Our guest Scott Gross has written this article:
Do you have a match?
-I use a lighter.
-Until they go bad.
That was the secret code James Bond used in 'From Russia With Love'
when meeting his espionage contacts Istanbul. In the movie Bond
arrives in Turkey with a slim briefcase and the clothes on his back.
He wears the same suit the entire movie! I arrived with my cat and a
laptop and have been buying everything else I need along the way.
It's difficult to describe the shopping scene here in Istanbul, the
markets and arcades and little stalls, especially to an average
American who has never visited this part of the world. It simply
cannot be comprehended. They have antique stores here with junk from
500 years ago. Boulevards and boulevards of high fashion stores from
all over the world catering to wealthy tourists, with side alleys
branching off in all directions containing more stores for locals and
more adventurous bargain hunters. The shoe stores are particularly
amazing, Turkey producing many affordable shoes and leather goods that
are sold all over Europe. Luckily (?) for me I've already spent most
of my shopping money on orthopedic care in Austria, so I can safely
pass by most of it without feeling like I'm missing something. Also,
Turks tend to have small feet so there is very little in my size (12
--> 45). I ran into an American black guy in one store and he
confirmed my experience, admitting he had already given up looking for
shoes. The Turks also love their movies and their are fantastic shops
selling huge hand-painted movie posters from classic American films,
but in Turkish. I looked at an old Dirty Harry poster, but it cost 10
million lira. I don't care WHAT that translates into dollars -- I
ain't got it.
When I started this letter I was in a charming cafe on Istikal St.
smoking narghila and drinking sweet apple tea. It started to rain,
and I have no umbrella (or appropriate jacket) so I stayed and smoked
and drank more tea, then coffee, then more tea, then ate a hamburger
and fries. After almost three hours the bill came to $22, the rain
stopped and I hurried home. Misha is safely cuddled on the down
comforter, or peeping the street scene from one of the apartments many
windows. There are an enormous number of stray cats in Istanbul. You
find them everywhere, in every corner of every shop, mingling and
mixing with everyone and being fed. There are also dogs roaming the
streets, sometimes large dogs. Many are tagged on the ear and
registered with the city. I don't know who I feel worse for. Luckily
there is only room for one on the flight home.
Misha actually had to visit the Vet yesterday. Her ear periodically
bothers her and it needed a cleaning. I hope Dr. Schwartz, that you
have access to the same high tech equiptment this office had. They
used a hand-held wireless scope to look deep inside her little head,
showing the view on a computer screen. The doctor examined her all
over and didn't find any fungus or infection, but thinks she might be
having an allergic reaction and suggested I play it conservative with
her food for the rest of the trip. No more chopped liver and caviar,
Misha -- it's Whiskas from here on out. One of the great things about
this rental is that it comes with what we would call in Egypt "a
fixer" -- a man who knows how to get things done. I gave Hasan the
address of the vet, he sent a car over for us and in 15 minutes we
were there. Like true Pashas.
I don't recommend anyone trying to drive in this city. It might be
the only thing more difficult than walking. Luckily the metro system
is also pretty high-tech and easy to navigate. My new friend Mercan
(to whom I was introduced by the Austrian woman I'm renting from in
December) claims it is still inadequate for the millions of residents
and millions more tourists in the city. I was impressed, though, by
the signage and organization of the whole thing.
There's nothing like knowing a local. Without Mercan I probably
wouldn't yet have ventured beyond a one mile radius of the apartment.
There is SO MUCH denisty, so many little alleys and avenues to explore
and get lost in, and so many people that after a few hours I'm totally
exhausted and ready for a nap. Mercan took me out at night, after the
crowds had died down. We took a left, a right, another left, down an
alley, through a tunnel, and ended up on a bridge spanning the
waterway known as the Golden Horn. Like Sultan Mehmet II himself, we
crossed the river and ended up right at the Hagia Sofia, one of the
great wonders of the ancient world. When it was built by the
Byzantine Emperor Justinian in 537 the church was the largest enclosed
structure ever and the seat of the Eastern Roman Empire. Incredibly,
it has since been eclipsed in magnificence by some of the other great
mosques of the Ottoman era, which we also saw from the outside at
night. I'm posting pictures of everything to Google+ but no camera
can capture the majesty of these buildings or the feeling you get
standing in the footsteps of history.
The history of Constantinople and the Ottomans is so profound and
detailed that many great scholars have devoted their lives to its
research. When Roman Emperor Constantine consecrated the city in 330
as the site of Nova Roma, the new Rome, the town was already a
thousand years old. From 330 to about 1400 it's safe to say that
Constantinople was the largest, richest, and most multicultural city
in the world. That's a helluva run. The Ottoman period saw the rise
of a great empire that incorporated elements and people of Byzantium,
the Balkan states, the Kingdom of Hungary, the Arabian peninsula, the
ancient Persian empire, and the cultures of central and east Asia.
Today the city is an unbelievable mix of cultures and faces and
languages, many of them different from what you experience in the
American melting pots.
War, relocation, dispossession, slavery and genocide are no strangers
to this part of the world and many Turks are genetically
Central-European or from the Caucasian region of Russia/Ukraine/Crimea
moreso than Middle-Eastern. Today the streets are full of desperately
poor refugees from Syria, Iraq and Kurdistan fleeing fighting and
horrendous barbarity at the hands of Isis. These are not professional
beggars like you might see in Calcutta (or New York) but mothers with
babies and small girls going door-to-door charismatically trying to
sell a pack of Kleenex for change. As a Zionist I feel particularly
sympathetic to the Kurds and find myself handing over all my coinage
to these people at the end of the day.
Misha is now purring like a lawnmower on the corner of the couch. I
call her my little stinkpotter after the word sailors use for noisy,
stinky motorboats. Today she is particularly beautiful, adorned in a
horse-bridle necklace I bought in Budapest and then had adjusted at a
jewelry shop here for a couple dollars. Contrary to the stereotype,
most of the people here are not out to cheat you. I find the average
Turkish man to be very polite and helpful and welcoming. They are
bombarded by spoiled Arab tourists with no respect for money, and I
can imagine how that affects the average shopkeeper. As soon as I
tell people I'm from Los Angeles though they warm-up immediately.
Everybody loves LA.
As for trying to blend in, it's not working. No matter how shabby my
appearance after 3 months of travel, and how many days I wear the same
pair of clothes, people still speak to me in English. Perhaps, as
Mercan suggested, if I really want to look Turkish I should start
buying high fashion jeans and shoes on Istikal Street. Having a bit
of experience in the Muslim world helps a lot. I've learned to
pronounce the standard Islamic greeting in such a way that people
respect me. If someone persists I give them a forceful 'Nyet!'.
Nobody messes with Russians.
My back is feeling better, largely due to rest and the home exercises
my excellent Viennese doctor gave me. Each session takes about 15
minutes and I try to time them according to the Muslim daily clock --
whenever call to prayer cries out over the city from the muezzin, I
drop and do my stuff if I'm at home. I've also found that doing the
exercises at the hammam while laying on the hot stone really helps.
On Monday I visited a lovely marble bath house that was built in 1454.
That's not even old-school for this city, that's middle-school. There
are many hammams in the city both for tourists and locals. The whole
experience is way more than one person could possibly absorb, even in
three weeks. I'm looking forward to going at a slow pace for the
remainder of my time here, working on Cathair Apocalypse, and
hopefully seeing a few more of the historical sites during the
Stay tuned for more pics and another report before I leave!