Not Constantinople

The more I think about it, the more it seems that the best metaphor I can come up with for this place is.. the Internet. Stop laughing and work with me for a minute, I can support this admittedly flimsy theory.

It’s a crazy place. Flying over on approach to LTBA, or looking at the maps on Google Earth, there’s clearly some kind of organization at work. But on the ground, at an individual level, it’s hard to see where that organization went. There’s chaos all around you and it doesn’t seem like the place should work, and yet it clearly does. Good luck finding anything unless you know precisely where to look, but if you do know precisely where to look you can get more or less anything that you want. The parts of the place that work well work very well indeed; the other parts can drive you to insane degrees of frustration. And you don’t want to look too carefully at the parts that do work, because you might not like what you see.

And, of course, there’s advertising everywhere. Some of it is the usual banner kind. But some of it is the more intrusive pop-up kind, and, unfortunately, there’s no such thing as a real-world pop-up blocker.

That’s Istanbul in a nutshell: Chaotic, scary, fun, amazing, bewildering, and more. It’s a great place, and everyone should come here at least once, but should be well-prepared for the experience.

I arrived at LTBA with no luggage, thanks to an insane connection time at the worst airport in Europe. Here’s a tip: Do not trust the Alitalia reservations computer when connecting through LIMC. I don’t care what the damn thing says: (a) it’s Alitalia and (b) LIMC is vastly, vastly worse than anything you can imagine. It starts when you land 20 minutes late, thanks to a “ground hold” at EGLL that mostly seemed to feature wave after wave of incoming British Airways aircraft. Your A321 taxis to the furthest reaches of the airport, out by the friggin’ cargo terminal, whereupon you are herded out of the plane and onto waiting buses, KIAD-style. You are driven to the main terminal building, debarked (in no particular order) and begin running to make your connection. Oops! You get to go through security all over again. (Why, considering you were screened prior to departure in London, is a mystery.) This accomplished, you race all the way through the terminal building to the departure gate, which is a pen roughly 50 meters by 100 meters containing about 1,500 people and six active departure gates. There are no lines. You figure out which knots of people to follow by asking everyone you come to, and by joining what you think is the end of the line. (Invariably, it won’t be.) Your departure time comes and goes. Your line inches forward in tiny spurts. Eventually you are herded back onto another bus and drive out onto the ramp… to the parking spot immediately next to the aircraft you just got off. Your new flight leaves some 30 minutes late.

And somehow, in all of this, your bag failed to move the 35 meters between aircraft. Okay, I know it’s more complicated than that, but let’s get real here: I’ve made international connections in less than 50 minutes at other airports before, and I’m totally mystified as to why this one took so long. Alitalia sucks, but the ground handling agents in Istanbul rule. Sibel listened to me with a weary smile on her face and filled the paperwork out in record time (I’ve never had a lost bag dealt with so promptly or efficiently) and promised to have my bag delivered to my hotel the next day. “Call and use my name if the bag does not arrive,” she said in halting English. “We will make this right.” I’ve never had an airline or aviation-related company tell me that before.

Arriving in a city with no bags is weirdly liberating. You can walk around without getting pegged immediately as a newly-arrived tourist, and the walking is vastly easier without bags than with. This turned out to be significant in that I managed to find myself on the tram during rush hour; it’s a lot like Tokyo except there’s less room and where the Japanese might look at a full-to-the-brim car and think, “I’ll take the next one,” the Turks look at the same car and think, “Hey, there’s lots of room.” It was like some kind of Guiness stunt, only, you know, not. So trying to maneuver my bags on this extremely full tram might have been… complex. I got off in Sultanhamet and began searching for my hotel; a wrong turn lead me down towards the Hippodrome but I found the right track quickly enough, only to be picked up by a tout.

This was a strange and, in my 52-hours-awake-with-no-sleep-and-now-on-the-other-side-of-the-world state of mind, vaguely terrifying experience. It bothered me for about a day and a half before I figured something out: The touts are not looking to rob you — at least, not illegally. This is advertising, albeit a much more aggressive form of advertising than we’re used to. There isn’t a lot of difference between “My friend, my friend, excuse me, would you like to buy carpet?” or “Excuse me, where you from, would you like to buy carpet?” and “What year did you graduate high school?” or “Shock the monkey and win a free iPod!” It doesn’t seem like that at the time — like I say, it’s very aggressive and it can be extremely intimidating — but it’s nothing terrible and they’re not going to mug you or take you hostage and not let you leave. They want to sell you stuff. The Turks have perfected capitalism in a way that North Americans have not, and distilled it down to its purest essence; woe betide anyone who does not understand this, and ventures into a carpet (or any other) shop unaware.

That said, it’s a hilariously friendly country. Arriving jet lagged and tired (and waiting for K.’s flight from Greece to land), my hotel’s clerk shared his dinner with me and refused to let me pay for half. On our second day, we were invited to an engagement party being thrown by the woman who works in the travel agency next door — a party that ended up including a seven-course dinner and more or less unlimited wine. I’ve had countless cups of tea as the guest of various various organizations, all the way from hotels and travel agents to clothes merchants and, in the most memorable case, the First Turkish Army. (Yes, I’m talking about that Army. You know, the kind with guns and stuff.) Everyone has been happy to help, even the ones who could do nothing to help.

There’s truly strange stuff here. This is an old, old, old country. I know I said this when I was in Japan, but this stuff is older. It’s breathtaking — literally breathtaking — what happens when you’re standing in a 1,500 year old church turned mosque turned museum, or amidst the mosaics and frescos in a beautifully preserved Byzantine church or hanging out in front of a giant mosque with six minarets, or.. well, I could go on and on and on, and on, but what would be the point? This is just a terrifically interesting city, though, as I said, it takes some getting used to.

The city, in a snapshot, described by our last day here: We ate on the terrace of our hotel, in full view of the Blue Mosque and the Haigha Sophia, then wandered up to the Grand Bazaar to buy some souvenirs. We then took the tram over to Eiminonu, caught a ferry to Uskudar, went and hung out with the soldiers at Selimiye Barracks, walked back along the mouth of the Bosphorous, had lunch at a bufe outside the Uskudar ferry terminal, crossed back into Europe, and wandered around Divan Yolu for an hour or two before stumbling back here. There’s enough to do to keep even the busiest traveler occupied for days on end; I’ve been here almost a week now and feel like I’ve only just scratched the surface. (To be fair, I feel that way about most places I visit.)

I’ve made a couple of references to it now, and the story is so interesting, so I guess the tale of my encounter with the First Turkish Army is worth telling. It turns out that there’s a museum dedicated to the memory of Florence Nightingale here in Istanbul, because this is where she did her greatest work during the Crimean War. The catch is, the museum is in the middle of a huuuuuge Army base, the Selimiye Barracks, headquarters of the Turkish 1st Army. (They’re nominally deployed in Thrace, but the headquarters are there.) This being Turkey, and Turkey having a bit of a historical terrorism problem without Osama’s hijinks, and this being a military base, you can’t just show up. You have to fax them a letter explaining what you want, specifying a date and time, and including copies of your passports. You go over, explain to the taxi driver where you want to go (getting a very strange look in return for your troubles), and are then driven at breakneck speed through a traffic jam, arriving on the street in front of the base. The guard at the gatehouse has only a fractured understanding of English but knows there’s a museum inside, so you show your passports, get a burst of Turkish back, and instructions to walk up the hill to the guard house. You are searched and your belongings x-rayed before being temporarily confiscated.

It’s at this point that they serve you tea and invite you to sit and wait. Smokes are passed out. You notice that, in contrast with every other military base you’ve ever been on, everyone is armed and the signs seem to suggest they’re at Condition Yellow. Whether this is positive news or not is open for discussion. You’re then told to follow another armed soldier, who walks you further up the hill past a magnificent stone building, the headquarters building itself, and around to the back, where a 2nd lieutenant from the Army introduces himself and explains that he’ll be your guide for your trip through to the museum. You sign in and walk through the barracks itself, down the halls lined with commemorative photographs and biographies of the commanders of the unit that date back to 1843. The museum is one of the towers and functions as a monument to both Nightingale and the First Army; the bottom depicts the First Army’s various battles, from Crimea through to the war of independence to Gallipoli, and off in the corner is one of Nightingale’s operating theatres. Above are her living quarters, and it’s suitably impressive to see one of those Places Where Shit Started. I mean, let’s face it — if you work in health care, chances are that you do something that was pioneered here; it’s not quite the same thing as seeing The Manger in Bethlehem, but for a professional’s soul, it’s roughly the same thing.

Go. It’s really cool, and you get to have the bonus experience of some teenager with a gun following you around all afternoon looking jumpy. (Who then runs off, with no explanation, leaving you puzzled and confused but, ah, who cares.)

Then there are some experiences you can’t have anywhere else — the outsourcing of what we’d consider essential bodily functions. You too can get scrubbed by a giant Turkish guy named Mesale who will bend you over so far that you think your L3 is going to snap, and scrub you in places you didn’t know you had, harder than you thought you could ever be scrubbed, for longer than you ever thought you could tolerate. A Turkish bath is a lot like a Japanese bath, except the Japanese version is strictly self-serve, and the Turkish one doesn’t come with bonus nudity from everyone. It’s tough to say whether I enjoyed the experience or not; it was, if nothing else, unique. Far more enjoyable are the YTL10 shaves that get you stubble-free more thoroughly than you could ever do on your own, and come with a bonus facial and neck massage. (Though it’s worth noting that it’s a little terrifying to be shaved with a straight razor for the first time.)

And, of course, no visit to any Muslim country comes without the daily adhan. Five times a day — and once in particular (4:30 while you’re asleep) — you get to hear a guy chanting, “Allāhu Akbar! Ash-hadu allā ilāha illallāh! Ash-hadu anna Muhammadur rasūlullāh! Hayya ‘alas-salāt! Hayya ‘alal-falāh!” Would that it might only take that long; what the adhan reminds me of — and I know I’m going to hell for this, so shut up already — is that scene from The Simpsons where Bleeding Gums Murphy performs the National Anthem at an Isotopes game, and it takes something like an hour and a half to get through the whole thing. In theory the adhan shouldn’t take that long, but most muezzins put their touches on it and it becomes kind of a contest to see who can do the best job of calling the faithful in for prayer. And in a city with 2,873 mosques, well, you can imagine what this might be like. (I can totally see why Cairo switched to one centralized adhan.)

Austria beckons. More later.