Thursday, September 6, 2007

CD13 (English version) - TURKISH CHRONICLES

PRELIMINARY WARNING: Here’s an attempt to translate my impressions about Istanbul so that the characters of this chronicle can read it as well. As usual, feel free to correct, revise and make as many amends as needed. My English is not as lousy as ten years ago, but it’s far from decent, especially when it comes to writing. I apologise for any inaccuracies, the Spanglish and the super-long-Spanish-like sentences, and for a few poetic licenses (a fancy way to disguise my lack of literary resources in English).

Ancient chronicles

My relationship with Turkey began in 1995, when chance –as usual, placed me two doors away from Gökçe in Foresteria, our residence. When school was over (on Sunday, 25 May 1997) Gökçe and her parents, Carola and I headed to Istanbul. The real adventure began once I stood on Turkish soil. I was told by our usual travel agent that I didn’t need a visa to go to Turkey. In any case, I could always purchase one right at the airport, just as Tesmer, my American roommate, had done. But as the readers may already suspect, Turkish bureaucracy was determined to give us an anecdote to tell in these chronicles.

The immigration officer’s “NO” was categorical. Tears were abundantly shed. My version of the story is as follows: escorted by two police officers, I went to pick up my luggage in order to recheck it, so that I could take the next flight to Italy, go to a Turkish consulate there and get the visa. Meanwhile, Gökçe’s dad ran back and forth throughout the airport, talking to every single officer he found on his way; G’s mum tried to comfort us while Gökçe, tears in her eyes and creaky voice, proclaimed her shame and disdain towards Turkish institutions. One or two hours later, I was given a red stamp on my passport and that very afternoon we were all comfortably sitting in the Özbilgin family’s living room, in Bursa.

Ten years later, I learnt what actually happened, as told by Gökçe herself: while the two police officers were escorting me to the baggage area, Dr. Özbilgin had a turbulent conversation with the immigration officer in which he tried to explain that I was under his responsibility, that my parents did not live in Italy, that I had been misinformed, etc. According to G, her dad, who had met my parents at the school closing ceremony, somehow felt my folks had appointed him with my care. I don’t even think they said hello to each other, as my parents know Turkish as much as Dr. Özbilgin knows Spanish… Anyhow, parents are parents regardless of language and passports, so the image of the poor chubby girl being escorted by the two Turkish men-in-blue must have broken the good doctor’s heart. Meanwhile, the officer was showing off the best of the third world bureaucracy (so familiar to me, indeed, that for a moment I felt I was in Caracas airport instead of Istanbul). He told Dr. Özbilgin the only way for me to get a Turkish visa was if “someone” from the ministry of foreign affairs made a phone call on my behalf. It was Sunday afternoon, for crying out loud! It is a scientifically and universally proven fact that the human brain is absolutely useless on Sundays. Gökçe’s dad could already picture the chubby girl wandering around the lonely streets of Trieste, dragging her sad, heavy backpack behind her… Until he suddenly remembered this character, so familiar to all of us who have grown up under the shadows of bureaucratic possibilities… That friend who happens to be “connected”. Gökçe confessed she has never been able to figure out what profession this man is, or what it is he does exactly. Anyway, he is the one they call every time there’s a bureaucratic complication in the family, and he always manages to sort it out. I just remember Gökçe’s dad glued to a payphone, gesturing and nodding. Gökçe says that ten minutes after the phone call, the very same cocky officer came back with a completely different attitude. “Do you want some tea, Doctor Özbilgin?”; that must have been his new approach, I suppose… The ending of this version you can already guess.

For Gökçe’s dad, introducing an almost-illegal Venezuelan immigrant to his country was an incredible deed he remembers with fondness (though I reckon he must have ended up wishing no more of Gökçe’s international visitors would ever come back to Turkey). For me, on the other hand, it was the obscure beginning of the best trip I’ve ever had. Ten years after the quixotic experience, when Gökçe began to tell the story, Marcus turned towards me and said: “Ah, THAT was you?”. Yes, that was me… His question did two things: first, it made me blush, and second, it made me regret I couldn’t speak Turkish so that I’d be able to convey to Gökçe’s dad how much that day impacted my life as well. And since ten years ago I wasn’t sharp enough to write down my impressions about that trip, here go some more up-to-date.

Contemporary chronicles

I can’t think of a better way to describe Istanbul than through the sensations the city makes me feel.


Istanbul enters through the eyes. On our arrival, the dryness of the landscape visually hit us, accustomed as we were to the bright Irish greenness. On the journey from the airport to Sultanahmet I thought of those movies they used to show during Easter, with a blonde Jesus Christ who dragged a tunic on a dirty soil with a few olive trees in the background. But the semi-desertic image soon disappears. The landscape begins to fill with minarets and three or four-story-high buildings which seem to fight for the best view. As we approach the Bosphorus the combat seems to take a whole new level. The houses pile up and up, defying gravity. The hills that descend to the sea seem to be made of buildings.

And the minarets stand up arrogantly, as if proclaiming no one can see more than Allah.

Parallel to the avenue that is taking us to the hotel are the city walls. Orhan Pamuk, in his memoirs, mentions how Istanbul lives among, over, in the ruins of its past. This observation must be taken literally. Over the old walls, commissioned by Constantine the Great, houses, restaurants, kiosks and stores have been built.

The contrast is overwhelming. The new, the old; the solemn, the vulgar. At times I feel insulted. In Venezuela, a sad XIX century house where -just maybe- Bolívar put a foot on is transformed into an almost-religious museum. In Istanbul, an insolent teenager reclines against the Byzantine wall, putting his left foot on the seventeen-century-old stone, while he squeezes a cigarette on it with his right hand.

While walking in Sultanahmet, the eye begins to get used to the exoticism of the buildings, the whimsical alleys, the solemnity of the History (with capital H) that breathes in every pore of the city. But then again, a new spectacle catches the eye and enters through the retina: the veils and the burkas. I don’t remember seeing so many veiled women ten years ago. Like the civilised Westerners we are, we tried to look indifferent, to appear “used to it”, but the truth is we had to watch: the arrangement of the veils, the patterns and colours, the movement of the body under the fabric, the shape of the nose, the mystery that women hide under the burka.

And the colours of Istanbul, not only in the fabrics and streets, but in the people themselves, also catch the eye. The black and the green eyes, the pale and the dark women, the foreigners, the light and the dark Turks. The colours in the carpets, hanging in the streets.

The colour of the spices: the yellow turmeric, the blood-coloured sumac, the green henna, the red paprika, the brown cumin.

Rubén Darío, the modernist Nicaraguan poet, could not have envisioned a more beautiful image than the lamps hanging in the bazaars, shedding multi-coloured lights through their crystals.

Iznik blue tiles in the Blue Mosque.

The golden roofs of Topkapi.

The unreal turquoise colour of the Marmara Sea, the color of the afternoon light…

Istanbul can make you dizzy at times. The Byzantine, the Ottoman. The European fighting with the Arabesque. The splendour of a mosque or a palace next to a konak that is falling to pieces.

It is the vision of a city that was, no doubt about it, the cradle of what we have become today in the West. The vision of a city that felt asleep.


For me, every city has a distinctive smell. Vienna smells like chestnuts, Seville smells like churros, Buenos Aires smells like chocolate… Istanbul enters through the nose with violence. From the terrace of our hotel, with the Marmara on one side and the Blue Mosque on the other, it smells like the sea. But if you walk in Seraglio, Istanbul smells like roasted corn. A smoke-like, sweetish smell that burns the eyes and stays in the nose for a long time. In Eminönü there’s a mixture of sea and lamb. But it is in the Spice Bazaar where all senses over-saturate: cumin prevails, at first, but if you close your eyes, if you really focus, the smell of the harissa takes over, and then the black chilli and saffron begin to emerge too.

Cardamom, pepper, garlic. Rose tea, lavender.

All the smells at once. The brain just can’t process them. When we leave the Bazaar, when we enter the New Mosque, my nose is still recovering. My brain is still classifying and labelling the smells, letting me know: “That sweet smell was apple tea, that fruity one was fenugreek”.

It’s been almost a month –and more than ten years, and I still can’t name a smell for Istanbul. Maybe the smell of the olive oil soap they gave us in the hotel. Maybe the smell of humidity down in the Basilica Cistern.

Or the smell of cigarette smoke that impregnates everything in the city. But then again, that’s not it. Istanbul does have a particular smell. I just can’t figure it out yet.


I could spend hours trying to describe what Turkey tastes like. I could try to shred with words Hamdi’s pistachio kebab, or the baklavas Carola and I used to eat by the dozens at Gökçe’s.

Or the Grand Bazaar ayran (honey and mint, heavenly combination), the humus at Gökçe’s wedding, Hamdi’s baba ghanoush, eric by the dozen in Bursa, the thousand different kinds of nuts in the Spice Bazaar.

The honeycomb and the bitter cherry juice of Armada Hotel, Gökçe’s grandma’s miracle soup, lamb so soft it melts in your mouth, the pistachios from the street vendors in Sultanahmet, so many different kinds of olives it is impossible to remember their names.

The apple tea burns your tongue with flavour. Even cold water (su, indispensable word in the Turkish summer) tastes like glory in Istanbul.


Istanbul can also be felt right to the bones. A Turk touches without reservations. A tap on the shoulder is an invitation to do business.

Visiting mosques was an absolutely tactile experience. A ritual for the skin: taking the shoes off, covering head and shoulders, sitting on the praying room carpets or on the cold marble stones of their courtyards.

After an infamous Irish summer where the temperature wouldn’t rise beyond 22 degrees, the Mediterranean heat gave a whole new meaning to the wonderful fountains around the city.

Watching men doing the ablutions before the prayer made us envious. Watching the sea at the distance, untouchable, frustrated us. After walking for hours, pushing Diego’s buggy up Istanbul’s steep roads, we fully understood the relationship between Turks and water. Washing up before the prayer, building underground cisterns, making architectonic marvels out of fountains, splashing water when bidding farewell to a visitor, it all makes sense.

And for those who “see” with their hands, like me, walking in the Grand Bazaar was a real pleasure. Each carpet, rug, tablecloth, scarf, veil, each centimetre of fabric is a temptation. Sinking your hands in pistachio, hazelnut and almond baskets. Touching with the tip of your fingers, almost with reverence, Istanbul’s columns, walls, mosaics and tiles, fences and rails, fountains, granite and marble stones, is to catch some of Pamuk’s hüzün.


From the call to prayer to the annoying Arab music in taxis, ears can’t escape Istanbul’s charm. The city moves to the rhythm of a “rough” language, but this roughness has apparently given its speakers an almost supernatural ability to learn all languages on earth. Hugo and I regretted not knowing Basque or any other weird and mysterious language when we walked through the alleys of the Grand Bazaar. We missed a secret code to freely express which lamp we liked or which tea set we wanted to pick. The salesmen, standing by the doors of their stores, are hunting for words in order to label their next pray. Italian? No, maybe Spanish or Portuguese. And in a matter of seconds they bomb the passers-by with welcomes in three or four different languages. I remembered then the myth of the tower of Babel, and I thought its naïve author never met the Turk from whom I bought spices and who spoke to me in perfect Spanish, even emulating different accents of my language.

The other music from Istanbul is composed by its squealing and melancholic seagulls…

…the sea sound, close yet untouchable, the melody of traffic –unforgiving as in all big cities. And the best of all: the horns of boats and ships.

Pamuk mentions them over and over again. I must confess I felt annoyed by how he deals with the topic of melancholy in his novel –Istanbul, memories of a city. In spite of being the main character of his work, I thought this hüzün didn’t reach me through his words. Pamuk depicts a grey, wintry Istanbul, saddened by its past glories, but this is not quite what makes it a nostalgic city. Hüzün may be felt and breathed in an Istanbul full of movement, in the midst of a summer morning. It gets to your bones when the sun sets and the call to prayer bounces in every wall of the city. It is finally understood when the ships mourn in Eminönü, in their slow journey through the Bosphorus.


Maşallah is the word that best defines the spiritual aspect of our week in Istanbul. Something that surely tourist guides don’t mention is that the Turk is a very familiar character. We were amazed, once and again, by how affectionate everyone was towards Diego. In each store, restaurant or museum, there was always someone who would come to the baby to make a comment about him, touch him or even hold him.

When we were waiting for our friends to take a Bosphorus boat trip, a hairy, scary-looking fellow came to Diego’s buggy, where he was pleasantly asleep, and took his picture with a cell phone. The word we kept hearing any time this kind of thing happened was “maşallah”. When we told Gökçe about it and we asked her to translate it, the three of us fell in the awkward silence left by linguistic gaps. It didn’t matter anyway, because we already knew what it meant. Maşallah  is the Turkish version of the Venezuelan “Dios me lo bendiga”. A blessing, a congratulation, a good wish.

A few days ago I told a friend that Europe cannot be fully understood without visiting Istanbul, but I suspect my affection toward this city and this country is not only due to the marvelous feeling of standing in the middle of Haghia Sophia and looking up to its dome.

Or getting lost in the labyrinth of the Grand Bazaar, or letting yourself go in the blue tones of Sultanahmet Camii.

Or feeling ridiculously tiny inside Süleymaniye.

Turkey is Gökçe and her family; her mum laughing out loud when Carola and I burnt half of her kitchen trying to cook some empanadas; her dad driving in the middle of the night just to give us an amazing gift -Pamukkale; her grandma making us soup; her little brother making an effort to understand our poor English. Ten years later, Turkey is an encounter with my imaginary friends. It is being able to finally materialise them to Hugo and Diego: You see, Hugo? Limpho does exist! And being able to repeat the magic formula that was naming and placing: “This is Lizzy, from Sweden”. Turkey means sitting down in a café to synthesise ten years in an afternoon, watching Gökçe in white and listening to her Swede say “evet”, while the imam calls to prayer in the background.

It means arguing with Tezz, a kebab in each hand, about our eternal preoccupations, as if ten years were a sigh in a city that has been there since the beginning of time.

* * *

As usual, I’m stuck when it comes to giving this chronicle a closure.

In a long list of the things that generate hüzün, Pamuk says:

But what I am trying to describe now is not the melancholy of Istanbul, but the hüzün in which we see ourselves reflected, the hüzün we absorb with pride and share as a community. To feel this hüzün is to see the scenes, evoke the memories, in which the city itself becomes the very illustration, the very essence, of hüzün. I am speaking of… everything being broken, worn-out, past its prime.

Pamuk adds that that nostalgia does not belong to the external observer, to the tourist; however, I shamelessly take over it, just as I stole the Galician morriña and the Portuguese saudade. His words echo in my head since I finished his novel a few months ago. Everything being broken, worn-out, past its prime. But the city looks as lively as ever. Amongst ruins, with permanent reminders of a hubristic past, the Turks move around a city that vibrates, in the full sense of the word. Nostalgia emanates from everywhere because I, an external observer, a tourist, an outsider, carry it within myself. It’s the nostalgia that accompanies me whenever I somehow return to Duino. Coming back to Turkey and meeting with my friends automatically makes me put my life into perspective.

We sit down for a coffee in a tiny Istanbul street, and while someone tells a funny story about school or what she’s been up to lately, each of us -privately, in silence- makes a quick balance of her own life. Each of us weights her decisions and evaluates her steps. At the door of our thirties, I wonder if, as Istanbul, everything is already sorted out, decided; if all opportunities have been granted, used, wasted; if we all are past our prime (it’s the pessimist in me, I know). But I come back to Istanbul, to the conversation and to my friends and I feel lucky. Despite the differences in styles, careers and lives in general, I feel reflected in each of them. They represent possibilities and prove, ten years before and ten years later, that Duino was a mythical time, something unrepeatable that forever shaped the way I see the world. The price to pay for it is, probably, to drag around a nostalgia, a hüzün by which a see, measure and breathe everything around me.

It is a fair price.

I hope I can come back to Istanbul many times, tour its streets, get lost in its history and in my own history. I hope I can steal, once more, some nostalgia to Orhan Pamuk and the Istanbullus.


1 comment:

  1. I am speechless... This is such a beautiful piece, it brought tears to my eyes. It made me want to be in Istanbul and considering the fact that non-Istanbullus are always a bit sceptical about the city, this in itself is quite a feat my friend.

    And I LOVE the phrase "imaginary friends" by the way. Very real for us, very imaginary for anyone else around