Istanbul, mon amour....

Things I loved here....

  • The Grande Hotel de Londres - Amazing place, loaded with history and a great crowd in the lobby.  Wireless access, central location, strong tea, great decor and wonderful staff. (And they have great new carpeting in the lobby.)  Hemmingway stayed here, so should you.
  • Beyoğlu - This is the neighborhood where it all happens.  Amazing food and the nightlife is endless. Everyone from beautiful people to bohemians is in the neighborhood and on the streets around Istiklal Caddesi (especially in the Asmalımescit area).  Everything to do with art, style, fashion, and food can be found here in the area between Tunel Station and Taksim Square.  Galatasaray has the championship football team.
  • Kepabs at Beyoğlu Köftecisi - The language barrier cannot survive when there is food this good and so inexpensive.
  • Hagia Sophia - In the morning light sublime, in the evening light, unforgettable.  Go early and go often.  Tourists are too shy to go up to the best parts.  Even with scaffolding in place the dome is a wonder to behold.
  • Kariye Museum - This is a must see.  Preserved mosiacs, restored frescoes, and porphyry walls make this an unexpected feast for the eyes.  Go on a Thursday when it is less crowded.  I had the entire museum to myself.
  • Rustempasha Mosque - For me, the most beautiful of Sinan's creations.  The tile ornament is dizzying in its complexity.  The domed space is vast and airy but the space is intimate.  It is a masterpiece of installation.
  • The Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art - This is also referred to as the Carpet Museum. Nothing can prepare you for it.  The scale and execution of the materials in this place are mind boggling.  You completely understand why people wrote stories about flying carpets.  These things are so magical they could be lighter than air.
  • Fish sandwiches on the Bosphorus - You get off the train and there is a guy on a boat with a grill. He tells you that a sandwich is 3YTL.  You have one and it is so fresh and so sweet and so good that you walk over the bridge from Galata every day to have one.  You are never disappointed.
  • Konak Restaurant in Tunel Square - There is another location closer to Taksim but the Tunel location makes much better pide sandwiches.  Plus the front is open for people watching and the ice cream is unreal.
  • Turkish ice cream - Really, it's incredibly rich and good.

Cause I'm a wanderer....

This is the view crossing the Galata Bridge looking back at Sultanahment.  That is Aya Sofya on the right on the hill.

Today I walked for about 10 hours and I did not get tired until I put the key in the door of my room at the Grand Hotel de Londres.  It was amazing today.  I have never seen such a place and I have never ever seen such things.  You see these things in books, or in the collections of a museum, but to see them in context.  It completely boggled my mind.  I found it very hard to take photos today because I did not want to distance my self from what I was seeing.  I heard someone say, "Wow, that's a great photo," while he was looking at something.  I thought, does he even see it?  It is right in front of him. (In this case, the "it" is the mosaic of the Archangel Gabriel in the secondary dome of Aya Sofya.)  At that point I really tried not to think about documenting or preserving.  I just wanted to look with my eyes.
I developed this plan.  I would take the time to go through a situation twice. Once without taking my camera out and the second time I would allow myself to take as many photographs as I wanted.  
So many different things today.  The mosaics at Aya Sofya and the Kariye Museum were astounding in their visual power, even in their ruined state.  The massiveness of the Aya Sofya on the outside compared to the empty soaring space on the inside.  The building is like a huge balloon.  I will go back and see it again (and again).  You cannot imagine the airy feeling of the place.  And it is made of ROCKS; lots of them in the Byzantine fashion.  The tomb of Suleiman the Magnificent and the mosque that bears his name.  The courtyard of the Blue Mosque filled with people answering the call to prayer.  Eating on the street just like I do in New York because the food is so good and so cheap.  Tea everywhere and every language spoken all over the place.
I got very lost and I did not care.  I crossed from my neighborhood in Beyoğlu into what I thought was Sultanahmet and got promptly lost in Fatih.  So many full sized billboards of women in headscarves and fashionable clothing that covered their entire bodies.  It was amazing to go from that to the stylish and beautiful women in other parts of the city.  
Tomorrow I have no idea what is to come.  I am thinking of having a tour, but it was so much fun and thrilling to get lost here I may do it again tomorrow.  I think I will stay on this side of the Golden Horn tomorrow and see what my neighborhood has to offer.  Although, I do want to go see the Basilica Cistern tomorrow, since the Blue Mosque is closed.
Leaving the Hippodrome today, a carpet seller chatted me up.  I told him I am from America and he laughed and said that he could tell.  He wanted to know if this was my first time in Turkey and I told him yes it was but it won't be the last.  He said I had a very kind and happy face.  I thanked him and told him that while I would love to see the carpets he had, I unfortunately had no money.  "No money, no honey," he said.  And we laughed and parted.
I think this might explain the staring.  At dinner at an AMAZING kofte house a number of people where staring at me through the window.  The waiter even commented, "Do you know them?"  I told him no, but maybe they want to know me.  He laughed.  Living in America, I am always on my guard against people looking at me the wrong way.  Maybe now, far away from home, I can walk around with a smile on my face and people respond to it.  Go figure.

My city of ruins....

Nothing prepares you for Epheseus.  

It really is a place that seethes with life.  Not just the thousands of camera-toting, sunblock-applying, child-chasing, photo-opping, cell phone-chatting humans around you.  You are really catapulted into the past.  You walk the same marble sidewalks as people thousands of years ago.  You are under the same hard cerulean sky.  Your eyes hurt from looking at so many beautiful things.  Every time you turn a corner something more incredible awaits you.  You think, "Well nothing can be better than this!" and then you turn the corner and see Trajan's Gate, or the Celsus Library, or the Agora Gate.  It is hard to believe that one can see so much and still remain standing.
Turkey is essentially an open air museum of culture from major periods.  It's truly astounding to be here and to see these things.  The thing of it is that there is a strong presence of the Republic here.  You go into Epheseus and the two things that greet you are the Turkish flag and a picture of Ataturk.  You realize that you are in an Islamic country (secular, true, but you do hear that call to prayer, don't you?), that is the custodian of places sacred to the Christian, Pagan and Antique.  The Turks are clear on this: every sign says that this place is being maintained by the Republic.  It is a really interesting way to diminish the power of what you are seeing.  Even our tour guide sort of made fun of us for coming all this way to see stones.  I said to him, "Omer of course you must think it is beautiful."  He smiled and said that they are just stones but "these stones, unlike the ones we will leave, tell of the history, the personality and the mythology of a people."  I wonder what people will think of the ruins of the Trump Taj Mahal?
We saw the House of the Virgin Mary today.  Strange being there.  I went through quickly and was going to make my way back to the bus.  Then I started to think about my Mother and how she would have loved to see the house and how happy it would have made her.  So I went back and got in line to see it again.  I was going to light a candle for her, but I felt very awkward and stupid buying one, as if I was trying to look like a pilgrim.  There was a Christian Turkish woman and her children and she was explaining things.  I sat in a chair in back on one side of the door.  On the other side was a friar (a Franciscan I think from the robe).  He looked at me and nodded and I sat on the straw seat of the chair.
I miss my mother desperately.  I wish I could have brought her with me on this trip instead of bringing her memory and half of her DNA.  I tried to say a prayer, but it all felt rote and stupid, like I was trying to prove that I could.  So I just sat there and thought about my Mother in the house of Jesus's mother and started to cry a little.  It never really leaves you, you know.  It just gets smaller and more intense, like a mushroom cloud inside of that tiny silver ball.  She would have really loved being there so it was the least I could do to sit there and be a little uncomfortable and miss her with my whole heart. 

I thought Aphrodite was a goddess of love....

Well, things came to a head between the Indians and the Italians today.

One of the things that happens on these tours is that you go to a site (in this case, today it was Pamukkale, Hieropolis and Aphrodisias) and then you get driven to a "special presentation" where you are offered high quality goods at a reduced price.  I am not certain if this is true or not, but the stuff they are selling sure looks good.  I am also sure that the tour company probably has some sort of financial relationship with the places we are stopping.  You can see busloads of tourists going in and out of these places, led from their busses like some sort or poorly dressed multilingual marching band.
Keep in mind that we are near the Aegean Sea.  It is hot and close here.
After the ruins of Roman cities and the AMAZING travertine landscape (click the slideshow to see the pictures of the landscape) we were on the bus to a leather shop.  Turkey is known for its leather goods from lambskin and they really were lovely. They had a fashion show (music:  Remixes of "What a Feeling" and a few heavy bass Turkish pop songs) and the models were very professional stunningly beautiful.  Tall and olive skinned and very chiseled.  They really were lovely to watch.  I did notice that we were locked in the room for the fashion show and the only way out was to go through the store.
Also, keep in mind that I am traveling with people who have an advanced sense of entitlement.
In the shop and plied with the apple tea that is ubiquitous here, we got down to shopping.  I tried on some jackets and became convinced that I really need to do something about my weight starting now.  Nothing worse than a chubby guy in lambskin, Mother used to warn.  The Indian contingent was not buying the prices convinced that they could do better in Dehli.  The Italians were shopping like mad and having a lovely time.  The minute the Italians began buying the music in the store changed to Andrea Boccelli.  They really know how to please an audience.
In addition, keep in mind that these are people who will complain about a $2 bottle of water but will drop hundreds of Euros on a leather jacket.
We ended up waiting over a half an hour for the Italians to finish and that is when the two Indian men went mad.  They really got in Omer's face (the tour guide, not the driver) about it and started yelling at the Italians to get in the bus.  The Italians did there best "no speakeh anglaise" but everyone knows that they do so it was not playing in Bangalore at all.  Once a few of the Italian women sat down for coffee it was ON.  The older Indian gentlemen started yelling and saying "Why do they get to sit when me and my family are rushed back to a hot bus?"
The Canadian behind me on the bus took odds on the Italians.  I took the Indians because they looked scrappy.  I think they wanted it more.
I had a ball really.
One thing I was not ready for here was the staring.  It is not very common to see American Black people in parts of the country and people have no qualms about staring.  It is really discomforting.  I was sort of ready to disappear here, to fade into the scenery as it were but that is so not happening.  The Turks are kinds and lovely people, don't get me wrong.  The minute I tell them I  am from Boston their eyes light up and they get very excited.  The staring though, it really freaks me out.
Today at lunch I had to tell the little boy that there are a whole bunch of things that are happening in the world of the adults that do not involve or concern him and that when he was a little older, he would see that the world does not revolve around him.  I think this was news to him.  It was certainly a revelation to his family.
No one asked me why I am single today.

It's a small world...

The driver of our tour bus (Omer, not to be confused with Omer, our tour guide) is one of the most beautiful men I have ever seen.  I don't know what he is doing driving a bus of tourists around Turkey.  He should be a movie star. He smokes, like most Turks and I guess he doesn't want anyone to know. He is hiding his cigarette behind his back.

I want to go on record as saying I will never do another group tour like this again.  If one more person asks me why I haven't met the right girl I really may lose my mind.  It's not like home where I can just tell someone I'm a fag and be done with it.  These people exist on a very delicate surface called "travel," so nothing real is discussed.  The other day everyone was talking about the wonder of grandparents and the love of children.  I wanted to set myself on fire.  I kept praying that no one would ask me about my family.  I didn't think I wanted to be that guy who tells the truth at a cocktail party when everyone has agreed to lie to each other.  I hate being that guy.

Because children are the most important people in the world, my group has indulged the two children in our group.  They were playing a game on the bus (during our 7 hour drive from Ürgüp to Pamukkale) that spewed the song "It's a Small World" all over the bus.  There was no escaping it, so I put on my noise canceling Skullcandy headphones and listened to Branca Parlic and the Cowboy Junkies first album.  It matched the Turkish landscape perfectly and gave me a reprieve from the family hour on the bus.
Here are some questions that have come up:
Do you have grandchildren?
Are you married?  Why not?
Don't you agree with the church that Hillary Clinton would be a terrible President?
Why is your hair like that?
Were YOU a slave?
Did you hear the one about the Polish guy who wanted a burial at sea?
Really, you cannot make this shit up. I am traveling with 8 people from India (two older couples and a family of four) a couple from north of Toronto, a really delightful couple from Australia (she's a teacher, go figure) and two women who are traveling together; one from Santa Fe and the other Puerto Rico.  These are the people on the english speaking tour.  The rest of the bus is about 16 people from Italy.  We are in the back with our guide Omer, who has really been a love.  When the polish joke was told, he quickly stood up and talked about how men along the Black Sea area were thought to have little intelligence and were often mocked in jokes.  He said that the people along the Black Sea say that "We are so smart that we make up those jokes about ourselves."  He really did cool things down a bit.
The drive today was very long,   The country is beautiful.  The sights are truly breathtaking.  At a caravanserai, we stopped for a bite to eat.  The building was incredible and housed an open and covered market with a mosque on the inside.  Then we went to Konya to see the museum dedicated to the Mevlana, the founder of the Whirling Dervishes.  We know him in the west as the Sufic poet Rumi.  It was really an amazing place to visit.  No photos were allowed in the museum.  There is an enormous green cone over the center of the building under which is Rumi's tomb.  The calligraphic carvings are exquisite and the place was packed with people who were praying, not just sightseeing.  I was very captivated.  So much so in fact that the tour guide had to come and collect me when everyone was already on the bus.  Again, I hate being that guy.
Tomorrow is hiking in the travertines and looking at the natural rock basin carved by the springs at Pammukale, then Roman ruins at Afrodisias and then on to Ephesus.
The little girl asked me if I knew Hilary Duff today.

Balloon inflation, Cappadocia


Anatolian Balloons took a group of us on a tour of the valley via hot air balloon.  It was really an incredible experience to see the caves and mountains of Cappadocia from the air.  It was the most comfortable air trip I have ever experienced, including the landing.  Afterwards, we got flying certificates and the men from the company gave us a toast with champagne or juice.  The video is the crew inflating be balloons while we are waiting for a ride.  
P.S.  After admiring the shirts of the crew, one of them gave me the shirt he was wearing.

Dust in the Wind....

Here I am in the lobby of the Perissia Hotel in the Cappadocia Region of Turkey where the lounge entertainment is a young Turkish Man singing with an acoustic guitar.  He just finished a version of Kansas's classic and a significant number of the multinational crowd joined in with him - some in earnest and some in what I can only guess is high school reverie.  It's great to know that culture travels.  All of the culture, 70's anthem rock included.

I was in Ankara yesterday, on a group tour.  The first place we went was Anitkabirthe mausoleum to Ataturk, the man responsible for what Modern Turkey is.  (His image is in every place we go, humble or extravagant.)  It is an incredible place, over 200 acres dedicated to a single man.  (I just want you to know, that the guitarist is going into the Eagles HOTEL CALIFORNIA right now, completely without irony.)  It is a masterpiece of modernism, elegant, simple, severe and challenging.  It is said that a modern man should have a modern monument.  He got it all right.  The wall carvings of workers are clearly influenced by Soviet posters and the ornament is elaborate on the inside but is completely subordinate to the rectangle.  It is more a temple than a palace and like most temples you want to kneel the minute you come in.
I have noticed this a lot in Turkey and I am very glad that my friend Daniel Bozhkov recommended this country when I was writing the grant to the ART MATTERS Foundation.  The country is very focused on the future in a way I have not experienced.  The tropes of Modernism are all over the place here.  The gridded streets, the apartment buildings in the International Style, the obsession with technology all abound.  But these ideas are never really assimiliated.  For example, you will see a house that looks like something Le Corbusier himself built, but there will be the stuff of life all over the building completely destroying the Modernism form.  Satellite dishes, laundry rigging, abandoned furniture. barbecue grilles and rugs of every hue become the ornament of these buildings.  It is as if what is inside of the elegant box, the evidence of human activity, is forcing itself out of the architecture.  Even the signs for businesses add a garish vitality to the boxes on which they rest.  The failure of the modern ideal is all over the place.
That is not to say that it is not beautiful.  Quite the contrary.  Plus the people are lovely and very kind and thrilled to hear about Boston.  (To hear a Turk try to say "Parking the car in Harvard yard is really an amazing thing.)  They are very proud of their country and its achievements and really believe in the future, in things getting better, in the promise of Modern living.  This synthesis of modern austerity and Turkish ornamentalism has bred some amazing visual moments.
After Ankara we drove to Cappadocia, important for its connection to early Christian communities.  St. Paul began his missionary work here and legends of him abound.  Seeing all of the rock churches and catacombs where Christian his from their Ottoman and Roman oppressors was sublime.  You can see evidence of the very end of the Byzantine kingdom and the birth of the Turkish nation in Anatolia.  It is all over the travertine stone and the volcanic fields of wind and water shaped tufa that create a landscape out of Jules Verne.
Turkish turquoise, frescos from the Byzantine era, natural and man-made architecture side-by-side, oppression and salvation, catacombs and carpets and souvenirs everywhere.  It has been uncanny.  I feel at home and completely out of the world.  It's incredible.