Wednesday, November 14, 2007


There are some cities that really have lives of their own. They are an organic force that seems to exist outside the residents, or the buildings, or the nighttlife, or the businesses, or the things that happen behind closed doors that no one knows about, yet this force couldn't exist without all of these things. Some cities, when they appear in stories or films, are as much a character as the people.

San Francisco is one of these cities. Whenever a film takes place in San Francisco, the director can't help but be conscious of the city itself, and the architecture, and the unique character of the people and streets. When I lived in San Francisco, people always seemed to be aware of where we were and how San Francisco was a part of life. There are plenty of people who make a conscious effort to be wacky or urbane in a way that only a San Francisco denizen can be, yet there is still a San Francisco-ness that's there without even trying. New York is sometimes a city like this, and sometimes not, because it's capable of being both a unique place full of New Yorky people (as it was in Taxi Driver or Moonstruck or Ghostbusters) or a generic 'Metropolis' (as it was in the Superman films).

Istanbul is definitely its own character. Istanbul lives and breathes and can be felt to exist outside of time. To compare Istanbul to any American city falls flat, because our 200 years of history just don't hold up to Istanbul's thousands of years, or the way that people hold this history inside themselves and their actions as they go about their daily lives. In Istanbul, you can literally stumble over a piece of a 1,000 year old wall. People can steal stones from this wall to build their shanty houses with. You can walk on streets that have run with blood. You can hear music that probably hasn't changed much since music was invented. You can be sitting somewhere and without even trying, you can be transported to the same place doing the same thing 100 or 500 years ago. Sometimes it's just a matter of imagining different hats on passersby.

While at times I like the silence of the suburbs, there are other times I miss the noises. Inside the city, whenever anyone is backing up a car, day or night, there's always a guy who appears out of nowhere to shout, 'Gel gel gel gel gel gel dön dön dön sağ sağ sağ...' (come come come come turn turn turn turn right right right...) Out here in the suburbs, there aren't guys with carts walking up and down the streets calling out their wares. You can rarely understand exactly what these guys are saying, but you know what they're selling by the tune of what they're shouting. Okay, the boza guy (boza is a winter drink made from fermented wheat) is clearly shouting 'Boooooozzzzaaaa!,' but the water guys don't sound like they're saying sucu (water guy)-- they sound like they're saying 'deeeeeewwwwwip!' and the sütçü's (milkman's) word sounds a lot the same except the intonation is different. But there aren't many milkmen inside the city anymore. I guess they were banned, or buyers were discouraged enough from buying their milk that they went out of business. Apparently there was enough dodgy milk to make everyone nervous. There are still plenty of other guys with carts though. Some of them have mangy, sad-looking horses (or are they large ponies?), but most haul their carts themselves. They'll take away your old things for you-- some take metal things and others take broken things while still others take anything. When I lived inside the city I never had to make any effort to give away old stuff-- I'd just leave it out on the street and some gypsies would cart it off within hours.

Once my friend saw a dead horse floating in the Bosporus. A lot of gypsies live in the old wall along the water, and I suppose it was just the best they could do-- I'll bet it's pretty expensive to dispose of a dead horse properly. I've seen some dead dogs and cats in there, and there are always millions of little jellyfish feeding on the garbage. I know people who've seen dolphins in there too, jumping along the side of the seabus in the morning, but I haven't been so lucky. I've seen sunken (or maybe scuppered?) fishing boats, bits of houses, parts of cars... If I could scuba dive, the first place I'd go to check out is the bottom of the Bosporus, though I'll bet plenty of people have thought of that already and hauled off everything good.

I mention the dead horse because it's evocative. It seethes with mystery. The whole gypsy life along that wall does. So do a lot of other places here, and you don't have to be in the old part of town. Once you're out of the Istanbul's historical areas, it starts to look pretty drab and grim. The buildings are repetitive and uninspired 60s-style concrete blocks with fading paint. The streets are in disrepair and there's garbage everywhere. Woodsy the Owl apparently never set foot in Istanbul. But this is misleading. Life in Istanbul is on the inside. People are meticulous, even fussy about the decor in their homes, and housewives are fanatical about cleanliness. If you want to find a good place to eat or drink or buy stuff, it's best to go with someone who's been there before or who knows the area, because from the outside, most bars, shops, and restaurants look exactly the same, and there's no way of knowing which are good except by experience. In Takism, there are bars that aren't visible or even marked on the outside. Once my friend (the same one who saw the dead horse) tried to take us to this great afterhours bar he'd been to the night before that was on the 5th floor of some apartment building. He'd been pretty drunk, though, and he couldn't remember exactly which apartment building it was, so we just chose one and climbed to the top. Indeed there was a bar there, open after hours, with a bartender, a DJ, and their friend inside. As it turned out, it wasn't the same bar my friend had been to the night before, but no matter. We ordered our drinks and enjoyed ourselves as the bartender slowly downed a bottle of rakı and the DJ and his friend went home, after showing us how the system worked. The bartender passed out, and we had our run of the place-- we just fixed ourselves drinks, set up playlists on the computer, and danced until the sun came up. When we tried to wake up the bartender to pay him, he got mad, so we had to slip the keys from his pocket to let ourselves out. My friend went back later that day to pay the bartender, who was happy but apologetic, and begged him to bring us all back soon. Unfortunately, we were never able to find that place again. It was like a magical dream bar.

All cities have sidestreets. In an effort to sound romantic or hard, residents may refer to them as backstreets, but I'd never seen a proper backstreet until I came to Istanbul. It's so easy to get lost-- not just because the streets wind around and kill my already weak sense of direction, but because they all look the same and it's next to impossible to landmark things. In Kadıköy on the Asia side, there's a street where all the bars are. I don't know how many times I've been there, but I get lost every time on the way up from the seabus station. Getting back to the water is easy, even if you're tipsy. You just go downhill and eventually you're there. It's the same if you want to go from Galata Tower to Beyoğlu. I'm only at Galata Tower when tourist friends are visiting, so while they're going around and around the top of the tower snapping pictures, I look out to find a tall Beyoğlu landmark, and plan which street to take when we get back down. I like when friends come here as tourists because I get to go sightseeing to places I'd never go back to otherwise. The walk from Galata Tower to Beyoğlu is really nice. It's fun, and you get to take the tourists around some backstreets they may not have braved themselves. It's usually pretty easy because you just head downhill, so even if you're kind of lost, as long as you're going down, it usually ends up okay.

Once when my parents were visiting, they got lost making this walk. I was on my way to Taksim to meet them, and had jumped off the dolmuş well before the square so I could go up to a Tünel sidestreet where I knew there was a man with a cart who sold small stone animals, and I wanted to buy a little gift for BE, who was doing his military service at that time. It was kind of random where I jumped off. I mean, I knew were I wanted to go but not exactly. Luckily for my folks, I got off the dolmuş less than 100 feet from where they were standing and looking around nervously wondering what to do. I took them up to Tünel with me to find the man with the small stone animals, and when I found him, they were duly impressed. Another time, some friends of my father's cousin were here. They turned out to be great tourists, and really fun people to hang out with. Lucky for me, because as I was taking them on a backstreet adventure from Galata Tower, even with the downhill thing, I got us completely lost. They were still reeling from the views from the tower, where you can catch little glimpses of people's lives from the stuff on their roof terraces, and the woman was a photographer. They had a pretty good sense of humor when I told them I was lost and it was taking much longer to reach Beyoğlu than I thought it should, but I was maintaining my faith in going downhill. My tourist friends were still happily pointing out curiosities and snapping photographs. The streets started getting narrower and more shadowy, and the ubiquitous guys sitting on stools on the sidewalks started looking more suspicious than curious, then they just became disconcertingly expressionless. I had definitely led us to somewhere we weren't supposed to be. This was confirmed when a car passed in front of us and two young men ran by shooting at it with small pistols, then ran past us up the hill. The guys on stools hardly reacted at all (very odd for Istanbul, as you can draw a crowd just by looking up for a little while, and if you stay long enough, people on the fringes of the crowd are likely to get into an argument), while the man in the car just got out, inspected the damage, looked up the road where the gunmen had run off, blinked a couple of times, then drove away.

About ten minutes later, I found the street I wanted in Beyoğlu and we decided to stop for a cup of tea. We chatted about nothing for a few minutes, then started wondering if that shooting thing had really happened. I get that feeling a lot here, wondering if something actually just happened. Fortunately my tourists friends found it more exciting than scary, and they still trusted me to take them out for dinner. As parents, they recommended I not tell mine about the incident till I was safely at home in the US, but I think I did anyway just so it wouldn't reach my dad through the family grapevine.

Gunmen, tired-eyed whores for every taste peeking through lace curtains, small stone animal sellers... I've probably had the least adventurous times than most people on Istanbul backstreets. To be honest, I'm kind of a chicken. I know there's a whole life there, a whole world that doesn't even touch me, not something so mundane as a criminal element (though that's there too), but something else entirely that neither I nor the petty thieves, pimps, or foreign mafia can even scratch the surface of. Even if I went slumming it in some backstreet region, found a few friends and thought I was participating in that life, I'd be nothing more than someone hanging on the fringes. Below the surface of Istanbul, in the places where people like me don't really go, there's something so ancient, so alive, and so very very foreign.


melissa said...

This was a great post! I loved reading it.

siobhan said...