Friday 30 May 2014

The devil doesn't always wear Prada

            She points to the sleek cats that like miniature lions are resting in the wild grass. We are in her mother’s garden because we were invited for BBQ. Myself and a group of economists. Up on the balcony Persian rugs hang over the railing like planters full of colourful flowers. When she sees our gaze, she points to them. “They will come to Canada.”
Her mother and aunts’ house is up for sale. It now belongs to her and an aunt, the only one of the three sisters who is still alive. They’re selling because she wants to go back home to Canada after ten years. The aunt has lived abroad most of her adult life.
            When a copper coloured cat jumps onto the lap of an economist, she smiles.
            “They've had all their shots.” Her eyes shine like coal in her Snow White face. She unwinds a long tight curl with her finger and then lets it spring back. “Know anyone rich people who want to buy property here?”
            This ordinary house, built about half a century ago on one of Istanbul's seven hills now fetches a handsome price. 
            “You should have no problem,” someone says. “Now is a good time to sell.”
            “But the cats,” she says. “They’re so happy here.”
            “Are they all yours?” I ask.
            Only one is. She rescued it when it was little. It’ll come to Canada, and so will her dog.
            “What will the others do with me not here? With the house sold?” Her eyes are moist with emotion. “They’re so happy here. We have this little world.”
            The economists are silent. Two are petting cats by now. You can see the wheels of their ever practical minds turning. Yes, there are the cats but there is also the handsome price the house will fetch and the future it will give her in Canada. But these loveable furry creatures, these beings that deserve life as much as the next guy.

            A helicopter flies over. The prime minister is back from his campaign speech in Germany where he rallied people by presenting himself as answer to Europe's problems. He lives a few blocks down the road.
            Europe has a problem with minorities. In Brussels four people were shot outside the Jewish museum. Two Israeli visitors, a member of the local Jewish community and a random person. Three died, the other is severely wounded. Overhead, the helicopter chops the air again. On the way here I saw police buses and police with heavy machine guns in the vicinity of the prime minister’s office. 
            “They come to our door,” she says, “asking all kinds of questions.”
            She is referring to the people protecting the PM. I am thinking of the state of the world and the giant machine of progress as I look at this remnant of old world, this untouched house and untouched garden. All around us new houses and low rises show the benefits of progress. Some are almost the size of a palace. In the commercial districts they build temples that reach up to the sky. Istanbul has two Trump Towers. Below them, in places like this garden, people are struggling to hold on.
Some are out in the street selling whatever they have. In other places they crawl like ants, carrying little pieces of refuge in the hope of making a buck. In tourist places they come with their hands stretched out for a coin. Outcasts in a turmoil ridden world.
            Last Sunday, Th and I walked all the way to the place where the modest Orthodox Patriarch’s Church sits tucked amidst the old streets of Fener. The walk there was long and a bit unsettling. Not because at a few crossroads we had to put our lives on the line as we dodged cars to get to the other side but also, because to get there, we ventured into a neighbourhood where I would not have gone alone. In a little triangle of green a Roma family set up camp. The children were on us like gnats. They see a person who isn’t poor and they stick out their hand. At the Yeni Mosque, near the Spice Market, a boy stuck out his shoe and asked if we could help him buy a new pair; his little sister, or niece, stuck a dirty bare foot from underneath her long pink skirt.
            She was in apprenticeship and doing very well.

            On the way back from Fener we took the more pleasant road next to the Golden Horn. A beautiful park where families bring their children, it  stretches back to the first bridge. A shoeshine man walked by us, his beautiful copper basket over his shoulder reflecting the sun. A brush fell off as he walked by and Th, concerned the man was about to loose an important piece of equipment, picked up the brush and ran after him.
            As reward, he was offered a shoeshine and no amount of protesting would deter the man. When I reached into my purse, he held up his hand in protest. Here, clearly, was a man who wanted to do another man a good turn in gratitude. I reached into my purse anyway because the intention had not been to pay him but to take a photograph.
            When Th joined me he was steamed. After his sandals were beautifully shined, he offered the man 10 lire, anyhow.
            “No,” the good man said. “I want 30 lire.”
            Th gave him 15 and left a good man who was not happy.
            After we risked our lives again dashing in front of speeding cars to get by the second bridge, another shoeshine man walked by. His brush dropped. Th whistled after him but then stopped himself. We now understood how it works.
            In any case, his sandals will be clean until the end of summer. And not a spot of polish on his socks, either. On the way home we stopped for fresh orange juice. We were happy it only cost 1 lira. 

            Back in the garden, we now each have a plate with grilled meatballs and lamb chops before us, a bowl of soup made from drained yoghurt, seasoned with dill and pickled cucumber. There are chips and a dip of grilled eggplant, and another one of guacamole. Food travels the world and shows us who was where.
            Then comes desert. A pudding made from mastic, other delicacies, and a bowl of cut up fruit. By the time we pick up our Turkish coffee, we are very mellow.
“We should set up a fund and have a cat sanctuary here,” one of the economists proposes.
            “It would be a nice statement in a place like this,” another says.
            A place like this means a sanctuary that preserves the old in a world where everything is new and where the devil doesn’t only wear Prada.
It’s a big world here. A place full of energy. The city spreads along many shores and straddles two continents. It also straddles a few fault lines.
            “Did you feel the earthquake?” someone asked while we were still in the garden.
            Th and I hadn’t because we had been out walking but those who were indoors had. The conversation moved on to the rain that fell on our side that morning but not on their side. It came down and ran in a stream by the side of the road.
            Istanbul rumbles regularly and it has many mini climates.
            When you come to a foreign land, your degree of engagement colours your perceptions. In an email exchange with a friend we talked about this. She had been to Istanbul because of a conference her husband was attending.
            “I had a sanitized version of the place,” she wrote. They were wined and dined as they floated on the Bosphorus.
            The tourists who just floated in on yet another massive boat, have their own impressions as they look with binoculars from the familiarity of their private balcony, or as they run their daily routine up on deck. No need to ever stop what you love doing and yet you can still see things in person without ever becoming engaged with this world that you pass through.
            I look at them and remember when I have travelled that way a few times. Just as the passenger on the ship looking through binoculars has no idea that the boat he is on is stealing the view from a lady who has a yen for contemplating moving waters, I don’t really know much about Cairo. Cairo, where I stepped off a boat for the day, will forever be 36 degrees in my mind and my child will always have chickenpox. Her body hotter than the desert sand, she is forever running to see the camels.

            Istanbul has already a few faces for me. It will always have different kinds of weather and it will always have my friend, who can’t wait to get home to Canada, even if it will break her heart when she has to leave the neighbourhood strays behind.

Monday 26 May 2014

Go with laughter

Since a boat the size of a city block docked overnight out front my window and cut off my view, I decided to get out. I set out toward the bridge that connects Karaköy with the Old City. The sector where we live is booming. Since I moved here about four weeks ago now, I have seen places gutted and built up, open, and thrive. I meant to take a quick peak at the market past the bridge, but I ended up halfway across the bridge on a platform underneath it that stretches all the way to the other side. It is lined with restaurants and coffee shops. It’s not immediately apparent how you get there as the passage leads by one of the many WC’s Istanbul has.
            The place was empty still as they were just getting ready for the day, so I had an unusually quiet stroll with the waters of the Bosphorus on one side and the Golden Horn on the other. In the distance I spotted the offending cruise ship that sent me running from the house.
            When I looked up, I heard the cars and streetcars above, and I saw the fishing lines slung over the railing, one after the other, turning the bridge into a giant centipede. The bridge is forever crowded; the railings have inviting wooden gadget as resting places in wood strapped on them. The water that runs in between the street part of the bridge and the sidewalk, always smells like fish.
            The Bosphorus and Golden Horn are rich with supplies for the eager fishers.
            Halfway, I turned back and went by the other side in order to avoid the two waiters who had insisted I come in for coffee. On the other side I looked over the waters of the Golden Horn that stretch deep within the city.
            Clambering down to the market, I squeezed my way past parked cars to a stall where radishes burst like fireworks between sprays of mint and artfully arranged lettuces. I wanted them, and the tomatoes that shone like baubles on a yuletide tree but I became tongue tied so I walked on, past the fishmongers. I marveled at the concentric patterns in which they arranged their catch and I walked through little restaurants set up with tarp and plastic chairs around an assortment of tables. With the smell of grilled fish in my nostrils, I climbed over a makeshift passage to the streets beyond, were hardware store after hardware store spilled onto market stalls. Here the streets were dingy but functional.
           Closer to the crossroad where the bridge meets land, market stalls displayed wares that might appeal more to tourists. At this crossroad, it is advised to use the underground passage where shop after shop sells electronic equipment. Once out of the underground and back on the road to home, I ventured into what looked like an ancient indoor mall. A feeling of stepping back a century or more was balanced by yet another row of electronic stores, not only on the first floor but also on the second. This place, I later learned, is the terminal for the funicular car built in 1875 and the second oldest underground transportation system in the world.
Finally I was back at the French Gates where I made a stop at the bakery. Here a husband and wife team bake and sell delicious goods. You almost have to stoop when you go in. On one side the baker was slapping limp twisted circles of dough back and forth on a marble slab, to coat them with seeds.
            On the other side of the shop a large low table was spread with a variety of baked buns. The final versions of the twisted circles lay in neat piles next to rusty colored crusty buns that burst open at the top into a golden cross. Further down, braided loafs and sesame drowned buns that look and are tough, but burst open with Nutella.
            When I walked in, I said hello in Turkish, merhaba. The baker’s wife sent me a look that said, this isn’t going to be easy but I have survived worse. Confident my tongue was working again, I went to the table with the finished products. I passed on the Nutella and pointed to one of the crossed buns—they are sweet because of almonds—saying, bir, which means one. The lütfen, meaning ‘please’, got stuck somewhere at the back of my throat. Then the shopkeeper said something, presumably the cost of the bun. I answered, and I am sure of it, with “your sister is Italian.” I may not remember correctly, but I do know that I just showed her a hand full of coins, out of which she picked what I owed, and that I then said merhaba, instead of ‘thank you.’ She just looked from me to her husband. She may have even shaken her head.
            I think I better hit the books again.
            Turkish is an interesting language. Interesting for those of us who grew up learning a language with a grammar structured around that very handy verb to be. In Turkish it does not exist. Instead, words are modified to indicate our presence in them. It gives a sense that the world appears as a given, with us passing through it like a wave. If I want to say I’m a baker I will add an ending to that noun to indicate that is what I do. If I am happy, I add the appropriate ending to that. Nouns, adverbs and adjectives can be modified to indicate that we inhabit them. The ending also indicates which person we are referring to: first, second or third, plural or singular.
            No gender. Turkish has no gender. No need to fight for gender neutrality here.
            I don’t know in how far a language defines a people, but Turks smile and laugh readily. Maybe knowing that they don’t have to ponder the conundrum I think therefor I am, they happily inhabit a given reality and then shed it when the time comes.
            A parting greeting is the word laughter repeated twice. Güle güle. Go with laughter.
            A small boy came to our table as we were having a meal. He was all of seven, out on his own as far I could tell, selling packages of tissues. As he concluded his transaction with Th, he was singing and smiling. When I snapped his picture for Instagram, his laughter burst open like ripe fruit. He wanted to see the picture. When I showed him, he drew me into a moment of pure delight.
And then he was gone. His little box with packages under his arm. A little boy surviving a big world.
            Güle güle.
            I was reminded of a few nights before when a girl of about eleven came to our table. She was holding a small accordion on which she played a simple musical phrase. When Th gave her a coin, he asked her to play something else. She flushed red, put a hand to her face and ran away giggling.
            Güle güle.
            Last night a man came playing the accordion, a girl going around collecting coins; last week a boy of about twelve, playing the same instrument. Most likely all of them were Syrians, possibly all from the same family, exiled from a land torn apart.
            Güle güle.
            At our favorite bistro, the local cat jumped up on the chair next to Th. Her eye on the grilled köfte, a meatball accompanied with half a braised potato smothered with braised tomato wedges. She put a paw on his arm. When he gave her a piece of bread, she simply curled herself into sleep. On the way home, a cat skulked around the corner, his white coat grey. A deep red gash, the size of a tomato wedge, behind her left ear.
            Güle güle

Thursday 22 May 2014

Bieke's Stories: The further trials and tribulations of an agorapho...

Bieke's Stories: The further trials and tribulations of an agorapho...: There is something both satisfying and unsettling about meeting friends from back home when travelling. The day I was to leave to join Th i...

The further trials and tribulations of an agoraphobiac

A few days before, Deepam and I had discovered via Facebook that we were in the same city. She and I met only once, at the Canadian Author’s Association conference a few years before, but I follow her blog and we ‘like’ postings on each other’s wall, so when we met at the fountain of Neptune on the Piazza Navona, we fell into step like old friends. However, by the time we reached the Trevi Fountain, the lace on one of my shoes snapped.
            Such an ordinary thing to happen when walking with a friend. And such a simple thing to rectify, one would think, but not for an agoraphobiac in a country where things are seldom simple. I was happy to limp along in order to avoid having to talk to strangers but Deepam, a much braver woman than I, suggested we try the shoe store nearby. It’s not that I was reluctant to approach a stranger in his role as shopkeeper, it’s just that such things never flow easily for me.
After I pointed to my shoe and then to the broken lace in my hand, the clerk called over the proprietor and both looked at me. Then they shrugged their shoulders, hands helplessly raised, eyes weary. How could I bother them with such a pedestrian issue?
            I walked away with a familiar feeling of dejection—I had once unsuccessfully scoured Firenze for a book of matches—but Deepam had gleaned the Italian words. Lacci per scarpi. Armed with this new phrase we set off walking in and out of stores, hopeful that the right words would get us the needed things.
            It wasn’t until I got home and Emiliano told me to try the Chinese store around the corner that I found what I was looking for. A store with every item a household might need for its smooth functioning. Whatever did the Italians do before the arrival of the Chinese? I’m sure lacci per scarpi were rather easy to obtain before a slew of regulations dictated what could be sold where. That and the more recent, gradual disappearance of the useful Tabacchi, where you could not only get your fix of coffee, booze and cigarettes but where you could also find useful items. When I lived in Firenze those were the only places allowed to sell matches. I found out the hard way because I’m the kind of person who never reads handy guides for first-time visitors.
On the day I left for Rimini, the Metro ride from Lepanto to Termini was harried, even if I had kindly been given a seat. When I got there, I squeezed myself and my backpack, together with a press of bodies, out of the train and into the underground shopping mall of Termini Station. Rome, the darling of the world, doesn’t accommodate the millions of us who come to fawn over her. You will find an arrow pointing you in the direction of a site, only to be abandoned at the first crossroad. Tourist booths are few and far between, and offer little explanation.
            The same at Termini. I was halfway to the airport before I realized maybe I should go back to that arrow and find the starting point, the place where passengers buy tickets and trains dock. I had some time but not that much, so I didn’t want to get too far away from where my train might leave but it wasn’t until about 500 metres further I finally got up the courage to ask a stranger. With the few English words she knew, she kindly pointed me back in the direction from whence I came. Eventually, my senses adjusted themselves and flashes of the station as I had known it twenty-five years ago directed me upstairs.
            Progress. I found the place where they sell tickets. It was barely discernible between giant H&M posters with young women guilelessly pointing their crotches at passersby. The board that had the direction, name and number of my train, didn’t specify a quay. I had a print-out of my online ticket but I wasn’t sure if I needed to convert this into a ticket.
            Since I was here last, Italy’s train system has partly been privatized so it all appeared rather confusing to me. The sense before was that there was some concern passengers would end up in the places they chose to go to; the sense now was that you should be waylaid and spend all kinds of money you never intended to spend at the myriad of stores that lined the halls. None of them, I am sure of it, selling lacci per scarpi.
            At the entrance of what appeared to be the customer service desk a tall handsome man, if not an immigrant himself clearly the child of an immigrant, kindly offered to see what it was I needed. He took my ticket. The hairs on my neck bristled but when he walked me to a small machine mounted on some wall and validated my ticket for me, I calmed down. He wore a blue uniform. There was a badge of some kind on his arm. His English was wonderful and I started to become impressed with Italian officialdom. How kindly they took care of confused travellers.
            Next he took me to the large billboards specifying the departure and arrivals of trains. White ones are for arrivals and here, you see, the yellow ones for departures. He was a benevolent teacher. I now will never have to consult anyone again in order to find my way through the maze of Italian train stations. This kind man put my mind at ease like a dutiful son, so when he put out his hand, in the end, I looked at him with a sense of betrayal when it dawned on me that I had been had.
            Still, he’d helped me so I handed him a fiver. He looked at me with  velvet eyes. “After all I did for you,” he said. “Fifteen, please.”
            I put away my five and gave him ten and then gave him the look that said: clearly. I didn’t regret the money, I regretted the fact that I had trusted him to be someone he wasn’t. I was like a hurt lover, mistaken by her lover’s intentions. He, knowing how to prey on white-haired women who look lost, walked away with a sulk, but certainly he must have been happy that his five minutes of work yielded him ten euros.
            On the train, I saw everyone hand the conductors their print-outs. One woman even showed her ticket on the screen of her iPad. I was to learn later that when travelling, courtesy of the private rail system, which I was that day, one doesn’t need to validate one’s ticket.
I spent two wonderful days at Rimini, home of Frederico Fellini and a city with a fierce history, all the way from the House of Malatesta to the partisan resistance movement during World War II, when the city was captured by Canadian and Greek forces. We visited the Grand Hotel and took a long walk by the sea. Elettra showed me her Rimini and we ended up at the library in a series of connected rooms that were unchanged for centuries and where an exhibit was taking place, honouring the founder.
I went to the City Museum where I was the only visitors that evening. I was watched over by a group of female guards, who took turns making sure I hadn’t got lost in the vaults of this large building. I tried to explain to them in my best Italian, that like the beautiful tapestries they had, I too was from Flanders. They looked at me with indulgence before they went back to whatever it was they were doing.
            Ah, to sound like an idiot in yet another language.
            We were also treated to the best food Italy has to offer by Elettra and her sister. Scholars both, they take great pride in this city where they spent the summers of their childhood. They still alternate between Bologna and Rimini, courtesy of their positions at the University of Bologna. According to Th, Rimini has the best restaurants in the country and the medieval fishing village, Borgo di San Guiliani, now a district of the city, is the place to eat fish. We ate more than we could and, topping off the meal with three deserts drowned in liqueur convinced me he was right.
After, we went through the tiny cobblestone streets, with its small houses, to look for murals in homage to Fellini’s films.
            Then I spent a day in Pisa, where the tower indeed leans but is so much more innocent and picturesque than the images adorning the plates every household seemed to own at one point. I could hardly find it. In Pisa, like in Rome, arrows only point you once and then you’re on your own as you get lost in winding streets. I don’t know what I had expected but some kind of throng of visitors making their way there was certainly one thing. I finally found them around the massive cathedral that dwarfs the tower. They were standing in various poses, indicating they were either trying to hold up the tower or push it down further. Most photographers moved their bodies in order to find the right shot. One Dutch guy kept ordering his wife to move her body. He soon gave up in disgust because she couldn’t get it right.

After one more day in Rome, where Th and I went on the trail of one of the twentieth century’s greatest thinkers, Gramci, and one last espresso, we flew back to Istanbul. There the country was mourning its victims with people taking to the street, demanding justice for the poor miners and their families.
            At the arrival hall, we got sucked into the longest and thickest line up for customs I was ever part of. We shuffled ten abreast toward a bottleneck where we were squeezed into a zigzag of barriers. There we continued on, two by two, back and forth. Asians with surgical masks; women in black niqab with only their eyes showing, and sometimes not even that; parents with small children, mostly with mothers wearing some kind of covering. The children looked bewildered at this soup of shuffling humanity. Whenever I wanted to complain, I remembered the miners and I reminded myself how insignificant my problems were.
            Please, no stampede, I kept thinking. A couple of women tried to cheat by crawling under a barrier and so move ahead by about ten minutes. It threatened to get ugly but perhaps something about being a part of this warm pudding of bodies mellowed everyone sufficiently and we continued submissively for another hour and a half.

            Two young women wrapped in colourful cloth, head to toe, kept poking me in the back. One of them tried to get ahead of me a few times and I gently but firmly wagged a finger at her. When they poked me again, I turned and they started to giggle uncontrollably. I had to laugh right along and lifted my hand in mock gesture. What I wanted was to pinch their cheeks.
They looked like the spring flowers I had seen in Rimini, peaking out from a blanket of cottonwood seeds. They brightened a place where everyone was out of sorts and sweating.