Friday, January 06, 2012

Back to the Crossroads. An Istanbul Journal.

“...And I went to the crossroad, momma.
I looked east and west...”
– Robt. Johnson

We sank into a cloudbank. Couldn’t see a thing till we touched down. Mid afternoon and thick gray skies scowled like the grizzled faces of Turkish men. No reason to be intimidated. Got some bozuk para, literally “broken money”, Turkish for change, for our 100 lira bills, and bought 2 jetons each, one to enter the subway, one to transfer to the tramway. Thus we began to break the rust off our Turkish, lain dormant for years, and let ourselves get swept into the undertow of Istanbul.

Uncharacteristically, we were traveling heavy, a bag and a suitcase each. School. Writing. Work. The various boulders on our shoulders. We clambered onto the tram which was empty – not for long – taking up far more than our fair share of space. Now the visuals of Istanbul began to pour down on us, all the little shops, restaurants, vendors, narrow alleys, crisscrossing pedestrians packing the sidewalks and slithering through insane traffic.
The neon signs;
The half dressed women on posters and newspapers; fruit piled elegantly on vendor carts and at the entrance to fresh grocers;

the steaming buffets showing off orange lentil soup, cooked beans, various kinds of stuffed eggplant and zucchini (dolmas), lamb stews, roasted chicken, and, of course, the donar (gyro) grill sizzling and dripping its hot juices.
The textile district, revealing and concealing, looking west and looking east;
the jewelry district, bangles piled high, glinting gold and false gold;
the plumbing supply district, with toilets lining the streets, then faucets, then pipes and tools;
cables and electronics, candy, toys, borek; shop after little shop; flashing signs, electronic and neon; hand-painted signs hanging a-kilter from their mounts; placards and graffiti; all densely layered, as we coiled thru this city, often seedy, sometimes seeming to be put together, but just barely.
Then as we approached historic Istanbul, the ancient buildings began to appear;
walls of brick and stone rubble, sagging or disappearing into crumbling poured concrete structures;
gaping ruins; 
ornate 19th century apartments, 4 and 5 stories tall as if we were in Warsaw or Budapest;
mosques, built in consecutive layers of stone and brick, their wide domes plated in lead, their single minarets with steep conical tops.

And finally, finally, with the tram totally dolmastir (stuffed, like a dolma), we began to descend to the Sultanahmet district, tourist haven with all its stunning Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman landmarks: Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Beyazit Mosque, covered bazaar, hippodrome, Basilica cistern
where, back in the 70's all the hippies would meet at the Pudding Shop and room at the Hotel Gungor, with its dorm-style rooms, now long gone after multiple facelifts have miraculously converted funky Sultanahmet into the destination of choice for the well-heeled and the chichi set.

Unconcerned with our musings and sensory overload, the tram descended further, all the way down to the Bosporus (the Bos) and the Golden Horn, to Eminonu station and then across the Galata Bridge. Just beyond the bridge we pushed, shoved and bumbled our way off the tram at Karakoy.

Now the hard part. Our apartment was half way up Yuksek Kaldirim, an incredibly steep, narrow road winding its way from the water up to the heights of Istiklal Caddesi (pronounced Jahdessee), passing the Galata Tower along the way. But surprise! Reinforcements. Our son Josh and his girlfriend Rachael met us at the tram stop, and helped us drag our millstone baggage up the hill, and then up the 5 stories of our walk-up apartment building, 19 steps per story, 95 steps in all. Breathless, and certain of us perhaps a wee bit cranky, we arrived at the dingy landing of our apartment, our home for the next 11 days.

This is at least the 7th time I’ve been to Istanbul. The first time was in 1970. I cruised in on a motorcycle that time, on my way to Afghanistan (don’t ask why; you don’t want to know). Well, that first night in Istanbul I met up with a very friendly Turk who offered me all kinds of inducements and imbibements, (“yu, me brutherz, yu, me frenz; yu sleep me bed, yu eat me food, yu smoke...”) which, some hours later, resulted in me fleeing his apartment in not the best of conditions, while he staggered around waving a gun. Careening down innumerable stairs, banging on doors till I found the exit, and out to the street, I was now lost in the back alleys of Sultanahmet, out of the frying pan into the fire, because now 3 thugs in the alley began to chase me, loping, then running as they closed in on me, finally impossibly finding my way to the hippodrome, the Hotel Gungor just 200 yards away. I jumped into a group of 4 old gomers who were coming out of a tea house, but that didn’t deter the 3 thugs, who grabbed me, flashed their badges, and shouted “gimme the money, Lebowski” oops, wrong channel, “gimme yu hashish; now!; gimme, gimme!” and they rifled thru my pants, wallet, shirt, hippy headscarf, but surprise, I wasn’t holding, so they knocked me down (didn’t take much, the condition I was in), waved their guns at me, and threatened, “we gonna gech yu; we gonna gech yu!” Four hours of sleep, and I fled Istanbul at sunrise on my BSA 250, tail between my legs, back to Europe. Oh blissful, oh joyous, oh thankful, I crossed the border and was met by leering Greek soldiers, who asked me where I was hiding my hashish. And me grinning right back – I wanted to kiss those guys I was so happy to be outa Turkey – I said, “Me?? You think I’m crazy.”


The whole, unexpurgated version of that story was recorded in the following days, as “The Live Adventures of Paranoid Pete.” Sadly that manuscript has been lost. Three years later I hitched across Europe, making it to Istanbul in November, 1973. I was on my way to India and around the world. I didn’t turn back that time.

Nancy has been here well over a dozen times, including living here for about 10 months in 1982-83 while she did research for her dissertation. I joined her for about 4 months of that time, glorious travels they were, recorded in my book Ottoman Beachcombings (which you can find, read, download for free at my website,
Josh, our older son, has been to Istanbul a fair few times, and studied for a semester at Bogazici (Bo-ozzachee, Turkish for “Bosporus”) University here. But for an ill-starred trip with his researching mother when he was 3, this was Cal’s maiden voyage to Bos-town. Josh was joined by his girlfriend Rachael, herself no stranger here, along with Rachael’s parents, Vic and Geri, rookies.

Our days were spent wandering the streets and alleys, going to important architectural sites and museums, seeking out classic and exotic places to eat, shopping in the covered bazaar (the Kapili Carsisi, pronounced koppala charshissa), taking a ferry ride up the Bos and back.  (see my slideshow,
I did a lot of writing, as did Cal. Josh and Nancy logged in a fair few hours working and meeting with professionals in their fields.

to be continued, maybe, 
exploring the following topics, maybe:
Ara Café, a drink in the Para with Hemmingway, breakfast at Savoy
Ferry trip and Ortakoy
latkes and nightly hanukiah lighting
Istiklal at night
Explorations: Rustepasha, Pantokrator, Kucuk Hagia Sophia, Sulimaniya
Museum Shows: Osmanli Bankasi - Osman Hamdi Bey; Istanbul Modern, Jewish Museum
sweets from carts, incl door of our apartment building, halka tatlisi (the people’s sweet; circle dessert)

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