Monday, November 11, 2013

Return to Turkey

On October 19, Sankar and I left for a 10-day visit to Turkey. As we boarded the plane, I was carrying a few worries. I had loved my years in Turkey, and had already set about preserving my memories through writing and photography. What if my old friends and the sights I encountered on this trip didn't seem the same? Would that overwrite my memories, changing the way I felt about the experience? What if I was overcome with sentimental sadness thinking about our former hilltop apartment, gone from us forever? That apartment was glorious, all the more so because we shared it with several dozen guests, and—five times—with our kids.

Maybe it would be best just to leave Turkey alone, to leave it as we remembered it.

But I guess we are optimists down deep, so off we went. The Delta flights through Paris went smoothly, and we arrived in Istanbul at approximately 7:30 pm on Sunday, October 20. Our neighborhood would be new: Ortaköy, a few miles south of where we’d lived. As our cab wound through its extra-narrow, dark streets trying to find our little hotel, I felt my sense of adventure awaken. Maybe in addition to revisiting friends and monuments, we'd learn something new.

Our little hotel was on Müvezzi Sokak, steep and straight as a pin up from the Sea Road at the point where the Çirağan Palace sits. We had a small room, but it offered a nice view of the Old City, the Bosphorus and even the Kiz Külesi (Maiden's Tower, far left in the photo) in middle of the harbor.

A buzzy jet lagged strangeness hit us on day one. We went down to breakfast and were reminded of the Turkish habit of drinking Nescafe, not “filter coffee” in the morning. The buffet's Western selections encompassed some nondescript flaky cereal, lukewarm milk, and orangeade. Alas, we weren't quite ready to embrace Turkish breakfast items like tomatoes, cucumbers, and olives.

Our first outing was to the Istinye Park shopping mall. I know this sounds shallow, but Sankar was after some new pairs of slacks—Turkish designs fit him so much better than those in States—and they would require time to alter. While he shopped, I wandered around looking for a gift for Angela, buying susamli fistik (peanuts with honeyed sesame seeds stuck on them) for Greg and some 
çifte kavrulmuş (twice roasted, nutty) Turkish delight for gifts.  

We ate at our favorite food court restaurant, Kaşik-La (With Spoon), although I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as I had hoped because my biological clock registered 4 am back in the U.S.

We noticed a newcomer to “our” mall. 

I thought the mall trip would be all we did that day, but the weather was in the high sixties and sunny, and Sankar suggested we head over to Istiklal for dinner. I was hesitant, but it turned out to be the best thing we could have done; walking outside helped reset our internal clocks.

Istiklal is hopping even on a Monday evening.

 We had a lovely fish dinner on Nevizade Sokak, bought an edgy black top for Angela at a shop called Kiki Riki and finished the day with a milky pudding at Sutiş.

Which milky pudding looks best to you?

The next day we felt almost 100 percent better and started seeing friends--and eating--in earnest. An enjoyable long lunch with resident bon vivant Felicia was first. One food I couldn’t wait to taste was borek, a pastry that involves egg-y noodles and white cheese, and Sankar brought me some late in the afternoon. 

I ate the whole thing.

The next day we visited the Grand Bazaar with resident Turkish expert, photographer and friend, Linda Caldwell, stopping in to see Hasan Semerci of the renowned carpet store Adnan and Hasan

That evening we met Sankar’s secretary, Gökben, on the Asian side for a lovely Italian dinner. Here she is saying goodbye as we wait for the boat back to Europe.

It was late by the time we got back to the European side.

We spent a morning in Eminönü with resident crafts and shopping expert, Rhonda Rowbotham. When I think of Istanbul, I most often think of Eminönü and the fact known to all Istanbul expatriates that absolutely everything can be found “behind the spice bazaar.” 

Muffin papers, anyone?
On Saturday, the 26th we joined an American Research Institute in Turkey tour to explore Turkey’s Hittite heritage. Our guide was Çiğdem Maner, a PhD in archeology who teaches at one of Turkey’s most prestigious universities. Off we went with a group of about 18 others, some acquaintances and some new, and began learning about this ancient empire that was contemporary with the Egyptian Pharaohs. We spent the next few days visiting ruined cities that featured carved panels and lion, sphinx, and eagle statuary, and viewing distinctive animal carvings and jewelry in nearby museums.

Hittite relief at Yazilikaya, about 3,300 years old.

On Sunday evening we found ourselves in the Anatolian city of Çorum which coincidentally was where one of my Iraqi Christian students was living with her family. In the evening, we went to their apartment for tea and treats, walking through streets that were quiet, the air heavy with the residue of burning coal. At their apartment a two-hour conversation followed, involving advice for their new city of residence (they will be settled in El Cajon, a suburb of San Diego, in the next few months), and reflections on the situation in Iraq. We were immensely impressed with this highly-educated family's determination and enthusiasm. They will make superb new Americans.

All the hundreds of miles I’ve travelled on Turkish roads with nary a pothole has caused me to reflect (some say, rant) on American roads (and most specifically those in Minnesota). We were in a part of Turkey that has a temperature range of about 0 F to 95 F, admittedly not quite as broad as ours in Minnesota, but still enough to cause seasonal cracking and pitting. Why did we not see any of this? The answer is that the roads are built much thicker in Turkey. 

Beautiful roads throughout Turkey
The underlayment that makes them possible

Back in Istanbul, Sankar and I decided to do some poking around behind the Topkapi Palace to find an ancient pillar we’d read about. We located the pillar, which was put up in the 400s CE to commemorate a Byzantine victory over the Goths:

After taking this photo, we noticed a fleet of white vans lined up, all with Japanese writing on them. Sankar greeted a couple of the waiting Japanese drivers in their language, and we walked away, puzzled. Later we realized that this was the day the Marmara Project, a railway tunnel underneath the Bosphorus, was to open. A Japanese construction firm has been working for years on this ambitious project. On this day, the Japanese Prime Minister and a number of other dignitaries were in Istanbul for the opening ceremonies.

We sat for awhile and drank tea in this obscure part of the Old City, enjoying a wonderful view of the ancient walls and the Sea of Marmara.

Poking around, I believe, always leads to something good.

Our trip finished on October 29, Republic Day. We sat in Levent Park and talked for an hour (in Turkish!) with our former cleaning lady and all-around wonderful person, Ayşe Alemdar.

Returning to our hotel room late in the afternoon, we noticed our window had been draped with the Turkish flag.

In the evening we walked to the Beşiktaş pier and watched a twenty-minute firework show that we both agreed was “Fourth of July times five.”

Our friends had been the same, and the sights, both old and new to us, had been inspiring. It was a wonderful trip!

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

A Turkish Opinion on Syria

We had a Turkish dinner guest on Sunday evening—I will call him Murat—and we quizzed him about Syria. Murat told us his countrymen do not favor an American attack, though they believe it will probably occur. Turks don’t trust their own press enough, he said, to be certain Assad actually used chemical weapons.

If you were sure, what would your opinion be? I asked.  Well, Murat replied, “It is not the Turkish way to attack a country that is struggling internally.” 

Turks are already being drawn into the war, he said, due to their acceptance of Syrian refugees. An American attack would draw Turkey in further, possibly destabilizing it and damaging its economy. Tourism sounds frivolous when put up against war and suffering, but that industry supports a great many people in Turkey. In 2012, the country ranked 6th in the world for number of visitors, receiving over 35 million people.

Murat commented that, not long ago, Turkey’s prime minister was a friend of Bashar Assad. Indeed, for most of the time Sankar and I lived in Turkey, the country’s official policy was, “Zero Problems with Neighbors.”  

He also believes that an American attack would lead to retaliation, which could come in any number of ways, including an assault on the American company for whom he works.

No conclusions, but I’m glad we listened to Murat. I am heartened that Americans are conflicted about what to do. There is a recognition of complexity this time and fewer hard and fast opinions. This leaves room for other ideas, other possible approaches. We are wiser than we were a decade ago.

Syrian woman at Turkish refugee camp, spring, 2012. Refugees numbered 100,000 then; now there are close to 1/2 million in Turkey.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

A Tale of Two Kitties

For me, it started with a post in a friend’s blog. But it really started with two distressed kittens crying under a bush in Turkey.

My friend Waverley and her family were wrapping up their tour of duty in Istanbul, scheduled to return to Minnesota in June. In April she wrote a blog post titled, The Rule of Three – Cat Version. In it, she explained how her cat family had grown from two to three. 

Back in February, a gardener at her Istanbul apartment complex had discovered two kitties, so new their eyes were still closed, underneath some shrubbery. Their mother had apparently abandoned them, and they were desperately hungry.

Stray felines are a prominent feature of life in Istanbul. The climate is mild enough that they can survive outside year-round, and a plethora of climbing places and concealing vegetation provide the perfect habitat. Turks leave bowls of food and water out for the cats, so most appear adequately fed.

Mustafa Bey, the guard at Waverley’s complex, took the two kittens into the small apartment he occupies in the building's basement. He warmed them back to life and began feeding them milk from an eyedropper. Other guards pitched in and the kittens survived.

The female kitty was soon adopted by a family living nearby. The male became Mustafa’s pet, and he continued to raise it by hand, keeping it by his side nearly all the time. But then the owners of the complex decided that a security guard should not be spending time caring for a kitten. They informed Mustafa that he needed to find a home for the little guy, and he asked Waverley, who had already taken in two street cats. She agreed, and started calling him Tiny Cat.

I commented on Waverley's post, remarking that cats were also on my mind. Sankar and I were thinking of replacing our tabby, who had gone out one spring evening three years ago and never come back.

Waverley wrote back: “If you're serious about wanting Tiny Cat, I will talk to Ray and kids about it. Honestly, for me, it would be great.” 

I couldn't believe she was thinking of bringing three cats back to Minnesota. “It sounds like a lot to just bring one animal,” I replied.  

“If you want Tiny Cat just let me know," she insisted. "The guards have been teasing me that Tiny Cat will have a U.S. green card before they do."

On June 23, Waverley, her husband, four children and three cats flew from Istanbul through Europe to Chicago. There, storms delayed their plane about five hours. In the wee hours of June 24, Tiny Cat and his foster family arrived in the Twin Cities.  The next day I went to Waverley’s house and picked him up. Five months old, he was thin and leggy, with interesting black and gray stripes running down his back and enormous green eyes. We decided to call him Sultan.

Now, a month later, Sultan is starting to fill out. He seems to like his new home. He eats heartily and loves to commandeer the top of the family room couch or the flower pot on the upstairs deck. His favorite toys are two ninety-nine-cent stuffed mice from IKEA. The veterinarian was happy to add Sultan's exotic new name to his list of patients.

Sultan has exceptional people skills. He is curious about everyone who visits, and he makes friends quickly. Because he is likely from a long line of street cats, Sultan is strong, smart, and more than a little bit stubborn. These characteristics seem Turkish, and help connect us to our favorite foreign country.

Every day I say thanks for the tender way Mustafa Bey cared for Sultan. And last week Waverley and three of her children paid us--and Sultan--a visit. It was a happy reunion. Thank you Waverley, for delivering Sultan to us!

Sultan guards the perimeter while I blog about him.