Tag Archives: turkey

My Hood

I’ve lived off and on for several years in a neighborhood that is considered trashy by the standards of my Turkish friends. Turkey having a very classist society, it would make sense that most of my friends, who are well educated and well off, don’t like to come visit in this neighborhood. However, foreigners at first cannot tell the difference between this and other places in Beyoğlu. I admit that its ghetto character has revealed itself to me gradually. It wasn’t until recently that I realized I had to move.

A Lazy Ramazan Sunday from my kitchen window

Except I already did move—a month ago—into another apartment in the same neighborhood. Julie and I wanted to get our own separate apartments (weird foreigner behavior #1) and we started looking in other areas. But then we found out that there is a reason why people like us live in the ghetto: We cannot afford to live in the nicer neighborhoods. So we have at least something in common with our current neighbors (who are mostly immigrants from Anatolia.) So, in the end, Julie and I found two nice apartments across the street from one another. In fact, it is much like the old flat that we shared except with a street running through it.

A street filled with loud children and bickering, sunflower-seed chewing gossipy adults. Often the air splits with the sound of firecrackers. Or construction. Or just general cacophony. There is a quiet period, however—between the hours of about 3am and 9am. So I have been enjoying waking up early in the morning to enjoy the quiet.

He entered from this window. Now it has bars on it, so I feel like i'm in jail

That is why, when a man climbed into my bedroom window the other morning at 6:30am, I was already half awake. I had been lying on my side with my back to the window (which is at the foot of the bed) and I heard the rustling of my curtain being pulled aside. By the time I had turned onto my back, he was standing next to me. I didn’t take time to think—I cocked both of my legs back and kicked him hard in the chest, while screaming, “NO!!” His eyes got HUGE and I heard him gasp as I knocked the wind out of him. He silently fell back, but simultaneously, he grabbed my Kindle which was on the bedside table. I didn’t care that he had my entire collection of reading in his hand—I just wanted him out of my room. The bedroom door was closed and he opted to escape back out the window from which he came.

My apartment is on the second floor. I had only been in the flat a week and had been considering putting bars on the windows, but hadn’t gotten around to it. He jumped into the window frame and probably thought he was going to climb down the side along the drainage pipe in the same way he came up. However, I shoved him hard out into the air and he landed heavily on the stoop of the house across the street. I was surprised (and a little relieved—I didn’t want to see blood) when he landed on his feet and ran away. My cries of ‘Hırsız! Hırsız! (Thief) woke the neighbors, but it was too late to catch him.

He landed here

A couple of good things came out of this situation: 1) Arni was scared for me and flew back to Istanbul to stay with me just a week after he left, and 2) I got to meet my new neighbors and show them that I do know how to speak Turkish. When I am under stress, I am always able to miraculously produce the intelligible Turkish that I cannot summon under normal circumstances. To bad that incidents like these are the reason I want to leave Turkey and never speak Turkish again.


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Jive Turkey Hunt 2010

I organized a send-off scavenger hunt last night (I am going to Turkey for a few months to renovate my building!) Despite a windchill factor of minus a gajillion, some of my hardiest friends (women, of course, and Mountain Man Foofy Eric who lives in an igloo,) showed up and we really combed the neighborhood for all things Turkey:

*Turkey Sandwich
*Turkey Baster
*A fez
*an ottoman
*a donkey
*Tarkan CD
*Rumi poem
*Belly Dancer
*Turkey Visa Stamp
*A Turk
*Zildjian cymbal
and a few more things I don’t remember. . . .
*1/2 pint of Wild Turkey
*a pigeon

We have to do this more often, but next time I will do things differently. Like, in bikinis in the dead of summer instead of battling frostbite. And I won’t start my evening by drinking an absinthe margarita at the Turkey’s Nest Tavern. Whatever was I thinking?

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Bulgarian Rhapsody

Sitting in my warm apartment while winter freezes the snot of people on the streets of New York, I can finally begin to decompress from my last trip to the Balkans.  I’ve been traveling to Bulgaria, Kosovo, Serbia (yes, I am acknowledging that Kosovo is no longer Serbia,) Bosnia, Macedonia, and Turkey for a few years now.  I’ve gone mostly for love, sometimes for circus, sometimes for vacation. Quite a few times I’ve gone for chalga—which can be directly tied into the ‘love’ aspect.

When I was teaching circus camp in Texas years ago, I worked with a Bulgarian couple who had trained some circus colleagues in Bulgaria.  Like typical Bulgarians, they liked to drink rakia (which they called ‘schnapps’ in English,) grill meats, make shopska salad (cucumbers, tomatos, onions, and Bulgarian white cheese, ) and dance around to chalga.  Once they were drunk enough to turn on the chalga, the nationalistic talk started,
“The Black Sea is the most beautiful sea in the world!  I’ve been to California and the coast there cannot even compare to the beauty of the Black Sea!”
“Bulgarian women are the most beautiful women in the world”
“We are the smartest, the strongest, the best acrobats, etc. etc.”
After weeks of this I started to believe them, and since I’d never been there I thought I needed to visit this paradise on earth—even though I couldn’t place it on a map if a gun was held to my head.  And the chalga music intrigued me.  I’d always wanted to go to Turkey since studying Greek history in high school and this music the Bulgarians played sounded Turkish to me.  And that was a good thing.  I didn’t find out later that this is exactly the type of thing that makes Bulgarians hate chalga.  What makes it “Oriental”.

After the dissolution of my long-term relationship that winter, I decided I needed to pick myself up with a trip to Turkey.  (Actually, I kick-started it with a 2 month jaunt around Mexico. . .)  And as long as I’m going there, I might as well stop and check out this Bulgaria I’ve heard so much about.  I didn’t know anyone there, didn’t know what to do there.  I only knew one non-Bulgarian who had been there.  And I decided to ask her for advice.
A few days before I had decided to ask my friend, Tammy, about her trip there years before, a man had come into the library and to the Periodicals Department to locate a particular journal.  I had been working at that desk and he walked up and in a very congenial manner asked for the “Journal of Heritage Studies”.  The database listing the periodicals is in alphabetical order, so when it can’t find a title, it will suggest the next one down, which in this case happened to be the “Journal of Greek Love” or something similar relating to homosexual issues.  I asked him with a laugh, “Are you sure you don’t want to just look at the Journal of Greek Love?”   Where did that come from?  In general you want to avoid being goofy or potentially offending a customer, but he seemed like he had a good sense of humor and would laugh.  Which he did.  We didn’t have the journal he wanted, and he left.  He was Matthew—the man who introduced me to chalga.

A couple of days after that encounter, which I had forgotten, I was at the Odeon in San Francisco where Tammy was in a ‘play’.  While I was watching, the man from the library came up to me and said, “Hey, didn’t you help me at the library the other day?”  I remembered his face, but didn’t engage him too far because then you inevitably get into the old, “I think librarians are so sexy” conversation that every man feels he is entitled to.  So I turned back to the play.  Afterwards, I told Tammy I was going to Bulgaria in a few weeks and wanted advice.  She said, “Oh, you should meet my friend Matthew who is here, he lives in Sofia!”  She guided me back over to the bar where she introduced me to the Journal of Heritage Studies Guy.  And so we became friends.  And then lovers.

The first night I went to his flat in Sofia, he showed me a chalga video, and I did not leave his apartment for a week.  I just sat gaping at the TV and all its trashy glory and could not leave other than to pour more rakia and smoke  cigarettes on the porch.  It was heaven.

And Matthew told me about the history of Bulgarian chalga, shared with me his favorite stars, translated interviews and lyrics and elucidated many other wonders.  I loved how he put all of this in context.  Later that summer, when we rented a car and drove around the country, I learned that there are less chalga fans in Sofia.  The villages were where it really happens.  And many small towns have chalga night clubs where the singers have ‘engagements’.  This is how chalga singers make their money—they are paid to sing at parties, weddings, club engagements.  There are no CD sales or merchandising and in many cases, the singer pays for the honor of singing by giving outlandish cuts of their salaries to the record label.  It’s difficult to see what the attraction is for them, other than the glamour of it all.

So when Julie and I went to the Folk Club Versai in Sofia last week, how much the singer, Andrea was really making from this show was on my mind.  The club was, in a word, ‘upholstered’.   The large columns in the middle of the room were decorated in white leather diamond-shaped pillows, gathered in the middle by a little silver button.  The ceiling was mirrored and accented with circular mouldings of silver and gold.  The back wall was of padded gold, the Lucite bars were lit from underneath, and the singer’s runway/dancefloor was pure Studio 54.  You can see this club featured as the backdrop for 50% of the current chalga videos. Instead of the Henny and Cristal-swilling patrons that would frequent a place like this in the States, the Versai was full of 17-year old gelled-haired dudes drinking beer, and if they are fancy—Johnny Walker Red.

It all should have been perfect there on that snowy December night, hanging in a chalga club with one of my favorite people, taking in the sights and picking up tips for my own chalga career, but like many episodes in my life these days—the moment was full of the ache of loss and wonder at how I arrived at this place.  At 40 shouldn’t I be at home with my children in the house that I own?  Shouldn’t I have a loving husband to come home to?  Granted, these are not things that I’ve ever wanted for myself, but then I never ‘wanted’ to be hanging out with teenage chalga fans in Bulgaria either—but here I am.  And most of these feelings of loss are my own fault.  I was the one who ruined things with Matthew, I’m the reason I wound up single traveling to Bulgaria for an obscure musical genre.  But that is exactly the problem—I can’t help but travel places, to be intrigued by things that probably take me further away from stable relationships and true love.  Once I thought I found someone to share this life with.  But he broke my heart.  I met him in the Balkans too.  I need to stop going there. Even for chalga.


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View of eminonu taken from Fener on the Golden Horn

View of eminonu taken from Fener on the Golden Horn

The shoe-shine boys and men of Turkey are called “boyaci” (boy-a-ji). Unlike shoe-shiners in many other countries, they do not operate in a fixed location where you can sit up in a high chair while the man does his work on your shoes which are at chest height. The Istanbul shoe shine guys have portable kits, which are rectangular wooden boxes with a handle and a metal knob on which to prop your foot. The box is filled with shoe polish, rags, and brushes. Ahhh . . . the brush! That is the key to a boyaci’s scam. I remember the first time I witnessed this scam as I was walking with my then-love to Ortakoy along the Bosphorus road. We had passed Domabahce Palace and right then we saw a stooped, squat old man carrying a box waddling toward us. As we passed him he dropped his brush and we bent down to pick it up and hand it back to him.

“oh . . . thank you, thank you, you are so nice! Where are you from? Let me shine your shoes for you.” And he immediately grabbed my foot and started polishing my shoes and telling us about his sick nephew and dead wife. It was only then that I started to get suspicious, but I was curious to see how the scam panned out. He then did my boyfriend’s shoes and promptly requested 10 Turkish Lira, which was then around 7 dollars U.S. That was way too much, especially since we didn’t need our shoes shined to begin with. So we gave him a couple lira and told him to fuck off.

A couple of days later we had just walked across the Galata Bridge and were descending onto the piers at Eminönü when a boyaci passed us and dropped his brush. We stopped and looked at each other and started laughing. My boyfriend decided that the next time it happened he would pick it up and hold it ransom until the boyaci paid him 10 lira. It made sense to me, but we never got the chance to test it out.

I’ve seen this repeated many many more times since then with many many more people falling for it. When it happens to me and I’m with a visitor I will grab them when they about to lean over and warn them not to pick it up. This always gets a scowl from the boyaci. My friend, Julie, likes to kick it into the street. Now I’m good enough to detect in the boyaci’s body language that he is setting up to make a move, so my new tactic is to make eye contact and nod my head ‘no’ (in turkey the head signals are reversed) to let him know not to waste his time. This usually works, but with comments of ‘bitch’ or Turkish curses—of which I know none.

As this scam is a Turkish tradition, I’m likely to encounter it many more times when I am in Istanbul, but for me the subterfuge is more painful for most, as each time a boyaci drops his brush near me, my heart sinks in remembrance of that wonderfully happy day, walking along the Bosphorus with my new love and how much I miss being with that someone who would hold a brush ransom for 10 lira.


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