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.

Climbing back into a kind of beauty ...

Leaving facebook has taken me out of the news-loop. I know some interesting people over there.  There were the real life friends and the faraway friends, the new friends too but there were also the journalists and professors and peace activists.

I didn't want to sleep in life.  I had done that in New Zealand, where discussions about the situation in the Middle East and the history of oil and colonisation didn't really happen in my worlds.  Even later, at university, I opted to wander between literature and anthropology. Always seeking a kind of beauty as opposed to cold hard facts and sciences.

I'm going wandering next week.  Stepping out of this everyday city life and into another kind of life.  One that will involve living out in the country, eating freshly-laid eggs, and picking vegetables from the garden.

Did I tell you, I've been dabbling with becoming vegetarian.  I'm liking it so far, although still only dabbling.

And out there, in the peace of the countryside, I'm planning on writing like I haven't written since I reached 27,000 words in a novel back when I lived on that airforce base in New Zealand.

I'm thinking of early mornings, with coffee. out on the verandah.  The kind of early mornings where I get to see sunrises outside in a good way again.  And tasty coffee ... I'm packing the Nespresso machine because kidnapping a barista would just be rude, and taking their high quality coffee machine would be theft. 

And everything I have on Genova is going in too.

Meanwhile I've been playing in Photoshop, with one of my favourite Istanbul photographs.  Beginning again ...

A Saturday in March ...

Yesterday was  a day of reorganising the space that we have here in the 3-storey tall narrow house.  Gert and I ended up working right through the day, simply because I had decided to create a space of no distractions ... a place to finish this book I've begun.

I have two novel manuscripts started too, and another of interviews with New Zealand climbers.  That one went through two very positive publishing meetings before being rejected.  Back then, the public wasn't so interested in the crazy beautiful lives of climbers and mountaineers.  Other publishers were suggested, those who might take the risk of low sales, but then my mum began dying, I had finally started university, and somehow the manuscript has become another thing that I carry.

There are poems too. A new one that came on the train that took me across Belgium a few days ago.  A  poem that I like, and I am my toughest critic.

But anyway, photography took over as my dedicated form of expression.  You can slip everything into an image.  Sometimes it's like a poem, other times it's a novel and tells a story but mostly there is the pleasure is not being sure of what you have captured until you are done.

So I have a writing space now.  A  huge IKEA table that serves as a desk, and enough shells and stones to break my current desk collection in two while maintaining a beautiful pile of beach treasure on both desks.  Facebook, phones and non- related books are all banned from the new space.

However, in moving my writing stuff, in taking my favourite images up there, in moving all of my books on Genova... I created what seemed like a huge space down here in the 'everyday' office place.  But even that was fun, moving that bookcase there, those images here, that scarf-hanger too. 

We had Paola and Simon over for dinner last night and they were curious to see these changes, the ones I had earlier mentioned being in the midst of over on facebook.  Well ... here in the everyday office space, I realised, when looking through their eyes, that these huge changes weren't really so obvious despite the fact that they had felt like a major upheaval.   My new writing space was approved of though.

So that's how we spent our Saturday.  Dinner was delightful ... aperitivo by Paola and Simon, an Italian rib and sausage casserole by Gert, followed by one of his delicious cherry Clafoutis.  Excellent conversations, good people ... a really excellent Saturday.

I'll leave you with one of those photographs that surprised me.  I saw this tap dripping in Istanbul, in one of the many ancient places there.  I photographed it, ignoring the hustle and bustle of people around me, in that city of 14 million people.  Today, I have it here next to me, in a 30x45cm format ... I have to rehang it later but just having it here, so close, made me really see it again.  I really love it but couldn't have imagined this capture at the time of taking because it was so beautiful and how do you capture beauty ...




Orhan Pamuk, Nobel Lecture, 2006

Some extracts: A writer is someone who spends years patiently trying to discover the second being inside him, and the world that makes him who he is: when I speak of writing, what comes first to my mind is not a novel, a poem, or literary tradition, it is a person who shuts himself up in a room, sits down at a table, and alone, turns inward; amid its shadows, he builds a new world with words.

He can write poems, plays, or novels, as I do. All these differences come after the crucial task of sitting down at the table and patiently turning inwards. To write is to turn this inward gaze into words, to study the world into which that person passes when he retires into himself, and to do so with patience, obstinacy, and joy.

As I sit at my table, for days, months, years, slowly adding new words to the empty page, I feel as if I am creating a new world, as if I am bringing into being that other person inside me, in the same way someone might build a bridge or a dome, stone by stone.

The stones we writers use are words. As we hold them in our hands, sensing the ways in which each of them is connected to the others, looking at them sometimes from afar, sometimes almost caressing them with our fingers and the tips of our pens, weighing them, moving them around, year in and year out, patiently and hopefully, we create new worlds.

The writer's secret is not inspiration – for it is never clear where it comes from – it is his stubbornness, his patience. That lovely Turkish saying – to dig a well with a needle – seems to me to have been said with writers in mind.

...I believe literature to be the most valuable hoard that humanity has gathered in its quest to understand itself. Societies, tribes, and peoples grow more intelligent, richer, and more advanced as they pay attention to the troubled words of their authors, and, as we all know, the burning of books and the denigration of writers are both signals that dark and improvident times are upon us.

But literature is never just a national concern. The writer who shuts himself up in a room and first goes on a journey inside himself will, over the years, discover literature's eternal rule: he must have the artistry to tell his own stories as if they are other people's stories, and to tell other people's stories as if they were his own, for this is what literature is. But we must first travel through other peoples' stories and books.

An Abundance ...

Most days we have spent 10 hours out taking photographs, returning to the apartment to organise and process them but I have never managed to keep up ... having taken 586 photographs on Saturday alone.  My photo folders are overflowing and after a hectic 48 hours of good people, a beautiful hotel, a niece from New Zealand, 2 kiwis who lives here, a little too much red wine on a warm Istanbul night and amazing photographic opportunities, here I am, processing and trying to put things back in order, having not even had time to view the images taken at 6.30am Saturday out on the Bosphorous.

Istanbul is one of those cities where I can’t stop using my camera, it’s a passion, a compulsion and a pleasure but my body is protesting. 
I fly tomorrow.


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, 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. 

Past Lives and Memories

I struggled with how to title this post but I knew it had something to do with the nostalgia inspired by scent and a yearning for familiar things…

I woke early here in this Istanbul world and decided to get up. I’ve been alternatively working on photographs, with an occasional detour out into a new book I’m devouring but don’t have much time to read - The Attack by Yasmina Khadra, is worth checking out if you’re looking for an interesting fiction about suicide bombers.

It’s too early for anyone else and there is the promise of hot fresh borek if I’m patient, so I quietly found a banana to eat while my Turkish tea stewed in the top pot.

The banana was ripe and breaking it open delivered me back, just for a moment, to my childhood of bananas bruised by their trip to the river’s edge in our picnic box.

Savouring that scent here in Istanbul, so very far from the world I grew up in made me stop to think about the way that scent has been taking me ‘home’ lately ... the way that smell has become something akin to an album of memories I carry inside of me.

You see, there is a particular soap I use occasionally, it’s one that transports me directly back to a childhood of happy visits to Nana and Grandad’s Invercargill house. And a colleague of mine delights me by smoking the same cigarette brand that Nana once smoked, a long time ago. Gidon is less than excited by this fact that he reminds me of Nana ... as he is younger than me.

Shampoos and conditioners pick me up and transport me but they come from so many periods of this strange life of mine ... there were those childhood toiletries, then there is that one I used in America, another was discovered in Istanbul and they too offer a surprisingly powerful journey into memory.

It’s like that these days but the house is waking now - remembering took longer than I expected and my tea-glass needs refilled. Soon there will be piping hot borek in my tummy and here I am, creating a whole new set of memories in this different someplace else.


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.