A perfect day

Looking into the Golden Horn from the Bosphoru...
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Elif’s stepfather Cos won’t be able to get any vacation at all this summer, which means he’s going to try to call in sick occasionally. Two days ago he did just that, and we were summoned to go out and play with him and Dilek. I really wanted to stay home and write, but I wasn’t left with much choice…Cos’s idea of a good time is to drive like 3 hours to a sleepy village and sit and drink raki, but last time we did that, we came home and our cat’s tail was mysteriously broken, and all hell broke loose. So I took out my 1997 Rough Guide,mapped out a bunch of areas of Istanbul which Eli’s family had never been to, and proceeded to have a perfect day.

We walked around and saw Greek Orthodox churches, of which there are 89 (!) in Istanbul alone – and that’s just Greek Orthodox. Some had been converted to mosques and then back, some stayed the way they were. They were all locked, and we begged to have them opened. One completely insane lady showed us around one, asking for money for herself and some more for the church. The church has seven parishioners, and she speaks broken Turkish, just like me – she gets to live there with her son (an 8-year-old, to whom at one point she said Fuck OFF! and whacked him upside the head) – all she has to do is clean up. The frescos were still intact, as well as the bodies of three saints, one of which she claims comes from 400 BC – I couldn’t figure that out.

We also saw the Patrikane, the whole administrative center of the city, like the Greek Vatican. Around Easter, the head bigwig makes his rounds – they actually call the top religious dude the Despot – is that great or what? We went to plenty of mosques, too, many of which were once churches from Justinian times – you can even make out the occasional fresco in the corner (they were all whitewashed, after the saints’ eyes poked out), or espy a mosaic under the obligatory carpet. We arrived at one during prayer time, and a guy looking like Francis Ford Coppola told us to wait, but why wait? – Cos went in and prayed, while Dilek and us stood outside giggling about Cos’s sins that will keep him out of Paradise with the 70 virgins.

We tried to go to see synagogues, but they were all (very) closed – hidden and shuttered – if you want to see them, you have to get a letter of permission from the local mayorship, although it’s been 17 years since the Palastinians last bombed Istanbul’s largest temple. We asked directions to the synagogue, and the market owners asked, is that where the Jews go? We asked directions to the church, and a 15-year-old girl had no idea what the word meant, had never heard of a church before; I said the Turkish word for Christian and she never heard of that either.

The areas we walked through were amazing. One was full of Kurdish-speaking Syrian Christians – wow! Much of it looked really decrepit, but in a welcoming way, like Napoli – old women talking to each other from adjacent 4th-floor open windows. We saw an 18-year-old boy riding an invisible horse, lots of children driving invisible cars, people playing soccer with flat balls, and people on the street selling everything – rags, old tape recorders from 20-30 years ago, stuff like that. My favorite sight of the day was a gypsy beggar who was nursing her baby – except that her baby was at least 6 years old, sucking her tit while she held her hands out – that kid’s got a good agent. Cops hid behind the old Byzantium walls – but they weren’t shaking down drug dealers; they were playing backgammon on the job.

We wanted to go to the Koc Museum – we’d been to the Sabanci museum, and Koc is the 2nd-richest family in Turkey, so we knew they’d have great stuff. Sabanci had antiquities, the best of which was an incredible collection of calligraphy from the early Ottoman period, but the Koc museum was more fun, a hands-on please-touch museum of industry. It was great to see the Turkish Anadolu car (discontinued 1984; made out of, among other things, cardboard – cows eat them as they rust by the side of the road, in a scene straight out of Black Cat White Cat) sitting next to a 1956 Chevy – it was like Bambi meets Godzilla – the he American car was three times the height of the Turkish one! Oh – I forgot to mention how we got to the museum. We were on the wrong side of the Golden Horn, so we had our usual choice (it’s rush hour – should we take I-5 or Sepulveda Boulevard?) of combinations of options – boats, taxis, dolmuses, minibuses, buses, walking – but this one was new: a gypsy at the water showed us his kiddie foot-paddleboat and said he’d take us across for 2 million – bubkas – so we hopped in. I helped him paddle, which turned out to be a fair amount of work due to the wind – better than the Thighmaster – but I actually paddled across the Golden Horn!

The next place we went to reminds me of Elif’s aunt Ilknur’s friend, who, when asked where she lives, has a standard response: “You take the Taksim bus.” She says that because Taksim is a rich area – but the bus line travels through some very, very poor ones. In an area best described as “You take the Taksim bus to get there,” we went into a store selling Turkish instruments. I’ve been enthralled with Turkish music for some time now – from the subtle, quiet Ney (a bamboo instrument that looks like a flute but is played and held at a diagonal, halfway between a flute and a clarinet – and I can’t get a sound out of the thing, not even a squeak) and a Zurna (which looks like an oboe, sounds like a bagpipe, and I can get very loud sounds out of it). I wanted to see if there were any scores or methods on my instruments. The store turned out to be straight out of the 1970’s – no air conditioning, of course, which brought the temperature inside to a little over 200 – people with polyester shirts and thick sideburns and combover haircuts. They sell instruments and even give lessons, acting as a talent-scout agency for the TV stations and Gazino nightclubs: hey, kid, we can make you a star. The guy was thrilled to death that I was an American who had interest; they gave us all tea, of course, and he played us song after song on all kinds of instruments made out of cherrywood, apricot wood, any kind of wood. He really wanted to teach me, and offered me lessons for $6 an hour. Then he said he’d teach me for free if I’d just come down – he didn’t want money. He was really great, and so enthusiastic – reminded me of the scene from Elia Kazan’s “America America” where the rich guy living the good life on Buyukada was admonishing his kids, what do you want to go west to become a waiter for? He was telling me how I would impress my countrymen and play the Ney as the sun went down on the beach with raki and wine and women – and I was really, really tempted, but taking the Taksim bus to anywhere is just too far from my apartment, and I think I’ll have to learn from tapes. I’ll bring a couple of instruments to Kadri and see if he can dig up some villagers to show me some stuff.

After that, we went to dinner at Kumkapi, which is a totally Cos area – fish restaurants (E and I ate mezes instead) on the water, lots of wine and music. On arrival I realized just how obnoxious an eastern country can seem to the casual western traveler: “Buyrun, yes please, welcome” – one guy even tried German on us without even realizing he was saying “Thank you very much”! I love to answer them in Turkish and watch them do a double-take. In the winter, I actually pass for Turkish, but in the summer I don’t, because I simply refuse to wear pants and a long-sleeve shirt when it’s 90 degrees outside. One restaurant barker kept following us down the road, so Cos let him have it: “You take the pleasure out of coming!” The guy answered, “We’re inviting you to dinner as our guests.” Dilek countered, “Oh, you mean dinner’s free then?” And the guy, rattled, stammered, “We’re not doing this for the money…”, at which point Elif laughed out loud in his face and the poor guy slunk away.

Dinner was a typical 4-star Turkish affair – amazing food, and waiters the opposite of what you’re used to. Instead of French waiters standing somberly like funeral parlor directors, they buzz all around you, trying to give you the best service, which means that they’ll take your plate 6 times during a meal. If you put your fork down for one second, they take your silverware and plate and give you fresh ones – and they’re constantly filling up your glass and inevitably sticking their armpits in your face. Turkey has only had good wine for about three years, ever since the government gave up its monopoly – and they serve the white practically crystalline, and the red room temperature, which in the summer is 90. Our table got one of each, and I ordered ice for the bottle of red and let the white sit at room temperature. The gypsy band was what you’d expect, but their kanun player was tremendous, a virtuoso really, and I went up to examine his hands furiously arpeggiating and frantically flicking the key switches, and I even went behind the ud player, as I know what it’s like to play the harmony instrument and feel left out of the audience’s attention (having played trombone in a high-school band and keyboards in a rock band). Smelling money, they came over to our table and played for us, and Elif got up and bellydanced, which led them to dance along while playing, all of which attracted a lot of attention – a great evening. I’m still not used to the dinner meal being the focal point of the evening’s entertainment rather than its prelude, and I got up to take a walk at one point, passing by a gorgeous nargile Kahvehane – never smoked a tobacco bong in an all-male coffeehouse, but it was fun to peer inside.

The cab driver who took us home was a Galatasary fan. I made fun of Fehnerbace and Besiktas, and then, once I gained his confidence, asked him, how does that song go?: “Galata, Galata, Kopeklere Salata; Kopek salata yemez – Aslan Fehner gol yemez!” (“Galata, Galata, Salad for the dogs; Dogs don’t eat salad; you won’t score any goals against Fener!”) He cracked up, and he asked me who was my team, really, and I said “Galatasaray…” but as I stepped out of the cab, I added, “but if a cab driver says Fenerbahce, I tell him Fener!” He answered, “Those cab drivers must have psychological problems to root for Fener!”

Very rarely in life have I been granted something close to a perfect day. This fit the bill nicely.

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