Friday, October 4, 2013


A rather embarrassing number of weeks have passed since I last posted here. No excuses really. But I’m now in Istanbul, rather dazed by the lovely complexities of the city. And to anticipate your questions: no I have not yet been to see the Hagia Sophia (which I did see the only other time I visited Istanbul, long ago in 1982); nor any of the offerings in the Istanbul Biennal; nor much else except outdoor walking, ferry, bus, and light rail routes, and small restaurants of various kinds.

First to the transport: Where I live, in downtown Toronto, a large rich city of nearly 3 million, we have not built a subway line for a long time, and have only added a few tram/streetcar lines. In Istanbul, a large very complicated terrain loaded with historical obstacles, they’ve gone from 45 km of track to 145 or so and are headed for 400 km by 2020. Impressive. And it shows. I mean yes the traffic is snarly, but there is a dizzying number of transit options to cope with people’s need to move up and down hills and over large stretches of water. All of it can be done using a prepaid card, like the Oyster card of London or the Octopus card of HongKong, that gets scanned each time you enter a new mode of transport. It’s all much smoother-running because of the easy scanning: no tokens, no tickets…

Just to give you an idea: I am staying in an airbnb not far from Taksim Square (of May demos fame). To get to, say, the main tourist places or to the ferries, I walk up to Taksim, then take the funicular (underground cable car) down the hill to Kabatas, then get straight onto the tram, which carries me along the shore (past two or three huge cruise ships, big boxy apartment-buildings on the water) and over the new Galata bridge. From there I can walk two minutes and catch a ferry across the Sea of Marmara to Kadikoy, on the Asian side, a fifteen or twenty minute trip. And there, as I had been told before I left, is a lively market neighbourhood, fabulous walking streets and beautiful food scenes all around.

So that’s where I went yesterday nooontime (after spending the morning at the consulate of Iran, waiting, then getting instructions and forms, and then waiting again to hand everything back in; they tell me the visa will be delivered on Monday morning).

I’d been over to Kadikoy the previous day for a wander around, in company with an immersethrough friend B who happened to be in Istanbul for the first two days I was here. We rambled following our noses, choosing the most interesting looking streets, and got lost without knowing we were lost (or caring).

Some of the fish in the market – Jake Tilson looked at the photo and says they are a kind of bonito – had their gilled pulled out and kind of separated so that they looked like dark-cherry-coloured flowers, very beautiful in a massed display. There were fresh hamsi (anchovies) all silver gleaming, and other fish I know nothing about and could only admire for their beauty. And there were ripe figs, large and small, as well as pale to deeper red pomegranates, always with a few broken open to show their juicy promise. Several shops had heads of leaf lettuce arranged in rows, each topped by a small bundle of red radishes, like a small bouquet, the red an almost shocking contrast to the bright green.

In the midst of all the plenty was an enticing-looking bookshop full of books in Turkish with beautiful leather bindings. Of course we went in to look. And when we asked, Yes, down a steep flight of stairs were books in English and French and more in Turkish. I found a Virago edition of a fantastical novel by Naomi Mitchison called Travel Light in which Constantinople plays a small role. Later, as we found our way back to the ferry again, I wondered out loud if I could find my way back to the bookstore again.

That was two days ago. When we went back to Kadikoy yesterday, though all the same market loveliness was on display, we were less observant, for we were on a mission to find Musa’s restaurant Ciya. We also wanted to spot a lachmacun place called Halil that the deeply knowledgeable Robyn Eckhardt of Eating Asia had told me about. After asking a couple of people, we found ourselves on a street we recognised from the day before. First we found Halil, and then, right opposite the bookstore – aha! – was Ciya.

We feasted at Ciya (I hadn’t eaten before leaping out the door for my visa and was starving). And it was like the best kind of home cooking, with layers of flavour and care, that’s the only way I can describe it. Of course I am too unknowledgeable about Turkish cuisine to tell you in detail, but the lamb with quince was wonderful, the kibbeh was perfect, the wheat berry and cheese stuffing in the vine leaves was fresh on the tongue… I am hoping to get back there, perhaps on one of the evenings I have on my way through after Iran… (And I have promised myself a visit to Halil too.)

After the luck of my first two days in Istanbul, today was more bumpy. I looked up a resto I wanted to try, Google sent me to a strange suburban location, but so what? I thought. There's light rail to nearby. In fact, no, there's not, because it has been torn up and is being replaced with a metro line. Meantime, take a bus said the man. I did, but it was very far, and then it turned out that Google had sent me to the right street address, but in a different quarter, not the right one. I was miles from where I wanted to be. I should have phoned first, of course, to check. But it wasn't wasted time, I said to myself firmly as I stood in a crowded bus hoping I was headed the right way on the return. I got to see parts of the city I'd never have been to, and to see how hard life is for loner-distance commuters.

All of this reminds me of the not-knowingness of travel. I have spent most of my travel time recently in Burma and Thailand. And while Burma was a layered puzzle that I have only barely begun to get familiar with, I did at least have some clue by the time I’d finished work on my book.

In Turkey, and even more so in the next weeks in Iran, I am again starting from scratch, and in a more visibly complex environment. At least here, thanks to Ataturk, who moved Turkish into a western alphabet, I can read the street signs and sound out other signs to try to make sense of them (taksi, bufe, etc). But in Iran I will be as illiterate as I was in Burma at the start.

That illiteracy forces me to use other cues, to be observant of details. You might almost say it forces me back into fuller awarenes. Just as, on that first trip to Kadikoy I noticed lots of market details because I was tuning in to what was before me, while on the second, as a hostage to a map and directions and a fixed goal, I noticed very little, so the illiterate is alert to more, whereas, when reading is an option, we tend to not see much beyond the signage.

Do I revel in my ignorance and the not-knowingness of my situational illiteracy? Yes, in many ways I do. It’s humbling (never a bad thing) and I like it as a reminder of how much I usually fail to notice. I always hope I’ll stay attuned to that reminder, and keep trying to tune in, even when I am in familiar surroundings. But mindfulness is easier to talk about than it is to practise, don’t you find?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A friend sent me your wonderful post. I especially loved what you said about letting yourself be "illiterate" and how that opens the observing faculties.
We just spent 8 days in Istanbul in a top floor air B&B apartment wa stone's throw from the Galata tower. And with a rooftop with fabulous views. If you are still there, I highly recommend Cafe Kiva, in front of the tower. Wonderful food and great spot where there is so much action.