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.

Magic carpet ride....

OK.  I think a sufficient amount of time has passed since the purchase of my Turkish carpet to begin to talk about what happened.

I had just come out of the Basilica Cistern.  I had gone there at the suggestion of my friend Cecilia because she said it was one of the things in Istanbul that had a great impact on her.  I have to say I feel the same way.  The cistern is so incredible (despite the music they play down there) that it is really like descending to another time, not just a different space.  I was trying to get my bearings and let my eyes adjust to the light when a tour guide started to talk to me.
He was handsome and charming and, like the majority of Turks, very friendly.  We chatted for a bit and I told him I was on an extended visit in Istanbul to look at art and design.  He mentioned that he worked at a store nearby and that he would be happy to show me some carpets and kilims for my research. It was early in the day, around 10:00 a.m.  I told him I was on my way to Topkapi Palace, but I would love to come by another time.  I gave him my card.  He said that he had his cards at the store and that it was on the way to the Palace, so I went with him to get his card.  I was not interested in buying a rug.
When we got to the store, there was a lot of talk in Turkish and the guide gave me his card.  He offered me a seat and introduced me to another gentleman named Hakim.  Hakim got me a glass of apple tea and the three of us started chatting about nothing really.  Then I noticed that the guide was gone, and Hakim and I were alone in the showroom.  Hakim spoke to one of the men in the store and suddenly rugs were being rolled out in front of me.  The most beautiful designs and colors and textures.  Hakim was really great at explaining the differences, how they are named for the region, why Turkish rugs are better (the double knot) and details about color and dyeing and all sorts of things.  It was really an education.  I was looking, but still I had no plans to but a rug.
More tea and more tea.  Hakim asked me which one I liked best and I told him there were so many that it was impossible to choose.  He told me he would make it easier for me.  He asked me which ones I did not like.  It did make it easier to eliminate some.  Hakim kept saying "Which is your champion?"  I was really enjoying myself looking and deciding which I liked. It finally got down to a really beautiful rug.  I told Hakim I was not interested in buying a rug, certainly not one for so much money.  He was very friendly and said "Didn't you come to Istanbul to see beautiful things?"  I agreed and he told me that this rug, which was from Cappadocia, he would sell me for half of the price that was on the tag.  I gasped and thought, well, that is a really great deal.  So we shook hands and I gave him my credit card and I thought that was that.
Now Turkey is often blocked by credit card companies.  I called my bank before my trip to let them know I was going to be in Istanbul for an extended stay.  Still, there had been some trouble with my bank with daily limits and such.  Also, I had only been in Istanbul for 2 days at this time.  So when one of the men told Hakim my card was declined, I really thought nothing of it.  "Please try again," I said.  "This has happened a couple of times."  
More tea.  And more Turkish conversation.  Hakim tried to call the number on my card but said he could not get through.  I offered to try but he said not to worry.  "Banks are a pain," he said.  He asked me if I could go to a bank machine and I said sure.  He had one of the employees walk me to a machine, but, because of my daily limit, I was unable to take out the entire amount.  He walked me back to the shop.
"Let's go up to the office," Hakim said.  I followed him.
From the colorful airy light of the showroom we went upstairs and around a few corners to the office, which was dark and low ceilinged but well appointed with a sitting area and a large office desk.  The lights were localized around the desk area.  One man in an Italian suit sat smoking on a sofa.  Another man with white hair and a knit sweater sat behind the desk.  Another large man with a doughy face in a suit was standing behind him.  Hakim offered me a seat at the desk with the Sweater Man.  He handed the Sweater Man my credit card and said something in Turkish.  The Sweater Man looked at me and started bending the card.  He picked up the phone and dialed the number on the back.
"How are you?" He asked.
"All right," I said.  "You?"
"Banks." He said.
"I don't know what the problem is,"  I said.
"We'll figure it out."
He dialed a few times and then put the phone down.  He looked at me, bending the card in his hands.  He said, "This card is bullshit."
"Excuse me?"
"This is bullshit.  This is a bullshit number on this card.  How do you call a number like this?"
"What do you mean?"
"This B-A-N-K.  How do you dial that?"
"Use the key pad to spell out the word."  I showed him how.  He dialed it and held the phone to his ear.
"Do you want some more tea?"
"We have a bathroom."
"Thank you," I said.  "But no."
The Sweater Man laughed and handed me the phone.  I heard the recording from my bank asking to call back during normal business hours.  I had forgotten about the time difference.  It was about 4 a.m. in Boston.
It's hard to remember, but I think now is when I started to feel frightened.  Hakim was gone. The door was behind me and I was pretty sure it was locked.  The man on the sofa was staring at me and the Doughy Man was somewhere behind me.  The Sweater Man was glaring at me now.
I looked past him to the monitors on his desk which I had not noticed before.  It was closed circuit television - camera in various parts of the store, and on the street.
"There's a time difference," I said.  "There's no 24 hour service at my bank."
From behind me, the Doughy Man said something in Turkish.  He went to a phone and got out an olde time charge plate slider.  He called Visa and got the purchase approved the old fashioned way.  I surmised this from watching him take my credit card and slide it through the machine, writing an approval code on the sheet and giving it to the Sweater Man.
"It's all set.  We had to do two transactions to get it in right," the Sweater Man said. "My cousin," he said, indicating the Doughy Man, "he does a lot of business in America.  He knows how to get around all this."  I thanked the Doughy Man in Turkish.  He nodded.  The sweater man put the receipts and a small card on how to care for the rug in an envelope.
"The monitors," I said.  "You can see everything."
"You need to," the Sweater Man said.  He glared again. "People try to rob you sometimes, gypsies pretend to be customers."
"Gypsies?  Roma?" I asked.
"Yes," he said.  "You have to be sure."
Hakim reappeared and patted me on the back.  I almost jumped out of my skin when he touched me.  "It's all right," he said.  "Everything is ok.  Come and get your carpet."
In a stupor, I went down stairs with Hakim.  He packed up the rug and put it in a satchel with handles. He put the receipts inside and told me to carry it home in my luggage.  He shook my hand and thanked me for being the first sale of the day.  I stepped out into the cold air of the street.
Everyone tells me what they would have done.  They would have gotten up and left.  They would have told the guys to fuck off.  They would have done all sorts of things.  Maybe they would have.  I don't know.  I do know that everyone handles situations better than you after you have had to live through them.  A pleasant moment turned very ugly very quickly and I cannot explain how.  I was probably swindled and probably paid way more for my rug than it was worth.  Because I was alone in a foreign country, I didn't think I had any recourse.  I felt (feel) very stupid about the whole thing.  They were probably looking for American suckers on their closed circuit TV and were waiting for me the minute I came out of the Cisterns.  I was shaking all the way back to my hotel.  I completely forgot about my plans for the day.  I put the carpet in the wardrobe of my room and went to bed.  I didn't even want it anymore.
I had to go back the next day.  For reasons too complex to explain, the Doughy Man charged me in YTL instead of dollars, so I needed to pay the $60 difference.  I could have blown it off and kept my money, but I wanted to be ethical even if I felt like they weren't.  Hakim was very sweet and very kind and showed me more rugs and gave me more tea.   He told me about his favorite piece (the guy is holding it in the photo).  This is the rug in his office.  I told him about my website and showed him my paintings.  He was impressed, or at least he pretended to be.  He wanted me to buy a silk rug that was created as a dowry piece.  He asked me to come back tomorrow to have lunch at the store with him and his family.  I said I would.
I went back to my hotel.  I haven't returned to that carpet showroom.  When guys on the street say hello to me now, I smile and keep walking.  I wear my sunglasses all the time to avoid meeting their gaze.  When I leave the country, I will post the name of the place.
The artist Pippa Bacca was found dead outside of Istanbul a few weeks before I arrived.  She was trying to prove that trusting people was key to human understanding.

The Six-hour dinner party...

When I told my friends back home I was going to Turkey, I asked them if they knew anyone there. I was prepared to spend my time alone, but I thought it would be nice to have a contact in country.  Elise, who works for Skowhegan, put me in touch with here dear friend Alina, an artist and teacher here in Istanbul.  After many attempts to connect (many of which were frustrated by my not having a phone) we finally had tea at the Londra hotel.  She invited me to her place to have dinner with her partner Faruk and some of their friends.  I liked Alina immediately and told her I would love to come.

Alina and Faruk live in Beyoğlu not far from the Londra Hotel where I am staying.  Alina met me and we had a short (and BEAUTIFUL) walk to her flat.  We got there and Tom and Chris, their American friends were there.  Oliver, an ex-pat from Louisiana came as well as Ahmed, a colleague of Faruk's.  Faruk was working on dinner and had a smile for all of us.  It was a really fun time.  We ate an amazing meal and then had ice cream with maple syrup (who knew?).
Faruk works as a carpet dealer in the Grand Bazaar.  I think he may be the only scrupulous carpet dealer I have ever met.  He is not interested in haggling over prices and will tell you exactly what something costs without any crap.  I told him about my experience buying a carpet and his responses went from laughter ("You are what we call a very good customer.") to rage over the way I was treated.  (Dear reader, I will elaborate on my frightening experience buying a carpet later.  Suffice it to say I wish to GOD I had met Faruk earlier.)
It was one of those evenings where the conversation is rich and lively and fun and serious and difficult and easy all at the same time.  We talked about everything from masculinity in Turkish culture, the upcoming elections (Faruk thinks that John McCain is going to be the next "President of the World" and I am inclined to agree with him).  I thought Faruk's head was going to explode when I tried to explain American style racism.  And he had me laughing out loud so much that my head began to hurt.  The man can tell a story that is so funny and he can do it in two languages at the same time.
Tom and Chris have both been lovely.  They live in Brooklyn and visit Istanbul very often. They are big fans of Faruk and Alina.  Chris and Alina are going to work together on some design and fashion projects in Istanbul and the US.  The market for this is wide open here.  There are so many buildings being "rehabbed" in Istanbul that the need for competent structural and interior design is great.  Also, given Turkey's westward focus, modernist ideology is very much at the forefront of what is going on here for better or worse.  Alina also makes these incredible silkscreen prints onto t-shirts that will no doubt be walking down the streets of NY and Istanbul.
So we all talked and talked and then when I saw Ahmed's watch I saw the time was about 3:45 am.  I was shocked that we had been there for so long but it really was an incredible evening.  I made amazing friends.  Tonight (Friday) we are going to a party at Tom and Chris's before they leave for America on Sunday.  It should be a lot more fun.

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.