This material is from one of my small decomposition notebooks (always on me) and my journal (not always on me).
October 2, 2015
Enroute to Istanbul from Paris–Air France flight 1590
40,000 Feet Above sea Level
I can’t see very well out of the window (I’m in an aisle seat), but I suspect we are flying over the Alps into and across Italy on our way to one of the most storied cities on earth. I have some vague idea of what Istanbul may be like – big, modern, bustling, exotic. I know I have wanted to visit for as long as I can remember, probably going back to grade school when, as a then devout Catholic, I took a liking to the Roman Emperor after whom the city was once named–Constantine–because he changed world history by making Christianity an acceptable religion to all of the Roman Empire 1600 years ago. We are still feeling the reverberations of that decision today. The name was changed from Constantinople to Istanbul, in the 1920s when the modern Turkish state was born out of the remnants of the old Ottoman Empire after World War I. The Ottomans had ruled the region one way or another since the fall of the Eastern Roman Empire in the 15th-century or thereabouts.
The recorded history of the city goes back at least 3000 years. It makes London and Paris adolescent by comparison. I can’t wait to explore it with Cyndy, breathe it in, soak it up. By the time we arrive we will have been traveling 18 hours – it’s a long haul and I am exhausted, and have only had a poor excuse for a nap on this flight. I don’t fall asleep as easily on airplanes as I used to. That this jet is cramped and full (they are always full now) doesn’t help. My long legs rebel, my feet search for open-space and my mind jumps and wanders among the endless concerns and ideas and desires that it is so talented at conjuring–the kids, work, books, finances, trips and planning for events that haven’t yet taken place.
Plane food (and plain food) are arriving so, for now, I must arrest my scribbling.
October 3, 2015
La Casa Pera Lofts
Taksim, Istanbul, Turkey
65° – clear
As I write this I am looking out our window across the Golden Horn onto the Old City of Istanbul, the original hill where Greek settlers over 3000 years ago began to create the city a Byzantium which, in time, became Constantinople, the seat of the Eastern Roman Empire, which 1500 years ago became the seat of the Ottoman Empire and today houses (more or less) 16 million humans of every conceivable stripe. I think we may have seen everyone of them today as Cyn and I set out from our little( quite modern and very comfortable) apartment for the 21st century version of the old settlement, and its great monuments: the Roman cistern, Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, Egyptian Obelisk and Hippodrome, to mention just a few.
I have never seen a city with so many people – not New York, LA, London or Paris. True I haven’t been to Sao Paulo, Mexico City, Tokyo, Mumbai, or Beijing (though Beijing will come soon)–the super cities, thick with humanity. Still, the ubiquity and density of the human beings here– walking streets, eating food, bustling from shop to shop; sprawling networks of bridges, streets, vast waterways filled with buses, trams, trains and ships in turn filled with our brother and sister Homo sapiens forces on you the realization that we all have so much in common and yet each of us lives in a bubble of our own mental and emotional creation. We are, all of us, nodes in a vast network made up of each of our minds, one reaching out tentatively, forcefully, intimately, casually with the others around it — something like a giant brain.
Despite these numbing numbers, I saw very little anger or unkindness. Really none at all, which is an astounding statement when you consider how many fellow humans Cyndy and I encountered today one way or another. True, there were some con artists who tried to talk us into stopping by “their uncle’s” restaurant after obligingly informing us — in great detail — about the construction and history of the Blue Mosque, Istanbuls most celebrated house of Muslim worship. (The scam is you go to the restaurant, order a few cups of tea and a dish or two and then get walloped with a huge bill while sitting in the place surrounded by the “family.”) But even these men were charming and not pushy or in anyway nasty. Politeness, smiles, patience with our English, or bumbling Turkish abounded, and, in time, we eventually found our way back to our cozy, if temporary home.
Quick thoughts and observations about Istanbul as we prepare to depart for Venice…
October 6, 2015
Istanbul Ataturk International Airport
Observed on the ride back to the airport after five days in Istanbul … Hills filled with old, yet young, crumbling buildings, stacked like broken crockery around soaring mosque turrets. Off in the distance you can spy the Hagia Sophia. Stunning beyond words.… (see video),
Miles from one end to the other, an ancient fortress’ ancient walls-upon-walls border the Golden Horn road and the 12 lane highway we hit exiting the city as it curves over the high hills towards Istanbul International where we will board our jet to Venice. Behind it’s immovable, ancient walls sit new apartments beside buildings already crumbling after only a few decades on Earth, the collapsing evidence of our modern and not very sustainable ways.
Fish By the Wharf
In the city a few days earlier along the banks of the Golden Horn we ate sandwiches stuffed with fish along with thousands of others who did the same. Fresh onions and shredded lettuce– no condiment. That catches came right out of the river onto an Ottoman knock-off boats piled with grills onto which the fish were chopped and cooked and delivered to the servers who slapped them down between two chunks of bread then handed them to you to stuff into your gaping maw, a pleasurable challenge if ever there was one. Price two Turkish lira.
Under the canopies, beyond the servers, customers crowd around tiny square tables on minuscule chairs with a sandwich in one hand and pickled vegetables and olives submerged in a cup of brine in the other. Cyndy and I couldn’t find a seat among those tables so we walked out among the hundreds of people who seem, constantly, to be in the plaza along the wharf devouring the fish. They rotate in, just like us; talk, laugh, gesticulate, consume and then move onto to whatever the day has to offer them next,
Before sitting down we bought a couple cups of fresh pomegranate juice, pressed by hand by an exceedingly patient, short and expressionless man with thick black curls and lines deep as plow furrow in his slim cheeks. He slashed the top from each pomegranate, placed it carefully in the juicer and with his right hand pulled the little machine’s lever to extract the last dribble of liquid; all the fruity seeds held within. The results were cool, deep red and tart. And above all refreshing.
The Hagia Sofia
Two things struck me about the Hagia Sophia–it’s immensity and its history. Together they made this place truly awe inspiring. Even today the dome within the building is stupendous, but to think that it was constructed 1500 years ago and still stands!That requires serious reflection; a true appreciation of the place’s magnificence. To engineer such a structure that far back in time made this edifice the definitive statement of power, which is, of course, precisely what Justinian, the Roman Emperor, intended when he nearly bankrupted his sprawling kingdom building it.
People when they enter this place must have quite literally gone weak in the knees-especially if they understood even a little the complex geometry that had to be fathomed to create it–the colossal dome distributing its weight on the four muscular columns beneath it that run from the ground up to the dome base. How, precisely, the builders managed to piece together the enormous blocks of the dome without the massive undertaking collapsing on them is beyond me. (See the video below as I enter the church.)
On Legendary Iskitlal Street
This is one of the storied, main drags of Istanbul, located in the city’s Taksim District. Hip, chaotic, an incessant, never-ending stream of people of all kinds shuffling, striding, marching down the cobblestones past shop after restaurant after store café and bar. Goodies are everywhere — Durnamasi, turkish ice cream, which is a kind of mash up of Hagen Daas and Turkish taffy; pastries and every kind of exotic sweet from candied dates to dense cuts of baklava. Electronics stores, bookstores, flower and jewelry emporiums, an occasional Starbucks, but mostly local or regional stores with vast pictures of Turkish models gazing at you out of the big shop windows, flourishing Turkish name brands. It’s a big world and conglomerates are ubiquitous, but still not innumerable. It’s good to know we haven’t yet fallen into the hands of one mega-corporation that runs the whole world, though it sometimes feels that way.
The language barrier in Turkey is considerable if you happened to have been raised speaking English. Syllables fall differently off the Turkish tongue than they do this side of the Atlantic. I’m not sure what the mother language of Turkish is, but I’m reasonably sure it’s not romance which is interesting since Constantinople was the seat of the Roman Empire for quite some time. It probably has more in common with Greek and Arabic and Persian than Italian, Spanish, French and English. (Turns out the root language of modern Turkish is Oghuz Turkic which came into the region in the 6th century and is part of a broader Turk tongue spoken by people from Siberia to Azerbaijan. It’s vocabulary, but not its’ grammar, has been influenced by Persian and Arabic.) There’s an occasional word or two that’s familiar–something that shares an ancient Indo-European root with English, like hummus and human, or a modern word that had to be invented in Turkish based on an English expression–“push back” for example (used to warn airline passengers, “we will soon push back from the gate.”), or cell phone. But mostly it’s all an exotic mystery with me inevitably putting the wrong emPHAsis on the incorrect syllABle. It took me a couple of days just to get the words for “thank you” correct. Teşekkür ederim. Though even as I say them now I’m not sure I ever got it exactly right. But the Turkish people were always kind enough to smile and nod their heads when I would make an attempt.
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