Monday, June 17, 2013

The Streets

There's a scene in Taken 2, where Liam Neeson's character is blindfolded in the back of a van as it winds and twists through the streets of Istanbul's old city. He uses his training to pinpoint his location by counting off the distance, marking distinctive sounds, and remembering the number and direction of the turns. Then he is able to relay this information to his daughter and she locates him.

Hollywood at it's finest, I know. But Hollywood has been fascinated with Istanbul of late - from Taken 2 to James Bond Skyfall, this has become THE place to film exciting car sequences, due to its unique topography and East meets West sensibilities. For me, it's simply the land where I started experiencing  car sickness.

I never had this issue before moving here. But these streets are a beast of a different variety. After years living, riding, and driving in New York, I guess my body has developed some sort of delicate equilibrium that has been disrupted by the curving, winding, cobbled streets of Istanbul.

The first time I felt it, I was in a van, not dissimilar to the one Liam is placed in during the kidnapping scene, driving into Cihangir with my friend who'd just moved there. Cihangir (pronounced Gee-hang-ear), located in the Beyoğlu district, is the home of happy hipsters, intellectuals, Turkish celebrities and artists – well-off artists that is, who can afford the not inconsiderable rents. The streets look like they were designed by Salvador Dali, in that there are impossible dimensions at work here. Parked cars desperately hug the curbs leaving only a whisper of space for moving vehicles to pass through. There are precipitous curves, tight loops, climbs, and drops.

As we made our way to his home, I began to feel a little light headed and closed my eyes tight to rid myself of the sensation. The van hit a hard right and felt like it might go over on its side, the curve was so tight. All of this was great for my burgeoning sickness. Finally, we arrived and I felt like kissing the ground when I descended from the van.

I decided to learn more about the city planners who designed a city fit for horse drawn carriages, but not motor vehicles. I gathered this from a report entitled The morphological history of Istanbul, published in 1999. From the period of Constantine the Great onwards, the main skeleton of the street network inside its fortifications has not changed greatly. At the beginning of the twentieth century, gridiron street patterns and an organized traffic system began to replace the organic configuration and the cul-de-sac of Islamic tradition. The streets of Ottoman Istanbul showed an organic pattern; their orientations and widths frequently changed and cul-de-sacs were common. This organic pattern reflected a hidden, yet ever-present political concern for internal security. During the nineteenth century, streets were widened, the street facades of buildings were increased in height, and culs-de-sac were transformed into thoroughfares. The traditional street pattern was replaced by a more rigid, geometrical grid pattern, without a clear fit between functions and the arrangement of buildings and spaces. Roads were widened again during the 1950's, however, many irregular streets still exist.

Although Hollywood might be crazy for these "irregular streets", your friendly neighborhood author would like to kindly request another street widening project SOON! My poor stomach thanks you in advance...

Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Language

There are few things more frustrating than walking into a foreign supermarket trying in vain to find soy milk. I'm staring at labels, looking at different cow and sheep graphics, and bottles and cartons desperately trying to find one of the foundations of my diet. Welcome to one of my daily struggles trying to learn Turkish.

Walking through the Migros supermarket I flashed back to a similar transition I made from Florida to Sao Paulo, Brazil when I was 23. It was my first time moving out of the country and I had no idea what to expect at the time. What I soon learned is that a city or country is only as big as your ability to interact with the people. And that's where the language comes in.

A foreign language is your key to the city. It's a key to the hearts and minds of the people you will be meeting. It's an access code that unlocks a world of possibilities. With the language in tow, everything is an option.

I vividly remember those early days in Sao Paulo before I learned Portuguese. Eating at McDonald's twice a day everyday for a month because the only thing I could correctly pronounce was "numero um" which got me a Big Mac combo. I couldn't even order an apple pie because I didn't know the word for pie. Or getting so lost one day when I rode the bus to the end of the line, that I was almost stranded. And there was the embarrassing first impression I made on my new boss when he thought his new intern would know Portuguese, and I didn't.  

Having learned this during my Brazilian experience, I swore that I would do my best to pick up Turkish as fast as possible, in order to enable these types of options as soon as possible. I purchased Turkish levels I-III from Rosetta Stone and decided I would allocate an hour a day to learning the language. 

With Rosetta Stone, you insert the CD-Rom and you are speaking the language in minutes. Via images, repeating words, spelling guides, you begin to believe you might just learn this strange new terrain. Still, it doesn't start in order. I learned the word for apple (elma) before I learned how to say good morning (günaydın). I learned how to say thank you (teşekkür ederim) before I learned how to count to ten (bir, iki, üç, dört, beş, altı, yedi, sekiz, dokuz, on). I learned how to pronounce the very different sounds before I learned the alphabet. I learned the names of animals and primary colors and articles of clothing, but could not string a coherent sentence together. Very frustrating!

 During the month of January, I actually did a pretty good job studying, but as work at my new job picked up, my studies soon went out the window. Before long I had completely lapsed and even though I had access to many Turkish speakers, I wasn't taking advantage of the opportunity.
I realized I needed to learn more about the basis of the language to better relate to why it was so different and what I would get out of investing the time to learn.

From Linguata: The Turkish language shows the influence of the many different cultures it has come into contact with over the course of its long history. After the adoption of Islam, Persian and Arabic became the major influences and the official language of the Ottoman Empire, referred to as Ottoman Turkish, reflected this. After the foundation of the Turkish Republic the language reform initiated by Kemel Atatürk not only Romanized the Turkish alphabet but also 'purified' the language by removing many Persian and Arabic loanwords from official discourse. New words were derived from Turkish roots to replace them and Old Turkish words which had fallen into disuse were brought back into circulation.

Turkish actually belongs to the same linguistic family as Finnish and Hungarian which explains why it sounds so foreign to me. I had to admit to myself that Turkish was going to be a lot more difficult than Portuguese. For one, I'm thirteen years older than that kid who went to Brazil with different responsibilities, and aptitude. Secondly, the language is just strange! Although phonetically based (a taxi is a taksi), the rules of the language are very different than anything else I've encountered. From trying to find the right way to explain to a taksi driver where I was going (google maps helped tremendously), to figuring out what the hell I was buying in the grocery store, everyday was a lesson in patience. I became timid when dining out, sticking to the easier to pronounce items or having Turkish friends order for me. Already a homebody, not speaking the language exacerbated this trait and I found myself spending weekends in the apartment rather than venturing out and exploring. 

 But this city, culture, and people will remain a mystery to me that will only be revealed with daily practice and use. I did eventually find my soy milk (soya sut), but I have to do better. I'll update you in six months to tell you how it's going!


The Hamam

This is a story about how I paid to get bathed by a large, hairy, shirtless Turkish man and the psychological ramifications I am still dealing with to this day.

Back in 2000-2001 when I lived in Brazil, it took me awhile to get networked in the city, find friends, and begin building a social life. Thirteen years later, now in Istanbul, I quickly remedied this situation by using a social network for traveling ex pats such as myself called There are several events a month that allow you to meet and network with like-minded people and there are also different groups you can join to ensure commonalities with the people you meet.

As a big fan of brunch, I joined the Internations Istanbul Brunch Meet and Greet group and attended the first brunch of 2013 at the Midpoint restaurant in Taksim, a major tourist and leisure district famed for its restaurants, shops, and hotels; considered the heart of modern Istanbul. You can read this on Wikipedia, but Taksim Square was originally the point where the main water lines from the north of Istanbul were collected and branched off to other parts of the city (hence the name.) This use for the area was established by Sultan Mahmud I. The square takes its name from the Ottoman era stone reservoir which is located in this area. Additionally, the word "Taksim" can refer to a special improvisational musical form in Turkish classical music that is guided by the Makam system.

To me, Taksim is defined by the long avenue, Istiklal (Turkish for Independence), that runs its length. There is a trolly line that tourists can use to ride up and down the street, and there are endless shops, restaurants, bars, and clubs along the way. Istiklal street is much like a river with numerous tributaries jutting off here and there where one can discover even more delights of the Turkish nightlife. It's a bit like a labyrinth, and definitely a place I looked forward to exploring in more depth.

It was a cold January afternoon when the taxi dropped me off at the entrance to Istiklal Avenue right by historic Taksim Square. Having just moved to Istanbul, I didn't necessarily have the right jacket for the weather, but I made the best of it as I waded into the crowd, iPhone in hand open to Google Maps directing me to the restaurant. Despite the weather, the street was fairly packed, mostly with young Turkish folks who gazed at me curiously as I made my way toward the restaurant (upon learning I was moving to Istanbul, a friend remarked that I was increasing the black population by 25% lol).

I entered Midpoint restaurant to see two tables of Internations folks eagerly digging in. I joined the second, less crowded table and soon found myself the only man surrounded by 6 women.5 of the 6 were Turkish and 1 older woman was English. Their English was good and we had a nice afternoon getting to know each other, eating delicious Turkish brunch, and exchanging business cards and contact information.

I wasn't ready to go home after brunch and one of the younger ladies had mentioned she was going to a famous Hamam, or Turkish bath. I'd heard that if you were in Turkey, you just HAD to go to a Hamam, so I asked if she minded if I tagged along, and she said it was fine. We trecked back out into the cold and made our way from Taksim to Sultanhamet, or the old city, where the famed Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia rest. We took an above ground train to get there, and along the way, the young woman explained to me how Hamam's worked. Basically, you could get bathed or massaged or both. The Hamam was completely segregated by sex with the women's area on one side and the men's area on the other.

After a short trip, we arrived at the door of the Sultanahmet Hamami, built in the 17th century. For some reason, I felt an Asian influence to the room we walked into and checked in with the woman at the counter. My new friend ordered a bath and massage, so I did the same (for around TL 150 or roughly US$75), and we went our separate ways. I was guided upstairs to a private changing room where I completely disrobed, wrapped a towel around my waist, put on some flip flops and descended back downstairs. There was a group of Turkish guys standing around wearing t-shirts and towels and I wondered if I wasn't following the proper protocol but having taken off my shirt. I began to wonder what the hell had I gotten myself into.

A moment later, I was introduced to a large hot marble room with a domed ceiling with skylights poked into it. I was expecting something more akin to a steam room, but there was no steam in sight. Just unadulterated heat, a large marble centerpiece where several guys were laying and soaking up the temperature, and a series of marble sinks built right into the walls of the pentagonal room. So this was a Turkish bath, I thought.  

All around the world they're known as Turkish baths, but that's really a misnomer. The Cultured Traveler says that, "Either they are copied from early Greek and Roman examples, or else they are renovated Byzantine hamams. But we should give the Ottomans credit for transforming them from places simply for washing into an indispensable part of daily social life. Hamams functioned as places of entertainment in a closed society where Islamic rules governed social life. We could even say that they eventually evolved into the equivalent of the bars and cafes of modern times. Hamams are an intriguing subject, as their history reflects the history of the synthesis between the East and West. Through the history of the hamam, an institution that formed an important part of the daily lives of millions, not only can you trace the developments and changes in the arts, architecture, traditions and inclinations over the centuries, it is also possible to track the rise and fall of nations and empires."

I didn't know all this at the time, but I was enjoying the ornate architecture of the room, even as I sweated profusely. Seated on extremely warm marble, I looked around to get a sense of how this was going to work. Soon, one of the Turkish guys I'd seen outside, entered sans t-shirt, and commenced to give the man next to me his bath. I had learned from my friend that the point of the heat was to make it easier to exfoliate the skin, which the washer proceeded to do via a large black mit that covered much of his forearm. First, he scrubbed the man from head to toe and then he washed him until he wore a layer of soap suds. He told the man to sit up and he carried a small bucket over to one of the marble sinks and filled it with water which he used to douse the man and clear away the suds.

I was filled with growing trepidation because the last time a man gave me a bath, I was a baby and that man was my father. But I was already there and therefore would have to endure. Just then, my washer, twice the size of the other one, and quite hairy, sauntered toward me. He epitomized what I thought a stereotypical Turkish man looks like, huge pot-belly, bearded, and complete with a handlebar mustache. He spoke very broken rudimentary English, consisting of the phrases, "What is your name?" "Where you from?" and "I wash you good, you give good tip."

I was told to lay on my stomach and the man rearranged my towel so that even the sides of my buttocks were exposed. I was quite uncomfortable as he began the vigorous scrubbing. He would stop every now and a gain to show me the ropes of my skin coming off like skinny leaches. The scrubbing didn't hurt, just produced a warm buzzing sensation in my skin. I felt like a pot after Thanksgiving. He then washed me and doused me with the water. That was the best part. The water was warm and nicely fragrant.

While all this was happening, more and more men filled in the space, chatting happily as they absorbed the heat. It reminded me of an American barbershop, a private place where men could speak openly about any subject. In a culture as restrictive as the Islamic culture is known to be, I could understand the appeal. But it wasn't for me.

Having survived the bathing experience, I was given a dry towel and then directed to the massage room where three other men were getting massaged. My masseuse proceeded to tenderize me like a tenderloin for the better part of 45 minutes until my muscled ached. After the massage, I went back to my dressing room, got dressed and came back downstairs to deliver  my tip to the Turkish bather. He actually looked disappointed when I handed him the 15% tip!

There was a stand selling fresh juice and although I was parched, I couldn't wait to get out of there. I felt more tense leaving than I had before arriving, which I attribute to a lack of experience in this type of situation. My friend finished at the same time and we left the Hamam - her, skin glowing, and clearly relaxed; me, needing to put as much distance between myself and the establishment as possible. I vowed that this would be my first and last Hamam experience.