I spent my first night in Istanbul at the Antique Hostel in Istanbul, a
much-lauded spot in the heart of Sultanahmet, the sight-seeing center
of the city. I arrived there at around midnight, and was greeted at the
desk by a guy wearing a button-down shirt opened halfway down the front
of his chest, and sporting a well-coiffed head of shoulder-length hair
that he flipped often, not unlike women in luxury shampoo commercials.
I learned that his name was Adem, and he worked the night shift. “My
friend,” he told me, “you are bed six in the Mickey Mouse room.” He
then handed me a keychain with a little stuffed Mickey Mouse hanging
off of it. I headed down to the room, only to find that none of the
beds were made. I went back up to Adem, who was now playing video
games. There was also a small boy next on a stool him, watching him
“Adem,” I asked, “can I have fresh sheets and a
pillowcase?” Adem looked up from the screen and and I repeated myself
more slowly. He then whirled around to face the child and barked at him
in Turkish. The little boy almost fell off of his stool backwards. He
then ran upstairs and fetched me a sheet and pillowcase.
I went back
down to make my bed, but then realized that I need another sheet. This
time I knocked on the desk to get Adem’s attention, and then timidly
asked for another sheet. Adem did not even look at me. He instead
snarled more forcefully at the boy, frothing a bit at the mouth. The
boy scrambled upstairs again and delivered my sheet with a nervous
smile. I then headed back down and made my bed, spending a few hours
working on my journal before going to sleep.
The next day, Aroop
and a crew of four fellow Williams men arrived, and we quickly left
Adem, the Antique Hostel and my entirely strange introduction to
Istanbul the previous night, to begin exploring the city. I fell in
love immediately. The crystalline blue waters of the Bosphorous and
Golden Horn next to the magnificent domes and minarets that
characterize the Sultanahmet skyline make for an addictive combination.
The adhan, the call to prayer that envelopes the city in a beautifully
haunting melody, sung by a muezzin five times a day, adds an unearthly
charm to the entire scene.
As one leaves the historic center and gets
closer to Beyoglu, effectively Istanbul’s downtown, the main
thoroughfares grow broad and proud, dotted with both kebab sellers
loudly pitching their wares and the Starbuck’s-esque restaurants and
coffee shops expected of a cosmopolitan city. The good people of
Istanbul also seem intent on ensuring that no visitor should leave
without knowing what the Turkish flag looks like. Accompanying the
ubiquitous flags is the visage of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the
Republic of Turkey and quintessential Turkish hero, with a borderline
religious following throughout the entire country (ironic given that
Ataturk’s primary program was secularism).
The five of us had a
fantastic time walking around, taking in the sights and sampling
cuisine throughout the city. Highlights included our time at a hamam,
where we were each pummeled and scrubbed lovingly by a large,
mustachioed man, and accidentally stumbling into a whorehouse we
mistook for a nightclub. The large number of cigar-smoking Turkish men
in suits outside should have tipped us off, but we went in anyway. Upon
seeing the collection strangely dressed, overly made-up women clustered
around the bar inside, though, someone yelled “Brothel!” and we ran
straight out again. It was a good night.
Aroop and crew left me
a little more than a week ago, and I have since started to settle down.
I found a fantastic place with a couple named Cem (pronounced “gem”)
and Buket, who cook for me often and feed me fresh squeezed orange
juice in the mornings. They are both musicians, and strangely enough,
Cem spent several months in Ireland playing folk music there. It is
strange how these things work out. I just bought a saz, the long-necked
lute I am studying here, and have slowly been learning Turkish.
Portuguese came relatively easily thanks to my familiarity with French
and Spanish, but it took about a week for “Thank you” in Turkish
(“Tesekkur ederim”) to sink in.
Getting used to the culture here has
also been a different sort of adjustment— what has made it interesting
is that Turks are renowned for their hospitality, but their salesmen
are some of the greasiest in the business. I thus have a hard time
telling when someone is genuinely being nice, or just trying to dupe
me. They have a number of tricks, like when a shoe shiner
“accidentally” drops his brush as you walk by. He then pretends to be
so grateful when you point it out that he must “shine your shoes for a
discount price.” He doesn’t tell you the price until after the shining
is over, at which point he gouges you. Another example is from a few
days ago, when I was waiting for a friend next to a roasted chestnut
vendor. A gentleman came up to me and asked if I am Indian (I recently
started sporting a moustache). I responded positively, and he told me
he was half Lebanese. A few minutes into what seemed like a perfectly
friendly conversation, he began to advertise sex. It was 4 p.m. on a
Sunday, in broad daylight, and this man was pleasantly informing me in
a thick, Turkish accent that I could have a great time for 30 lira
($25). I smiled politely at him, just as my mother taught me to, and
then walked away briskly.
Pushy salesmen aside, I am very
excited to end my Watson year here. The food has been spectacular, and
my favorite indulgences are currently Turkish Delight and Iskender
kebabs (thinly sliced meat drizzled with tomato sauce, served over
toasted pide bread with yogurt.) The music is mesmerizing, and I am
giddy about the prospect of getting decent on my instrument. The city
itself is such a pleasure to walk around in, keeping me quite busy
staking out favorite waterfront reading spots. Perhaps most notably,
though, this is a land where sex and chestnuts are sold side-by-side.
It is going to be a good three and a half months.