Noel Novelties

Oh, for the warm and fuzzy. The familiar texture of a flowery canvas couch with the cushions all chewed up by the family dog. The thinning oriental rug under sock feet. The sinus-widening scent of fresh pine broiling under plastic lights. A new book read in an old LL Bean vest, made back when they still used goose down for the filling.

Such are the familiar comforts of a New England Christmas, as shown in the picture my mother cruelly sent from our living room earlier today. I’m sitting in my new apartment, watching a thunderstorm over Asia, and worrying about the rain seeping in from under the door to the balcony, which is rotting the floorboards. Is this what they call growing up?

Two consolations: my brother Robert will be coming over to join me for the holidays, assuming he escapes the Snowpocalypse which has shut down the mid-Atlantic coast of the US; and I received my first Christmas present. A friend, back from Kabul, brought over the rather unique Bottle Burqa. Cheeky symbol of women’s liberation? You could call it that. Culturally insensitive? Probably. Sitting in pride of place on the living room table? Check.

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Crazy Christians!

When, last spring, I first thought of moving to Istanbul, I talked over the idea with Kate, who I’ve mentioned quite a few times in this blog. The logic went something like this: instead of moving back in with my parents while I figured out what I wanted to do with my life, I would move somewhere where the rent is cheap and maybe get to know a new part of the world. It sounded logical, she said. It even sounded like fun. We flirted with the idea of moving over together, but as our summers took us in different directions – her to work in Boston, me to China and the former Soviet Union – it looked more and more like she would be starting work in New York City and I would be arriving in Istanbul on my own.

Which is what happened, sort of. I arrived in Istanbul and started to look for work, and Kate enrolled in a job training course. Or at least I thought she had until she wrote me and told me she’d found a good fare and bought a ticket to Istanbul.

Inside one of hundreds of cave churches

I didn’t manage to keep her in the city for long. Armed with a sturdy backpack and a sense of adventure that makes me look like a hermit, she set off for Syria, Palestine, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Iran, Pakistan, India, and Nepal, or so was the plan last time I checked. But first she eased her way into life on the road by exploring Turkey.

It didn’t take more than a single entry on her blog to convince me to put my own pack back on. The fact that the correspondent I had been working with had decamped to Pakistan for an indeterminate period, and that flights to Capadoccia, where Kate was, were $30, sealed the deal. I left the next day.

Capadoccia, in central Turkey, has some of the most interesting geology on earth. Four volcanoes covered the region in lava a few millennia ago. Persistent winds wore the soft stone into cone-shaped towers, and rivers carved colorful gorges through layers of pink, white, and yellow lava.

From the 5th century onwards, Capadoccia became a refuge for early Christian sects deemed heretical by the orthodox church. They burrowed into the stone cones and, sometimes, underneath, digging subterranean cities with as many as eight stories. They eeked a living out of miniscule farms fertilized with pigeon droppings. To this day, it is said that a man won’t be taken seriously as a suitor unless he has a sizable flock of pigeons.

The most elaborate cave churches are covered in frescoes,
most of which date to the 11th century.

Many Capadoccia natives have capitalized on the exotic appeal of their homes by turning them into inns. I discovered Kate lounging on a bed of carpets on the deck of the excellent Kelebek Cave Hotel soon after I arrived. Though we were staying at the also excellent Kose Pension – on the roof, no less – she had, characteristically, already made friends in town. Ali, the innkeeper, was pouring wine liberally, and it was established that there was nothing that could possibly be done with the afternoon but watch the colors of the valley change as the sun set.

My second day, we turned to the serious business of exploring. Life in the underground cities could not have been much fun. The tunnels are tiny, designed so that attackers would be forced to move slowly and therefore killed easily. It may be a claustrophobe’s nightmare, but the little girl in me thought it was one of the coolest things I’d ever seen. Cowboys and Indians seem so quaint compared to cave-dwelling heretics and pagan/Muslim/Orthodox crusaders.

The Goreme ‘Open Air Museum’ – a series of remarkable churches in the most widely-visited town in the region.

We didn’t have to guess at what life would be like in the cone towers because Ali invited us to his friend Apo’s place for a barbecue. As the lamb was grilling, Apo showed us his sumptuous (well, for a cave) living room. It was covered in Turkish carpets and tapestries, which I had expected, and had a wireless router, which I had not. Ah, modernity.

Most of Apo’s friends didn’t speak English, but I bonded with one who was playing a saz, a six-stringed lute-like instrument that is common in Turkey. He showed me some basic chords and we began to sing together, no doubt to the horror of anyone who was listening.

I had trouble falling asleep on my overnight bus home. From the center to Istanbul in the northwest is a solid eleven hour drive through the Anatolian heartland. Occasionally the bus would shudder to a halt next to a roadside stand that had appeared, unannounced, out of the surrounding blackness. A small crowd, usually old women, was waiting at each, clutching small cloth satchels and huddled against the late October chill. They shuffled on board, taking the places of a handful of equally wizened old women who melted into the night outside, and then promptly fell asleep.

I did manage to drift off a little past two, but woke with a start just past three. A woman the color of dusty hills and at least as old had fallen asleep with her head on my chest. She was wearing the drop-seam pants that have recently become fashionable (‘genie pants’) but are in fact native to this region. The story behind their origin goes something like this: one early Christian sect believed the Messiah could be born again at any time, so they had their women wear drop-seam pants that would catch baby Jesus II when he popped out. The pants would also help hide the baby in case Herod II decided to come try to kill him. Evidently, no one is going to notice you walking around with a baby tucked in your pants.

When I woke up again in Istanbul, the old woman had disappeared back into the countryside, far from the skyscrapers and housing complexes of the city I now call home. Reflexively, I checked for my wallet, but I really didn’t need to. As a Turkish friend explained to me, Turks protect guests in their country – they use the word guest, not tourist – with almost religious passion. This is changing in the increasingly developed tourist hubs of Old Istanbul, Izmir, and Troy, but I still feel safer in Turkey than in, say, Paris or New York City. Kate, meanwhile, continues to defy anyone’s notion of what is safe for a small blonde woman by hitchhiking around the Middle East. If I could think of a single place in the ‘west’ where she’d be as safe doing that I’d feel slightly more charitable towards the people who have managed to convince conservative America – make that most of America – that the Muslim world is full of bloodthirsty fanatics.

Getting there: Fly into either Kayseri or Nevsehir on one of several cheap flights a day from Istanbul’s airports, then take a 20 lira one hour shuttle to Goreme. By bus or car, it’s an 10 to 11-hour ride from Istanbul or Izmir. You could stay in the slightly more upmarket Uchisar, but we recommend Goreme for its range of accommodation options and proximity to the best sites.

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Rise, traveller

(originally published in the Greenwich Citizen)

I first noticed him when he crossed the threshold into Hagia Sofia the wrong way. In Buddhist temples, you always enter with your right foot first and leave with your left foot. Since living in China, I’ve picked up the habit of watching how I enter religious spaces. He stepped in with his left foot first. I followed with my right.

Istanbul’s Hagia Sofia isn’t much of a religious space any more. The building has gone the way of the nation that surrounds it: an important seat of early Christianity, it converted to Islam and then a secular institution. The Cathedral turned Mosque turned Museum was one of the things that drew me to Istanbul, but I’d put off visiting once I arrived because I was suffering from the Lonely Traveler’s Blues. Three hundred and sixty days a year I am happy to explore all the world has to offer. The other five, I wonder why on earth I have left family and friends in all the places I’ve lived, and hate the idea of surrounding myself with strangers in a foreign city.

It usually passes in a day, sometimes less, but my first few days in Istanbul proved especially trying. It was my own fault, completely. I’d come to the city without a Plan, armed with only a few distant contacts and ghostly potential job leads, and about a hundred different impulses but no specific reason why I had decided to stop in this city, of all places.

It had taken a massive effort of will to get myself to Hagia Sofia, especially when I found out the entry price was 20 lira, or $13, which was my daily budget. It was this strange man stepping over the threshold the wrong way that drew me in as much as anything else.

We followed tandem paths around the building, looking at the same mosaics in different order. I took pictures across the sanctuary while he took pictures of the dome. He wandered over to a window and nudged it open. I had to stand on a ledge to see out. In between the ancient buttressing, you could see the mosque Sultan Ahmet had constructed at the beginning of the 17th century. Some say he built it as a challenge to the old Roman Emperor Justinian’s Hagia Sophia, a very visual demonstration that the Muslim Ottomans could match or outdo their 6th century Christian predecessors. But why, I thought, would he have built a structure that looks so similar? In my eyes, the two buildings look like brother and sister: one dressed in pink, one in blue, but obviously from the same family.

Muslims call Christians and Jews ‘people of the book,’ like themselves. All three faiths believe in one God, arguably the same God. Just as the Christian Bible incorporates the Hebrew Bible as its old testament, the Quran tells the story of Abraham, and Moses, and even Jesus. The view that dominates western media, intentionally or unintentionally – that Christians and Muslims are fundamentally different types of people – makes no sense to me. Over the last two months, every fear I harbored of the rise of militant Islam has been countered by acts of extraordinary generosity and friendship. For every jihadist who is profiled in the news, there must be a million peaceful men, women, and children whose stories never get told. I can’t blame the media, though: they have to write what sells, and what sells is and always seems to have been violence and fear.

I made my visit to Hagia Sofia long before I was qualified to make any sort of judgment on the country or the people around me. On that day, I was still nursing my inexplicable Lonely Traveler’s Blues, though something was pulling me out of it. Certainly most of the credit must go to the Hagia Sophia and Sultanahmet Mosque, two indescribable monuments to human achievement which cannot fail to inspire. But part of it, too, was my silent museum partner.

We ended up talking, finally, by one of the toppled columns that litter the garden around Hagia Sophia like fallen leaves. I asked if he was Italian. I’d based my guess on the fact that he was wearing the kind of pointed boots I have only ever seen on gay men and Italians. No, he said, he was German, here studying Turkish, and what was I doing in Istanbul?

I don’t remember which of my stable of answers I gave him – interest in the Islamic world/medieval history/contemporary EU politics, desire to travel, lower cost of living, love of kebabs – but it was enough to start a conversation that continued for the next four hours. We visited the blue mosque and strolled through the garden outside the Sultans’ old harem. As the sun set, we stopped for tea at a cafe looking over the Bosphorus, the bustling strait of water which divides Istanbul’s European half from its Asian.

We parted ways soon after that, each pleading dinner commitments, though I know I at least could have easily missed the dinner I had planned. It was better, I thought, to leave things as they were. We’d had a lucky meeting of minds in the heart of old Istanbul, but we had separate lives to return to in the world outside. He was heading back to Germany in five days, I was hoping to find a job that would support me in Istanbul until I went home for Thanksgiving. At the last minute, he gave me his email address, but when I waved goodbye from the bus I was pretty sure it was the last time I would ever see him.

As my bus trundled up the European side of the Bosphorus, I looked at Istanbul with new eyes. Pale mosques, lit by spotlights, glowed yellow, and their reflections danced in the water. There had been nothing particularly remarkable about our meeting, but it revived whatever had been laying dormant since my arrival in Istanbul, and I was finally ready for the city.

Istanbul had apparently decided she was ready for me as well. I found an internship with CNN’s correspondent in Istanbul the next day and moved into a fantastic apartment in the center of the city a week later. My neighbors offered to show me around, had me over for dinner, and one, a Greek, invited me to his niece’s Christening.

And so the traveler part of me has gone with the lonely blues, at least for now. A new friend of mine recently asked how long I’ll be living here. I think I surprised myself as much as her when I said I wasn’t sure I’d ever leave. I will live other places, I’m sure, and might never call Istanbul home. I’m not even positive I’ll be returning after Thanksgiving. But I will always pass through here, and always be looking forward to my next stay. This is not a place that can be visited once.

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It snowed yesterday morning. Since I moved away from Boston in part to escape winter, this was a discouraging development. To make matters worse, I live in a beautiful high-ceilinged old apartment with gorgeous picture windows that retains about as much heat as a ventilation shaft. I’m too cheap to turn on the gas, which can run to about $200 a month (to give a sense of scale, that’s just under the amount I pay for rent), and the only clothes I have were packed with China’s tropical heat in mind. I wrote my roommate, who’s currently in Kabul, to see if she had any suggestions for avoiding hypothermia.

‘Let’s look into electric heaters? Isn’t that what other poor people do?’

And, in a separate email: ‘its so hot here. im so glad i brought that sleepingbag.’

Kabul: temptation rears its ugly head, yet again (see ‘The Detroit-Kabul Connection‘).

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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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First impressions

I arrived in Istanbul on id al-fitr, the last day of Ramadan. Since Ramadan is a month of fasting, I figured I’d be landing in time for the biggest party of the year. Not so. The feast day, called Little Bayram here, is a time to make respectful visits to distant relatives, and feasting is strictly optional.

Greater Bayram (in Arabic, Id al-adha, Feast day of Sacrifice) will be at the end of November this year and sounds much more exciting. It involves slaughtering sheep. Unfortunately, I risk being disowned if I don’t go home for Thanksgiving, though now that I think of it, my brother Robert might be up for a ritual sheep slaying…

Istanbul is more religious than I thought it would be. Lots of women are covered up – more by far than there were fifty or even twenty years ago, according to my host’s mother. My host is my brother’s friend’s ex-boyfriend’s friend. He grew up in Turkey but went to the US for college, which gives him peculiar bicultural tastes. He hates beer but he likes Family Guy. He expects his Mom to cook at home but he’ll cook to impress an American girl (a Turkish girl would consider a man cooking for a woman heresy). Like a European man, he knows how to dress; like an American he thinks it’s ok to wear sweatpants in public.

No matter where I go in the city, the call to prayer stops me in my tracks five times a day. It doesn’t seem to cast the same spell over the Istanbul natives, which is understandable as they’ve heard it every day of their lives. I wonder if I’ll live in this city long enough for the call to lose its exoticism. I hope so.

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This is a boring one

One of my colleagues in Madrid last summer, Tom, used to work as a steward on a private airline that specialized in flying in and out of conflict zones. Their motto: ‘where bullets fly, we do too.’ I asked him why on earth he would choose to work for them instead of, say, Delta.

‘Simple. I never wanted to get stuck on the Des Moines-Minneapolis route. We were flying Paris to Sarajevo. Wouldn’t you rather have your layover in Paris?’

People keep on asking me why I wanted to move to Istanbul. I don’t really have an answer for them, but something along the lines of Tom’s makes sense. There is nothing wrong with the live-in-Brooklyn/Queens-commute-to-Manhattan life I so nearly embraced alongside three quarters of my graduating class. But for the time being, I want my layover in Paris.

Istanbul isn’t even a figurative bridge between East and West. Half the city is literally in Europe and the other half is in Asia. It is the city where the East tries to go West: immigrants have swelled the population of Istanbul from two million to twelve million in the last thirty years. They arrive, realize getting into Europe is not easy, or that Bulgaria and Romania don’t hold that much appeal, or that Istanbul is nice enough, and that it’s full of nice buildings abandoned in the mid-century purges of Greek and Armenian citizens; they pick the locks, set up camp and never leave.

Then there are the odd ones who come from West to East for all their various reasons. Maybe they want to see what life is like in the spicy and sweet melting-pot of the world. Maybe they want to see if Istanul’s latest renaissance will bring it back to the status of international prestige it has always had and lost. This was once Rome. Constantine the Great moved the capital of the empire here in 330 AD, and its rulers called themselves Romans, not Byzantines, until falling to Mehmet the Conqueror in 1453. I want to see if it is going to be Rome again.

In other news, because I’m horribly behind, please see Miss Kate Bloomer’s blog as she’s actually been writing a little about the day-to-day of my/our life over here.

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