Heybeliada – life on an island without cars

Typical view from Heybeliada
Image via Wikipedia

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:

Refah ?ehitleri Cad. No.:64 Kat 2
(?smet ?nönü Müzesi kar??s?)
Heybeliada ?stanbul Turkey

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