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…