Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Sailing to Byzantium...

When I was a girl and my brother and I were having a fight, my mother used to tell us, "Say Constantinople." It seemed that the time it took to say this word would be sufficient to let tempers wane. It seemed to work because when my brother and I said it, we weren't angry anymore.

I'm not sure when it was that I began dreaming of Constantinople. As with Yeats when he dreams of Byzantium, Constantinople had that distant, exotic ring. I think it was the first faraway place that I ever imagined. And in fact what I imagined isn't that far from the truth. I envisioned markets that sold spices that burned your tongue or seemed sweet as a garden. Carpets, men wearing strange things on their heads. Veiled women. Perhaps I'd read the Arabian Nights too many times. And probably I had. Anyway just as Yeats imagined sailing to Byzantium, I dreamed of Constantinople.

One day in December I felt as if I'd had enough of New York. My dog had just died. I'd been to one cocktail party too many and overall I was tired of my mundane life. I needed an adventure. An exotic retreat. A promise of something that was distant from here. I woke up in the morning and said to Larry, "I want to go way."

"Where?" he replied.

"Istanbul," I said. I am not really sure why I picked Istanbul except for me it is a city that marks the passage between West and East, that crossroads where Europe meets Byzantium. And even as I say it it excites me. In fact I cannot wait to go. It was only later, much later, after flights and hotels were booked and I had gathered guidebooks and spoken to friends and done basically all I could do to prepare for a trip that I remember my mother's admonition to my brother and me. Say Constantinople.

Once, when I was older, I asked her why this word and she said because it had so many syllables, but the truth is my mother made me long for a place that I'd never been and didn't even know existed. Or perhaps more elegantly to quote Yeats. "Set upon a golden bough to sing to lords and ladies of Byzantium of what is past, or passing, or to come."


  1. Hi Mary

    We were in Istanbul in 1999. My memories are of great food: olives, peppers, eggplant, lamb, shwarma with fries, great coffee, kaymak and honey for breakfast. Archiechtural monuments: Haija Sofia, Blue Mosque, Topkapi. People generally friendly to Am. tourists. Is this still true? I learned a few phrases in Turkish. Now i can only remember how to say "thank you; and "two beers, please".
    - julian

  2. Great tale. I too felt the pull of Constantinople/Istanbul as a boy. Ah, Wanderlust. I'm going to Kalustyan's tonight and, if they have any, will pick up some of those urfa peppers I told you about, the ones you will be eating daily when you are in Istanbul. (I'll even pick up some for myself and pretend I am there.)