a unique perspective on this crazy world

Posts tagged ‘istanbul’

midnight in paris

I love the cinema but often find I don’t have the time to sit in the inky dark of a movie theatre watching the trailers in anticipation of the main event.  As a result, I have become a big fan of Air Canada and the personalized entertainment on almost every flight.  I always climb aboard with a list of films I am hoping to see someday…

One of the films this trip was “Midnight in Paris”.  I think I have seen every Woody Allen film – even the bad ones!  This was supposed to be him returning to his glory days.

The film starts with panoramic shots of famous Paris iconography.  Few cities have so many instantly recognizable famous sites.  It took only seconds for me to realize it was the absolutely PERFECT film to watch on the plane to Paris!

The messages of the film resonated over my first two days in Paris.  I have been to Paris so many times I have lost count – and have explored a lot of the city.  But all the visits have been far too fleeting and there are still many corners left to discover so now my strategy is to choose hotels in new neighborhoods to expand my knowledge of the city.

Paris v1.0 this trip I spent two days in Montparnasse.  Montparnasse is close to St Germain des Près, my usual stomping ground, but just far enough away to be something new.

Sometimes I use my guidebook and sometimes I just use my instincts.  In Paris, I just used my instincts.  And ended up at La Closerie des Lilas, where the paper menu had been signed by Buzz Aldrin along with many others.  I chose it because it looked busy, the menu looked appealing and the maitre d’ seemed OK with a table for one.  The server was exemplary, teasing me that since I had a French menu, I had to order in French (no problem :)) and bringing me a half bottle of bordeaux he deemed worthy of me.

The server, the bordeaux and the entrecôte on a balmy March night in Paris would have been enough but at the end of the meal some ladies invited me to join them.  This is how I learned the restaurant had been frequented by Hemingway but was apparently not all it had been back then.

Nostalgia – not one of the deadly sins – but dangerous all the same.  For those who haven’t seen “Midnight in Paris” the big theme is how we always think an earlier era was the “golden age” and sit restless and unsatisfied in our “real-time” world.

I think it’s an important message for the educated traveller.  I have been teased by a French server at Les Deux Magots trying to imagine Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir arguing over a coffee.   I have drunk an outrageously expensive Bellini in the original Harry’s Bar in Venice (where it was invented).  I have sipped the most expensive glass of champagne of my entire life on the veranda of the Victoria Falls Hotel pretending to be a pampered colonist.  Like the guy in the film, I have run all over Paris trying to be Hemingway.

The experiences have been OK.  But none have been special.  And mostly I just felt ripped off.  So I finally had that eureka moment and quit drinking overpriced beverages chasing the glamorous past I had read about in books with ghosts and embraced the future.

I was travelling to the past to find the zeitgeist.  It made no sense.  The Paris of 2012 will never the Paris of the 1920’s.  But the Shanghai of 2012 might well be.  If you want to be like Hemingway, you need to think, “where would Hemingway hang out in 2012?”

Certainly not in Paris.  Maybe Shanghai?  Maybe Mumbai?  Istanbul?  These are the exciting cities of the 21st century.  I haven’t been to Mumbai yet but in the other two I felt like I was discovering the future.

I started finding history in the making and participating.  Making up my own narratives in places that would – in the future – be someone’s golden age.  My life became exciting and my stories started to rival Hemingway’s.

And if the film is accurate, lots of these famous guys were douche bags so WHY did I want to follow in Hemingway’s footsteps anyway?  Or Picasso’s?  My sense is these guys were assholes.  So who cares what they drank – or where – or with whom?  I need to create my own personal narrative.  So far I think I am giving them both a run for their money – and my ex’s LIKE me 🙂

One of them – with whom I am still friends over a decade since the breakup – described me as “a woman who is hard to forget.”  Hemingway would likely have been intrigued.  But I would have told him I don’t do bad boys.  Nice guys are so much more fun!  Without all the nice guys taking pity on me and bringing me out of my shell, I would never have become the kind of woman who would tell Pablo Picasso, “honey, you’re talented for sure, but you’re a little too Kim Kardasian for me.  I think Otto Dix is far more interesting…”

I send people to Paris to pretend they are living in the 18th century.  Paris is one of the only places I’ve been that preserves its history with such diligence.   It is a wonderful city.   But it is only the exciting center of the universe it was in the early twentieth century in the movies.  God bless Woody Allen – Paris has never looked better.  You should see the film.  And you should come to Paris.  But also go to Berlin and to Istanbul.  They are cities where the zeitgeist is in the present.

Revel in the zeitgeist.  Be part of your own era.  Embrace it and create the stories of the present that the people of the future will romanticise and try to re-create on their own voyages into the dangerous land of nostalgia.

let’s get lost…

Firdevs suggested I do that my first day in Istanbul but I decided I would wait a couple of days to take Chet Baker’s advice…

In case you are starting to feel like you are on Contiki tour bus doing the Europe in 10 days tour, I will provide a little geographical grounding.  I am actually in Paris as I type this.  I have been collecting thoughts, writing notes and scribbling little bits of various blog posts over the past few days in various locales so I am now going to try and finish some of the posts and send them out into the world wide web.

So we are finished with Berlin.  This will be the last post for Istanbul.  A lot more happened on my first two days in Paris than I expected so we still have to catch up on Paris v1.0 and then move on to the present, Paris v2.0.  But right now we are back in Istanbul on my final day there…

I was pretty sure I knew the way to Galata now from my neighborhood so I just wandered off without a map, seeing if I would need to use one.  The Galata Tower is, if I remember correctly, the oldest structure of its kind, the CN Tower of the ancient world.  Of course, in the ancient world, there weren’t a lot of people so the stone stairs are narrow, it is very crowded at the top and I would not recommend it if you are scared of heights.  But it provides a sweeping view of the entire city.  Unfortunately it was pretty smoggy and sunny and getting a great photo proved difficult but I saw it and it was spectacular.  If YOU want to see it, you will have to go to Istanbul 🙂

I figured the Galata Bridge shouldn’t be too far away and I might be able to find it just by wandering in the general direction.  It worked!  We will now time travel to the thoughts I scribbled in a notebook in the moment…

“I found the Galata Bridge so I am now sitting on a tiny stool with a bunch of single men waiting for the mystery fish that I ordered.  Had I thought it through a little better, I would have paid more attention to the fish names in the market while I was snapping their portraits.  Luckily I like fish and have eaten fish all over the world.  Fish – unlike Coca Cola – is very local so you are forced to be adventurous.  Sitting here on my precarious perch surrounded by people speaking Turkish and no other tourists in the vicinity, I feel like an adventuress.

Having a sense of adventure can get you in tiny bits of trouble but I have good instincts and have never come to harm anywhere.

It has arrived!  A giant fish complete with eyeballs staring at me.  Luckily my mom is not here with me.  Once upon a time in one of Honest Ed’s fancy restaurants in Toronto, she was served a piece of fish that had not been filleted.  She couldn’t even just cut the head off.  It had to be removed by someone else and then placed UNDER the table so it couldn’t watch her eating it.  I fished it out from under the table before we left so the server wouldn’t have to wait for the smell to find it…

I have no idea what this fish IS but it is excellent.   So I guess I would just encourage you to find the fish market near the Galata Bridge and just order something…  You can benefit from my experience and choose some fish that looks promising and note its name in Turkish before you sit down to eat :)”

OK, so now back to talking about the past in the present…

Emboldened by my fish market adventure, I decided to see if I could do a Bosphorous tour.  I’d been a little worried about getting on a boat and being taken somewhere and not knowing where I was and not speaking a world of Turkish, having trouble getting home.  But one has to take some small adventures if you want to have the great stories in the nursing home so I wandered over to the dock and saw a sign that suggested I could pay 12 Turkish lira and get on a boat that would take me on a one hour Bosphorous cruise.

Well, the 12 lira part was accurate.  And I did get on a boat.  A lot of hand gestures and false starts ensued before I actually found a boat that would take me.  And then the suggestion was that it was the wrong boat but I could get on anyway.  That always feels comforting when you can’t speak the language and you are now on a boat going somewhere…

Luckily we were only going across the water.  But then the guy who had let me and a couple of others on came and rounded us up and kicked us off.  Where we were supposed to go next was really unclear but I thought he had said the number 3 and he seemed to be OK when I finally tried to get on the third boat in the line after we docked.  I’d first tried the one next door but the hand gestures suggested no.  The guy on the third boat actually took my ticket so it seemed promising.  Of course, I now had no idea where I was going – or where I was supposed to get off.

Despite the slight trauma involved in the experience, seeing the Bosphorous from the water was one of the best things that I did while I was in Istanbul.  And I was really happy Manuel had really pushed me to get on the water.  The palaces, villas and yachts parked in front that you see from the water are amazing.  And I got to try some Turkish tea!  Which was incredibly bitter.  I am not much for sweets but I used both packets of sugar just to make it palatable.

While the cruise part was wonderful, I still had to deal with the mystery of departure.  I gathered there was going to be a few different options so I just disembarked when the vast majority of other people did.  It seemed the safest option.

It was, of course, not where I had started my cruise… so I looked around vacantly trying to figure out where I was on the map.  Luckily I realized after a few minutes the dock name I couldn’t find on my map wasn’t a dock name at all – but the name of the ship line.  I looked around a bit and decided I was likely next to the Galata Bridge – but on the other side.

So… if I just walked over the bridge, I would be back where I had started from – and where I knew my way.  It worked!  People fish off the Galata Bridge.  There are fish restaurants everywhere.  So walking back allowed me to absorb the atmosphere and take a few photos.

I then attempted to get killed trying to cross the street.  I even followed locals but not all of them had made the right choice.  I later learned that there was likely an underground passageway I was supposed to be using instead of playing in traffic.  But once upon a time I had to cross a busy road in Pompeii all by myself in order to not miss the bus back to Rome and once you have done that, traffic doesn’t scare you anymore 😉

I got back to the hotel without a map and the rest of the evening seemed a little wimpy by comparison 🙂  I did go and say good-bye to my bartenders and got to see more bombs on the news in Turkish.  It was a little disconcerting.  One of the bars I frequently had a TV but the news was in Turkish of course so I would see stuff that looked kind of scary but not really be sure where it was happening…

While I was in Istanbul, I finished “Three Cups of Tea.”  I would recommend it to anyone who hasn’t read it.  About a guy named Greg Mortenson building schools – mostly for girls – in Pakistan and Afghanistan.  I had started reading it in Vancouver but never had time to finish so put it in my luggage for the trip.  Reading it in Turkey was definitely more poignant.

I finished Istanbul with dinner at Mikla.  Mikla is one of the most famous and expensive restaurants in Istanbul.  It is on the 18th floor of the Marmara Pera with a sweeping 360 degree view of Istanbul lit up at night.  The view was stunning and worth paying for the dinner.

Unfortunately for Mikla I have eaten all over the world.  I have even turned my small town mother into the kind of protégé who says snobby stuff like, “yes, Gordon Ramsay at Claridge’s was OK but the One at the Balmoral in Edinburgh was a true gourmet paradise.”  And, “yeah, I enjoyed Daniel but it was no Eleven Madison Park.”  Needless to say, impressing me isn’t easy…

In general Mikla was underwhelming.   It seemed to be trying a little too hard to be hip – and that is never cool.   So, if you go to Istanbul, go there for the view – but a drink in the bar likely a cheaper way to do that.  Go to Auf for the food.

I learned some new information in Istanbul.  But mostly what I came away with was a confirmation of my travel strategy that seems to work everywhere…  Get a map and a guidebook and use them for general advice but don’t be afraid to make your own choices too.  Engage the locals and take some chances – get a little lost, try an obscure restaurant, take a ferry to somewhere…  If you don’t come home without at least one story someone else is willing to listen to, you are just a tourist… not yet a real traveller 😉

a marriage proposal before noon

You may be thinking by now that you will be spared the stories 🙂  But I have just been too busy with marriage proposals, men who want to be my “free guide”(payment in kisses 😉 and all the new friends I am making hanging out in bars…

This post has been started a number of times now so will have to revise some of the earlier notes to get up to date.  We’ll see if I can actually get this posted today!  It’s now Friday morning and I am waiting for my flight to Berlin.  Managed to actually make it to the House Cafe’, as recommended in my guidebook.  And it is as good as promised!  My Eggs Benedict not quite standard issue – ciabatta, regular bacon, salad and a brown butter hollandaise – but it worked 🙂

It is obvious this is a Mediterranean country.  Food has been delicious and you can taste the sunshine, especially in the vegetables.  I have become addicted to Turkish olive oil but thanks to my carpet (it’s a good story ;), I don’t have any room in my suitcase sadly.

So much has happened since the last post, I have decided I will just have to go chronologically.  On Monday I just got my feet wet.  I love travelling on my own but I make sure I know my way around a place before I get too lost.  I put a lot of energy into deciding where to stay in Istanbul – and, as anticipated, it was a great launching pad to get to know the city.

I am staying in Beyoğlu.  This is the hip and happening section of Istanbul and the main shopping street was just one tiny lane over from the hotel.  Taksim Square is pretty ugly but a great reference point so I headed there first.

Monday was an absolutely glorious day and my guidebook said the view from Leb-i Derya on the top of the Richmond Hotel was possibly the best view in Istanbul.  So I had a long leisurely lunch, got to know my server and planned my assault on Constantinople over the next three days.  I also took the first set of what would become a crazy number of photos of this highly photogenic city.

Tuesday morning I got up early and it was time to leave my comfort zone and take a taxi to historical Istanbul.  The hotel staff are wonderful and there are countless taxis lingering about at any hour so getting into a taxi was a piece of cake.  Getting out of taxi proved to be a little more challenging…

The driver did not appear to speak English so I just had to hope I would arrive at the Blue Mosque.  The Blue Mosque and Haghia Sophia are opposite each other so it’s easy to know you are in the right place!

What is not so clear are the dangers lurking when you step out of the taxi.  Especially as a newbie who has been spoiled by the laid-back ways of your now native Pera.

In Sultanahmet, life is a lot more stressful.  This is where all the big tourist attractions are – and where you are part of the game, whether you realize it or not.  I was busy focusing on whether the taxi had dropped me in the right spot instead of noticing the guy opening the taxi door for me.

Nïzam seemed like a pretty decent guy and he would be my guide for free – and I was not obligated to visit his family’s rug shop at the end of our tour.  It seemed easier to just say “yes” than to figure out how to get rid of him.  And the start was very promising…

He was charming and very knowledgeable about the buildings.  Apparently he was trained as an architect although his current profession seemed unclear.  He was a master at the protocols; that was certain.  He did not like queues so he just told me to put my scarf on (I had come prepared!) and we went through the local entrance leaving the hordes of tourists waiting on their own.

I was very appreciative of his efforts and have been accused of being an incorrigible flirt so we were getting on famously until the kissing started to get a little out of hand… but not everyone can claim to have been groped in a mosque 😉

I think being agreeable is always the best strategy in complicated situations so I kept tagging along with him, trying not to get caught in too much kissing crossfire.  It was a wonderful tour and I am really glad that I did it.  It was so much easier than navigating on my own and I learned a lot.

But then the marriage proposal came.  At least he allowed me to wait until after lunch to make a decision.  It was all getting a lot more complicated than I had planned on so I agreed to go and look at carpets so that I could kill some time and figure out how to graciously get out of the mess I had gotten into.  And he had insisted I didn’t HAVE to BUY a carpet, just drink some tea and look at some…

But then he introduced his cousin 🙂  I have no idea how much I was ripped off but the carpet is gorgeous and I would spend that much on dinner for two so it was well worth the money.  The show was spectacular!  The cousin was very smooth, with much better English.  They brought me Turkish coffee – which was a bit much but I thought I had to try it!  The rug whisperer started tossing rugs on the floor, flipping them around so you could see how they changed colour depending on how the light hit them.

I hadn’t planned on buying a Turkish rug so had no idea about them – except that they didn’t go so well with my purple and leopard print decor 🙂  But they come from different regions, there are traditional symbols, some are prayer rugs, some are prayer rugs but you can’t pray on them cause they have been jazzed up too much.  The spiel was well done and I think I learned a little bit.

I finally decided a rug would be cheaper than bringing home a live souvenir from Turkey and that would be my concession.  I also wasn’t quite sure how to get out of the room.  I decided I was also paying for the world’s best sales training 🙂  At least I didn’t end up spending over $2,000 I hadn’t planned on.  That was where we started!

It was all quite a show.  Both the carpet salesman and I were trying to be gracious and I left myself open to be sold to so finally just caved.  It IS really beautiful!  Not sure if he was trying to improve his deal at the end or if it was a genuine mistake but I know my exchange rates so the price didn’t get inflated over 50% when suddenly at the end, it got converted from US dollars into Turkish lira…

At that point I was still open to going for lunch with Nïzam and then he was supposed to take me to Süleymaniye Mosque but the courtship seemed to be progressing rather rapidly and his English was pretty good but when he seemed annoyed that I had already said “yes” to a question I was now answering with a “no”, I decided it was time to cut my losses and try to get a taxi to take me from Old Istanbul back to the Istanbul of the Republic where life seemed a lot easier!

Nïzam insisted he was a good guy and did graciously get me a taxi back to my hotel – and did not jump in the front seat – so I believe him.  Apparently he was just mesmerized by my green eyes and my smile…  I will never forget my first visit to the Blue Mosque – and will look at my carpet with fondness remembering the story of how I acquired it.  That night I met Ïlhan, who enjoyed the story.  He told me he was already married – and one wife was enough trouble 🙂  More on him coming up…

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