The famous question travelers get from loved ones is, “Why are you going to Turkey?” As I settle into Istanbul, one of my favorite cities, my thought: Why would anyone not travel here? (And, frankly, why would anyone go to Athens at Istanbul’s expense?)
Settling into my hotel room, I do a trip-end sort through my clothes: dirty and too dirty to wear. I assess how much hand washing I’ll need to do to get home. I spin through the TV channels. Gauzy love songs for lonely men play in the wee hours. I hide the remote.
Quite tired, I’m about to plop down on the toilet and I notice that small nozzle threatening to poke me in tail bone if I do. Not trusting the design, I sit gingerly…and find it’s okay. Still, this ominous little nozzle seems like the evil, germ-spreading equivalent of a bee-spreading pollen. I make a note to ask my Turkish friends about this finger and sprinkle alternative to toilet paper. (I’ll stick with TP.)
My hotel has a great breakfast terrace. It’s open at night for gazing past floodlit husks of forts and walls, out at the sleepy Bosporus, with Asia just across the inky straits. The strategic waterway is speckled with the lights of freighters at anchor stretching far into the distance. I recall the origin of the Turkish flag — a white star and sliver moon on a reflected in a pool of bright red blood after a great battle. Today, the sliver moon shines over not blood but money…trade and shipping…struggles in the arena of capitalism.
At breakfast, the same view is lively. An oil tanker heading for a Romanian fill-up is light and riding high — the exposed tank makes its prow cut through the water like a plow. As I scan the city, it occurs to me it’s physically not that different from my city. I could replace the skyline of domed mosques and minarets with churches and spires, and it could be the rough end of Any City, USA.
I’ve veered away from cereal, and for my Turkish breakfasts I’m going local — olives, feta cheese, cucumbers, tomatoes, bread and horrible Tang juice. Gazing at my plate, I study the olive oil. Ignoring the three olive pits — sucked very clean and floating like little turds — I see tiny, mysterious flakes of spices. They’re doing a silent do-si-do to distant lyrics that tell of arduous camel caravan rides from China.
Later that day, wandering under stiletto minarets, I watch hardworking speakers lashed to the crow’s nest belt out a call to prayer. I think, “Charming, they’ve draped Christmas lights between the minarets.” But the people around me would come to my house and say, “Charming, he’s draped minaret lights on his Christmas tree.”
I marvel at the multi-generational conviviality at the Hippodrome — that long, oblong square still shaped like a chariot racecourse, as it was 15 centuries ago. Precocious children high-five me and ask, “What is your name?” Just to enjoy their confused look, I say, “Fifty-two.”