Tuesday, May 27, 2008

ins and outs, ups and downs

I'm writing this on our second-last day in Istanbul. The weather has been near perfect this week: in mid-twenties, clear, with a breeze to blow off the pollution and cool our faces on steep climbs. The air smells of roses, and linden blossoms. Ideal conditions for walking around and exploring: for being Out In It.

From the window beside me I can hear "it" ... the constant hum and honk of traffic, the street sellers and people calling out to each other, the city offering an endless variety of experiences just by stepping out the door. But I don't want to step out the door! Even though tomorrow it's supposed to rain, even though I'll have plenty of time to sit and stare at a screen in Toronto. Even though blah blah blah.

Travel is all about what you take in, or can be. Each day there are the logistics of figuring out where you want to go and how you want to get there, reading up on it so you have a better appreciation of what you see. Then comes the fun part: navigating the unpredictable terrain on the way to the destination, becoming caught up in the journey before actually getting there. I love every minute of this, but my interior life clamours for attention these days; another migraine had me bedridden for a day last week, sleep claims me, until later and later each morning. Anything to stem the endless series of impressions coming in ... which, as soon as I shake off sleepiness, I seek out and welcome. Who wouldn't?

Reading over my last blog I'm struck by how much my experiences in Bergama called forth memories and associations, to the exclusion of what I was seeing and hearing.

I forgot to write about the Red Basilica, for instance, a massive ruin in the old part of Bergama. It was first a temple to Egyptian gods, then a church. Now, it's a historical-site-in progress, so that there's little information to help you navigate your way through it. You just walk around the vestiges of the building, stepping over or around deep trenches built into the earth for who- knows-what purpose, and looking up at the remains of the red brick walls. Built to be impregnably thick, these walls have been worn down by time to rounded obelisks which loom against the sky. Vegitation takes root on every possible surface. Tablets are strewn here and there, bearing scripts in Hebrew, Arabic and Greek. I found the place sinister in the most satisfying way, as dark as the Asklepion was light. It didn't surprise me to learn that it was referred to in the Biblical Book of Revelation as the home of the throne of the devil. I guess we need monuments that speak to our superstition and fear as much as to our reason and intellect.

It was good to return to Istanbul, to a really big city, and a place where we have become, at least superficially, at home. We returned with delight to our few small routines, to our favourite haunts, to the relative independence of a furnished flat. We realised that such a long trip affords the luxury of Coming Back, where most travellers have to constantly move forward, move on.

Last weekend, we went away again, this time to Bursa, a short journey by ferry and bus. On the ferry we spoke to a Turkish man who'd emigrated to the US but was here on business. He warned us, time and time again, about the unscrupulous business practices of Turkish people, especially taxi drivers, who would take every opportunity to charge an outsider an exhorbitant price.

He told us that Yalova, where we switched to the bus, was very hard hit by the earthquake in 1999. We've had the chance to meet quite a few English-speakers here, both Turkish born and some who have adopted the country as their own. Always, speaking of the earthquake brings instant, unabashed tears. In Yalova, we walked barefoot along the shore of the Sea of Marmara, on a small beach near the ferry terminal. It was a peaceful, gentle afternoon, kids paddling by the shore, new growth everywhere. I tried to conjure an image of what for me is, blessedly unimaginable: the earth suddenly heaving and opening up, destroying families and homes and livelihoods. Toronto is the site of most of my history so many of its places evoke memories for me. What is it like for the Yalovans who remember the earthquake, to walk around the streets? I wonder if those traumatic images are always around or whether they emerge just at certain moments -- overlayed, now, with almost ten years of daily life.

Bursa is a prosperous city of about a million people, set in the very hilly country at the base of the Uludag mountain. Near where we were staying, in what we decided was the "centre" of the city, is a complex of Ottoman market buildings, dating from around the 1400s. We spent hours exploring these stores and small manufacturing concerns, which mostly focus on textiles, as they have for centuries. In each building, hallways give way to hallways, all laid out around a courtyard or han. These hans are tea gardens at ground level, while on balconies above there are small factories. There are smaller hans too, where people work on sewing, or stuffing duvets. At one point, as we turned a corner, we found a group of men mostly in their sixties, playing music together on stringed instruments, with someone singing and someone gently playing a drum. We listened for a long while to what seemed a continuous piece of music and finally moved on. Every so often a little staircase led to a whole other world beneath, with little warrens of shops, all of them dripping with fabrics of various kinds.

The goods are imported these days, for the most part, and a few patterns of towels, bedding scarves and clothes seem to repeat themselves again and again. But that's part of the charm. I felt we were in Trousseau Central. Everything you needed to make a nest was here. This is the kind of stuff I would never, never have in my house: little embroidered towels with lace edging, doilies, spreads that transform your bed into a wedding cake complete with slippery icing. But taken together it had a comforting feel to it, and it spoke of a kind of graciousness that I associate with old Europe but is in fact every bit as much a part of the East as it is of the West. A kind of attention to the Good Life that I always feel just below the surface here in Turkey.

Bursa a fairly conservative town, with many of the women modestly dressed and in headscarves. Walking in groups with their peackock or pastel-coloured, ankle-length coats they looked elegant and self possessed, though I could not help thinking they must feel terribly hot.

The whole thing drew out some perverse girliness in me, and I decided I must have a tea pot, the kind you make Turkish tea in, and that it must be covered in a pattern of red roses. I'm now the proud posessor of one of these pots though I'm not sure how we're going to get it home, and I'm worried that once I get it there I'll go into a of Toronto-the-cool aesthetic reaction and hate it. But I'll cross the bridge when I come to it.

Saturday afternoon we took the cable car up the Uludag mountain. The cable car journey is in two stages and takes you up, eventually, to about 2500 metres. We were warned against trying it on the weekend, because it's a favourite family picnic spot and lineups can be long. There were no lineups to be found though ... at least, not at the first level.

After a steep climb up the first stage of the mountain we were dropped a misty and rather chilly lodge to wait for the next leg of the journey. Oh, lineups. Right. Here we saw that there were many people waiting for a cable car that can only take thirty passengers, and more and more were arriving all the time. A sign seemed to indicate we would have to wait another half hour or forty minutes for the car that goes up to the top. From the looks of the crowd, we would not get on the first one, either. Discouraged, we joined the throng of people packed into the hallway leading to the dock where you mount the cable car. I was hot, my feet hurt, and a small child behind me was continually jostling me with his elbow.

At one point I looked over at Rolf and found him standing with his hands on his hips, a fixed grin on his face. "I'm blocking." He said quietly. "This guy is not going to get past me." It was then I noticed the determined face of a smallish, older man, poking its way at various angles around Rolf's lanky figure. The chin was set determinedly, the eyes, fixed on his goal. But there was no goal. There was no cable car there, it was just a matter of getting ahead. Getting one person ahead.

The two men continued their silent struggle. We all had to wait while one car came and went. We all got on the next car. I was glad in equal measures not to be a guy, and to be there WITH a guy, and was too hot and crowded to ponder the political implications of feeling that way.

The next phase of the climb was steep, and, crowded in with this group of somewhat hostile strangers I was terrified. The car, I was sure, was over-full. The initial climb, up over the level of the trees was hesitant and halting, and it seemed inevitable that something would go wrong. I hardly breathed til I put my feet on solid ground. In the terminus at the top, which doubles as a tea house and sourvenir shop, I saw copious numbers of the little blue eyes that you find everywhere in Turkey to ward off bad luck. I wanted one, then, knowing full-well that they have not saved people here from misfortune.

I have been reading Portrait of a Turkish Family by Irfan Orga. It's marred by one section I find stupidly anti semitic, but otherwise, it's a superbly detailed memoir of life in Istanbul from 1908 to 1940, a thirty year period which saw many massive and sudden changes in Turkish life. Orga's family experienced a reversal from wealth and affluence in the early part of the century to abject poverty which struck at the time of the first world war. One vignette that stays with me takes place the week Orga's father was called to serve in the army. In a last gesture of caring for his family, the father went to line up for bread, which had suddenly become scarce. He returned with a small loaf, bearing a massive scratch on his face from a woman who wanted to grab it from him. Soon afterwards, he was killed and the women of the household, married as teenagers and acquainted with little more then embroidering and hostessing, were left to manage on their own.

I thought of the breadline story when I saw the old man's eyes glaring out from behind Rolf's elbow. He was too young to have seen the first world war, but there were probably times in his life when it was vital to Get There First. More vital then we have ever known and I hope, will ever know. Did I think Rolf should give in to his pushing? Strangely enough, no.

Uludag was once thought to be the place from which the gods observed the battle of Troy.
In ancient times, people looked up at its misty peak and imagined huge Presences, always slightly obscured by mist, watching their lives below and occasionally meddling when it suited them. But to a twenty first century north American, the sights were familiar: the scrubby trees, the lichen-covered rocks, the pines. It was possible to imagine I was in BC or maybe even parts of Vermont, except when a small salamander clambered across a stone.

Actually, there were plenty of reminders we were in Turkey. Marble drinking fountains were found every so often along the trails, most of them stacked with impeccable white cloths, and surrounded by families washing themselves and their dinner ware. Huge families had set up picnic sites on either side of the road, barbecues and tea samovars on the go, women relaxing in large groups beside children sleeping like pashas on piled up cushions.

The descent was a happier experience for me. I was distracted by the fascinating image of the pine trees from above, new growth at the end of each branch a pale, livid green in contrast to last year's darker needles. It was all so regular and symmetrical, always a shock in nature, though I'm not sure why. As the cable car raised up and then plunged, passing each of its support posts, the whole group of passengers called out "ooooh" and "ahhh" and I joined in the collective sound, dissipating the knot of tension in my stomach.

We got back to Istanbul Sunday around sunset. The cab driver took us on the "scenic route" along the shore of the Golden Horn and over the Unkapi bridge. We didn't complain about the extra expense. It was so beautiful to see the city rising up on either side of us and the torquise water laid out in the centre.

We'll be saying goodbye to this place in a day or two. I've been captivated and hope to Come Back some time, to see all our favourite places again and explore new ones. In the long run, though, I'm glad to be going Home.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Mrs. Kleenex Part 2 -- the Asleep-y-on

A couple of days into our journey out of Istanbul, it was Rolf's turn to get a migraine. It hit him hard one evening but the "aura" lingered for a few days, making him feel very low-key throughout our stay in Bergama, the site of ancient Pergamon.

This meant that I did a lot of walking around, buying necessities and meals and generally negotiating the place on my own. My experience of the marketplace was different, this way. People kept offering me things for free: as I handed over a few coins, vendors would still be stuffing my bag with extra fruit or pieces of cheese, handing me sweets and tastes of this or that and refusing payment.

I went for a late lunch in one restaurant, and found I was the only customer. The waiter kept hovering around with a worried expression on his face: Okay? Something wrong? No! The meal's delicious (which it was). I ate with exaggerated enthusiasm and held up my fork to punctuate, knowing I was being watched anxiously by the whole staff. When the bill came I thought they must have made a mistake in my favour but the cashier pushed change back at me insistently. So sorry! Very sorry!

Word may have spread that I was just no fun to bargain with. Either that, or I had stumbled (literally!) into an area of Turkish merchant culture unmapped in the guidebooks. Instead of struggling to get the best deal, the opponents vye for who can be the most self-effacing and apologetic. It's all a performance of one kind or another, I guess.

Even though I wasn't sick, I slept for long hours, in Bergama, nodding off about 9 p.m. and waking eleven hours later. I dreamed, vividly and very happily, with a common theme each of the three nights: lots of people were wishing me well. But they were not always living people. My mother and grandmother were there, and Shirley and Ted Franklin, dear friends and surrogate parents. I knew they were dead but that didn't seem to matter. They were mixed in with the living, the division between life and death obliterated in the dream world.

The morning of the second day I learned that the ancient Asklepion, up the hill from our guest house, had been a temple of healing in Greek and Roman times, and that visitors seeking health would go there and sleep. Their dreams would be interpreted to determine diagnosis and a prescription for healing. The Asklepion was dedicated to restoring health, but -- from one account I read -- they knew how to hedge their bets in those days: 
no one deemed to be terminally ill would be let in!

I set off to see the ruins of the Asklepion. The weather had suddenly got warm, and I walked up the steep hill shedding layers and tying various bits of clothing around my waist. Bergama is surrounded by ancient mountains worn down into steep hills. The hillsides are verdant -- it's only May -- the green grass dotted with patches of poppies, daisies and some kind of brilliant yellow flowering bush. Deciduous trees are in full leaf and there are stands of slim, elegant cyprus. On that day, the sky was overcast and moody, but patches of sunshine would be visible in the distance, illuminating different sections of the hillsides dramatically.

Ruins have a funny effect on me. They can seem really insignificant; incoherent. I don't understand why so much care and trouble is spent on preserving them. Build new things with the money, I think. Houses, theatres, schools, hospitals. Ruins remind me of art history -- a subject I failed. I am suddenly in a lecture theatre looking at endless, excruciatingly similar, slides while a teacher drones: "Look at the flow-ing lines!" So what?

And why bother to go there, stand around in the relentless sun and look at a bunch of crumbling stones? I don't like to think that any place holds special properties. As far as I'm concerned, the specialness is all within us and we project it outward. It seems dangerous to think otherwise. Wars start when people think they must possess or live in a certain place. But just as suddenly, the impact of being in a place so ancient will strike, and I can feel the -- okay, I'll say it -- energy of all that's happened there, physically emanating from the stones.

At the Asklepion, I realized how important it is to "be there": to smell the air of a place, to see the surrounding mountains and vegetation, to see the way the light hits. The Asklepion is so perfectly situated. I can well understand why people went there to feel better. I put aside the information book I'd brought with me and just wandered around, aware of the various tourist groups and school kids coming and going. I climbed to the top row of seats at the amphetheatre and looked out over the whole site. The call to prayer sounded from the town, while at the same time, marching music was broadcast from a nearby army base. Chiming in with the call to prayer was some kind of ad or public service announcement which began with the first few notes of what we know as the "happy birthday"song. While all these separate sounds echoed off the mountains, a shepherd with a small flock of goats crossed the ruin and went up into the hills.

I was struck, then by something that hadn't occurred to me before on this journey. Strange because the connection is so obvious. The ruins of ancient Greece are a mythical place for me in more ways than one. Jarvis Collegiate, where I went to high school, had a strong classics program, run at that time by Ron Payne. He taught Latin and Greek and a grade nine course called Classical Civilizations. He told us that, at fourteen, our minds were so immature that we could not write properly; nor could we properly form our thoughts to ask questions. It would be better if we could be frozen solid for the next three years, until we reached a more reasonable age, but since that was not possible, we should sit and simply listen as he told us the stories of ancient Greece and Rome. Each evening we would read over the stories he'd told us, in a text book.

He told us, of course, about Pergamon, Ephasus, Troy, Miletus, many of the sites which are situated in modern-day Turkey. I don't remember the details of the talks, but only the sensation of a veil lifting. A veil of what I would now call depression. Suddenly, I'd be awake, interested, curious, alive instead of numb. Talking to classmates, many years later, I learned that those classes relieved the private hell of adolescence for many kids besides myself. 

I could go on for a long time in a tribute to Mr. Payne, who for the next five years continued to lift that veil of depression, for me. But suffice it to say that in his classes I understood -- without being able to put it into words -- the connection between teaching and healing. I knew, by my own very physical sensations, that a good teacher is also a healer, and vice-versa.

I also encountered -- again without being able to articulate it -- the idea of the wounded healer. For Mr. Payne was not what anyone would call a healthy man. He was probably in his early fifties when he taught us. His thin body was stooped, his face, deeply lined and pasty, and he smelled of cigarettes with a faint undertone of booze which he was likely sipping all day in his instant coffee.

If someone was struggling for an answer -- particularly to an easy question -- he would advance on the poor student, step by step, threatening a fate worse than death. "If you don't translate that word by the time I reach your seat ... I'm going to BREATHE ON YOU!"

As adolescents, we had no trouble recognizing the strategy: stave off cruel teasing by making fun of yourself. We also recognized that Mr. Payne was kind, fair, and deeply wanted each of us to succeed. When he told us those stories about ancient Greek cities, he would sometimes say: "You can go there, some day." At the time I didn't particularly care if I ever saw Troy or Miletus or Athens. But I like it when he said things like that. They meant that the world was big, bigger than whatever private agonies I was going through, and that I'd get out, grow up, and feel better some day.

Mrs. Kleenex

I bought a pair of shoes last week. Meindl shoes, to be precise. Well, since we're being precise, Rolf bought them. He actually bargained for them. Bargained for Meindl shoes! You may have to see and possibly even try on a pair of Meindl shoes to understand just how remarkable that really is.

Let me digress for a moment: the steep cobblestone streets of Turkey have been getting harder and harder for me to navigate. I'm not steady on my feet at the best of times, but this was getting ridiculous. I had no trouble walking up the hills, but coming down was torture. In my thin-soled shoes I kept feeling that I'd topple over, or that my feet would slip right out from under me. Deeply embarrassed, I dropped way, way behind Rolf as I picked my way anxiously down hills. It didn't get any better as the days passed, either. The way I thought of it, every street I walked down brought me closer to the statistical inevitability of falling head over heels and breaking my spine, careening into an oncoming car, or, possibly even worse, becoming the laughing stock of all the agile children who seem to bound around on the cobbles as if they had little suction cups attached to their feet.

To make things worse, the angled streets here get even more treacherous in the rain or when someone is washing a car or a carpet (it happens often). Then the cobbles teem not only with water but with soap.

Enter Meindl shoes. This German company makes a specialized and very high-priced brand of hiking shoes. They're not available in Canada. I've never actually seen a pair; only heard of their reputation as the finest shoes money can buy. They're logical, problem-solving shoes. "Alles in ordnung" kind of shoes. When we first saw them in a dusty hunting store in Istanbul (among the knives, fishing tackle and, um, guns) we thought they must be knockoffs. Then we thought we must be reading the labels wrong. We revisited a number of times. Checked and cross checked the shoes on the Meindl web site. Finally, just before leaving on a week-long trip that promised even more hills and even more cobbles, I tried a pair on.

I walked up and down the aisles of the store and then ventured out onto the cobblestone street, getting a little teary, as we hard-to-fit people do when we find a good, really good pair of shoes. Well, to be precise: a perfect pair of shoes. When we find a perfect pair of shoes. On a street lined with carts selling adaptors, slippers, dinky toys, alarm clocks, socks, nail clippers and sundry plastic household goods I sank into the cesspool of inner conflict that comes along with having one's wishes come true:

Can I afford them?
What if there's some hidden thing wrong with them?
What if my feet are just swollen and they don't really fit as well as they seem to?
And lurking under it all: do I really deserve such a pair of shoes?

Such a pair of shoes! They direct each step securely along the best possible path for knee, hip and lower back. The laces are designed for snug fit but easy exit, the soles, for flexibility and support, the body, for warmth and breathability. Surely the price of these superbly engineered shoes must be standardized!

Well, here in Turkey, nothing is standardized, it seems, for -- taking advantage of my seeming indecision -- Rolf had begun to bargain with the salesman.

Another digression: bargaining. I know it's standard practice, here. Even the guidebooks provide you with directions on how to do it. Start with half the requested price and expect to pay between sixty and eighty percent. If you bargain, you'll be respected. If you pay the full price, you're being duped. Don't feel obliged to buy just because you've drunk a cup of tea at someone's expense, or had a taste of their wares. Don't feel guilty for just walking away.

When you buy anything from a scarf to a kebab, here, the vendor will extol the virtues of his or her product, tell you it's special, the only real, genuine kind. Not like all the others. That's why the price is high. Sometimes, it's been made by someone's mother or grown on a family farm.
And you have to look the seller in the eye and tell them it's not that good; that you could get it elsewhere, for less. Then you have to pretend you don't want it, and make as if to leave.

This little dance of self-interest seems specifically designed to torment me. Here, it's painfully clear to me how many of my interactions are based on pleasing others, trying hard never to give offense, never to cause anyone any extra trouble, never to make big demands. It's also clear to me how intolerant I am of ambiguity. I want everything spelled out, in advance, the contract signed, sealed and delivered. None of this loosey-goosey let's see what happens stuff.

Here, I don't possess what seems to be a necessary survival skill. And I feel ineffectual as a result. Most of the time, I've just been deferring to Rolf.

Now, I was raised on 1970s feminism. I don't like letting my husband speak for me, but he was doing such a good job of it! He explained to the salesman that we are Meindls -- just like the shoes. It's hard to spell the name Meindl out to people, here, since the particular combination of vowels is never found in Turkish; however, the Turkish for handkerchief is Mendil, and that's a good starting point. Meindl shoes. Meindl visitors. What a coincidence!

Then he offered half price for the shoes. For look at the way I was walking up and down and swaying back and forth in the shoes: clearly, they didn't fit properly. My agony of self-doubt was now overlayed with culture clash. Alles in Ordnung meets total free-market chaos.
What could one depend on, in the world, if the price of Meindl shoes was open for dispute?

The shoes were listed at 90 Euros or about 180 Lira. Rolf talked the salesman down to 155 Lira. Sweating and nearly hyperventilating I completely lost my ability to understand numbers: Turkish or otherwise. I handed the man 150 Lira, thinking it was 160 and hoping the extra money would make up for the terrible offense Rolf had given. The salesman shook his head and laughed, slipping my three, 50 lira bills into his cash register. I fairly ran from the store, sat down on a bench by the Bosphorus and began weeping uncontrollably. "I can't do it! I can't function in this country! I can't speak the language! I can't even walk! And I can't bargain!"

Rolf handed me Mendil after Mendil, pointing out that I had in fact carved an extra five Lira off the agreed price.

The next day, we traveled by taxi, boat, train and bus to the town of Selcuk, the starting point for seeing Ephasus and various other ancient ruins. I woke with a migraine, and spent much of the twelve-hour trip with my eyes half-closed, being shepherded passively from one vehicle to another, letting Rolf do all the talking, arranging and navigating, and giving myself a break from feeling bad about it.

In the stuffy but otherwise quite comfortable train I laid my head against the window and just listened to the sounds around me, the voices of people in their private seats talking to their families, the conductors announcing stops and requesting tickets, the tea and snack vendor listing his wares, the many, many cell phones ringing and being answered. I thought of how much effort it takes to be an outsider: to navigate a new language and culture, to figure out how to get from place to place. I can't say I enjoyed having a migraine on a twelve hour journey, but it did feel good to stop trying and just take things in, for a change.

Friday, May 9, 2008

water in, water out

I was in the lineup to the "bayan" or women's washroom at the Haghia Sophia. This building is prodigiously visited by tourists, and there's only one "bayan" so the lineup stretched past the doorway, out from under a sun-protecting awning, and well into the courtyard, almost reaching the 18th century rococo ablutions fountain. The Haghia Sophia started out as a Church but eventually became a Mosque and is now a museum. The fountain dates from its incarnation as a mosque.

A cameraderie grew up amongst the women waiting in the line, but for a change I wasn't keen to join in. "I had to pay at the Blue Mosque," the woman behind me said grimly, as, finally reaching the door, she added some paper towels to the stock of toilet paper and wipes she held before her like a shield.
I smiled and asked if she was enjoying Istanbul.

We are tourists in Turkey and this week we have been tourists among tourists, visiting the major monuments and historic sites of Istanbul: The Blue Mosque, Haghia Sophia, Istanbul Modern Art Museum, Grand Bazaar, and yesterday, a cruise on the Bosphorus by ferry. Usually, I prefer to be off the beaten track, if only because flash photography is a trigger for my
migraines. But there's a reason why all these sites are so popular.
The Haghia Sophia is awe
inspiring, both in its size and the sheer amount of history it covers: over 1400 years of worship of one form or another, with all the attendant layers of art.

But tourists, as a group, are damned obnoxious. The rules, which are there for good reason, seem to carry a corolary for many tourists: 'but not for me.' I can take this
one picture, throw away this one piece of litter, and it won't matter. I'm special.
What's more, I'm on holiday.

The Bayan at the Haghia Sophia has its own full-time attendant, who visits each stall after every three or four women, cleans out the sinks, replenishes the paper and mops the floors. Her expression, that day, was one of disgust. Occasionally she would shout in exasperated Turkish at the women grabbing handfuls of paper towel on their way into the stalls.

At one point, a male voice rang out among us as a young "guide" -- one of the many
who offer their services at the gate -- rushed in, sheltering an old Japanese lady
under one arm, rushing her past the lineup to the first stall: "Respect your elders!" he called, "It is so in your culture, too!"

That first stall contained the only sit-down toilet. It was much prized. I learned that the reason the line was moving so slowly was that none of the ladies wanted to use the Turkish toilets, as we call them. They consist of two platforms for your feet framing a large, shallow basin, which terminates in a hole in the ground. Squat toilets, in other words. I've been here for a couple of weeks now, and I have to say, I was dreading the 'elimination" aspect of the trip. My experiences with squat toilets included a horrific mess in France when I was a teenager, and an even more bile-inducing one in a bus station in Mexico. You'd rather do anything than use one. Worst of all, the whole setup screams: You Don't Matter. What place would create and maintain such an uncomfortable piece of technology? A place that doesn't care about women, that's what.

But there's a difference. Those yukky toilets I remembered were not clean. And virtually every single toilet I've used here in Turkey has been clean. Cleaner than public toilets in north America, except the one at t
the Park Plaza... maybe. Not only clean, splendid.

Under the Galata Bridge, the kind of place I would endure any degree of discomfort in Toronto rather than visit, there's a toilet you pay about 60 cents to use. The guard has an alarmingly scrofulous look to him, and exposes a few yellowing teeth when he smiles. But after an interlude in the spacious, newly tiled, mirrored room stocked with every kind of paper you can imagine, he seems more like a benevolent troll than a harbinger of the next sewage born plague.

Most restaurants do have sit-down toilets, always in beauitful condition. After a meal when I gather my bag and stand up, I'm inevitably ushered by a lineup of solumn waiters in the direction of the "bayan". Most of the time, the toilets are impeccable, and may supply everything from sanitary pads to a hairdryer. The toilets have the atmosphere of lounges for women to go and restore themselves. The simplest lunch counter here puts Tim Horton's to shame.

Mind you, I've only been in Istanbul, and mind you, I have not had to perform the whole squatting operation in a burka or even a skirt. From what I gather, the women who are fully covered up take pretty lengthy bathroom breaks, undoing and
re-doing the whole affair from scratch but I don't know enough about it to really say.

Back at the Haghia Sophia, we were nearing our big moment: the entry into the stalls. The women immediately ahead of me began tying their various scarves, shirts, jackets and other hanging items up out of the way as if preparing to wade across a body of water. One came out of the stall and ran out into the sunshine as if being pursued. "She was too upset to wash her hands. She'll come back," announced her friend to the group of women waiting behind. A young woman entered a stall and yelped in horror. "It's a hole!" she cried, "A hole in the ground! I can't, I can't ..." She was directed, presumably by her mother, to wait for the stall where the Japanese lady had gone.

What hole are you so afraid of? I found myself thinking. My discomfort, using my first Turkish toilet, was in getting All The Way Down. There's no question that if you want to aim right, you've got to squat, and you've got to squat completely. Those last few inches of bum-to-the-ground are just not part of our North American repertoire, and the girl, despite her Madonna-inspired outfit, might not have been all that comfortable with what she confronted there. I feel for the washroom attendant who had to swab down the stalls after so many inexpert visitors.

I should be more tolerant of my neighbours in line, I guess, since using one of those toilets could be pretty painful on arthritic knees. I have started to wonder, though, how arthritic the knees would really get, if you used such toilets regularly. The tendonitis that's been bothering me for about a year now is pretty much gone after two weeks of regular squatting. But I won't pretend to be a total convert: given the choice, I'll sit rather than squat every time.

That afternoon, we visisted what so far has been my favourite tourist site in Istanbul: the Basilica Cistern. It's ancient, dating from about 532 AD, a vaulted series of caverns that underlie the busiest part of the city. Light is low, Classical music is broadcast on speakers throughout the site, and you can walk on walkways between the columns, looking down at an
enormous pool stocked with fish. You have the feeling that these carp and goldfish
have got it very, very good: state fish, swimming around in their personal underground climate-controlled lake.

I'm not sure what I found so pleasing about all this, because the flashes of numerous digital cameras were only magnified on the water's surface. But I found it both soothing and fascinating to be there. Something about water, secret water, underlying everything. It was one of the moments when I was struck by the power of water, and understood why it's worshipped in so many ways, by so many cultures. Here in Turkey where the three big monotheistic religions have deep roots, it starts to seem more and more important to understand all three, and live in the knowledge of how interconnected they really are. The underground cistern symbolized for me, some kind of link, the common nourishment that feeds all spirituality.

One area of the cistern is designated as a wishing pool; I threw in my remaining british coins, making grandiose
wishes, but quashing superstitious thoughts that all good things
come at a price.

Then we made our way down to the very back of the cisterns where two columns rest on bases carved with Medusa-heads. There's much speculation about what they're doing here. The best accepted expanation is that they were plundered from some ancient site by the Ottomans, and used here just because the builders needed big stones.

I was looking forward to seeing these fearsome guardians of the Cistern up close,
but was taken aback to find one head resting sideways, and the other, upside-down.
I could not help but feel that some hostility to women lay behind the choice to orient the heads that way -- some desire to topple us and tame our power. And in the faces I saw, not the horrible, mad rage of monsters, but quite justifyable irritation at having to spend eternity in this
undignified posture, with the weight of a whole damned city resting on your cheek.

But maybe I've distorted the whole thing. Who knows what all that squatting will do to a woman's mind!

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Istanbul cats

A week later and the cliche "a world away" doesn't seem out of place. I am sitting in the bedroom of our flat, looking out over red rooves -- many of them losing their tiles -- and a full canopy of leaves. On the horizon: the many steep hills of Istanbul.

My first night here I dreamed I was on a plane which was making a turbulent take-off (as ours had, from London). Sitting just behind the cockpit, I realised we were in grave danger, though no one else knew it other than the pilot and myself. Rather than landing the plane in the usual way, he backed up, much as you would a car, and started the whole process again. We got into the air this time, and the rest of the journey went fine.

I thought of the dream as symbolizing the pull of the UK on me, the difficulty of extricating myself from its powerful atmosphere, which threatened my well-being more than anyone else could see. Rolf had another interpretation. "It's the hills," he said, and I realised that at least one one level, he was right.

Wandering around, our first day, we found ourselves in the outskirts of the Grand Bazaar, where there are streets and streets and streets lined by shops, many of them wholesalers who serve the market in the centre. There are underwear streets, housewares streets, electronics streets, and even -- just outside the market's doorway -- a street specializing in display boxes and packagings. We saw delivery vans, more than one, struggling to make their way up the steep and narrow cobblestone streets, slick with rain from the occasional showers that were falling that day. One van was unable to move forward. Despite the efforts of a posse of men pushing from behind, it kept slipping treacherously backward, as if on ice. We ducked around it, and quicky put a few bends in the road between ourselves and the hapless vehicle.

Everything is at odd angles here, especially in Beoglu, where we are staying. The streets are laid out in spiderweb patterns, and are so steeply raked at times you wonder how anyone can navigate them in winter, and how older people can manage to leave their houses at all. (Maybe they don't; it's not uncommon to see a basket being lowered from a window to receive groceries.)
Most of the buildings are between four and six storeys, and have balconies which overhang the street. Buildings, too, are at irregular angles. They were all built in different eras, and are in various states of repair. Dreams notwithstanding, I find the whole effect friendly, accessible. I start to wonder whether Toronto's gridlike streets and square buildings are a strain on our less-than-symmetrical human sensitibilities. The pedestrian definitely rules, here. Cars announce their presence by a quick honk when they turn a corner.

This neighbourhood is packed with people, many of us tourists, or at least people whose native language is not Turkish. Walking around, you hear a smattering of words from all kinds of places. It's got a strong effect, being in a multi lingual place, and one where you don't speak the dominant language. Talking to Rolf provides a precious island of competence in a world where I'm reduced to pointing and scrambling for my phrase book, even when I've prepared the necessary vocabulary before going out the door.

Yesterday, we tried to find out what meat was displayed on skewers in a refrigerated case in a restaurant (I'm allergic to beef). After many failed attempts to communicate I resorted to sounds: "Baaa?" or "Mooo?" This brought laughter all round and a hearty chorus of "Baaa! Baaa!" As more than one person has pointed out, Turkey is not like France or Germany where your attempts to speak the language are met with contempt if you so much as put the stress in the wrong place. Here, the response is all smiles and encouragement no matter how badly you butcher the pleasantries.

I enjoy this status -- being an outsider, when it comes to language -- but not being the only outsider. (Maybe I'm just not brave enough for that.) I can well understand why authors travel to distant countries to write their books. Ironically -- because it takes so much energy to do simple things -- it has a calming effect to be an outsider. I think it must have something to do with the way at home, I have to use language functionally, most of the time. When I sit down to create I have to make the leap into a different kind of relationship to language, find a way to use it in a more expressive, metaphoric way. For me, anyway, it's a massive effort to shut out the everyday. Having only a few words, like a baby, I find language full of mystery, wonder, discovery again.

Even when I don't understand the words, this place is rich with sounds. The call to prayer, sounding out over the city at intervals during the day. The most beautiful effect is when we're up high, surrounded by different mosques, and the calls meet in unexpected harmonies. Then there are the calls of various snack vendors, or scrap metal collectors making their way up and down the narrow streets with their carts. I don't hear many women's voices. Not in public places, anyway. One notable exception is that I've heard Brenna MacCrimmon's voice emanating from a few CD stores! But all that is a subject for another time.

Calling: It's time to pray.


Come and buy my wares.

There's a strong distinction between these two planes.The mosques are the most beautiful of places, cool and exquisitely kept, surrounded by rose gardens, fountains, benches where you can sit and contemplate for as long as you like. No one will hassle you or try to sell you anything inside the walls of a mosque. But just outside, they certainly will. There's a distinction, but also a seamless flow.

All the guidebooks warn that just going out your door in Turkey, you'll be beset by people trying to sell you things and lure you into their shops and cafes. I dreaded this aspect of coming here, as in fact I dread this aspect of being a tourist, anywhere. But I'm finding I don't mind it. It's all very light-hearted. Walking around the many cafe-lined streets of Beoglu late one night, we were greeted at every doorway by calls of: "First class music!" "Hello. Please thank you very much!" One man walked beside us on the street. "First class grill." He said: "Chicken, beef, fish, anything you want." Rolf answered "We've eaten dinner. We're looking for music."
"Come inside. We have music."
"What kind?"
"What kind you want?"
Rolf laughed and stopped. The two men faced each other: "Techno ... Punk ... Jazz ... Classic ... Folk."
With each word, the guy sank a little lower, as if being defeated in battle, but all the while grinning and holding his opponent's (Rolf's) eyes.
We walked on. "First class grill. Come tomorrow!" he called after us.

This place gives me a new perspective on my less-than-comfortable relationship to salesmanship -- of my writing, and of my skills as a Feldenkrais practitioner. I see salesmanship as opposed to both creativity and healing, even destructive of these abilities. The whole process is mired in anxiety and resentment. But what if it were all a game? A game where if you lose a round, you just start all over again, on a slightly different tack? If it starts to rain here, there'll be people offering to sell you an umbrella. Sun comes out? No problem: they have sunglasses, too. An SUV drives down the street with a megaphone up top. He's selling blankets and comforters for 15 lira a piece. What will it be tomorrow?

Even the flora and fauna here seem on a constant ingenious hunt to invent a livelihood. Little nooks in the ancient walls provide a foothold for flourishing plants. Birds nest in these plants, and in little holes in the walls. Looking at what seems to have been the foundations of an ancient building, now on display in a park, we noticed a sense of activity before recognizing its source. Then we saw them: cats. Dozens of them. Emerging from the nooks and crannies in the ruin, sunning themselves on the grass which grew between the blocks of stone.

We see cats on the alert outside butcher shops and fish markets, and patrolling the bridge where men are positioned with their fishing rods. We've seldom seen an unhealthy cat; people feed them at intervals through the day, but they're active, anyway, on the alert for the main chance. What could be more creative than that?

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Ghosts ate my blog

The accompaniment to writing this is the gas metre ticking in the kitchen and the birds outside the window.  We're leaving this flat at 7 a.m. for the infamous Terminal five to continue our journey to Istanbul.  Of course, I can't sleep so am squeezing the last of the taebags into the stimulus for a farewell-to-London blog.

Things changed this week. Rolf arrived last Saturday morning, and after 
recovering from jetlag, managed to get our laptops working properly, fixed the 
shower head, and generally restored a sense of Meindl-over-matter to our environment. The weather, at last, warmed up enough to make it more pleasant to be outside at night, so we walked and walked and walked and walked.  Heaven!

On the way home Tuesday night we stopped and looked back at the tower of London, the full moon yellow above and overshadowed by a few wispy clouds. The sight would have scared me, if I'd been on my own. As it was I turned rather quickly away from it and deliberately put my mind on other things.

I've been disturbed by ghosts since I've been here, felt the presence of the Tower and its macabre history looming, as well as the history of the slums and tenements that once filled the area where we're staying. I haven't known what to 'do" about this other than feel it, and be 
disturbed, but as always, Rolf had a completely different approaach from mine.  While I went to the British Library on Thursday to listen to the marvellous oral histories they have collected, 
Rolf took a tour of the Tower of London, explored it I suppose the way he did 
the shower head before he set it right, and I was happy to get his information second hand, without having to 
cram myself through any dark passageways or duck under any low ceilings with a pounding heart.

London seems to be proud of its violent history. Entering the Tower Hill station you're greeted by the life-sized mannequin of a hooded executioner with his axe poised and ready to chop off yer 'ed. At the London Bridge station, you meet people painted to look like bloody torture victims picking up their smokes or snacks from the vendors' stalls. On their breaks, I guess.  At Smithfield Market a sign boasts that this was the site where people were drawn and quartered, and later, the place where men took wives that they found unsatisfactory, to try and sell them. These violent images are part of the tourist attraction, and I feel like a bit of a wuss, being disturbed by it, a sheltered Toronto girl who wants my experience of history sanitized.  Better to know the truth than have it suppressed, I guess.  But this isn't openness -- it's a kind of glorification and it ...well, it disturbs me.

We did a few more pleasant "touristy" things this week as well, climbed the dome at St. Paul's and looked 
down over London, the old and the new.  All those spiderweb streets that are 
so difficult to navigate, the little courtyards and hidden places that you'd better 
explore the first time because you'll never find them again, and down the centre of it all, the Thames glinting in the sun.  Friday, we took a boat trip on the Thames, 
taking a short stop at Greenwich just in time for the ball to drop that indicates 
"One o'clock, Greenwich mean time" though we didn't actually witness the moment.  
We then continued on to the bizarre, space-age looking Thames barrier and back to Westminister. One of the things 
I love about London is this waterway coming right up through the centre of the 
city, so that in an hour you can see everything from ancient docks to magnificent 

We saw overview and cross-section, this week.

And now it's six a.m. and my battery is running out.

In fact, I'm completing this blog in Istanbul because the whole computer went crazy and started giving me strange messages.  As it is, the line breaks are pretty wonky.  One last bit of mischief from the ghosts?

Time to move on.

Thursday, April 17, 2008


Tonight's inspiration:
We've got a real funky thing goin on gotta whole lotta rhythm goin down.

I think it was my first day or two in London, I realised that no matter where I went, some phrase I overheard, some street sign would invoke a nursery rhyme or song or story from my childhood. Brenna wrote to me something along those lines last week. London is a place of allusions and references. And not always pleasant ones.

My old man's a dustman
'E wears a dustman's 'at
'E wears cor blimey trousers
And lives in a council flat.


With 'er 'ead tucked underneath 'er arm
She walks the bloody tower
With 'er 'ead tucked underneath 'er arm
At the midnight hour.


When will you pay me?
Say the bells of Old Baley
When I grow rich
say the bells of Shoreditch.

When I grow rich. People go to London to seek their fortunes, don't they? Or at the very least, to visit the Queen, or is that only ladybugs? Excuse me: birds. Lady birds.

London still feels like a huge challenge to me, something I have to scale or conquer or overcome. Maybe it's the nursery rhymes and fairy tales. In fairy tales things come in threes, so here we go: Week Three, The British Library.

I am really pleased with the research I've been doing, almost overwhelmed by what I'm discovering. I feel I need a month of staring into space before I can figure out how to begin. But I can't stop now. There's so much more I feel I need to discover, especially about life here in the late fifties and early sixties. Monday afternoon I found that the British Library has oral histories you can listen to. All you have to do is get a reader card.

This time, I freely admit it, I had a bit of an Attitude when I approached the reader registration desk. Here, I said, tossing them a handful of plastic cards. Just google me, okay?

The librarian smiled, and googled, and a few minutes later pronounced that she'd be pleased to offer me a card. However, the ID I'd handed her was not adequate. Not having a drivers' license, I'd have to give her a bill or bank statement addressed to me. But, I quavered, just tasting those oral histories on the other side of the counter, I always PAY my bills. So much for attitude.

There was some talk of Rolf's sending the documents by courier, but it makes no sense, given that he's (hooray!) arriving here Saturday morning in person. So I'll go next week. The British Library is a cool place. You can feel it. It's a newish building with a wide open entrance and several exhibits open to the public. That's even before you get up to the reading rooms upstairs.

After my rejection at the hands of the Reader Registration department, I cooled my jets looking at an exhibit called Bloomsbury Below Stairs devoted to the housekeeper of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, Grace Higgins. Then I went to a talk by Justine Picardie about the archives she used for her new novel, Daphne. She talked about the mystery and intimacy of archives, their power to draw you in, if you're not careful, at the expense of your real and present daily life. These are all themes dear to my heart and I felt that -- if only I could get in the door -- The British library is a place where I, and my strange pursuits, would be understood.

If my quest in London is for archives, then I've certainly made my fortune,already. I know, though, that something deeper and darker than has drawn me here, too, and I'm not sure it's just a matter of "finding" or "getting" something -- for all I know I may be putting something back.

Tuesday, I went to the war museum, an active, buzzing place that departs completely from the reverent "look but don't touch" atmosphere of the museums I'm used to. I went first into an exhibit called "The Children's War." In the first room there were rear-projected photographs of a series of children that faded back and forth to elderly versions of their faces. There and then, I was consumed with sadness, and we hadn't even got to the "evacuation" section. How come no one else is crying, I kept thinking, as kids milled around me with their parents. "No, I wasn't there dear, but Nanna was ..." After an hour and a half, I'd had enough ... I was full or spent, or something. No "blitz experience" for me, not Tuesday and perhaps not ever.

I headed towards Brixton (Guns of. Clash, The). The wide, gently curving streets were a relief after the claustrophobic east end with its oddly angled lanes and close-set buildings bearing down. When I got to the market (location of Electric Lane) my pace slowed and a big smile replaced the morning's tears. Everyone seemed to be walking more slowly, and the vendors were laughing and calling from stall to stall. Reggae music was playing. There were vegetables and fruit and meat and clothes and electronics all thrown in together, and lots of people who just seemed to be hanging out.

I've become a materialist over the last few years. The word I hate the most is 'energy' -- good energy, bad energy, high energy low energy. Incoherent, I say. Will someone define this energy thing?

But I've been really sensitive to what I have to call 'energy' here in London, both the frantic striving and aggressive energy, and the vitality and creativity too. I've been soaking in both, and often, within hours or even minutes of each other.

And by the way, instead of getting up and writing at five in the morning, I'm sitting in the Cape having a glass of wine. Yes, writing under the influence of something other than caffeine.

Weird energy.