Saturday, August 9, 2014

A Day in Istanbul 8/7/30

On account of the overwhelming nature of Istanbul (the powerful heat, the dense crowds, and the competing music from the three bars below us that persisted until 2, 3, 4 AM) Jena and I slept until eleven in the morning. My first concern upon waking was the last minute lodging reservations that we made the night before. After two hours of debate with our laptops open and various websites up (Airbnb, VRBO), we opted to book an expensive apartment in Side for ten days because it would be easily accessible from Antalya and it would have certain necessities—internet, AC, grocery stores nearby, etc. (It did not have laundry, which was a point of concern, especially after our days in Istanbul, which produced plenty of clothing drenched in sweat. That said, the place promised that the reception could provide a laundry service.)

Mainly, the apartment was on my mind because of the price, which was more than 700 dollars. While I had already agreed that this price was acceptable because it ended our debate and promised to be easy to get to, I had of vague memory of the price of an apartment I had looked at a day prior. We had scratched this alternative apartment due to its location—in the less touristy and harder to get to destination of Finike. But the price of this alternative apartment  was hard to beat at just over 300 dollars.

Secondly, the apartment—the expensive one—was on my mind because we hadn’t received a confirmation email from the property manager. In the age of digital immediacy, the lack of confirmation was driving me up the wall since our time in Istanbul was ending in twenty-four hours. Jena told me to remember that the property manager probably had a busy schedule and that everything would work out.

Because we needed to shed the anxiety produced by the situation, we took to the streets to eat breakfast—though it was almost lunchtime. We chose to walk to the bus stop for the Istanbul regional airport (just to find scout out it’s location) with the hopes that we might see a breakfast spot on the way. We didn’t, though we found the bus stop easily enough and found out where to buy tickets the next morning—we’d buy them on the bus.

What happened next was somewhat typical of our travel adventures together. Jena said, “Let’s find some breakfast somewhere between here and our hotel.” I glanced around and thought the area looked expensive. Taksim Square is similar to Times Square in New York, though the prices aren’t that high, so I figured we’d be being suckers to eat in the popular area. I countered her suggestion with the idea that we see what the other side—the less touristy side —of the square had to offer.

As I said, this was a typical Alan move. Were there restaurants on the other side of the square, the area where there were fewer tourists? Nope. None but one or two in the lobbies of these giant hotels like the Hilton and the Marriott. We seemed to be on the financial side of the square and everyone was in suits coming in and out of buildings. So then I suggested that we walk to the second farthest point on the square from all the touristy restaurants. No dice. By the time we found a restaurant, we had made nearly a full circle. It was in the heart of the touristy area, the prices were reasonable, and the breakfast was wonderful.

(Heidi would find this situation familiar as well.
Alan: My car battery died.
Heidi: How old is it?
Alan: I don’t know. Old.
Heidi: Well, they don’t last forever. Do you want me to drive you to a car parts store to buy a new one?
Alan: No, thanks. That sounds expensive.
Alan borrows a battery charger from Duncan and tries a billion times to get the battery to hold a charge over the next four days.
Alan: Hey Heidi? Can you take me to the store to buy a new battery?)

Back in Istanbul, Jena and I ate our “Cajun” Turkish-style breakfast. I’m not sure what was Cajun about it, except that the name of the restaurant was “Cajun.” We enjoyed our meal and had wonderful service, noting that this restaurant might be a nice place to return to for dinner. Toward the end of our time there, Jena got the wireless internet working on her iPad, and we had received an email from the property manager of the expensive place we had booked. She said it was unavailable. She offered us an alternative or a full refund. Jena and I looked at one another and headed back to our hotel.

Jena worked out the refund while I contacted the guy about the apartment in Finike. To be honest, this was where I had wanted to stay all along, though I knew it would be a pain in the ass to get there. (And my lord, it was. See Jena’s blog for details.) This guy responded almost immediately and said that we could rent his apartment. My relief was tremendous. Finally, we had secured a place to go next. It’s really hard for me, I’ve noticed, to cope with the ambiguity of not knowing what I will do with myself without a home base. I tell myself that there are always hotels and hostels, but from my point of view, it’s like a see a calendar where the dates without lodging are blacked out. And I picture myself falling into a hole for eternity when those days occur. Then, when things do work out, when I step into that ambiguity once in a while and find out that everything is okay, it’s as if I’m being born again. Well, having  secured a reservation finally, I was back on my feet.

Jena and I then took to the streets. I had wanted to go to some of these audio shops near the instrument shops in Taksim, so that was our vague destination. However, the sky had darkened with clouds at that time, and I was the only one with an umbrella. When we turned back, the rain had begun to pour with the heaviness of the summer monsoon rains in Flagstaff. Jena grabbed an umbrella from our hotel, and because we wanted to spend some time outside of our hotel room, we ducked into the bar next door.

The place was vacant except for a jovial guy who seemed to be cleaning up. He didn’t speak any English, but that didn’t stop him from smiling and talking to us about the rain. For us, we really didn’t have any Turkish vocabulary for rainy weather, so we made a lot of “Whoa!” sounds and faces.

The bar had no glass in the windows, so the rain was splashing in at us from the tables on the sidewalk. Nevertheless, our seats were dry enough for us to sit with a tea and to study some Turkish. Jena wrote a letter to our former teacher, and I wrote a postcard to Özge. We looked up the word for rain.

Eventually, we ordered beers, and eventually, we were burnt out on studying. On top of that, two men who I think would be labeled as Arabs came in to order a hookah. (I later found out from our front desk clerk that Turks draw a distinction between themselves and Arabs, whereas in my mind I had previously lumped them all together as Middle Easterners. Jena pointed out that my schema is geographical. The Turkish distinction is more cultural. What is more, the front desk clerk told me that some Turks are not fans of the Arabic tourists. He didn’t provide a reason why except that five years ago Arab tourists had begun to overwhelm the inner city of Istanbul where Constantinople once stood. This is also the area with the Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque.)

In any case, these two men were speaking English to communicate with another one of the bar workers. They swore at him in English, and then they took a seat anyway. While this interaction really had nothing to do with us, it still made us uncomfortable to hear our language spoken in such a hateful tone. Keeping an eye on these guys, we later saw them make up with the bar worker. Yet, they continued to speak to him with English curse words.

As Jena and I have seen, the use of English as a lingua franca is disconcerting at times. While it facilitates travel in a place like Turkey and especially in Istanbul (it’s spoken by tons of people), it is also the language people use to get angry at one another. (Jena and I saw an intense afternoon of this when we were stuck in the Istanbul airport due to a weather delay. Again, see her blog for details.) To me as someone whose culture is rooted in and shaped by the English language, hearing English used as a tool for altercations feels personally disturbing.

Needless to say, Jena and I were feeling uncomfortable, so we decided to settle up with the bar worker. Unfortunately, the jovial English guy wasn’t an official waiter, so we spoke to the English speaking bar worker instead. I’m not sure what kind of beer and tea we had been drinking or whether a mandatory tip was in place, but the bill was extraordinarily high. Possibly the guy was just tired of tourists for the day. Since Jena and I didn’t feel like disputing it, we paid and got out of there.

(Note: Nothing against Arabs here. They just happen to be the jerks in this story. Could have been two guys from any culture.)

Since the rain had let up by then, we decided to take another stab at exploring Taksim on our way to the audio stores. Istikal Street (which is more or less an incredibly large and crowded pedway) had fewer pedestrians although as Jena said, “If there’s one way to make a crowded walkway more awkward, give everyone an umbrella.”

As were we walking, I felt the dampness of my socks increase to the point that it was miserable in one shoe and hardly tolerable in the other. This is natural when walking in rainy conditions, but it’s also a consequence of having holes in the bottoms of both your shoes, which I did. (I wear my shoes hard. I use the same pair most days, and like a Honda, I want them to last forever.)

Jena asked how my feet were doing and asked if I wanted to buy some new shoes. I said I was fine. Shoes in a place like Taksim were certain to be too expensive.

As we walked, we both noted that we were feeling shaky from having eaten hours ago and from having tea and beer on top of that. Jena, in an uncharacteristic flash, saw a fish restaurant just off of the main street, and suggested we go there. “You want fish?” I asked. Just a day or two before, when Özge had said that Istanbul was known for its fish, Jena had said that she didn’t really have a palette for it. “I’m okay with it,” Jena said. “I need to eat something, so if it comes down to eating a snack now and having dinner later or eating dinner now, it will be cheaper to eat dinner now.” I consented.

We walked up to the place and had barely grazed the menu with our eyes when one of those annoying hosts came us to persuade us to come into the restaurant. He was pushy, and although we didn’t know it, he was the only adults with whom we would interact at this place. He kept on talking, comparing his restaurant’s prices to others (a bad sign). Because I had told Jena that she could make the call on this one and she said, “Okay,” we went in.

While we were walking, I noticed how deeply perturbed I was. I felt angry. In that moment, it occurred to me how much I hate taking the first option of something. How I like to have a large sample size so that I know I am choosing the best option out of those available. (It takes me hours to go grocery shopping, but I’m usually able to keep my total bill pretty low.) Here, I felt like I was falling prey to some trap that would ultimately lead to financial ruin. I have noted too, in another blog post that I don’t really “value” food, and this may be related to what is possibly a lower than average sense of smell. I like food and flavors, but they don’t really have the complexities for me that they seem to have for other people. So, if I’m already working from a limited stance of food appreciation, there are even more problems when I’m upset. My stomach tightens, and my appetite completely disappears.

At this seafood restaurant, a teenage worker lead us toward the stairs to the second floor. Here, another strange thing happened. Clearly, another customer and his child were coming down the narrow staircase, but the teenager didn’t stop from ascending the stairs. Up we went, awkwardly creating a traffic jam. The sense of being rushed again came over me.

On the cramped balcony where we were to eat and where other patrons were in the midst of their meals, the street noise was loud, and the children of a large family were crying. At the risk of sounding like a snob here, I’ll say that I have a really low tolerance for noisy situations. Let’s say that I may overcompensate for my lack of taste and scent with an acute sensitivity to noise. Good music to me is pure bliss. Certain soundscapes can be as beautiful to me as picturesque sunsets. On the other hand, shitty soundscapes such as that present on this balcony are hellish. Another bad sign.

At the table, an even younger teenage worker than the one who led us up opened a bottle of water and poured our glasses. This was a nice gesture as the tap water isn’t drinkable in Turkey and water isn’t always included in the meal. On the other hand, breaking the seal of a water bottle mildly connotes the contractual monetary agreement between the customer and the restaurant. After the young teenager left, another reappeared with menus. He told us about a sea bass special for two. Jena said it sounded good. I asked how much it cost in Turkish. With some scorn, he asked if we were going to speak in Turkish or English. The price was more than twice what we had been quoted outside. Jena said we needed to think about it.

When he left, Jena asked me if I wanted to leave. Her words were like the prick of a pinhole in a balloon. I exhaled and said yes. The waiter came back for a moment, and Jena told him that she was unexpectedly feeling sick. This guy, a teenager, nearly sprinted up to the next floor where the kitchen was. I guessed that he knew he had screwed up and that when the adult, the host and possibly his parent, saw us leaving the place, the kid would be punished.

Back on the the main street, Jena and I got lost in the crowd immediately because we, too, had that sense of having done something wrong and wanting to escape. When we had walked a block or two, I asked Jena if she wanted to split a simit (bagel-like thing). She said yes, and I successfully ordered one in Turkish from a guy at a stand. It was the best one-lira simit I’ve had.

From there we didn’t know what to do, but I felt happy despite the dismal weather and my wet feet. I asked Jena if she would go shoe shopping with me, and she did (though I’m sure she noted the irony). I found some well-made, waterproof, and reasonably priced shoes with an aesthetic I liked. I even had a great time speaking with the shoe salesman in Turkish and English. He ended up giving me a deal on the shoes, possibly because they didn’t have the exact color scheme I had wanted.

After that we returned to the hotel so that I could change shoes and socks, then we headed out yet again. This time we went up an alley that Jena and I had both noted during another walk. It looked like a place where the chic locals go since it was just off the main drag and not full of tourists. Jena chose a wonderful restaurant where, as she put it, “The meal looked better than it did in the picture on the menu.” I had chicken curry. Jena had a chicken salad. We both had some beers, and dinner came with complementary tea. I got such a good sense from the hipstery guys in their twenties who were running the place that I left a big tip.

We went to sleep that night feeling the way landlubbers do when they have their first night back on land after spending a few nights on the sea. The next morning we were headed to Antalya and from there we would adventurously follow the morsels of directions I gleaned off Trip Advisor to get to our place in Finike.

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