The children of Istanbul are much like most of the children in the world. They have parents who take care of them, send them off to school scrubbed clean and well-fed. Happy, laughing, running and playing after they have finished their studies. Smiling, fighting, tumbling in the grass, going home for dinner, falling asleep and getting ready for tomorrow.
But there are the children who are hungry, dirty and not getting what they need. In some parts of Istanbul, children wander through the parks and shopping areas selling small packs of tissue, or cheap trinkets or sometimes just asking for money outright. They should be in school in the middle of the day, or at home having dinner in the early evening. I saw a boy, maybe 7 or 8 years old, sitting on a sidewalk in the early evening, playing a flute for “donations.” I dropped a U.S. dollar in his box, and the boy with the flute look at my dollar with disdain, having no idea that it was worth 2 Turkish lira.
Other children are huddled with their mother and father, all of them dirty, probably hungry and definitely sad. They do not beg for money; they do not beg at all. They just sit, ragged and dignified and barely alive; certainly not fully living.
Human beings should never have to suffer like that. Children deserve to be cared for, cared about, and protected.
Humanity has an important journey to complete.
I decided to watch Skyfall again (what can I say, I love James Bond movies) and discovered that the opening sequence takes place in Istanbul! Imagine my excitement when I saw the familiar streets James Bond and his nemesis raced through. They even took a quick ride through the Grand Bazaar. The Grand Bazaar is only a 10 minute walk from my hotel, and I was thrilled to recognize it in the movie.
Speaking of the Grand Bazaar, I decided to revisit the very, very old and unusual mall. It is indeed a 10 minute walk from my hotel, and when I recalled that a taksi driver charged me $10 to take me there, my blood almost boils … but that’s the past, and won’t happen in the now. I walked, and the walk was ALL uphill. But I did take notice that there is a major transportation hub, with taxis, buses, and the city tram all crowded together. I have been told that I can get almost anywhere in the city on the tram.
After my uphill walk, I had to stop and get some freshly squeezed pomegranate juice ($2.00). One nuts vendor offered me some hazelnuts to throw into my juice, a common way that Turkish people drink the juice.
I made it to the Bazaar and back to my hotel unscathed. I am getting more and more comfortable here. Ahhhhh.
Sunday in Istanbul is a family day. There is a lot less traffic on the streets – significant enough so that every car passes effortlessly on the street. There are many more women and children walking, there are many more men and children walking and playing in the park. I saw boys playing soccer (football), children running and playing, old men napping on the benches and women gossiping. As I sat and read, a beautiful little girl came up to me and started speaking Turkish, to which I replied that I could only speak English. She nodded in understanding, smiled and ran off. I would really love to know what she said to me. Two women were trying to get my attention by speaking Turkish to me, and only when they raised their voices did I realize they were trying to ask me the time. Rather than try to say the time in English, I handed them my cell phone to read the time. Only then did they understand that I spoke English. They then smiled, and told me “thank you.”
There seems to be a level of trust among the people here that I never experienced in the Bay Area. There are public cell phone “charging stations.” Store clerks walk away from people in the store without surreptitiously watching them, all kinds of wares are on the street with no one in sight to buy from. There doesn’t seem to be an attitude that someone will steal; rather there seems to be an attitude that people will not steal. There is a “polis” station in the neighborhood, but I have never seen anyone arrested, or even stopped for a traffic violation. Then again, I am never out very late on Saturday nights – could be this is when all the action takes place (smile).
I am also enjoying having my nationality be ambiguous. Restaurant hosts ask me to point to the language I speak, Arabic people assume I am Arabic, Turkish people assume I am Turkish (or at least speak Turkish) and there is a total lack of uncertainty about living among the Turkish people. Until I speak, I am one of them. Even when I speak, I am welcome, I am always welcome.
A Public Cell Phone Charging Station
Yesterday, I decided to use the maps application on my Iphone to walk to the Basilica Cisturn. The map indicated that it was only one mile away and I thought a two mile walk would be good for me. So, I did as I was instructed by my daughter Leila, and followed the blue dot. Guess what? I made it there! It was a great walk, and along the way I learned what district I live in, and even what neighborhood (The Fatih district and the Kadirga neighborhood). Kind of scary. I am feeling less like I’m in a foreign country, and more that I am living with a great group of people.
Does anyone out there remember Sean Connery as James Bond? I know I’m dating myself, but he was (and is) my absolute favorite Bond. Although Daniel Craig is running a close second. In the film, From Russia With Love, James Bond takes a ride through the Basilica Cisturn, referred to in the movie as a reservoir (which it is) built by Constantine (which it wasn’t). I was thrilled to be there. I paid the $5.00 entrance fee, rented a pre-recorded electronic guide and walked down the stairs into the golden lit, column filled reservoir. I was instantly awed by it, and instantly hit with a unexpected case of vertigo. I didn’t realize that what I was walking on was a connection of bridges about 6 feet off the floor of the reservoir. The vertigo forced me to walk slowly and carefully, so I got a really good tour of the reservoir. It is magical and filled with history. There is a column of tears and two columns of Medusa’s head turned upside down and sideways, just in case she got the notion to turn you to stone. I took photos, but for some reason, all I got were blue flashes. I’m waiting for my daughter to explain why :-). So, the photos you see here were downloaded from the internet, as was the You Tube video. The video reflects my experience of the Cisturn.
As I walked up the stairs and away from my vertigo, I passed through the Hippodrome once again, and stopped to get some freshly squeeze pomegranate juice. The juice is everywhere in Istanbul and only costs about $2-4 for 12-16 ounces. A real bargain when you consider that in the Bay Area, pomegranate juice is quite a bit more.
I walked back to my hotel by reading the street signs. What an accomplishment!
I hear the call to prayer and I wonder what the caller is saying. What is he saying to encourage and entice believers to come, kneel and pray? The call seems pensive and, at times, halting. I am strangely comforted when I hear it.
This is a very, very, busy city. People walk fast and hurry from place to place. There are spirited debates as the men sit and drink tea, while playing board games. I always hear music in the street. At times, when I go into a shop or store, the employees are singing and laughing. Although very busy, this is a city filled with happy people. At night, when I open my window, I hear laughter and music. I cannot say that I’ve developed an affinity for Turkish music, but it is upbeat and joyful.
Children wander the streets of old Istanbul, sometimes in groups, and sometimes alone. No one seems to think that this is odd or in any way unusual. In the Bay Area, I rarely saw a child walking alone and if I did, I wondered where the (neglectful) parents were.
Food is everywhere. On the block where I live, on one side of the street, there are two small convenience stores (which sell freshly baked whole loaves of bread), a “fast food” restaurant (which does not mean “fast” but a limited menu), and two bakeries. This is common on each block. Throw in a fresh fruit and vegetable stand and you’ve got a common block in old Istanbul. The Turkish people love their prepared food, they love their many varieties of baklava, cookies and cake, and they love their fresh fruit and vegetables.
And I’m loving the whole experience.
My friend Sevim.
This city is a study in wonder. On Sunday, I went on a tour of ancient buildings. The tour guide was a well informed young man and all of the tourists spoke English. I even met a guy from New Jersey who became my companion on the tour. To be able to speak nothing but English for 8 hours was a godsend. The guy told me that he had dated the same woman, who lives next door to him, for 30 years! How do you do that? Well, he explained patiently, she has her space and I have mine and it just works out. We also discussed current US politics, Corey Booker and … Anthony Weiner (LOL!!). As we passed a group of women covered from head and face to toe, my companion reminded me that that would be me very soon … I laughed for a while off that (mostly accurate) observation.
I also met fellow adventurists from Brazil, Curacao, Columbia, and one Indian couple who lives in Chicago, but were on their way to Mecca for Hajj. The husband asked me if the new Bay Bridge was open! I was shocked to get that question. The world has become so much smaller for me.
The ancient structures of Istanbul are many. Our first stop was the Hagia Sofia, or Church of Divine Wisdom. I was in awe of the church, which became a mosque, and then a museum. We also visited the Blue Mosque, where the women had to cover their heads and shoulders and everyone had to remove their shoes. We then went on to the Hippodrome, did a little shopping at a department store, and finally went to Topkapi Palace. I had my first cup of Turkish coffee, and enjoyed it’s bitter strength very much – but I still miss Peet’s.
An amazing city, cultured companions, and a perfect day!