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For several years, Senior Prose Editor Eric Darton has been aiming to connect me with Bronwyn Mills, a writer and person he thought I should know and would probably love: he solicited this piece from her, to introduce me to her work. Meanwhile, I engaged Bronwyn in a conversation about joining us on the masthead at Tupelo Quarterly, since her various sensibilities and backgrounds bring so much to the prose and cross-genre editing table: Bronwyn graciously agreed to join us as a Senior Prose Editor beginning with TQ2.
Bronwyn’s “Turkish Journal, Part I: By the Spoonmaker’s Tomb” struck me as exemplary of what travel writing can and should be: rich with detail, empathy, humor, sheer fun, and intelligence of many kinds both sharp and deep. I’m glad to share this excerpt of the Turkish journal with you, by way of honoring the original solicitation and getting this lovely piece into your hands—and also as introduction to her editorial sensibilities, since we’ve proven lucky enough to get both.
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22 Jan (Ocak) 2004: Getting ready to make a move halfway round the world has its odd, if not idiosyncratic moments. A slowing down–I think of Emily Dickinson’s “Hour of Lead”…. To renew is also slow. Surrounded by pictures of what an ex’s son calls “my peeps,” and noticing details like the lovely photograph of my daughter-in-law elect and of my mother-in-law: they not only share their first names, but they have the same pretty, slightly shy but simultaneously outgoing smile. A picture of my own son as a little boy before his first haircut, holding an umbrella over his head at that fleeting time of his life when there was no rain… later, striding out of a southeast Asian clinic, thin, in a t-shirt and scrubs with a stethoscope slung around his neck…
I have been listening to my jazz collection, one by one, and sorting them: Milt Jackson’s “Olinga” is a near perfect album…”West Coast Jazz” album …with Shorty Rogers, Jimmy Giuffre…others; McCoy Tyner, Pharoah Saunders, David Murry, Cecil McBee and Roy Haynes’ “Blues for Coltrane” …Pharoah Saunders reed wails and gnashes its teeth in memoriam: Coltrane has been here. The master is gone. All of this makes me wonder, New York identified as I am, how I will find another world where jazz is not native, where there is albeit an international jazz festival but where an African American musician is rare as the Hope diamond.
I live surrounded by water–the City rivers, the ocean out there. At least, where I am going, I will still have rivers.
And that, Dear Reader, is how I began keeping a travel journal of my sojourn in one of the most compelling cities in the world, Istanbul. New Ph.D. in hand, got later in life, with job prospects not vast, a dear friend with connections in Turkey asked if I would like to teach there.
“Turkey? May I remind you that my field is Caribbean and African.”
“Think about it.”
Well, I did. And off I went. After all, why not?
05 February 2004: The cat is almost out of the baguette; i.e., my secretiveness about where I am headed is over. Barrıng cats and baguettes, I am on company time, struggling with an unfamiliar keyboard and an utterly unknown language. It is humbling but exciting.
Long Time, No Escribir—in fact, in the hustle and bustle of getting settled, I wasn’t writing much of anything at all. Now, to catch up:
4 March (Mart) ’04: After fighting my way home from work with my Turkish guide, colleague, and friend extraordinaire, Önder–bus, metro, tram, in that order—I bought a great halogen lamp for my desk, the latter got in the snow several days earlier via a bumpy truck ride with a grumpy driver and a detour around the ancient walls of the city–they go on and on and on, etc. etc. The lampseller threw in a small screwdriver with the purchase which has a rather startling extra feature: you can test the electrical outlets in your house by–I love this–sticking the metal end into the socket and seeing if a little red light goes on in the handle–just think of that nice 220V direct current!
This evening I didn’t last much past the purchase of yard-long leeks at the bakal [corner store.] A Turkish child admirer has discovered that I am from New York–“Christine Aguilera!” she exclaims; and, I assure you, there is no resemblance whatsoever–the yankophile pads around after me with a glazed look in her eyes–goodbye, I say, trying to be polite.
I love you, she says seeing me out the door.
The world having been entirely too much with me near and soon, I turn in with the chickens and wake up with the Muezzin. Afterwards, ahh! blessed early morning silence–almost–until the men hawking tomatoes and onions in hand-drawn wooden carts come down the street announcing their wares. Their cries do not even remotely resemble “domates, domates!” the Turkish word for tomatoes. Then the workaholics start up their cars, the camci (glazer) opens his shop across the street and life begins anew in my little corner of Istanbul. Another grey day, threatening to rain, though little signs of spring are slowly appearing. The Sultan’s Spoonmaker’s tomb, that juts into the street, has rose bushes that look as though they are rousing themselves, a small tree that is also, but the large tree planted over the man himself, no doubt, appears dead as a doornail, apparently having run out of fertilizer. A rather large number of pregnant cats wander the streets, not to mention the yowling of ones en delicto flagrante.
As I was dickering with the glazer over framing a print of mine this AM, a tabby tomcat sauntered up to his glass door and casually sprayed it. But the glazer is prepared! He takes a liter sized coke bottle filled with water and immediately sloshes the dribble down. I don’t have the Turkish to tell him that this same tom sprays the electric box outside my window, too, or that it is redundant to say that this cat has balls. The cats of Istanbul are tough, like the rats of New York; mind you, not a rat or mouse to be seen on the streets of Constantinople!
Today I took the tram to the end of the line, through the old city and past the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sofia, various and sundry Ottoman ruins to the docks where you get the ferries to the Asian side. The throng is huge–a football (soccer) match, I hear, on the other side–but it is a mere 1 million lire–77 cents–to cross over. Now I feel as if I am in Istanbul! We move out of the Golden Horn into the mouth of the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmara, pulling away from the view of the same minarets of the old city and the domes they protect, the maiden tower where a Sultan imprisoned a daughter who chose a beau Papa did not like, the Galata tower further on. People throw bread to the seagulls, the smokers all go outside to smoke, not for the view, men in red jackets sell the inevitable çay, glasses of portacal–orange–juice, steaming cups of something that looks like water and milk, and “simit”–bagel shaped rolls encrusted in sesame seed. These last are highly addictive. In no time we slide past the jetties into the Kadikoy dock on the Anatolian side (I have heard more Turks call it that than the “Asian” side.) Had a lovely visit with an American friend and his new Turkish wife, ate, jawed, trotted around a much more upscale neighborhood than my poor little area, buying REAL COFFEE from Costa Rica (hot dawg!), some little rugs for my kitchen, trading travelers tall tales. We fantasize trading in Soy Milk, real coffee, and gingerale–all rare to nonexistant in Istanbul.
The trip back is over dark water into a bowl of light. Home to adolescent boys yakking on the stairs and, when these disperse, the inevitable cat sonatas.
27 Mart 04: Somehow I have lost a week with my nose pressed down close to the wheel, my sinuses filling up in reaction to the superabundance of cigarette smoke, pollution, and dust in the air. I have had a persistent cough for the almost two months I have been here and have fought off the offers of cough syrup with enough god-knows-what-in-it (YOU try to read those labels and PDA disclaimers in this language!)–with enough je ne sais quoi to knock out a roomful of hyperactive children within seconds of consuming the stuff. I finally consulted a pharmacist who gave me something called Perebron, a non-narcotic, no drugs combo of herbs, menthol, syrup which I consume every 4 hours with food and that seemed to help. Though the essential Turkish diet is essentially pretty healthy–olive oil, goat or sheep cheese, onions, garlic, salads, vegetables, light on the animal protein–the health food stores are few and far between and Solgar vitamins, minerals, and food supplements are exhorbitant! So I must go it alone without them…
30 Mart 04: I keep saying that Spring is here. Well, the live twig that sprouts out from the Spoonmaker’s tomb is looking more convincing every day; it’s relatives are beginning to show leaves as well here and there and the plane trees—the local name for sycamores–are getting misty along the main avenue. Yesterday afternoon I stopped a few stops early to visit my bank machine and a man was selling flowering plants from a wooden cart–I bought two small begonias set in tiny black plastic bags. Passing a small mosque I found a florist’s –çiçekci (chi-check-gee)–tucked protectively in its side wall. With the customary small ceremony–“No Türkish,” I announce–I then point to a plastic pot to indicate that I am looking for some flowerpots. They offer the whole plant. I shake my head and, spying some empty ones in a corner, I choose them, nodding. Fine. I offer money–twice–forget it, no way, Madame. Çok tes [with a squiggle–shh] ekkir–thank you so much!) I get three little flowerpots. Only three blocks from my neighborhood in the bustle of homecoming foot traffic, I finally turned off into my modest little stray cat neighborhood with women in headscarves (not all) walking on the street, said felix sylvestrae duking it out over spilled garbage, men picking up other garbage and stowing it in huge hand-drawn carts, the bakal workers bowing, “Mehreba, Hoca”–Hello, Teacher–silently in the case of the yogurt-maker and his look alike father. The çiçekçi around the corner gives me some potting soil for 500 milyon TL (Turkish Lira–about a 35 cents). Kids are kicking a soccer ball up and down my street, and the camci (glazer) is sitting Buddha-like in his chair at the end of his work table, watching the world, and me, I guess, go by.
After a night of yakking over wine and tidbits at one end of Taksim called Tunel, a friend has left me with a French press for my cafe filtre–rare and wonderful aquisition in these parts–and two blank CDs to record some jazz from my collection for him. He’s working on a novel about some “old jazz guys.” I hop a dolmaş back home. The streets are quiet, the shops closed, but my friend Önder’s light is still on around the corner and the eternal pussycats are engaged in a spraying contest up the block.
It is about 1 in the morning.
Slogging in the overdue… After work, Önder and I got off two stops early–right after what I think must be the old Theodosian walls. It is spring in Istanbul at last. Trees are hazily pink, misty with green, the sun is shining and we duck down an alley into a neighborhood where people crowd the streets shopping for the evening meal, for domestic tools, just to be out and about. We buy a plastıc bagful of fresh almonds to eat–“Turkish children love these” I am assured–and I bite into my first unripe nut. Tangy. Not too bad. We stop by the çiçeki’s and after admiring his finches and his “jungle” of rex begonias and chinese lilies, he gives me one of his African violets. It is alive here; Findikzade, though friendly and kind, is more subdued–dusty and subdued. But it is still a comfort to return to it, to the camci, the corner bakal, the yogurt-maker and his twin father, all the neighborhood people who nod, “Mehreba, Mehreba–” hello, hello.” I don’t even mind the group of young adenoidal young men who crowd outside my building and sit on the railing outside my window, harmless but talking too loud. Anywhere else they would be stoned out of their minds or lifting hubcaps; here they are just kids with no place else to go to be with their peers.
Önder had a dove nesting in his mother’s African violet. He attempted to move the pot so he could open the window and she has not yet returned.
10 April (Nisan) ’04: This morning I met Gönül at the ferry dock for ferries from Kadikoy—a mere hop, skip, and a jump via Tramvay from my modest little Findikzade. It is always humming down at the docks, in fact: the hustle and bustle of people walking along the roadside in great clumps, either disembarking or fighting their way through the crowds to buy tickets and embark, someone with an amp and a microphone playing Arabesk music in the square, people selling everything from shoes to cheap plastic toys to nuts to huge mussels with lemon slices on the side (do NOT buy, as these are not guaranteed to be from fresh waters or to be fresh themselves) to, I suppose, themselves. We go to the next slip and purchase tickets for the boat trip up the Bosphorous which, my guidebooks tell me, is a 32 kilometer long channel–it comes that way rather than having been handmade. Says author John Freely, “…the distance along its shores is significantly longer than this, for the shoreline is indented by a succession of promontories, coves and bays, some of the latter large enough to serve as harbours. Both shores of the strait are lined with hills, none of them seeming very high, both on the upper Bosphorus these eminences seem higher than they really are because of the way in which they plunge down to the sea in precipitous cliffs….they are still well-wooded, especially with cypresses, umbrella pines, plane trees [“sycamores,” to the great unwashed], horse chestnuts, terebinths and judas trees.” (271)
We chug up the Bosphorous, past old glories, past the palace where Ataturk died, past where Gönül’s father was born, where she grew up, till we reached a small fishing village–the last legal stop before the Black Sea. There is an ancient fort crumbling on the other shore on restricted land and a village beyond that where each resident must have a pass to enter, as it is also a restricted zone. That break, beyond which is the Black sea, beckons, beckons… A studio apartment there, for the summer, costs 100TL (roughly 77 USD) per month: one could write a novel there. We ate fish and mezes at a simple restaurant, washed down with just enough rakı (yes, it IS pronounced “rak-uh”) to make us a little tipsy. So we wandered about a bit afterwards and wound up having çay and sweets while waiting for the Ferry to pick us up and take us back to the Center. It is hard to believe that all along the strait, on both sides, it is still Istanbul.
When I get home, I wind up hanging out with Önder, looking over his friend’s paper for our little conference on, of all things, “passion.” It was about poetry. More rakı and a wonderful chicken and lentil dish.
Onder’s dove has returned.
11 Nisan ’04: I went in search of a bed frame for my daybed in an old, old Armenian neighborhood nearby and scored a frame and a second hand rug—nothing fancy—to help my home look more like one, as opposed to a Turkish flophouse. In front of the old Armenian church, several horse-drawn wagons were pulling noisy, excited kids for pony rides. The horses were brushed shiny and all decked out in blue beads and blue charms to ward off the evil eye. Wandering around crooked streets between rows of old Armenian houses—some in good shape, some ready to fall—we suddenly heard names like “Victor,” “Anna.” Önder says they were always part of Istanbul. Moseying around, each little house had flowers or something growing in whatever available patch of ground or potful of dirt they could find, and there is a sense of life, both its transitory-ness and its preciousness, in that neighborhood that one does not find in the pricier parts of town.
A stranded Italian expat acquaıntance showed up later–Eeyorish to the hilt. “I HATE your neighborhood.” “I HATE [a friend’s new wife.]” “I HATE your walls.” (Unfortunately, my walls are civility green and I haven’t gotten around to doing anything about that yet.) I sent him packing as soon as I could. I have little patience listening to someone trapped in their own expatriate swamp–I have my own bog to deal with. I just want to nest, like Önder’s dove.
12 Nisan ’04: The Istanbul Film Festival has begun. Met a colleague in Taksim in front of the French consulate, where I discovered a cafe on the premises–REAL coffee, hallelujah!–and saw an old print of John Cassavetes’ first film, Shadows, which was completely improvised, about jazz musicians, with Mingus also improvising in the background. Still thinking about that one. I put my spatial memory to the test in the winding alleyways of Tünel (that part of the Center) to find the Book Exchange (where you can find a book to read, take it for free, leave one behind if you like–some of them are actually good) and an internet cafe where I can print out mi novela for about 50 USD. We ate outside–mezes, white wine, fish and chicken–at a pleasant ambience with well-fed cats in attendance. We then plunged back into Herzog’s Nosferatu, featuring Klaus Kinski as the consumptive vampire and numerous rather portly rats
18 Nisan ’04: After another John Cassavetes’ film, Opening Night, I finally extricated myself from my seat half expecting that I would walk out onto Seventh Avenue and hear English spoken all around me. Then stood in line for the dolmaş [mini-van] to Findikzade behind a transvestite in ersatz, very lame, drag. This town sometımes seems a far stranger place than New York; but I suppose it’s had a longer time to get that way. Carreening through the arches of an old Roman aqueduct, around buses, past the metros settling in for the night at the end of the line, up under the light shadow of sycamores just beginning to leaf–“Dür lütfen!”–stop please! I hop out, quickly before the darn thing careens off again with half of me still on the inside, and trot down the lozenge-shaped cobbles of my Sokak (street) two steps behind another person similarly en route. At the spoonmakers’ tomb are the Young Men with Nowhere to Go. The house is quiet. Even the cats are asleep.
Spring has sprung…
29 Nissan ’04: In the midst of Alice-in-Wonderland academic goings on and some expats who clung to their parochial view of the world like a log in a shipwreck, I leapt out of the morass and over to Kâdir Has Universitesi and a lecture by a polyglot architect on the historic city of Istanbul. Apparently I live in the old city of Constantinopolis, a Roman city built over the ancient Greek one, a “prestige” city, across from the commercial Genoese city of Galata (a “neighborhood”, in old Constantinople terms.) The Genoese traded in every thing from slaves to sealing wax; indeed, among the persons attending, was the only Classics scholar left in an Istanbul university, a woman who has been translating some of the old Italian documents (in vulgar Latin) that deal with these rather ordinary events. Let me repeat that: I have found out that all this time I have been living in Constantinople. I leave for work through the Byzantine walls, great double-rowed, soft pink things in varying states of repair, the main roads cutting mercilessly through them–the walls go around three-fourths of the old city, but the sea wall bounding the Golden Horn is mostly non-existant now, as are the fori [ae?], the various Roman forums, with their phallic columns at the centre and an open space for assembly and debate. One such forum, however, was at Aksaray, now a convergence of highway, over- and under- passes, and a shallow dish shape to it that may very well have sported an outsized architectural–ahem–poking into the sky. Now a Victorian era mosque sits to one side–odd and, speaking of architectural ahems, with shy minarets. One has to look again to see them from the bus window, however one cannot help notice the lacey carvings over its surface, the people who help take care of the place wandering in and out of associated gateways, the men with their brimless hats with the knot at the top. (as if we could grab them and yank them back to heaven…) Thus, the mosque strikes me as oddly feminine, all done up in domes and lace.
The speaker, Mete, is a rather handsome older man who trained here in Istanbul, New York, and Western Europe, and has restored an old British jail in Galata–not for use as a jail, but as a restaurant. Is it fitting that the suffering of past others should be subsumed by the gluttony of the present? the sorrows of the unfortunate, expiated by the joys of the fortunate? Fuggetaboutit. Avoid cloying moralism today! eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow is iffy…
30 Nisan ’04: After much insistence on my part, Beykent [my university] sends a car and driver to take me to the bus station, where I am put on a bus for Edirne, met by the driver for a lisei (secondary school) also part of the vast empire of Adam Çelik, hardhat made good (rich at least) and owner and builder of the school were I teach. I am still on a tourist visa, largely due to their shilly-shallying.
From the Edirne bus station one of their English-speaking teachers takes me to the border between Edirne and Greece where I am processed out of Turkey. I walk over the border on a country road past soldiers in identical camouflage, but belonging to two different country’s armies, armed with fierce-looking guns, also identical. It is a beautiful day. I start up the road past the Turkish side and all the doves are lowing, perhaps in the minor key of Turkish popular music, and when I pass the first Greek soldier, he says, “Good Morning, How are you?” in perfect, idiomatic English. So does another soldier who directs me to Customs when I mistake the barracks for it instead. As with the alphabet, upon crossing the avian chorus changes abruptly: sparrows and finches chatter in the hedgerows;
Welcome to Greece! the signs presumeably say in Greek letters.
I am stamped in and out by yet another English-speaking guard who gets me a ride with a Greek citizen and his wife who are crossing back to the Turkish side. “I only know one word in Greek, Efkaristoh,” I tell them upon re-entry. They smile broadly. Thank-you is a good word to know in any language.
So. My visa has been extended, and the English-speaking teacher drives me back to the lisei. On the way we pass little single-story houses among the trees, with red tile roofs (everything possible has red tile roofs in Turkey, anyway.) You can see little gardens with green-blue spikes of onion planted in neat rows, lettuces, carrot fronds, and the beginnings of other vegetables. The fresh air, the quiet, is almost a biological release–like a good massage–after the congestion of Istanbul and the long commute out to the unremitting ugliness of Beykent, where my school is:
1 May ‘(Mayıs) 04: Saturday, May Day. As I am leaving to haunt my favorite bookstore, Homer, then meet Pino the Grim, my Italian ex-pat friend, at a vegetarian restaurant, the kapicı’s [kapicı is roughly equivalent to a “Super”] a wife waylays me at the door, “Madame!”
Leaving my shoes politely at their door, I am ushered into their galley kitchen where his daughter scoops two heaps of a brownish something onto a plate (there goes my diet!) Through a great deal of stops and starts from Turkish to English, at best Tinglish, the daughter explains that today is a Muslim holiday. If I get it right, it is the day that the Prophet ascended into paradise. The treat is semolina sweetened with honey–a traditional dessert for that day.
I hope I am not being rude not being able to completely finish it and having to race off; it was very kind, very thoughtful.
Perhaps they were being nice because I encountered a rat this AM in my airspace–Rattus rattus, from the looks of it. A norwegian rat, as opposed to the New Yawk Super Rat–a mere child by comparison, but not in my airspace, thank you very much! Abdurrahman!! Abdurrahman!! My kapici must have sensed the urgency of my tone when I shrieked, as he came right away, with barely time to slip in and out of his shoes, go back out and get some rat poison, and pantomime the thing nibbling at something, then–Abdurrahman’s angular arms akimbo–falling down dead. He also plastered up the concrete hatch that leads to the, literally, Byzantine sewage system coursing somewhere between the big pipe that runs down my wall and the Underground…
2 Mayis ’04: No Rattus rattus corpse–I can see the postman climbing up the steps to the front doors–and no snail mail as yet. How come?
I spent four hours walking all the way to SultanAhmet where the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque are, then walked around the park surrounding the Topkapı palace. No wonder the Ottomans thought of themselves as invincible–the size of that palace! Mind you, I have yet to go behind the walls.
I also wandered into the cemetery where, I think, the last Sultan is buried. At least his wives are. The gravestone gave the birthdate as prior to the twentieth century till 1978. Someone lived a long time and saw inconceivable changes. Indeed, the people buried in this particular cemetery all died in the twentieth century and, thus, appear to be the last of the Ottomans. The script on the pillar-like (though small) headstones is not something I can read–old Ottoman script, I suppose. The walk, several miles long, took me past old walls, cemeteries, mosques, a hamam (Turkish steam bath), the huge remnants of the old Theodosian gates from the fourth century BCE. They straddled the street easily at one time. Now they are in chunks, carved ironically with shapes resembling tears. A vida!
May 8 ’04: Hot dawg! Met H.G. yesterday so he could pass me on my fully typed novel; I can finally proof it and go on!
Friday, then, and I get to keep a dinner date with R., the Canadian woman who teaches in the “prep” program (getting the poor dears ready for English on a college level), her daughter, and her St. Lucian husband. They are sweet people. They live in a small seaside town at the end of the bus line about 20 minutes from school. The town sits right on the edge of the Sea of Marmara and they have a modest apartment with an outside patio, yellow roses growing around the railing, a pear tree, other apartments with flowers and trees alongside them and a visible and straight shot to the beach via the street. It’s rather idyllic by comparison to my dusty urban life– merchants pushing carts and hawking their wares outside my window, neighborhood noises, rats (no, do not be alarmed, no more since the lone one I caught sauntering out into my airspace) and cats.
We walk along the boardwalk, greeting all their neighbors, then eat for a song at a local fish restaurant; good conversation, food, not just the eternal work plaints. However, it takes nearly two hours to get home to Findikzade.
9 May’04: In this finally warm weather, the street vibrates with the sound of children playing, hawkers hawking, neighbors neighing, nothing out of hand. Ö. showed up this afternoon, thinner than usual, looking like a little boy in his blue jeans, but with an adult’s head. Life is pretty baroque (E. F. would say “Byzantine”) for him right now, and the conversation ranged. I miss his good spirits, which seem to have disappeared, like the sun behind an anxious cloud.
How can one not be pleased on a nice early summer day? After puttering, I headed up to the center to shop for books and treat myself to a nice vegetarian meal.
At the bookstore, the young Turkish girl who waits on me seems to have a wistful appetite for the books I choose. I decided against buying Carson McCullers’ Member of the Wedding , as, frankly, I knew I could buy it more cheaply at home this summer; but she starts to devour it. “You go ahead and enjoy reading my book; I’ll pass…” She is captivated by it–I guess I had best look at it again myself.
The value of the dollar has just shot up to the disadvantage of the TL–that is, it takes more Turkish Lire to buy one dollar. My dinner at a nice vegetarian restaurant I have discovered, behind Istiklal, the main drag in Taksim, cost 19 TL: 15 USD by the old value; 13 USD by the new. And, mind you, that’s with a glass of wine, coffee, and two courses.
15 Mayis ’04: Went down to Kâdir Has Universitesi to hear a slightly creaky John Freely, author of many fine travel guides to this city, hold forth. I learned where the seven hills of Istanbul are—nearly all but Samatya’s (my favorite fish place and old Armenian neighborhood) are along the banks of the Golden Horn. His creakiness was the result of a double hip replacement, but his mind was well-oiled and he ranged lavishly over his topic. This fair city. For the time being, “my” Constantinopolis— that is, the part of the city where I live, the oldest, though somewhat down at the heels, yet that which, Freely says, has sustained the least damage. The seven hills, however, have been worn down over the centuries—yea, flattened–and one does not much notice them except on foot, when you have to walk up.
I turned in my book list for the course I will teach next fall at K.H. and joined the group for a lovely dinner of mezes and rakı at a restaurant called EOS, built into the wall of the row of buildings across a narrow cobblestone street that winds between the school (and old tobacco factory) and it. Met some more of the characters who have made this place their home—a slender, disgruntled poet, John Ash; a man born in East Africa bemoaning the feel of soft dust between your toes (not sure exactly that means, except maybe a little too much rakı); another teacher, a co-translator of Dear Shameless Death, by Latife Tekin (a splendid contemporary Turkish novel I am reading) who is also a resident of Galata on the other side of the Horn—and who obligingly offered me a tour of it this upcoming Monday; various and sundry others.
Then, upon my return, IT began. Thinking it was merely the tum-tum in need of soothing, I consumed a bit of yogurt I had rather carelessly homemade.
The rest of the evening was not pleasant. Nor was the next day, which was actually horrid. I did not go to work. At the end of the day, O. came by and took me up the seventh hill to the hospital. I do not think it was EOS, the restaurant, as Gönül reported that she had seen the KH department head looking lively and chipper at a conference. Or was I the lucky one who got the one bad fish morsel? Should I NOT have eaten that yogurt? those numerous fresh cherries?
The nurses immediately took a blood sample and put me on an IV with something the color of Gatorade in it. My bloods, got in half an hour, were gratefully normal.
The hospital was clean, sterile procedure fairly well observed, not as much high-tech equipment and, hence, people’s cell phones a-ringin’. The E.R. had a room full of beds, mostly full. A fat woman surrounded by relatives. An old man who had clearly had a mild stroke having his reflexes tested by a young physician with greying temples, also surrounded by anxious family; a middle-aged man whose cell phone kept ringing, stroking his aged mother’s lovely wrinkled face tenderly as she lay there, scarf secure around her head. An old lady chattering a mile a minute came in, hopped up on a bed and the nurses put her an oxygen mask over her face. When I saw her hop out of the bed and turn up the gas, I called O.’s attention—maybe you better tell the nurse—which he did. “They say she’s been coming in her for three years now. They know her tricks.” I saw them come back and turn the oxygen down. She adjusted her headscarf.
Diagnosis: food poisoning. After they rehydrated me and shored up the old electrolytes, they sent me home. The cab cost more than the visit: a mere 5 milyon TL charge for the hemogram (less than $5). Being a state hospital, and considered one of the poorer ones, the doctors do not make much money. Yet, no fee. I am hoca.
Today the ship that was listing is righting itself, though I still feel a bit like an old scow. Food is intimidating; milk products anathema.
No, I feel like a rather fleshly hydrofoil as the digestion attempts to start up its engines—gassy, gurgling, and occasionally feeling the need to bail out the engine room. In the afternoon I met JB with the intention of stopping by Homer and letting them know about my book order, having some tea; the air was clearer than I have seen it since I arrived here and the old city sprawled out on either side of the Horn in its pinks, its beiges and its tile roofs, domes and minarets, so seductive, subtlety strutting its stuff. My dolmaş whizzed along over the bridge screeching to a two-second halt while I tilted out onto the sidewalk leading to Galatasaray. There is a little courtyard I pass through just opposite what’s left of the British consulate and a very attractive street cat I have recently been romancing. He/she is like a miniature version of my old Queequeeg and can been seen begging food from the tourists who sit in the middle of the court on little rush stools sipping çay and nibbling pastries. I shall nominally call it “Quince.” Our first meeting was a success—delicate though poignant. A few strokes on the head, a shy turn in the head from across the cobblestones.
Homer was closed, the tea place on the steps behind the lycee filled (who wants to sit inside?), JB not very adventurous in wanting to explore the back streets of Istanbul; I, like my beloved kitties, wanting to see what’s just around the corner. We came up behind Saint Anthony’s, the French catholic church where African refugees are taught Turkish. From the sidestreet, the building juts up like a fortress, despite its aging brick.
Am now reading Nâzim Hikmet’s Beyond the Walls in translation and finding some remarkable poems: for example, a wonderful “Extracts from the Diary of La Giaconda,” where the Mona Lisa gets a cold from someone leaving the window open. She then greets her visitors with a “catarrhal smile.” Or just a lovely flight of imagination in “The Blue-Eyed Giant, the Miniature Woman and the Honeysuckle,” which I leave to your imagination and which will surprise you. As I read I also listen to a CD of arabi-andalusian music I found (if the refugees from Grenada did not come to Istanbul, they went to Fez and thence East.) It is secular and romantic, with titles like “you who send me into swoons of love with the capricious fluttering of your dark eyes;” and the music is remarkably like the Turkish classical music I have heard on the radio. I wonder if Al Andalus is a common musical denominator? Or is it the ancient Babylonian? JB tells me the Pope has issued some sort of R.C. fatwa against catholic/muslim “intermarriage” —does this nonsense ever stop? Despite that bit of indigestion (pardon the gustatory references, but given the situation…), it is the poetry that makes this place real again. One has to read the books—somehow —and listen, visit those bloody palaces and walk the oh-so-cobbled streets to get one’s feet on the ground and not succumb to the ever-present expat whine. Forget il papa.
It is cold at home—dreadfully for the middle of May, and the heat went off at the end of April. No amount of persuasion will make the kapicı crank up the gas, so I sit here with vats of warm herbal tea, wrapped up in my thermal nightgown, socks, slippers and a sweater. I know there is warm weather somewhere on this planet.
22 Mayis ’04 Finally, in the last three days the weather has warmed up, in time for the once-a-year trot around Fener and Balat. Emin Saatçi, editor of a beautiful magazine called CORNUCOPIA, full of photos and elegant art about Turkey, annually takes Kâdir Has folks, students and interested others (like moi) on a walk around these old neighborhoods of ancient Constantinopolis. You can whisk by the area en route to Taksim with a quick glance over your shoulder and see nothing, just a sprawl, a few dusty side streets. But when you go through the gate where the Venetians, the Turks–the many and several enemies of the successive powers behind those walls–made their breech, it seems like a rabbit warren. Is this the Istanbul you have gotten accustomed to? the every day passing it by, mind on the future out of touch with now, certainly with then?
Both neighborhoods are filled with clearly impoverished residents, and sadly disintegrating ancient, ancient homes. They seem both like a little village and something vaguely reminiscent of the streets of Barcelona (indeed some of the restoration work is being done by Spaniards who did help restore Barcelona), but also like a the fine-lined face of an old woman whose wisdom would stop us all. Fener is primarily the ancient Greek neighborhood; Balat, Jewish neighborhood whose Jewish residents are few now, made up of those who had been there since time immemorial, the people who came fleeing the persecution of the Spanish Inquisition in 1492, and other persecutions–all guaranteed the right to practice their religion freely here within the walls of Byzantium/Constantinople/ Istanbul.
The old sea walls persist, in varying states of tumble-down-ness. Camomile daisies and purple thistles bloom in its nooks and crannies. At the second of the old gates en route, we stop to visit a beautiful old hamam which is being tidied up for a film: the wildflowers still grow on the roof. Byzantine church, mosque, or hamam, the vaults—ahh!—and the open spaces such construction provides, the light on the arches is remind you once more, of what it is like to breathe, as though we hadn’t been breathing fully for a while.
We visited the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, then St Theodosia’s (now a lovely open-spaced mosque), St George’s, another church which was, once I believe, St Euodoxia’s where the last Byzantine emperor prayed for victory against the Turks (his prayer was not heeded), a monastery whose name I forgot, if I ever heard it correctly in the first place, and, finally, when my lame back was screaming, a spring in a very Orthodox setting where both Greek Orthodox and Muslims still visit for its healing powers. We walked and walked, up narrow streets that passed between dusty two and three-story houses with second story overhangs; under vines growing across the street via the wires; past little courtyards with a single enduring fruit tree rising out of the dust; an old library, now closed and wanting restoration; past wiry little boys and pale little girls playing in the streets; women with headscarves and men in long jackets with crocheted muslim caps–buttons on top–a gaggle of women in black; up an incredible length of stairs past a pasha’s derelict palace to a Greek monastery, now scarcely used. It was once a convent, St. Mary of the mongols, founded by the daughter of Byzantine emperor who, having once been married off to a Mongol potentate refused to be sent out by her father to do it once more and took vows instead.
One church was built upon a foundation put down in the 400s; another built in the 13th century, others first put down in the 15th century, one in the 18th, another a mere youngster in its 19th century construction. The Patriarchate itself has moved around a bit in the neighborhood, but each of the churches in its jurisdiction sanctuary seems to make a point of hanging its framed declaration from the Sultan at the time—or a succession of Sultans—proclaiming their right to worship freely. All are ornate—lots of embossed silver over the icons, paintings, glass chandeliers—some simpler, framed by wonderfully vaulted Byzantine architecture, set in lovely gardens with roses and potted geraniums. The Golden Horn twinkles off in the distance, appearing and reappearing as we climbed one street or descended on another. UNESCO is restoring 150 houses in Fener, free provided that they have not changed ownership any later than 1996 (a hedge against land speculation) though there are inroads, unfortunately.
After the miles of walking, we all hopped a bus (having just missed—literally—the boat going the same way) and got off back at the hamam. We stopped at a simple restaurant to eat. Faced with meat swimming in grease, no doubt delicious, I opted for vegetables and soup, only to find it a daunting sheep’s foot soup, or “trottuhs,” as participant, Mel Kenne of South Texas drawled it. Nice idea, bad idea—yuk. Good leeks, bad feet.
After the haul, I followed Mel to Galata where he was kind enough to show me where one buys cilantro and shitake mushrooms and a pricey health food store where I actually found some flax oil and some not-so-hot soymilk. We proceeded to his house just below the Galata tower for tea—it’s a fourth floor walkup with a spectacular view of the convergence of the Horn and Bosphorus and the roofs of Sultanahmet on the other side. Gulls and swallows and rose-breasted doves flit about and, way below, the boats move up and down the waters. The call to prayer reverberates in the sunset, which, as it reflects off the windows of the Asian side has a special
name in Turkish, synonymous with the word for “fire.”
26 Mayis ’04: A strange week dealing with difficult students. In the prep classes (they must take these to improve their English before taking college level courses), a knife fight broke out. One of the combattants was my grad student’s student.
One of the unspoiled children of the working class, in the form of Byram—whose full name he translates into English as “Carnival Star”—came to visit on Monday, my precious only day off, and as much as I actually wanted not to be bothered, he was quite helpful, fixing some little things in the house that I was either too weak, too short, or too decrepit to manage. Then I got a lesson in Turkish out of it. The syntax is the reverse of our plain Jane English (or vice verse, I suppose): for example, “where is the post office?” becomes “post office where is?” Turkish has long polysyllabic words with beautiful aspirated “r”s and soft sounds like “iyi aks [with a tail]amlar,” “iyi aksamlar,” which is pronounced roughly like ee-yee yak-sham-lahrr, with a little catlike hiss because you don’t close your mouth at the end. But, it is not easy for English speakers, and Latin is no help, except when it comes to case. Yes, Virginia, Turkish has case—not just possessive, but dative, objective, ablative, locative, probably more—and this thing called “vowel harmony” which determines how you pluralize, among other things. And for all his trouble, I am not allowed to reimburse him—no, no, hayir!
Crawling home on my hands and knees today, in between undergrad classes and my one lifesaving grad class, Abdurrahman knocks on my door, earnestly telling me something in Turkish. What did he want? No clue. However, I open my door and he hastily slips off his shoes, goes into my kitchen , and takes a bowl from the shelf. He makes me understand that I should wait, and he soon returns with a bowlful of absolutely perfect kirazlar– cherries. I don’t think I have ever had such good ones! Each one was blackred, perfectly ripe, soft and sweet, certainly not at all like the ones your buy off the wooden carts on all the street corners now piled with cherries, apricots, and green plums. (At least I know how to say thank you in this strange language.)
My students told me that Abdurrahman’s kirazlar were probably from his village. I could make something “typical of my country” in return, they said—what, a bowlful of hot dogs?
How will I ever leave Findikzade if Abdurrahman and his family keep spoiling me like this?
Life is just a bowlful of…
30 Mayis 2004: Abdurrahman is showering me with cherries! I am on my third bowl.
2 June (Haziran) ’04: Burrowing into a pile of books about matters Balkan, Turkish, and “Eastern,” negotiating the ins and outs of this fall’s contract with my neo-Ottoman employers, working on the proofing of mi novela, I started listening to some of my Latin American music. Big mistake. Fascinating as Istanbul is, a wave of—what? homesickness? what the Brasilieros call “soudade”?—hit me. Whereas the Turk seems to wail and moan beautifully, nonetheless with no hope of consolation, the Latino gets out the cuatro, the guitar, the percussion, and dammit, dances–does the salsa, the merengue, the cumpla! Travel to another country/culture has for so long meant a trip to someplace where—number one—the weather isn’t so persistently cold. Yes, I know the Istanboulis are complaining because summer is late and something interminable that New Englanders would call “spring,” which has wildflowers poking up out of the snow and real New Englanders (alas, not me!) running around in shorts and tee-shirts in 40 degree weather till summer and its mosquitos finally arrives on its hands and knees—something like that sort of spring has been hanging around here forever. I am still wearing a sweater over my cotton sweater in this apartment, still sleeping in my waffle weave winter nightie under a down quilt. Oh for a goddam palm tree! A bulbul, a mango! It gives one new perspective on the shock of finding what some medieval scholar thought was Paradise in the “new” world. However, as I open Farewell to Salonika by Leon Sciaky, a memoir written in 1946 about the vanished, more tolerant and more diverse world of what is now Greek Thessolonika, I find this quote:
All the miracles and victories
that the Lord performs are by
virtue of the plain people.
—Midrash on Psalms, Chapter 119
If, divested of its religious overtones, that means what I think it means—the “miracles and victories” of the humble, ordinary person, then there are such in my little microcosm, my humble little neighborhood. I made a vain attempt to give something back to my kapici’s family for their fruited kindnesses and produced a jar of malta plum preserves, evde yapilmis—”homemade” by yours truly. I no sooner handed it over to my kapici’s wife when she produced a bowlful of just evde yapilmis manti, little squares of pasta pressed together jauntily around a small drop of spices and meat or cheese. They were delicious! I am stumped as to what to do next.
I told O. what happened and he just laughed.
17 Haziran ’04: It is warm now.
Slithering to Byzantium…
22 Haziran ’04: The university’s ongoing difficulties have had me distracted: or to put it another way, I have allowed it to invade altogether too much of my consciousness. Heat is here; Findikzade is green now; even Bükyükeckmece has fields of wildflowers to mitigate the ugliness of those disastrous high rises, some of them probably erected by the owner of my university (what a blight! shame on him!) My apartment, however, is nice and cool. I read like I haven’t in years, burrowing into matters Ottoman and Balkan in the French Institute library in Taksim, surrounded by the musky smell of books and old floorboards, gulls swooping and sounding their airborne sonar outside the windows, tall plane trees trembling in the courtyard. To be able to read in French is still a complete surprise to me, and I am now digging into the several stories of the real Count Dracula—in the Austro-Hungarian empire he is the villainous Vlad the Impaler (“empaleur,” en français); in Kiev and Russia, that and through oral transmission, a bit of Ivan the Terrible; in the Balkans, sometimes a villain, but in Romanıa almost completely, via orature(as Ngugi would say), a national hero for resisting the Ottomans. I read at home in my wicker rocking chair—most recently about the Englishman who was ambassador for Ghengis Khan’s son, the one who nearly barbecued all of Europe— The reading has been a way in, a way of discovering that, indeed, I am at the gateway between the east and the west; and it becomes more and more intriguing.
It is also one of those times where little seems to be happening on the surface, yet where much is going on inside; and so it is as difficult to describe in words as a particularly vivid morning dream.
This morning, I woke early, first to the mutterings of the several mosques in my area—Al-LAH!– the first call to prayer, depressed with the school morass, but decided to get up anyway and meander over to the computer and finish off the last page of Beastly. It has been haunting me. But NO MORE! It’s done, really done, and my Canadian friend from school, Renee, is going over it one more time for all the typos I can no longer see for the forest of words. The sense of relief at knowing it is finished is quite different from all the times I thought it was. Back to Findikzade, which has been such a comfort all these months. I came up the steps this afternoon with my olives and cheese purchased from the yogurt maker next door and there is the elderly gentleman who lives upstairs with two birdcages, one with a small brownish bird, another with a yellow canary in it. “Evet! Evet!” he says, several times over. “Yes, yes.” I get my keys to open the door and hold it for him and, in French he explains that they belong to the “Mademoiselle”— I think he means his daughter—who is in school or, given his age, perhaps teaching, in Ankara. Then a few more “evets” and a burst of Turkish, but there is a communion of some sort. It is, to say the least, the little things that count: the presence of birds in the house, the plants in the window (my upstairs neighbor is now putting them in hers), walking up the walk past the Spoonmaker’s tomb and being greeted by a dog, rather suddenly. The dog is “mein bruder,” a golden shorthaired fellow who belongs to the man I have dubbed “Mayor of Dedepasha Street,” the man who attempts to communicate with me in German; but the dog is not about to sink his fangs in my calf. Rather he merely wants to say hello and sop up a few more pats on the head. Abdurrahman and another neighbor all “iyi akshamlar” me as I head off for the internet cafe. The street is alive with the sounds of children playing. It is a comfort to know that somewhere in the world kids still play in the street rather than growing obese in front of that tyrannical blue light in the living room. I can see O’s light shining dimly through his green curtains, and I suppose he is busy translating something, leaning into his alternative blue light in the living room.
I am told that this humble little corner of the universe is very much like a Turkish village. It must be so.
A note about teaching in Turkish Universities: It would appear that Turks who have made good financially often start universities. I have yet to figure out if this is an elaborate tax dodge—people are a bit lax in that area as it is—or some genuine attack of benevolence, or both, as the founders might be financial whizzes but no one has said they are highly, or even well, educated. These private universities vary in quality considerably. Students who matriculate there may not have had quite the exam scores or the je ne sais quoi to get into the public universities. One must have high exam scores to get into the public schools and, after that, it’s a free ride. I taught for a semester at one private university of dubious quality, moonlighted at a public university (Bogacizi–the students were wonderful!), and spent most of my four years at a better private university teaching and running a writing center.
This is the neighborhood, in Istanbul, where I lived when I first came to the city. It literally means “Hazelnut Village” and, no doubt, seemed more separate from the city center.
Turkish baths, heated to produce steam. Depending being oiled up and massaged was part of the routine. At one time these were sex-separated, community baths.