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?

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