Friday, March 4, 2011

Neither here nor there

One of the things that seems to fascinate people the most about İstanbul is the idea of it straddling 2 continents. Some of the spark for the interest is probably the whole 'East meets West' thing, a supposed dichotomy that I honestly don't understand (don't get me started on the cultural similarities for me of tea houses and pubs...) but which is rather nice sounding and does definitely help sell the place to visitors.

But the main factor has surely got to be the sheer geographical uniqueness of the place. This is famously the only city in the world that sprawls across 2 continents. (Having said that, there's got to be a lot of other places in the world where there's people living on the continental edge. I mean, where does continental Europe stop being Europe and turn into Asia? Dollars to doughnuts there's a russian town or several lurking about the divide.)

But anyhow here the feature does rather stick in the mind. Perhaps it's having water, a proper sea channel at that, as the dividing line - the fact that you actually have to leave one side and cross something to get across. Accordingly I have read multiple guidebooks, visitors accounts, and first-few-weeks-of-posting expat blogs where folk wax lyrical about the unique experience of popping over to asia on the ferry.

But there's a fair few misconceptions about all this too. First, that it's anything other than a geographical boundary - it ain't. I remember my mum asking S before I came out here if you had to show your passport when you cross. S found the question highly amusing, grinning out a 'no, why on earth would you?' reply. It didn't strike me as that stupid a question, but I'd probably react similarly now - it is purely a matter of soil and sea; Europe to Asia is administratively no different to crossing between Essex and Kent on the Dartford crossing. [It also by the way has the similarity of those funky car reading jobbies that mean it just bleeps and takes money off a card, rather than having to slow down, pay your pennies, and shout happy birthday* to the guy in the booth like you used to in the good old days. Except with the difference that the fact that you don't need to slow down to stopping speed is read by most traffic as not needing to slow down at all, which means bombing it through the car-plus-20cm-wriggle-room toll booth bit at about 80kmph. (Not to belabour the point about turkish driving, or anything...)

*I'm not sure anyone from my family reads this blog, so this doesn't make sense to anyone, so has failed as a small circulation blog in joke. So, basically, family (on the Y side) tradition was that we always shouted happy birthday in joyous unison to the poll booth guy, on the grounds that occasionally it would be. Cool, lame, only you can decide.]

The other thing that goes very quickly is the wonder factor. Yes, the first boat across, in summer tourism sunshine, with a fresh çay and amidst the screaming seagulls is indeed lovely. And the first road crossing via one of the Big Fucking Bridges (engineering horn) is pretty spectacular in the sight and the scope of the transit.

But joining one of the rammed commuter boats and not being able to get a seat on a grey day post work is nothing special; and joining a 40 minute tailback for the priviledge of travelling your first 1k of a 15k city circuit trip to get home last thing at night is also considerably less exciting.

Lastly there's the presumption that the 2 İstanbul sides are noticeably different. I suppose there is some truth in this one; in that of course different areas of a city differ and some are going to be on one side, some on the other. So the historic peninsula, the young and trendy party central west end equivalent, and some of the main business districts are on the European side. The other side doesn't have these areas, and as a result has a reputation for being a bit more conservative. And this sort of thing, with the sort of people it attracts as residents, does lend those areas some sort of coherent character.

But the main warp and weave of the city is the same wherever - the same cafes, buffets, minarets, high fashion glass fronted shops, knackered tea houses, food hawkers, traffic, markets, noise...same fish swimming through the same seas meeting in the middle.

Maybe its on a par with the North South divide in London. A distinction without much of a difference, but still strangely important to some.

Certainly for my occasional expat drinking buddies its a standing joke that the 'asian siders' (this itself is a misnomer - nobody talks about the asian side in turkish, it's the 'anatolian continent') leave the pub early whereas the europeans stay out drinking to all hours. This also is not entirely inaccurate - but likely more related to the fact most of the drinking goes on on the western half, and the aforementioned sheer hassle of getting back across.

Anyway. All this is pre-amble to my musings a couple of nights ago, on whether it's apt or not that I seem to have fallen between the two stools on this, living as I do on an island somewhere in the middle.

I was sat on the ferry, for my gazillionth hour of ploughing a course between one side and the other, and whilst staring out the window at the 2 sides with still only the start of an appreciation of what I was looking at, I realised I can't really say like any of it feels like mine.

Plenty of people wax lyrical about İstanbul, how they fall in love with the city as much as anything else about turkish life or culture or people. And, well, I'm *fond* - but I don't think I can say that I'm in love. It is a crush, maybe, borne out of a lot of staring from a distance, but with little in the way of actual contact. And, well, too much of that sort of thing gets a bit tired after a while.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

And all that *dancing*

To quote young Miss JRME, who herself was quoting the wonderful Bernard Black. (Who, by the way, S is convinced is a long lost relative of hers. I am not unconvinced.)

I went to a kına gecesi - henna night - the other day. This is a pre-marriage traditional hen-night sort of effort, for the bride and her friends and family, whereby they do traditional things, for interesting reasons, including but not limited to something-or-other with henna, and attempting to make the bride-to-be cry. Anyway I would tell you more about it if I could, but I'm really not that sort of amateur cultural anthropologist ex-pat, and anyway this really is not that sort of blog.

It was the sister of the family that runs one of the key cafes on the island, held in and outside the cafe, so basically half the town was invited or otherwise flitting in and out. (Think an engagement party at the Queen Vic for one of the Mitchells; only with less screeching.) It was a relatively modern/relaxed version I think, which means mixed sexes and DJs - and dancing.

Which is what I wanted to tell you about.

There is A LOT of dancing here. Given a dancefloor, or not as the case may be, people will quite happily break out into spontaneous dancing.

And not just any dancing, it's a proper set of dances to which everybody knows the steps. Check out the co-ordinated blurs of the bride to be and her brothers below, for example. (Crikey that's some unintentional alliteration for you.)

It struck me as slightly bizarre the first few times I saw it, but more than a little charming. I haven't actually asked anyone where this knowledge comes from (being not that sort of ex-pat...) but I assume it's something that is just picked up in childhood. Which, ok, but we would have been taught the English equivalent when we were wee. But can you imagine a set of us on a night out stopping for a bit of country dancng? Not likely.

Anyway. The other thing about this habit that struck me, is that very often it's the boys who get up and shake their bootys, not the girls. Plus, girls don't really seem to come into why they're doing it either - it seems very much to be for the simple joy of dancing, or sometimes for impressing their mates. I hesitate about saying this, but, well, that part does come across a little bit gay. (I mean that as a compliment, by the way - again, can you imagine Ben Sherman Shirt Man getting together with his mates, holding hands, and dancing in perfect co-ordination?)

Anyway. I don't usually partake, having three left feet at the best of times and without the requisite childhood training. Instead I usually skulk about the edges, on this night drinking beer shiftily out of a plastic cup like the cultureless reprobate I am.

At least I had company in wallflower status - the chap on the right is one of the island stalwarts and unofficial convener of the Friday Night Commuter Boat Al Fresco Drinking Society. A good bloke, and likewise not one of life's born dancers.

Anyway, whatever. In other news, I'm probably going to quit my job in April, spend May doing another qualification before they strip me of all my geek points, with a view to finding something a bit less evil and hopefully actually groooooovy, man, towards the end of June. Which a) frees me up to attend the glut of weddings which are being held in the countries of the participants rather than in turkey (the inconsiderate bastards) and b) also means I could be available for hosting duty should it be required.

So who fancies a holiday to Turkey in May then?

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Turkey Top Ten

I was going to do this before Christmas in the spirit of 'Best X of the Year' lists, but it appears I haven't got round to it. So I'm going to re-brand it an 'I've been here a year, and this is what one year's experience looks like' list. (I'm late for that, too, but only by a couple of weeks, and anyway you don't know that. Erm...)

So here, for the benefit of I don't know exactly who as y'all got force-fed most of this I'm sure in Christmas catch-ups anyway, is my Two Thousand and Ten Turkey Top Ten; those things I have or notably have not been able to get used to over the past year. (I'm not mentioning beer in the second category, as that's just shooting fish in a lovely, delicious, beery barrel of beer, plus I didn't get a chance to buy beer and cider on the way home which I was going to and is a source of some grief to me, so it's a sore subject.)

1. Breakfast as the main meal of the day

Admittedly for me, not on a weekday, and also admittedly, it's generally gone lunchtime before we actually get round to eating it on the weekend. But honestly, turkish breakfast is the way forward and I am a 100% convert. Being bits and bobs of mostly unheated deliciousness, it also lends itself to a leisurely grazing whilst you read the papers. A fry-up is a fine thing indeed, but congealed egg and cold beans is not quite the thing an hour or so later, whereas a selection of cheeses, olives, cucumbers and tomatoes, all of which actually taste of themselves, is the breakfast that keeps on giving.

Speaking of which,

2. Nice produce

Fruit and vegetables and food in general is very, very nice. And it may sound like a tautology, but yeah the shock of food actually tasting like it should do - this tomato tastes like tomato! Not like watered down bizarro out of season half-version of itself! ALSO, they do in season food in a big way and not out of season food, which probably earns me smug food miles points (completely inadvertently, if I'm honest. Apparently pears are in season now. Who knew?), but more importantly means that what you're buying is generally fresh and nice and how god meant it to be.

And so most turkish food, which is in mediterranean style pretty much just this nice produce cooked well, as a result, is also splendid.


3. Lack of 'nice' processed junk/food variety know, sometimes you just want a tin of Heinz tomato soup and be done with it. Processed food here, because the fresh food is so nice, is generally dire, but sometimes I really do miss it. Specially when at a low-ebb - when I get the lurgy my lucozade and ribena cravings hit the roof, and sometimes at the end of a particularly turkish day I want to come home and just whack on some foul microwaved lasagne or tikka masala. For shame.

4. Talking to randoms/kindness of strangers

Talking in the loosest sense of the word in my case. But still. I've already mentioned this, but it bears repeating - people here really do just chat, and really do volunteer help and advice to strangers without a second thought. (I think this probably does happen in the UK, but I'm not convinced often in settlements with a population over a 1000 or in age groups under 60.)

Got somewhat of a shock when I was back in UK for Christmas, imagine my joy at being able to ask someone what was going on with the weather with a breezy throw-away delivery; or to ask for directions without worrying that I was inadvertently asking them for a recipe. (Same word in turkish. I think. I *think*, but am never quite sure at the crucial moment.)

Of course, got a succession of blank looks, a 'why are you asking me don't you have a phone can't you just look it up on there, weirdo' sort of incomprehension at being asked in the first place, followed by a don't know, or briefest opinion possible.

In Turkey people would be falling over to tell you, the person next to them who you didn't even ask would chip in, if they wanted clarity they'd yell over to the next shop/vendor of choice to gauge their opinion, and all would be delivered with a sunny expression and genuinely felt eagerness to help.

Of course, half the time they'd be wrong, but that's not the point. This is possibly another sign I've been here a while, the fact I'm valuing manner over accuracy. ;-)

5. Cheek kissing/social niceties

A pain in the arse facet of the social side of things though is that there is a bewildering array of social niceties to be observed, half of them bound up with concepts of family, seniority, respect, and history. Which I think needs to be something you've grown up with, and I haven't, and I can't for the life of me get my head round it all.

When you meet, and generally on leaving too, it's the full double cheek kiss. Which, ok, do you actually kiss or air-kiss, for starters. Second, if you have 2 people wearing glasses (or a peaked cap, which is not as unusual as it sounds in my life) inevitably they bump if not actually come off in the act, which is awkward as all get out.

Then there's the fact the language has a tu/vous divide, which I *can't* get my head round - ok, so you are senior to me in age/societal role, so you are a Polite. But I know you, so you are Familiar. Or, you're noticeably younger than me, so you are Familiar, but I don't know you from adam, so you are Polite. It's a bloody nightmare, particularly working out on the hoof what it's supposed to be when I'm just trying to say goodbye, and as a result lingering on the threshold with a dumb look on my face for longer than is strictly necessary, which probably they interpret as me not being sure if I need a pee before I go and if it would be rude to ask.

ALSO, the very odd tendency of rarely actually just using someone's name. People's names always seem to be post-fixed with something - if you're being polite, there's a sort of Sir/Madam that you glue on the end of the name to show respect. Or if you're being familiar, you can similarly whack on a particle which sort of translates as 'my little'. (Make sure you use the right tone of voice with this though, or it can be patronising.) Or if you don't know someone, there's a range of familials you can use - brother or sister (but don't use these if they're not that young, they might think they're being disrespected), or aunt or uncle (but don't use these if they're not quite senior enough, you might be calling someone old/past it. Oh and for gods sake don't use paternal aunt when you meant maternal one, what a mistake)...and so on and so on.


6. The Turkish Queue

And all this politeness in a society where a queue is more semi-circular than it is linear, and with a set of queuing behaviour which, well, you know I'm going to stop calling it a queue before I get hauled in by trading standards, a set of crowd behaviour that would make the Millwall supporters club blush.

Basically, if you've got say 1 officer in an institution who people want things from - a bank clerk, newspaper stand, me in my office, it all seems to work on the same principles - and a set of people who are doing the wanting, they all pretty much simultaneously request service.

I remember being horrified the first time I saw this in action - S sorting out some of my first Turkish bureaucracy, turning up at the back of a group and pushing her way to the counter and putting her question to the suit behind the desk. "What are you doing, love, there's about 10 people before us, wait our turn!" I thought.

I now realise I'd be waiting a long time, as the next and the next person would go straight past without passing go. The bizarre thing is, the process does actually seem to work. The crowd and processing sort of self-selects. Physical size limits the number of people who have face to face access at any one time to a dealable 5 or 6. Those people who've just got a quick yes-no question get answered straight away and go away happy, those who've got a bit of paper to stamp but don't need too much in the way of interaction get that done whilst the officer is talking to the person in front of them, who is doing a lengthy bit of business involving photocopies and phonecalls elsewhere and I don't know what, and in the dead time of that transaction all the peripheries are getting requires a certain amount of impatience on the part of the servicees, and an awful lot of patience on the part of the servicer, but well, it actually does seem to result in a fairly equitable processing system.

7. Tesbihs

I do love a good tesbih, me.

These are, properly speaking, prayer beads, much beloved of both the old and devout, and the young and cocky, who walk down the street with these great big clunky versions of them, swinging and clacking them about in ostentatious fashion. Sort of like a religious and rather less violent nunchuck.

Me I just use them as worry beads, and are extremely good for keeping restless hands occupied. I would recommend them to anyone who wants to give up smoking, for example.

But I do always feel like a bit of a berk in using them. Like I say they originally are a religious thing, therefore the westernised elite probably think it's a misguided aping of a backwards conservative culture - like travellers wafting about in kaftans in an attempt to blend in.

On the other hand, the aforementioned conservatives probably think that this not just bare headed woman - but a short-haired pisshead lemon of a western lass to boot - using one is incongruous at the best, if not vaguely disrespectful.

However, you know, after extensive thought, and giving due weight to a range of culturally sensitive considerations, I've decided, well, bollox to the lot of them.

8. Turkish News

Is insane. It's like the Day Today amped up to 11. Leaving aside the less-than stellar standard of reporting (can't blame 'em, Turkey doesn't win any Reporters Without Borders awards and it's presumably difficult to evolve a quality journalistic tradition when there's a history of journalists getting legally or financially harassed, or, erm, shot) and the overly sensationalist presentation (to be fair, again of not infrequently sensational events), it's just the general vibe of the news that I can't get used to.

Every news report has continual background music, generally ominous star-trooper like doom music for the main politics or world story, sometimes stirring and emotional for the (plentiful) human interest stories about some poor boy going missing and the camera crews whacking their cameras in the faces of the distressed mother, and for the 'And finally' piece a bit of jaunty turkish kazoo equivalent. Because, you know, unless we had this handy soundtrack we wouldn't be able to figure out if the story was meant to be happy or sad.

Plus the rather disturbing habit they have of playing unedited CCTV or camera phone footage of the incidents they are reporting on, including horrific and probably fatal traffic accidents. So, basically, snuff films.

9. No pubs

Now I have learnt to love a good Meyhane as much as the next Turk, and rakı with meze, particularly the traditional combination of white cheese (feta like effort, creamy and sharp at the same time) and the melon, is a match made in drinkers heaven.

But. Still. Pubs, oh pubs, why have I foresaken you?

10. Playing it by ear

I think I've mentioned this one too. But I've hit number 10 and am fast running out of things to say that don't make me sound like I'm scraping the bottom of the tourism awe barrel (I could bang on about the call to prayer or the novelty of intracity sea transport, but honestly who can be arsed), so there we go.

It is nice not always being tied to a plan, and feeling guiltily responsible for ensuring it happens all the time. It is also nice to feel that things can be done on a whim and it's not going to put anyone's nose too far out of joint.

I think I am turning out to be a closet flake.

So. To summarise. Actually, that's quite depressing - the summary is that I like turkish food and drink, but apparently not too much, and I like turkish people and behaviour, but also apparently not too much. HMMMM! What a loser.

Target for next year, then, is to do something beyond actually the bare minimum to keep myself alive, ie eating and drinking and basic daily interactions with society. Suggestions?