A Travellerspoint blog

The Benefits of Dishonesty

Oi Va Voi

rain 10 °C

Sneaking into nightclubs underage is an important step in any girl's development because it teaches her to act self-assured even at her most uncertain. Confidence is the most powerful weapon she brings with her where ever she goes, and faking it is a skill that will serve her well for the rest of her life.

As a case in point, last night with precious few days until my 27th birthday, I had the same "what would my face look like if I weren't lying" thoughts as I did when I was 17. A friend and I were convincing the owner of Istanbul's foremost live music club to let us into a sold out show. In case you were wondering, I am now a photographer and my friend Myriem is a journalist, both working for a Tel Aviv newspaper. Shalom!

Oi Va Voi rocked, and it was not just because of the free vodka party we stumbled upon prior. Their music is Middle Eastern horn infused with a folky rock, passionate violin, and soulful vocals. Think Lauren Hill singing a cobra out of a basket in a Dave Matthews video.

IMG_1134.jpg IMG_1087.jpg

My little blue canon and I were in the front row snapping away as if it was the most normal thing in the world for a professional photographer to bring a little blue canon to a concert.

IMG_1030.jpg IMG_1015.jpg IMG_1117.jpg IMG_1116.jpg

They even have a song about refugees (caaaall me!) inspired by the shared experience of the families of all the original band members who had arrived in London as Jewish refugees. Despite my urge to hug the drummer when he told me this I managed to stay in character all night.

IMG_1058.jpg IMG_1157.jpg

Our night was not supposed to be this way. The man at the Biletix office, the man on the phone, and the man in the Babylon ticket booth all said that there was no way we could attend Oi Va Voi. All three concerts were sold out and there would be no tickets sold at the door. We were disappointed but we were in Taksim, so decided to go drinking instead and search for our Turkish local. Prerequisites were few: friendly bar staff who might slide us a free rakı or two, a good vibe, reasonable prices, and ability to request music.

IMG_0974.jpg IMG_1158.jpg IMG_0988.jpg

The first bar was too decadent and they forgot to take our order for ages even though we were sitting at the bar. The second was jammed with people so we were not able to connect with any of the staff. The third, however, had it all: lots of fun, young people, a vodka promotion with free drinks streaming from the bar, and Starbucks-friendly staff who thanked me (!!) for coming back to ask for more cocktails. My musical requests went over a treat and the staff even handed out complementary plates of shrimp and calamari. All for free. I could hear a chorus of "Norrrm!" in my head - we had found our Cheers.

The only major problem was the food: it had been handed out at random and we did not have any. You can understand my eagerness to solve this problem, so it was a great relief when a nice girl sitting beside a full plate of shrimp offered it to us. We joined her table and soon learned that our new friend was the host of the upcoming Turkish Guinness World Records show, including such activities as rearranging Mr. Potato Head's face and shouting POTATO. So there we were, eating shrimp and drinking delicious vodka cocktails shouting POTATO in our new favorite bar on a rainy night in Taksim. And the night was far from over.

IMG_1155.jpg IMG_1156.jpg

Our new friend Pinar invited us to meet her at a karaoke bar in a few hours. She told us that she had interviewed a London band called Oi Va Voi earlier that day and had promised to come to the show. She would go and then meet up with us after. It did not take long for these brilliant young minds to hatch a plan.

Myriem had just finished a journalism internship in Jerusalem so cleverly wove fact with fiction (while I did my best to look like a very talented and confident photographer) and the next thing we knew we were handed tickets to the sold out show. Of course I had to stay cool, but as we walked in with ticket in hand I felt like Charlie Bucket after he unwrapped that life-altering chocolate bar.

So, if there are any underage girls reading my blog about Turkey I urge you to go clubbing with a fake ID at least a few times before you come of age. If you do, one day an entire decade later, you too could effectively lie your way into a sold out concert.

Posted by LeiCran 02:44 Archived in Turkey Tagged events Comments (1)

A Day with The Princes

and perfect, delicious ambiguity.

overcast 8 °C

Thinking is the enemy of doing. The more you think about a thing the less likely you are to do it and live your life.

So said my Turkish friend Mehmetcan as we were killing time outside customs a week ago, waiting for the worst day of my life to be over (see http://leillac.travellerspoint.com/1/). Perhaps because of learning English as a second language he has developed a lovely way of explaining his thoughts simply and I often find myself thinking of his frank insights later on. Such was the case a few days ago as I waited by the bull in Kadıköy to meet some friends and go for a drink. They arrived and explained they could not stay out late because they were going to a festival early the next morning on one of the Princes Islands, and did I want to join them. With my friend's words still in my mind I accepted, asked no further questions aside from what time to meet them at the ferryboats, and off we went to spend some time with our dear friend Rakı.

The ferry was peaceful and half empty as not many people go to the islands in the winter. The population of the islands is 15,000 in the winter but this number swells to around 100,000 in the summer. In a few months the same lazily-filled 9 o'clock boat will be jammed with affluent Istanbullus and tourists escaping the busy polluted streets of Istanbul. We spent the trip warmed by hot çay and fresh sımıt, silent faces to the glass, mesmerized by the hungry seagulls following the boat like moths around a candle. Finally curiosity overwhelmed my sense of adventure and I asked the girls what sort of festival this was. They did not know; they had been invited by a woman they had met on a previous ferry and knew nothing more than the name of the venue and that we should go early. Perfect, delicious ambiguity.

photo.jpg IMG_0899.jpg

The origin of the islands' present name dates back to the Byzantine period when princes and other royalty were exiled there, followed later by members of the Ottoman sultans' family. There are no cars on the islands so visitors are welcomed to a charming world from the past with horses and wheelbarrows and pedestrians stepping off curbs without a second thought. In the spirit of history we hired a horse and carriage to take us to the top of the hill and our unknown destination. Jokes about channeling our inner Cinderella were cut short as the horses burst into a galloping frenzy from hell. Only Zeus himself could have stayed calm as the driver of our kamikaze chariot YAH'ed and whipped the beasts into an absolute fury. Time ceased to exist as we careened up and around and up again. Our bodies were shaken so hard that it was impossible to focus on anything outside of our coach. The trip was a colourful haze of laughter and frantic hooves on cobblestones. Then suddenly it was over and we were standing, dazed, on top of Heybeliada's highest point looking down at the Sea of Marmara.

IMG_0826.jpg IMG_0830.jpg IMG_0828.jpg IMG_0879.jpg

With wobbly legs and praise to our insane driver we made our way to the entrance gates where we were ushered inside a great hall by a very cute man with twinkly eyes. My senses were on high alert - there might be festival food around any corner! Keeping my eyes open for signs of a celebration and still without a foggy clue where we were, I lit two candles for my parents, followed my friends into a tiny courtyard and into a tiny church.

IMG_0832.jpg IMG_0860.jpg IMG_0865.jpg IMG_0866.jpg

There was gold on every possible surface and no food to be found, aside from some stacked loaves of bread that looked very official and tragically off-limits. There were, however, many smiling faces and the sense that something important was about to take place. This thought terrified me. With an apprehension of religion and no knowledge of the language, customs, tradition, cultural faux-pas or any other significant things I should have been aware of, your writer had unknowingly joined a four-hour long Greek Orthodox service.

IMG_0846.jpg IMG_0838.jpg IMG_0870.jpg

I will spare description of every mental milestone I went through in that time and summarize by saying that my experience in the church evolved from intrigue and curiosity to boredom and suffocation to complacency and peaceful resignation. The service was in ancient Greek so my friends and I could not understand, only feel. It took the first three of four hours to convince my thoughts to slow down and my hands to stop taking pictures, but once my brain took a recess the peace of the small church was tangible. Followers of Greek Orthodox believe that the human voice is the perfect instrument of praise, so men sang and chanted throughout the entire service without instruments. The small, hunchbacked deacon scurried around setting tables and handing the priests what they required, including an ornate silver censer adorned with small bells that was purposefully swung around the room, letting frankincense and the ringing of small chimes waft outward.

IMG_0872.jpg

The cozy golden church was filled with a sweet smoke and rich song that had enveloped congregations for over a millennium. The baritone reverberated through the dark wooden seats and the people sitting within them as the head priest, dressed in elaborate golden robes, enacted traditions that had been been performed since the Byzantine era. The faces and the prayers behind them have changed and evolved with time, but the ceremony remains the same. After watching, listening, breathing the ritual for a few hours it became apparent just how much living history is preserved in these traditions.

IMG_0876.jpg IMG_0844.jpg

After the service we emerged from the smokey room into the small bright courtyard, me drinking in the sunlight and sea-fresh air and my two friends clambering in their purses for long-awaited cigarettes. The pivotal moment that would see us attend a private feast on the grounds followed us going back inside to take pictures: I accidentally let my eyes linger on the official off-limits bread for a moment too long. The deacon noticed and encouraged us to come forward and take some. Never one to refuse food I obliged and was handed enough that both hands were needed to hold it all. It was delicious - there were fennel seeds inside the holy loaves. Brilliant.

Soon we were chatting away with the deacon as he tidied up. He jokingly scolded us for taking photos with a flash and warned that using one required written permission from the head priest. With mouths stuffed full of fennel bread we laughed and agreed to seek permission and then join the feast that followed the service. I still had no idea what we were celebrating, but finally there would be food! Off we went again like a small school of lost fish, floating aimlessly up a wide staircase and into a large beautifully decorated room full of red velvet chairs. The congregation from the church was seated there, so we also sat and were soon served a small glass of liqueur and chocolates wrapped in Santa foil. It was a cute way to pass the next half hour of Greek speeches.

IMG_0878.jpg

Little did we know we were eating Christmas chocolates in an 11th-century Greek Orthodox monastery which housed the Halki seminary, the main Greek Orthodox seminary in Turkey and Theological Seminary of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Among many notable students, the current patriarch and spiritual leader of the world's 300 million Orthodox Christians, Bartholomew I, was a student here. The seminary operated independently for over a century until Turkish authorities forced its closure in 1971 after it failed to nationalize. This impressive building has been the focus of much international attention of late: both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have publicly campaigned to have it re-opened as a symbol of freedom of religion and expression within Turkey. Both houses of the United States Congress passed resolutions that supported the reopening of Halki, and the European Union raised the issue as part of its negotiations over Turkish accession to the EU.

But as mentioned, we were a lost school of meandering fish, floating from here to there with wide eyes completely oblivious to the building's significance, both past and present. The most information we gathered was from a lovely man who had studied for his master's degree in Ottawa of all places. In perfect English (that felt like a breath of fresh air for my tired ears) he explained that we were celebrating the name day of Photius I, founder of the original Monastery of the Holy Trinity built in the 600's on this site (Photius I is also Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, how could I forget that). Finally! Our celebration had a name and its name was Photius!

Ironically I felt much less ignorant with that one small piece of information as we made our way to the feast through halls steeped in significance. We passed through the seminary and peered into old classrooms with antique desks arranged as though they would be holding bright young students at any moment. There was an aura of order and discipline that unsettled me, but that feeling soon disappeared as we were served course after course of salad, soup, fresh Turkish bread, fish, mashed potatoes, rice, shrimp, Turkish pastries and stewed quince. Heaven.

IMG_0881.jpg IMG_0883.jpg IMG_0884.jpg IMG_0885.jpg

I was lucky enough to sit opposite a nice man who shared some interesting observations about Turkey and Europe at large. He explained that the Istanbul of his youth was home to only two million people, the same as urban Vancouver. After the population exploded to its current twenty million he said that Istanbullus grew tired of being so crowded and lost respect for each other. The situation is the same in the major cities of Europe. Paris and London are not the same as they were twenty or even ten years ago; now they too suffer from overcrowding and a tired, disrespectful population. When I expressed fears that Vancouver's population may also explode from two million and my paradise may be lost he calmed me by praising Canada's cautious immigration policies and noting that ours are vastly superior to those in America. How lovely that he knew the difference.

Our visit to the monastery ended with another candid chat with the deacon as we walked out. After asking us about our respective countries he divulged that he had wanted to study in the seminary since he was a child but the Turkish government forbid it, instead ordering him to study engineering. He protested but those in charge said he would have to wait until they died before he could change his profession. So, our dear committed deacon worked as an engineer for forty years until the men died, entering the church gleefully as an old man five years ago. He bid us farewell by extending his deepest respect to our parents and we left from the same gates we had wobbled in earlier. The walk down the hill and back to the ferryboats was much more peaceful than the ride up, for a number of reasons.

IMG_0906.jpg

Writing this a few days later with much more information, the irony is not lost that the act of not thinking could lead me to one of the most important places of thinking in the country, and perhaps, if one considers the symbolism of an Orthodox Christian seminary closed by a secular government in a 99.8% Muslim country, the world. I learned - and certainly lived - infinitely more by doing than I ever would have by thinking, which is why in the interest of both living and learning as much as possible, this author vows not to think from this day forth.

Posted by LeiCran 14:43 Archived in Turkey Tagged educational Comments (2)

Dear Turkish Food:

a love note for a kitchen

semi-overcast -1 °C

Dear Turkish Food,

I am sorry if this is forward but there are a few things I need to get off my chest. First of all, I can't stop thinking about you. I wake up in the morning and all I can think of is when I will be with you again. When I fall asleep at night it is you I dream of. I think I am in love with you.

IMG_0971.jpg

As soon as we met I knew this was different. I've never felt this way before, and never so fast. You're the most amazing kitchen I've ever been with. You can be so sweet as a fresh baklava glowing with honey and delicate like the first frost of the year, then the next moment shake me up as a spicy little eggplant of sass. Surely you know how amazing you are; locals refer to your pilav-stuffed eggplants as Imam Bayildi, literally the Imam fainted. It is no surprise that Holy men are in awe of your power.

This is no superficial infatuation, Turkish Food. My love for you has been forged in the fire of traditional ovens and will stand the test of time. We have tested some boundaries and experimented with kokoreç, and Turkish Food, roasted sheep intestines have never made me feel so alive.

photo-1.jpg

Even in your quiet moments when you're a simple cup of steaming çay you exude a simple elegance worthy of a 3-part Shakespearean tragedy or symphony.

IMG_0716.jpg

I know we have something special, Turkish Food, because I can see you are also intrigued by me. It is indeed a delight to see you watching me from the bazaars as glowing piles of lokum and nougat, taunting me with your beauty and trying to lure me closer.

DSC_1035.jpg DSC_1033.jpg DSC_1055.jpg

I feel you trying to hug me with your scent of fresh balık ekmek in the fish markets and by the port. You tempt me even in the early hours when a fish sandwich is the last thing I would normally want. And if the day has been long you are there to comfort me as simit, the street bread that is baked into a circle but I know was meant to be a heart.

large_IMG_0135.jpg

I now understand how Hades lured Persephone into becoming his Queen of the Underworld for half the year. I too, would be unable to resist the love of your pomegranate, eventually causing my mother so much pain from my absence that winter would descend on the world for the first time.

IMG_0936.jpg

If you love me too then fret not, Turkish food, for I long for you with every ounce of my being. I have never been the kind of girl to stay with just one kitchen but with you it is different. If you will give yourself to me I will give you everything I have in return. I will provide you with the finest china and offer you silver every day - nay, three times a day. I will never leave you behind or let anyone else close to you. We will be deliriously happy together.

You will be mine, all mine, forever.

Posted by LeiCran 21:13 Archived in Turkey Tagged food Comments (1)

The Cats of Istanbul

overcast 0 °C

Just for something completely different I would like to talk about cats. Istanbul has a lot of them.

IMG_0825.jpg IMG_0821.jpg

Anyone who has spent time here will know what I am talking about. You see them everywhere - in markets, on top of mosques, in windows of homes, in parks - they are literally everywhere. These cats are unique because unlike in other countries like Mexico where cats are (appallingly) an extension of the rodent family, The Cats of Istanbul are loved.

IMG_0678.jpg IMG_0803.jpg

If you mention The Cats to Istanbullus they soften. A twinkle emerges from their eyes and their stern lips twitch into a smile. Of course this is a generalization of a city of over 18 million people, but it is telling that when someone reacts violently or dismissive toward one of The Cats they are immediately rebuked by whomever they are with, or bombarded with a semi-automatic onslaught of tsk's from passers-by. It is not hard to imagine this collective protectiveness is a cultural relic from ancient Egypt, but that may be too romantic a notion. Either way, it is touching.

In sleet, snow, hail or famine The Cats of Istanbul will be taken care of. If you look closely as you walk its winding streets you will see little packages of food left out for the animals. The contents change but the story is always the same: Istanbullus do not waste food - instead they package it up and leave it tucked away under a park bench or in the enclave of a doorway. Vancouverites compost, Istanbullus feed The Cats.

IMG_0687.jpg IMG_0727.jpg IMG_0891.jpg

In neighbourhoods around the city there are volunteer groups with the sole mandate of looking after the area's felines. An old woman living in a cold basement apartment near mine puts mats outside her door for The Cats to sleep on and leaves out small piles of food. When approached her face lit up and with a big smile she said, 'Pussycats. Beautiful.' Then she gently waved me away as if to say, That's all the English I know. It goes without saying that these animals will be tended to regardless of individual circumstance or means. It is a thrill to watch a city as large and diverse as Istanbul willingly, joyously, share the task. Truly, this city loves its Cats.

IMG_0724.jpg IMG_0822.jpg

It is tempting to liken The Cats to the city's communal pet, but they are so much more than that. The Cats are not the sum of many individual cats, but one connected entity that moves and breathes and fills the cracks of the city, holding its social fabric together. Sure, this is a society of tea and sweets and flavoured tobacco, but these things merely mark the surface of Istanbul's identity. The Cats are its heart. The haunting chorus of twilight calls defines the city as much as the call to prayer settling over its busy streets. And unlike the heart of a person, which is oft difficult to truly see, the heart of Istanbul is in its streets, perched on its walls, and in its homes. It beats with the collective kindness of a people, and it is beautiful.

Posted by LeiCran 08:44 Archived in Turkey Tagged animal Comments (1)

Finding Kindness in the Chaos

the luckiest of unlucky days

storm 0 °C

There are four kinds of jobs in this world: the Usual Suspects, the Fucking Awesome, the Plain Jane, and the FMFLIWTD, or 'Fuck My Fucking Life, I Want To Die.' The Usual Suspects are what children dream of being but few of us do: doctors, lawyers, teachers. The Fucking Awesome are what adults dream of being but few of us do: travel writers / photographers, professional food critics, pilots on international airlines. The Plain Janes are the jobs most people have, the ones we stay in for too long and complain about: office jobs. You know the type. The latter category is rare but important because the FMFLIWTD jobs are so appallingly horrific they cannot be grouped into any other category. Importing electronics into Turkey as a non-Turkish-speaking, blond female falls into this category.

It is a very specific niche and one that requires bewildering forgetfulness. Leaving a laptop at home before moving to Istanbul for an academic exchange was the shining moment that defined me as Unfit For Life and catapulted me into the Turkish importing business.

The best comparison for this field is opening a bank account in India, with one important difference. It is chaotic, the pace seems frenetic yet somehow nothing is accomplished, and they take all your money (the crucial difference being that in this case you don't get your money back).

The Turkish bureaucracy surrounding the import of electronics is so complicated and confusing that it would be comical were it not so expensive. I will elaborate. In order to allow my laptop into the country one of the preconditions is that it is opened, inspected, and approved for import. This requires piles of paperwork and approximately two hours of listening to Turkish men discuss things (which sounds an awful lot like fighting even when discussing happy things like kittens or sunshine), paying for my mess of documents to be officially stamped, taking said mess across town (remember we are talking about the second largest city in the WORLD here) so my package can be inspected and my mess signed, going back to the building of fighting Turks to show them the signature, purchasing a release form and paying more arbitrary fees, then going home. Although the process is far from over it is past working hours and there is no more I can do.

This unpleasant process takes DAYS. It is not over; it may never really be over, because just when you think you understand what is happening, why it is happening, and the next steps, there are more. Oh, I have to go back to kargo to pay for another signature? Oh, the man whose signature I need isn't here? Oh, you need me to promise my first born child? Whatever - take him - I just want this to be DONE.

Add to the suffocating bureaucracy and impressive disorganization the fact that this amateur importer is a blond female, from Canada no less, who speaks enough Turkish to order a meal, say it's delicious, count to ten, and then leave. In this case my being blond and pathetic worked in my favour and kind souls stepped out of the blur of paperwork and arguing men to help.

Note: blond hair is like catnip for Turkish men. They love it and will do anything to be near it. This, and the fact that the Turks are one of the nicest and most helpful people I've encountered meant that while traumatic, this process was possible. Without my angels I'm sure I'd never see my laptop again.

As mentioned, the process of becoming an electronics importer in Turkey is not short. The bureaucracy took three full days of my time in Istanbul and the stress probably took a year or two off my life expectancy.

Day 1 had me in the rain at airport customs with a letter I'd received from FedEx written in Turkish, which actually told me to go to the Kargo office across town. Damn you Babblefish. Enter Angel #1 who drove me there, spoke to them on my behalf, took me to the ATM so I could pay the first of many fees, then drove me over to the Asian side to the suburb beside mine so it would be easier for me to get home. He eased me into this nightmare with patience and Turkish bread that he bought while we were stuck in traffic, all the while when he should have been at work. His English was poor so we passed about three hours in his car flipping through my English - Turkish dictionary and miming our thoughts. You don't get much more angelic than that.

On day 2 I was more prepared and brought a Turkish friend I'd made on the weekend who could help me and my mess of paperwork navigate the system. Neither of us were mentally prepared for the utter tsunami of bureaucracy that lay ahead. Despite his frustration, Angel #2 was gracious enough to refer to me as a lucky charm because people went out of their way to help us, including another ride from airport customs to the Kargo office and back, and a pair of Fantas while we waited there. He realized the irony and made a more fitting comment: I am a lucky charm for everyone except myself. Awesome.

Day 3. The tsunami has passed. It is time to clean up and move on. Back to Kargo solo for one more necessary signature (but it's free this time!). I will hand over some more Lira then collect my laptop and leave this place and short-lived profession forever. Unfortunately, I need a signature from a man who is not here so find myself writing this account to pass the time while seated at a large desk behind the counter where the other importers are forced to line up. I am being served complementary çay and kahve while I wait. It's been two hours. The end may finally be near, insha'Allah.

  • * * * * * * * * * *

The signature goes on the yellow form. I don't have a yellow form in my mess of paperwork. Men are exchanging worried looks and tsk'ing at each other. Fuck my fucking life, I want to die.

  • * * * * * * * * * *

The man signed the red form instead. Hearing Tamam. Finished. causes a rush of endorphins that makes my knees go weak and my eyes well up. That moment redefines my notion of relief. Of all my angels I think that man has done me the biggest favour with that small decision.

I'm free...

Posted by LeiCran 19:58 Archived in Turkey Tagged business_travel Comments (1)

(Entries 21 - 25 of 25) « Page 1 2 3 4 [5]