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Saturday, December 6, 2014

Scott's article of Dec 6, 2014 while staying at Istanbul Apartments.

Scott's article of Dec 6 while staying at Istanbul Apartments:

Americans just love to flaunt their cultural literacy, especially when
it comes to food.  One thing you almost always realize when you travel
is that what passes for ethnic cuisine in the States frequently bears
no resemblance to what people actually eat in their native countries.
How many times have you heard that about Chinese food?  Well imagine
my surprise when I discovered that one of the hallowed staples of the
American bbq, the shish kebob, is actually being mispronounced by
aproned grillmasters everywhere.  The word is actually 'kebop' with a
P.  What's more, although there are kebop stands on nearly every
corner in Istanbul, it's far from the best thing to eat here.  After
your first few days in-country, you probably won't eat another one
until you get back to the US and resume misspelling it.

The food in Istanbul is not gourmet but it's hot, brown, and there's
plenty of it.  Especially at the many cafeteria-style restaurants
dotting the Istikal strip here in Beyoglu there are many delicious
choices outside of kebops or 'gyro' type sandwiches.  Soups, stews,
meat loaf, brisket, twice-baked potatos with cheese, chicken
cacciatore, collard greens and brussel sprouts -- all served with
generous amounts of bread.  In fact, like Hungary, Turkey is a place
they give you (at least) an entire loaf of bread with every meal.  And
it's fresh, crusty on the outside and soft & warm within.  Every so
often you'll meet a local who sanctimoniously tells you they 'don't
eat bread' or they're 'off gluten' -- those people are fools.  Spend
ten years in California living off tortillas and you'll thank God for
the Turkish way.  In fact there's a big industrial bakery right on my
street, so even the local bodega has huge loaves in the back next to
the deli case.  Open up a tub of yogurt and slice up some tomatos and
cucumbers and you're in business.

The standout though is the fish.  This city is bordered on two sides
by water and fishermen are hanging their lines off every available
bridge and shoreline.  My apartment manager Hasan and his son took me
to the Asian side one night and we ate right at the fish market --
don't ask me what it was but it was so fresh and delicious all you
needed was a little lemon wedge and some salad, and a fork to slide
the meat right off the bones in one motion.  Fish stews, fish
sandwiches, fried fish on a stick, it never ends.  The lox situation
is utterly ridiculous.  As we all know, smoked salmon will set you
back about $24/lb in the US.  Here, although they use the metric
system, I'm estimating that it's about $8/lb. for thick fresh pink
slabs of salmon marbled through with fat.  It's like Jewish funeral
and no one had to die.  On Sunday's I'm in my apartment live streaming
the Browns games with a lox, tomato, and cucumber yogurt sandwich on
crusty warm bread the size of a nuclear submarine.

Needless to say, Misha has gained a bit of weight.  There's no way we
are going to be able to maintain this level of luxury when we get
home.  Her sense of entitlement is so out of control, she regularly
turns her nose up at chicken drumsticks or braised beef, at least
until I cut it into small pieces for her.  Street cats are eating
their own poop and she's behaving like a pampered pasha.  Justin
Beiber called her spoiled.

I'm actually writing this on a Saturday night, only two days from my
departure for Vienna and the last three weeks of my trip.  I've
determined that three weeks is just the right amount of time to spend
in any one place on a vacation.  It's long enough to relax and see the
sights at a sane pace, and also have days where I just live like a
regular person without rushing to see anything.  Hasan signed me up
for a gym membership at a very nice hotel with a pool, weight room,
and little hammam so I've been swimming and doing my back exercises.
I'm still in some pain, but it hasn't stopped me from a ton of walking
and exploring the city thoroughly.  Forget about three weeks, you
couldn't see it all in three years.  It took over two thousand years
to build this city and there's no way for one person to take it all in
as a tourist.  I've been to many historic sights, many of the modern
areas, and even out to the suburbs.  If I ever make it back to Turkey
in the warm weather I'll take my neighbor Audra's advice and do some
day trips out to some historic sights outside the city.  In the
meantime, I don't feel like I've missed out on anything.

As I write this I'm (agonizingly) slowly uploading some photos from
Chora Church, Pammakaristos Church, and Hagia Sofia to Google+.  In a
trip full of mindblowing experiences, these were probably the most
spectacular.  There's really no way with my crappy camera phone to
photodocument how magnificent these sites are, or even to describe
them here in a few words.  For once I actually wished I had an iPhone
-- the people who did seemed to be taking better color pics than me.
There are thousands of professionally-taken photos online, so anyone
interested can see them in detail.  I also didn't want to be glued to
my phone the whole time.  At Hagia Sofia I bought the audio tour and
listened to a fascnating narrative on headphones connected to a little
wand that 'read' each stop from a plastic map I walked around with.
At Pammakaristos church I just threw my hands up and bought the
official guidebook with hundreds of gorgeous photographs.  The mosaics
and the history behind them are so mesmerizing that you can't keep
your mouth closed in these places.  Your jaw drops and stays dropped
and you walk around mouth-breathing with a crimp in your neck from
looking up the whole time.  I really should have brushed up on my New
Testament before coming here -- many of the most gorgeous frescoes and
mosaics depict events in the life of Jesus and Mary and I had to do
some quick catch-up to figure out what all was going on.  Thank God
for Wikipedia on the phone.  Speaking of God, if Jesus ever comes back
please ask him to bring a space heater. That's one thing these sites
could use, especially in December.

It's also fascinating how the concept of 'restoration' has been part
of these sites for at least a thousand years.  There have been so many
wars, so many invasions, earthquakes, riots, and movements like the
iconoclastic period where artworks were *intentionally* destroyed,
that throughout history every one of them has been under renovation
and restoration several times.  And to Turkey's credit, they continue
to be today.  Having a portion on the building closed for restoration
is nothing new -- it's always been that way.  Don't believe a word you
read online at places like TripAdvisor -- what is available to see is
STILL mindblowing and the human brain can only absorb so many hours of
gold and mosaic and fresco and marble and porphyry anyway before you
need a coffee break.  The infrastructure that the Turks have set up
makes everything easy.  It's so clean and high-tech and convenient.
The 'lines' that everyone complains about online are totally
exaggerated, and the security check is both understandable and
effortless.  The carpet museum deserves particular mention in this
regard -- it is the most high-tech system of sliding glass doors and
climate-controlled portals I've ever seen.  Like going on the bridge
of the Starship Enterprise -- and I can understand why.  Although it
bears mentioning that people here are not savages like in the United
States.  Nobody's coming into these places with a Sharpie looking to
ruin anything.  Everyone recognizes the historic and cultural
significance, even if it's not *their* particular religion, and
respects where they are.  It's really much better than in Jerusalem or

Istanbul is a photographer's dream, a cat-lover's dream, and a helluva
fun time if you have the legs for it.  The walking is brutal.
Oftentimes you'll see a magnificent building towering in the distance
and head towards it, only to get submerged in an endless labyrynth of
winding alleyways and bazaars down below and never find the place
again.  Even when that happens though, you still discover such
interesting little diversions that the adventure is fun.  And there's
always something to eat and a place to sit and have coffee or tea.
The city is SAFE, there are police EVERYWHERE, and the fact is that
people here are not sinister (despite some pretty sinister eyebrow and
beard hair).  This city has been welcoming tourists since 300AD and
they know where their bread is buttered.  People fearing pickpockets
or whatever else have a MUCH MUCH MUCH greater chance of harming
themselves on an uneven piece of cobblestone, a high step or
low-hanging stone ledge than from any malevolence by the locals.  And
nobody's out to cheat you.  People here want to do business --
everybody's trying to get a good price of course and make a living,
but there's none of the sneering price-gouging or trickery so common
in the Arab countries when you're a green tourist.  It's true, if you
hear from a shopkeeper the words 'Where are you from?' you run in the
other direction, but only because that question never really leads to
any genuine cultural exchange -- not because you're in danger.
They're just trying to sell you a rug.  And like I wrote in an earlier
letter, say you're from Los Angeles because everybody loves LA.

I'm headed back to Vienna Monday for three intense weeks of rehab on
my back.  It's going to be Cleveland cold there, so I'll probably be
cooped up in my new rented flat for most of the time.  If I can peep
some of the fabled Christmas markets I'll be sure to post more pics.
Hopefully I can get some standby tickets to another concert.  I keep
telling myself that although my trip is almost done, three weeks is
*still* longer than most Americans get for vacation in a year, so I am
very very grateful.

Thanks to everyone who has written.  If you're on this email list that
means I'm thinking about you and wishing you the best.  Misha sends
her love, through a haze of hamburger meat, smoked salmon and Whiskas,


Thursday, December 4, 2014

Scott's article in Istanbul

Our guest Scott Gross has written this article:

Do you have a match?
-I use a lighter.
Even better.
-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!