Sara is one of our family now, and she continues to grow as the island’s leaves thin out around us. The tangerines in our garden are coming out and the olive, cherry, and walnut trees have stopped providing us with bounty. There will be no more grapes, roses, or lion’s head flowers in our garden for quite some time. Meow Meow, who at the beginning of the summer “liberated” herself from being an indoor cat by leaping from our balcony 25 feet down to the garden below, now prefers to sleep by us on the couch, to purr and dream. Fewer enemy horses pass by to make her dive for cover. The island’s population is thinning out as well; the cell phone-wielding summer vacationers and most street barkers have left. Now it’s just the villagers, fishermen, navy soldiers, fayton drivers, some shopkeepers, and the Zerzevatci (“…ZVATCI!”) who comes by every once in a while to sell fruit on his horse and cart. They are starting to sell boza, the fermented millet winter drink often served with cinnamon, down by the docks. Our balcony, which used to be home to the Sunday parades of covered-headed women with makeup and macho men holding hands, now sits in view of the cleaning woman beating her rugs at the historic President Inonu mansion across the street. She waves to us like a fellow survivor. An evergreen. Our house doesn’t come with heat and I don’t know how well our space-heater will hold up.
This island’s feline permanent residents outside are beginning to sound desperate, and we hear them fighting at night. Those lucky enough to live at the bottom of the island near where the boats arrive still get fed by the fishermen, but the cats higher up rely on the good graces of the few humans left up here. I reflect on how spoiled our cats are, how they don’t know how good they have it. And I realize just how lucky I am too, and that I feel a real kinship not only with the Ladino-speaking Shlomos at the synagogue, but also with the Arabs coming out of the mosque who look just like them, and with the Greek villagers attending church every Sunday, and with the Kurds and the easterners at the Carsamba Pazari, and with the Turkish fishermen and fayton-drivers. Inside the island’s Greek Orthodox monastery, poor Turkish Moslems desperate for divine intervention fall on their knees before the icons and receiving their blessings from bearded priests. It was as if the terrible “relocation” of the 1920’s never happened, or the Islamic revolution weren’t taking place all around the world right now; as if, removed from the technology and speed of modern living, different peoples could coexist while preserving their respective traditions. And as I waited for the next amplified call-to-prayer, and listened for the increasingly-intermittent cries of the Zerzevatci, and went down to check out the fishermen’s catch and buy fresh bread, what I wanted to do most of all was to stop time, to preserve this season, and to spot the glorious nasal cartilage of an endangered Shlomo, to save the island from foreign companies like Nestle coming to Heybeliada to put strawberries in the yoghurt, and to luxuriate, for a moment, in the thick golden kaymak cream at the top.
The Prince’s Islands are is overrun by cats, but Heybeliada‘s are the most beautiful. When we first arrived, we kept my cat Meow Meow inside away from potential “friends,” and for a week she sat on the balcony and looked at the garden below – and then one day she looked at us, looked down from the balcony – and leapt down 25 feet into the garden. So now she’s a happy outdoor cat once again after having endured two years in Manhattan indoor captivity. She always startles when the faytons with horses as they pass by too closely. She goes out as she pleases until 4PM (she usually only stays out for an hour) and comes home to sleep by us and purr her head off. (Oddly, for over 22 hours in a cat carrier during the whole journey here, unable to eat, drink, or piss for 22 hours, she never cried once, so we didn’t have to give her the Ace Primizone tranquilizing pills – she just slept in our laps on the plane.)
Many of island’s cats have become my companions and are especially appreciative of our gifts of leftovers from dinner which we hand out every evening. I’ve given them all names. There’s Mino?, who engages in group love with us when we call her name but has zero interest in food. Shlomo Kedi is an immensely fat longhair calico (owned by the oddly-named Jewish doctor Shlomo Abuvaf) who lies on their windowsill and allows herself to be pet without granting you any reaction whatsoever. Ugly The Cat, the landlord’s gray cat, always sports a broken jaw, a ripped eye, a scar on the right side of its face, and walks with a limp – yet every night it persists in picking fights with other cats, who, after beating Ugly up, hiss to it in some kind of Turkish cat dialect, “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.” My favorite street cat is The Bad Cat. You can see him, gray and scraggly, eyes a little too close together, smoking a cigarette, walking to an upright bass accompaniment on the soundtrack. He approaches Ugly Cat and my Meow Meow and just keeps on coming, no matter what they do. He doesn’t fight, but nothing deters him. Meow Meow protects her turf by making herself appear psychotic. Generally, she only commits physical violence on people, but if another cat goes near or corners her, she puffs up her fur, crouches, her eyes dilate, and she growls and screams bloody murder. It’s a spectacular show. Ugly The Cat believes it. I believe it. The security guards at the Amsterdam airport believed it. There’s only one living thing that I’ve seen not buying her psycho act, and that, of course, is The Bad Cat. Sometimes when Meow Meow gets too crazy and howls and hisses and looks like she’s going to go into a seizure, I throw water on The Bad Cat, but that doesn’t help – he holds his ground. Of late, though, The Bad Cat has started to hang out elsewhere: the last time I saw him, he was down by the sea stealing fish from the fishermen, and what looks like his child now haunts our garden. His offspring is a bit of a pansy, standing on his paws like a squirrel and begging for food, and when another cat comes, he turns tail and runs.
One night we were walking, and right at the corner of our house, we saw a tiny kitten crying that we hadn’t noticed before, smaller than my palm, obviously abandoned by its family. We had to decide whether to bring it down to the fishermen or to take it in; the kitten looked like it was at death’s door, so we brought it in until we could decide what to do. It ate everything we gave it and played for awhile. But the next evening, it suddenly went totally limp and started crying. It stopped eating, crapped liquid, and started dying. Elif’s aunt Nebahat, who regularly converses with ghosts, was over at our house and began rubbing the cat to use her psychic vibrations to heal it. I checked the boat schedules to the mainland, there were no boats for an hour, and we didn’t think it would survive the trip to a vet. Now we were in need of something, and time was a factor: not the ideal situation one could be in in Turkey.
After borrowing a cell phone from our neighbors, we finally were able to get through to a vet the next island over, and he told us to tap its eye with our finger. We did and got no response. The vet said that was a bad sign but that he would not come; instead, he gave us the name of a cow doctor on Heybeliada whose office was closed but who still may come to help. Now, there are no cows on our island, but the navy employs one to test their food samples to see if their meat is healthy to eat. While we were on the phone with the Buyukada vet, the cat rolled back its eyes, gave a long moan, kicked its back legs twice, and died. And I actually was relieved by this, since after a bout of suffering, at least the kitten was out of its misery and off of this damned planet, home of such wonderful and complex organic organization which makes suffering and life-feeding-on-life the sine qua non of existence. I was sad that an animal which we had taken into our care had died on us. Elif hung up the phone. Our landlord was crying.
But then the kitten started breathing again thirty seconds later. The cat was just twitching, muscular spasms, like after you cut up a lobster or a chicken. I found this display of nature’s cruelty to be rather disgusting. We had no choice but to call the cow doctor whom the vet recommended. Elif told me to go get some yogurt at the bakkal (market) because once when a cat of hers was dying, she fed it garlic yogurt and it got better. Her aunt Nebahat agreed. I thought this was about the stupidest thing I’d ever heard, but since I had nothing to do at the house other than watch a dying cat twitch, I went. I put on some classical music and left, coming to some bizarre resolve that even for a cat, if your matter’s complex organization is about to break apart as you pass out of existence, you might as well experience this by listening to the complex organization of tones of Mozart. All of this was running through my head while I was walking to the bakkal to buy yogurt.
When I arrived at the bakkal, I found to my horror that my favorite yogurt, Mis, was bought out by Nestle, so it’s now Nestle Mis – and the label no longer proudly advertises “Full-fat!” – although, thankfully, it still tastes the same. (Are western fat-neuroses coming to Turkey?) When I got returned twenty minutes later, the cat was still unresponsive. The vet still hadn’t come yet. Our island really isn’t that big, and it shouldn’t have taken this long. I said to Elif that I don’t mind the lack of facilities or niceties of civilization here in Turkey (such as toilet seats), but I’m annoyed by the cavalier attitude here towards concepts of time and urgency. Were they ever to make a big-budget Turkish spy film (“Bond. Mustafa Bond.”), with a bomb about to go off in ninety seconds, the hero would probably go brew some tea first.
Eventually, the cow doctor shows up. He is a huge guy with massive hands and the largest head I’ve ever seen on a human being. He stands at our door, sees our kitten comatose on the chair, and proceeds to slowly untie his shoes. Of course: it’s impolite not to take off your shoes when entering a house in Turkey. We yell at him to stop. I shout “Gerek yok.” He shrugs and then slowly ties his shoes back up. He goes over to the cat and juggles it in the air, spinning it around his head like a seal with a ball at Sea World. He pokes its eyes. He mauls its belly. He smells its mouth. I just want to offer this bear some honey and get him to leave. He goes to the landlord and calls the vet at the other island, and he gets a list of four medicines to give the cat. Nobody knows what the problem is, but they all decide we should give it a liquid for diarrhea, a serum for parasites, a multivitamin, and a shot for diarrhea. This all sounds to me more like more torture, but the kitten’s survived this long, so I suppose we should do everything we can. But where can we buy cat medicine on this island at this hour?
At the eczane (pharmacy), of course, since for most ailments there is no cat medicine. The eczane is a lovely thing to behold; there’s one on every corner, and no matter where you go, there will be one one in the vicinity whose turn it is to remain open round-the-clock. So Elif and Nebahat stayed at the house and watched our comatose kitten; our older cat Meow Meow took off for parts unknown; and I left our house with the cow doctor to buy the drugs. I started walking fast, and he panted behind me, begging, “A little slower, please.” I slowed down and then started walking a little faster again. He looked guilty and then sped up. He took out a cigarette to smoke and offered me one. I declined, and then I changed my mind and accepted. I despise cigarettes, but at that moment, it fit the bill perfectly. Although the eczane was left open and unattended, the pharmacist was not in, of course. He was out on the street hanging out with some kids playing football. We all went inside and bought the medicine. He, of course, wanted to wrap each box in tissue paper.
When we got back to the house, we tortured the kitten some more. Marcus Guernsey-cow, M.D. decided that we should administer the shots in two doses because the kitten was so small, but he kept missing and it was more like six shots. It reminded me of the scene in Texas Chainsaw Massacre where the psychotic old grandfather is too feeble to properly hammer in his victim’s head, so he just lets it fall on the victim, over and over. We poured liters of liquid into the kitten’s mouth, all of which it drooled onto our chair. Its main reaction to the shots was further muscular spasm. Finally, the bear left, happy to receive $10 for his house call. We found a large cardboard box that once held Elif’s mother’s computer, and which she had given us to transport dishes to the island. We put some rags in the bottom and wedged the box behind the sofa in the living room. Finally, we laid the kitten in there, where it could die in a warm and safe place.
The next morning I was voted (by Elif) to be the one to see if it were still alive. I crept in, looked in the box, and there were only the rags inside. Then I looked up, and she was standing up on the chair, kneading it, saying, “Meow!” I have no idea how it jumped three feet straight out of the box in the middle of the night. We didn’t want to mess around, so we got dressed and brought it to a real vet on the Asian mainland, along with our older cat Meow Meow, because perhaps what the kitten had was contagious. The vet seemed more concerned with Meow Meow than the little one. “Boy is she fat!” he exclaimed. “Fat?” we asked. “No, obese!” he said. Then, he took one look at the kitten and pronounced, “Parasites.” We asked how he knew and he said from the stink of the thing. Then he took a second look, inside its mouth, and he whistled. “Do you know how old this thing is?” he asked. I said I figured about three weeks; it was the size of my hand, so I’d have guessed two weeks, but it had nice fur, so I allowed for three. He said, “Over two months, judging by its teeth.” So he administered parasite shots to both cats, and sent us home with a parasite liquid which we’d have to give them for three days, and prescribed megadoses of calcium and vitamin D supplements for the kitten, and lots of sunlight. When we got back to the island, we bought the medicines and found out to our dismay that the parasite liquid, meant for human infants, only came in a cherry flavor (rather than a tuna flavor or something). I developed a strange reaction to the potion: each time I administered it to Meow Meow, my arm suddenly broke out in bloody scratches.
All week, the little one’s been playful, alert, and doing all the kitten things, thumbing her nose at Meow Meow, who wants to kill her but can’t. The kitten even ate Meow’s diet food yesterday. We took her to Nebahat’s house for some more spirit-healing, and she enjoyed the trip in the boat and the minibus and loved Auntie’s home. Yesterday, we left Meow Meow at home and brought the kitten to the mainland to celebrate Elif’s mother Dilek’s birthday. But on the boat ride this time, her ears went back, and she completely wigged out, running around in circles in the cat carrier. When we were carrying her off the boat, the cat carrier was shaking violently. We brought her into the house, set her carrier and food in the corner, and the cat literally started running around in circles and climbing the walls. And then its eyes rolled back, it fell over, it kicked its back legs, and it went completely stiff. We called the vet again, and he said to bring it immediately, even if the shock of transporting it would kill it. We brought it. The kitten didn’t move, and its eyes were pointed in completely different directions. He looked at it and said, “Boy does it smell!” He looked at its belly and confidently pronounced, “Worms!” We asked, Worms and parasites? “Yes!” and he gave her another shot. Can Meow catch worms from her? “She had her shots already for that.” We asked, does it have rabies? “Absolutely not!” Kitten disease? “No!” Epilepsy? And he laughed a good laugh and sent us on our way.
We brought the cat back home, and it woke up later that evening and again seems frisky and perfectly normal, doing all the kitty things. We named it “Sara,” the Turkish word for Epilepsy. I’m worried about Meow Meow, and we’re keeping a close watch on her and keeping her away from the kitten, who has doubled in size within days, as if the food and vitamins had jump-started her kitty-growth program.
We saw a movie last week, the last film the island showed this season. We went primarily to visit Heybeliada’s only movie theater, and because I haven’t seen a movie in over three months except for 20 minutes of the new version of The Nutty Professor while at Elif’s father’s house in Antalya, a film which made me so ill I had to go to another room to lie down. Now Heybeliada was playing The Fifth Element, an entirely moronic and not even handsome-looking sci-if flick.
The film was shown outside, but not at a drive-in, of course, since no there are no cars on Heybeli – instead, projected onto an apartment building behind a market. Halfway through (and mid-sentence), they stopped the film for ten minutes so you could buy soda from the market owner. Instead of eating popcorn, people were chewing sunflower seeds and throwing the shells on the ground.
It was in English with Turkish subtitles, which meant lots of teenagers talking through the film (not like it mattered). Translation always provides interesting challenges, and the suffix-additive grammar and arabesque sentence-structure of Turkish are quite different than English. Near the end of the film, the Milla Jonovich character, a divine being, quickly reads almost the entire encyclopedia on computer, but she only gets up to the letter V. Bruce Willis, her love interest, tells her that there are a great deal of wonderful words beginning with V, such as Valor, Valentine, etc. At this point, the subtitle-writer was faced with a problem, because few Turkish words begin with V. Instead of making the obvious choice of changing it to “U” or “Ü,” which would have offered plenty of words to fit the context, he kept the “V” and chose a few Ottoman-based words like “vuslat” which Elif only knows from Turkish poetry. So when it came up, the audience, in unison, said aloud, “Huh?” before bursting into laughter.
Besides that, the real action happened offscreen. A wave of bats flew overhead. I thought, at first, that it was dirt on the projector, but when they flew over my head, I saw – bats. And later there was a glorious shooting star – right over the top of the screen. The whole audience applauded, whistled, and cheered – it made me glad to be alive.
Our island has a Greek monastery and a mosque, both of which I’ve seen, but the synagogue’s always been closed whenever I’ve passed. That’s not unusual, as getting into a Jewish temple in Turkey isn’t particularly easy. Most are hidden, set back off the street – and even if you can find the buildings, you have to get past the iron gates which always seem to be padlocked, even when there would normally be a Saturday service. Last Sunday night was Rosh Hashannah, and we knew it just had to be open, so we gave it one last try – and it was. The people inside (about 35 of them) spoke Hebrew and Ladino, a Hebrew/Spanish dialect – no English or Turkish. They gave me a Yarmulke and a prayer book which was in Hebrew, with adjoining transliterations (the “Sh”’s transliterate well into Turkish, but they haven’t solved the guttural “H” problem). Since there was no translation, and since being able to pronounce Hebrew is a far cry from understanding it, I had no idea what was going on. There was a kadosh – I know this because they stood on their heels three times and held out their hands in a boon-bestowing gesture (but adding a unique hip twist that was more James Brown than Shalom Aleichim). As for the rest: I had no clue, because all the melodies were different from the songs and prayers I learned in my youth.
But despite or because of the language barrier, I loved it. There was no ostentation, no modern milquetoast neo-cultural quasi-spirituality, no moralistic platitudes offered up by a disinterested, overpaid rabbi, no selling tickets to high holy services to support a bloated staff and execrable Hebrew “school,” no fur-wearing zaftig princesses, no dark suit and hat-wearing fanatics – instead, it was just a few dozen of my “Uncle Abie” and his comrades, shlumpy old guys with noses hanging down to their ankles.
I loved that the leaders were casually-dressed, hanging out at the Bimah and then, without warning, pomp or circumstance, the rabbi shlumped up to the stand and then started the service by rapidly mumbling some Hebrew text. I loved how one of them checked up on me to see if I knew where we were in the text. I loved the fact that it looked like an abandoned classroom, with fans blowing, and buzzing fluorescent lighting, with fluorescent lights even surrounding the Torah. I loved the fact that the floor was tiled like bathroom tile, complete with a figure-ground Necker cube pattern that you could play with by squinting your eyes. And I loved that the seats and walls were completely devoid of “Dedicated to the memory of Solomon Schwartz, whose family gave money to the noble cause of making the room look pretty and support the board’s lifestyle.” All of these good vibes even made me enjoy the fact that the sexes were separated like in American Orthodox temples. Elif sat upstairs with the women, among about eight wives who were extremely friendly to her and asked her why they hadn’t seen her before.
My own personal convictions have led me to turn away from the religious beliefs of my ancestors, but for a brief instant, I felt at home here, as if among the elders of my childhood. They, their language, and perhaps their religion, are dying, and I felt as if I had unexpectedly happened upon an extinct species, or that I had the rare chance to visit a crumbling city before it sank into the sands.
Apartment-hunting in Turkey remains a slow process, as is just about everything else – not because of bureaucracy or shortages, but because of their way of doing business. No matter what you do, it necessarily involves drinking tea and tons of chitchat. No matter how hot it is outside or how many appointments you have, it’s impossible to see an apartment which doesn’t include a tea tray. Yesterday I went into a store and asked the shopkeeper if he had 200-speed film. His answer: “Bir cay almaz miydiniz?” (“Wouldn’t you like a cup of tea?”) The question was rhetorical – I found myself holding a glass of tea before I could even ask if it the tea was 200-speed.
We took a day off from the hunt and visited Istanbul’s “Prince’s Islands,” a small island chain in the Marmara Sea, southeast of the Bosphorus, a 20 minute boat ride to Istanbul’s Asian side. It was love at first sight, and we decided immediately to rent an apartment on Heybeliada, a small island which is a mere seven miles in circumference. It’s away from the smog and noise of the mainland, but close enough to it to go there should we want to attend any cultural events (next month they’re having a Georgian dance festival which should be fun). Some of the other islands have fallen prey to Turkey’s relentless modernism and development; Kinali’s television transmitters jut out from its hills like porcupine needles; Buyukada threatens to become Istanbul’s Key West, an overgrown souvenir stand which screams avowal of, and thereby disproves, its own authenticity as an idyll. But Heybeliada remains rooted in the past. It still functions as a naval base, just as it did when it was an Ottoman outpost. On it are several beaches (with lovely sunsets that are never quite the same from day to day), forests, graveyards (with a Moslem one right next to a Greek one), a small naval base, a few playgrounds, a mosque, a Greek Orthodox monestary and Jewish synagogue. Many historic buildings have been preserved and restored, and the most of the beaches and forests remain untouched. The only evidence of modern development are the few beach clubs and high-rises which are the summer playgrounds for Istanbul’s nouveaux riches.
Automobiles are forbidden on the island, and until you find yourself living without cars, it’s hard to realize how environmentally-intrusive they are. About two or three times a day, a police car or military truck will pass, and the effect is similar to being in a large room and suddenly realizing that someone, somewhere, has lit up a cigarette. Traveling by fayton (horse-and-carriage) is a great way to get around when it’s raining or if you’re feeling too lazy to hike up Refah Sehitleri, the island’s main drag. You can sit back in the carriage and smell the evergreens, occasionally punctuated with a whiff of the driver’s cigarette smoke, or of manure when the horse relieves itself into the basket behind its rear. You can rent a bicycle by the hour, but the small size of the island, as well as the terrain of the forests and beaches, make foot travel preferable. We walk every day at sunset through the forests, on the beaches, or down to the water to check out the fishermen’s catch and watch them feed the cats. At dusk, the waves splash against the shore as we watch the changing atmospherics over the Marmara.
The house we’re renting reminds us of a charming bed-and-breakfast, complete with antique furniture. It’s across the street from President Inonu’s mansion (the first President after Ataturk, in the 1930’s). We have two balconies, both shaded. It’s always cool no matter what the weather outside, because of the breeze and because of the shade of the garden trees (olive, cherry, and walnut). The cherries from the trees are delicious, the walnuts interesting (never had non-dried walnuts before) and the olives inedible (they need to be treated). The tangerines haven’t come out yet. There are also grapes, rose bushes, and lion’s head flowers.
The sounds of the island are much the same as they have been for hundreds of years. In the heat of the summer, street-sellers ply their wares, hiking up the island’s hills in the unforgiving sun, barking their services in Turkish shorthand. It would take years of training to decipher their cries, sometimes the last syllable of what they’re selling, sometimes a mere loud vowel, sometimes a guttural bleat. Islanders can distinguish them by tonal color and come to the window to buy what they’re carrying from sticks draped over their shoulders – buckets, sesame pretzels, fresh unpasteurized milk, bottled water, gas, broomheads, rags, cloths, bottles, even watermelons. One man walks around with a device that he uses to fluff your pillows for a few lira.
Even the sounds of the mosque are the same as they have been for centuries, except for an unwelcome “improvement”: they’ve installed wired, amplified loudspeakers on the minarets, one of which is opposite our house. Five times a day (or six times on Friday or if somebody dropped dead), the Ezan (call-to-prayer) is preceded by the sound of feedback, followed by throat-clearing, at which point our dishes begin to rattle like it’s another earthquake. The island’s three Imams are some of the worst singers of the call-to-prayer in all of Turkey. They take turns: one sounds quite inebriated, another has no conception of scale or pitch, and the third sounds like late-period Bob Dylan choking on a pear. The music is different than in Saudia Arabia (and changes throughout the day), but the message is the same: God is great, Mohammed is his only prophet, come to pray. The only call to prayer that really takes some getting used to is the first one of the morning, which during the summer months can happen at 4:30 AM. If there are street dogs around, they will all howl along with the Imam, and the faraway howls sound like weird wailing ghosts. At such times (especially if I’ve had too much raki the night before), the call to prayer becomes, for me, a call to peeing.
On Sundays, around the time of the the day’s second call-to-prayer, people from all over Istanbul begin pouring onto the island. The shopkeepers welcome the weekly invasion, but the rest have nowhere to hide, as the island transforms itself into a local tourist-attraction-on-the-cheap. Our balcony is nicely situated about 40 feet back from the street, and we love to spend the day watching people make the pilgrimage up the main drag in the late-morning and then parade back down Refah ?ehitleri at dusk to catch the boat back to the city. This parade provides us much merriment. The women wear Moslem head-covering, but their faces have bright lipstick and heavy makeup – and they’re heading straight for the beach! The men walk down the street holding hands, or interlocking arms, or with their arms around each other’s backs. Perhaps it is of some significance that the Turkish word for friend is arkada?, which means “sharing the same back” – standing back-against-back, or guarding each other’s blind side. When they pass at 11AM and at 6PM, they carry boomboxes playing either the wimpiest Eurotrash dance music or lovelorn Turkish arabesque music. It makes for an awesome sight – these rugged-looking men, bragging about their girlfriends, holding hands and blasting love songs – as if they are but an instant either from starting a gang fight, or from doing the bump to the Village People’s song “YMCA.”
On Wednesdays, the island hosts a Çar?amba Pazari (Wednesday Bazaar), a large, bustling Farmer’s Market. Villagers, Easterners, and Kurds at tables hawk produce, addressing people by their estimation of your age (they call me “brother-in-law” or “older brother”; I’m supposed to worry when they address me as “uncle.”) Gypsies selling garlic or lemons weave through the crowd. The produce is as comes straight from Eden – each fruit is usually half the size of its American equivalent but about ten times as tasty. They sell by the kilogram and always try to sell you more. Greens are sold by the bunch, or even by the shopping bag; some of it requires careful handling, such as stinging nettles and poison ivy, both of which make delicious soups. Everything is labeled “Amazing Taste!” or “Super Fresh!” or “Shocking Price!” Yoghurt is sold with kaymak on the top, a delicious, hard, golden layer of cream. There is no fat phobia here, and the packages proudly announce the yoghurt as “Tam Ya?l?! Kaymakl?!” (“Full fat! With Kaymak!”) or even “Cift Kaymakli!” (“Double Kaymak!”)
I have to remember to be careful with green peppers, from which so many Turkish appetizers are made. When you buy them from the bazaar, you ask, are they hot?, and the guy always tells you the same thing: who knows? They all come mixed together in the same batch; some taste like American green peppers (better, of course: less watery, more taste), and some taste like jalapenos. For some strange reason I forgot all of this in Dilek’s house, and ate a whole pepper, which caused it to project like a missile out of my mouth, my eyes to rain tears, and for me to go into hiccupping spasms. I went to the bathroom and drooled snot for awhile and returned to my dinner, much to the family’s amusement.
If you miss the Wednesday Bazaar, you can buy produce in the little markets of Heybeliada, although it’s slightly more expensive. Bread is sold at the bakery by the docks for about 15 cents for a large baguette. I often splurge: an extra dime for a baguette covered with sesame seeds. The government fixes the price so everyone can afford it, but we got a real taste of enflasyon last week when bread prices skyrocketed overnight from 40,000 lira to 70,000 lira. Because it’s too expensive (and discouraging) to raise prices every day to keep pace with Turkey’s inflation, they just wait awhile and make a big jump. So right now the baguette costs a quarter, which is quite a bit of money for many of the locals. But in a few months, if the price holds, it’ll be back down to 15 cents again.
At the checkout counter of the Gul Market, they sell flavorless Turkish gum that has a faint rosewater odor. Its pieces are individually-wrapped, and the wrappers have sayings on them, which sometimes are terrible jokes, sometimes “words to live by,” and sometimes completely mysterious. Here’s what my wrapper says now; you decide which category it fits into:
The other people may come and go
But life is a pasta strainer
And you will settle down
With a Capricorn (a crab).
Too late. Elif’s a Sagittarius.
If you send a letter, be sure to put her name on the envelope as well, as my name seriously confuses the mailman. Our address:
We had been wanting to live in Turkey ever since we sold our business, the Philadelphia Music Conference, in February of 1997, but moving there was not an option until Elif had her U.S. Green Card. And then one day in 1998, about nine months before the INS said it would come, it arrived in the mail. We opened the envelope and looked at it for a good long time. We immediately put our belongings into storage, and within two weeks, we were gone.
Much can change in Istanbul in just one year. Suddenly, everybody has cell phones. The dolmu?’es, which just last year were old 1950’s American Packards, now are almost all minivans. The lira, which three years ago was worth 46,000 to the dollar, is now 270,000 to the dollar; my leftover 10-and 20- thousand lira bills from last year are now no longer accepted. On the mainland, you now see teenagers wearing T-shirts with English writing on them. Mercifully, none of the street signs, storefronts, or restaurant menus are in English; whereas I used to think the Quebecois were snooty for banning non-French languages from Montreal storefronts, I now agree with them.
Our first task was to get me an extended-stay visa in Turkey. Before we had left New York, I had mailed $40 along with several photographs, forms and tax returns, and Elif’s mom called to tell me that the government had informed her that my application had been approved. But once we arrived in Turkey, their entire file on me had disappeared.
Thus began the ordeal. We went to the Immigration office in some remote part of Istanbul to procure forms, waited two hours and paid the equivalent of ten dollars to have a typist fill them out in quadruplicate (using carbon paper!) and to have eleven pictures taken of myself. I then waited on another line to get a form signed. Then I had to go into another line, which was considerably less pleasant: in a small hallway which was way over 100 degrees, we were smashed against a wall in a crush of Armenians, Georgians, Bulgarians, and Azerbaijanis, unable to breathe; even the venerated Turkish police unable to keep the peace in the moshpit. There were no exits, just a bunch of elbows and armpits, and nobody there was glad they used Dial. At some point, we literally fell out of the line, and that was it; we went home, defeated.
Back at Elif’s mother’s house, we learned that even if we had made it to the front of the line, we still would have have needed additional documentation, as well as $120 for the extended-stay visa (the same one for which I had mailed away $40 dollars from the US). We had had enough. Elif told her mother Dilek that we weren’t going back, and we gave Dilek my photos and told her to take care of it herself or to have one of her attorney friends do so. A week later, she handed me the visa.
As Dilek tells it, how it happened was quite simple. The Turkish immigration officers informed Dilek’s attorney friend that it was absolutely necessary for me be there in person, and that there was simply no way they around that regulation. If I didn’t like the rules, I could go home after three months. And then, one of the officers noticed the lovely little piece of paper that the attorney had accidentally left on his desk. Another officer in the room walked over and also admired its rectangular dimensions and its delightful yellow hue, as well as the picture of Ataturk on it. He was obviously in a patriotic mood, as he simply had to have one too – and as coincidence would have it, she had another one for him right in her purse!