Breakfast is cheese and jams and fresh bread and eggs and pastirma – pepperoni so spicy, its stink comes out in your sweat. We board a government boat to take the half-hour trip to the European side of the city. I am among cleanshaven men, unshaven men with sunglasses, ponytailed women, women in headscarves, villagers shaped like fireplugs. A mustachioed man looks at me over his multicolored newspaper. Another man opens his bag and gives a presentation about the knives he is selling. We pass under the third bridge,
ducking as the boat goes under it, and disembark in front of the “New Mosque,” which is called “new” because it’s merely 400 years old.
Elif shows me around Istanbul with unbridled pride. This is my conservatory. Don’t take a picture of that, you’re going to see far more interesting things there. That’s Aya Sofia in the background. There’s Uskudar, where I was born. We were in Asia. Now we’re in Europe. Soon we’ll be in Asia. And again, Europe. This is Topkapi palace, my palace. This is the Golden Horn, once home to Venetians and pirates, this is the Galata Tower, from I think the 14th century. Here’s a cistern from Byzantium times, then Ottoman, then forgotten for a hundred years.
Everything is exotic, and everything is vertigo – it feels as if we are constantly darting and weaving. The city is dusty and cacophonous; people scurry about carrying tea trays and refrigerators, selling things; cars and bikes and pedestrians and buildings are from every century, in every architectural style. The geography of the place makes no sense. The streets are a maze. I don’t know how anyone crosses them, or knows where to cross them, or how to stay alive doing so. It feels as if you’re in a mosh pit, defending yourself from the pigeons, from the glare of the sun, from the blaring speakers of the minarets, from the postcard-sellers.
We enter the Blue Mosque. I am carrying my shoes, and I’ve been given baggy pants to wear over my shorts. I feel silly wearing a purple shirt and my gym socks and sneakers under the baggy pants. The mosque is gold beyond gold: mosaic in red, blue, gold, calligraphy on top of windows, arches and domes. The narrow focus of my perception and memory can’t absorb it, can’t hold it, as my eyes saccade from one marvel to the other. Aya Sophia, more somber and mysterious, a church from Justinian times until the Moslems took it over and yanked the crosses right off. Great halls of arches; Islamic calligraphy in domes’ mosaics everywhere; birds flying inside. Topkapi Palace, with Chinese gifts brought to the Sultan; a letter from Mohammed; a hair from the prophet’s beard; the English-language tour of the harem given in some unknown dialect I couldn’t understand. Suleymaniye. The Archeological Museum, with the Hitite laws, the sculptures, the walls of Babylon, the remnants of every world civilization under one roof. Kariye Kilisesi, from the 11th-13th centuries, with unbelievable mosaics showing Christ doing unbelievable things. We pass the Last Train Station in Europe. At Dolmabahce Palace, I admire the building across the street, and start to take a picture of it. Elif warns me, Don’t film the building on the right because you’ll be arrested. No, really don’t take it. I turn back to Dolmabahce and the guards there still haven’t moved. Elif tells me that I can film those ones.
From the courtyard of the Green Kiosk, we hear another call-to-prayer going off, with the loudspeakers on the minarets blaring the news that Allah is God, and that Mohammed is his prophet. While this is happening, a child is sitting eating and drinking tea under the canopy, playing with a noisemaker toy gun that lights up making electronic noises. I have my first Ayran, a salty yogurt drink which is shocking the first time you drink it (especially if you’re used to fruit-at-the-bottom yoghurt), but it has incredible powers to bring you back to life after a day under the sun’s wilting heat.
We enter an old Chrysler – or is it a Packard? – and I’m munching of kokorec, a spicy fried intestine sandwich, waiting for more people to enter so the driver can take off. It turns out it’s a dolmus – which sits there until full, and you pay the driver based on how far you’re going (unless you’re crossing from Asia to Europe, in which case it’s a fixed rate). There are two rows of seats: four sit in the back, three in the middle (it’s supposed to be two by law, but the driver always tries to squeeze in a third, though if he’s caught he’ll get a ticket), and one sits in the passenger’s seat next to the driver. How it works is, if you’re in the back row, you say, how much is Bostanci, the driver says it’s 35 (thousand lira). You tap the shoulder of someone in the front seat, handing him, say, a million-lira bill. The driver, while operating the sick shift in frenetic Istanbul traffic, tosses the money on the dashboard as it comes forward from all of the passengers.
Although the driver seems like some redneck from the east of the country, smoking, weaving in and out of lanes, and cursing out anyone else on the road in his way, he’s a brilliant mathematician and phenomenal multitasker. He begins passing back all eight people’s money, one at a time, saying, here’s change for the 5 million; here’s change for the 1 million to Suadiye for the two people. No one stiffs the driver or pockets anyone else’s money. And as soon as someone gets off, he begins trawling for more passengers, honking at pedestrians and flashing his lights. I ask Elif to ask someone to open the window, and she informs me that it will not be possible; Turks are afraid of the wind, which is blamed for making you sick. It is 95 degrees outside and possibly double that inside; the driver is smoking, and I suspect that no one else has showered in weeks. The window stays closed.
We arrive at the boats at Kadikoy, where we encounter an open-air pet store; you can buy squirrels in cages, or Indian nightingales, fed with food coloring to make their feathers every color of the rainbow. This time, instead of the government boats, we take a Norwegian “sea bus” to Bakirkoy. An ice-cream seller sees me coming and puts on a fez and uses his stick to make balls of ice cream do acrobatics. It’s far too early in the morning to be eating ice cream, but Elif asks for a cone. He holds it out to me with his long stick, but every time I reach for it, he makes it fly away, or spin around, and he finally lets me have some. It is sticky and tastes like cotton candy.
We end up at Elif’s mother Dilek’s law office and enter a sketchy-looking elevator. Elif reassures me: it’s only plunged three stories to the ground once with her mother in it. No, really. Inside the office, Dilek tells me that she is the queen here, and the chair is her throne. The decorations provide me with much amusement: it’s another Elif museum! There are also pictures everywhere of Ataturk, founder of the Turkish republic and apparently the “Where’s Waldo” of her office – here’s another Ataturk, and there he is again, whoo! I go to the bathroom, and it’s a hole, next to which is a red bucket with a cup in it.
I had thought that the purpose of our office visit was to meet her mother Dilek for lunch, but I come to realize that the real purpose is for Dilek to show me off to her friends in the court. I’m whisked from one office to another. Merhaba! How are you? Heh heh heh. Everyone giggles and grins. Many are in need of serious dental work. Everyone smokes. Everyone offers me tea. Not Turkish coffee or touristy apple tea, but the dark, musky red Turkish tea. If you ever refuse a beverage, it will only confuse or upset them, and they’ll start to look desperate, running around, begging you to take their water, anything. After the fourth office visit of the day, I come to realize that the best strategy is to accept the tea but only drink a sip, and hope to be able to leave without anyone noticing.