Istanbul Diaries: Dec. 11

A quick trip to Izmir (formerly known as Smyrna) reminded me how easy it is to get around on public transportation in Turkey…easy and cheap.

The outward bound trip was a combination of ferry and train. The return trip was by plane. It ended up costing us about the same…and not because the ferry and train were super expensive, but because the flight was super cheap. $34 for an hour-long flight. We bought the ticket at the last minute too.

The airlines in the U.S. could learn a thing or two from airlines in other parts.

Anyhoo, we managed to get around Izmir pretty easily and out to Ephesus without any trouble at all. The public transportation in and around Istanbul is the same.

Whether trains, planes, ferries, metro, or dolmuş, getting around is easy in Turkey.

Whether trains, planes, ferries, metro, or dolmuş, getting around is easy in Turkey.

For the ferries, buses and metro you carry a card that you swipe to get on. It’s like a gift card, but you just keep refilling it as you use up the credit.

Pretty handy.

The dolmuş, however, is old school. It’s a smaller vehicle. Some are kind of like a mini-bus, with a few seats and lots of room to crowd in. On the dolmuş, you actually have to pay the driver, so he’s making change while weaving in and out of traffic. It’s great.

Another interesting thing about the dolmuş is that when people get on in the back they just send their money up with the passengers between them and the driver so it passes through sometimes seven or eight hands with accompanying stop information so the driver knows if change is required or not. He then makes change while dodging cars and pedestrians who decide to cross the road at that moment and while watching for anyone along the side of the road who might flag him down as he approaches. That change is passed back to the appropriate passenger.

Now put three non-Turkish speaking Americans who aren’t familiar with the stops at the end of that chain right before the driver. More specifically, put me at the end of that chain right before the driver after two other non-Turkish speaking Americans…and you have a recipe for disaster.

It was like playing that game “teléfono discompuesto” (I forget what it’s called in English) where you send a whispered message down a line and see what you come up with at the end. The final version is often pretty comical.

I ended up just repeating exactly what my friends told me while handing the money to the driver. I had no idea what I was saying. Sometimes I got change to send back. Sometimes I didn’t. If the Turks who were handing the money up only knew how weak the last three links in the chain were, they’d probably send us to the back, but  somehow it worked out. And I didn’t hear any complaints, but I probably wouldn’t understand them if I had.

Anyway, it probably wasn’t as critical as our situation on our flight home last night. We happened to be seated in the row with the emergency door. The steward came by and spoke with us for about a minute. Not a word in English. At the end of it, I nodded my consent. He was satisfied.

I’m pretty sure I agreed that I was willing and able to open the hatch beside me in the event of an emergency, either that or he was making sure we were comfortable and letting us know there was a nice view from the window.

I decided I better look over the instructions in pictures just to be on the safe side.

Istanbul Diaries: Dec. 5 (conversations with Ghengis Khan)

One week ago today I finished my Turkish language course. I took an exam and everything… I even passed it.

I’m pretty sure I learned as much Turkish in one month as I did of Spanish in a whole year of high school. Maybe that’s why they call the course “intensive.”

So I have my diploma and I have much more Turkish in my head than when I started. Let me just review what that does and doesn’t mean:

It DOES NOT mean I can talk politics or religion with any of the locals.

It DOES, however, mean that I can carry on a long conversation of about two minutes with the eight-year-old daughter of my host family. Of course, over the last month she’s learned to speak Tarzan Turkish to dumb it down for me. She now speaks with all infinitive verbs. The English equivalent would go something like: “You, me, to play, after, to eat” complete with a mini game of charades built in.

I actually know that conversation by heart because we have it every evening. That and the one about watching a Barbie movie…yes, in Turkish. And yes, I will be leaving Turkey with the music from “Barbie and the Secret Garden” stuck in my head. Now I just have to work on the words.

Having a diploma in first level Turkish also DOES NOT mean I should be making any phone calls in Turkish.

My travel companions, however, think it DOES mean that. Apparently the diploma earned me the designation of official translator on our excursion to Yalova last weekend. I ended up in charge of all the ticket purchases and general asking of directions and bus schedules, etc. It’s a wonder we didn’t end up in Syria.

I even had to call for a taxi. Anyone who has learned a second language knows the hardest thing to do is talk on the phone. You can’t see the other person and they can’t see you so pantomime is out the window.

Fortunately for me, we had already talked to the guy so he knew I might call.

The call went a little like this (but in Turkish):

Taxi Driver: Hello

Me: Ghengis? (yep, that was his name. Ghengis as in Ghengis Khan. Nice guy, by the way.)

Taxi Driver: Yes?

Me: I’m American.

Taxi Driver: Yes, ok, ok, tamam. (“tamam” is Turkish for ok)

Me: We go?

Taxi Driver: ok, ok, tamam.

Me: Tamam, ok, tamam.

Taxi Driver: Tamam. Ok. 15 minutes.

Me: Ok, tamam, ok.

Taxi Driver: Ok, Ok, tamam. see you later.

Me: tamam, ok, see you later.

And that, folks, got us a taxi at our front door 15 minutes later.

Istanbul Diaries: Dec. 4

This is what they do here. And apparently fishing is good this time of year.

This is what they do here. And apparently fishing is good this time of year.

Looks like fishing is the same everywhere...just another excuse for the men to get together.

Looks like fishing is the same everywhere…just another excuse for the men to get together.

The fishing is above the bridge. The fish restaurants are below.

The fishing is above the bridge. The fish restaurants are below.

A ship en route to the Black Sea.

A ship en route to the Black Sea.

Istanbul Diaries: Dec. 3

Just thought I’d post a couple of photos to put it in perspective for my American friends who think the malls are crowded this time of year…

Istiklal Street, Istanbul is one happening place.

Istiklal Street, Istanbul is one happening place.

Not only is a place called "Pazar," but a whole day of the week is called "Pazar." Guess what people do on Pazar Day.

Not only is a place called “Pazar,” but a whole day of the week is called “Pazar.” Guess what people do on Pazar Day.

Istanbul Diaries: Dec. 2

So I’m a little late posting for Thanksgiving, but just a little something I’ve been thinking about since then…
I managed to eat a proper American Thanksgiving dinner in Turkey…and yes, I ate turkey (the bird, not the country).
Not sure what kind of quirk of history or circumstance had Benjamin Franklin naming a bird in the 18th century after a people group (the modern nation was born after World War I)…or if it’s just a coincidence.
And now that I’ve learned a little Turkish, I’m even more stumped at why Turkey (the country, not the bird) calls Egypt “Corn.” The word is “Mısır.” I looked it up. An Egyptian guy studying Turkish at my school said he was surprised by that too.
Any etymologists there wanna tackle that one?
Meanwhile, could someone pass me the egypt…

Istanbul Diaries: Nov. 7

I went to a professional basketball game Wednesday night.

I met one of the American basketball players on Sunday and he left tickets for us at the Turkish version of will call.

I went straight from my Turkish class so I still had my school books and study paraphernalia with me.

My American friends who live in Istanbul had just mentioned the possibility that they might confiscate small objects like pens, loose change and lighters (basically anything that can be thrown onto the court in a moment of rage) and if we didn’t want to give them up, then we should put them in our boots.

I didn’t take their advice because I figured I could just play the “foreigner” card which basically is: 1) playing dumb as if you don’t know what they’re talking about and 2) if no. 1 fails, try to make them understand that as a foreigner, you don’t do stuff like that.

I’ve used this method with good results in Mexico, typically when traffic cops are involved. Most of the time they want a bribe and I just act like I don’t know what’s going on. The last time that happened, they made it even clearer that they wanted a bribe so I moved on to step 2 and reasoned with them about my position.

Since in Mexico I’ve had such good results, I figured I could skip throwing all my small change and pens down my boots. I didn’t even have to play too dumb because I didn’t understand much of anything they were saying to me. Then I made my first mistake. I threw out my “Turk chay yok” and instantly they started making it clear through pointing at examples (stuff they had already confiscated). Dang!

As they took the two pens in my possession, I shifted to tactic two and started reasoning with them in my best Turkish about why I shouldn’t have to turn over my pens: I said “okul” (Turkish for school) and gave them my best Latin shrug with arms extended down and palms open in consternated pleading. (Watch any southern European or Latin American basketball or soccer player get called for a foul and you’ll see the gesture.)

It seems my best Turkish wasn’t good enough. They dropped my pens in the confiscation box and said I could get them afterwards. I understood that much, but I didn’t believe it to be very likely.

So I spent warm up and most of the first quarter indignant that they took the pens I needed for school. Just as well I had done my homework before the game.

As for the game itself, our American companions that night put it this way, “it’s like taking a country of soccer fans and putting them in a gym.” I’d say that’s about right.

The hooligans had their corner of the stands and they sang, clapped, chanted and jumped up and down non-stop the whole game. The only time the whole arena went quiet was when some random man in the stands started singing. You could hear his lone voice as clear as if he were the only one in the arena.

When it ended, I asked my companions what that was all about. They said he was probably singing something about being a Turk. Sacred stuff, apparently.

Half-time was an experience as well. The concession stand wasn’t nearly as kitted out as one at an American pro game, since I don’t like ketchup flavored potato chips, I settled on a cheese toast and a water (the water was in a container like the individual pudding cups they sell, only this one was a tad bigger.) So there I was ready for the third quarter eating what was basically a toasted cheese sandwich and washing it down with a tiny cup of water. Good thing I got more than one water…and I only did that because they were giving I.O.U.s for small change (remember, no coins are allowed).

For a second I thought they had turned on the smoke machine to start the third quarter, but then I realized it was just everyone taking their half-time smoke break in the lobby area. One week’s experience has made it very clear to me that Turks like their smokes…

So…our team won (our team being Besiktas); our professional basketball playing friend played well and It was a good game…but cultural show around us was even better.

And the bonus? I actually got my pens back. I got back to the confiscation box just in time to pick them out before security took the box away.

Istanbul Diaries: Nov. 3

Note to reader: If you’re actually from Istanbul, have mercy on my touristishness in these posts.

I’m inventing a term for that obvious lack of understanding of a place by which one feels compelled to go on and on about things that are quite commonplace for the locals.

In Mexico, when I overhear English-speaking outsiders try to make sense out of and talk authoritatively about the whys and wherefores of local Mexican customs, or when they write on and on about, say, chickens on buses…or traffic, I get a little impatient. The way Mexico does things is a mystifying world to them and I want to tell them that the way the U.S. or Canada or even England does things is a mystifying world to nearly everyone else on the globe.

But here I am in Istanbul and I’m about to do what a foreigner does. We write about what’s unusual to us, what we don’t understand and what embarrassing predicaments result.

So far I haven’t landed myself in too many cultural faux pas. Sure I wore my shoes into someone’s house instead of taking them off at the door, but they were also foreigners and looked kindly if not pityingly on my mistake. I also managed not to butcher a two-cheek-kiss greeting instead of the one-cheek I’m accustomed to in Mexico, but I’m pretty sure I made too much contact on the second cheek. I’m not quite sure what went wrong. I was just trying to do the basic air kiss, but maybe my distance or timing was off for having to carry on from the right side. I don’t know, but I smacked her good and proper. I’ll have to work on my left-side kiss. It’s kind of clumsy.

Then there’s the language. I’m sorry to say I’m just mostly throwing out English because my Turkish is “yok,” which according to my dictionary app could mean “there is not,” or “absent,” or “unavailable” or the one I like the best, just “nope.” That pretty much defines how much Turkish I have at the moment: nope!

Maybe in a month I’ll be able to ask for what I really want at the restaurant or even talk to my host family. Meanwhile, I’ll just point and be happy with whatever the waiter brings me and smile a lot to my family.

Beware of the touristishness to follow…

Istanbul Diaries – Oct. 31

My mom was worried when I told her I was going to Istanbul, Turkey for six weeks. Most everybody knows Turkey is right next door to all the fighting in Syria and Iraq.

My Mexican friends wondered if I was going to get a bomb dropped on my head. Some American friends were more worried about my head being separated from the rest of my body.

Then I reminded everybody that I live in Mexico…and not only in Mexico, but in one of the most dangerous states in the republic – Guerrero.

As if to prove my case, the week I was to leave protestors had tried to take over the airport once and were making plans to try again. These are the same ones who have effectively shut down the city government offices. If they picked Wednesday, I wasn’t going to get out of Zihuatanejo.

Then less than two hours before my flight left a man walked up to the counter where I was paying my internet bill at the cable office, pulled out a gun and robbed the place.

Some parts of Turkey might be dicey – I don’t know – but Istanbul probably wasn’t going to be any worse than where I was leaving.

In fact, so far it has proved to be just the opposite.

First, I managed to leave my backpack on an airport shuttle bus with a laptop computer, a camera, an ipad and nearly $1,000 U.S. and got the backpack back with everything in it when we showed up to the station about 30 minutes after the bus dropped off its passengers there.

In Mexico, that backpack would have been long gone. In China, where my travel buddy Genessa has been living for the last three years, it would have been long gone. In Istanbul, Turkey, it was set aside in the office to await my arrival.

When we hurried up to the bus stop, asked for the shuttle from the airport, pointed to Genessa’s backpack and pointed to the bus, they knew exactly what we were talking about and led us to the office.

That may have been a one-off, but I don’t think so.

Right after that we hailed a taxi so we could just get to our final destination without trying to figure out how to do that by other means of cheaper public transportation. As soon as we showed the taxi driver the address, he in his halting English made us understand that it would be a very expensive trip with the meter running and traffic as bad as it was. Better that he take us to the subway station so we could cross the bosporus underground for 4 Turkish liras apiece instead of letting the taxi meter run up a 200 TL bill while sitting in traffic on the bridge.

On the way to the subway station he explained to us what stop to get off on and what connection to make there.

In Mexico, I’m afraid, the majority of taxistas would be happy to take us for the 200 lira ride. Genessa said the same would be the case in China. By the time I got done with the evening, I was more than a little impressed with the Turks we had encountered for their general honesty.

In fact, I’m having a hard time believing it wasn’t just good fortune that we ran into such honorable people.

I guess I’m too programmed by 16 years of living in Mexico.

Can Istanbulites in general really be this nice?

I guess I have six weeks to find out…