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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.

 

 

This is a short story about Brazil Coffee Roasters and Dry Goods (Breziliya Kurukahvecisi), a shop in Kadıköy.

When I was contracted to act in a miserably-organized ad shoot* at the beginning of Season Two, I was hanging out with the director of the shoot in the van and mentioned that there was nowhere to buy good coffee in Istanbul. Can you imagine, a whole year drinking instant? Miserable. He recommended a spot in Moda, a district in my Asian side district of Kadıköy, where they imported it and roasted it themselves. I was elated and the next day set out to find it. I was put off by the Aunt Jemima sign, but please remember this is Turkey and our race issues have a different context. 10456781_1708218709446294_2003148570279157791_n.jpg

It was a cheerful place staffed by a crowd of middle-aged dudes who bustled behind the counters like bumblebees. A birdcage in the corner housed a green songbird, merrily chirping away. Every shelf was packed with teas and coffees from all over the world, there were sacks of seeds and nuts open on the floor, basins of dried apricots and dates and chocolates, drawers full of powdered pistachio and jars full of blueberries. They had articles (in Turkish, naturally) proclaiming the health benefits of this berry or another, and one suggesting that four cups of coffee a day would lead to an extraordinary long life. IMG_20160331_160957063.jpgThey had two open canvas sacks of coffee beans, one dark and one light, sitting next to a roaster. I asked for a half-kilo of filter coffee (what you and I know as “normal coffee”) and they scooped up a scoop of the darker beans, poured them into a grinder, and the bright-eyed guy behind the counter chatted with me about my obvious foreignness and what I was doing in Turkey. My Turkish wasn’t great then, but he was genuinely interested and I did my best. I paid fifteen lira. (So back then about seven dollars a pound–a decent price for good coffee even in the US.) We didn’t have a french press or anything, so I used the çaydınlık (the turkish teapot) and just mixed the grounds and water direct. It was great coffee–the freshest I’d had all year. IMG_20160331_160918072.jpg

Jari and I, true to our Park heritage, must drink coffee until we pee out all our moisture and we become as dried out as corn husks. In those days I still worked at Bugün and copyedited from home, so in the mornings before the first articles came Jari and I would brew a pot and sit in the sunlight in the living room like lizards, playing computer games from the 90s, drinking coffee. It was a great and magical time. We made expeditions to Breziliya when we ran out, and they’d put on a muppet show for us when we arrived. “It’s been two weeks since we’ve seen you,” one of them says, and then one calls across from the other aisle, “Yes that’s right two weeks, two weeks, we expected you.” They were funny guys. The more Turkish we learned, the more we could communicate. They had been in business eighty years, and had been for sixty years in that spot–in Moda. I asked one time where the coffee came from and they deadpanned at me: “Brazil.” Duh.

What made the place stand out was that every place around it was a new bar or restaurant. This little store clearly had some accumulated character and history. They weren’t pretentious, just earnest.

They had a news article out front on the window with their story. In 1917 a soldier named Hacı Sıddık Ergincan finished his military service in Trabzon and bought a one-way boat ticket to Istanbul with the intention of starting up a coffee business. He stayed with his relatives and opened Merkez Kurukahvecisi in Kasımpaşa in 1920, a neighborhood on the IMG_20160331_160857809_HDR.jpgGolden Horn on the European side in Beyoğlu.** Business boomed, and he opened up a total of seven shops. He had a son, Mevlüt, who began to take over the family business as his father aged. He had a couple of neat marketing ideas, including printing the logo on coffee cups, and selling coffee in 50-gram bags like teabags. According to this story I’m reading now, the first coffee was from Indonesia and too hard for Turkish tastes, so they began importing from Brazil instead, and changed the name to Breziliya Kurukahvecisi.

The shops one by one were shuttered for various reasons, but the one in Moda still prospered. Mevlüt passed the shop onto his grandsons (not sure why his son wasn’t in the picture here) and those are the bright-eyed guys I know–Nejdet and Bülent.

(Now I’ve made you like the place, so I’m sorry for what I’m about to do.)

I got word they were closing. Some other Kadıköy resident put up a thing on Facebook saying they were closing because they couldn’t make rent. I was stunned and saddened. I went down to the shop yesterday to check. Some of the shelves were empty, a few of the customers or family members were talking to each other and sobbing. Bülent and Nejdet were still bright-eyed, intense. I asked if I could talk to them for awhile. Bülent came outside and sat down with me.

He explained that in 2014 a new tax law had come into effect, changing rent control laws. It made it possible more or less for property owners to dramatically increase the rent on businesses that had been renting for more than ten years. The Armenian Orthodox Church owns the entire block Breziliya stands on, and asked for double what they had been paying–30,000 liras. They refused and tried to take legal action, but no avenues were available.

“Whatever bar that comes here will probably be charged upwards of 40,000,” Bülent said. “It’s not just money, it’s character. They’re ruining the character of the old Moda Çarşı.” He pointed out a few places. “That place got closed ten years ago, that place closed in the 80s.” I asked if there were any others from the old days, and he said their shop was the last holdover.

And it’s true–there were no bars or rakı balık places in Kadıköy in the Moda Çarşı even ten years ago. It was just a quirky community mostly known to outsiders as a retirement home, a quiet place away from the bustle of central Istanbul.

“I’ve been working here since I was 13 years old,” he said. “I’m 42 now. Five families depend on this place.”

Bülent’s daughter (granddaughter? niece?), about five years old, ran outside the shop at that second and he swooped her up and started to tickle her. I took a few pictures and thanked all the guys inside and wished them the best. They were distracted but thanked me for being a customer. I insisted I get a picture with Bülent, and he directed us in front of the coffee roaster.
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I wanted this story to have a villain, but the truth is the Armenian Orthodox Church in Moda is dying. I checked out a service there and it only had two old congregants still chanting away. This government has not been kind to old institutions of all sorts, whether it’s churches or historical landowners, nor has it had any eye towards cultural or historical preservation. No doubt they need the money to take care of themselves. I don’t want to indict anyone here, not landlords, nor the government, nor capitalism–it’s just a bitter reality that places change and we lose the things we love.

*It was a Vestel ad. I appear in it for two seconds and the shoot took all day and drove me around needlessly to four different places all over the city. Fun, though. 

**Also, the birthplace of our democratically elected president, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

My source for the story is this post and my interview with Bülent, and if I screwed up any translations I welcome corrections.

So now I’m home after playing on the boats with Jari. Jari plays on the ferries three or four times a week and I join him when I need some spending money. It’s an altogether pleasant way to spend a morning or afternoon. You do two or three tours–that’s back and forth from one dock to another, takes an hour–and, as Jari puts it, you basically “steal money from people.”

We ride the Kadikoy-Karakoy ferry because the Besiktas ferry is rigorously controlled by a musician’s mafia of sorts and they organize who can play at what time, and security doesn’t hassle them in exchange for 3000 liras a month of protection money. On the Karakoy ferry, security is a little more scrupulous about kicking off musicians, as it is technically illegal to play on the boats, but they only do one sweep through all the boat cabins at the beginning of the trip. As soon as they leave, we get out our instruments and play some songs.  We have tactics: we play a slow American folk song to make our presence known, we play a Turkish song to speak to the stirrings of their Turkhearts, and then we play a more lively finish. And then Jari plays a Bach prelude, and I pass the hat. And the we go to the upstairs cabin and do the same thing. You can make more than 200 lira for less than three hours of work, which is pretty good. Our friend Ulas plays for ten hours a day, but he has the downside of being by himself, being Turkish, and playing mostly Beatles songs on the guitar. He makes about 300 a day. Today he told us that he was paying six months of rent and he was a thousand lira short. “What’s the last day you can pay?” I asked “Today,” he said, and took a pull from his cigarette. “Fuck,” I said. “Good luck. What will you do if you’re short?” “I have no idea,” he said. “I’ll talk to them, ask for three more days or something.”