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Small rituals and the crazy monk of Cihangir

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I awake with a sense of dis-ease, of lack of slackness, a low-level urge to just do something — not just wander around today, but to have a plan, to even have a commitment. I think about the other cities I’ve wandered through: how the initial giddy sense of timeless exploration mellows, and is replaced by small rituals. A traveler has two choices at this point: to declare a place ‘done,’ themselves bored enough to move on to the next destination; or to dive further in. Sometimes the making of little plans accomplishes more than checking off a list of destinations, but gives the explorer a structure in which to lose themselves more easily.

My flatmate George, smoking on the balcony as usual, asks me if I’d like to go with him to visit Dolmabahçe Sarayı, the palace of the Ottoman Empire. George is a rather sad man, and although we’ve talked a lot of broken English in the apartment, we’ve not gone out and done anything together. I say yes, then hop in the shower. When I come out of the bathroom, George is disappearing through the front door, and gives me a vague wink.

Assuming he has just gone out to get cigarettes, I wait. I think about having another cup of coffee. I talk to Zubeyir about the neuroscience conference he’s planning, and about how I’m starting to be bothered by George’s incessant smoking. Zubeyir suggests I move to the front room. I relay my belongings to the larger room that faces the street and a a view looking west over the city — a move that takes only ten minutes, given my nomadic state of living.

Finally I realize that George and I must have miscommunicated, and that he has gone to Dolmabahçe without me. I am back to my original unplanned day, although I soon remember two polar opposites of Istanbul experiences that call to me: rambling around Mısır Çarşısı, the old Egyptian spice market across the Galata Bridge in Eminönü, and visiting the Istanbul Modern, the contemporary art museum installed in an old warehouse that lies along the Bosphorus in the Tophane district.

I head down the hill on Sıraselviler Caddesi, the avenue just off the street where I live. I enjoy this descent to the sea: the Cihangir district always seems a buoyant and exuberant place, prosperous and active without being trendy and crowded. Enjoying their lunches on the sidewalk cafes, shopping for groceries, walking to catch a tram or a ferry, saying hello to each other — people are living their lives in a real neighborhood.

Somehow I catch the eye of a big bearded man in a loud red shirt who is sitting along the fence of the hospital. He is a bit bedraggled, and has the aura of someone on the margins, a little too unstable to live amongst the normals. ‘Where you from?’ he asks. It’s the question I am asked by the touts in the tourist district of Sultanahmet, the question one learns to avoid or else be taken in by the parasites who prey on the blood of tourists.

But this is Cihangir, not Sultanahmet, and it is a radiant cloudless Tuesday, and I am looking for adventure. So I recite my usual response: ‘America… Oregon… Portland,’ and he says, ‘Oh yes, Yellowstone Park, caribou!’ Not wanting to debate geography, I tell him ‘Yes, close.'

It turns out that in the early 1970s, Mustafa had motorcycled around the US. He enumerated the places he and his Moto Guzzi had visited; it covered a large part of the country, certainly more than most Americans have seen of their own place. We speak the travelers’ litany of the names of places we both know. He tells me of the preacher he met in at a campground in New Jersey, of the Italian restaurant where he cooked, of cycling the winding roads of Nevada and Florida.

As I listen, I dread his reminiscences turning into regrets and wishes, urges to return to his carefree expatriate journey, to the old days. But his stories are just stories, his memories just memories, and this, his station on the hill, is where he is, a crazy monk, surrounded by a few belongings, laughing about the past.

[dateline Istanbul, Turkey]

Posted by jslabovitz 22:55 Archived in Turkey

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