Copyright © 1998 David C. Hay
The train was another overnighter, and we arrived in Istanbul late the following morning. On the train, I met Jurgen, a young German fellow from Nuremberg, and we wound up traveling together for the next several days.
My life has been a succession of living in progressively more exotic places. From my home town in Western Colorado I moved to the Los Angeles area for college, and from there to New York City. After those experiences, when I first saw Western Europe, I was actually a little disappointed. It's not really all that exotic. It is a very civilized place. Not shocking at all! Eastern Europe turned out to be more exotic, but even before I went I knew I had to see Istanbul. I imagined that to see Istanbul would be to experience exotic the way I had when I first saw New York City.
It turned out that Istanbul was exotic like New York. Actually, it turned out that Istanbul was simply like New York. It is a big, crowded city, with people coming through from all corners of the world. Moreover, after my time in socialist lands, it seemed remarkably western in many ways.
Coming from the Socialist world, Istanbul was wonderful: people wanted to
sell me stuff! In one way the press accounts of the countries I just came from had been accurate: the stores were pretty empty. Fresh fruits, vegetables, and flowers were plentiful, but many were the basic items I had been used to having available in any drug store — that simply weren't.
(Poland did have wonderful souvenirs, though. Cepelia is a chain of stores selling Polish folk art and they had some lovely items. Also, Poland makes great tapestries. And great posters. I wound up carrying home a lot of stuff.)
Like New York City, Istanbul has incredible beauty, right next to incredible squalor. We saw Hagia Sophia, the former cathedral, now a mosque, which had the largest enclosed space in the world. Jurgen made the wry observation that when this was built in the sixth century, our ancestors were still running around wearing bearskins in the forests of Northern Europe.
Because of its similarities to New York City, Istanbul wasn't as formidable as I had expected. Whether I should have or not, I felt quite comfortable exploring the back streets, the museums, and the waterfront. The bazaar, which takes up a large part of the center of the city, had all kinds of nifty things for sale, but I didn't really have any more room to take anything home.
And like in New York, you can meet people from all over the world.
I met one couple that had bicycled from London. I met another fellow who had hitch-hiked from Australia via Nepal, the Khyber Pass, and many adventures. He had some interesting stories to tell!
Jurgen and I took the ferry across the Bosperus so we could say we had been to Asia. There, we met up with some Turks who had worked in Germany, and who were delighted to have someone to speak that language to. They took us in and showed us a great time. We went swimming, played cards together, and ate some local food. (I didn't think it was prudent to ask what was in it.)
The swimming was fun. I got the opportunity to shoot a spear gun at some fish. (Worry not. The fish were in no danger from me.) At one point, after we had been swimming, and our Turkish friends were somewhere else, Jurgen and I were sitting on a stoop near the dock. A boat landed and a collection of Japanese ladies disembarked. They saw us and rushed up to us. "Hey, Turks!" it seemed they were saying.
Two "Turks" — Jurgen and Me
Now, both Jurgen and I were over six feet tall, with light brown hair. We didn't exactly look Turkish. But we were good enough for the Japanese ladies, so they clustered around us, took each other's pictures with us, and took home stories of hanging out with the Turks. I have visions of our faces showing up on home movie screens all over Japan as representatives of the Middle East.
We enjoyed the villages on the Asian side. At one point some children collected around us, and we enjoyed playing with them. As usual, I made lots of origami birds and other critters.
Some Turkish Friends
One incident I would have sworn I imagined, but Jurgen confirmed that he saw it too. We were walking down a main street in one of the villages. I looked up at the second storey of one of the buildings, and noticed a lovely young woman sitting in the window. She was giving us a radiant smile. In the time it took me to look away, glance at something else on the square, and look back, she had been replaced by a very dour — and much older — woman. The young woman was clearly not to be exposed to the likes of us.
On the other hand, later in the day, one of the Turks took us home to meet his family. He had a singularly attractive daughter, and I made a compliment to that effect to him. His immediate reaction was, "Would you like to marry her?"
Thanks anyway . . .
The society's organization was interesting: The men were pretty much free to spend the afternoon drinking tea, entertaining us, and generally enjoying themselves. The women were doing the work behind the scenes.