For those of you who've been following my very quiet blog of late, please be aware that I've done some restructuring and even bought my own domain name. Check out www.katebloomer.com to see the newest blogs.
I spent most of the past year trying to recover from the travel bug. Not in the sense that I was eager to get on the road again, rather I was keen to stay in one place, to feel grounded. Add the fact that after forking out vast sums of hard earned cash to fund my globe trekking and had run out of travel funds (well, funds generally), I didn’t see much opportunity or need to gallivanting off on any more walkabouts. So, I have been surprisingly sedentary over the past nine months, taking trips across the border when necessary and venturing home twice, packing industrial sized suitcases in an attempt to transport the entire contents of my closet across the Atlantic Ocean and European continent.
The style pages of W Magazine and a year working at Conde Nast would endeavor to persuade any girl that a wardrobe does a woman make. But despite the bulging closets, immobility and the regularity of life was disheartening.
It was for that reason that in November, I’d just about had it with Istanbul. It wasn’t the people or the environment – just a strange sense of claustrophobia. The high of the summer had worn off and the transition to winter was tainted with low menacing skies, dark clouds bearing down on the tops of the cities hills. The open rooftop cafes and terrace bars were covered over and access to the grand expanse of the Istanbul skyline was lost to a haze of cigarette smoke in dark pubs. Even the warm wool sweaters and scarves of winter hung heavily as I trudged away in a habituated pattern towards winter.
I’ve never experienced autumn this way. In the past it was a season I look forward to, for it was the season that brought about the most change. Despite the fact that it meant the return to school, homework, and occasional all-nighters, it was always an opportunity to reinvent and start fresh.
I spent most of my college years chasing change. I found myself fleeing from commitment to any particular institution, and it took a year at Newcastle University, a year at Boston University, and a year working for Conde Nast before I’d flitted about enough to buckle down and finish my final two years of higher education in one place. But autumn was always the detonating time, setting off a flurry of activity and a sense of anticipation.
But this year there would be no such thrill as the colder months rolled in. And despite the beautiful Indian summer we were experiencing in Istanbul, and the excitement of an impending trip home, I was finding it hard to stay positive about the city. I muddled through October and November with a sense of gloom and dissatisfaction, eagerly anticipating Thanksgiving and a return to the states. I had all but booked tickets to check out for good by March or April, looking forward to a spring in a new environment. Breathe in new air, explore and understand new surroundings, and get high on the fumes of change.
Strangely though, after two weeks in U.S., I returned to Istanbul refreshed and exhilarated. It was completely instinctive, much the same you might experience getting off a train at Grand Central station in New York. There, the rush of energy flows forth from a thousand heeled shoes and loafers on marble, reverberating through the arches and sparking all who enter its halls with a New York dynamism. The bustle of Taksim Square at rush hour has a similar effect. I stepped off the bus revitalized, sucking down the fresh exhaust of a hundred taxis and buses sitting in perpetual traffic, tasting oily doner kebabs and roasted chestnuts on the air, buzzing with the commotion. I lugged my 50 pound suitcase all the way home, down the bumpy streets of Cihangir, narrowly dodging taxis and stray cats, and listening as the street-side knife sharpener and the junk-trolley-man yell incoherently over taxi horns and screeching breaks. The familiar had aroused a deep satisfaction that had been lost before. I couldn’t wait to climb up to my cozy tree house apartment and say hello to Percy the resident seagull, take in the view, and like the current on the Bosporus, like the feet at Grand Central station, and the rising exhaust from the cars in Taksim square, move.
My roommate lives by the motto, “don’t settle.” Don’t settle on a job you don’t like. Don’t stay in one place for too long. Life gets boring when we fall into routine. Familiarity becomes easy, and we forget to challenge ourselves, to take initiative and to explore the endless options set out before us. Change becomes scary, and we shy away from opportunities because what we have seems satisfactory, even if it isn’t. The more we challenge and expose ourselves, the more we learn, and the more addictive it becomes. I often return to the words that brought me here in the first place, which inspired me then and continue to today: “concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too.” Once we’ve taken the initiative, more opportunities arise, inspiring and coercing us to keep moving, keep progressing, keep changing. Our lives become all the more fulfilled.
Third Eye Blind once told me “you've got to steal time from the life that's passing by,” and it’s true. I believed I’d done enough just by moving here. But that was only the beginning, and the clock keeps ticking. I won’t be in Istanbul forever, and this dynamic and vibrant city is on the verge of such monumental changes that it will never be the same again. We only have the present.
It is with great excitement and anticipation that I offer the trailer for my upcoming film, Game, starring Abhishek Bachchan, Kangna Ranaut, and Sarah Jane Dias.
Perhaps I'll be lucky enough to find some some extremity or another is in view for the cameras for at least a tenth of a second.
Back in March, when I arrived in the city, I described how happy I felt to be settled. And there is something to be said for a closet full of clothes, a bathroom full of toiletries, and a pillow that doesn't feel like it's stuffed with newspaper. But on the other hand, the trouble with settling down after six months of heightened senses, emotional extremes, and unforeseen challenges, is that stationary life seems so terribly Dull & Boring.
So, I am looking for the charm in monotony. Not in the blare of my alarm, or the repeating songs on my iPod as I make my way to work. But in the familiar faces, smells, and sights that I look forward to every day.
In the morning, on my way to work in Kadikoy, on the Asian side, I walk through a small Otopark next to the Kilic Ali Pasa Mosque, where cars are beginning to fill the lot. The proprietor, in a tattered green overcoat and gloves, is directing traffic or collecting money, but he always stops to say “gunaydin” (good-morning). His dark, weather beaten face and scruffy chin contorts into a joyful dimpled smile, half hidden by the upturned collar of his coat. Often he urges me to join him for cay and biscuits in his small shack, where the TV wavers colorfully, but I’m usually late for the ferry so I run past with a wave and a smile.
In the next block, I can’t help slowing down to take in the smell of a tiny bakery, crowded with morning commuters, windows laden with simit and açma. The surrounding pavement is covered in a thin layer of flour, trampled with dirt by shoes on the march. I take a deep breath before moving on. A battered truck is always parked on the corner, overflowing with seasonal produce. Locals and commuters stop to peruse the leeks, pumpkin and celeriac, persimmon, tangerine and pomegranates are prevalent this time of year. The vendor, in thick spectacles and a wool cap, is always doing better business than the supermarket next door, and when I return in the evening his truck has gone. He’s probably sold all his goods and is on his way to gathering tomorrow’s supply.
At the end of the street, I turn a corner and glimpse the water. A line of shoe shiners with their decorative brass boxes are always set up on the sidewalk, sipping tea and waiting for customers. I pass them in my sneakers and they look contemptuous. If I’m early, I watch the ship make a smooth turn to dock as I walk, the deckhands grapple with the worryingly frayed (but reassuringly thick) green ropes that clutch the vessel to the shore, and maneuver planks for disembarking passengers (many of whom have already made a calculated jump to the wharf). Usually though, I’m not. Instead, I fight against the current of discharging commuters to the ticket gates.
On the ferry I make my way to the second floor, where the view is better. I remove my hat, gloves, jacket, and scarf, breathe in seawater and aging wood and sink into the maroon bench of faux leather, the filling sculpted by countless Turkish (and now at least one American) bottoms. I pull out a book but am always too distracted by the scenery to pay much attention. The restless water, kaleidoscopic blue and trafficked with fishing boats, commuter ferries and freighters. The curved domes and pointed turrets of Topkapi. The stark angles and bold colors of cranes and containers at Haydarpasa shipyard. Apartment blocks, built on the rising hills of Kadikoy stare out across the strait with a thousand square and curtained eyes. The rooftops of Cihangir slope dramatically, a jagged stairway of terra cotta tiles descending to the shore. The weather patterns dance across the horizon, the clouds shifting and the light glinting. It feels like only moments before the ferry berths gracefully and we pour out onto the pier.
I walk through the market, past an ancient man in a long graying apron. He lovingly examines his lettuce, pulling away browning leaves and arranging the heads on his stall. He organizes tomatoes and lemons in neat rows, and stacks onions and oranges into perfect pyramids. We look at each other knowingly, but won’t crack a smile. Further on, the apothecary is setting up, pulling up the metal grate in front of his shop and bringing out baskets of olive oil soaps and loofahs, herbal teas and dried fruits, strings of herbs which he hangs from the awning. Down the hill, the tall, bearded owner of a small junk shop in nods his head and smiles from his seat in an old armchair. He places it on the street, a crumbling relic of faded silk, orange foam spilling from a torn seam, and sits awkwardly, long legs sticking up crookedly as he watches passersby. His other wares are much the same. All have seen better days, badly upholstered chairs stacked on old linoleum desks, rusty stove tops aside chipped porcelain lamps.
I’ve almost reached the office by now, just a quick walk along the boardwalk, where a crusty seaman has emerged from his cabin on a tiny boat and made tea on deck, lazily stringing his fishing pole. The stray cats meander towards the smell of raw fish, gathering where a heap of carcasses has been piled alongside his craft. I wrinkle my nose at the stench and hurry by to my office door to let the day begin, and leave the visions of streetscapes outside.
On the clammiest days of summer through the howling winds of the fall, the moments I have spent observing the day to day life of this city’s inhabitants never ceases to peak my curiosity. I only get a tiny window into their lives, but I feel I know them somehow, as they carry out their routine, much like I do.
Until quite recently, another constant in my commute is the sight of paper thin book with a vibrant pink floral cover entitled True Love. Strange enough that the same English title was seen so often when I took the return ferry to Karakoy. The fact that it was being read by a man in his mid-twenties was even more puzzling. Over the next few months, the book consistently entered my line of vision, becoming more and more decrepit each time it was pulled out of the pocket of his oversized black wool coat. And somewhere within that period, its timid reader gathered up the courage to tap me on the shoulder as we were disembarking and muster up an awkward “hello.” I noticed the thin, childlike smile that made his eyes squint, and his small, fumbling hands, both awkward and gentle. He didn’t say another word for several months, just perched behind his pink paperback somewhere in my sightline, smiling excitedly when he caught my eye. He became a part of my daily routine. A familiar face in the crowd.
In late October as I was rushing off the ferry in the midst of a squall, he tapped me again. He handed me a heavy bag, which upon peering inside appeared to be full of dead leaves. I looked up at him, bewildered.
“This is gift,” he said, “from my home village.”
I love gifts. The fact that a complete stranger had wanted to give me a present (bag of leaves or otherwise), was utterly overwhelming. Excitement and gratitude welled up and I could only muster up an awkward and heartfelt thank you (“cok, cok teşekkür ederim”). He simply nodded fervently and smiled his small smile before turning away and marching into the storm. I skipped away, now unconscious of the wind and rain. Once I’d rounded an inconspicuous corner, I felt safe enough to do a thorough investigation. Upon closer examination, I realized that my bag of apparent foliage actually concealed hidden treasures: tiny brown hazelnuts enveloped in the dried leaves.
Now when I see Ahmet on the ferry, we say hello and share a few (effortful) words, and occasionally walk together till our paths part ways. He's finished his bright pink romance novel, and has moved on to an abridged version of Little Women, which he shows me with pride. It's Advanced Beginner level, and distinctly less pink.
It's nice to have a friend on the ferry, but honestly, I enjoy the moments of solitude on my commute. It's then that I can really taste the pastry dust in the air, admire the gulls skim the choppy water, or smile to myself as the man in the market lovingly caresses his artichokes. These people and places are now so recognizable that without knowing it they take the monontony out of life. Each day I pass by wondering what might be different about the scene that's become so familiar. And each day I find something surprising. Not always as surprising as a bag of hazelnuts, but I live in hope...
...and I have only just uploaded it. Shame!
I left home on 6 October 2010. In the year has that followed, this is where my walkabout took me.
Click the text to expand the image.
Waking up the first morning of Ramadan was, for me, a bit like waking up on Christmas day.
Relating a celebration of fasting and self-denial with one of culinary indulgence and gift-giving might sound a little strange. Let me explain.
First the creeping sense of anticipation. A slow build up over the preceding weeks. The gossip flares up, particularly among the new expats. What will it be like? we all wonder. As if the whole landscape might transform. Maybe it would be fun to try for a day, I think to myself, a Ramadan detox. My secretary tells me she plans to fast, and has been doing so since she was 16. In enthusiasm (and the theory that I need to go on a bikini diet for the following weekend's boat trip), I tell her I'll do a one-day-trial. However I simply cannot fathom how she will manage through a day in the office without food, let alone cook for myself and my boss when she hasn't eaten anything.
For those, like myself, who know little about the holiday, here's a brief introduction. Ramadan is the ninth month in the Islamic calendar. Beginning with the sighting of the cresent moon known as the hilal, usually a day after the new moon, it lasts one full moon phase, ending with the Eid-Ul-Fitr (breaking of the fast) when the hilal moon returns. As such, the date of Ramadan changes yearly. During this time, devout Muslims refrain from both eating and drinking between dawn and sunset, and try to be more pious by praying more and reading the Koran. In order to maintain the fast, they wake up before dawn (and the first call to prayer) to eat a meal called suhoor. They break their fast at Maghrib, the sunset prayer time, with a meal known as Iftar.
A Muslim usually begins fasting when he/she reaches puberty, and continues until old age. The elderly, the chronically ill, and the mentally ill are exempt, although those capable must try to feed the poor in place of fasting. Also exempt are pregnant women and those menstruating, but there are varying opinions on whether they should make up the days at a later time. Travelers are exempt as well, but they too are expected to make up the days they missed.
As the days loomed closer, I couldn't help wondering how it would effect my day to day life in Istanbul, where a statistically 90% of the population is Muslim. Much like at Christmas, I began building expectations about what I would find when I walked downstairs and out into the world. I imagined the streets empty and quiet. Roadside vegetable and simit vendors and small cafes shut in order to dissuade the hungry from breaking their oath. Scruffy old men in berets who rot away the days perched on curbs drinking tea, playing backgammon and watching passersby would be mysteriously absent. People dressed slightly more conservatively, walking a little more slowly. A little less traffic, a little less commotion. Sounded like just the ticket in the midst of the summer swelter.
The first morning of Ramadan (this year the 12th of August) dawned, as with the many days before, hot and muggy. I woke before sunrise to the sound of the drums from the streets below as the Musahar performs a ceremonial wakeup call for the suhoor meal. I considered getting up and breaking my own fast but it was an ephemeral thought as I rolled over and fell back into slumber. Several hours later though, I woke again with a little pang of excitement and rushed to the balcony to peer down into the streets below. Business suits and high heels on the march towards Taksim Square. Waiters at Olivia and Smyrna cafes unstacking chairs, watering plants, sweeping away yesterdays cigarette butts. The smell of fresh bread from the patisserie as it wafted up on the air. From up above the day seemed... pretty much normal. Still, I couldn't wait to rush downstairs and check it out from ground level.
As I walked out the door I realized that "Yuppy Street" might not be the best place to start observing religious behavior. Things would be different when I left my liberal bohemian, expat-centric and emphatically secular neighborhood and venture into Tophane and Karakoy, the more conservative areas on my commute. But the truth was, I found little difference there either. The same men sitting under umbrellas, sipping tea, watching passersby. The vegetable vendor on the corner is doing good business out of the back of his truck, and the exclusive Baklava and pastry shops next to the ferry are hopping with the morning crowd. The newly instituted Starbucks on the pier seems busier than usual. Perhaps all the non-Muslims were out to make a point?
On the ferry the regular cay wallah isn't enthusiastically proffering tea and simits on the back balcony where I take a regular seat. However, young headscarved woman pulls out a pogaci (pastry stuffed with cheese) from her handbag and nibbles at it conspicuously. I do some mental foot stamping. My enthusiasm about this holiday begins to dwindle. Leaving behind the ferry to walk through the market in Kadikoy, the cacophony of merchants cut through the morning air, the smell of fish and meat is still the air. The cafes are still full with the pre-work crowd sipping glasses of cay. No change here. It's like walking down on Christmas morning and not finding any presents under the tree.
When I reach my office I imagine Gul would be fasting. I ask her (or attempt to convey through sign language). She looks at me apologetically. Fasting yok. No fasting. She explains that due to the intense heat (and this August has been one of the hottest and most humid on record) it is not safe for her. This year Ramadan happens to fall in the middle of August, one of the most difficult times not only because of the weather, but also the long summer days which mean an earlier sunrise and later sunset. We sit down together over borek and coffee, and the day goes by like any other. Most of the days following do too, but Ramadan remains a topic of conversation among my friends.
Among the expat community, Ramazan is an opportunity for some cultural tourism. Let's go to an Iftar! is the message twittering among us, I hear there's a great place that does it on the Asian side. Others venture to Sultanahmet to partake in the evening meal. Being one of the most religous places in the city as well as the most touristic (nearby the beautiful Ayasophia and the Blue Mosques), it is a perfect location from which to admire the traditions and take part in the feasting that begins with the sunset call to prayer without feeling like an intruder. I have yet to take part in an Iftar, though I'd like to before the end of Ramadan. Somehow I can't help feeling a little bit guilty at the prospect. Why should I be able to stuff my face with food when most people haven't been able to enjoy breakfast (at a reasonable hour), lunch, dinner and (several) mid-afternoon snacks as well as at least three cups of tea, and a couple coffees. Somehow I'm sure I'll find a way to justify it when the time comes (I'll fast tomorrow sounds like a promising excuse).
Istanbul has even found a way to commercialize this religious tradition by introducing Jazz in Ramadan, where Muslim jazz artists from around the world have come together to perform at famous local sights such as Topkapi Palace and the beautiful Archeological Museum to perform. This is in part as a result of Istanbul's rapidly expanding cultural entertainment scene and the 2010 European Capital of Culture celebrations, but it also serves to prove that Islam is a modern, sophistocated religion and one that has universal forms of expression. Tomorrow evening I will be attending a performance of South African jazz pianist Abdullah Ibrahim and his band.
Ramadan certainly makes a statement in Istanbul, but unlike many other Muslim countries, it is easy to get by without it really affecting your day to day life. Friends arriving from Syria last week said it was practically impossible to get anything to eat in Damascus during the daylight hours. I'm thankful that I can find a simit or a fresh fig on the walk home from work, and not feel guilty for biting into it on the ferry in front of pious half-starved and despairing commuters. I'm thankful that the city has made an effort to integrate the holiday into the culture of the city, inviting those who may not necessarily be Muslim to take part in the celebration that is Ramazan. I'm thankful to be able to witness this holy event that is so integral to so many. I guess that's kind of Christmassy?
Technically, I don't live in Turkey. Like many of my fellow expats, I'm simply a tourist who happens to pay rent and utilities, commutes to Kadikoy every day, and spends time in the same bar on a far-too-regular basis. It's an easy life, being under the radar. Except for one thing. The niggling issue of the visa.
When you enter Turkey, at least as an American or European, you are automatically granted a 90-day tourist visa. And as an "extended tourist" in Turkey, it just becomes second nature to start planning trips out of the country based on when your visa is going to expire (or traveling enough that you never have to concern yourself with running out of time). These departures are affectionately known to us as "border runs." The border patrol seems to have no problem issuing numerous tourist visas to individuals who have come in and out of the country every three months for several years. In fact, I've seen passports that are multi-page canvases of Turkey entry and exit stamps. Ataturk Airport. Kapikule Border. Sabiha Gokcen. Ispsala Border.
I arrived back in Turkey after a trip to the US on May 12. As such, I had until August 10 to get an exit stamp out of the country, acquire a new visa, and reenter under with another 3 months of obscurity under my belt. There are plenty of ways to do a border run, depending on budget, time, and sense of adventure. Knowing I had one approaching soon, at the end of July my friend Lars (a veteran border-runner) and I decided to make a weekend trip out of the country. Returning to my traveling roots, with a slightly more glamorous edge, we booked a cabin in an overnight train to Plovdiv, a little town strategically located in the middle of the Bulgarian countryside, halfway between the Kapikule border crossing and the capital city of Sofia, and planned to stay the weekend in a hotel and check out the city.
From the start the trip looked slightly ominous. Flooding on the tracks outside of Istanbul meant an unexpected two hour bus ride to the next station where the train was waiting. Once onboard, we were informed that despite having paid an extortionate price for the entire cabin, Lars had in fact only booked one bed on the train. After another hour of unpleasant Bulgarian-Russian-Turkish-English banter, it was concluded that we did, in fact, have the whole cabin to ourselves. Fortunately, I did not speak enough Turkish or Russian to be at all useful, and left the Lars in charge. I fell asleep only to be jolted upright several hours later to be shoveled out of the carriage into the cold night and ushered towards an endless queue to have our passports scrutinized and stamped in order to exit the country. We grumbled back to the carriage half an hour later and fell into a sleep with mosquitoes buzzing menacingly above our heads.
I awoke to the sunlight streaming in the window and pulled away the curtain to reveal fields of drooping sunflowers streaming across my sight line. It was a magical way to begin the day. Farm trucks and hay bales, overalls and pitchforks, terracotta tiles and crumbly stone walls. The landscape rolled by for an hour as I sat with my head at the window, hair streaming and a morning cigarette to make the world a little hazy. We rolled into Plovdiv just as the carriage had become uncomfortably hot, and wandered down the street to find our hotel.
When you arrive, Plovdiv seems like a sleepy place, where old, unmarked cars grumble down shady treelined promenades. The rundown buildings are slightly greened with lichen, vines hang down from sagging telephone wires and the pavement is overgrown with tufted grass. has But as you enter the city center, it transforms into something quite quaint and modern. Outdoor cafes line the newly laid cobblestone high street. Benneton and Starbucks gives it a familiar feel for the Western eye while the odd cyrillic language makes you feel like you’re peering at the world through a looking glass. We had lunch in Gusto’s, where we devoured a pizza with proscuitto and real mozzarella (pork and quality cheese are two luxuries not easy to find in Istanbul), drank cheap wine and quality beer, and basked in the surprisingly oppressive heat.
The old town of Plovdiv is romantically set amongst the cities many hills, complete with a 2nd century Roman theatre that stands majestically atop a high hill overlooking the modern city. We spent the afternoon plodding from one cafe to another, trying to stay cool in the shade while simultaneously enjoy the points of interest in city (of which there are apparently 200, I think we managed to find about 10). From antiquity to modernity, there are extraordinary Roman ruins such as the theatre and aqueduct, and beautiful 19th century buildings, such as the Ethnographic Museum and the Church of the Virgin Mary. Mostly though, I was happy to have escaped from the oppressive urban sprawl of Istanbul with a lovely companion.
We hopped on a bus headed back to Istanbul the following day, during which time I should have obtained my new visa and entry stamp. At the border, the bus conductor is supposed to guide you through the process of customs and immigration. At the Bulgarian exit point, we were shuffled into queues to check passports, then driven 500 meters to the Turkish port of entry where we were lined up again to purchase a visa. At this point we all boarded again and I assumed we’d be driven on to the next queue to have our passports stamped.
As we drove away from the duty free shops and lines of cars, fields of sunflowers began passing by across the rolling hills, and I realized we were going a bit far into farm country to be finding ourselves another line for visa stamps. “Lars,” I whispered and nudged him out of napping peacefully the seat next to me, “our passports weren’t stamped.” He looked up at me in a haze of sleep. We’d just stumbled upon a serious conundrum.
To be an extended tourist/illegally employee in Turkey is one thing. To be illegally IN Turkey is another story entirely. According to my passport I could have snuck into the country with the help of Nomadic sheep farmers in order to become a prostitute in Istanbul’s Red Light district. Well...maybe.
The remainder of the ride home Lars and I plotted out how we would deal with the situation. Call our local embassies. Talk to the local passport police. Try the go through customs at the airport. Bribe someone.
And we did. Systematically we checked off each of the options, in between busy work schedules and social lives. And at each place a head wagging Turk who spoke no English at all turned us away to pursue another course of action. These foreigners are not our problem, they seemed to say. But even our local embassies wanted nothing to do with the situation. I received the following email from the US Consulate Visa section:
“It is the individual’s responsibility to check that the police have stamped their passport with the visa. We don’t interfere in immigration issues. Hope this helps.”
No, this does not bloody help.
The passport police sent us to the airport. The airport told us foreign passport center in Aksaray might be able to help (apparently this maze of a building bane of many an expat’s existence). By this point I was completely panic-struck, and the date of my visa expiry was looming ever closer. I realized that the problem could only escalate exponentially if I also managed to overstay my allotted 90-days in the country.
With three days till the expiration, I did the only thing left to do. I got on a bus back to Bulgaria with a hangover and a heavy heart. Four hours later, with the sunflower strewn panorama stretched before my eyes, and the flags of Bulgaria and the EU appearing overhead in the distance, I couldn’t help but be a little bit optimistic. With a beating heart as the bus slowed to a halt and I walked to customs control to hand over my passport. They sent me to the police, who smiled at me with a look of complete understanding, stamped my passport with "Cikis (exit), told me to walk into Bulgaria, turn 180 degrees and walk back into Turkey and get an entry (giris) stamp. It was that easy. Done and dusted.
From there I hitched a ride back to Istanbul with a couple of friendly Turks and a Bulgarian, and spent the next five hours using sign language to try and relay my tale of woe (and its ultimate happy ending). I don’t think they understood, but they were good companions for the long, traffic-filled ride back into the city. I couldn’t believe the burden that I felt lifted from my shoulders as I fell exhausted into bed that evening. Another day well spent, another lesson well learned.
I have suffered moments of nostalgia this week. No matter how good you have it, you can always find something to reminisce fondly about. Especially when you’re sitting in an office, gazing out on a beautiful summer day and wondering why you’re indoors in front of a computer screen.
Suddenly the coffee grinder springs everything back to life. The brim of the wide sunhat twitches. Squinting from behind my lunettes I stare through the window as Mum fills the kettle and puts it on the stove. She pulls out the French Press from one cupboard and the Weetabix from another, the skirt of her flowery yellow sundress dancing as she maneuvers the kitchen. The milk, left out on the counter, she lifts from a puddle of condensation. I wait for her to emerge from the kitchen with a tray of coffee and cereal and the New York Times Magazine. We exchange kiss before she sits down to enjoy her breakfast. But before she can, she promptly gets up to fetch a rag to clean the table, covered in a thin line of green pollen. When she sits again, I turn away and hear nothing but the tinkle of a spoon mixing sugar into coffee, the rustle of the paper being turned, and the groaning of a car engine pulling out of the driveway on the far side of the garden wall. I close my eyes and soak it in.
...today, I saw dolphins. Sigh.
My life seems to revolve around water these days. It begins when my alarm catapults me out of dreamland and I stumble out onto the balcony to gaze out across the Bosphorus. I use this as my weather channel, gauging whether it's sweater weather and if I ought to pack my umbrella for work. Then, after a quick cup of coffee, I begin my commute. I take the steep hill from my apartment in Cihangir, sometimes through town, past bakeries and coffee shops, to watch people begin their day with gozleme and borek. Other days I take a route through the tiny park where an army of stray cats take residence in the wild grass and young school children run feverishly down the path, backpacks swinging precariously over one shoulder. Either way, I arrive at Tophane, where the metro passes with a futuristic whir in front of an aged mosque. I walk to Karakoy, passing deserted, crumbling buildings next to new constructions, taking the cobbled streets to the banks of the Bosphorus. There the waves crash forcefully against the pier and occasionally gather enough strength to surge upwards onto the land.
The ferry sets off from under the bustling Eminonu Bridge with its seafood restaurants and simit vendors, fishermen and makeshift juice stalls. I pass the Golden Horn with its many minarets blooming like flowers from a field of trees. As we navigate the heavy current of the strait, I can make out ships moored in the Marmara, patiently waiting their turn to pass through the narrow thoroughfare into the Black Sea. Tiny fishing boats rock precariously in the wake of the cargo ships that loom over the tiny vessels like storm clouds. We enter the breakwater on the Asian side and pass the cargo port with looming cranes and brightly colored containers, and finally Kadikoy emerges as the captain manouvers a skilled 180 degree turn to berth.
When the dock hands open the flood gates, we spill out onto the pier and diffuse into the crowd. I make my way up the busy street, passing countless simit stalls and pharmacies until I've reached the far side of the peninsula, which overlooks the glimmering Marmara and Istanbul's pretty Prince's Islands. The Fenerbache stadium towers over the surrounding buildings, and I turn away from it and walk along a small and dirty creek where more fishing boats are moored and their captains gather to pass the time with cay and cigarettes. Alongside the creek is my office, and from the second floor window I can see it, protected from its slightly nauseating odor that rises with the summer sun.
Once at my desk, my watery world does not disappear. Before I left for the states, I started a job with Blue Wind, a marine insurance company, and I have dived headlong into shipping and cargo insurance. From drafting Protection and Indemnity policies, to chasing premium payments, dealing with a dead Albanian crew members stranded in a morgue in the Ukraine, and finding a way to dispose of spoiled low-grade corn cargo, I feel like I cannon balled into a fast and furious current. This was my second week and my boss was on business in London, leaving the new girl to hold the fort. Consequently, I spent most of the week on the phone with my wonderful predecessor, Helena, who has been dictating emails, for example, to the underwriters in Russia regarding a Turkish boat that has been arrested in Algeria.
The young and sweet secretary prepares fantastic salads, soups, kofte (meatballs) or manti (Turkish ravioli) for lunch, as well as countless cups of Turkish coffee and tea throughout the day. But she doesn't speak a word of English and is also brand new to her job. Alone in the office we are a hopeless pair. While the learning curve has been huge and I've had to absorb a lot of information in a short space of time, I am happy and think I will benefit from this new environment. I am even more pleased that it's Friday and I've managed to survive. The fact that it's the end of the month and my first pay check (however abysmal) comes in on Tuesday also helps...
But the maritime world is an interesting one, and not a day goes by when I'm not exposed to something unique and surprising. I have made some interesting discoveries about Istanbul's cargo industry in particular.
(Very) Random Facts about the Bosphorus and Cargo Ships:
- The Bosphorus connects the Sea of Marmara to the Black sea. On a larger scale, it connects the Mediterranean to the rest of Eastern Europe and Russia. It is a very, very important waterway (you can check it out on the map to the right).
- 1.5 million people commute by ferry from across the Bosphorus per day
- 55,000 vessels pass through the Bosphorus annually. That's 150 per day. Or six every hour.
- In order to navigate the Bosphorus, ships must change course at least twelve times. Four of these turns are blind corners.
- The Montreaux Convention, passed in 1936, gives Turkey full control of the Bosphorus Straits and the Dardanelles. However, the convention also guarantees merchant vessels have complete freedom to transport any goods at any time. Turkey provides skilled pilots to navigate the waterways, but vessels can (and often do) choose go it alone. The potential for disaster is... rather high.
This is a strange assortment of facts but these are the things that stuck out to me the most (ie. the only things I actually remember).
At the end of a weekday, I make my way back to the ferry (usually at a fast trot because I'm worried I'll miss my ride home). So far, gazing out at the same sight has yet to get old. I am still awed by the way the light plays on the water, the way the little fishing boats dance in the wake, and the evening haze gathers around an old tanker. It's magical.
Especially so yesterday, though. As we cruised into my home port, the sails of eight old and magnificent tall ships rose from the water, transforming the landscape of the Karakoy pier. They block the modern, industrial buildings that line the waterfront, making the Galata Tower and the Tophane mosque stand out, accentuating the beauty of the old buildings throughout the city. It also struck me that, like everything else in Istanbul, the environment is a living contradiction . Next to these beautiful old ships lies the cruise ship port, and the ugly and towering Celebrity Equinox bares down over the old vessels and no attempt has been made to provide an aura of authenticity or facade of a bygone era. It was a cool and greying evening, windy and verging on rain, and I walked back alongside the ships, heaving against the mooring lines like wild horses. With eyes upturned, I gazed at the looming masts, the fluttering flags and the strange figureheads, not beautiful mermaids as you might envision on the bow of a ship, but on the Omani ship, SHABAB OMAN, a handsome man in a gown and turban and a dark, tattooed man on the Indonesian vessel DEWARUCI.
As I huffed and puffed my way up the excruciatingly steep hill to my apartment, I reminisced about the last time I saw the Tall Ships. About a year ago in June or July, they came to Boston Harbor, dotting the coast with schooners and brigantines. I had just graduated from BU and was living in Boston, working as a waitress in the evenings and had been recently let go from my job with a small travel company. I thought I would be happy to have the summer "off," so I could spend lazy days doing interesting things like visiting the tall ships. It was a beautiful sunny day, and when I arrived I sat down on a patch of lush grass, and gazed out at the jungle of masts and sails. And then I burst into silent tears. I remember feeling disappointed in myself, having left college without a career ahead of me. I felt lonely, as if the world was moving forward while I stood still. And I was lost and directionless, unsure of what I wanted to do with my life post-summer. I got up and made my way numbly through the thronging crowds of tourists, snapping photos at things I thought were pretty along the way. But nothing made much impact. I was too busy feeling sorry for myself to appreciate the beauty of the day, the ships, and my life.
Flash forward to today. I reached home, took the elevator to the fourth floor and climbed the precarious ladder to our Treehouse. I opened the doors of the balcony and looked out over the Tall Ships from above, their many masts rising from behind the waterfront buildings. I am much more at peace now, I realize, as I gaze out across the water. The Bosphorus reflects another setting sun and I watch it disappear into the darkness of the night, the waves saluting and ushering in another day.
Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.