The One and Only
Let me tell you something about standing downwind from the pungent armpit of a singing Turkish man.
Garlic is better in than out.
Thank God for the breeze blowing up the smell of the Marmara Sea, for the perfection of the gulls as they glide beside the boat. I’ve never noticed before how they hold their stick legs taught against their tails when they fly. How effortlessly aerodynamic they are. The other passengers on the ferry chuck scraps of bread to the gulls. Every few minutes, a man with a tray piled high with simit scoots past our knees and sells these ring-shaped breads doused with sesame seeds. Most of them end up bobbing in the ocean in bits after having been thrown to, and rejected by, the gulls.
The group of men beside us is now singing dirty Turkish songs. Not that I speak Turkish, but a dirty song sounds the same in any language. The second verse breaks off into raucous laughter, someone makes a jibe – the laughter doubles. I am also inclined to believe these are dirty Turkish songs, because they’ve just finished comparing the size of their willies with each other. Classy.
The men are silent for a while. They lean against the railing and throw bread to the birds. One man begins to sing alone. It’s a sadder song, and even though his voice isn’t very good, the rest of the group listens quietly as he sings, and when he stops it is quiet again.
I have found nothing endearing about this group of men. They are as crude as a group of drunk fußball fans singing national songs in the U-bahn or that group of guys at a party doing keg stands. Awfulness is not restricted to one specific culture. And yet it is this solitary singing that makes me feel the most out of place. It’s a beautiful moment – but it isn’t meant to be shared. Their boys’ club is enacted in a public space, but me? – I’m a non-entity. This public space may as well be private. It is theirs.
We keep comparing Turkey to other things. The highway looks like I4 in Orlando. The passageway in the Hagia Sophia smells just like the line to the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disney. These villas could be in the Mediterranean.
The mass of Istanbul rolls over us, and the more we compare it to other places we’ve seen, the more I think – maybe Istanbul is its own place. Maybe we’re trying so hard to place it because we can’t. (I swear the city looks exactly like Naboo.)
There are so many people everywhere. It’s a huge change from Berlin, where the streets are wide and there’s an overabundance of greenery. Istanbul is cramped. The streets, half made of steps, charge upwards at vertical inclines, and buildings tip precariously along them. Feral cats stake out their territory; if you look at them, they give you the evil eye. (My family is nervous about me and feral cats. We have a history.) Even along the waterfront, the press of people doesn’t stop until the shoreline opens up on the Bosporus.
The only Turkish word I know is merhaba – hello. I use it for everything. “How are you?” sounds like this: merhaba. “Yes, please” sounds like this: merhaba. “How much is ½ kilo of beef and can you show me how big that is?” sounds like this: merhaba merhaba? In the butcher shop, after playing the pantomime game and managing to receive a beautiful piece of steak, I learn a new word. Teşekkür. Thank you.
At home, in our apartment near the Blue Mosque, I cook a birthday dinner for Ben. He’s twenty-one. Mom says, “Now you are responsible for anything you do in every country.” What he refuses to be responsible for, however, is choosing what he wants to eat for dinner, so we play a game. “Meat or vegetarian?” “Meat.” “Beef or chicken?” “Beef.” “Ground or whole?” “Whole.” “Grains or vegetables?” “Vegetables.” “Warm or cold?” “I don’t care.”
So I make thinly sliced steaks marinated in olive oil, lemon, garlic, and mint; skinny green peppers roasted over the gas stove and served in olive oil and garlic; a meze of tomato, eggplant, and onion slowly cooked down to nothing; and corn salsa with fresh tomato, onion, feta, oregano, and mint. We wash it down with cold Efes, the only Turkish beer we know.
There’s a lot of bread in Turkey. There’s a simit cart every ten feet, each meal comes with massive loaves of inconsequentially airy bread, and even the döners are mostly made of bread. This disappoints Michael, who is on the quest for the best döner in Turkey. I tell him – they’re better in Germany – but he will not be dissuaded. We walk down every restaurant gauntlet and stop to look at the döners while overzealous hosts accost us. “Yes, please. What do you want? Here is the most delicious food.” We shake our heads no, no, no (merhaba, merhaba, merhaba) with panic in our eyes and run away. This is how we end up eating mostly street food or snacks from small shops – flaking börek, one filled with cheese, the other meat, which we eat on a concrete dock along the water, sandwiches of freshly grilled fish with lemon and salt which are cooked on boats all along the coast.
We walk and we walk and we walk. There are people everywhere. In the Spice Bazaar, mountains of turmeric and sumac glitter against the copper of coffee pots and pepper mills. The floor is littered with powdered sugar fallen from jeweled pieces of Turkish delight. Vendors hawk silk scarves, carpets, bronze antiques, key chains, leather bags, and silver bracelets, knockoff Ray Bans, painted pictures, pistachios, glazed bowls and serving platters, wooden spoons, and lamps.
We find our quiet spaces in the city. In Café Pierre Loti overlooking the Golden Horn, where we drink strong Turkish coffee and çay (tea) served in thimble-sized glasses, or our favorite haunt, the Marmara Café, a shisha lounge draped in rugs and glittering glass lights. It has its own collection of feral cats which weave between the table’s legs. One wall is completely open and looks out across the Marmara Sea. We come here almost every night for the çay, the grilled vegetables and kofte. I learn to play backgammon. And win every game.
The prayers begin. The eerie call of the Muezzin echoes from the walls as it is projected across the city. The melody is strange to me, but beautiful. In the Marmara Café, it is quiet. There is just the clink of backgammon pieces, of tea glasses, the sleepy sweet smell of shisha and the long blue of the water. Below us, Istanbul writhes.