Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Among Emperors & Sultans

Byzantium. Constantinople. Istanbul, successor to Rome and Greece, at one time the largest city of the Roman Empire…

The Armada Hotel near the waterfront in the old European quarter of Istanbul is all I could have wished for, and has an old world charm combining elements of both the city’s European and Asian influences. Once settled in my room, I go downstairs for a drink in the bar with the travel agent, a man who works in liaison with a Japanese agent. If I had not heard him speaking the language, I would not have thought this man to be Turkish. His name is Yavuz, and it is my first real encounter with a Turk. He has the look of a suave European, and his appearance removed from my mind the notion that Turks would all be dark and eastern looking. Well dressed in a linen suit and silk shirt, he could just as easily be an Italian businessman. His slightly accented English is near fluent. With the Japanese agent in Tokyo, Yavuz has arranged all the logistics for my travel over the next week.

A late evening stroll around narrow streets crowding the Armada shows me a character and complexion new to my travels and one very welcome. Turkish faces surprise me and are not at all what I had long imagined. Many are strikingly handsome and do not fit my preconceived stereotype. I stop for a bite to eat in a restaurant with tables on the street and do all right with the wine, but the menu is not anything I can decipher. The waiter knows no English and is patient with my weak attempts at understanding the menu. Thinking it’s beef, I order something that turns out to be lamb, and though lamb isn’t my favorite meat, this time it’s flavored with unknown and delicious spices that leave me wishing the serving were larger. Later, sitting at the sidewalk table with a postprandial glass of wine and Turkish coffee, it leaves me thinking this is the best finish to a first day in the city.

On the way back to the hotel I wander into a tiny shop crowded with children and buy from an almost ancient man an ice cream cone of no less than five flavors. The children—and there must be ten in the tiny space—all wear big smiles, and when they excitedly stop me from walking out without my considerable change, I add honest hearts to the big smiles.

Turkish lira…Everything is in the millions. An ice cream cone costs 150,000 lira; a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice, 600,000; a moderate lunch three million. Huge wads of cash which I haven’t yet learned how to use fill my pockets like balled socks. To buy a couple of stamps I automatically offer a bill of large denomination. The adventure has just begun, so perhaps I will learn.

I wake the next morning eager to lose myself in the exotic air of old city streets. Before starting out, I decide that a little coffee and maybe a roll will set me up just fine until lunch, but in the dining room I’m stopped by the sight of a magnificent breakfast buffet. I quickly reconsider and load one plate with yogurt, fruit and nuts, another with several pieces of cheese, olives and bread. I add a glass of fresh orange juice, and pour a cup of coffee. For me, a breakfast this large is rare. The coffee is delicious, and I drink, almost guzzle three cups.

I make my way to the famous Topkapi Palace, home of the Sultans for 400 years between the 15th and 19th centuries. This is a place I have often wondered about, remembering it from the old 1964 Melina Mercouri movie Topkapi. No surprise that the real thing is much more impressive than the watery memory in my head. Wonderful, wonderful garden filled with old trees providing an enchanting balance of sunlight and shade, here and there a cool oasis flickering with light that passes through the leaves of giant Oriental Plane trees, casting a kaleidoscope of patterns upon grass and walkways. Perhaps most striking at Topkapi are the clothes on display worn by generations of Sultans. I compare these robes to Japanese ceremonial kimonos, deciding finally that the Turkish designs are even more beautiful. But they are similar to traditional Japanese concepts which favor a slightly asymmetrical design. In this display, I am most impressed by one gown made of almost electric red silk, with great lemony polka dots as large as apples, haphazard on the field of red.

I stroll for a couple of hours along a wide avenue, looking at the people, shops and old houses lining the side streets. It doesn’t surprise me in the least to see a McDonald’s, crowded with young Turks and maybe a dozen Americans or west Europeans. I wonder if the Westerners are there seeking repair after the unfamiliar flavors of Istanbul. Along the street, among vendors of corn on the cob, cigarettes and snow cones are others who weigh people for a small price, and seem to have no shortage of customers. In one place, an irate customer heatedly berates the scale man for what I cannot tell. Neither too heavy nor too thin, I wonder what could have angered him.

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America