Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Tea Sugar A Dream

I seem to be learning Turkish. I've learned that bay is man and bayan is woman and Fatih, which you see everywhere, is Conqueror. But after ten days or so I can't manage to say please or thank you. Hello or good-bye. The basic pleasantries are lost on me. But thank you, which it seems to me is the most important of all, next to please and perhaps excuse me, seems beyond my reach. I've tried and tried, but I cannot say it.

I have always been good in language. In high school where I did not particularly excell we were administered a language aptitude test in Kurdish (coincidentally). We were given an hour to study grammar and vocabulary and then tested on our retention. I was off the charts. Not so with English or math, but in languages I always scored very high. But now in Turkey I was challenged.

For years I had traveled to places where I spoke the language quite well. Latin America, France, Italy. When I went from Beijing to Berlin by rail, I took some time to learn the basics of Chinese, Russian, and German, and I still can remember what I learned. But now I was in Asia Minor and at the mercy of a language that had no antecedents for me. I was grateful that Ataturk changed the Turkish alphabet from Arabic to Roman, but beyond that I was clueless.

On the other hand there were obstacles presented by the Turks. For example I did not order the "lethal" soup on the menu. And I was befuddled by the wine list in which the English side of the menu was identical to the Turkish. And an interesting moment occured as I tried to explain to our charming desk clerk (named Fatih) what "cold turkey" meant.

Perhaps the low moment came as the man in the phone store tried to explain to me in very very slow Turkish how to activate my new phone. Or in the cab as the driver sped away from Istanbul, listening as I panicked in the backseat, even as he was taking me to the destination I had asked for.

Finally someone helped me out. To say thank you, he explained, just say tea sugar a dream. Tea sugar a dream. I said it over and over. And somehow this phrase seems to encapsulate everything we lived in those two short weeks. Something about it rang true. Now I need to learn you are welcome.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Arabian Nights

Larry had to get back to New York, but I stayed on for five days. It was rather lonely, especially at night. But I found myself entranced by the darkness and the light. All the monuments beautifully lit. I know it's a cliche, but the gulls soaring all around. The strange music playing. Gypsies on the streets begging. And the call to prayer at midnight. At dawn.

Friday, March 26, 2010


Indescribable beauty. Wonderful people. I will be adding more photographs and watercolors, not to mention traveler's tales and text, soon. Just getting back. Ready to leave.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Turkish Delights

Jelly made from red and yellow roses, dried apricots and figs, a brazier of hot coals brought to your table. the fairy chimneys, people living in caves, the confluence of the Bosphorus, the Golden Horn, and the Sea of Marmara, reading Melville on Istanbul, halava, men sipping tea, the women late at night carting their children home, Iznik tiles, men in barber shops, late at night, their faces slathered in shaving cream. The barber looks up, razor poised, as we pass.

The Hotel Poem, wooden houses that look ready to fall down, the silence of the harem. A mysterious sadness that lingers there. The man with the pet ducks. Parrots nesting in the trees in Topkapi park.

Unimaginable things. An island where the dogs once died. An island where princes lived. In exile. The point where women were hurled into the sea, in sacks. East meets West, old meets new. Small blue fish from the Bosphorus, calamari from the Aegean, and wine from Anatolia. A dog names Aries. Forbidden chambers. The Aegean dogs who wander the streets. They are fed and never killed.

The other night Larry woke up at 4 in the morning and thought he saw a ghost ship. A spectral vision on the sea. Maybe an ancient caique. bearing the sultan and his concubine home. the sultan never seen, carpets everywhere, the hamams and my body slathered in soap and salt. An underground city, six stories deep. silk, places to lie back and lounge. Hooka pipes, sacred dogs, Turkish coffee, the Galata bridge where the Golden Horn and Bosphorus meet the sea.

In the fish district a woman in purda races ahead of a man who trails her. She keeps shouting at him. Is it an altercation or is she rushing to get sardines before the market closes. At the sea she takes out her digital camera and snaps his picture before the sun goes down.

A chicken tells my fortune. It tells me to quit dwelling on the past.
A bowl of red, green, yellow, orange Turkish delights that appears in our room, winding streets and blind alleys, the call to prayer at five a.m., the Blue Mosque at midnight, gulls flying in the shadows, the view of the sea from our room.

The promintory overlooking the Black Sea. Everywhere. The sea.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Sailing through Byzantium...

That is no country for old man, Yeats says at the beginning of his famous poem whose title I have modified for my purposes. In case you are wondering where the Cohen brothers found the title to their very dark film. Or I might add this is also not a country for old women. Not that I am old, nor do I feel old, but Turkey is not for the faint hearted. And I've been sailing through it pretty much nonstop since we arrived. From the European side to the Asian, to the islands that dot the Sea of Marmara, from one part of town to another. Basically whenever I can, I'm in a boat.

The other day we took a cruise up the Bosphorus, then had lunch, perched above the Black Sea and I recalled Yeats whose great poem about about life and its waning pleasures, about death and sex and the thirst for the exotic I am echoing here. Because I am in Byztanium, which became Constantinople under Constantine, and Istanbul when Ataturk formed what we now know as modern Turkey.

I think perhaps this place has always been on my mind. My family comes from a place not far from here and I was raised on my grandmother;s stories of Cossacks and tzars and the Tatars to whom she claimed we were also related. I have always been drawn to Russia and at times longed for its vast vodka=drenched expanses and great storytellers.

We sailed on a boat that was not for tourists, but rather a local vessel that made stops along the way. It was a pristine, sunny day, cold, but glorious and we found a seat facing the Asian side of Turkey where we basked in the sun. As we sailed under the Bosphorus Bridge I recalled the class in Russian history that I took my sophomore year at college.

It was taught by a wonderful man named Mr. Marcapolos. His lecture on the death of Rasputin was reputed to be so detailed and entertaining that former students returned year after year to hear it again, even at eight o;clock in the morning. Which they did. But I was a bleary=eyed college student who dragged herself at 7:50 in the morning up the steep hill to the classroom.

Even in winter I trudged. I wanted to understand where my people came from. Now as we sailed, I could easily recall Mr. Marcapolus' lecturers on Peter the Great, on the fall of the tzars, but it was his endless lecturers on the Russo=Turkish wars that came to mind. At the time when he told us about them, the Bosphorus, for whose control many of these wars were fought, because whoever controls the Bosphorus controls everything that goes from the Black Sea into the Sea of Maramar, down the Dardanelles and into the Mediterranean. And now as we sailed, some do I dare say it, forty years later, history was starting to make sense.

After about an hour and half our boat docked and we were given three hours for lunch. There were two options. One was to eat in the town and another was to climb very high to the ruins of a castle with the hopes of a view of the Black Sea. It seemed I could not come this far and not gaze out across the waters and imagine Odessa and Kiev and Nezin, the area of my ancestors. And so I trudged up this hill as I had once trudged up the hill to hear Mr. Marcapolos teach me what he knew.

A few times I stopped and told Larry I couldn't keep going. I broke my ankle very badly a couple years ago and walking like that at a sharp angle is very very hard. But then I thought well maybe it is around the next bend. So we stopped at this restaurant near the castle and had a mediocre fried fish lunch. Then we climbed on up more steep stone steps. Just when I thought I couldn't go on I passed two American girls who told me I had only about a hundred yards left to go. Ahead of us was a crumbling old castle wall and as I walked towards it, there it was. Turqoise blue and crystal clear, the Black Sea.

Maybe my ancestors once came this way.

Maybe I should tell Mr. Marcapolus, wherever he is, that he was a good teacher and I learned a lot from him.

For a long time I sat perched on that wall. Then Larry said we'd better hurry or we'd miss the ferry home and there was only one boat back to Istanbul a day. It was hard to leave. A part of me just wanted to stay. Part of me would have been happy to miss the boat. Or, back to Yeats, to set upon a golden bough and sing...of what is past, or passing, or to come.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Insomnia in Istanbul

I cannot sleep. I am not sure if it is jet lag or am I just feeling alive again. Not that I was not alive, but the juices are flowing. We walk all day through spice markets. across bridges, down endless winding streets, or along the Sea of Marmara, and no matter how long we are out or what we do, I am not tired. Larry says I am a travel animal. I have abbreviated it to a tranimal. I like this new word and think. I will coin it. Tranimal. I prowl. I stalk new streets, wander through Topkapi in the rain, peering into the rooms where harem girls and eunuchs once slept. I imagine the heads of the sultan;s enemies, nailed to the walls. The women who languished here. Across the way on the Galata Bridge a man squats before a scale, offering to weigh people for half a Turkish lira. A boy rests his tray of sweets on the railing of the bridge. One strong wind will blow it all away. Fisherman line the bridge, their bait of dead sardines swirling in buckets of murky water. A shoe shine man rips me off and it becomes a story. A cab drops us on a darkened street where we are lost and it becomes a story. At night my head is filled with all of this. I hear the call to prayer at midnight. Outside white gulls soar. Across the way white linens flap in the wind. A cheshire cat moon smiles above. And I cannot sleep.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Today lunch in Europe...

Dinner in Asia. And tomorrow lunch on the Black Sea!

A Turkish Tale

The other evening my husband, Larry, and I were wandering around the Kumkapi district of Istanbul. It is a lively neighborhood of fish restaurants, fasil traditional musicians, and social clubs. We stopped in a pub for a beer and, as usual, I was the only woman. In Goreme in Central Cappadoccia I noticed this as well. I never saw a Turkish woman in one cafe or in a social club. The women were home with the children, the house. Never out in the world.

After a drink we wandered into a very good seafood restaurant where we opted for calamari from the Aegean, small blue fish from the Bosphorus, and a nice white wine from the Ankara region. As we settled into our wine, I noticed that, once again, I was the only woman. The wine had just been poured when I saw a handsome man come in. He was probably in his mid sixties with a shock of white hair, a white mustache, and glimmering teeth. He was tanned and clearly enjoyed making the scene. As he shook hands with all the men around, he made me think about someone I hadn't given much thought to in over thirty years.

Many years ago as a graduate student at Columbia I lived at International House and also living there was an extremely handsome Turkish graduate student named, for purposes of this post, Mahmoud. Mahmoud had thick black hair, a black mustache, a beautiful carved face, and a lovely, sensitive manner. I would be lying if I said I didn't like him because I did. And I think he liked me. But we were world.s apart. I recall that old Jewish proverb. A fish can love a bird but where would they make a nest.

At International House Mahmoud had met a woman named. again for my purposes here, Leila. Leila was the daughter of a former diplomat. She had been raised in Washington and her family was extremely well connected. Leila was also a student of politics, as Mahmoud was, and they used to sit together in the living room at I House, arguing history, politics, women s rights, and so on. I envied them the passion of their discussions and after a while it became clear to me that they were in love. Or at least that they had formed a deep connection. Everyone assumed that they would marry and be happy and be the gorgeous, politically connected, smart couple that anyone at a cocktail party would envy. It was also at times suggested that Mahmoud was not doing a bad thing for his own career in Turkish politics by marrying a diplomat;s daughter.

Personally I found Leila, though beautiful and cultured, rather scary. Anyway they got engaged and moved into an apartment. I left graduate school to write and, for a number of years, I didn't see Mahmoud. Then one day walking down Broadway we ran into one another. It was five or six years later and he was clearly glad to see me. We chatted. He and Leila had stayed in New York to finish their graduate work and they now had a little daughter. He showed me her picture, then asked if I'd like to have dinner with him a few nights later.

I said I would and we met. I didn't really ask myself how Mahmoud had left the home that evening or if he'd told Leila that he was meeting me. I doubted at any rate that she would remember me. She was a rather haughty woman, artistocratic in her bearing, and I always felt somewhat beneath her. At any rate Mahmoud and I met for dinner. We had a lovely time and he walked me home. I invited him in for a drink and we talked for several more hours, and, as the night wore on, I wondered when or even if he would go home.

At last he opened up to me. His marriage was a disaster. He couldn't stand Leila. She didn't understand him and he was completely miserable. If it weren't for their daughter, he would have left years ago. I was stunned, but not entirely surprised. Again I would be lying if I didn't say that a part of me was very very drawn to this man. When he finished his confession, he just stared straight ahead. Then said he had to go. He got up and went to the door. He told me he'd always liked me. That he wished he'd met a woman like me. He kissed me on the cheek, squeezed my hand, and walked down the stairs. And I never saw him again.

I have from time to time wondered about that strange night and how you can't really imagine what another person's life is unless they tell you. And that night as I sat with my husband of over twenty years, to whom I am happily married and with whom I love to travel, I watched the white haired man. There was something sad about him. Something sad it seemed to me about many of the men in the bustling restaurant where I remained the only woman.

The man with the white hair reminded me of Mahmoud. He made me think that this must be how Mahmoud looks all these years later. I wondered where Mahmoud was and if he too wasn't sitting somewhere in a bar or club with his cronies, swapping stories about the way things were while his wife, whoever she may be now, waits for him at home.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Cold Turkey

I'm not sure where this expression comes from, but I have to say that before departing for this trip Larry and I were somewhat obsessed about the weather. We got conflicting reports. One told us that Turkey in March would be freezing. We could expect blustery winds off the Black Sea and blizzards in Cappadoccia which is where we are now as I write this.

I couldn't get the idea of "cold Turkey" out of my mind. (It was interesting trying to explain this expression to the desk clerk at our hotel). I made Larry who works in a newsroom print out daily weather updates until I realized that it was all speculative and nobody really knew. On a flight to Florida a flight attendant who told me he lived in Beirut and Amman and Bahraine and I can't remember where else said Turkey was a miserable place and no one should ever go there before the month of May or after September.

I grew depressed. I didn't want to go half way around the world to wind up in a New York blizzard. Packing grew difficult. How many bulky sweaters could I take? And what it suddenly it got warm. Of course I know how to pack. Layers. Layers. But I couldn't help myself. It took both my husband and daughter to go through my waredrobe. "I don't think you need that heavy black turtleneck, Mom," my daughter said.

So here is the truth. It is lovely in Cappadoccia. We arrived to sunshine and spring. It is rainy today, but we will be visiting an underground city from the 8th century so what do I care. And what do i care anyway? We are in a land of fairy chimneys and elf-like dwellings. Yesterday a woman who lives in a cave served us tea (then tried to sell us slippers and scarves).

We walked through the hills. The cherry blossoms are in bloom. People are tilling the soil. The only "cold" is that I have a cold, but I don't really mind. I drink the chai that keeps flowing and munch on the dried fruits and Turkish delights that are in bowls in our room. Or hang out in the hamam. It is spring in Cappadoccia - a word that in Hittite means "land of the pretty horses." Horses are everywhere.
Perhaps hobbits too. And the fire in our room is cozy and warm.