"Inside is complicated."
I can think of nothing more exciting than the prospect of touching down and finding oneself in Istanbul. When you’re there it really feels like you’re in Constantinople, the legendary nexus of East and West. The city is tinted in sepia, like an old photograph. It has a palpable historical gravity. You feel as if you could wander around a corner and stumble upon some significant artifact, as would Indiana Jones. It’s not just that it is an old city. Europe is full of musty, old cities emitting the last wheezing respirations of life. Not Istanbul. Its former glory is also its present glory. The city doesn’t need life support, because it’s still spry and muscular, in the prime of life.
I had only 36 hours in the city on a long layover. Thirty-six hours, you may well note, is a ludicrously insufficient amount of time to investigate the historical depths of Constantinople in full. And I’d agree with you. But it sure as heck beats nothing. Plus, I didn’t have to book an extra airfare, rather than just pick one with a long layover. Pretty savvy, if you ask me. I had booked accommodations at the ‘Cheers’ hostel, so named not for the American television show of the 1980s but for what British youths say instead of "thanks" at the end of a transaction. That's where I headed now.
I hoped off the metro in the sepia-tone city center. Actually I wasn’t sure if it was the city center. I didn’t know the first thing about Istanbul or how it was laid out. But it seemed bustling, and there was a grandly-domed Mosque, called Sultan Ahmet, which took up about the same footprint as a football stadium. I meandered up the side street on which Cheers was located. Meandering is the only form of locomotion one can perform on an Istanbul side street. Each street heads in some direction but only vaguely and with dramatic reorientations at unexpected points, like the trend line of the stock market. I noticed that the streets were littered with kittens. They were feral cats, in the sense that no one owned them. But they didn’t look scraggily like most intercity fauna. From the looks of the bowl of milk on the sidewalk, people took care of them. I made my way down the street with my suitcase, scanning each brightly lit façade for some indication that I had found my temporary home. Then from the cool shade of an ivory laced café called a voice:
“Hey, man. Are you looking for Cheers?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Well, you found it, man!”
A Turkish fellow named Ahmed greeted me as if I were an old friend. He took me into the hostel to the front desk, where he introduced me to Sinan. They both had the air of men who had been relieved of ambition through many devoted years spent with Mary Jane. They were ludicrously welcoming, and I loved them immediately.
“Are you staying at Cheers, man?” Sinan asked this as if a buddy had unexpectedly popped by to crash on his couch. I informed him of my intention to do so.
Sinan and Ahmed showed me around the place. The building was long and lean, with a tight spiral staircase running up its spine. Everything was wooden and well-worn. The first floor had a modest kitchen in the back, where breakfast would be served. My room was on the second floor, with twelve bunks and a bathroom, arrayed in an unusually spacious room. The third floor had more rooms. On the floor above that was the in-house bar, where I made the acquaintance of yet another warm and kindly Turkish guy who invited me back to enjoy half-priced beers at happy hour. The bar boasted a spectacular view of Sultan Ahmet’s dome, pillared at four sides by great, spear-like columns, the scene practically springing in through the window as it would in a 3D movie.
There is an idea from psychology called the "explore-exploit tradeoff." It is a decision-making dilemma that any thinking organism must solve: I can either choose the option I know to be the best right now (exploit), or I can try something new in hopes that it might prove even more beneficial (explore). It is notoriously difficult to describe the optimal solution to the explore-exploit tradeoff. The crux of the matter is that it’s tough to know when you’ve collected enough information to stop exploring and start exploiting. Well, I developed my own solution to the problem. I had several weeks before made a reservation at a restaurant called Mikla, which was recommended by a gourmand friend of mine who had recently spent two weeks in Turkey. It was a tasting menu establishment, where the general arrangement is to hand the waiter an immense wad of cash in the promise that sometime later he will return, course by course, with a series of whatever the chef has on offer, minusculy proportioned and neatly arranged. Like White Rabbit in Moscow. I enjoy that sort of thing, and so does my friend. I trust his tastes, too. My solution to the tradeoff, at least when it comes to restaurants, is to exploit his explorations. He said Mikla was the best thing in Turkey.
However, earlier that day I had sent Mikla an email canceling the reservation. It was a lot of money. Not as much as it would be at an equivalent restaurant in US, or somewhere else relishing an economy that isn’t teetering on the verge of collapse. But certainly it would cost more than whatever I’d be able to find stumbling around the streets. When I got to the hostel I equivocated for a bit. Would it be worth it? At length I decided to fetch up at the restaurant and let fate decide—if they still had a table, I’d snag it. What the hell? I’m worth it.
When I left the hostel I wasn’t sure if I was in Europe or Asia. Approximately half of Istanbul belongs to one and half to the other. I assumed since I was on one side of Istanbul and Mikla was on the other that I'd crossed from continent to the other. I felt as though I was crossing a border illicitly, as if into a forbidden nation. I wasn’t, I later learned. But I reveled in the sense of espionage anyway. When I inspected the map, it looked like Mikla was on a main drag. But as I trekked up the hill on which it was situated, I learned it was most emphatically not. Maps of Istanbul bear only a loose correspondence with reality, as the streets are constantly shifting, like the moving staircases of the dormitories at Hogwarts.
I presented myself at Mikla on the 18th floor of a hotel situated on Istanbul’s highest eminence. I had walked for about an hour to get there, mostly uphill, and it was really hot out. I showed up in a bit of a tizzy, more than a bit disheveled. I was wearing running shoes, which had been a different color when I bought them, green shorts that extended down only as far as my upper thigh, and had a soot-stained face that brought to mind an industrious but unfortunate character in a Charles Dickens novel. I looked like shit, really. I inquired with the maitre d’ about the possibility of restoring my previously appointed spot in the dining room. He demurred and told me it was full-up. The restaurant, I could see, was empty. I managed to negotiate a spot at the bar. Then I excused myself because, as I told him, I had come prepared to change into something more presentable. He directed me to the men’s room. While I was changing in the tiny bathroom, a guy came in to check on me. He offered some banal explanation for his presence, like making sure I knew how to operate the flush handle on the toilet. But really he was there on orders from the maitre d’ to ascertain whether I had in fact transmogrified into a form that was presentable and unlikely to cause embarrassment or mirth among the other dining patrons. I had put on dark jeans and a light blue linen collared shirt. I had also wiped the grime from my cheeks. I wouldn’t be turning any heads, neither for reasons of sexual intrigue nor arresting sartorial faux pas. I made my way back to the host’s table. He had managed, magically, to find a table for me, provided I could vacate by 9pm. Excellent.
I submitted my request for the full tasting menu and a glass of Turkish rosé. Then I went to look out over the city. It was amazing. When I returned to my seat I beckoned the garçon. “I have a dumb question,” I told him. “Which continent am I on?”
“Europe,” he genially informed me. “Asia is that way,” he pointed across a body of water. He explained that the heart of Istanbul formed something of a Y shape divided by waterways, the Bosphorus and the Marmara Sea. One segment of the triad was Asia and the other two, including Mikla and my hostel, were Europe.
The first courses came promptly as a couple rounds of amuse bouche. Bite sized fishy stuff. These were accompanied by a basket of bread with goat cheese butter, from a goat named Yagmur. I sat there at the table to take it all in: I was in Istanbul. At the best restaurant in the city. Eating exquisite food and savoring a view of the whole thing. I couldn't have been happier.
Throughout my meal I watched Turkish playboys trickle in with their exquisitely dressed blondes in tow. Each of the women was dressed in white. Every single one of them. It might have even been the same white dress. They also appeared to have had the same plastic surgeon do their boob-job. Regardless, no one failed to show up in anything but their finest duds. Myself included.
I looked up from my book from time to time to take stock of the other patrons. I noticed the woman next to me carefully dabbing tears from her perfectly made up eyes. Then she started smiling. I could never quite figure out why. Eaves dropping didn't help, as the conversation was not only subdued but in Turkish. Istanbul is a city of mysteries. A couple was seated next to me. They were the same age. They also sported the same just barely elevated casual that I did. The girl was Asian; the guy was difficult to tell. They were speaking English, neither natively. I fantasized that they were lovers who met in a distant land and could only continue their affair meeting in Istanbul for all-too-brief romantic encounters. The tasting menu seemed to be a bit exotic for their tastes, as they prodded at the fishy amuse bouche experimentally with a fork and a pair of quizzical looks.
Eventually I decided he was German. He was talking about the country as if he was from there. I could tell she was Korean. But then again he was uncharacteristically tan for a Teutonic lad. Turkish German, maybe? Anyway, doesn’t matter. There were more excellent dishes to be had. I was out by 8:50, as promised, and fully sated.
After dinner I was eager to stretch my legs in the streets of Istanbul. I called first at a bar that I'd identified as promising on the way up to dinner. It was adjoined to a hostel. I walked through the lobby and a spacious diner to open air patio in back. The walls were festooned with flags and books, as if someone loaded cultural artifacts into a canon and shot it all the wall. Every table was filled. There was a Volkswagen van parked in a corner of the room. Bob Marley and his musical offspring were featured heavily in the musical selection. The place had vibes for days. On the cocktail menu were a bunch of Turkishly named drinks without an ingredient list. I ordered the Fahrettin, for reasons of phonological pleasure. The bartender, a busy guy to be sure, dropped my drink while presenting it to me, spilling on me and my book. He said sorry then wandered off, which I thought was a rather neat trick of nonchalance. What remained of the cocktail was quite good—tequila-based, accompanied by a mysterious concoction in the traditional idiom of Istanbul. He comped me the drink, which seemed like a fair trade for having to wear part of it.
Time to hit the streets again. I reemerged into the humid Turkish night and set my course down the steep hill. It was steep enough that if you took a tumble, you’d continue rolling until you spilled out onto the level street a half mile below. I was clearly in a hipster area. Every storefront had a shop, a cool one. There were lively bars, vegan kitchens, and The Pure Love Café. Groups sitting at tables spilled out from restaurants into the street. All the people were good looking and appeared dressed to attract mates. The street featured a modest strip of sidewalk, wide enough to comfortably fit my three leftmost fingers. Enabling a safe place for walking ranked relatively low among its priorities. Mostly it was dedicated to other things, like rubbish bins, cellar stairs, stray cats, their generously proportioned milk bowls, and scooters thrown onto the sidewalk as if abandoned by a fugitive who had escaped down a nearby alley. The texture of the street was a comely but treacherous cobblestone, so the entire thoroughfare was a sort of a mini obstacle course at ground level. The street lights were spaced just far enough apart that when your shadow died in front of you it resurrected behind. Scooters and cars whizzed by as if finding themselves fifteen minutes late for a meeting on the wrong continent. Being a pedestrian in the city requires a certain extra sensory perception for knowing when to be in the street and when to get off. Istanbul is a game of inches.
The street dilapidated as I descended. It was no longer populated by hipsters, as it had been near the top, but mothers and aunties sitting outside while mending clothes and folding laundry. At length I found myself back on the main road, which I took in the direction of my hostel. I followed signs to an underground "tramvay" which proved to be a closed market, shuttered for the night. After a few subterranean turns and what seemed to be too far to just cross the street I began to fear I'd been trapped in another Moscow metro maze. Then I resurfaced right in the metro stop that I'd aimed for, where I promptly boarded the next tram. I had learned an important lesson from the Russians—always offer your seat to elders, women, and children. This was taking me far in Turkish etiquette points. I no longer needed to be waved off by elderly men on the subway, but actively offered my seat when they came aboard.
When I got off at the stop by my hostel, I noticed a massive hole in the sidewalk where some men were working. It hadn't been there when I left. The men wore plaid shirts, jeans, and one was knocking back a beer (obviously, he was the supervisor). I'd like to think they weren't engaged in any officially sanctioned work but rather indulging in their Saturday evening hobby of amateur ditch digging.
I went back to my hostel. In my room I met a young man my age, named Dylan, from San Francisco. He was clearly of a strain of human being known as West Coast Bro. I told him I was also from the West Coast, Seattle. West Coast people have a certain way of communicating with one another, as if everything the other person relates is a cause for minor celebration. The excitement just sort of leaks out. He told me he and his buddies had covered 16 miles the day before.
"Dude, nice!" I responded.
"The asian side is pretty chill," he told me "You should go."
"Hell yeah, man."
This is another thing about the West Coast. The most prized attribute of anything is chill. As in: man, that party last night was chill; I went on a date with a girl, and she was pretty chill, man; I failed that exam, but don’t worry, man, it’s chill. One of the primary reasons why I don’t fit in on the West Coast is that, at 98.8 degrees Fahrenheit, I don’t have an ounce of chill contained anywhere in my body. For example, I go on rants about how silly the notion of chill is. That’s decidedly unchill. But I put on a cool front with Dylan, not to alert him to my lack of chill. In this I achieved a level of success sufficient for him to invite me to hang out. “Hey man, Kevin and I are about to take some vodka shots in his room. Wanna come?”
"Sweet!” I told him. “Maybe I’ll meet up later.” I didn’t plan to meet up later.
I took leave of Dylan and went up for a drink at the rooftop bar. We had a view of Sultan Ahmet in the evening air. I met an Indian girl who worked as banker in London and a Slovenian professor of public health. We bullshitted for a while. I wasn't quite ready to retire for the evening, having spent much of it sitting at dinner. I went for a walk to take in the evening streets of old city Istanbul. It was not exactly bustling, but there were still people out, mostly in search of food and drink. Restaurants yearned for customers. Turkish men stood outside of their eateries and implored you to dine in their establishments. I'd like to think that if I were really undecided about where to enjoy my next meal that I might actually be swayed by their amicable inducements. I do love to be courted. I returned to the hostel bar, where my friends lingered. We bullshitted more, until late, like 1:30. The Slovenian girl took a look out the window and remarked, “That's an interesting view." Then I retired for the evening.
The next morning I was eager to get going. I sprung up, showered, and went out in search of one of the handsome cafes I had passed the night before. I realized as soon as I left that I had no idea where anything was—the grand bazaar, which mosque was the Ayasophia, how to cross to Asia. About three blocks away from my hostel I equivocated for a moment, pacing back and forth as I changed my mind several times over. First I decided fuck it, just wander; then I noted how short of a time I had in the city and I should be prudent about how I use it; then I went back to the first mindset, how hard can it be to find the grand bazaar? It’s pretty big, right? Ultimately I about-faced and went back to the hostel. I pulled out my map and my food recommendations, noting the major landmarks and eating destinations. I had a cup of strong Turkish coffee while I deliberated, along with heavily seeded watermelon. I located the Grand Bazaar, figured out which mosque was the Ayasophia, developed a game plan for my transcontinental crossing, and picked out a breakfast destination. Time to hit the streets.
Where Russia is fixed and inflexible, Istanbul is fluid and free flowing. The rules here are like the addresses, an approximation, meant only to get you in the neighborhood. I had begun to understand this the night before when I looked up the address for Mikla and found that it took me to the right block but didn't commit me to any building in particular. The same was now true for my breakfast spot. The Russians would, however, I think, be quite fond of the way the Turks lay out their streets. They couldn't possibly be more convoluted.
At length I tracked down my destination in an enclosed market with several different food stalls. I called at the one serving Menemen. It was unclear where exactly the seating area ended and the kitchen began. I presented myself to a gentleman standing vaguely in the part of the restaurant dedicated to preparing food rather than eating it, and asked for some Menemen, please.
"Please take a seat."
That kind of protocol would never have flown in Russia. I still would have been waiting for attention from the waitress when, mere minutes later, I was delivered a bubbling cast-iron pan of egg, pepper, spices, sausage, and tomato, more spice red than yolk yellow. Turkish omelette. After setting it down, the guy took the lid off a Tupperware container, exposing about two whole loaves worth of bread. I eyed it, appreciating the generosity, but not sure what I was supposed to do with about ten times more bread than omelette, by volume. I also ordered a Turkish coffee. I soon realized that what I had at the hostel had not been strong Turkish coffee at all. That was a strong cup of American-style, brewed drip coffee. I had just forgot what strong drip coffee was like, since the Russians enjoy a rather lighter cup. This was the size of an espresso shot, served in an oriental ceramic set. It had the consistency of melted chocolate. The gradient of Turkish coffee starts as liquid and ends as solid. Instead of fork and knife, I used pieces of bread to scoop up the omelette. By the end of my meal I looked over and saw that the Tupperware container was mostly empty. I was immensely satisfied.
Before I headed out from breakfast, I spread out my map onto the table. It was a physical copy I had obtained at the airport. I always pick up the free tourist map whenever I touch down in an unfamiliar city. I forgo Google Maps if I can help it. The problem with Google Maps, you see, is that you can never really be lost. It tells you where you are, so you never have to figure it out for yourself. Getting yourself unlost is the best way to quickly become familiar with the layout of a new city. And gaining familiarity with a city’s layout is one of the most efficient ways to gain a sense of intimacy with the place. This was a cityscape I wanted to get to know. I pocketed my phone, resolving not to appeal to its GPS-augmented maps.
I set off in the direction of the Grand Bazaar on a circuitous route, for there was no other kind available. I quickly became nowhere in particular. I was not on any discernible path or route. Istanbul is laid out not as a grid but rather as the pattern glass takes when you throw a small rock at it. It’s as if the road-builders made only game-time decisions about where the road should lead as they were laying the foundations. If you set off down a particular thoroughfare you're just as likely to find yourself circling back to your present junction as going on straight ahead. There’s simply no way of knowing. The other thing about the streets of Istanbul is that you never know what you’ll find on them, but you can be pretty sure it will be some sort of informal commerce. If Paris is a moveable feast, then Istanbul is a permanent market. As I wandered—potentially in circles, I couldn’t tell—I wondered where all these textiles come from. There’s a seemingly limitless supply of cheap clothes, shoes, gadgets, bags, household supplies, and provisions of every nature. Whence the demand? Who, for instance, needs four hundred little girl’s wedding dresses? As my mind slowly returned from its absence I grew concerned with whether I would even know when I breached the Grand Bazaar. Everything I passed was a bazaar. All of it seemed pretty imposing. I wasn’t confident I’d be able to distinguish the minor ones from the Grand One. Eventually I discovered I had ambled in correct direction, and I strode in through an arch labeled GRAND BAZAAR, est. 1461.
At once I was thrust into a sort of capitalist cathedral with high ceilings and densely packed rows commercial stalls rising toward the heavens like a downtown avenue of product-laden skyscrapers. The scale of it resembled the Sistine Chapel, had it originally been zoned for commercial purposes. Salesmen lingered at their stalls like doormen at a building. In the section I had entered they sold mostly familiar sartorial wares: knockoff Gucci, LV, jerseys from the major soccer clubs, that sort of stuff. They didn’t look to be much engaged in the act of selling. Mostly they stood there drinking tea. The tea was delivered by couriers carrying hanging trays that looked like one side of the scales of law. Many of the salesmen yelled to colleagues across the way, or shared quiet confidences with their business partners in the stall. Most of them were just sitting or standing idly, seeming to take it all in, or at least facing the right direction to do so.
I perused a few different boroughs of the Grand Bazaar. There was one with lots of jewelry, shiny and brightly glaring. It was like walking through an intergalactic market hawking small star systems. There was another area, labeled the "Old Bazaar," that sold antiques, like lamps from which you could solicit the services of a genie. The comparatively modern bazaar offered an array of goods without any unifying theme: picture frames, chess boards carved from marble, ceramic plates, glass tea sets, and rakish canes that would seem apropos in the wobbly grip of an octogenarian pimp. Kitty-corner to the stall I looked at now was one with much the same wares—the same chess boards, the same tea sets, though here they were featured in conjunction with various spice jars and décors of an Islamic bent. It occurred to me that something seemed fucked up in the supply and demand system here. There's an awful lot of supply. Turkish economics must operate by different rules, I figured. On the other hand, I wanted all this shit. It was beautiful and unreasonably cheap. It wasn’t like the flimsy, crappy knockoffs on offer in many such markets. But I didn’t purchase anything, mostly because I didn’t want to have to lug it around. Still, it made me think about the guy selling the stuff. That guy could stand in front of his stall every day for the rest of his life, make his pittance of Turkish Lyra per diem and sell only a handful of goods every so often. It didn’t seem right.
As I continued my stroll I noticed a band of policemen: three guys in jeans and Nikes with Polis vests, one strapped imposingly with an AK-47 diagonally across his chest. This is not an entirely uncommon sight around the world, but it is still somewhat off-putting.
It wasn’t until I chanced upon the borough of preserved food—with teas, dried fruit, and the like—that the dynamics of Bazaaro economics started to jibe. The supply and demand was amortized. The timescale was that of many years, not of now. It was the opposite of scalable and innovative, the prized economic considerations of the modern West. But it was sustainable, which though highly-touted in the West is a much more low priority distinction. I was struck with the realization that all this would continue to carry on after I left, as it had since 1461. The supply could sit there and the demand could wander in as it may. It wasn’t a simple function of this point in time. It left me with a deeply seated appreciation for object permanence, that things are there even when I’m not looking at them. The world continues to go on, whether or not I appreciate it. And I was sincerely grateful just to see it, even if momentarily.
In sum I’ll give the Bazaar points for Grandness, as advertised. But truth be told I expected the Bazaar to be, well, more bizarre. Perhaps I felt it should be filled with turbaned snake charmers, or a well-suited James Bond escaping from a band of international criminals on motorbike, careening off a nearby roof to unsettle a table of civilians just about to sit down for a large family meal. I don't know exactly.
It proved easy to exit. However, it was not easy to know where I had exited once back in the unruly constellation of satellite bazaars. I had no idea which direction I was now oriented. When I stopped to get my bearings I saw a huge mosque. Surely, I thought, this would give me a landmark by which to establish my position. Not the case. When I surveyed the area surrounding the Bazaar on my map, I identified no less than a dozen mosques which I could have been gazing at now. For all I knew, this one could've been too minor even to be included on the map.
I soon discovered that all roads lead back to the Grand Bazaar. I needed to get the hell out of this area to have a hope at establishing my whereabouts. It took me mere seconds to become completely lost. I was suddenly out of range of the main market and ambling helplessly through a sepia-toned hedge maze of storefronts, delivery trucks, and product-strapped couriers. There were no landmarks and no visibility in any direction. There weren’t even any right angles. There were however half a dozen guys unloading a shipment of approximately seven tonnes of the same little boys underwear. At length I found what seemed a promisingly distinctive landmark: a stately building with a plaque labeled ISTANBUL LISIPI. After a bit of scanning I found it on my map. I appeared to be situated on a street that led directly to the main drag. Nope. I ranged up and down the street, trying both directions, but it refused to spit me out anywhere besides nowhere in particular. I was totally lost again. By now I had made the worthwhile discovery that only sixty percent of the streets were on my map, which was already packed with detail. Only about twenty percent of the included streets featured names. When finally I found the main drag I had been searching for I pieced together post hoc from street names that I had been looking at wrong Istanbul Lisipi. I had been at Lisipi Zirkek, not Lisipi Kiz as I had suspected. Of course.
I headed back toward my hostel for a reliable toilet. I found a Starbucks along the way and contemplated a cold coffee. This is something that the rest of the world has yet to figure out—when it’s hot, it’s nice to have the option for an iced coffee or a cold brewed coffee or whatever. Starbucks is the only global institution which reliably abides this philosophy. Also, Starbucks, like me, is from Seattle, so there’s an ounce of hometown pride involved in the process. I have the authority to inform the barista, “I’m from Seattle, so I really know what I’m doing here.” I'll often congratulate the manager on everything being up to snuff. At any rate, the queue was too long, and I desperately required the services of that toilet.
Once relieved and back on the street, I realized that I expected Istanbul to have more smells. Even the roasted corn purveyed on the sidewalk is mostly scentless unless you get a really big snootful. I sort of imagined there would be an ever-present light dusting of za’atar or ras el hanout, like Turkey was actually located inside an oven cooking something exotic and seriously delicious.
Speaking of seriously delicious, I decided to get some ice cream—something to tide me over until I made my way to Asia for lunch. I fetched up at an ice cream stall, where the gentlemen was engaged in serving a family of a mother and four little ones. Whereas the service of ice cream in the US involves a dim-witted, pimply eighteen-year-old scooping from one of thirty-one barrels and inquiring as to whether you'd prefer a sugar or a waffle cone, Turkish ice cream is served with a demonstration, like a hibachi chef at Benihana. This guy had flair. A magnificent mustache, too. He stood at a cart with a refrigerated cavern housing four barrels. The cones were stacked in a leaning tower on the side of his cart like a human-sized scimitar. Above the ice cream man were bells that he’d swat at deftly and rhythmically with his rapier. In his other hand he held not merely a scoop, but an ice cream spade. He served each child individually. I watched him start the little girl off with a cone on which he dolloped a scoop of pink ice cream. Then he thrust his rapier toward the little girl, who would recoil and giggle. While she was distracted he stole back the scoop he had just moments before conveyed to her. This stirred in her brief consternation followed by more giggling. Thus continued a cycle of dolloping, swatting bells, giggling, stealing, thrusting, and more giggling, until the girl had a cone piled high with four colors of ice cream. She was immensely gratified. As the family left still giggling, the man asked me, “Do you want all four flavors?” His voice was about an octave higher than you’d expect for a man whose upper lip was part wildebeest. “Yes, please,” I told him. My presentation was less elaborate, as I was clearly of a more esteemed clientele than his previous patrons. Thankfully, he still smacked the bells a couple times with his rapier. Then, just as he handed me the cone he upended it, and pretended to drop the ice cream. He performed the act so convincingly and with such conviction that my heart dropped and hit the floor at approximately the same time as the cone would have if he had actually dropped it. I giggled like the little girl. Getting Turkish ice cream, I noted, was one of best decisions I’ve ever made.
As I gummed down my ice cream—it was chewy, flavorful, and unrepentantly delightful—I walked past the Sultan Ahmet mosque situated next to my hostel. I reflected on its grandeur, a sort of fractal monolith. Buildings were much better when we built them for God.
I descended the hill on the other side of Sultan Ahmet, headed vaguely in the direction of the famous Ayasophia. I watched as the Bosphorus river shimmered in the distance, like the eponymous cymbals. It was a stroke of brash, spangled sapphire in the otherwise dusty cityscape of Istanbul. I thought I was on a street that would take me directly to Ayasophia. I wasn’t. I intended to cut smartly across the residential hillside, but instead I ended up at the bottom of it on an arterial street that more or less circumscribed Istanbul where it meets the water. I walked along that street. Clearly I would make it to Ayasophia eventually if I just stayed on this street. I spent forty-five minutes walking along, at first admiring the shimmering Bosphorus but then realizing that it was about high time to ask where the fuck this mosque was. How the hell do I get there? I knew I was getting close because I had to pick my way through a kilometer long queue of idling tour buses, their drivers napping in their vans. I still couldn’t see anything of significance. Impatiently, I glanced at Google Maps. I didn’t feel as though I was on the verge of becoming unlost. When at length I found my way there, I became confused. That’s it? I thought to myself. There was no real sight, just a mosque. There are mosques every seven or eight steps in this city, so that’s not exactly a big deal. It wasn’t even large. I guess its esteem derives from the fact that it is exceptionally old. As I scrolled unromantically through Google Maps to see if I was indeed missing anything, I realized that I hadn’t even been looking at the famed and idyllic Bosphorus river, as I had thought. It was actually the Marmara Sea. I stormed off, incredulous that I had gone to such trouble just to ogle at something so underwhelming. I later discovered that I had not visited the Ayasophia but the "little" Ayasophia, whose diminutive I had failed to notice. Totally different site. At any rate, I was ready for a new destination. I was ready for my transcontinental crossing to Asia.
I gambled that a bus could take me along the waterfront to the Eminönü ferry terminal. I didn’t know that it would. But it seemed a good bet, since I was on a main drag headed toward a central location. I walked along but there were no bus stops. Magically, as with Catbus bounding out of the darkness in My Neighbor Totoro, a bus appeared with the word Eminönü on top. I waved the bus over, it stopped, and triumphantly I stepped aboard. Not only did it drop me at the intended ferry terminal, but I realized quickly that I was about a manhattan block away from my pide recommendation. I knew this would give me the strength necessary for my transcontinental voyage. Pide is essentially Turkish pizza, but greasier and meatier and therefore better. It comes in an elliptical shape, with a folded galette shell. It’s like a pizza crust orbiting a galaxy of meaty, saucy goodness. I happily inhaled a full serving before setting off for Asia.
I had no explicit destination in Asia. My plan was just to get on a ferry and see where I ended up. There were three ferry terminals, all with vastly different destinations, spanning multiple continents, though I couldn’t quite tell which one went where. I boarded the one I evaluated to have the highest probability of terminating in Asia. I hoped at the very least it would end up somewhere still in Turkey. I boarded the maritime vessel along with six hundred of my closest Turkish friends, and together we set sail for I knew not where. I was one of the last aboard, as I had more or less hopped on whichever ferry left soonest. There was precisely three quarters of a seat available when I got on, and I wedged myself in on the top deck next to some Turkish youths. We took a sharp right out of Eminönü, back along the waterfront where I had taken the bus from Ayasophia. I looked at the hill of Istanbul from the water. After about thirty minutes the boat docked. I went down to the gang plank to discern whether I was at a decent location to disembark. I stood there while the boat’s ramp met the dock. No one got off. Several hundred new passengers stood in wait to pile on. I had no idea where we were, or where this boat would go next. I asked a few people around me—"Excuse me, where are we?" Everyone’s reply was uniformly unhelpful, "Sorry, no English." I equivocated, then at the last second I jumped ship right as boat was kicking off. Good thing, too. I believe the boat was going on to Beşiktaş, back in Europe.
I had made it to Asia. But before I got to exploring I needed to make arrangements to get back to Eminönü. I couldn’t afford to be stuck in Asia and miss my flight. Luckily, the ferry official standing in the vicinity of the terminal was able to direct me to the proper concourse where I found the schedule. There were ferries back to Eminönü every twenty minutes. Perfect.
It was time for a quick jaunt around Asia, a sort of warm up lap before I headed there in earnest. In front of me was a grey and sprawling business district along the water. The action clearly was located on the hill behind it. I ascended. Immediately, I was struck by a feeling of recognition. I was in Hong Kong. It felt to me like an Asian San Francisco, built on a hillside, with brightly lit storefronts catering to an amalgam of eastern and western sensibilities. There was an idiosyncratic flow to people’s movement, also as in Hong Kong. They move with the same purpose they do in West but on the madhouse, strewn-about streets of Asia: Manhattanites in a maze. I wandered into a used bookstore, the delightful kind where the proprietor values books more than organization. He delivered me to the English language section, and over-explained to me how the system worked. I appreciated the earnestness, but I had ascertained everything I needed to know pretty early on: here are the books. At any rate, the Turks must be avid readers because they have a shit-tonne of book stores. I called afterward at a hipster coffee shop. They had cold brewed coffee in a carafe lingering in a space of frigid clime. Amazing.
I sat outside and listened the conversations of the other patrons. They were all conducted in Turkish. As I matched words to menu items, I realized that spoken Turkish words begin the way I expect, then terminate in something completely indecipherable. At length, I descended back to my port-of-call for a late afternoon trip from Kadıköy, which I learned was the name of the terminal, to Eminönü. I sat atop the ferry in the dusky light of Istanbul.
Eventually I arrived back in Europe. Then I headed to the metro, almost embarked, but decided against it in favor of one more stroll through the streets up to the hostel. At a three way intersection I saw a pavilion with mini chairs and tables, oriental table clothes, and these tiny Turkish teas I’d been seeing all day. I wanted one. It was perfectly positioned to watch the people traffic, too. Strong black tea in a glass three inches tall. Slightly more than a generous shot glass. I repaired back to the hostel bar just in time to watch the evening's soccer match.
It was five, or just after. I looked out over Sultan Ahmet. Then a noise. Let me just say, there is nothing more exotic than the five o’clock call to prayer over the loud speaker in a Muslim city. It is the most non-Western sound in the world. It sounds to naive (and potentially blasphemous) ears like a sitar player drunk on a far eastern spirit, crooning a love song you'll never know the story to. It continues for just about ever. The cadence is such that it dies down, and just when you forgot about it, begins blaring again at the highest register, making the descent all over again.
There was one last stop on my Turkish agenda: Asmalı Cavit. It is an eating establishment located by Mikla—by now feeling like an old haunt of mine—and serving hot and cold meze. When I presented myself to the maitre d’ I inquired about procuring a seat in the restaurant. “Inside is complicated,” he told me, enigmatically. Then he brought me round to an adjacent corridor, which was filled with white-clothed tables. This area was less complicated. I could take a seat toward the back, if that was fine with me. Happily, I accepted. The corridor was terraced, so there were three levels of diners. Since I occupied the furthest back it was also the highest and most regal. I wouldn’t even have to leave my seat to make my usual rounds of inspecting what everyone else is eating. When the waiter approached me I confided in him that I wasn’t sure what to order but I wanted lots. He required no further information. “I’ll bring you a plate of cold starters.” I’ve never felt so understood. As he turned to submit my order I called out, “Wait!”
“I’ll take an order of Raki, please.” Turkish absinthe.
“With water?” he said, and raised an eye brow.
“Sure,” I acquiesced. I wasn’t sure how one was supposed to take Turkish absinthe, so I went with the house recommendation. The Raki came out swiftly. It was served as a triptych. There was the shot-glass worth of absinthe, a tall glass filled with ice, and a small a pitcher of cold water. I set to work on my build-your-own Turkish cocktail, dumping the absinthe over the ice wholesale. I settled on a portion of water somewhere between my masculine inclination for neat spirits and the rather large volume the glass would contain. Of a sudden, the concoction turned ghostly white—chemistry meets conjuring. I took a sip. “Jesus Christ!!” This seemed the only handle by which my mind could grasp the experience. The drink felt like a swift kick to the nuts, but it happened where my face should have been instead of further south. I ventured another sip. Another audible “Jesus Christ!!” was the only response I could produce. There was something eminently realistic about imbibing this drink, like reality shone through with startling clarity after every intake. Two sips in, I could feel clinically interesting effects come on. I tried to recall whether I had passed any banks on the way up here, and I flirted with the idea of sticking them up. Just as I remembered I forgot to bring my pistol, my cold starters came, a plate of delicious mysteries. I was filled with a child’s wonder as I surveyed a landscape of variously colored and textured entities I knew nothing about. I stuck them in my mouth to learn more. The servings resembled what you’d find in the prepared section of your local deli, but it was as if they were assembled by a martian who was given a slate of fresh earthly ingredients and a keen incisiveness for eliciting delightful gustatory experiences. This alien had none of our usual prejudices about how food should look or be combined. There were spicy little green beans (actually seaweed), fava beans, spiced tomato paste, all with a vibrancy and color palate that felt at once exotic and lucid. I took another cool hit of Raki-inspired reality. “Jésus Cristo!!” It came out in Spanish this time.
I took a break from the plate and surveyed my surroundings. I cast my gaze skyward. There was no sky, it was simply the interior façade of an apartment complex. I was seated almost in the inner courtyard. I dispatched with my food much as a dog chows down on her bowl, though with the addition of much happy and rewarding experimentation—“what if I dipped the seaweed in the tomato? Exquisite!” When I was finished and ready for another go-around my waiter was nowhere in the vicinity. I searched around for him, but all I could see were the goblins hanging from the AC units of apartments above and the other patrons in the restaurant wearing grass skirts and dancing the hula in unison. I made visual contact with the waiter from across the room. I gestured that I was ready for the next round. He made a circular motion with his hands and mouthed the word next. I nodded. He gave me the thumbs up and left, never to be heard from again. The goblins must’ve got him. I sat patiently for about twenty minutes before getting up, collapsing like a felled tree, dusting myself off, and inquiring with the only remaining familiar face—the Maitre D’, he who spake of complicated matters—about whether I had an order forthcoming. “No,” he told me politely. I told him I'd like to fix that. I ordered the lamb chop, which I had been eyeing. Then I added, “I’ll have another plate of starters, too.” What I had meant to convey was that I’d like a different plate of starters—a martian landscape as mysterious as the first, perhaps sweltering this time. I thought since my terse order had been so deftly intuited the first time around, I’d be just as lucky the second. I wasn’t. I got the exact same plate of cold starters, which I still wolfed it down, scattering bits of kibble across the white-tiled kitchen floor. I paid the reckoning, then at the moment I reached for my last dose of absinthe I was sucked into it, like a flushing toilet, and all at once found myself back at the hostel. It had been a Portkey.
Intrigued by this newfound form of transportation but otherwise undaunted, I collected my bags from Cheers and bid farewell to my friends, Ahmed and Sinan. “Later, man!” they called as I scooted out along the cobbled streets of Istanbul to grab a train back to the airport.
I took a seat on the train—old men, women, and children be damned. I pulled out my phone, connected the train’s Wifi (yes, Americans, even economically imperiled developing countries offer this service now), and began to watch the second half of a World Cup game, Portugal versus someone. As I streamed the match, I saw the white-mustached Turkish gentleman next to me eyeing my screen, surreptitiously, as one eyes a dirty magazine tucked away in the far corner of the rack. I inclined the screen toward him, a gesture of international goodwill. He nodded in appreciation, and together we gazed at the figures jaunting around on the otherwise verdant illuminations of my phone. Moments into our shared and intimate viewing experience, the Turkish man leaned in to share a confidence.
“Beşiktaş is number one team in Turkey.” He gave me a wide smile. “Beşiktaş is my team,” he clarified, pressing a thumb to his chest and then an index finger distantly toward, presumably, the glorious municipality of Beşiktaş.
“Oh?” I said, impressed.
Then he pointed at the screen, “Pepe plays for Beşiktaş.”
Pepe is a Portuguese defensive stalwart. He is one of Portugal’s most internationally prominent players, after Cristiano Ronaldo. Not only that, the man relayed as further intelligence: the Beşiktaş outfit also boasts among its numbers Ricardo Quaresma, who is a less distinguished footballer, but notable as one of the few Portuguese players who doesn’t identify under a mononym.
“Oh, wow,” I intoned, convincingly, as if playing an Owen Wilson character.
This Turkish-American connection via the Portuguese pleased us both and we sat there in happy silence for a few minutes. Then he retrieved his phone from his shirt pocket. He scrolled through and offered me a picture of him and his daughter at a game, indicating that this was Beşiktaş. “This is very nice,” I said. In return I offered a picture of Haily and me at our Portugal game in Russia and explained how I had actually been at World Cup before coming to Turkey. The man was keen on this information, as of course he was, because Beşiktaş is technically in Europe.
When his stop came we parted as friends, as two men who had just before been strangers and in the intervening moments shared with one another intimate experiences held closely to our hearts and connected on a deeply-felt, fundamentally human level, which only an event like the World Cup brings out. Soon the train pulled up at the airport terminal. And as I hopped off the train I reached into my jacket pocket where I felt the smooth surface of a foreign object. I looked down and pulled out a manila envelope. It was stuffed with reams of neatly wrapped, bank-marked two-hundred Lira notes. “Now where do you suppose these came from?” I said to myself, depositing them furtively back into my pocket and making my way through the automatic doors of Istanbul’s Ataturk airport.
I got to the airport at 11:30 PM for my 1:30 AM flight. The muslim girl at the Turkish Airlines check-in counter greeted me cheerfully. I handed her my passport. She banged away on the keyboard as airline clerks do—about a thousand clicks for what you imagine can only be about a dozen bits of information. Then she pulled a phone up to her ear and made a call. It wasn’t a short call, either. Not a good sign. She was speaking in Turkish, but I could make out the word “standby.” My stomach dropped. This had happened to me once before, in Mumbai. I had booked an intercontinental flight (on Air fucking France, for the record), which was slated to depart in the wee hours for Paris en route back to America. There had been a tinsy miscalculation, and the doggedly optimistic algorithms at Air France had, unfortunately, unexpectedly, inexplicably, overbooked the flight. I was one of a handful of ticketed passengers denied entry. As you can imagine, I wasn’t happy. But as you also might be able to imagine, there were people who got more heated than I. One guy started yelling at the poor Indian girl behind the desk, “You can’t DO this to me! Do you know who I AM? I have somewhere to BE!” She did her best to assuage him. At first I understood his rage, empathized even, at least in the sense of mirroring his emotion. I thought he was a douchebag for yelling at her, sure, but I understood where he was coming from. He continued in this vein for tens of minutes. “Where I have to be is IMPORTANT! And I am getting on that PLANE!” Eventually I couldn’t watch anymore, because he was taking his anger out on this girl who couldn’t do anything about it. “Do you know who I AM?” He yelled at the clerk. “Yes, fuckhole we all know who you are,” I chimed in. “You’re a pompous, self-important, poorly-adjusted jerk. So just sit down and shut up like the rest of us.” I didn’t actually say that to him. But I did intervene and attempt to soothe him, which worked and the girl shot me a look of sincere gratitude.
Anyway, the muslim girl on the phone had still not addressed me directly. She went over to her colleague for a brief conference. Then she returned and told me to follow. We went over to another counter. She consulted again with her colleagues in Turkish. After they reached a verdict, her colleague printed me a boarding pass. The girl handed it to me, smiling, and said, “Your gate is not open yet, but you can go through customs.” I looked down at my ticket.
“Is there a problem?” I asked. Where my boarding pass should’ve had a seat number it just said “JMP.”
“The flight’s overbooked,” she told me. “Just wait at the gate until everyone else is boarded. Then see if you get on.”
While I’d been waiting I had noticed a sign that said you should request a compensation brochure in the event that you’re bumped from a flight due to overbooking. I requested one.
“I don’t understand,” she said, suddenly not an adept English speaker.
“Brochure,” I said, pointing at the sign.
“No brochure,” she countered. “You’ll be fine.”
I gave her a blank look for three silent seconds, then dismissively rolled my eyes at her and huffed off. As I walked away I thought about how that wasn’t a very nice thing of me to do and, reminded of my time in Mumbai, turned back and yelled, “Do you know who I AM?”
I was in the throws of uncertainty concerning one’s destiny that only a waylaid transcontinental flight can bring on. I threw down my bags at the gate I was slated to fly out of and took a brief leave of consciousness, which was the most productive thing I could bring myself to do. When I awoke I was still marinating in qualms about the stochastic nature of my flight assignment—would I be able to get on another flight? Would I have to go back into the city? Would Sinan and Ahmed take me back? Of course they would, I assured myself. But it didn’t help.
As the seating area around the gate filled up, I started to see them—white Africans. They were headed to Johannesburg, like me. They were speaking Afrikaans. I would’ve found this very exciting if I weren’t so nervous. One by one I watched each of them be graciously accepted onto the plane. Once the great throng of people had boarded the plane, I presented myself at the counter to be installed into any unclaimed seat. They said they were still waiting for a few passengers to trickle in. I took a half step away from their desk and tried to put on a patient face as I waited. Joining me in hoping that the stragglers had succumb to some unfortunate scenario were a couple of backpackers and an asian girl, with tattoos, in her thirties. We shared brief commiserations. A pang of kinship shot between us while resting in the clammy and masculine hands of Lady Fortuna.
“Hope we get on,” the Asian girl offered to me.
“Yeah, me too,” I replied.
A family with two small children came running through the terminal, waving their tickets, and petitioning the agents not to close the door just yet.
Then as the doors were closing, in dramatic slow motion, the clerks went bang-bang on their keyboards and out popped a fistful of boarding passes. They presented them to me and the two backpackers. They told the Asian girl there was no room for her. The three of us gave our comrade a doleful look as we were ushered down the runway. I wished her luck. Then I promptly forgot about her. For me, this was a happy occasion. I was on my way to Africa.