Turkish Delights: Snapshots of Istanbul
Istanbul blurs by in a colourful soup of sensations – spicy smells, copious çay, glorious laughter, sugary sweets and the mad chatter of unfamiliar syllables. My blog is far behind. I scribble snatches of memory on metro trains and buses, while waiting for friends to use the toilet… there’s just so much to do in this giant sprawling city, and it takes such a very long time to get anywhere…
It’s the morning after the weekly Istanbul CS Gathering. My host Yücel’s Turkish breakfasts are the perfect thing for my hangover: Lots of salt, sugar and plenty of çay (tea). All I want to do is slob around, but I promised Yücel I would come to school with him and meet his “citizens”, so that’s what I do. Yücel’s scool is quite far into the suburbs on the Western part of town. It’s a secular school and there are two English classes, both mixed gender. Yücel is the school psychologist, which he says mostly entails holding seminars.
“Citizens, today I have brought a friend to meet you…” Both classes are very interesting and I’m asked a variety of questions about my life – where am I from? How old am I? What’s my job?, etc… before we get down to business and the students get up the courage to ask more interesting questions – what do I think about Turkey? What do I think of Islam?.. Yücel is keen that we talk about some controversial issues and brings up long-term travelling, vegetarianism and transexualism, since he will be hosting a transgender Couchsurfing guest soon. Interestingly, when asked if they would hire a transexual for their company – a completely arbitrary question since these people are all teenagers, still at school and without ever having had a full-time job, let alone thier own company – only one girl says she would not employ such a person. When asked why, she says because it’s unnatural – and a translation of a Turkish word brings out “perversion”. The most interesting thing to me, other than this result, is that she’s not afraid to say something different to the others, and they in turn do not try to argue her out of her choice. They all accept the difference of opinion.
During the second class, Yücel leaves me alone with the students during a break period and I get the opportunity to chat to two of the girls about their relationship issues. One of the girls had a much older boyfriend until recently when her parents found out. Now he’s in England and she’s not allowed to see him again. The other girl, Y_ reminds me of myself in my younger years – only not as stroppy! She’s a vegetarian, very rare in Turkey, and wants very much to travel, but is restrained by the conservative Turkish society she’s living in. Somebody mentions feminism and she tells me she isn’t a feminist, but when I ask what she means by that and offer my own interpretation of the word, she changes her mind and says she is a feminist after all. I give her my email address before I leave.
I have a lot of lovely couchsufing hosts in Istanbul, but none can compare to Pam. In fact, I feel so at home in her place, nestled in the super-modern glass-skyscraper maze area known as Levent, that I accidentally spend eight nights there, and then return a few days later for a few more nights.
My Couchsurfing reference for Pam says this (spoiler alert for my next post!):
“Pam is one of the most wonderfully huggalific people on this planet. She’s so great I just had to make up that word for her, because no already existing words are good enough. After knowing Pam for about 5 minutes I felt I had known her for months and we slid into being ‘proper’ friends in an effortless way. My favourite thing about Pam is that she’s so happy, and her joy is infectious, so that everyone around her beams and smiles. Yet she is still aware of others and their feelings and shows a lot of compassion, generosity and love. Travelling with Pam was *so much fun* from the crazy hamam dance party, to our hitchhiking rides in trucks, and all of the many amazing and delicious vegan meals we have shared (I have *a lot* of pictures of food – and I put on about half a stone in weight while I was with Pam!) all in all there is nobody I could better recommend as an excellent host and travel companion. I hope someday I get the opportunity to show her the hospitality she has shown me.”
Also staying at Pam’s place, along with her lovely Canadian-Bulgarian flatmate Orina, are Kanani and Gregor. At some point during the past year and eight months Kanani has spent travelling, mostly alone and by bicycle, she decided that she owed it to herself and the planet to get back home to Hawaii without using an aeroplane. Kanani noticed me on the “nearby travellers” section of Couchsurfing, messaged me, and I went to meet her with Pam. Now she lives on Pam’s sofa, a welcome rest before a long journey home.
Gregor is a snuffly old man of a dog. Pam is looking after him for another girl while she’s away on holiday. Gregor moved in a couple of days after Kanani and is really quite a character. He’s clumsy, almost blind and complains all of the time in little huffs; the Victor Meldrew of canines.
It’s a Tuesday and I’m in the weekly bazaar by Pam’s house. The call to prayer has just started from a nearby mosque. All around me people chatter, bustle and shout out their wares. There’s not such a pressure to buy as in the more touristic Grand Bazaar and Spice Market, where I found myself a few days ago. There, every stallholder has developed their own technique for luring in foreigners. Here, there are mostly locals – women of all ages in headscarves of every colour; or with Western clothes and free flowing brown, black or blonde hair. Men wander with giant kettles and urns of tea, a basket of plastic cups strapped to their backs. A bit of industry is going on to my left: two women sit rolling out dough for gözleme, while another fills them with herbs and cheese or spinach and passes them to the man, who frys them on a giant hotplate.
Journey to Asia
“I’m off to Asia now,” Pam’s flatmate Orina says, whenever she’s going round to her boyfriend’s house. Istanbul is famous for “straddling two continents”. I’ve never set foot off European soil before, and so the short ferryboat ride over the Bosphorous is an exciting journey for me. I sit on one of the wooden seats on the bow of the ship and snap pictures of the receding coast of Europe and the approaching one of Asia. It’s a fifteen minute journey in all.
“Birliraahbirliraahbirliraaiaaah!” beautiful headscarfed women in bright floral skirts sing their wares in Kadıköy on the other side – big bunches of yellow and red flowers for one lira (bir lira) each. On my subsequent journeys to Asia, this is the first sound I always hear off the boat and it always makes me smile.
A_, my anarchist friend, finds me Kadikoy, searching for their house-project. I was looking for the red and black flag you see – always the tell-tale clue. Unfortunately in Turkey it’s illegal, and so their place has no tell-tale sign at all. It’s just a door that I already walked past four or five times. Anyway, the place is nice – lots of red and black, a little office, a meeting room, a small kitchen, library lining the hallway and bikes hanging on the balcony and inside the shower – an ingenious use of space.
I met A_ in Kafe 26A, an anarchist-cafe-come-social-centre on a side street near to Taxim. It’s a welcome anti-capitlist respite in the heart of the shopping, bar and nightclub district. I found it quite by accident, along with the Feminist Library around the corner – another of my favourite hangouts.
It’s a Friday night. Pam and I are in the LGBTT Centre for the weekly queer movie night. This week it’s Dark Habits, a hilarious film about a strange convent with a strong, yet cleverly portrayed homoerotic undertone. Nuns on acid trips – need I say more? After the film there’s a concert in the Feminist Library and we’re all blown away by the girl who’s playing. She says this is her first ever gig, but nobody could have guessed. Pam is in her element. Despite her warmth and bubbliness, she’s apprently quite shy with strangers and at first can only gaze admiringly at the “queer-as-fuck” party fiends around us, but gradually we’re all dancing at yet another anarchist centre around the corner. Pam has found her people, and it only took seven months of living here to do it.
I have been invited to another school, an Islamic one this time. I journey back to the other continent early in the morning to meet my new Couchsurfing friend Neshe. We take tea together and then get the bus to the school. I have to admit, I’m quite nervous. I don’t know Neshe and I’m nervous of what the other teachers might think of me with my uncovered hair and tatty clothes. Waiting in the staffroom for class to begin, Neshe rolls back my sleeves for me to cover the holes. Ok, now I’m more nervous. But it’s ok. The first class, all girls, are very pleased to see me and excited to ask lots of questions. Again they start with the boring ones about age, job and country, then roll onto the more interesting political stuff. This time I’m asked what do I think about NATO’s involvement in Afghanistan? Why is Turkey not allowed in the EU? Is it to do with religion? What do I think about Islam? All of the girls are polite, but also warm and intelligent.
Not so much the boys class, who stick with asking me the boring questions the whole time. One boy is sent out of the class by an increasingly agitated Neshe for reading random lines from his coursebook without knowing what they say. “London is a big city.” “Is that a question??” she asks him. “What do you think you just said?!”
Sometime duing my third week in Istanbul, dashing to get the train to Taxim, fast-pace walking up the hill from Pam’s house, suddenly I become aware of the soft touch of moisture on my cheek. It’s a cold, damp, foggy day and the physical sensation, like a caress, slaps me from my thoughts-rushing-mad-dash into a relaxed amble the rest of the way. I look at the trees, the flower-ladies in their colourful skirts and headscarves, the glass skyscrapers and chickens pecking at the roadside, and think how lucky I am to lead a life such as this.
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