Turkey is frickin great.
Istanbul is a beautiful city of alabaster walls and Sienna-red roofs set in the verduous hills against the deep indigo of the sea of Marmara’s northern peak. Bridges span the narrow of the bay, across Bosphorus and two continents, towards the south of the Black Sea. One could mistake it for a Tuscan town if it weren’t for the domes and minarets of mosques dotting the hillside and the sound of Islamic prayers filling the streets twice a day: Oh, eeeee aiyeee oh-oh-aaaah, Mohammed, Sudan.
Or something like that.
I think a rough translation would be: one o’clock! It’s lunch time! It’s lunch time!
After a shitty time in dusty, busy Cairo in January, I was ready to write off the Middle East.
But Istanbul is spectacular.
Efes Pilsner comes in enormous mugs and is light and crisp and delicious. Not a single beggar on the street asked me for spare change. I didn’t even see any beggars. As much as I like Nairobi, the ancient architecture and the narrow streets of Istanbul seemed to create the hustle and bustle that makes cities such an experience. People are everywhere, no matter how insignificant the avenue or boulevard. Street vendors grill tomatoes and onions and peppers and kebabs or fish and pile them on crusty bread with zucchini and lettuce and shredded carrots anda heathly dose of salt for a few lira with a fairly revolting yogurt drink to wash it down.
The black rocks that line the coast are dotted with men in bathing suits too small for their bulging bellies. An ancient ottoman wall turets and all (full of furniture for some reason. . .) lines the bay and little cobblestone streets curve up and down the hills around brightly coloured three and four storied buildings sandwiched tightly together. The Turkish crescent flag hangs everywhere in a show of unbridled patriotism I’ve rarely seen outside the US.
We had a kebaps at a little pub on under the Blue Mosque and walked around all day. We strolled along the water, the deep azure lapping foam on the the concrete and rocks. We descended and ascended the steep, winding streets. We plodded up a hill through a beautiful park near the old palace, stopping for a lemon sorbet, only to find ourselves outside again and on our way back to our little hotel in the heart of Sultanahmet.
Turkey seems to be a Middle Eastern country that desperately wants to be European. Reading over that sentence it seems like a vilification, especially given the recent EU snub by France. But it is much more of a recognition and an accolade: Istanbul has so much character and class due to it’s unique heritage, but with the homogenization and Californication of of the world, there’s a definitive European aftertaste to the place.
The Girl needed some new clothes since she was on a business trip before our rendezvous, so we went shopping near Taksim—a sort of a Times Square/Shibuya—on a promenade lined with western shops. Really? I always wanted to come to urkey adn get some Levis, a Quicksilver shirt and som reef sandals.
While the other streets upon which we sauntered were as I described earlier, this strip made the Santa Monica pier look like an independent thrift shop. Young women wore Paris Hilton sized sunglasses and tight pastel coloured shirts that showed off their alluring eastern-block physique right along side the previous generation with their scarves about their hair and ankle length garments. The old men played cards and dominoes in street side cafes drinking tea out of transparent bell-shaped glasses, while the young men strutted about in jeans faded in ridiculous places, flashy sneakers, T-shirts with random screen printing and stitches, and hairstyles that would make David Beckham and Emo kids on MySpace nod in simultaneous approval.
It felt very European.
It felt Middle Eastern.
United Colors of Benetton did the job for The Girl’s new outfit and I picked some new kicks at the Puma store.
Are you happy now, Mom?
We stopped for another beer and the sun’s bright eye began to falter into darkness. I had read in the Emirates on-board magazine about the culinary scene in Istanbul and decided I’d actually try and do something from the plane literature. It spoke about a restaurant Ajia, near the suspension bridge tha had the most delectable Turkish food with a modern twist. Normally I ignore the plane magazine and keep to my iPod and book du jour, but this time I thought, ‘what the hell.’
“This is never gonna work,” slurred the InMo. “Holy shit! They have MGD here? For real? Oh! it is real! It’s cold as ice,” exhaling in sipping exhaustion and concurrent delight. “It tastes like. . .it tastes like. . .nothing! Absolutely nothing! I’m drinking nothing! Praise Allah!” and he skipped aroud the pub like he was dancing through a field of daisies with Gordon Lightfoot playing in the background.
After shopping to my little Visa’s extent, w talked to a cab driver, and he had no idea Ajia, so he took us to an area full of night clubs and strip clubs. I was stoked: I still want to write a book on strip clubs of the world.
But The Girl said more with her eyes than I need to hear from her mouth.
So we walked up to another cabbie, and I asked about, “Ajia,” figuring it’d be like asking an NYC cabbie about the Grammercy Tavern. This fellow and his mustache looked puzzled.
“Ah-jeee-uh,” I over-enunciated. “Near big bridge,” I elucidated making absurdly wild tourist hand motions.
“Ah!” his eyes opened wide. “Ah-shia restaurant.” Veddy na-yuce! See fuht!”
“Yes. Ajia. Seafood. Nice,” I concurred in too many brief sentences.
The suspension bridge connecting the European side of Istanbul with the Asian side of Istanbul was lit up at night and dotted with the lights of cars; red ahead of and white towards us. After four months in Sudan I was in awe of the roads and infrastructure. It was like riding in a hover craft over velvet. I passed out even though I wasn’t that tired. We took a turn off the highway and drove along the coast.
“Many restaurant. Ni-yuce. See fuht,” the driver exhaled with much effort, looking around somewhat nervously. “Theece wun?
“Which one?” I asked.
“I told you this would never work,” slobbered the InMo.
Then it dawned on me.
Ah-jee-uh was Asia. This dude and his ‘stache had no idea which restaurant I was talking about and just took us to Asia. We had a hell of a laugh about it: ha; we drove to Asia for dinner.
“Eiss goot, no?” Many restaruant. Veddy Ni-yuce!” The hairy-filtrumed driver didn’t quite understand.
I paid the fare and we went a to a club and had dinner and too many drinks. It was nice to get a real martini. Arriving back at the hotel we went to sleep immediately to catch our plane to Izmir in mere hours.
I didn’t sleep very much.
I couldn’t wait to get the beach.