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Wet and Naked in Istanbul

July 6, 2009 2 comments

A large Turkish man has my arms crossed in front of my chest and is slowing crushing me to death. I grunt. He looks at me funny. You try not grunting while the life is being squeezed out of you, pal. But I notice that none of the other wet, naked men surrounding me are making a sound, so I’m clearly doing something wrong.

We’re all sweating profusely in a large, domed steam room in Chemberlitash Hamami, the great, historic Istanbul bath house, designed by the great Sinan himself. The nice girl at the entrance told me the full luxury service cost 95 lira, tip included. The large Turkish man destroying my spine, however, makes it clear this is not the case.

“Good?”
“Yeah, it was great.”
“No complaint?”
“No complaints.”
“You give service!” He rubs his forefinger and thumb together, the international symbol for cash.
“Whatever you say, sir.”

It takes a little getting used to, the Turkish bath, that is. You’re allowing another grown man to lather you up in soap, shampoo you, and rub you down with a rough cloth that will scrub several layers of skin off, particularly if you’ve been in the sun. It’s enormously relaxing, particularly after you’ve been lying on your back in a steam room for a quarter of an hour, letting the usual anxieties of solo travel melt away under the heat of the steam. Would, anyway, if you could actually get over your many nagging concerns and neuroses, on top of the fact that you’re naked, in a strange city, in a strange country, completely at the mercy of the large men with their hands on all your pressure points.

But you do find yourself relaxing after all, because you can’t help it, because in this heat and steam your body practically faints as a precautionary measure anyway and because you’ve been on your feet for the last few days wandering the city. And when the heat starts, and you lie down, you do, in fact, relax.

What’s the worst that could happen?

You could get a little TOO relaxed.

You could, find all sorts of autonomic responses letting loose in this environment.

You could, in short, pop a boner.

“You want Yeshuldirek Hammami, I think.”

Yeshuldirek is the city’s gay hammami. Quite nice, according to the guidebook, but not what you’re looking for.

“I’m not gay,” you respond wearily.

“Is wrong hammami!”

“Look, I’m just remembering something from the other day, alright? It’ll be gone in a second, I’m thinking about baseball.”

“You want to buy a carpet?”

“What?”

“You want to buy a carpet? My cousin has very nice shop around corner, I show you.”

“Wait, I thought you barely spoke English?”

This scence does not, in fact, happen to me, although the scenario plays out in my head as I desperately try to steer my mind away from some recent, pleasant events and toward the Michael Jackson funeral, the Tour de France, and the slowly collapsing US dollar. Oddly though, everyone in Turkey is *very* eager to either sell you a carpet or direct you to a relative of theirs who can.

It’s becoming a bit of a habit to title these posts “Wet and naked in…”, for which I can only say is totally appropriate for someone who was voted most likely to be arrested for indecent exposure his senior year in high school.

[Auth note: I’m not making that up]
[Ed note: *Sigh* no, he’s really not}

Despite the nervousness of my first trip to a hammani, and the ever-present possibility of sudden bonerhood, the bath is, in fact, an experience not to be missed. I end up getting the works, which includes an oil massage as well, the sort of deep-tissue massage you’re used to getting in New York. You can pay a much cheaper price to use the facilities and clean yourself, but since I may never get to Istanbul again, I opt for the full monty. It’s a fantastic massage in a historic setting, and I of course meet someone from Long Island on the table next to me while we’re both being pounded into burger. He leaves before I do, and I never see his face, he only sees the back of my head.

Outside I try chatting up the girl at the entrance, who speaks flawless English, looks vaguely Slavic, and I figure must be European.

“Where are you from?”

“Near Istanbul.”

I comment on her perfect English.

“I’m studying English Literature.”

What masochistic streak runs through the Turks that has turned them all into Literature majors? Don’t you realize that down that path lies ruination, heartache, and professional malaise? Don’t you realize that you’ll be ME in ten years?

She’s studying the Beat poets. Their girlfriends, more specifically, and is working on her masters degree.

I’m about to ask her if she know’s a decent place for dinner when she asks if I’m in the market for a carpet.

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Last Night in Istanbul

July 6, 2009 2 comments

My last night in Istanbul I read “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” in one go, sitting in a sidewalk bar. A quote: “Never love a wild thing…the more you do, the stronger they get. Until they’re strong enough to run into the woods. Or fly into a tree. Then a taller tree. Then the sky. That’s how you’ll end up, Mr. Bell. If you let yourself love a wild thing. You’ll end up looking at the sky.”

It was Sunday. Overcast, which is why it made perfect sense that that was the day I found the perfect sunbathing spot on the sourth shore of the Golden Horn, among shards of broken glass from discarded beer bottles. The city felt hungover: still lively in a half-hearted sort of way, but clearly had left its best energies on the table the night before. I was beat myself; tired of museums and mosques, of chicken pitas, Efes beer, tourists. Tired of restaurant touts and rug salesmen, tired of every attempt by strange men to hustle me into a strange bar where they can get me drunk and take my money. Welcome to foreign travel in large cities, son, get used to it.
Frankly, I’m tired of the passivity that comes with being a tourist. I want WORK to do here. I hate the idea of living off savings, but I hate more the knowledge that I’m not doing anything particularly useful to anyone else. I miss having, not structure, but an objective, some goal for which to strive.
I’m off to Sofia, Bulgaria today, and then to Belgrade, then Novi Sad, Serbia, assuming I can figure out the train schedules. Here’s to Holly Golightly and memories of Istanbul.

Hagia Sophia

July 3, 2009 Leave a comment

I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive.

-Henry Miller

It’s 9am and my head feels like a jackhammer. That may partially be due to the fact that there is a very loud jackhammer tearing up the road in front of my hostel. The Sultan Hostel, a rat-hole of a place that’s charging me 35 euros a night (the tell me the 10% discount for Hostel International members only applies to online bookings). The hostel operates a bar downstairs that plays music at a shockingly high decibel level, making sleep for any of its guests impossible until about 3am. What follows is about four hours of relative peace and quiet, until the roadwork begins at 7am. I’m on the first floor. It has one shared bathroom, which has no door, and is right by the stairway, and is also the bathroom for the patrons of the bar downstairs. As I’m showering on my first night, one of the bar patrons in to take a shit, and I hear him grunting in his stall as I try to keep my beach towel on a hook and away from the spray of water from the showerhead.
The room I’ve taken is freakishly hot, obliging me to open the floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall windows to let some air in, which exposes me to everyone on the street. Not so much a room then as a little alcove above the street that has a mattress and an electrical supply. This is easily the worst and most expensive room I’ve rented on my trip. Exhausted, after my first night I resolve to pay an additional 15 euros a night to take a luxury room at a quieter hotel (any hotel is a quieter hotel). Today I am regretting that decision, as the lack of sleep and constant jackhammering as I type this seem in perfect harmony with the vagabond lifestyle. Also, this place is filled with backpackers, all of us clutching our identical Lonely Planet guidebooks at the complimentary breakfast.

Sidenote: The typical Turkish complimentary breakfast includes a hunk of white bread, a hard-boiled egg, tea, sliced cucumber and tomato, sometimes some olives.

In our shared misery we are eager to meet while smoking a nargile. Instant, temporary tour groups are formed as clutches of backpackers aglutinate for protection, for camraderie, for the sake of talking to someone who speaks your language.

My little clutch of tourists left last night at 1am, with promises that we would look each other up if we found ourselves in Amsterdam, London, New York, Australia. We’d spent the day together, three of us, at the Grand Bazaar, haggling for pashminas, at the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace.

The Hagia Sophia. I first see her from a lousy rooftop restaurant, galantly taking the seat that has me staring into the setting sun. It also has me staring at both the Blue Mosque and Sophia. Sophia sits to my right, a central dome over a square building surrounded by towers. She sits above us, we’re to her south, and with the various tombs and buttresses attached to her, the dome seems to be the pinnacle surrounded by foothills. She’s lit from be below by an amber light, which I can see through the smoke of my nargile pipe, through the haze of alcohol I’ve entered thanks to the raki.

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We visit her that afternoon, the church that was the center of Christendom, the greatest church in all of Europe for so long. The interior is cavernous, gigantic, soaring…words fail. For all the Renaissance majesty of the Vatican’s frescoes, she has nothing on the sheer power and simple beauty created by this vast interior space. The effect is dulled somewhat by the presence of an enormous fuck-off scaffolding in the center that’s been put up to help with the renovations, and I struggle to imagine what she must look like without it. Enormous discs with Arabic writing are attached to the tops of the walls, where the dome begins curving toward the center, additions from the conquest of 1453, repurposing Christianity’s greatest architectural achievement as a mosque. Mehmet wasn’t too destructive though, all things considered, and must have had enough of an artist’s eye to appreciate the beauty of the Byzantine frescoes of his vanquished enemy to let them remain. And they are gorgeous. In a few spots you can see images of crosses painted over with abstract Islamic designs, but for the most part the original artwork, though damaged in places, remains.

Bit of Viking graffito left by a Varangian guardsman in the Hagia Sophia

Bit of Viking graffito left by a Varangian guardsman in the Hagia Sophia

Constantinople was considered Christianity’s last bastion against the threat of Muslim armies by medieval Europe, and the Sophia itself quite literally played that role during the conquest. Once the walls of the city were finally breached, thousands of civilians ran to the Sophia as their last hope for protection, barring the doors against the invading army, praying to God to deliver them from their enemies at the final hour. The doors, huge, massive wooden things, must have echoed like drumheads against the vast echo chamber of the domed interior, the sounds of battle still raging outside, a few thousand people waiting for the end to come.

The interior of the Hagia Sophia

The interior of the Hagia Sophia

Sophia is peaceful now, a site of layered meaning, Arabic writing covering over crosses, Viking runes carved into the banister in the upper gallery by a bored Varangian guardman, the church itself built on top of an earlier church that was destroyed during the Nika riots, with chunks of the older building sitting outside her. The Hagia Sophia, the church of Divine Wisdom, is almost fifteen hundred years old. She is not the oldest building I have seen, but I have never seen her equal.

Girl passed out in the upper gallery of the Hagia Sophia

Girl passed out in the upper gallery of the Hagia Sophia