A couple months ago, when Steve left Thailand to get our home on the market, we thought Thai borders would soon crack open, to allow him back. We were wrong. These days in Thailand, whoever’s out stays out. If I wanted to see him again, I had to join him. So I did.
I flew out via Turkey to research my new books. Steve joined me, and we met at Istanbul Airport.
Besides eight boring hours in the empty Bangkok Airport, my trip was excellent: no crowds and no delays. In Doha, I even got a shower.
Twenty hours into my trip, I stepped in the business lounge carrying my old backpack and many worries. The attendant glanced at me.
“Would you like a shower?”
I opened my mouth to give him a piece of my mind.
“Yes, please,” my mouth said.
I loved the private shower with hot water, clean towels, and nice toiletries. I came out happier and better smelling. Sadly, that effect was mostly gone when I landed in Istanbul, but it didn’t matter. Steve didn’t smell any better.
We recognized each other despite masks, shields, and the Sauvignon Blanc Steve admitted to. Our hired car took us to our two-star hotel in Istanbul’s heart with a splendid view of the Marmara, outstanding breakfast, and lousy Internet, and our hosts dragged us to our first overpriced Turkish dinner at their family’s restaurant. Here, it’s all about the family.
For days and days we dragged our achy feet on the cobbled streets of Istanbul, formerly Constantinople, sweating under our masks, to find the history I came here for. We got lost looking for toilets in Topkapi. We stared at incomprehensible Turkish inscriptions of monuments, and we turned down more carpets than I can count. We petted cats, chatted with locals, and fumbled through Istanbul without GPS or a map. No GPS to avoid roaming. No map, since Steve dropped it in a Turkish toilet. You know Turkish toilets? Imagine a toilet without a toilet: two porcelain footprints and a hole in between. The hole is for the maps. Works for pens too. Your legs must be strong enough to hold you in a low squat as you do your business, then stand up without touching the walls. It’s an experience worth a Turkish lira, about 15 cents, I thought, until I saw people crawling in under the turnstiles. The other way to free pooping is finding a mosque. They provide free toilets and a live show: there, proper black-clad ladies tie their skirts around their waist to keep them from touching the floor, then wash in the sink for the ablution before prayer.
After four days of Istanbul immersion, we left to see the rest of Turkey. We’ll be back, but for now, these are my highlights and lowlights of Istanbul.
1. The waters. Istanbul lives around its waters. The Bosporus Strait, running from the Black Sea to the Marmara, is alive with ships. Fishing boats, yachts and tankers frolic together over the turquoise (Turkish style) water. The Sea of Marmara starts its day blood-red. The Golden Horn, a dagger of water slicing the old Istanbul from the new, turns yellow at sunset.
2. The cats. Istanbul belongs to cats. Dignified, standoffish, and well-fed, they sun themselves on top of fences and socialize around ruins. They talk back when you speak to them, and show you where to put it if you try to pet them. Just ask Steve, who never met a cat he didn’t try to touch.
3. The food. The scrumptious breakfast spread in our modest hotel, prepared by a smiling Turkish lady that speaks no English, changes every morning. Fresh pitta, warm pastries, five kinds of cheese, cold cuts, green and black olives, roasted eggplant with red peppers, solid chunks of translucent green cantaloupe, and bright red watermelon with black seeds – they all call your name, delicious and hard to resist.
4. The people. Black-clad women with just a slit for the eyes rub shoulders with tourists exposing soft midriffs and sporting shorts too short to matter. Elderly men drink tea from tulip glasses watching screaming kids throwing water bottles at each other. Istanbul has room for people of all kinds.
5. Pigeons. On Sundays, pigeon lovers meet at the bird market by the old Theodossian walls to sell, buy or trade birds. Tumbling pigeons, doing tricks as they fly, like planes at airshows, cost thousands of dollars for the bird with the right breeding. Sellers outdo each other singing praise for their birds, and negotiations mean long hours of happy shouting, checking every feather of the bird, and drinking tea.
6. Turkish baths. I had my first Turkish Bath in a fifteenth-century hamam, bathhouse built for a long dead Sultan’s mother. The attendant, a Turkish lady with fading charms loosely packaged in a skimpy bikini, scrubbed me with a rough glove until I turned white, covered me in soapsuds and massaged me, then scrubbed me again. By the end, I had no dirt left and hardly any skin. Her no-nonsense efficiency reminded me of that one time when our cat Paxil got skunked. I washed her in the sink with abandon, dedication, and dishwashing detergent. Unlike Paxil, I didn’t bite.
1. The carpets. If I never see another carpet seller, I’ve seen too many. They lay in wait to leap on you, anytime, anywhere. In the mosque, over lunch, as you cross the street. “Where are you from? Where are you going? You want to buy a carpet?” Being polite doesn’t work. Being rude is rude. And it doesn’t work either. As they see it, you’re only here to buy what they sell, so you might as well make yourself useful. They shout at you from far away, they get in your face, they follow you in the street, and they won’t take no for an answer. I prefer mosquitoes.
2. The Blue Mosque. Whatever there’s left of it isn’t blue, it’s covered in scaffolds and shrouded in cloth. That appears to be its new permanent condition now, since the Turkish government uses eternal restoration projects to keep people employed.
3. The traffic. Istanbul’s 15 million people – twice as many as NYC – spend up to five hours a day in traffic if they live one side of the Golden Horn and work on the other. The endlessly blowing horns made me wonder if cars here navigate by audio-location, like bats.
4. Hagia Sophia. The 1500 years old former Orthodox Church became a Mosque in 1453, when the Ottomans conquered Constantinople. Half a century later, when Ataturk, the creator of modern Turkey, separated the state from the mosque, it turned into a museum. Then, a couple of months ago, she went back to a mosque. No wonder she’s struggling with an identity crisis. Posters with Mohammed’s sayings hide thousand years old Christian Mosaics, while scantily dressed tourists wrapped in hooded paper gowns scramble to find their shoes and stern police officers try to keep men away from the women’s mosque, while nobody knows which is which.
5. Cold French Fries. There’s something perverse about the Turkish infatuation with stale fries. They’re served everywhere, all the time: at breakfast, alongside chalky Turkish yogurt, spicy red pepper paste, and scrumptious sour cherry preserves, stuffed into wraps for lunch, and with the mezze for dinner. BUT WHY?
6. The COVID factor. It isn’t crowded, and that’s nice. But walking with a mask in 90 degrees heat gets old soon, and we’re avoiding public transport to socially distance. And, since our flights to the US have vanished, we’re here for now.
That’s my first take on Istanbul. There’s much I haven’t seen, and more I don’t understand, but I wanted to share my wonder to those stuck at home. Sign up for my update if you want more, since Facebook is not my friend.
Güle Güle – bye-bye for now.
Rada Jones is an ER doc in Upstate NY, living with her husband and his deaf black cat Paxil. She authored three ER thrillers, Overdose, Mercy and Poison, and “Stay Away From My ER,” a collection of medical essays.