Friday, May 25, 2007
Yes, a lot of women covered their heads with scarves but many of them coordinated their scarves with cute, stylie outfits. And while cities and towns blasted the call to prayer five times a day, not everyone actually prayed during those times. Some people were too busy watching Eurovision and hanging out with baklava obsessed girls and boys.
Many people had professional jobs, new technology was everywhere and modern conveniences weren’t hard to find…however, conservative values certainly permeated the culture. Secular yet Islamic, European but not yet a part of the EU, up-to-date yet traditional, the country really was an equal mix of East and West. An image that comes to mind when I think about this curious fusion: Turks sending text messages...to God.
I bid farewell to Mickers who was on a different flight and found my seat on the plane. As we took off, I thought about all the people I had met on the trip, all the delicious food I would miss, and how excited I was to hang up the beautiful silk fabric I had bought at the Grand Bazaar. As the mosques of Istanbul's distinctive skyline faded into the distance, I reclined my seat, kicked off the wedge espadrilles and peeled the last remaining orange.
Upon the recommendation a NYT article that my aunt had sent me, we decided to check out a restaurant called 360. Known for its 360 degree views of the city, it would be the perfect spot for us to gaze down upon all the neighborhoods that we had explored. The place turned out to be quite the scene with a beautiful, young performer walking around in a head-turning dress and white fur coat, singing a saucy jazz number. The host, who seemed to be a player on the Istanbul party circuit complete with pink tinted glasses and a detailed account of the late night scene, recommended that we head out to a place called Club 3 later that evening. Why not? We had to stay up all night anyway since our flights home left at 6 am the next morning.
Club 3 turned out to be quite interesting, with a boxing ring in the center of the dance floor, the purpose of which we never determined. Was it for real boxers? Drunk impromptu boxing? We arrived right before the place started to fill up, but by 2 am all kinds of stylie Turks began pouring through the door. One fabulous boy sporting a tight, sequined Garfield T-shirt insisted on practicing his English with Mickey. Just as we started to ask him about the boxing ring, the entire club stopped dead in its tracks—Turkey’s EUROVISION song had come on and no one was going to miss a WORD.
Background: The Eurovision Song Contest is an annual competition held among member countries of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU). Each country submits a song to be performed on live television and then casts votes for the other countries' songs to determine the most popular song in the competition. The contest has been broadcast every year since its inauguration in 1956 and is one of the longest-running television programs in the world. It is also one of the most-watched non-sporting events on the planet, with audience figures as high as 600 million internationally.
To demonstrate our solidarity, Mickey and I shook it to “Shake it Up, Shake it in,” which we, too, were starting to know by heart. Considering we still couldn’t speak any Turkish, I decided this would be our way of showing the Turks how much we loved them. Before we knew it, it was time to head to the airport…and the boxing hadn’t even started!
Recommendation: Play Turkey’s EUROVISION song. The video flashes pics of all the places I've talked about. And now you, too, can get this song stuck in your head.
Thursday, May 24, 2007
Soon enough, I was back in Istanbul where I met up with an elated Mickey. He was thrilled to have been reunited with his luggage and had been palling around with two lassies he met on a Bosporus River cruise. Clad in the clean, "I'm-traveling-in-a-mostly-homophobic-country-but-I-can-still-be-cute,-God-damnit" clothes he had packed for the trip, he could not have been in better spirits.
While we were separated, 'ole Mickers had developed a new theory: that the holy call to prayer that blares every day, five times a day from microphones stationed in the mosque towers (minorettes) across Turkey is simply a voice recording. “You know, like when you're IM-ing with someone from an airline web site who answers your questions, but that 'person' is really just a computer offering predetermined answers," he explained thoughtfully after several glasses of wine. “I bet the mosques just play the same audio prayer each time so people will think that someone’s up there in the tower leading them in a heartfelt distinct devotion. Or maybe they rotate through a set of five recordings? Either way, they'd be smart to record and recycle."
The next stop was the bathing room. Here, a battalion of notably large and shockingly strong female bath attendants dressed in black, one-piece bathing suits lathered, massaged, and exfoliated their naked patrons with a loofah pad that could have removed the paint from a school bus with a few swift circular swipes. I was so concerned with the fact that my new tan was being scrubbed off (damn!) that I forgot all about the fact that I was laid out naked before a queue of onlookers, sliding around on a raised marble platform in a mix of soapy bubbles.
Before I knew it, I was being shampooed, rinsed, combed, and shuffled into the tea room. There, I pulled out my brand new knickers from the pocket of my plaid towel-robe, put them on as directed, and tried to register what had just happened. The whirlwind experience felt like something between Dorothy and crew's experience in the Emerald City salon...and going through a human car wash. I was certainly left rattled and a bit dazed, but, man, was my skin soft.
Sipping an apple tea, I thought about how glad I was that I wasn't being evaluated while naked. It’s not that I suffer from debilitating body shame or embarassment around other naked women. After all, the Madison, NJ YMCA was my second home for 9 years of my life...and we all know there's no such thing as modesty in those locker rooms--they may as well be brothels. Plus, I now live in San Francisco where "clothing optional" applies to everything from city parades to street fairs to club dance floors. It’s that the hamams play a dual role in Turkish culture, according to the hotel manager at my Fethiye hotel who gave me the 411 on the local dating scene one night.
According to my local informant, many Turks still practice arranged marriages which are set up by the families of the unwed twenty-somethings. Since the main community focal points are the mosques (where matchmaking efforts would be inappropriate) and the hamams, the hamams function not only as a means for people to relax and bathe, but also as a place for women to identify potential wives for their unwed male family members.
Call me bashful, but the idea of a suitor’s mother scrutinizing me in such a situation is a little unsettling. It’s hard enough to impress a potential mother-in-law when it comes to your behavior at her holiday dinner table, let alone in the departments of Body Mass Index and personal grooming. What exactly are the older woman looking for anyway? Diligent waxers? Tight tummies? Unorthodox body art?
And how do these moms know what their sons are into? I tried to imagine a Turkish son reminding his mom that it was his older brother, Mustafa, who was into great racks and that he was way more of an ass man. “Okaaaay, Ali" she'd respond knowingly. "Now run off to the mosque, and I’ll see if any sweet booty shows up today.”
Wednesday, May 23, 2007
Half way into our meal of fresh honeycomb, a selection of local cheeses and delicious curried eggs, I realized that we’d implanted ourselves into a Turkish version of The Four Seasons. Surrounding us were women clad in fabulous Miami-wear, looking like they had been personally outfitted by "Uli" from Project Runway. And there I was, my hairstyle courtesy of the bus headrest, my red sneakers caked in dirt from Cappadocia and my fingernails died an unmistakable shade of orange. Meanwhile, Mickey had been wearing the same shirt and pants for almost a week at this point and had lost his razor. To provide some context, I'd say we were both strong zeros on the continuum of propriety.
Just when I thought we could slip out without causing yet another scene, Mickey asked for the check and was told that our bill was 280 New Turkish Lira, the equivalent of US $210. The server must have seen the shocked look on our faces, which prompted him to write down the total for our review.
We should have known by that point that Turks have a difficult time with money conversions as they’re still getting used to their new currency (the New Turkish Lira) which was introduced in 2005. The old currency was also called "Lira" but had six more zeros for every one unit. For example, 1 New Lira equals 1,000,000 Old Lira.
On the spot currency calculations communicated in English as a second language are enough to confuse most locals, understandably. Having offered to pay for my meal, Mickey looked relieved as he fished a mere 28 Lira out of his wallet.
The market was tremendously colorful and completely hectic. Hundreds of vendors were selling everything from pocket knives to cloves of garlic still attached to the root. They yelled out to potential customers as children chased one another through the crowded walkways and shoppers chatting enthusiastically as they strolled arm and arm through the seemingly endless vegetable section. Despite all the action, we couldn’t seem to blend in. Visual: Britney, Justin and K-Fed hunted by the Turkish paparazzi.
Since Mickey and I would be taking an overnight bus to Antalya that left a couple hours later, I thought it would be a good idea to buy some fruit for our journey. I spotted an orange stand and asked the vendor for two oranges by means of holding up two fingers and smiling. He nodded and handed me a humongous bagful. I attempted to explain that I only wanted two oranges, which prompted him to point to a Turkish sign that included precisely one word I could recognize: “kilo.” Apparently, you can only purchase fruit and veggies by the kilo at this market. Not wanting to attract any more attention, I managed a defeated “Tea, sugar and a dream,” and walked away, lugging the 2 kilo bag.
Thinking about how sticky all those oranges would be on the bus ride, I bought what I thought to be a pack of baby wipes, perfect for cleaning up while on the go. Upon further investigation, the purchase turned out to be a baby diaper, which I hoped was not an omen for the 10 hour trip ahead. As we headed out of town, Rob asked if I thought we’d be on the local evening news, like on E! celebrity sightings. I imagined the headline, “Three suspected Americans attended the bazaar today, purchasing one towel, 2 kilos of oranges and a baby diaper. Their intentions were unclear.”
The next several days were spent in Cappadocia, checking out a collection of intriguing rock formations. According to Rob, “that shit is dope” and I’d have to agree. The way the layers of sediment settled and eroded resulted in towering rock formations known as The Fairy Chimneys. However, they may soon be known by another name once our pictures get around the Castro crew of San Francisco.
We also checked out incredible mountainside cave dwellings and underground cities carved out of rock. Apparently, the people of Cappadocia would retreat into mountain caves when under attack, recreating their world complete with prayer rooms, wine making facilities and even a morgue. (Picture the caves that were shown on TV all the time during the search for Bin Laden except filled with festive Turks rather than suspected terrorists). After crouching his six foot body in order to wind through the lengthy maze of underground tunnels, Mickey wanted to know if the former cave dwellers suffered from bad backs. Somehow, this humorous inquiry was lost on our guide, who stood a five foot five.
As we continued to explore Cappadocia, I was relieved to see that my two pals seemed to be getting along famously. At one point, I overheard them trading relationship battle stories. Rob was outraged at the way Mickey’s last boyfriend ended their relationship and Mickey agreed that too much foundation makes girls look trashy. It seemed like the next step would be for them to plan a joint dinner party…and then the topic of rent control reared its head. Let’s just say that Mission affordable housing activists and mortgage brokers don’t see eye to eye on this one. Luckily, the conversation was interrupted by a group lunch consisting of lentil soup and lamb kebabs. Before no time, Mickey and Rob were swapping bites of desert. Rice pudding really should advertise as the opiate of the masses. Kozy Shack could make a killing.
That night, we went to sleep in our cave hotel (yes, the hotel rooms were carved into an actual mountain, just like the real caves from hundreds of years ago). Rob described the place as “pimp” and Mickey was just glad that the owner happened to have some packaged socks and underwear that he was willing to part with. And me? I was deep in thought about Jim Henson's Fraggles. Didn’t they live in caves like this or was that the Gummy Bears? Yes, Fraggles lived in caves…and Gummies lived in trees…and Smurfs in mushroom villages. I fell asleep that night with all three themes songs in my head.
Following his surprisingly kickass tour, we hung out at a café where I had a Turkish coffee and he ordered apple tea. (For those of you in SF, I brought some home. You MUST try it!!) Sipping my grainy drink, I apologized for having forgotten how to say thank you in Turkish. “Oh that’s easy,” he explained. “It’s tesekkür ederim, which sounds like ‘tea, sugar and a dream’ to you English speakers. And if I were up on my fortune telling techniques, I’d look at the leftover grounds of your coffee and tell you which of your dreams will come true.”
I thought to myself how annoyed I’d be if an American guy EVER proposed reading me the remains of my soy latte on the corner of Valencia and 16th over the noisy beeping of his blackberry. Yet somehow in Turkey, in the shadow of an ancient mosque above a lantern lit cistern, the scenario was nothing short of majestic.
I continue to have difficulty accepting that buildings like this were conceived and erected before AutoCad and jackhammers were part of the construction process. No wonder all the statues of Greeks and Turks feature such nicely defined muscles—that marble must have weighed a ton (or whatever measuring system they used back then). Note to self: find some marble to lift.
The building that got me to think the most, however, was Topkapi Palace. Home of multiple Turkish sultans and supporting “staff,” this place struck me as the 17th Century’s equivalent of The Playboy Mansion with a twist of dysfunctional orphanage—kind of like if Hugh Heffner rather than Daddy Warbucks had adopted Orphan Annie…but in Turkey and in the 1500’s. Upon Lonely Planet’s recommendation, I purchased the audio tour and cruised around the Palace grounds, learning about the lives of the former residents of this impressive compound (up to 500 people lived here at any one time).
Some audio tour quotes:
“Directly in front of you is a stone pit. At the time of Sultan so and so (too hard to remember which Sultan since there were A LOT), this pit was filled with water and functioned as the Palace swimming pool. During parties, it was common for dwarfs to perform fire dances on small boats for the Sultan and his associates.”
“To your left is the eunuchs’ quarters. The eunuchs played an important role at the Palace as they were responsible for running the day to day business and educating the Sultan’s concubines about history, art and palace etiquette. As you may know, the eunuchs were males who had been kidnapped from Africa and whose testicles had been removed, allowing them to remain focused on their duties at the palace.”
“Welcome to the bath house and note the window above you. It was here that the Sultan’s harem would come to wash and gossip about palace life. From the window, the sultan would spy on them, learning key information about his empire.”
There’s SO much more I want to know about this royal scenario. Like, were the concubines friends with the dwarfs, perhaps splashing around in the pool with them between “private” sessions with the sultan? And were the eunuch’s bitter about being dismembered all for the sake of educating the concubines about the right shoe to wear to the pool parties? And what was the harem gossiping about—whose head scarf was the most fashion forward? If MTV’s Real World had been around back then, the goings on in this group home would have been riveting!
Tuesday, May 22, 2007
I was slightly relieved to learn that even if it had been warm enough to wear sandals, I wouldn’t have been able to manage them due to the uneven cobblestone that lines the city’s streets. Clearly the ancient Turks didn’t have this season’s wedge espadrilles in mind when selecting their charming pavers. While enjoying an apple hookah, I told myself that practicing form over fashion would be a good exercise.
While trying to determine when exactly I had developed this technology-reliant anxiety, I thought about the way my friend Brad and I met up back in ’97 before traveling through Europe for the summer. The master plan consisted of “Go to the Sagrada Familia church in Barcelona every day for three days at 9 in the morning and 9 at night until we find one another. OK?” If this failed, the foolproof backup plan was to buy Spanish phone cards and call my mom in NJ to relay some sort of instructional message, banking on the fact that she’d be home at the very minute we each placed our call. I was 20 years old at the time, had never traveled on my own and I remember thinking this plan was genius…and it pretty much was.
Despite the lack of incessant cell phone communication, Rob and I met up exactly as planned. After making our first withdrawals of colorful New Turkish Lira, we set out for our hostel. Note: Turkish money does not fit in American wallets. We exited the airport….and what was this? It was COLD outside?! My visions of lingering evenings spent at outdoor cafes in sundresses and sandals came to a screeching halt. Maybe I’d have to wear a head scarf after all…just to keep warm. I texted Mickers, who was to arrive four days later, and told him to bring a sweater for sure. He wrote me right back, “Will pack orange cashmere!”
Rob and Mickey were the only two friends to reply to my email entitled “Who wants to come to Turkey next week?” with comments other than “Yeah right” or “as if,” and now they would both be joining me on the trip. What fun! Rereading the unexpected contents of this exciting gmail message, I exhaled in relief realizing that I had narrowly avoided yet another “You’re going where by yourself?” interrogation from my mom and dad who maintain the deluded fantasy that I would enjoy spending time at package deal resorts a la Dirty Dancing. The idea of a “safe environment for single women” fuels this painful reoccurring suggestion. Well, look what happened to Baby and her sister—a botched abortion for one and, for the other, a scandalous older boyfriend who dirty danced for a living. Touche!
At the time I learned that both boys would be joining me on the trip my life was fraught with the supreme chaos that surrounds leaving one job and beginning another. Amidst the frenzy of file hand offs and W-2 forms (or is it W-4?), it hadn’t occurred to me to think through the potential dynamic of my fellow travelers, one somewhat gritty and the other rather fabulous. Panic struck at my desk as I imagined violent arguments breaking out upon the shores of the Sea of Marmara over such questions as which Turkish bath house we’d go to—gay or straight? Oh God...
In an attempt to maximize my time off between jobs, my final work calls were conducted “off site.” Seated at a trashy bar at Newark Airport, I sipped a celebratory glass of Syrah, hoping an overhead announcement wouldn’t divulge my whereabouts. (I knew the perils of such practices as my friend EJ once called in sick to work from the airport, right before boarding a morning flight. Following a flawless fake cough, he launched into a convincingly strained voicemail message reporting the unfortunate details of a bad flu…only to be interrupted by a final boarding call over the loudspeaker for “all passengers headed to Vegas!” Ouch.)
My calls were a success and with a fresh New Yorker in hand (hoping for Jack Handy in the Shouts and Murmurs section), I boarded my flight…30 minutes before the official end of my last work day. I swear I felt extremely guilty about this and had relayed the conflicting logistics to a friend the week before, half hoping to receive the scolding that I knew I deserved. “Whatevs” she responded. Note to self: attempt to get some more responsible friends.
Tuesday, May 1, 2007
The highlight of this trip home was visiting the theatre where A Chorus Line is now playing, which just happens to be my all time favorite Broadway musical. My friend Kyle (the one who thought my Aussie crocodile photo was taken in the wild) works as a dresser for the show and gave me a backstage tour of the theatre when no one was there! I got to put on one of the Singular Sensation hats and stand on the stage, looking out the sea of empty seats. I'm now sort of regretting not performing a smashing rendition of "Tits and Ass" for Kyle, but something tells me he wouldn't have fully appreciated it.
For the next 2 weeks, I'm going to be "in between jobs" but I swear I really do have a job that bookends the latter part of the in between stage. More on that to come. And before the new job starts, I'm going on a trip...to Turkey! I'm envisioning endless cups of muddy coffee, an overwhelming selection of exciting kebabs, whirling dervishes, colorful spice bazaars, ancient mosques, marble baths houses and ideally lots of killer mustaches...but who knows.
The plan is that I'll be meeting up with my friend Mickey (of skate marathon fame) and another friend Rob in Istanbul and we'll head down the coast together (see above map). I'm not sure if I'll be able to update this site from there, but we'll see. Stay tuned.
OK, Off to Constantinople, I mean Istanbul...