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We’re staying at an airbnb in a neighborhood called London Fields in Hackney, in East London. The first morning when we arrived I went up the street to get some basic groceries, and I noticed a few somethings. A convenience store with bright color pictures of vegetables and liquor bottles on the window. A barber “salon” with photos of celebrities on the windows, and everyone inside was watching tv, even the guy getting his hair cut. A kebab shop with a refrigerated case of meat on skewers. A place called “Erciyes Grocery.” Two fruit stores, right across from each other, called “Umut Supermarket” and “Sultan Fruit and Veg”. A cafe where two older ladies sat in a display zone right by the front window, rolling out pieces of flat dough onto a gri — oh who am I kidding it was gozleme. By random selection we touched down in London’s little Istanbul. There’s even an Old Tbilisi Shop and a Little Georgia Cafe with an ink sketch of David the Builder over the river Mtkvari. It was a thouroughly warm welcome.The big differences between this neighborhood and anywhere in Istanbul are:

  1. Presence of decent Vietnamese grocery stores and restaurants
  2. The Turkish moms speak English to their kids (????????)
  3. SIGNIFICANTLY LESS SHOUTING. I weirdly only hear traffic sounds from down below on the main street.

The next day I went out and said in Turkish to literally the first person I saw out the door, “So what’s the deal? Is everyone Turkish here or what?” And he said, “Oh yeah, all Turks. You want a coffee?” and we had a brief talk about why Turkey was committing troops to fight in Syria. I spent some time wandering around and walked into a supermarket, told the guy “kolay gelsin,” and we talked about the economic crisis. It’s like I never left.

 

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Hooray! This is the final teaser from the book. If you want the whole book full of enjoyable goodness, there’s a book release party on April 29 — message me for details. If you don’t live in Istanbul, you can still order it for $15 dollars from the “book” tab up there on this blog. This story is from when me, Harriet, Jari and Kenny were all in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, trying to come back to Istanbul on the bus in March of last year.

***

On our last day in Bulgaria, we wanted to do something different, something out of the city, before we had to spend the evening and most of the night cramped back into a bus. We hired a guy to drive us to an abandoned parliamentary building of the old communist days built atop a mountain. I’d heard about the magnificent Buzludzha before coming and seen its picture on a lot of “can’t-miss” lists about travel in the Balkans. It looked like a giant UFO with a control tower.

“The profits from the entire country for a whole year went into building this,” our guide and driver Velin told us while we drove up the side of the mountain. We took some photos at a huge introductory monument of two fists holding torches with Buzludzha dotting a nearby peak, then drove the rest of the way to the peak and parked. It had snowed the day before, and while walking up to the structure from our car, I could hear the snapping and dripping sounds of the snow melting off the tree branches. On the mountain plateau, Buzludzha filled our vision.

We crawled in through a small opening at knee height. We were in a wide, dark chamber, full of rubble and wreckage. Velin pointed us to a staircase free of debris, and we ascended to the parliamentary chamber. We emerged into the light – an enormous amphitheater, decorated with 360 degree murals on the walls, portraits of great communist leaders, the workers, and a bunch of grasping hands. The ceiling and walls had collapsed or fallen in some places, and snowmelt dripped from a hundred feet up to the pit below. The wind had sculpted ice into feather-like shapes on the twisted iron and concrete. Jari was struck with a revelation.

“I’m going to remake these murals with the bits of newspaper we found in the trash the other day,” he said. We didn’t fully understand what he was talking about, but it sounded cool nonetheless.
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Outside we walked around the circumference of the thing. I dropped my phone while taking a picture, and the screen shattered and went totally dark. Oh well. Velin stopped us at the base of the tower and pulled out some headlamps.

“You’re in for a treat,” he said. “We get to climb up the elevator shaft.”

We broke in by squeezing in through a half-open door and climbed a long, near-vertical staircase, to a ladder. We turned our headlamps upwards and saw it led to another platform, another ladder, to another platform, and then to darkness.

“There are 31 ladders,” he said. “The 29th is missing a step, I think. Watch out for it.”

We swallowed and went up in the dark, ladder after ladder after ladder, our hands going numb on the cold dirty metal. Some of the flat rungs were rusted through in places, or were covered in pieces of broken things. At the top we clambered through a hatch into a machine room, a sort of clocktower chamber, but most of the mechanisms were gone. Tiny snow drifts had gathered in corners where panels of glass were missing, or had been broken, and the weather could come through. We were at the bottom of an enormous red star window stretching three more floors up into the tower. We climbed a series of workman’s staircases and looked through the red star window at the mountains below. Buzludzha. A communist UFO on top of the world. It remains one of the best places I’ve ever gone on vacation. Velin made us take a selfie on top of the tower.
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While we were climbing down the elevator shaft in the dark, I realized my knee was pulsing. Something felt really wrong. When we got back to the car I rolled up my pant leg. My knee had swollen to twice its normal size where the mystery bugs had bitten into me. It was freakish. We all shrieked in horror and delight and also a little bit in concern, and Velin offered to call someone he knew at a pharmacy down in the village for some ointment. We accepted. While in the village he suggested we swing by a local winery and we eagerly said yes. For a pittance we acquired six plastic bottles of delicious homemade Bulgarian varietals.

Meanwhile, Kenny had been texting Harriet all day long. He was also on a visa run and had gone to Serbia to see his girlfriend, who lived in Switzerland but had joined him in Belgrad for a weekend vacation.

But Kenny seemed to think he couldn’t get back into Turkey. It was unclear what the problem was, but we told him to try at the land border, as the sleepy agents on the Edirne frontier may be more amenable to letting him in than the overworked airport passport guards. So he’d hopped on a night bus to Plovdiv the previous day, and was rolling into town just as we were rolling down the mountain from the UFO. We met him at our hostel. He seemed a little shell shocked.

The story emerged that Kenny had drastically fucked up his ikamet. He’d had an appointment scheduled for back in October, but skipped it because he’d been hungover. When he’d shown up the next day, they turned him away and told him to go in and out of the country for a new passport stamp, and then he’d be eligible to get a new appointment. He had done this once before, been fined, and figured he was alright. But unlike the last time he’d done this run, he’d been given an entry ban at the border as he was leaving the country. Three months.

We weren’t sure he’d get through, but we booked tickets anyways for all of us via our hostel receptionist and took a cab to the bus station. As it’s never clear which rules are actual rules, and which rules are subject to spot interpretation, it’s always worth a try. We bought one last street beer just to savor the pleasure of being able to drink for super cheap and out in public. The bus pulled up and the swarthy sweating mustachioed Turk driving the bus came out, swearing and spitting at us, telling us we couldn’t bring beer on the bus.

“We know,” we told him, “we’re just trying to savor the moment.” Like most interactions with stupid people we’ve had in Turkey, he completely ignored or misunderstood us, and assumed we would bring the beers onboard unless he yelled at us some more. Sigh. We waved him off, promising to get rid of our beers. We examined my knee one more time, monstrous of size and color, and goosed it around. The others pulled up my shirt and pulled down my pants to rub the boil gel on my swollen bites, drew the outlines of how much it had swelled with a sharpie, and then defaced it with a doodle of a penis. There I was, hunchbacked and pockmarked and naked and diseased in a Bulgarian bus station. It had been a great vacation.

 

***

We got to the Bulgarian/Turkish border late at night. We had to cross through the car booths on foot and hand our passports up one by one to the border guard. Harriet went through first, legal residency in hand, without issue. Then he scanned Kenny’s passport. He frowned and made him stand to the side. Then he scanned mine. He saw that I’d paid a fine, frowned, and pulled me to the side. Then he scanned Jari’s. He saw that Jari had an ikamet last year, but didn’t have one now, and pulled him to the side too. We protested that we had legal visas, and he looked at the three of us, frustrated and confused. He told us all to go wait outside building B-3.

We waited in agony trying to lighten the mood with dark jokes, until the cop pulled us inside. What do we show them first? The visa paperwork? Our old residence applications? My last entry fine? My expired residence card? What do we tell them, what do we withhold? As in all dealings with the cops, we would pretend to speak no Turkish. It never helps.

He took us in to the office. First he demanded me and Jari sign the dreaded ten-day paper. It permits you to enter Turkey on the condition that you apply to get a residence permit within ten days – and if you don’t get an appointment within ten days, you get an entry ban for five years. Both Jari and I again tried to protest that we’d come in on valid tourist visas, but he said “It’s your choice! You can, turn back now! Not come back for five years! Or sign.”

“This is a lie,” Jari said. “I can’t sign a lie! I have a valid visa.”

“Jari,” I said, pulling him aside. “We look guilty by association, next to Kenny and his entry ban. Just sign the thing. We’ll do our residencies later.”

“But how can I get an appointment when I already have one?” he pressed.

“Get another one? I dunno man. Just sign the paper. In a contest between us and stupid people in power, the stupid people in power are always gonna win.” We resigned ourselves to our fate, and signed.

Kenny tried to show his Turkuaz Medya badge, which indicates that he’s working for a pro-regime media organization, but the police guy told him it was final, he was banned for three months, no way in. Kenny gave me and Jari and Harriet hugs.

“Best of luck,” he said. “I’m on my way back to Plovdiv to try and apply at the embassy for a special consular visa exception. You’re in charge of the show now, Harriet,” he said. Harriet was aghast. We left him there in B-3.

Past the passport control, the customs guy opened our bag, and found all our vice and contraband. I don’t know what the legal import limits are on wine, pork and pornography, but I do know we were way, way over the line.

“And what are these?” he said, holding up the six-inch thick stack of pornography from the trash.

“Documents,” we said.

“And what are these?” he said, holding up the six bottles of homemade booze.

“Water,” we said.

“And what are these?” he said, holding up the heavy grocery bag of pork products.

“Food,” we said. “For the road.” He let us keep it. Go figure.
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For Orkun’s birthday Harriet and I took him to the breakfast place TaaVan in Yeldegirmeni and Orkun taught me that Taa is old turkish for “way over there,” as in, “My mom lives taa in Canada”. The last time we were there they had butter-fried golden mulberries, and I was crushed to learn it was out of season, so we opted for the regular basket breakfast, modestly priced at 20 lira, and a few menemen. TaaVan gives you the standard Turkish Breakfast portfolio of tomatoes and cukes and cheeses and bal and kaymak, but also a few odd sweet things that we couldn’t figure out, like a sandy honey paste and mashed-up walnuts with sugar and semolina, which is less good than it may sound.

We took the Marmaray to Kazlıçeşme (“goosey fountain”) and there was a guard with an AK-fucking-47 just chilling in the train station by the metal detectors. I mean at this point we were used to Polis with smaller guns just hanging out in public areas and giving everyone the willies, but yeeeesh. We skedaddled. Our destination was Yedikule castle, the fortress with seven towers. It was super close to the station so we walked through an old Islamic graveyard arguing about brains and personal identity until we got to the old city walls.

 Yedikule was closed. We peered in between the towering iron doors and saw two ticket offices built against the stone, deserted and dusty. A marble plaque identifying the site and containing necessary municipal text sat sideways and unused on the ground. The castle grounds were enormous, stone-green, and empty. It looked like it hadn’t been open in ten years. Harriet said that one of her friends had been let in for a photography class only six months ago, so we kept circling the castle walls.

We got to a gypsy encampment near a highway and a man walked all the way to the end of the road where we were standing and told us to buzz off. He looked both very accustomed to telling people that you couldn’t get into Yedikule this way, and stupid. We walked across the highway and wound up at an abandoned train station. The guard at first told us it was yasak to go in, but Orkun told him he was showing his friends around, and the guard saw that we were harmless and so let us in. “He told us that there’s dogs and to be careful,” Orkun said.

“I love that about Turkey,” Harriet said. “A No turns into a Yes after you talk to them for two minutes.”

Heaps of asphalt were piled around the shells of two brick buildings, and twin iron towers rose from the middle. A massive cylindrical cage, perhaps the skeleton of a forgotten chemicals tank, stood nearby. The air smelled like industry. The barking of hundreds of dogs could be heard echoing in the distance. We got close and the ceiling-less and window-less brick buildings were filled with broken car detritus. On a torn parcel of red bumper we saw the I.E.T.T. logo of Istanbul’s public transit.
We got closer to the towers. Three trash-picking gypsies were hanging out nearby and staring at the towers too. One guy was smoking and looking up at it.

“It’s really interesting,” he said. “It’s really old. What’s written on the side?” he asked Orkun.

“Dortmund, 1898. I guess that’s where it was made.”

“It’s really interesting,” he said, and fell silent. Later, when we were wandering in one of the other cathedral-like ceilingless brick shell buildings, we caught sight of the trash-picking gypsies using a fire hose to rappel up the side of the Dortmund towers. Orkun mentioned that he’d love to live that kind of explorer’s life — just exploring all the time. The gypsy paused halfway up the tower to put a cigarette in his mouth and take a pull.

We wandered around some more and eventually left, thanking the guard for his kindness. Orkun found a beveled gear in a pile of rubble and I carried it for him as a birthday souvenir. We followed the sound of the barking dogs and it was a dog shelter, but it was a too sad because a lot of them were underfed or sick or injured, so we had to leave.

We popped down to Sultanahmet because Orkun had never been to see the Basilica Cistern so we negotiated with the ticket office for lower locals’ prices and looked at the fat carp and listened to the weird broadcast flute music and admired the goofy pink lighting at the base of the columns and took a picture of the derpy medusa. It was all full of garbage misinformation, Harriet said. “Like there’s all sorts of conspiracy theories as to why the medusa’s head is upside down underneath the column when it’s just because it fit best that way. Everything was made out of recycled materials back then. If you walk a hundred meters down the street to the archaeological museum they’ve got a column on a medusa head on display exactly the same.”

For dinner, I made a Dad Food classic — chicken marinated in soy sauce and scallions, and veggie lo mein. We were in a food coma by seven pm and ready for bed by nine.

These kinds of days are my favorite days in Istanbul. The neighborhood around Yedikule is utterly different from the kinds of things you’d see in Kadikoy and it was a fifteen-minute train ride away. I don’t have these days often much anymore because I’m always doing something — either going to a private lesson to hustle, or to the theatre for rehearsal, or to meet some friends for beers. I get a huge kick out of just wandering around a place with friends, picking up trash, making jokes, climbing stuff, taking some pictures.

 

On Saturday morning I felt like someone had tipped over a dumpster, scotch-taped the garbage together in the shape of a man, and used some fell necromancy to animate it into a trash golem. I felt like a trash golem. I was trash. We’d gone out to Lars and Amanda’s birthday/going-away party at Leman Kultur in Taksim and gotten far, far too drunk far too quickly on the Ukrainian Birch vodka Jari’d brought back from the Kiev airport. Harriet had purchased some apple juice at a tekel and we’d surreptitiously poured the vodka and apple juice into a beer stein purloined from an empty table while the waiter wasn’t looking. It seemed like a good idea, but it was actually a terrible idea, because it meant we had to leave really early and it wrecked my brain for Saturday. Which was bad, because rehearsal is on Saturday morning. When the alarm went off I actually did not know what alarms were or why there was sound, or whether life was real or not. “What is this?” I thought to myself. “I am sleeping right now. Why are there things other than sleep??” We shambled out of bed and, after a brief stop at the metro office near the docks to get Harriet a mavi kart, hopped on metrobus to get ourselves over to Etiler.

 

I’d missed the actual first rehearsal on Wednesday so this one was the real first rehearsal for me, and we ran the first few scenes of the panto. A pantomime, for my american readers, is a style of British theatre where men dress like women and the audience is incited to boo and cheer for the bad/good guys. It’s a traditional kids’ Christmas play which usually takes a fairy or folk tale as its plot, and then adds in lots of political/sexual innuendo for the adults. Because this is of course in Turkey, where politics is, oh, kind of a sensitive subject (even in English), we’ll be eliminating any timely references. We’re doing the tale of “Dick Whittington and his Cat” so rest assured all the sex jokes will still be there. Chris Wall is Chris the Cat. I am a woman named Sally the Cook.

After rehearsal we jetted off to Bomonti, a part of town which after three years I’ve still never visited before, and went to the annual Korean Charity Bazaar. I had no idea there were enough Koreans in Istanbul to throw a charity bazaar, but oh maaaaaan when Taylor clued us into it, we had to make it a priority. I mean, KIMCHI. KIMCHI ALL DAY EVERY DAY. AAAHHHH MORE PLEASE. So we went up into Bomonti into what looked like an empty university building, but as soon as we got in, we heard the loud echoes of korean opera, and we saw a bustling flea market on the bottom floor. We got a weird delicious pancake of vegetables, a weird delicious pastry filled with nuts, cinnamon, and honey, and chap chae and kimchi and rice and UGH. When I die please make my body into kimchi. Or if that’s gross you can fill my coffin with kimchi and push me out to sea. Whatever. Korean grandmas pushed kimchi on us, and Chris pulled me and Harriet into the bazaar to check out the fanciest Korean bidet. It had robot settings to blast water at your anus at different speeds and patterns; it had an air-dryer. Inside the demo toilet, beneath the bidet’s robot arm, someone had placed a pot of plastic roses. The ambient music changed from Korean Opera to Aerosmith.

That night, still wretched and demolished and hung, Harriet and I decided to stay home and chill. Jari’s French lutist friend Valerie had invited him to another musician’s house for Renaissance music and dinner — apparently the guy had a museum-y house covered in antique turkish instruments from the middle ages and Ottoman times, and could also apparently play all of them.

On Sunday Jari and I discussed the menu for our pop-up restaurant at Circuit for next Saturday. Harriet and I escaped from the city and went to Kilyos on the Black Sea. It was one of the last nice days of the summer before winter shits all over us, so we wanted to exploit it for beach day. We took the metro to the end of the line and then took the bus all the way to Demircikoy, a tiny village beyond the more touristy Kilyos. We walked down a hill for half an hour past a bunch of gated communities and got to a cute beach with sand and kite-flying dudes and dogs. We barely did anything other than walk around and explore the coast, with its rugged rocks and powder-blue whitecap waves. We stood on the edge of the rocky cliffs and felt heroic. Out in the Black Sea, a herd of ships waited their turn to go through the Bosphorus.

It was a nice weekend after a week destitute of actual work. This week I start work at a children’s theatre doing shows for $$$ and helping kids learn English. We’ll rehearse a show to transmute it into entertainment, and then tour around Istanbul schools, doing one, two, maybe three performances a day. There are tours, too — last year they went to Iskenderun, Kayseri, Antalya. It doesn’t pay loads (but crucially, it does pay a living wage) so I’m supplementing my income with the usual run of private lessons, including the kid whose arm I broke.

Normally I’d linger a bit on all these stories — I don’t like rushing through everything so quickly, narratively speaking, but I just haven’t written anything in so long that I had to catch up. As usual, life in this city charges along like a rhinoceros.

IMG_20160115_163003018.jpgWhen I was in the late single-digits—sometime during third grade—I developed an intense fear of choking. We had brought home some excellent sandwiches from Carrs’ deli and I was really excited to eat, because at that point I loved plain turkey with shredded lettuce and mayo and black pepper on white or wheat bread, and Carrs’ deli made excellent turkey with shredded lettuce and mayo with black pepper on white or wheat bread. And I remember taking a bite and just not knowing what to do. Where does it go? What do I do with it? Where do I put my tongue, how do I push the food back? What if I do it wrong, and I choke? Was I choking? How could I tell I was choking?

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This gallery contains 14 photos.

Our first day in Bulgaristan we took the night bus up from Istanbul. It took us four visits and one phone call (conducted on our behalf a native speaker, no less) to make reservations with the bus company, find out the reservations had disappeared, figure out where they were picking us up, and pay for the …

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IMG_20160403_180020639Last Sunday we woke up and I had that Hozier song that’s in 5/4 stuck in my head. Jari was downstairs doing collage of course and I made the coffee, and I polled them for what the song was called. “From Eden,” Harriet said. “I don’t know how I know that.”

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this was almost a good picture and I blame myself

We listened to it, and then listened to it again, and Jari looked up from between the clippings of paper wreathing his presence, like shavings of wood around a mad puppet master. “I got invited to a picnic today by that cellist I met last night. She messaged me on facebook like “I guess you were too drunk to remember” and I was like “no, I was sober last night…” but anyways I don’t know what you’re doing today but we’re having a picnic.”

We readily agreed and packed in some of the Bulgarian wine and went to Validebağ.

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Anna, as a grimlock war-guardian of the palace of Gorgenspittle

We met Nur (Jari’s cellist friend whom he totally remembers meeting) at the Starbucks across from the entrance to the park, wandered inside, picked a tree, and laid our blankets out. She’d brought some wine from Bozcaada, and candied coriander seeds, and mastiha, a Greek liquor made from the sap of the mastic tree. (Damla sakızı in Turkish). And, a wacky little bouzouki she’d purchased from a friend of hers (who had MADE it) which had this great banjo-y sound. We brought the more workhorse foods of bread, tomatoes, labne, cheese, plus our own instruments.

And yesterday, on Monday, Orkun made some excuses and took the second half of the day off. I’d worked all morning on TOGY spreadsheets (this week, on Azerbaijan) so I felt entirely justified in going to the sahil with Jari and Orkun to have a beer and look at the dogs (link to dog video). I played “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park” by Tom Lehrer for Orkun and he loved it.