Morning Light, Istanbul ...

5am … dawn on a summer’s day, my first morning in Istanbul.

I remember leaning on the sill of a barred window and hearing the muzzein’s call to prayer go out across the city

5am because I had woken early, a mix of jetlag and panic.   What the hell was I doing, moving to Turkey.

But hearing that call go out ... perhaps I began to understand something of why I was there.  It was for moments like these, safe in the home of a friend, listening to a new world wake up around me, enchanted by the sound of an invitation to prayer in Arabic, blessed by the beauty of that sun-lit morning.

I believe that was the moment when the city slowly began to slip in through the gaps that a new world opens in me. You arrive as a child, without language, without knowledge, and you begin again ... until that new life becomes something like familiar too.

I have been thinking about this piece of writing, begun so long ago and far away, as I adjust to yet another new city not my own.

It's London this time.  And slowly, those almost terrifying spaces that open up in me each time I move, are beginning to fill with new knowledge and understanding. 

I understand the Underground.  I'll walk home from my station after 9pm, through the winter-city darkness and along almost deserted roads.  I can agree, although reluctantly thatfirst time, to meet friends for an impromptu dinner in Piccadilly Circus, without studying Google maps and making notes.

The people at this new Sainsburys are kind too.   I go out and buy all the food for dinners that I am remembering how to cook, as each move seems to involve a degree of amnesia in me when it comes to 'things I can cook'.  My repertoire is growing, although all of my cookbooks are back in Belgium.

There is no call to prayer here in London, although two of my 'homes' in England have involved early-morning alarm clocks that have made me smile over the inventiveness of alarm-creators.   Those crowing roosters and other, barely remembered, sounds meant to wake the hard working people who have shared their homes with me, have come through doors and walls, leaving me amazed that anyone can sleep on.  I wake easily, always, since I was small.

My way home is familiar now.  The homes I pass are semi-detached and I enjoy checking out their gardens, making up stories about who might live there.  I met a lovely neighbour the other day.  Bob alternated between gentleman and mocking Englishman.  He made me laugh.

My host, he's the kindest man.  Wise too.  I'll tell the story of him, with his permission, once I have some photographs.  I met him out on Flanders Fields and we stayed friends.  He takes in strays sometimes and so I'm one of those.  A wandering stray until I work out where I'm heading and anchor myself again.

Accidentally, I am living a life where I have traveled a lot and lived in more than a few countries - long term, short term.  Never planned. 

This website is back in an 'under construction' phase ... perhaps 'reconstruction', as I re-cut my cloth to fit this new life.

I miss joy but I'm getting there.  I guess there's the grieving first.  Then the learning how to live a new life.  And then there's working out the next part.  I am exploring some possibilities and so, I guess, it's all about watching this space and seeing how things unfold.

Not even I know.

My Ideas About Turkey

Last night, I watched with horror as the police force attacked the people of Istanbul.  I watched late into the night, not sure of who the best sources were ... but I watched, hoping the people would prevail against yet another government who has stopped consulting its people.

I imagine there is a lot of 'information' going out into the world today.  Each with its own spin, as newspapers and governments decide how this story will be spun ... how will the story of Turkey best serve their interests.

As for me, I know what I know based on the fact of having spent two years living there.  And yes, it was a while ago now but the basic nature of the people, the culture ... it won't have changed dramatically. 

This is what I know ...

The people of Turkey are some of the kindest and most hospitable in the world.  They have a humour I recognise from New Zealand.  They love to tease, to mock gently but kind.  I have never met kinder.

I spent a couple of weeks on crutches while there and it became usual to have strangers say, Geçmiş olsun, as they passed me in the street.  It translates as get well soon.  And the ankle injury 'incident' was a story in itself.  I was at a job interview and rolled my ankle as I was leaving.  Mortified, I made myself hobble over to a taxi.  Sitting there in the back, not sure of where I would take my rapidly swelling ankle, the taxi driver asked me to give him any friend's phone number, called Ozgur, picked her up, took us both to hospital, and refused any payment.  I was in his taxi for an hour.  This was commonplace, in terms of my experience of Turks there.

Another day saw me arrive at a little shop run by two brothers.  We 'knew' each other a little, as I was a regular customer.  That day I was coughing up my lungs and, of course, I left with a bag full of herbs they gifted me, explaining that I needed to brew and drink them.  The same happened when my friend Kagan, and his wife, took me home to her parents in Ankara for Seker Bayram, otherwise known as the Sugar Festival.  That too is a story but too long for here. 

I was coughing again, I struggled with spectacular laryngitis in those years immediately after mother died.   Another special drink was made, honey-based and full of all kinds of things, whipped up for me by the very kind head of the household. 

The kindness of the vast majority of the people I met there left me speechless sometimes.

I adored the parents of my lovely friend Beste.  She married Jason, another good friend and colleague of mine, and they took me to her parents home often enough for me to wish that I could always live over there on the Asian-side of Istanbul with that special family.

Her father insisted on meeting Gert before I flew off with him ... explaining that, as I had no family there, they would check this guy out.  They approved but her mum did tell me I was welcome back there if things didn't work out over in Belgium.  All this despite the fact that she wasn't that much older than me.

The food was incredible.  I miss it still.  No place else (that I've been) does food like Turkey.  I never had one favourite food, there were many ... too many to name.

And open, the people were so open.  Europe came as a huge shock and I suffered during my first lonely months here in Belgium.  After life in a living, breathing, hustling-bustling beautiful-crazy city like Istanbul, Belgium seemed very quiet and kind of cold.  There's was no welcome in the cafes or the hairdresser ... although I am finding those spaces.  It just takes much longer.  I was nuisance and my friendliness was just a wee bit too much. I had to reset my behaviour over those months after I moved. 

I returned to Istanbul in 2008, staying with treasured friends Lisen and Yakup, capturing the city with my camera as they took us all over the place ... as we four worked on a huge photography project that we must complete one day. I returned home with thousands of photographs and a hectic schedule.

The woman in the photograph below.  I knew her for a very short time. I ate the delicious gözleme she was selling at the organic market there in Istanbul.  And we talked, via Yakup, and she said yes to the photographs.  She and her friends ... they just opened up for me.

Whatever comes out of Istanbul in the days and weeks ahead, however it is spun, just know that the Turks have big hearts.  Enormous hearts.  As a society in general, I think I can state that they value family and love children ... so much.  Sure there the usual problems associated with a 'loving' family but the love is there anyway. When the prime minister appealed to parents to take their children home from the protest, the mothers arrived and formed a human chain around the park they are protesting in ... a chain between their children and the police.

Last night as the police brutally attacked those protestors, the people of Istanbul began marching towards the heart of the protest, from suburbs all over the city.  Peaceful everyday people, marching into a policeforce that seems out of control, or under the control of a prime minister out of control.  I almost cried as they marched in the small hours of the morning.

Yes, if you are Turkish and in your 20s, your mother's friend might read your coffee grounds, using it as an excuse to give you a hard time about the boyfriend they don't approve of ... but we all laughed when they did that.  One night, I remember falling asleep to the sound of a small group of retired officers wives, talking and laughing as they played cards in the room next door to me.  I was a guest, snuggled in amongst yet another Turkish family and it felt so very good to be there.

The mother-in-law of a friend wanted to keep me and immerse me in Turkish until I was fluent.  Her son had taken to calling me a 'winter woman' ... the woman you have for winter, when the weather is cold.  The teasing, oh the teasing.  They thought they were hilarious, making me blush like that.

The taxi-drivers, the people in the shops, the cafe staff, the hairdressers.  I left with a million stories I hold close to my heart.  I treasure the friendship of the students I still know from those days, so proud of those like Ege, who now studies in Paris.

Don't just believe one story of the political situation in Turkey.  Visit sources like Erkan Saka if you want to know more.  You can read about him over here.  Find your own sources, but don't judge without searching.  The people of Turkey deserve no less.




I know people who know people ...

And as a result, this Istanbul journey can only be described as truly remarkable. 

Last night was a mix of marvellous coincidence and good friends.  I introduced friends and hosts, Lisen and Yakup,  to Hayden, the New Zealander of Zen Turkey.com, who has lived here forever.  Over dinner and drinks, information was exchanged that will benefit both and I was happy. 

Maybe it’s a kiwi thing but we love making connections, meeting new people, introducing people who can surely help each other while knowing that they will like each other too. Dinner over, we were sitting outside in old-town Sultanamet when Hayden’s phone rang and another voice from my Istanbul past arrived amongst us.

 

I had twice travelled to Eceabat, on the Gallipoli Peninsula and taken the WWI tour with TJ.  Like the lovely guys on Flanders Fields, there is nothing that TJ doesn’t know about the Commonwealth soldiers left behind in the war.

He runs tours there and has some nice places to stay. You can find TJ’s website here.

 

TJ was calling Hayden to say that he had just flown in from Australia and how about meeting for drinks.  Gert and I got to tag along too.  It was an excellent way to end a lovely day. 

Gozleme and Çay

Istanbul is being so good to us. 

Today Lisen and I interviewed a Roma fashion designer while we tried to choose, from a stunning array of dancing costumes, a gift for Miss 4. 

We began the day eating delicious gozleme at the organic market, had a tasty kofte lunch at Ayvansaray and, took incredible photographs all day because the people and the sights we saw were simply incredible. 

A stunning stunning day, here in the city of Istanbul. 

Huge thanks to Lisen and Yakup, the best host and hostess a person could wish for.

First Morning back in Istanbul

I’m writing this, 8am on my first morning back in Istanbul.  The air is a little chill after the blue-sky warmth of yesterday but I love it.  It’s fresh, people are walking by and across the road the pharmacist … the eczane, is opening his store. 

Istanbul is breaking open.  There are new leaves on the trees and yesterday, tulips in full-bloom lined the coastal highway we took back into the city. 

Did I mention how good it is to be back here?

Last night, Lisen and Yakup created a Turkish meze kind of meal for us.  A cold meal of many plates, to be accompanied by Raki … it was delicious, as is most Turkish food.

The sweet flavour-filled tomatoes were cut into wedges, drizzled with good oil, basil and salt.  There was a lovely potato salad with parsley and dill.  A cold red lentil and bulgar patty that was so very good.  We had a little Passchendaele cheese, brought in from the flatlands, served together with Turkish salami and a stringy Turkish cheese that is a huge favourite of mine.  Olives marinated in some lovely concoction of herbs and oil, hummus, a yoghurt and herb dip, bread – with another saucer of herb-enhanced oil for dipping.

This morning, as I write this, Lisen is cooking my most favourite of Turkish foods – borek - layers of thin pastry cooked with cheese and herbs.  My cup runneth over and we haven’t been here 24 hours yet.

And having written such loving descriptions of the food, you need to know that the food isn’t my big Istanbul passion.  I love the city even more and today I’m heading into the city that fills another part of my soul ...

We’ll be wandering in Taksim, with a visit to Robinson Crusoe – a favourite bookshop, the flower passage, Galata Tower for that 360 degree view over the city with the Bosphorus and the Marmara Sea below. Galata Bridge and the fishermen leaning over the edge, the probably through into Sultanahmet with Haghia Sophia, the Blue Mosque.

Today is a day for full-immesion in this stunningly beautiful crazy-busy city I love.

If I were in Istanbul today ...

I looked up and realised that as long as this Belgian sky is blue, with jet vapour trails heading in every direction, I’ll never forget living in Istanbul. The vapour trails here take me back to the container ships, ferries, fishing boats, rowboats and every other kind of boat, jostling for space, as they criss-cross the blue of Istanbul's Bosporus.

It made me think ... what I would do if today was a day back in Istanbul? 

I would begin at Taksim Square . I am sure. I would wander along Istiklal Caddesi, remembering to listen for the ancient trams that roll up and down the centre of that walking street. I would detour into Cicek Pasaji (the Flower Passage), a shortcut through to the Fish Bazaar, enjoying the architecture inside, smiling but leaving behind the waiters who beckon and invite me to eat. At this point, it is always too soon to stop for food.

Once in the Fish Bazaar, I would turn left and head for the scarf shop, the one where I used to sit chatting with a Turkish guy, listening to his stories of how life was for him in that massive ancient post-modern city.

Later I would pop back out onto Istiklal and walk on until I reached Robinson Crusoe - my beloved Istanbul bookshop. I would linger awhile ... walking out, after an hour perhaps, with just one book I couldn’t resist. Then I would pass by the Pasabahce store across the street, not wanting to carry their beautiful Turkish glassware as I wandered.

At the end of Istiklal Caddesi, there is always the decision … should I follow the winding road down the hill or catch the world's oldest underground cable car at Tunel. Almost always I would opt for the walk, passing the Mevlevi Monastery where the dervishes whirl and mesmorize me whenever I watch them. And on down the hill, past the small music shops... past the blue window, and then unable to stop myself, I’d take a right turn and head for Galata Tower ... just one more time.

Paying my entry fee, I would step into the lift then travel on up the stairs to the 360 degree balcony. There ...there is the best view out over this city that I came to love. This girl from small town New Zealand looking out over the ancient beautiful city ... who could have dreamed it?

With the city behind me, to the left I would see the massive bridge that links the continents of Europe and Asia. Straight ahead - the ancient Topkapi Palace where, for 400 years, the Ottoman sultans ruled their empire - built 1465. There would be Haghia Sophia (Aya Sofya), one of the world’s greatest architectural achievements, built about 1,400 years ago, and I would wish I was already wandering inside her walls.

I would look out over the Golden Horn, the Bosphorus and the Marmara Sea ... all mysterious names that meant nothing until I lived there and then, walking on round the tower balcony, I could look down at the Italian architecture of the area or further, or over to Levent and its post-modern skyscrapers ... so happy to be back in this city that I love.

Back on the street, the tower behind me, I would walk on down the hill until I reached Galata Bridge. I can never resist a looking into the fishermens buckets, filled with water and fish, happy to be in amongst the noise of the city ... the simit salesmen, the bait and water salesmen shouting their sales cries all round me.

I would reach Eminonu and descend down into the Pazaar, (market) wander a while in the place where the smell of fish cooking is the air. I would pass by the doner seller, watch people arranging themselves on the old ferry bound for Kadikoy and walk on, through the tunnel, to the Egyptian Bazaar. The Spice Bazaar too.

I would wander awhile, exploring the cheese and olive selections outside, always unable to resist visiting the stalls where the leeches are sold, watching the birdseed sellers, the people ... always the people.

But still there would be more. On up the hill into Sultanahmet, the place where some more of my favourite places are found ...Haghia Sophia is there, Yerebatan Sarayi (the Underground Cistern)- place of incredible beauty, and the Blue Mosque.

In need of some cay, I would walk back along the road to Cemberlitas and my favourite cafe. The waiter and I would catch up on each others news. He might ask me about the friend I brought last time, and I would ask about how busy they were and if the tourist season had been kind.

A potato gozleme and two cay before moving on ... wanting to spend a little time in the halls of the Grand Bazaar (Kapali Carsi) finding new scarves ... always the scarves but enjoying the banter with salesmen in this ancient labyrinth of 4,000 shops.

Once, I met a man from Afghanistan there. He had just finished his first year of training to be a doctor when the Taliban forced him and his family to flee. They moved through many countries until they made their home Istanbul. They were fluent in at least 7 languages.

He was a nice guy, with a store like an Aladdin’s cave, full things that I can’t begin to describe ... a surprise tucked down a small corridor that I have trouble finding each time I return. And perhaps that would be enough, although I would surely stop to say hi to Hayden - the Yeni Zelanda who arrived and stayed ... an Istanbul travel agent now.

Backpackers and travelers would come and go while we talked, booking their trips and so, I would head up to the rooftop bar ... drinking a cold Efes beer as I watched the ships queuing for entry out on the Marmara Sea. Then hearing the call to prayer go out of over the city, I would realise it was time to go home.

Going home was always much simpler ... the metro from Sultanahment to Karakoy, a short walk up to the underground cable car at Tunel, where I could sit as the cable pulled the passengers uphill on one of the oldest cable cars in the world.

I would stroll back along Istiklal Caddesi, amongst all the Turks who are just arriving as this yabanci heads home, going down into the underground Metro in Taksim Square, two stops to Mecidiyekoy ... and then up into the craziness of shoeshine men and flower-sellers, traffic and smog.

I would cut across the main road, under the highway overpass, then wend my way down into the place where I lived ... that little village-like suburb in the middle of Istanbul.

That is, if I had been in Istanbul today ...

The image below, garlic hanging on an Istanbul wall.