Tagged: Istanbul

An Agoraphobic Abroad

Part I

The Hippodrome (Istanbul)

The Hippodrome (Istanbul)

I note with chagrin that I didn’t concoct a single, solitary blog post for the entire month of September.

Tsk, tsk.

I don’t think that’s happened before, has it?

I confess I spent a considerable portion of the thirty days in question trying to process the sights, sounds, smells, etc., of our trip to Europe. Did a lot of reflecting and maybe a tad too much navel-gazing. Paged back and forth through my travel diary, reading passages to pique my memory, skimming through the hundreds of photos we took.

You have to understand, Sherron and I had been planning this trip for at least a decade. That’s a helluva buildup…but that month we spent in Greece, Turkey and the Czech Republic far surpassed our expectations and became, for both of us, a life-altering experience.

The pictures help but they can’t possibly capture or accurately portray the many, many special moments, the brief, chance encounters, the sense of what it felt like to be so far from home, so far outside my comfort zone. The locales ranged from the exotic and sublime to the grimiest backstreets. From the ancient world to a 21st century traffic jam.

I am a reluctant traveler, preferring to remain as near to my personal omphalos–this office where I am presently typing–as I can manage. Right here is the center of my universe, the place I feel safest. When I step across its threshold, venture outside, I am no longer in control. And the anxiety grows…

But I was determined to overcome my fears and apprehension; the time had come to expand my horizons. Full speed ahead and damn the torpedoes…

Unfortunately Air Canada got things off to a bad start. Our flight to Toronto was delayed for mechanical reasons, which meant we missed a connecting flight that would have taken us directly to Athens. Instead, we were re-routed to Heathrow, where we had to linger for six hours before we were finally on our way to Greece. So we arrived later than expected and once we were dropped off in central Athens promptly got ourselves lost and—

Never mind. We’ll skip those initial rotten bits and instead focus on getting to our quaint little Air B ’n B apartment and the view from our balcony. The Parthenon at sunset. And not just a postcard either: the real thing. We hugged each other and captured the moment with a photograph while Alex, our host, looked on in approval.

Parthenon (Athens)

Parthenon (Athens)

Greece in mid-July is hot. Really, really, really hot. Sherron and I are from Saskatchewan, remember? We weren’t prepared for that fierce Attic heat. Climbing the Acropolis on a day when the temperature topped 40+ degrees Celsius was not one of our smarter moves. Definitely not recommended for the faint of heart or those subject to heat stroke.

The bones of ancient Greece are in evidence all through its longtime capital. The skeletons of structures that have survived barbarian invasions, earth tremors and thousands of years beneath that harsh, unforgiving sun. The numerous excellent museums trace and name the epochs of a land inhabited since pre-history, wreathed in myth. I saw the famous funerary mask of Agamemnon (discovered by Schliemann) and posed beside a bust of Marcus Aurelius. There were some magnificent pieces at the Cyclades Museum; I was moved and inspired by the austere beauty of carved, stylized figures from the fourth millennium B.C.E. If I could have one piece of art for my collection:

Stargazer

Stargazer

Believe it or not, after three days we’d had enough of Athens and were on a bus south, to a small village called Kiveri. Friends from Saskatchewan kept a summer home there and had graciously offered to not only share their abode but also shuttle us around to other sites of interest, including Mycenae (Agamemnon’s palace and burial chamber), Thermopylae and Meteora.

Now you’re likely familiar with the first two place names I mentioned, but Meteora probably doesn’t ring any bells. The area features some amazing geology, pinnacles and steles of rock thrust into the air by massive tectonic forces. For fifteen hundred years, monks and ascetics have come to these stone towers to find refuge from the temptations and trials of the physical world. At first they built crude shelters in the eroded caves and crevasses; later, they came together, scaled those lofty peaks with ropes and ladders and built the first monastery, others rising up on adjoining fingers of rock in the centuries to come.

Meteora (Greece)

Meteora (Greece)

I can’t tell you how inaccessible and daunting some of these monasteries still appear today, even with all our modern roads and conveniences. But those mad, stubborn monks hauled and toted tons of rock and wood to the tippy-top and built themselves impregnable sanctuaries, redoubts against the evils that resided in the land far below.

Varnavas was one of the first of the hermit monks to arrive (7th century). One night at our lodging in Meteora, encouraged by the proprietor’s generously large scotches, I wrote this:

Varnavas

I am here
Lord
find me
on my
lofty perch
do not
deny me
your presence
forgive me
if I err
catch me
if I fall.

From Greece, it was off to Istanbul, despite the recent coup attempt and the oft-expressed misgivings of friends and family.

Istanbul, coup or no coup, is a craaaazy place. Crazy and huge and bursting out all over with life and energy. The first time I heard the local muezzin call the faithful to prayer, I was standing on the balcony of our cozy rented apartment—what a beautiful sound. I knew at that moment we’d made the right decision to come. The fellow in our neighborhood had amazing pipes; it gave me goosebumps as I listened to that voice emanating from mounted loudspeakers, echoed and magnified by his colleagues in nearby districts.

Istanbul (back street)

Istanbul (back street)

I think of Istanbul and I recall the passages that led to impossibly narrow streets; I think of the sheer mass of people that a population of twenty million souls represents. And I shudder when I remember the absolutely insane cabdrivers, who sped through the streets, honking their horns, oblivious to any life forms that ventured into their path. Those dudes rarely applied their brakes and seemed positively contemptuous of pedestrians. Once, when Sherron and I were walking near the Gallery of Modern Art, we witnessed a brawl between two cabbies, a melee which quickly attracted the attention of the police. Their customers looking on in bemusement as the two men glared at each other, shirts ripped, fists clenched, cursing and gesticulating, the cops wisely keeping them separated. Murder in the air.

There’s so much to see in Istanbul—this is a city that has played a central role in many important historical episodes; it has witnessed the rise and fall of great empires, flourishing and suffering by turns, the fate of any Eternal City.

We visited the magnificent Aya Sofia (aka Hagia Sophia), commissioned by Emperor Justinian and intended to be the most magnificent place of worship in the known world. The very quality of light seems different there—the way the beams penetrate from outside, imbuing the interior with a regal, exalted ambience. It was impressive to us but imagine the effect on pilgrims from bygone times, men and women from rustic, humble origins who were bound to be moved and awed when they walked through those massive doors and saw…this:

Aya Sofia

Aya Sofia

Aya Sofia, the Basilica Cistern, the Blue Mosque, the Hippodrome, the Grand Bazaar (with its famous book market)…so many different places to explore, each possessing its own special atmosphere and claim to fame (or infamy).

And then there was Troy…

(To be continued)

Book Bazaar (Istanbul)

Book Bazaar (Istanbul)

Letter From Istanbul

TaksimRecently, my wife and I returned from a dream holiday: a month in Greece, Turkey and the Czech Republic. Mere days before we were to leave for Istanbul, however, Turkey experienced a coup attempt in which nearly two hundred and fifty people died, many of them civilians. Friends and family urged us to cancel this leg of our trip but, then, some stability was re-established and we decided we couldn’t miss visiting that ancient capital, truly one of the world’s “eternal” cities. We flew into Kemal Ataturk Airport and spent an incredible ten days walking its teeming streets. But while we were out and about, chatting with waiters, hawkers and people from various strata of society, I started composing an article on the attitude of ordinary Turkish citizens to the bungled coup and their autocratic leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Here it is:

 

The woman in Taksim Square is insistent: we must buy two Turkish flags. Thrusting another red pennant at us, even though we’ve just paid five lire (about $2.50 Canadian) for a colourful souvenir of our time here in Istanbul.

We’re trying to be polite in our demurrals but she’s an annoying, persistent huckster, her demeanor bordering on insolence. We’re backing away, hands raised, but she’s having none of it—until two passing gentlemen upbraid her in Turkish, clearly telling her to leave us alone.

That does the job; she withdraws, muttering and scowling.

For the past week there have been “celebrations” in Istanbul’s most popular gathering spot, every evening thousands of people streaming into the square, waving flags, listening to live bands and exhortations condemning the recent botched coup attempt, praising President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for his steadfast and courageous defense of democratic principles.

We’ve kept away from these government-approved rallies, finding other things to do, other venues to patronize, an easy task in this city of twenty million souls. In our eyes, Erdogan’s idea of “freedom” includes the suppression of any dissent, journalists and political opponents rounded up en masse and spirited away to swelling detention centres, held for thirty days without any outside contact or legal representation. He has even gone to the absurd extent of suing school age children for drawing cartoons satirizing their glorious leader.

We arrived in Turkey’s largest city mere days after the rather inept coup plotters had been crushed, their compatriots either killed or carted off in disgrace. The nightly news showed men and women being led into waiting police vans, while pro-Erdogan commentators and television personalities heaped scorn on them—so much for independent journalism. The fifth estate here definitely know their place.

All that said, we’ve felt perfectly safe here in Istanbul throughout our visit, able to move about freely, and as a result we’ve had the opportunity to speak to Turks from various levels of society. What we’re hearing doesn’t exactly jibe with Erdogan’s point of view.

Every single person we’ve chatted with has made it plain (in halting English) that they regard their president with absolute contempt and hold him largely responsible for the country’s political and economic woes. From our hosts to sales people and backstreet vendors, everyone who feels compelled to broach the subject says it is Erdogan’s machinations that have endangered democracy in Turkey, not the designs of some obscure cleric operating from exile in Pennsylvania.

The problem is that while the loathing of Erdogan’s tactics is widespread, there is no cohesion or cooperation between those alternative voices…and a splintered, squabbling opposition is next to useless.

President Erdogan is clearly a canny operator but his heavy-handed tactics are alienating and infuriating an increasingly larger proportion of the population and may end up backfiring on him. Along with the jailings and intimidation, he has fired tens of thousands public employees, closed many schools and universities, politicizing groups and individuals who had previously been either compliant or indifferent (or too fearful to act).

And can the uneasy alliance he has forged between right-wingers, militarists and religious fundamentalists hold together, can his vision of a New Turkey be perpetuated once his reign is over?

After all, the nation’s secular character has been present since modern Turkey was formed, it was one of Kemal Ataturk’s foundation stones when he composed the country’s constitution almost one hundred years ago. Can a mere cult of personality supplant an ideal shared by generations of Turks who have grown up believing in and fighting for Ataturk’s magnificent legacy?

As one older Turkish gentleman told us, “Erdogan wants to take us back in time but time, as we all know, only moves forward”.

He made this statement with great assurance and I feel I am not qualified to challenge or undermine his optimistic assessment. I can only hope that for his sake, and the sake of those whose Erdogan’s tactics are hurting, the husbands, wives and children of the detained, that he is right.

 

August 1, 2016