This post comes to you from Paris, the City of Light, where I am spending a week getting re-acquainted with a place I last visited in 1998. Upon arrival from Brussels, where we had spent a week enjoying that city’s beer, chocolate and Christmas markets, I encountered a changed city (well, just the terminal, really): it is bigger, much bigger, and more bustling, so much so that I had the darndest time locating the RER B line toward Robinson (a “down” arrow doesn’t always mean “downstairs”, but “straight ahead”). While I hunted for my platform a casually well-dressed man asked me to give him 50 cents, only to shout at me to “stay home” when I refused. Paris continued to try to take my money when I purchased a Metro ticket from one of the machines, only this time it succeeded in appropriating my €1.70 without issuing me a ticket because the machine was experiencing an “ERREUR.” The transaction went more smoothly and judiciously at the machine on the other side of the hall, and with freshly printed ticket in hand I hopped on the B to Châtelet where I transferred to the A until Nation, transferring again to the 6 and got off at the bucolic sounding Bel-Air stop, about 200 meters away from my rented flat in the 12th Arrondissement.
While I am in Paris Steve is revisiting Amsterdam, a city that has become one of his favorites, and we meet up again on the other side of the Channel next weekend. Before Amsterdam, Paris and Brussels, we spent a delightful food and wine-centered week-and-a-half in Spain with our good friends Sean and Abby from San Francisco. Our time at El Celler de Can Roca, a restaurant about an hour outside Barcelona in the town of Girona, was especially exquisite – a blog post on that experience coming soon.
But now, Istanbul. I have never experienced a city quite like this one. Vibrant, colorful, historic, exotic, chaotic, a little bit of Europe, a little bit of Asia, mysterious yet approachable all at once. The center of the world it seemed at times, and for many years it was (at least of the Western world) as Constantinople, Istanbul’s former name, served as the capital of the Roman Empire. It is difficult to capture the essence of this city in mere words and photos. So I am also going to use numbers. Yes NUMBERS! In this era of economic uncertainty, when the European Union is deciding what to do to save the euro, when the United States is hoping that its beleaguered citizens shop till they drop for stuff that no one wants or needs this holiday season, when we all are wondering if the grass is really greener over there, numbers are on the brain. Numbers are digestible, numbers are easy to remember, numbers are fun to play around with. You can also paint by them. Paint by numbers. There is no better city to do this with than Istanbul. So I give you Istanbul…by Numbers:
$20: What it costs for a Turkish visa.
If you are carrying US dollars, that is. Otherwise you may also pay using British Pound Sterling or Euros. £20 or €20. Wait, £20 and €20 are not the equivalent of $20, you say? $20 is worth less than £20 and €20! You are correct, but that doesn’t seem to concern the Turkish Border Police. 20 is 20 is 20.
We arrived at the Turkish border around 4:00 in the morning from Bucharest, after having experienced a leisurely ride on our rickety Soviet-era train that was probably ultra-plush at the time through Southern Romania and Bulgaria. Since we were crossing borders of not-yet-implemented-Schengen states, we had to go through passport control three times before hitting Turkey: once leaving Romania, and twice in Bulgaria, entering and exiting. The passport control agents come onto the train, knock on your cabin door and ask to see your passports. They will often look in the cabin, up and down, to see if you are stowing anyone away. They will ask “Where are you going?” and sometimes engage in a bit of small talk. While waiting at one of the Bulgarian train stations we saw this:
Sadness and levity. Steve threw them a few morsels of bread which they seemed to inhale rather than chew.
Less sad but more imposing was the Bulgarian passport control agent who, after having received our passports and asking our destination, got on his radio and said in a broad deep voice, in an accent reminiscent of the Cold War and movies from the 1980s that portrayed all Soviets as sinister: “A-ME-RI-KAN-SKI.” Gulp.
Except he wasn’t sinister. Just matter-of-fact. He took away our passports in order to type our details into the computer that I assumed was at the checkpoint (the agents from other countries had handhelds), returned with the passports, gave them back to us and wished us a nice trip.
Turkey was different. At 4:00 AM we had to get off the train to buy our visa at a window of one building and then go inside a different building to meet with a border crossing agent to get the passport stamped. Thanks to The Man in Seat 61 we knew not to follow the crowd off the train to the right, but rather go to the far left, to an unmarked barely lit-up window to buy our visa ($20×2=40), then go back to the border crossing office to get our stamp. Those who did not know this inside information were greeted by an officious border police officer who tried to put it to these accidental scofflaws as succinctly as possible: “You need visa. Go outside and get visa.” Thanks. (Maybe a sign to that effect would help the next 1,000,000 times this happens, Turkish Border Crossing Police Officer.)
In six short hours we would be in Istanbul, arriving at its pristine and pretty Sirkeci Station, full of charm and allure and still very much owning its past as the eastern terminus of the Orient Express. Luxury and intrigue. Ahhh.
1453: The year of the Ottoman Conquest of Constantinople, when the city changed its name to Istanbul.
This event is unabashedly commemorated in sculpture with the numbers 1-4-5-3 displayed in 5-ft high red fiberglass pieces. These numbers are located on the Asian side of Istanbul, Anatolia, an area of the city that is less interesting than its European counterpart. On this side are many mosques and apartment blocks, a long promenade along the water’s edge and the highest point in Istanbul, Çamlıca Hill, which we didn’t visit but saw its peak from down below. Ferries leave Eminonu on the European side for Uskudar on the Asian every 15 mins or so and they are packed as you have never seen. We took one leaving in the early afternoon and sat on a narrow bench outside and watched as we crossed the Bosphorus, passing ships, yachts and fishing boats, descendants of those vessels that used to travel this choppy bit of water carrying goods, food and people for centuries and centuries ago.
7: The number of times that I said that the Hagia Sophia is the “most incredible place that I have ever seen.” It is truly spectacular and I can’t say enough about it.
I mean, just look at it! A masterpiece of Byzantine architecture. It seems to radiate light and envelop you, at the same time rendering you awestruck staring into space with mouth agape. Gorgeous mosaics of Christian imagery, majestic discs containing verses of the Koran painted in gold, porphyry columns, kaleidoscopic tiles. There is a beautiful energy to the place, with Christian and Islamic symbols co-existing and the flow of disparate onlookers admiring both. One of the onlookers was this guy:
Yes, it is actor Tate Donovan. You may remember him from roles in the movie Space Camp, as Rachel Green’s boyfriend on Friends, as someone’s dad in The O.C., and from the TV show Damages. The picture is blurry, I know, but it was the very one used to correctly identify him with even fewer clues by one Mary Gibson when I posted it on Facebook. So there.
Some hard and fast numbers about the Hagia Sophia:
360 – Year first church was built on site
414 – Year second church was built on site
532 – Year church burned down during the Nika Revolt, some crazy brawl at the chariot races that turned ugly
537 – Year third and current church was built on site by Emperor Justinian I. This is the structure we see today. Almost 1,500 years old!
1453 – Year of the Ottoman Conquest, and when Mehmet II converted the church into a mosque. Mehmet must have recognized the beauty and architectural exceptionalism of the building because he elected not to tear it down.
1935 – Year Ataturk decommissioned the mosque and transformed the building into a museum which it is to this day
It should come as no surprise that the building is under constant restoration, with conservationists monitoring every crack, chip and fissure. Earthquakes occur frequently in Turkey and it would be a travesty if one were to fell this outstanding and precious structure after it had stood for so long.
2,585,994,380: The number of times we were asked to by a carpet. I swear it felt like this many. You cannot avoid it. You can’t avert your eyes or pretend you don’t hear. It exists on every corner of every block. You are a walking potential transaction and there is nothing that can prepare you for the onslaught of the Turkish salesman who insists that you complete it.
Just wander into the Grand Bazaar. An enormous covered market of 1,000s of shops selling pottery, tiles, books, t-shirts, lamps, dresses, spice, jewelry, leather goods and trinkets and, of course, carpets. All of the salesmen (I don’t recall seeing any women in the role) are aggressive, some charming, others more desperately insistent. They will use a line – one to flatter the woman, one to make fun of the man – to get to you make eye contact, chat for a bit, then bring you into their shop for “five minutes.” If you balk at the “five” then it magically becomes “two.” All of a sudden you realize that have spent the better part of an hour going through sample after sample of (insert item here), something you probably didn’t want and certainly didn’t need but, since you took so much of the charming man’s time, you feel obligated to buy.
Don’t buy anything in the Grand Bazaar, we were told. And we didn’t.
But we almost bought a carpet in the Sultanahmet…
Well, not really, but here’s what happened. We were walking on the stretch of road between the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque when we were approached by a young guy who heard us speaking in English. He told us his name was Beyar, he was Kurdish and had an American girlfriend who lives in San Francisco and he likes to practice his English with people he meets in Istanbul. He asked us about New York, our trip, where we had been and where we were going. I was waiting for the “you want to buy a carpet” question, but it didn’t come with that much precision. It was more off-handed, as in “I work at a carpet shop but I am not asking you to come with me and buy a carpet. But it is a really nice shop in a non-tourist part of the city. I can show you if you like.” We said “No thanks” and that we were going to get some lunch. “I can show you a great restaurant. Real home-cooked Turkish food.” We thought “What the heck?” and followed him down the cobblestone streets to an area of pretty shops and restaurants near the Four Seasons Hotel in North Sultanahmet. Certainly not the typical tourist beat but an area obviously catering to the more discerning traveler. Before leaving us at the restaurant, Beyar said, “If you want to, you can come over to the shop. But you don’t have to. Don’t worry about it.”
After a nice lunch of kebaps and ayran (a salty yogurt drink popular in Turkey and something we grew quite fond of) at Beyar’s recommended restaurant, we didn’t see him come back to hound us as we expected, so we left, walking past the carpet shop but on the other side of the street. We heard a voice call out “Excuse me, Beyar said you might like to see some carpets.” So there it was. Beyar had mastered the soft hook and this guy, the real salesman was going in for the kill. His English was impeccable, his hair was longish but well-groomed and shiny, and was dressed in a nice suit and shirt, no tie. We again said “What the heck?” and were taken up the stairs into a loft replete with comfy couch, trays of tea on low table and piles and piles of carpet. Before we could say “Tell us about your carpets” he launched into a diatribe about Turkish carpets, that the best ones are hand-woven and colored with vegetable dyes, that they can be made of wool, cotton or silk, or a combination, that you have to be careful because so many are passed off as authentic but are really cheap knock-offs made in China, that they are easy to clean provided you use the correct cleaning agent and, most importantly, “No one ever wants to buy a carpet, but somehow people leave with one anyway.”
I can see why. The process is engrossing and you are almost convinced that you need to have one. While he talked he unfurled carpet after carpet, revealing each with a snap and soon the entire floor was covered with gorgeous rich color and dense texture. One I especially liked was a smallish carpet adorned with a sunburst motif in dark reds – just beautiful.
“This one could go in a hallway, this one in a living room, this one under your bed and this one in the entrance to your house.”
“We don’t have a house.”
“We don’t have an apartment.”
“We are homeless. We are on The Grand Tour, you see, so everything we own we carry on our backs, save for what we have stored in the shoebox-sized storage space we rented at Manhattan Mini-Storage (god what DID we put in there?)”
“Ok, you can just get a small carpet then. Something that could fit in a hallway, or a living room, or a bedroom or an entrance. And you could have it shipped to your parents who can keep it until you need it.”
Nice move. But not nice enough.
We declined, took his card, and said “If we do want to buy a carpet, we will let you know.”
No one ever wants to buy a carpet. And sometimes you don’t leave with one anyway.
But every once in a while I think about the dark red sunburst carpet that got away.
3: The number of times Steve was told he looked like Nicolas Cage.
I guess there is a passing resemblance. Something in the eyes perhaps. For three people in Istanbul Steve was Nicolas Cage, or at least the closest thing to Nic Cage that they were going to get. On each occasion we were walking down shop-lined streets when a young man strolled alongside us and said “Hey, you look like Nicolas Cage! That’s cool. He’s cool. I like his movies. Where you from? New York? I have a brother/uncle/cousin/friend who lives in New York!
This was inevitably followed up by the now proverbial, “You want to buy a carpet?”
This ain’t our first rodeo, pal.
9:05 AM: The time that Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the father of modern secular Turkey, died, on November 10, 1938, in Dolmabahçe Palace on the Bosphorus Strait. Ataturk is so revered to this day that it is a crime to insult him.
We happened to be in Istanbul this November 10, waiting in line outside the Topkapi Palace for its ticket booth to open at 9:00 AM. 9:00 AM arrived, and passed. 9:01, 9:02, 9:03, 9:04…we saw the ticket booth operators at their posts, and then suddenly leave their posts to stand outside near our line. At precisely 9:05 AM we heard what sounded like a fog horn, joined by a siren, and then whistles. At the first sound the ticket booth operators, security guards, tour guides, souvenir hawkers, gift shop employees, some people who were sitting at the nearby cafe drinking apple tea, other people who just happened to be walking in the palace gardens, stopped and stood up straight and remained still. They didn’t move, they didn’t speak and I don’t think they even blinked. What we witnessed was the annual minute of silence to honor the passing of a man some call “the greatest Turk who ever lived.” Once the 60 seconds was up, the sirens and whistles stopped and everyone resumed their posts. I asked a Turkish man how Ataturk died and he told me “He drank too much.” Cirrhosis of the liver is what got him at age 57, the result of years of heavy drinking. Oh, and listen to what else I learned that day: Ataturk dated Zsa Zsa Gabor for a while!
The rest I leave to the photos: