. We had just been bowling at the nearby N-City Mall and were sitting having a coffee. The engineer, a swarthy, stockily-built Turk, a little older than the others, explained to me that his technical english was ‘very good’ but his spoken English was ‘very bad’. I assured him it wasn’t that bad (it wasn’t).

We were discussing the details of his job and the places he had worked and it transpired that he might have the opportunity of training or working in Austria at some point soon. I whipped out my phone and showed him a magnificent vista of the Swiss-Austrian Alps I had taken on my camera phone through the window of the jet on my outbound flight. He got very excited but not for the same reason.

I whipped out my phone and showed him a magnificent vista of the Swiss-Austrian Alps I had taken on my camera phone … He got very excited but not for the same reason.

“Do you see this?” he said pointing at the wing of the plane poking into from the edge of the photo. “It is a Delta wing,” explaining how the doofy at the end of the wing had a characteristic shape.

“But what do you think of the view?” I insisted but he wasn’t much interested. With relish he continued to expound on the names of the various flaps and something called a ‘vortex generetor’… That’s engineers for you!

I was originally only going to stay a week but now I am considering staying on a bit longer and teaching part-time myself. I have found another school who seem interested in hiring me on such a basis. I’m finding life here engaging so why not? My intended trip to Hatay and the Taizé Community there can perhaps wait a little longer…

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.

Putting It In Context

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Way back last June I came to Turkey, indeed continental Eurasia for the very first time, I had ostensibly signed up for a month long teaching assignment in provincial north-central Anatolia. I was fortunate enough to arrive early in the month, bang in the middle of the Gezi Park protests: More insightful than dangerous I hasten to add. Several days later I was on a coach to Merzifon, a medium sized town an hour or so away from the Black Sea and host to a large military and police presence.

Above the town of Amasya on the site of an old fortress with fellow teachers from Ahi Kolegi in Merzifon.

Above the town of Amasya on the site of an old fortress with fellow teachers from Ahi Kolegi in Merzifon. June, 2013.

We were able to use the town as a platform to explore some of the surrounding towns and villages which included Samsun, where Atatürk rose to prominence quelling the rebellious Anatolian Greeks. We also visited Amasya, renowned for a number of stone tombs carved into the mountains there, a relic of an ancient line of Greek monarchs (a little known dynasty I recall reading). Turkey has such a wealth of archaeological sites and attendant history that it is quite dizzying. I am liable to confuse some facts.

After the teaching assignment in Merzifon I was free to travel for a few weeks in a counter-clockwise direction (my choice) around the perimeter of the country, or a rough approximation thereof. From Merzifon I caught a coach to Samsun and hence to the city of Trabzon a little further East. At this point the Pontic mountains, which extend from Georgia to the east, meet the Black Sea (Karadeniz in Turkish). Whilst there I felt compelled to visit a few of the local landmarks including the house of a Greek businessman who was expelled during the ‘Population Exchange’ years and then given over to the state and gifted to Atatürk himself. Like all things associated with the man it was treated more like a grotto or shrine rather than a monument. A large Turkish flag enveloped much of the living room and photography was forbidden (although I managed a few on my phone).

Ataturk's state-repossessed mansion in Trabzon

Ataturk’s state-repossessed mansion in Trabzon. July 2013.

I am partly of Greek extract and my reflex emotion was one of indignation but those were tumultuous times and I cannot appreciate the full scope of the socio-political landscape at a time when Imperial Europe was at loggerheads and the Old Ottoman Empire was in decline. The other place I visited was Sümela monastery set high in those coastal mountains amongst hill slopes of pines and plantations of hazelnut. It was on that leg of the journey, in a local tour bus, that I fell into conversation with a Turkish girl who was visiting from Istanbul.

Nestling high in the foothills of the Pontic Range near the Black Sea city of Trabzon is this abandoned monastery, now a major tourism attraction.

Nestling high in the foothills of the Pontic Range near the Black Sea city of Trabzon is this abandoned monastery, now a major tourism attraction. July 2013.

She was supposed to have met with some friends but they had pulled out. Her name was Ayşe (you pronounce the ş ‘sh’). She explained that she had been born of Turkish parents in France and educated both there, the UK and in the US. She was obviously pretty brainy. We exchanged details and I have kept in contact with her subsequently.

My trip to Istanbul this time was in large part to see her. She worked in Istanbul for a French bank who finance projects in the regions. She told me that she had considered working in aid and development and had wanted to go to Afghanistan but her parents had dissuaded her, concerned for her well-being, somewhat understandably. All the same she has an impressive resume of places visited: Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Malaysia and no doubt other places she never mentioned.

Awaiting a return ferry from Kadakoy Iskelesi. From L to R: Dave, Tim, Ayse (resident friend), Brett, Me (yellow shirt)

Awaiting a return ferry from Kadakoy Iskelesi. From L to R: Dave, Tim, Ayse (resident friend), Brett, Me (yellow shirt)

We met for an informal meal on my first night at the hostel and the following day she played the role of tour guide to me and three other gents from the hostel. We met at the Iskelesi (ferry terminal) near Kabitaş and caught a ferry across to Kadikӧy on the Asian side of the Bosphorus. I think she was a little taken aback by the entourage but she was a good host and we enjoyed a tour of what was probably the best little stretch of street markets that I can recall in the city: everything from fishmongers to cheese sellers, fruit sellers and luxury pastry shops.

A few nights later the two of us met for dinner in an Iranian restaurant that was recommended by one of the two Iranian guys who worked behind the reception desk at the Stray Cat. It came as some surprise that she knew of the place as soon as I mentioned it, having gone there on a recommendation of an Iranian colleague of hers. I have to say it was good food – very tender chicken and garnished rice – and at a very reasonable price. (The restaurant is called Reyhun, near the Galatasaray Lisesi.) I was a bit ashamed to arrive sweaty and unkempt from an afternoon of walking the ancient Theodosian city walls, whilst she was clean and respectable in a light cotton dress, hair combed and nails polished. I did my best to refresh in the bathroom. We had eaten out once already on the evening I had arrived but that had been a bit rushed. This time we had a bit more time to chat.

Ayşe came across as she had before as being rather a private person but nonetheless quietly observant with an understated and self-effacing sense of humour. She seemed to work a ridiculous schedule and confessed that she suffered insomnia. Like so many of us living between different countries I detected a tinge of loneliness. She spoke of having enjoyed Istanbul but that she wanted to return to Europe and Belgium specifically. More than once she emphasized that she was French first and Turkish second. Somewhat modestly she talked of the sacrifice her parents had made for her and her brother: uneducated villagers who had worked the ‘shitty jobs’ in France so that they could have the opportunity to get a further education and the fruits thereof.

Coincidentally they were staying with her at that very moment in time now that they had retired and more able to travel and spend time back in their country of origin. They had just returned from their ancestral hometowns near Gaziantep/Karamanmaraş, I can’t remember which. Perhaps they would settle back in Turkey Ayşe speculated. This would be the last time I would see Ayşe on this particular trip. She talked of settling back in Europe – Belgium or France perhaps – but she didn’t know when she would be permitted to move again. “I love my job but I can’t carry on at this pace forever” she confided in me. I knew exactly what she was getting at. Back in the UK I had never settled properly and went through periodic episodes of what I can only describe as a depression. It’s more complicated than that but suffice to say that I don’t know where the heck I do belong!

Offline in Istanbul

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Based on content extracted from my travelblog (www.travelblog.org) between 14/08/14 – 24/08/14.

I know much has been written about this incredible city. As my travel guide says in the preface ‘if ever there was a happening city is has to be Istanbul.’ Ok, I’m sure that could be said of a few other great metropolitans but Istanbul is, I can confirm, a very, very busy place. I won’t say too much because I’m rather exhausted. You see I have spent most of the day trying to change a flight ticket and it has been very, very frustrating. The crux of the issue is that I have not been technologically agile enough to negotiate the change in dates and attendant fee differences. Ataturk airport has NO INTERNET TERMINALS people. It has plenty of wi-fi but without a gadget you are hamstrung, as I was today. If you are new to the internet/cybercafe scene in Turkey you are in for some more brain-taxing puzzle solving as you find yourself confronted by a keyboard with an extended alphabet: ç,ş,ğ & ü are on the right of the qwerty adjacent to the return key and the regular ‘i’ on the English keyboard has exchanged places with its Turkish cousin ‘ı’ without the dot (hence the fact that my text is a binary creature – not every ‘i’ has been dotted). Other characters like @ and $ are activated via an Alt Gr key so touch-typing proves difficult.

If ever there was a happening city is has to be Istanbul

Anyway, I have soldiered on at various ‘I’ cafes, at the Otogar (coach station) and near Aksaray, yet it has been as if I have been beating my head against a brick wall. The real culprit I have to confess is not the cryptic keyboard but Skyscanner.com, that great all-seeing oracle through whom the world’s many air terminals are connected. It failed me badly today. It promised me flight bookings only to find that, after being redirected to airline or broker websites, it was all a lie. No tickets! What a mad month August is. I must try and unwind now and hope that my travel agent in the Netherlands can find me an amended fare in the morning. I’m shattered….

So the moral of the story is… try get your bookings done in advance and if there is a chance you are going to make or change a booking on the run so to speak, make sure you have the right tech in hand. Mostly though I am the idiot. Travelling without a gadget these days is a bit like having a passport without any pages. You are going to find yourself in difficulties at some point, particularly if you are dependent on the technology for blogging, travel bookings, flight changes etc on the go. Lesson learnt.

Stepping back from practical considerations, flight oversights and worries... but still nursing a hangover.

Stepping back from practical considerations, flight oversights and worries… but still nursing a hangover.

Travelling without a gadget these days is a bit like having a passport without any pages.

As I mentioned it is a year down the line and here I am back in Europe’s largest city, or the Middle East’s depending on your definition of the geographic boundaries. What has changed? If anything it seems more frenetic this time around. I checked into a hostel last Thursday near Taksim and have used it as a base to explore the city. I came without any sort of sightseeing agenda, having done a fair bit of that stuff last year. Primarily I wanted to escape the confines of my life in the UK, however fleeting it may be. To this end I have really enjoyed meeting new faces and engaging with young vibrant young travellers from all over. I hadn’t really realised how lonely life can be in the West without a community. Whereas there I am a visitor amongst residents (extended family included), here I am amongst a community of visitors. We are reliant on each other in so many ways the community back in England is not. The flip side of the coin is that I have somehow regressed since last year to become a stereotypical, naïve turista.

Just this morning I got taken for a ride on a batch of laundry, paying well above the going rate because I was essentially bullied by an overbearing, rude man in a dry-cleaners cum launderette. The recommended place was only a 100 yards up the road as I discovered too late and am 25 TL poorer as a result. Yesterday I fell for an old trick: ‘I give you gift’ turned out to be ‘I give you a free chain and tag but charge you through the nose when I write your name on it.’ I know it is the same the world over but I feel I should be little wiser for my travels.

Yesterday I fell for an old trick: ‘I give you gift’ turned out to be ‘I give you a free chain and tag but charge you through the nose when I write your name on it.’

The Stray Cat HostelI guess what I am saying is that there are many sharks out there and if you visit Istanbul try to take some local advice from those who do not stand to profit from your naïvety. The guys and gals who work in the hostel are great for instance. They can be relied on for some solid advice. Perhaps due to my lack of awareness more than anything I have felt a little indifferent toward the inhabitants of Istanbul this time around. Anyway, a little more on the hostel and the characters therein. I have met quite a few, some stereotypes, others quite their own persons.

From Aussie, Tim, a madcap Aussie who was all go after a few drinks. He landed up losing Dave and I and going off to a Turkish house-party at 4 in the morning with 3 girls we had only met a few hours before.

Firstly, Hannah, a lovely Canadian girl who majored in philosophy and English and with whom conversation has been food for my soul. Also from that side of the Atlantic, Brett, a fairly conservative American soldier who loved clubbing and Turkish women (his words) but was loath to spend money on public services (frustrating companion). Oh yeah, he also told everyone who asked that he flew UAV’s for the US Army (definitely the sort of information to keep to one’s self). Next, Dave, a softly spoken and exceptionally intelligent American from Boulder who had worked for NASA and was now working for a company building a weather satellite. A lovely guy and a dead-ringer for a young Bob Dylan. Sharing my dorm for several nights was Jake, a rather intense Chinese-Canadian, a bit older at 40 years, with whom I never really broke the ice. From Aussie, Tim, a madcap Aussie who was all go after a few drinks. He landed up losing Dave and I and going off to a Turkish house-party at 4 in the morning with 3 girls we had only met a few hours before. Also sharing my dorm was an Aussie, Colin, an Asian-Australian who has been tracking all across Europe by train.

From L to R: Dave, Tim, Ayse (resident friend), Brett, Me (yellow shirt)

From L to R: Dave, Tim, Ayse (resident friend), Brett, Me (yellow shirt)

I even met a South African guy from Port Shepstone who now lives in Ankara with his mum. He was a student of architecture travelling with his Turkish girlfriend and some other students mates. He confirmed what I had heard from so many other young white South Africans: I don’t feel like there is a place for me in the country today. Much like my home country, Zimbabwe, the nationalist pendulum has swung back to the right, except that it was a black élite now and not a white, that was benefitting. He was making a new life for himself in Turkey which I applaud. Screw nationalism and politics of race – Honestly. Once upon a time I embraced affirmative action and Black Economic Empowerment and whatever other acronyms or synonyms exist for essentially the same thing – discriminatory practices given a veneer of legality – because I had this quaint notion that two wrongs really could make a right. It doesn’t work that way.

So I have just discovered, as an aside and rather embarrassingly at this juncture, that the keyboard can be adapted to an English language configuration by clicking on the language button near the date and time at bottom right. As I said before, I am as green as the next tourist. Take it easy folks: the Thessalonian Walls await me!