A Travellerspoint blog

Sleeping city

sunny 73 °F
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As if the city has decided to take a rest from its metropolitan identity, this Sunday night is calm and mellow. The sun’s heat has finally been blown away by the evening wind.

I’ve spent the day inside, also taking a break from the demands of the city. Like when I first arrived and had tweaked my back so much that I spent much of the first few days simply listening and trying not to move, my urban experience today has been filtered through the narrow angle of my sixth floor window.

The clink of tiny spoons in tea glasses echo from the school courtyard lit by flourescent lights. Last night a raucous party filled the space with the overcompensating shrieks of self-conscious teens; tonight is just a scattering of people, talking musically and moving to and fro on the playground swing.

A slow beat of music comes from the cafe that just two nights ago hosted crazed soccer fans screaming amid techno beats. The parking lot next door is nearly empty. A few couples stroll slowly towards Siraselvier Caddesi, perhaps heading home after an early evening meal.

The huge video display atop the office building not far from here still pulses its random patterns of lights, but now feels more stable, more calm, less frenetic. Instead of constant car horns, fireworks, and celebratory gunshots, I hear the tight, funneled sound of television shows, strummed guitars, windows closing. Someone plays an Abba song, crackling and distorted. A ship’s horn booms from the Bosphorus.

[dateline Istanbul, Turkey]

Posted by jslabovitz 13:45 Archived in Turkey Comments (0)

As the heat descends to dusk

sunny 85 °F
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Out here in the Turkish countryside southeast of Istanbul, across the Sea of Marmara, I am melting in the sweltering heat. The sun is an angry beast, directing its burning glare directly at me. My words stop coming, a huge heavy weight descends on my head, across my arms, holds down my eyelids. Sweat wells up constantly on my arms and the back of my neck and down my forehead. In pain, anger, frustration, torment, panic.

To escape, Kate & I have slunk into a simple cafe near the western gate of İznik. It’s one of those stark establishments that seem to lack any decoration, where all the old men hang out all day, talking and smoking and playing backgammon. A few simple tables and chairs are scattered along the front door. Inside, it’s dark and quiet, only a few tea-drinkers sit quietly, watching the street.

Yet as we sit there, my heat fever gradually subsiding, next to the lemonade machine clanking and grinding in the heat, a cloud of hominess envelops us. The cafe manager, a tall man in his mid-30s, circles around, fetching cups of tea and juice. He brings us tea and water, chats with his regular customers, and when there’s nothing else to do, smokes a cigarette at one of the outdoor tables and reads the sports page.

An older man walks slowly toward the cafe. He seems quite overdressed for the day: heavy long pants, a long-sleeved shirt, over which he wears a heavy winter vest, and a knitted cap over his white hair. Yet he is not sweating, and seems as comfortable as if the temperature were half of what it is. He waves at his friends, says hello to a few of them, and carefully, slowly, walks through the door, up the small steps into the dark cafe.

The heat settles a bit, and I regain my consciousness. We leave the cafe, stroll around the town, trying to stick to the shadows along the walls, exploring the shops and alleys and hamams along the streets of this compact town.

After eating a huge but simple spread of bread, chicken soup, rice, and grilled meat, Kate & I walk to the shore of İznik Gölü, the large lake that adjoins the town. As the sun sets below the mountains that ring the calm water, more people gather, sit at the cafe tables and park benches and shoreside stones, and watch the day pass on. Flutters of Turkish float on the air. The boys in the cafe bring out endless cups of tea, soda, and the salty ayran yoghurt drink. There is a lightness in the dusk air, a feeling of being in between the day and the night.

[dateline İznik, Turkey]

Posted by jslabovitz 00:33 Archived in Turkey Comments (2)

Friday night in Istanbul

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Fireworks boom from somewhere to south, their flares sadly obscured by the apartment building across Hoczade Street. Seagulls cry, angry and upset, and head north over my head, their white underbellies glowing against the violet sky. The imams’ evening prayers call out as a car skids out from the parking lot below me. Occasional cheers and whistles erupt from a few blocks away—perhaps Turkey has won the football game.

I feel almost guilty for not going out on this Friday night, but I’m nursing the grumpy ending of a semi-hangover from two too many Efes beers yesterday, and the effects of today’s humid and languid heat. Anyway, I can see the blue TV-light from flats in the adjoining apartment building, so I can’t be the only person in the city not out on the maddening streets.

Istanbul is addictive that way. Like most truly large cities, there is always something going on. That constant activity manifests itself as the lyrics of a siren song to the city dweller, always chanting, ‘Just one more…’ And while I’m sure that the outlying neighborhoods become calm as the night falls, Beyoğlu is one of the most popular districts; the later it gets, the more people seem to flood the streets.

If little Hoczade Street is so alive with nightlife, then Taksim Square, just a few blocks away, must be a buzzing explosion of people coming up from the metro and the buses and the old tram, buying *simit* pastries from the sellers at their carts, meeting their friends in front of the Burger King, eating *döner kebab* and hamburgers from the fast-food restaurants around the square, and hanging around İstiklâl Anıtı, the monument to Turkey’s independence.

And İstiklâl Caddesi must be a rushing river of hipster humanity, the pedestrian boulevard swimming with the crowds promenading from Taksim Square, through the crazy intersection at Galatasaray, and all the way down the hill to the Tünel, where the world’s second-oldest subway takes its brief journey down to the dark shores of the Golden Horn.

[dateline Istanbul, Turkey]

Posted by jslabovitz 13:10 Archived in Turkey Comments (1)

Rules of the road

sunny 70 °F
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In Istanbul, as in most cities, a pedestrian learns to never assume the next dance of a car: whether it will screech to a halt or stumble forward across a busy road, whether its driver will turn at the next boulevard or instead suddenly reverse into a newly open parking space, whether a jutting mirror or bumper will contact your knee. That the cars will stay on the road is the most common reality, but even that may not be the immediate future.

And the pedestrians most certainly do not stay on the sidewalk. If the object is to reach the next block, then the path is any route that will reach, regardless of law or obstacle. The sidewalk seems to exist only as a front stoop to the shops that line it. A cafe table, two friends talking, a step up to a shop, or an outright and dangerous hole — all are simply observed by the pedestrian, and avoided by walking into the street.

The only truth that holds is that no driver really wants to hit a pedestrian, and no pedestrian really wants to be run over. Observation, intuition, and action win out over regulations, ethics, and aesthetics. Confidence, on both sides, wins the game. The worst thing you can do as a pedestrian is move suddenly out of fear.

The rules are simple: assume nothing, don’t panic, and don’t be stupid.

[dateline Istanbul, Turkey]

Posted by jslabovitz 23:27 Tagged foot Comments (0)

Small rituals and the crazy monk of Cihangir

semi-overcast 68 °F
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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 Comments (0)

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