Marooned in a Marathon

In nineteen years as a committed athlete, I never ran more than a mile and a half at a time. My bone density is nonexistent thanks to the years I spent swimming three hours a day instead of engaging in normal childhood activities like jumping rope. I’ve sprained each of my ankles twice and they still occasionally give out without warning. My shins ache for a week after I run any distance and I never feel like I’ve gotten a good workout (probably because I can never be bothered to go for longer than a mile and a half).

In other words, I loathe running. I hate it so much I would spend an extra forty-five minutes on the erg, that torture machine for rowers, when the rest of Radcliffe Crew was running the Arsenal loop.

Given the above, it may seem odd that I signed up to do the Istanbul mini-Marathon. But, like Britney Spears, I’ve stopped trying to justify myself with age… Except my version of growing up entails picking up running instead of unplanned pregnancy, head shaving, and making out with Madonna.

Luckily for my ankles, the start of the marathon was so crowded that running wasn’t an option. The huddled masses at the starting line didn’t break free until well into the course, and even then the human traffic was denser than your average New York rush hour sidewalk. I did try to run, honestly, but I’m pretty sure my mile and a half threshold still stands.

About a mile in, there was a particularly dense knot of people surrounding something moving low on the ground. My New England resentment of bottlenecking lost out to my burgeoning reporter instincts and I hustled to catch up with them. Turns out there were a pair of midgets (dwarves? I never know the correct term). They were taking three Lilliputian steps for every one of mine and I thought how torturous it must be to do an entire marathon with an ogling entourage. They weren’t even getting paid for their pains.

Two miles in, we reached the first bridge over the Bosphorus, the channel of water that divides Istanbul’s Asian side from its European. Part of the appeal of the marathon was the opportunity to run from one continent to another on a bridge that is at all other times closed to pedestrians (the one in the picture above). The sun came out just as I hit the crest of the bridge, turning the water hundreds of meters down a deep turquoise and making the pale stone of the minarets that carpet this city glow. This would be such a beautiful sight if I were not running, I thought.

The end of the bridge marked the halfway point of the run and I grew increasingly bored. I took turns eavesdropping on the people around me until I found some who spoke English.

They were a pair of girls about my age wearing headscarves and jeans. After exchanging the obvious pleasantries – ‘hey! you speak English too? Isn’t it cool to run over the Bosphorus bridge? What a pretty day!’ – we moved on to more pressing questions. Like, why are you doing a marathon in jeans? (why not? We’re just walking), Why did you decide to run the marathon? (it was our boyfriends’ idea, they’re running up ahead), Why do I never see women in headscarves on the street after dark? (blank stare). I didn’t feel comfortable asking them why they wore headscarves in the first place without establishing some kind of rapport, but just then we passed a Starbucks and I really needed to go to the bathroom so I nipped in.

I came out of the Starbucks just in time to see the midgets running by. Inspired, I jogged the rest of the way to the finish line.

When you finish a run, even if you walked most of the way AND stopped in Starbucks, you want to have some kind of celebration or recognition. I don’t know that many people here yet, though, and certainly noone well enough to expect a slap on the back and a post-marathon beer.

I picked my own poison by moving to a strange city where I didn’t know anyone, and lord knows I’ve moved enough to be used to this by now. But loneliness hits you at the strangest times. Standing just past the finish line, sweating, staring into the sun that shines on this incomparable city at the center of the world, I wondered for neither the first nor the last time what I am doing here.

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A Tale of Two Tuesdays (and anarchists)

Charlemagne once said that to learn another language is to have another soul. If the man speaks the truth, I am on a quest for my fifth soul: I started Turkish classes the Tuesday after I arrived.

Pinching pennies as always, I passed on the highly recommended but expensive language school that most foreigners attend and found a discount program taught out of a teacher’s apartment. Hakan, said teacher, is a wiry-haired anarchist who speaks fluent Russian, Arabic, Turkish, English, and Hebrew. He has absurdly wide nostrils – the phrase ‘cocaine pipes’ comes to mind – and doesn’t seem to own anything that’s not black.

The one other student in the class was a Nigerian man who entered Turkey for ‘a conference’ and never intends to leave. After five minutes of Hakan and me trying and failing to pronounce his name, he said that we could call him Nibs (an odd choice, but at least it wasn’t Icemen). Hakan took great pleasure in telling Nibs how to get a job and a visa under the table. He also took great pleasure in teaching us when he felt like taking a break from chain smoking. After the two day free trial I decided this was not the best use of my time and threw my hat to the wind.

The proverbial hat landed at the steps of CNN’s closet-sized bureau in Istanbul, and so suddenly I have become an aspiring reporter. A disgruntled student with an uncomfortable shoe gave me my first clip by throwing said shoe at Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the head of the IMF. But things began to get really exciting on my third Tuesday in Istanbul.

We spent the morning at the annual meeting of the IMF-World Bank conference, which was remarkable most for its complete lack of inspiration. Most of the work of the conference – keeping the pockets of G7 bankers lined, disenfranchising the poor – had been done behind closed doors in committees and seminars over the weekend. Tuesday and Wednesday were for the press and the public.

As we unpacked the camera gear I noticed the cameraman had packed a gas mask. Fat chance we’ll be using this, I remember thinking. We were in a vast conference center protected by a thousands of policemen. They barely let me in the place, even with press accreditation. No shoe-throwing dissidents were going to spoil this party.

Not long after we arrived, I got an email from one of my new friends, a former (?) anarchist turned international lawyer. It was a forward from another anarchist, calling for people to ‘make the streets of Istanbul miserable for the people who make our lives miserable.’ The action was supposed to begin at 10am. We were doing live shots until noon.

Noon came and we went. I was partially right: no shoe-throwers were getting anywhere close to the conference center. They were being blasted by water cannons mounted on Armored Personnel Carriers on the street outside. But I was wrong about not needed the gas mask.

We left the conference around noon and made our way towards Taksim, the heart of modern Istanbul. The maze of ancient streets that radiate from Taksim square are perfect for two things: touristy aimless wandering and playing cat-and-mouse with cops who want to stop you from vandalizing shops and creating general mayhem.

 It wasn’t hard to figure out where to go. We either followed cops or gravitated towards the spots where lots of police helicopters were buzzing overhead. Protesters wearing scarfs over their face threw rocks through shop windows and at the cops, and the cops returned fire with tear gas and water cannons.

My brother has always claimed that you can go anywhere if you look like you know where you’re going. I did not expect this to apply to walking into the middle of a cop-protester skirmish, but our cameraman strapped on his gas mask and walked straight through the police line. I followed.

It turns out inhaling tear gas kind of feels like having strep throat. Reflexively, you start crying, which then psychosomatically leads you to panic, and all you can think of is stopping whatever mischief you are up to and running away. Thankfully, the sensation passes after a few minutes, and quicker if you squeeze lemon juice into your eyes. The correspondent, cameraman, and camera intern were hit much worse than me, and if my internet connection were faster I would link to the footage we shot that was briefly the top hit on… I leave that to the more enterprising to Google (and if you feel like posting the link below, that would be great). UPDATE: Here it is!

Who knows what the next two Tuesdays will bring?

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