Thanksgiving day I went to a potluck hosted by the kind folks at the Fulbright House along with around ten of my colleagues and thirty or so Fulbrighters, plus some family members. Although I didn't see the Detroit Lions play and our feasting lasted a mere two hours, there was a huge amount of delicious food and a family feel which did the day justice. After a full day in Amman where I slept in, ate leisurely breakfast, and enjoyed taking it easy immensely, I was ready to head for the hills. Saturday morning Katrina and I hopped a 6:00am flight to Istanbul.
When I was a kid we did a family vacation in Turkey and Greece. I remember Istanbul being vibrant and sort of crazy but my favorite part was shooting air rifles at targets in the middle of a heavily trafficked square.
We were off the plane and onto a subway and then a street car before 10:00am on a crisp sunny morning. There were many more trees than in Amman and it actually felt like fall. Packed into the street car we began taking things in. First was the sheer size of the place; we traveled great distances passing a tremendous amount of development from old apartment buildings to massive modern developments and minarets in every direction. With a city population of just under 13 million, Istanbul ranks as the fifth largest city proper in the world and the second largest metropolitan area in Europe. The city has doubled in size since 1990. The dress of young people was more similar to Europe than the Arab world and the women wore colorful hijabs with tiny rims in front which framed their faces smartly. We were on the train no more than five minutes when Katrina said "apparently we travel in silence in Istanbul," and it was rare to hear a word spoken.
After finding our way our hotel in Sultanahmet, we walked into the lobby and were greeted by my good friend Luke from Melbourne whom I studied with in the Basque County in 2002. Luke's sister Skye and her husband Peter were celebrating their one year anniversary and took the opportunity to see Istanbul with a couple of friends and family. Katrina and I were graciously included into the group which also included their friend Zoë and Luke's girlfriend Lisa. They dubbed themselves Team Turkey.
Blue Mosque Interior
We spent a day and a half with Luke and company touring the city sites and eating kepab. Turkey is 99.8% Muslim and following World War I and the fall of the Ottoman empire, Attaturk led the transformation into the modern secular nation state which Turkey is today. As its geographic location suggests, Istanbul has an incredible mixture of cultural influences. Walled palaces, sprawling parks, Islamic architecture, European style outdoor cafes, in a wonderfully walkable city with incredible fews of the Bosphorous and Sea of Marmara all add to the allure of this wonderful city.
Turkey is charted to become part of the European Union, however it's unclear if or how long it will be before this occurs. With ancient animosities with a few neighbors and ongoing disputes like Cyprus, certain countries want to keep Turkey out and some within Turkey wonder about the true benefits of membership. Recently, Turkey has had some conservative Islamic leanings in government and taken a hard line on matters regarding Israel. In Jordan I have had multiple individuals tell me that the Turks are almost just like Arabs. A level of kinship exists between Turkey and the Arab world, and regardless of how you see the country, it is indisputable that Turkey has a unique role, one in which it straddles Eastern and Western worlds. With strong economic growth and a relatively fast bounce-back from the recent global economic downturn, a population of 75 million, huge natural resources, and a modern cultural capital in Istanbul it will be very interesting to see how Turkey progresses.
Compared to Amman Istanbul has a much more relaxed feel, where people tend more to go about their business rather than be up in yours. Though the aggressive selling of rugs, scarves, and street corn is tiresome, it's easy to escape those parts of the city and wander the streets in peace.
Before going to dinner on our last night Luke arranged a trip to a Turkish Bath. Seven of us entered an unassuming walkway off a narrow street which descended into a large Islamic style two story courtyard cradling a large fountain. We picked up our towels and funny rubber shoes, the girls went one way and the guys the other. We men descended further down into a softly lit wide open cavern with high ceilings, small skylights, columns, and marble surfaces. Large middle aged men in tiny towels and pot bellies and the same rubber shoes sat around casually swinging wash rags.
Luke, Peter, and I walked through like we went there all the time, without the slightest idea of what to do. We continued walking through several different chambers: one with fountains with warm water and bowls to dowse yourself with and another with low ceilings with a hot pool that was the size of four hot tubs. The jacuzzi room appeared to be the end of the line, I did a cannon ball and water dripped from the ceiling of the cave and we giggled like school girls. Luke also jumped in and his splash surely outdid mine and soon after one of those middle aged men peaked his head in, looked at us disapprovingly, and waved us to come with him.
We were escorted into the large open area with skylights and a 20 by 20 foot marble altar in the middle. Each of us was paired up with one of the guys that had been swinging a rag. They smiled and grunted at us as they moved us first to the spot with the fountains and bowls. At the bowl station they sat us down and dumped water over our heads, scrubbing occasionally with the hand loofah, and contorting our arms and neck. Occasionally, he'd shake my body as if to say "relax." I tried to go limp but a couple of times he had me in a sleeper hold in which it would have taken a simple twist to pop my neck like a twig. Afterwards, they took us to the altar where they slid and spun us around while providing a not painless massage and removing a large portion of the skin on our backs. My favorite part was when I was on my back and they grabbed me by the shoulder and knee and spun me around. You'd do a 180 in about a quarter of a second and they'd be ready to inflict more pain on a different part of your body. I peered across the altar and watched as they spun Luke's massive 6' 5" 240 lb frame with ease.
We didn't take any pictures but this was sort of what it looked like, but less nice
After around two hours we showered off, were wrapped in a fresh towel, changed, and were ready for dinner. We all felt fantastic leaving the place and I made my favorite "I feel like a hundred (insert any currency)" comment.
As mentioned earlier Luke and I studied in San Sebastian in 2002 and I have had the good fortune of seeing him on several occasions since then. Though he lives half a globe away, he's excellent at maintaining contact with a core group friends that span the globe. Every so often I'll get an email saying "I'll be in LA/NYC/Bangkok/Istanbul in a month? will you be around/can you meet up?"
Though he once told me, "I wish I had a resume," I don't believe him. His extensive adventuring has included swimming naked among icebergs in Patagonia, toying with dynamite in the silver mines of Southern Bolivia, playing professional basketball in Norway, brandishing a dead cat during a Carnival celebration in Southern Spain while wearing William Wallace garb, and giving a wedding speech in Australia in full Navy regalia (he has never served in the military). A few years back he also visited Istanbul and befriended some folks at a beautiful restaurant in the old part of town. Around ten years ago some of the restaurant staff discovered they were sitting on top of an archaeological site. Now the restaurant allows a privileged few to dine in the beautiful cave beneath their floors and Luke managed to talk his way into having the place reserved just for us. Great food, amazing location, and even better company.
Skye and Peter's anniversary Dinner, nice work Luke
Istanbul is a city that I could live in for a couple of years. Katrina and I meandered through the city for hours on the narrow streets and the park below the Palace. In the park we saw dozens of girls in hijabs sitting on benches beneath maple trees making out with their boyfriends. An intriguing country which is "at a crossroads" according to recent Economist article. Though the Economist always says countries are "at a crossroads" it may actually be true in Turkey's case and Istanbul is at the center of it all.