Istanbul: random observations and first impressions

In no particular order, here are my thoughts and observations about the former capital of three ancient empires: Eastern Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman.
Sultanahmet Mosque, or the Blue Mosuqe, my favourite.
Sultanahmet Mosque, or the Blue Mosuqe, my favourite.

The name of city alone conjures up romantic images from the past. If I think of Istanbul, I think of sultans and harems, belly dancers and minarets and the Orient Express. Constantinople, to me, means grand, solid churches and the fall of the Eastern Roman Empire. Byzantium is synonymous with mosaics depicting religious icons created with minuscule tiles.

Mosaic icon inside Hagya Sophia
Mosaic icon inside Hagya Sophia

On leaving the arrivals area at Atatürk Airport, we were greeted by Lionel Messi’s smiley face. The Argentinean international striker is Turkish Airlines celebrity ambassador. Our taxi driver asked where we were from and when I said Argentina, he smiled and said “Messi!” a vendor at the Grand Bazaar said something along the lines of “my people don’t know much about [international] politics but we do know about football.” It was nice to see that people knew about my country even if it’s because of a famous footballer. Sport does bring down all kinds of barriers.

Although the majority of the population is Muslim, Turkish is a secular country. However, the influence of Islam on everyday life is pervasive. The call to prayer sounds five times a day from the minarets and is bounces off every surface and reverberates all over the city. After a while, I learned to tell the time by them. Some women wear the hijab, some wear a burka and some wear Western clothes and don’t cover their heads exercising their freedom to choose. Pork products, of course, are nowhere to be found.

Random street scene at Sultanahmet Square
Random street scene at Sultanahmet Square

Istanbul is forever straddling between two different worlds. Asia and Europe. The Ottoman culture versus the modernization and Europeanization brought about by Atatürk in the early 20th century. A first class city with traces of Third World problems.

Each city has its own particular smell that sets it apart. My nose tells me there are three distinct smells in Istanbul: cat, fish and perfume. There are quite a few stray cats and wherever they congregate, there will be a strong smell (for instance, the walk up to Topkapi Palace.) The Galata Bridge, where fishermen cast their lines and sell the day’s catch, smells like fish. And you can smell perfume anywhere. Turks seem to like wearing fragrance, which wafts in their wake. I wonder if this has any connection whatsoever with the fact that Islam requires the faithful to wash five times a day before prayers. It’s a very good habit that everyone should adopt, if you ask me. (I’m looking at you, Western tourist.)

Cat in a cemetery. Why are there cats in every cemetery around the world?
Cat in a cemetery. Why are there cats in every cemetery around the world?

The streets are a hive of activity: people coming and going, vendors touting their wares (and accosting tourists while they are at it), constant car horns, the cries of seagulls and the calls to prayer. What bothered me a bit was the lack of sense of personal space.

It is normal to see two men or two women walking arm in arm as a sign of friendship but kissing and hugging by couples is seriously frowned upon.

We celebrated New Year’s Eve at a restaurant, or rather, a tourist trap. We went in knowingly; we were aware of this but we decided to go ahead a book a table anyway. The restaurant is located in an 800 hundred year old underground cistern and artistic numbers were included. We saw a belly dancer, who was a bit disappointing, then a folk dance group, which was fun, and then the icing on the cake: a male belly dancer. I didn’t know that men’s hips are capable of such movement. He was absolutely fantastic! Apparently Abdullah from Lebanon is very famous and is even on TV.

The food. Ah, the food! Its smells and flavours are firmly etched in my memory and taste buds.

Of graveyards and stories

This gray, rainy Sunday made me think of graveyards, I’m not sure why. I have this love-hate relationship with them, you see. I hate to think about the degradation of the flesh and that sort of thing, but, on the other hand, I’m drawn to the names and dates on the headstones.

Who were they? What kind of life did they live? What happened to them? Were they happy? I like to romanticize what I read about the deceased. But I can only do that with old graves; the older, the better. One of my favourite things to do when travelling is to visit old churches, which usually have a graveyard attached. I enjoy the peace and quiet and they are generally surrounded by beautiful gardens.

When we lived in Jersey (as in the Channel Islands, not “Joisy” in the US), I would visit each parish church and read the headstones. There were wives who outlived their husbands, beloved husbands who perished at sea, maiden aunts who died in the prime of youth, brave sons who died in battle. All this happened in the 18th and 19th centuries, which made me feel comfortable reading, I think, because it put more distance between us. I don’t think I can do it with recent graves.

St. Brelade (Jersey CI) Most headstones were too weather-beaten to read

Visiting cemeteries can also become a learning experience. A couple of years ago, my parents and I visited the town of Capilla del Señor, about one and a half hours northwest of Buenos Aires (Argentina). The oldest part of the local cemetery has graves that date back to the 1860s. Interestingly, many of the headstones were written in English or in French because of the many Irish and French settlers in the area. There were also reminders of the terrible yellow fever epidemic that ravaged the country in the early 1870s: a whole family was buried there who died in the span of one week and a mass grave of the fever’s victims.

Capilla del Señor Cemetery

Another learning experience for me was visiting the Anglican church at Millbrook (St. Helier, Jersey). This church is surrounded by gorgeous gardens. From a distance, I saw what I thought was a garden feature made with rocks. On closer inspection, it turned out to be a four thousand year old Neolithic passage grave. How fantastic is it that I was able to see something I’d only read about in books! My inner nerd was doing cartwheels.

Neolithic passage grave (Jersey CI)

So far, the most moving experience I’ve had in a cemetery (outside of funerals I’ve attended) was visiting the American War Cemetery in Omaha Beach, Normandy (France). Although I have no ties with World War II since neither my country nor my ancestors took part in it, the endless sea of white crosses was a sobering sight that brought tears to my eyes. I couldn’t help mourning the monumental waste of young lives (it was necessary, I know, but still). On a frivolous note, this is where the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan was shot.

American War Cemetery - Omaha Beach (Normandy, France)

Do you like to visit old or historic cemeteries as well?

It’s good to be home

The light spring breeze caresses my face and ruffles loose strands of hair. I’m sitting next to the table where my mother and her friends are playing burako (a version of canasta played with tiles instead of cards) under the shady trees. The are really focused on the game and are very competitive too!

We are at the club where my siblings and I grew up playing tennis, field hockey or football; the same sports club my parents went to when they were dating and my grandfather played racquetball in the 60s and 70s and where now my nieces play tennis and field hockey too. Lots of history here. It’s like home.

As I sit facing the tennis courts, the smells of spring, the sounds of racquets pounding tennis balls pac pac pac, the birds bring back lots of memories. My gang of friends and I running around, my first crush, long summers by the pool, the ladies playing canasta exactly on this same  spot under the trees.

My thirteen year old niece shows up with her BFF, hockey stick in hand.

And then it hits me: my mum is now part of the burako/canasta playing crowd and I was thirteen not long ago. Funny how life goes in cycles.

You’re from where!?

The Argentinean and the Welshman

I never thought my ethnicity, skin colour, citizenship, religion or even my accent were crucial until I moved to Dallas, Texas.

Back home in Argentina -or at least in my social circle- we were all third or fourth generation Argentinians of mainly Italian or Spanish descent (which accounts for our ethnicity, I guess,) Catholic (at least in name,) and spoke with the same accent (that of Buenos Aires.)

When I was little, meeting people from other provinces with a different accent or with a different religion  was exciting because it felt like discovering a whole new world. Let alone meeting a foreigner!

Back to the present. Now I live in a foreign country, have a foreign accent, have a citizenship that is different to that of most people and my skin colour has acquired some kind of (sick) relevance in the eyes of others.

Here’s a list of the most common replies I’ve got when I say I’m from Argentina (in no particular order, although the blank stare is probably the most popular.)

  • … (blank stare. Many people have absolutely no clue where or what Argentina is. Europe? Africa? A country? A city? I’m not kidding!)
  • Really? But you’re … (and touch their face as if saying “but you’re white!”)
  • Ya’ll go confusing people with your skin tone (again, the a-Latin-American-person-can’t-be-white theme.)
  • No! You can’t be! But you’re O’Reilly! (by marriage, you dumb-ass)
  • No! – Yes, I am – No! – Yes, I am – But then you must be a Nazi! (again, a clear example of prejudice. By the way, this reference to the Nazi stems from the fact that many a Nazi commander took refuge in my country after the war with the help of President Peron and his wife Evita. In exchange of gold. Lots of it. Not one of our proudest moments as a country .)
  • Oh, that’s interesting. (Interesting!!?? Why?) Isn’t Argentina the only white Latin American country? (Huh?? who cares?)
  • Do you eat tacos and burritos too? (Noooooo, that’s mainly Mexico)
  • Oh, I see. Do you speak Spanish? (What else???)
  • Really? I thought you were European/Spanish/French/German/Russian (at least two people have said I speak English with a slight Russian accent. Now that is funny.)

Lately, I’ve started to reply I’m from South America, which is vaguer but nonetheless true. It saves me a lot of explaining.

I sometimes felt discriminated, looked down on, but I realised some people are just ignorant or have misconceptions about countries that lie south of the Rio Grande. Mind you, my hubby is from Wales and some of the comments people made were really funny too:

  • Oh, is that a country? (no comment)
  • I was in Australia once and loved it (He confused  New South Wales with the “old” Wales in the UK)

In a weird sort of way, this makes me feel better.

I embrace my bourgeois life

I love to read other travellers’ adventures because I like to travel and to know about new places. I also like writing so I keep a blog. Three, actually: one is Spanish, one in English and one (in English) about the restaurants we liked in our travels. My friends enjoy my posts and encourage me to keep writing.

But when I compare my posts with other travellers, couchsurfers and backpackers, I feel they’re rather mundane; there’s nothing exotic in them and I feel I’m in a lesser league. I submitted one of my posts to a weekly competition and it didn’t even pass the first round. I lost to posts about things like teaching orphaned elephants to read and write in the jungles of Gobi. OK, that’s not true or even possible but that’s the idea. I don’t go to exotic places, I’ve never met Buddhist monks or tamed a tiger, but that’s OK because that’s not who I am.

I’m not a traveller, I’m a tourist (although I try to mingle with the locals as much as I can). What’s the difference, anyway?

I don’t couchsurf because I’m too shy and too squeamish to sleep in a stranger’s bed (and use their bathroom). Is that a bad thing? I don’t go backpacking for pretty much the same reasons. But I don’t need luxury and 1000 thread count Egyptian cotton sheets: a clean (private) bog is enough for me.

We travel quite a lot because of my hubby’s job and we tend to stay in the same city for a few months at a time. I go out and “explore” whichever city we’re in and then we do fun things together at the weekends, but that’s about it. It’s not exactly watching the sun rise over Mt. Kilimanjaro!

Anyway, unless his next destination is some remote island in the South Pacific, I’ll keep enjoying other people’s adventures and blogging from less adventure-laden places like, oh, Dallas, Toronto or Buenos Aires.