Sunday, April 30, 2006

Log of the Eclipse (1)

A log of our recent journey, compiled from hasty notes scrawled at the time:

“For the most banal event to become an adventure, you must . . . begin to recount it.”

–Sartre, Nausea

On our journey to Turkey, we were at the mercy of American Airlines. We were using frequent-flyer miles (American lets you travel abroad at half-price during the off-season, a damn’ good deal) but that meant we were restricted to certain airlines, certain flights, and certain seats. “Convenience” was not the watchword of the day— or at any rate, not convenience for us. Even more annoying was that, because Turkish Airlines had canceled one flight at the last minute, and American had shifted another to four hours earlier, both legs of the journey were made longer and more annoying than we had originally planned. Before arriving in Istanbul we’d have to spend 30 hours in airports and long flying steel tubes.

Our journey started at 8:30am on March 23rd, which coincidentally enough was the first anniversary of the day I drove myself to the hospital with a burst appendix. Traveling abroad on that day seemed a proper way of leaving behind a year filled with hospitals, doctors, operating rooms, open festering wounds, and that sick-room smell that clung to me for so many months.

Because American had moved that first flight four hours, and because our next flight was delayed, we were compelled to spend nearly eight hours in the Chicago airport. The only compensation was that we got to the SwissAir desk just as it opened and got ourselves on the list for bulkhead seats. Also, because our SwissAir flight was delayed, they gave us a certificate good for fifteen bucks in the food court. (Try finding an American airline that will even apologize for a late flight, let alone give you money to make amends.)

In the food court I had a sandwich and drank a lot of beer, by way of numbing myself for what was to follow. We did manage to get bulkhead seats on the SwissAir flight, which meant we had leg room for our nine-hour flight to Zurich.

I’d been sort of looking forward to the SwissAir flight, because I’d heard service on SwissAir was terrific, as was the food. Apparently that was in the pre-bankruptcy time, because the seats were cramped, and the service and food was no better or worse than, say, Continental. At least the wine was free (I was continuing my numbing routine).

We flew East over New York City, brilliantly lit, with the dark rectangle of Central Park plain in the center of Manhattan. Heading over Long Island, Kathy could easily identify Sag Harbor, where she grew up, and various other locations in the Hamptons. From there we flew on into the darkness.

I tried but failed to sleep on the flight, so I ended up watching TV on my little fold-up monitor. I saw “The Lion King” for the first time, and was surprised at how staggeringly faithful the movie was to “Hamlet”— even a ghost scene!— and how many cliches the movie steadfastly robbed from so many sources. I never expected to see the whole Greening of the Land on the Restoration of the Rightful King trope done so literally.

(Do you think we could make pollution, environmental degradation, and radical climate change go away if we just got the right King? Where should we look? [Hint: not the Bush dynasty]

(Query: What would Aragorn do?)

Flying into Europe we could very plainly see the entire peninsula of Normandy, with its invasion beaches shining brightly, before the weather closed in and we could see only cloud.

I figured the one compensation for our four-hour layover in Zurich was going to be views of the Alps, but we never got any. All Western Europe was socked in with low, rainy weather, and all we could see from the plane was grey cloud, and from the airport only glistening runways and soggy, depressed-looking Swiss. Kathy managed to find someone who would sell coffee for US dollars, and I munched from a bag of trail mix we’d brought.

The SwissAir flight to Istanbul was uneventful. I managed to numb myself some more, and again failed to get any sleep.

Turkey requires visas, which we’d got ahead of time, so it didn’t take us long at passport control. Customs was equally brisk. This left us in the huge Atatürk airport without a clue as to how to actually leave the building. The horizon in all directions seemed equally far away. Eventually I asked one of the brisk, well-attired gentlemen who were marching around in a businesslike way and who seemed to be in charge of, well, something or other, and he pointed me toward the exit. A sign in the right place would be cheaper than this brigade of dignified ushers, but at some cost to the fine tradition of Turkish hospitality.

We had reservations at the Hotel Poem, in Sultanahmet, the most historic part of Istanbul. The hotel offered taxi service from the airport for 20 Euros, which seemed worthwhile after a 30-hour trip. We were not met only by the taxi driver but by his whole family, including his wife and (I think) daughter and (I think) someone else who stayed behind at the airport on other business. So five of us piled into the driver’s van and zoomed away.

The driver’s wife informed us that Istanbul is now a city of 16 million people. Estimates actually range anywhere from 10-16 million, the problem being that at least a third of these are living in illegal settlements and not counted in any census. In Istanbul you grab your land, build your house, and then vote for the politician who promises to give you infrastructure. It’s a system that’s worked for generations.

Naturally these settlements are deathtraps in any earthquake, and the government will occasionally seize these and demolish them after moving the inhabitants to a newly-built, legitimate environment.

We roared out onto the highway, with the Sea of Marmara to our right. The highway was clogged with traffic, which is normal for Istanbul. Asia, on the far horizon, was obscured by weather, though not the many freighters and tankers anchored offshore and waiting passage through the Bosporus. The outskirts of Istanbul look like any other European city, except for the domes and minarets of the occasional mosque.

We approached the city of Byzas, Constantine, Theodosius, Justinian, the Comneni and Paleologi, Mehmet II, Suleiman the Magnificent and his architect Sinan, and Atatürk. (Well, not so much Atatürk.) We passed through what remains of the Walls of Theodosius just south of the Theodosian Golden Gate with its many towers, called by the Turks the Castle of Seven Towers The main road at this point remains outside the Theodosian sea wall, so we had a lovely view of the Sea of Marmara and our first glimpses of Asia beyond.

The sea wall is largely intact, continually reconstructed after the many earthquakes that have punched holes in it. Though there are plenty of gaps elsewhere in the city walls, from the Sea of Marmara Constantinople is still a walled city.

Above the city we could see what Westerners call the Blue Mosque, the actual name of which is Mosque Sultanahmet, after the ruler who built it. The mosque is not blue, but light grey stone with darker grey roofs. (The name comes from the blue tiles inside) This is a stirring sight, even after a thirty-hour journey. Beyond we could make out the dome and minarets of Hagia Sofia. We drove through the sea wall and onto the cobbled, twisting streets of Constantine’s city. We zoomed around the big buttresses that hold up the southern end of the Hippodrome and past the entrance to the Cavalry Bazaar, and to the twisting little street where our hotel waited.

Hotel Poem is made up of two Ottoman mansions joined together by a glass-walled room used as a breakfast room and bar. The rooms are small by American standards, average by those of Europe, with bathrooms en suite. The hotel takes advantage of the double meaning of “poem,” which (as I understand it) in Turkish means something like leaf, as in a book. The rooms don’t have numbers, but instead names derived from Turkish poems. Our room, “All of a Sudden,” was the best in the place— at the top of the hotel, with a private balcony overlooking the Sea of Marmara (and a leak somewhere in the shower cabinet that kept the bathroom floor wet).

Because recent surgeries have diced my midsection six ways from Sunday, I can’t carry anything heavy, which in this case included my bag. A hotel employee heaved my vast purple suitcase up many flights of steps, then heaved Kathy’s up as well. (He was well tipped) We showered and changed. I stepped out onto the balcony to watch the sun set over Asia, dark blue about the sun-spangled water, and at that moment the call to prayer began sounding from the loudspeakers of the Blue Mosque only a few streets away. This was within soon echoed by the muezzin of the small local mosque.

Now this is more like it, I thought.

I don’t know whether it was the showers or the muezzins or the view, but we were energized and not at all sleepy. We had arrived on Kathy’s birthday— in fact the whole trip was something of a birthday present, especially deserved considering that Kathy didn’t have much of a birthday last year, with me fresh out of surgery, filled with pain and morphine.

We went in search of birthday dinner and about 100 feet from the door of our hotel encountered the Metropole, which was delighted to seat us. (This café is distinct from the Metropole Hotel, which is also in the vicinity.) By sheer chance we came to one of the best restaurants we encountered on our whole trip.

We sat near a crackling fire and enjoyed the energetic antics of the young, saucy staff. I started with a appetizer of puff pastry stuffed with cheese and spiced meat, served atop a salad. Kathy had a savory-smelling bowl of soup, after which she had something called “Sultan Chicken,” which I don’t remember anything about, but which we both agreed was fine. I had a lamb and vegetable stew that is one of Turkey’s signature dishes, and which we encountered in many variations during the next few weeks. (I didn’t get bored with it, either) We then toasted Kathy’s birthday with a bottle of Villa Doluca, one of the better and more reasonably-priced Turkish wines.

(Turkish wines come in three varieties: 1. Really awful, 2. Not so awful, and 3. Not bad really. This was one of the latter. We had better luck with the whites than the reds. On the other hand Turkey makes a pretty good pilsner, called Efes [Ephesus], of which I drank a lot more than the wine.)

We finished the meal with apple tea, sweet and refreshing, and then went out for a walk. We walked down two streets, then up one, and there was the Blue Mosque, shining in its spotlights, the spikes of its minarets driving up into the night. Right on cue the muezzin began his song. (The call of the muezzins is performed live, by the way. They aren’t recorded.)

I don’t know what happens in other Muslim countries, but in Turkey when the muezzins call nobody drops down to pray. If you’re religious enough to pray at “time for pray,” you’re already at the mosque. For the most part people go about their lives normally, which in our district meant they continued to try to sell us rugs, porcelain, and souvenirs, and to lure us into restaurants and bars. (More of this behavior later.)

It had already become obvious that Turkey was a nation full of feral cats. The animals were as laid-back as the Turks themselves, mellow with each other and strangers, though we heard a few cat fights at night. People sometimes put out kibble for them. Sometimes we offered them doner kebab. Even though the cats are accepted they don’t seem to live to any great age: almost all that we saw were young.

We strolled along past the Blue House Hotel (which we had considered at one point, and where some of our friends stayed later) toward Hagia Sofia, which looked like a shambling, crouching searchlit monster in the darkness. Then a return to the Poem, and a view of Asia glittering across the straights.


“All of a Sudden”


Everything happened all at once

Daylight poured down on the earth

Suddenly there was the sky

Suddenly blue

Everything happened all at once;

Smoke began to rise out of the soil

Tendrils and buds

And fruits.

Everything happened

All of a sudden:

Girls and boys

Roads and meadows, cats and people

Love came up all of a sudden

And joy

— Orhan Veli Kanix

10 Comments:

Blogger HaloJonesFan said...

"What would Aragorn do?"

Ho, ho, ho. One of Aragorn's first acts as King was to invade a "pirate realm" down-river from Gondor.

9:28 AM  
Blogger Foxessa said...

O, goodie, trip report, finally!

Love, F.

6:25 PM  
Anonymous Kathy H. said...

Just to clarify what Walter said about the muezzins, they are singing live, but they are singing into a microphone. So their songs (or prayers, really) come out with an amplified sound, as if a tape were being played too loudly. That's why we initially thought they were recordings.

In Istanbul, no one we could see dropped down in the street and prayed at the muezzin's call. On one occasion when the muezzin went off, a waiter was pouring us wine (a very unMoslem thing to do), and he didn't give a pause. However, Istanbul is not Turkey, and there may be places where people are a bit more devout than that.

And the cats of Istanbul! What is it about cities with ruins? Rome was full of cats, too. Is it to keep rodents out of the ruins? I think people were feeding them table scraps more than kibble, as a way of getting rid of scraps and encouraging the rodent-killers to hang around.

9:08 PM  
Blogger Bruce said...

A Google on "Sultan Chicken" prduced a recipe with chicken breasts in an onion/broth/evaporated milk gravy, with asparagus & grapes added at the last bit of cooking.

Asparagus & grapes? Seems like an odd combination.

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Anonymous sultanahmet said...

Hagia Sophia is wonderful.
Hagia Sophia is like a dream.

3:08 AM  

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