Turkblog Part 1: Merhaba, Istanbul

On the flight from Amsterdam to Istanbul, Chris turned 45. I slipped a card across his tray right at midnight, somewhere over the ocean and shortly thereafter Rainey and Graham gave him a package of small, silly, sweet, thoughtful presents. With the exception of some nasty turbulence shortly after take off, the flights have been fine. Istanbul 02.22.06 50I caught my first glimpse of Istanbul as our flight descended and I was unprepared for how vast it seems. I knew the population was somewhere north of nine million – as high as 14 million, according to some – but to see the lights of the city stretch far across Istanbul’s seven hills is a truly awesome sight.

By the time we landed in Istanbul and compensated for the time difference, it was well into Friday afternoon and since we had left Detroit on Thursday afternoon, it felt as though we’d lost almost an entire. We were greeted by our good friend and fellow Fellow Semiha, such a beautiful sight after a couple months’ absence, and shuttled onto the large yellow bus that would be our home for the next week or so. We were also greeted by Ferhat Boratav, the editor in chief of CNN Turk who gave us a personal guided tour of the city as we drove from the airport to our hotel.

Istanbul, as I’ve come to understand it is a complex city that sprawls across three general parts. On the European continent to the west, the so-called “old” and “new” cities (with those terms being used extremely relatively) are divided by the Golden Horn. While to the east, the rest of the city rests in Asia, on the other side of the Bosphorous River. As we drove past, we got a sense of just how complex a city Istanbul is, with views ranging from commercial/industrial areas and crowded highways to crumbling ancient seawalls to jam-packed tin-roofed apartment buildings to the commanding opulence of ancient mosques in the distance to the sparkling blue waterfront dotted with fishing boats. The whole breakdown of towns and municipalities in Istanbul is confusing, especially since some areas overlap and can be known by both old and new names. Our hotel – the Marmara Pera – was in a great location in an area called Beyoglu (BAY-o-loo) and half a block from the busy pedestrian shopping street Istiklal Caddesi . Pera means, literally, the new city – which the area was considered in the 1800s, even if the newest version of the nearby Galata Tower was rebuilt circa 1300. Time is an entirely different concept in this part of the world, where whole civilizations rose and fell before explorers even thought to look for America.

Istanbul 02.17.06 45Our hotel, which we reached by late afternoon, was far from ancient. In fact, compared to The Dazzler Hotel in Argentina, it was downright luxurious. Our eighth floor room had a grand view of the skyline, complete with at least three mosques whose minarets reached skywards. When you’ve traveled long and far, is there no better sight than a bed made with fresh, clean, crisp white linens? Upon arrival, we were given an hour or so to rest before the first item on our itinerary – the infamous “Turkish Bath Experience” awaited us.

Since I can’t sleep on planes, I was absolutely exhausted and decided even before I lay down my head that no matter how much I wanted to be soaped within an inch of my life by a Turkish stranger, the heat of the place might just cause me to pass out. Thus, Chris and I skipped out on what we were later told was, at the very least, unlike anything any of the gang had experienced before.

Upon arriving at the Cemberlitas Hamam, the men and women were separated into changing facilities and stripped down – the former given loin cloth-type wraps to wear and the latter outfitted in large cotton wraps. (Men and women are in different parts of the facilities at all times, since modesty is impossible.) Each person lay down on one of the large heated stone slabs arranged in a circle around the outskirts of the warm, steamy room. There, they awaited their turn for an attendant to soap and scrub every inch of them as they sat on the edge of their slabs. The men were also treated to a hale ‘n hearty massage and the women, conversely, were offered a bikini wax. I think the hour-long procedure costs about 20 YTL (new Turkish lire), approximately $17 US – an extra $5 if you pop for the wax.

I did not regret my decision to nap, however, as I doubt I’d have made it through dinner without doing so. As it was, Chris and I barely roused from our nap in time to meet everyone in the lobby for dinner, a short walk from the hotel down Istiklal Caddesi at Galatasaray Square. We arrived at Cicek Pasaji – or Flower Passage – a restaurant in the courtyard of the Cite de Pera building.

Istanbul 02.17.06 16Our table was in a main corridor with high ceilings and walls decorated with trompe l’oiel to approximate a street scene. All around us, little doors led into smaller eating areas and I wasn’t entirely sure if we were at a single restaurant or a mish-mosh of different dining establishments. From the moment we stepped foot inside, the atmosphere was electric, introducing us to the Turks’ love of eating, laughing, music, drinking and talking. The noise level was high and the air was thick with the smoke we’d get (slightly) used to as we were led to two long tables flanked with wooden benches and already laden with colorful starter dishes.

Of course, I didn’t realize at first that these were just the starter dishes and that, as with many European countries, the meal would continue over a number of hours with course after course being set in front of us. Thus, I helped myself to a few too many bites of piquant slices of white cheese, beans in olive oil, tomato salad and other dishes. Then the rest of the dishes began – tiny shrimp fried with banana peppers, a plate of fried goodies, baskets of bread, fish served fresh and whole.

During the dinner, I got to meet Eda and Asu, two of the CNN Turk marketing employees who would make our lives infinitely easier for the rest of the trip. In addition, I made the observation that many beautiful, young Turkish women don’t seem to eat much at all, preferring instead to chain-smoke throughout the meal. The smoking is difficult to get used to, especially as a former smoker, but Turkey doesn’t appear to have any bans on it.

Also during our dinner, Eisendrath summoned a young belly dancer to step up on one of our tables and perform – which would come up again and again as a theme of conflict and controversy over the next few days as we tried to get a grasp on the role of women in Turkey. The people in the tiny room near our table were dancing and singing the whole evening and, eventually, Sweet Tony G could stand the lure no more and wound up partying with some locals who were still chanting his name as we headed out.

Istanbul 02.17.06 48Lovely Gerard and Graham had spear-headed a movement to buy Chris a beautiful little ladybug cake to surprise him with after dinner – and the generous folk at CNN Turk had caught wind of it and supplemented another larger cake to accommodate the whole gang.

I should mention here that we were all chomping at the bit to see Semiha’s husband Sedat, who had been unable to join us earlier in the day. In fact, most of the guys had spent the previous week growing honorary Turkish goatees (nicknamed “Sedats”) in honor of Sedat’s facial hair. Finally, about halfway through dinner, Sedat showed up – completely clean shaven. Still, he seemed tickled pink – and genuinely touched – by the gesture.

Dinner started at 8 o’clock – actually quite early by European standards – and when we headed back to the hotel about midnight, it was clear that revelers would keep going into the wee hours of the night. Most of us, however, required even more sleep before our 9 o’clock tour the following morning.