Monday, 5 May 2014

First of May on the Bosphorus

            You can’t just be a visitor here and not get caught up at least a little.
            The “Bloody Sunday” of 1969 and the “Taksim Square Massacre” of 1977 still live in the collective memory. And in the last year, protests against the chopping down of Gezi Park in favour of a shopping mall have made authorities very nervous. Today, 40 000 police are called in to maintain law and order.
            The efficiency of the police force was impressive.
            Over breakfast Th and I checked in with the news, anticipating there would be trouble because not everyone was happy with the closing of Taksim Square. "It can't be about today,” I said. Since the news was in Turkish and I was gleaning information from the pictures only, I was thrown when I saw drenched streets and wet people.
            "It's raining there,” I said. “The sky is blue here.” It soon dawned on me that the wet came from the water cannons that were turned on people who tried to break through the barriers in order to get to their beloved Taksim Square.
            Then our friends called and off we went for a day of exploration, and away from potential violence. Sometimes having a husband who is the strong silent type can be a bit trying but when it comes to leisure and you have no idea as to where you will be taken, it can work wonders. By about eleven, we were walking by the water to the bridge that connects Karakoÿ with the old centre of town, where peace reigned under the watchful eye of my Lady. The absence of public transport and the empty bridge made us aware, once again, of what was going on. We continued toward the appointed place.
            The electricity I started to feel in the air last night had intensified.
            Since there was concern that they might not get out with the car from where they live, I was looking for a couple walking; Th flagged down a car. Theirs. Next I was expecting to spend time in the old town but soon we were off on an almost deserted road, Th and our friends joking about how easy driving in Istanbul was when roads were barricaded. When I asked how far we were going, I learned that we were heading for the Asian side.
            I started beaming like a school kid on her first trip across a border. Crossing borders was not an infrequent occurrence for me growing up in a country the size of a button, still it always filled me with a sense of anticipation and here I was about to cross the border between two continents. I had flown into Asia before but I had never driven there so as soon as we reached the end of the bridge, I looked to find the sign that showed the important line someone, once upon a time, had drawn. Soon enough, there it was, an electric green board with the simple words: Welcome to Asia. The privilege of being a visitor is that you can delight where others despair. The route we were on is a daily commute for many and not at all the exotic experience it was for me.
            My childlike enthusiasm only increased when next I learned that the place where we stopped for coffee wasn't the end of the journey. We were going all the way to the Black Sea today.
            The Black Sea: Crimea and Russia.
            My head started spinning until I realized I hadn’t done my homework. I knew neither Russia nor Crimea were close by, but I had not caught on the Bosporus was short enough to reach the Black Sea from the centre of town in a little over an hour. Depending on traffic because, and I hadn't realized this either, Istanbul stretches all the way along the Bosphorus as she strings koÿ after koÿ, village after village, each of them slowing you to a crawl before you can move again.
            As I was sorting out my misconceptions and the shortcomings of my geographical knowledge, the talk in the car remained light even while the subject matter was loaded. After all, we were talking about the right of the state versus the rights of the individual. With half an ear in the conversation and the occasional distracted question, I looked out the window, eagerly taking in this unfamiliar world.          
When got to Anadolu Feneri, we were disappointed to find the lighthouse that gives an excellent view of The Black Sea was closed on account of the holiday. It would prove the only May 1st inconvenience for us. Back in the thick of the city people were being shot at by rubber bullets, water cannons, and tear gas. E showed us a picture on Twitter as we sat on the terrace of the Kaptan restaurant, top of the fjord, delicious food before us. The picture showed a young man in jeans and T-shirt walking by a row of fortified police. He was smiling as he played the guitar.
            Other pictures weren’t so happy.
            I turned back to the freshly caught food in front of me: tender calamari fried in a golden batter. From the grill: baby sardines in a light batter and some other fish I don't know the name of but small enough you can bite off its crisp head. With it, a plain salad of shredded and cut vegetables.
            And, as always, a plate of raw onions, green onions this time. It could just as easily have been cut up raw onion. Together with pickled peppers, they are served with every meal. 
            Below us the fjord kept changing hues whenever cloud and sun traded places. The water was slate grey, bottle green near the shore. Beyond it, the Black Sea. When I asked why it was called the Black Sea, I was told because it is dark and cold. But the crème brûlée made with milk and tahini was not. It's crust an inviting copper colour, the pudding is sweet, not from sugar but from the milk and the tahini.
            A desert that is good for you. Bring it on.

The next day we were taken out again. This time we went as far as the Black Sea but on the European side. The string of villages along the shore, on this side, look more like suburbs with posh marinas and, at times, opulent dwellings. Across, a white palace hangs in the water. It is near the place where we had coffee and tea the day before.
            At one turn we can see the pillars of what will become another bridge connection East and West. We comment with regret how it might change the peaceful scene at Anadolu Feneri, which is tucked away in rather unexplored territory.
            We eventually made it to the restaurant. Across the Bosphorus, green forests and the ruins of Yoros Castle. This castle was passed back and forth in the battle of Constantinople and has been a strategic point since time of the Phoenicians. The present ruins are what are left after the castle was abandoned in the eighteenth century.
            Between the castle and us, cormorants were sunning their wings on a concrete buoy that somehow managed to stay afloat. This large boulder bobbing on the water was about as astonishing to my mind as the presence of history here. To find my bearings, I looked over the low wall next to our table.            
Below me the dark water was waving the long sea grasses back and forth. It was as transparent as the white jellyfish dancing by like gauze flowers.

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