Trip 2010: arrival in Turkey and the first two days

Tuesday 6 April

After a tortuous journey to Heathrow Airport (everything that could go wrong did) it was such a relief to be on the aeroplane that i barely noticed it taking off.  The meal was the usual Turkish-Cuisine-As-Recreated-By-A-Race-Of-Androids but airline food has its own particular magic. Perhaps it lies simply in the wonder of the fact that we are eating in the sky or perhaps it’s down to the mysterious allure of the little tin foil covered plastic pots in which it’s served. Four hours or so later and we were there – well, theoretically; but of course there was the ordeal that is Atatürk Airport to negotiate first. Once again i managed to choose the queue containing the dreaded Person-With-A-Problem-With-Their-Passport, although thankfully whatever the problem was it was soon resolved.

Grabbing my luggage (yes, it was there!) i made my way to the Metro Station, trusting (hoping?) that i would instinctively remember how to get to Sultanahmet. Half way there though it dawned on me that it would be better to change at a station called Zeytinburnu rather than the one i’d changed when i’d come last year. Near miss number one: i almost got on a train going the wrong way. Thankfully, two Turkish men guessed where i was going (to the area where all the foreigners go!) and guided me to the right platform.

I found the hotel itself without too much trouble. It was more upmarket than the hostel i’d stayed at the year before but less friendly. I guess you can’t have it all.

Wednesday 7 April

Awoke and realised i was in Turkey! After breakfast (this was the only day i managed to beat the Germans to the buffet) i first had to recharge my phone. Bizarrely my room had no power outlet so i had to sit in the main reception area and wait. As soon as it was done, i set out to reorient myself. I walked down towards Eminönü, following the tram line, and crossed Galata Bridge. It was a lot colder than when i’d been in the city the year before. I made my way to Beyoğlu and withdrew some cash – i’d brought only 25 TL with me. Then, after a stop at a cafe i set off to look for the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art. What a mission it turned out to be! I found my way down to the main road along the Bosphorus without problem but then couldn’t locate the Museum. Where the map seemed to be saying it should be there was nothing. An old Turkish man insisted it was inside the university building a bit further on. This seemed doubtful but i went there anyway. The security guards (Turkish universities are obviously tough places!) looked at my guidebook and shook their heads, pointing further along the road.

A building near the museum of modern art

Finally i found it the Museum. I was relieved but also, irrationally, angry. I felt somehow as if someone had been playing a game with me. Inside it was – truth be told – very much like modern art museums the world over: all white walls and glass. Most of the paintings on the main floor did little for me, although i did marvel at the pretentiousness with which they were described. Downstairs however i found the work of Erol Akyavaş* (1932-1999). His work fuses Islamic calligraphy with modern art and is stunning. The one i found most interesting seemed to incorporate views of a wall. The paintings of Bedri Rahmi Eyüboğlu were also interesting; he used lots of brown and the finished works often resembled calligraphy (in case it isn’t obvious by now: i love calligraphy). Finally, in an exhibition of photography i found a fantastic and grotestque (or fantastically grotesque if you like) panel of photographs by a Russian photographer called Petr Lovigin: masks, wheelchairs, cows, sheep, kites and fishing rods.

When the Museum closed i made my way back up to Beyoğlu to meet my friend Ö. We met last year when i was walking in the south of Turkey and apart from a brief email exchange we’d had no contact since so i was a bit nervous. Would we even recognise one another? In fact, i did recognise him but i was astounded to see how different he looked in his business suit. Somehow it was as though i’d expected him to show up in the shorts and t-shirt he’d been wearing when i’d last seen him. He led me through a maze of back streets to a small cafe where we ate and then we walked about the city chatting. We finally parted company at eleven o’clock. He had a two hour journey back home, which he’d have to repeat the next morning to get to work.

Thursday 8 April

Finally BF Day had dawned – the day on which i was finally to meet my my internet buddies, B and F. After breakfast i took up my post outside the hotel wondering how i would recognise B when she arrived and how she would recognise me. Soon a beautiful lady in a bright pink coat appeared. Instinctively i thought to myself: “This is her”, but as my instincts are far from infallible and i had no idea how i would extricate myself from the situation if she turned out to be some random Turkish woman (who in accordance with the Law of Sod would of course not be able to speak English) i stayed where  i was – even when she started looking about uncertainly. Sultanahmet is Tourist Central; Turks rarely seem to venture to the district unless they work there, but still… maybe she was here to meet someone else. I briefly imagined hordes of British tourists all meeting up with internet buddies for the first time. Only when i saw her dial a number and heard my mobile ring in my pocket did i know i was right: this was B.

Tiled wall in Topkapι Palace

She too had guessed i was the person she was looking for but like me wasn’t quite confident enough to take the plunge and approach me.  When my phone started to ring she rushed forward to greet me. It was an amazing moment, meeting after a year’s correspondence. F was going to be late because at the last minute someone had called and asked him to write out 200 wedding invitations (apparently his calligraphic skill is legendary amongst his friends). In the meantime – after buying my train ticket to Thessaloniki – B and I repaired to a cafe near the Haghia Sophia where we chatted over tea warmed by a heater which one of the waiters pulled up close to us. Predictably her English was much better than she’d suggested; it only made me feel worse about my lack of Turkish. She gave me a CD by a musician called Stephan Micus as a present. I’ll have to wait till i get home to listen to it though.

Topkapι Palace corridor

When F appeared we drank more tea (my kind of country!) and then headed over to the Topkapı Palace Museum to check out some Ottoman history. The most interesting part of the museum was the harem – not the steamy sauna of Western imagination, but instead the living quarters of the Sultan and his family. The tiles which decorate the walls are pretty spectacular: shades of blue, turquoise and red in flower-like patterns. F told me that the tiles are extremely expensive to make; enough for a wall would cost thousands and thousands of pounds. The red dye is especially costly. As F pointed out it, it stands out from the rest of the tile;  if you run your hand over the top, you can feel the bumps it creates. I preferred the turquoise colour though.

Topkapι Palace - another view

Most of the rest of the afternoon was spent in cafes: eating, drinking and chatting. Eventually B had to leave us (sadly). F and I took the tramway and funicular railway to Beyoğlu, where he showed me the best places to buy English language books. I found a book called Living Poets of Turkey, which has some excellent poems in it and a collection of Nazim Hikmet‘s poetry in English translation. F also pointed out some novels to me. I hope to go back to the shop to buy them when i return to Istanbul at the end of my trip; i didn’t want to carry them across Greece**. Later we went to a restaurant where we talked about everything under the sun (he is one of the rare people on this earth who can talk as much as me!) till it dawned on us that we were the last people left in the building and that the staff were waiting to close up. All in all, a great day!

* Unfortunately, i was unable to find a link to a page with a good selection of his artwork. This one at least has plenty of information about the artist himself.
** As it was, i had to leave the book of engravings and photographs that F gave me as a present with the staff at the hotel in Istanbul. I have to hope they’ll hand it over when i return!


We were a family of cagoules

“We were a family of umbrellas…”

The first line from a poem called Opened by Mario Petrucci, from his wonderful collection Flowers of Sulphur*. The poem is about a funeral but for some reason this sent my mind off in a completely different direction: to days out at the seaside – Rhyl or Prestatyn – as a child. Whatever the weather when we left home, whatever the weather when we arrived at the coast, you could almost guarantee that at some point during the day it would turn, and we would have to seek refuge from the inevitable wind and rain.

You would find us crouched beneath the sea wall, invisible beneath our cagoules. My dad would be pouring milky coffee from his flask (nobody was allowed to handle the thermos except him) and my mum would be doling out butties – cheese or jam or fish paste. These would quickly acquire a coating of fine sand but that didn’t stop us eating them. In fact, the quicker you ate them the better as Sally would have them off you in a second if you put them down. She would also have your Penguin biscuit**, although you’d get in trouble if she did because dogs and chocolate don’t go. Still we’d hesitate when it came to take it, trying to decide which colour wrapper to select. This was despite the fact that we knew full well that the biscuits inside were all exactly the same. Nevertheless: Red? Blue? Green?

Sally, being a dog, was the only one of us who didn’t have a cagoule, so my dad used to open up his and wrap it around both of them. For the rest of the family this was an impossibility as we had those old-style cagoules*** you have to put on over your head like a smock. No breathable linings in those days: you got wet from the rain or wet from your sweat. Your choice.

This is how I always picture us on those family days out: a tribe of blue and red plastic ghosts. This is the image i somehow associated with the line from Mario Petrucci’s poem (have i mentioned how good it is?). The sunshine – when we had any, the sea and the sand are much more vaguely remembered. But this is not, I think, down to negativity on my part. No, I cherish that image of us huddled together in our cagoules. It is the very essence of family.

Of course, it was also the performance of family – because we were in public after all, even if there were only seagulls to view us; and so in some ways it was as much about the family we wanted to be as the family we were. But perhaps that’s also part of what a family is in any case? Aspirations and memories and food and shelter.

* ISBN: 978-1904634379, published by Enitharmon Press. See here for a review.
** Ignore the photo. It shows the modern day wrapper. Google couldn’t locate any pictures of the coloured tin-foil packaging the biscuits came in during the 70s. You will have to use your imagination/consult your memory.
***See the section on the roll-up-able cagoule on Wikipedia’s page about cagoules. I don’t remember ours being roll-up-able though.

That song about a youth hostel

Ah, the wonders of shuffle mode on an iPod. Today, for instance, the song “Y.M.C.A.” by the Village People popped up. This has the distinction for me of being the first song i ever bought – or rather the first i ever got my mum to buy for me. I was ten years old and we were holding a concert at school, or maybe it was a talent contest; i can’t remember now. At any rate, everyone was being encouraged to join in, so i got together with another kid, C, and we decided to do a dance routine. “Y.M.C.A.” was our soundtrack. What a dance routine it was: all high kicks, claps and those other ‘groovy’ moves: drop to the floor, turn around, make a funny little circle gesture with your arms*. We thought were it!

The song itself, i didn’t really understand. I vaguely imagined the “Y.M.C.A.” was some sort of American version of a youth hostel. Not that i’d been to a youth hostel, but there was one on the main road that led to my Nan’s, so i knew they were big old houses that hikers stayed at. Who knew why anyone would write a song about one and quite honestly who cared? The main thing was that it was catchy as hell and one of the guys in the group wore a “Red Indian” costume. How i loved that costume.

Gay references? What did ‘gay’ mean? Mind you, to be fair, i didn’t know what ‘straight’ meant either. I quite naively believed that sex – which i was aware of in an anatomically incorrect sort of a way – was something married people did. Nor do i remember anyone worrying about the political correctness of spoofing a Native American (or whatever the current term is). It was all about fun and energy. AIDS was just round the corner, about to bring with it a different, darker image of homosexuality – at least in the short term; but also an increased openness. So that these days most school kids know what it is to be gay – or at least think they do, which is much the same thing when you’re ten.

Anyway, back to that concert (or talent show, whichever it was). Only as an adult could i appreciate how painful it must have been for the assembled parents to watch us. Or rather mothers, because back then it wasn’t yet the done thing for men to take time out for their kids, at least not in Britain. Children are so innocently self-centred that the idea that their audience might not be enjoying watching them as much as they’re enjoying being watched doesn’t really occur to them. And if it does, it doesn’t cause them much guilt. Yet it must have been torture: dance routines (ours wasn’t the only one, oh no), songs, magic tricks, ‘comedy’… even juggling i think. Everyone had to have their spot in the limelight. ‘That’s what you get for not using birth control,’ i thought to myself smugly when i looked back at the scene.

And yet… when my own son went to school and entered upon his own round of nativity plays and concerts i made an interesting discovery. Other people’s children are indeed tiresome, but your own are wonderful. Bona fide talents no less. His Jimi Hendrix routine was marvellous (no cheesy disco for him!), his leading role in the anti-smoking polemic which prefaced it no less so. And as for his interpretation of Shepherd #1 (or possibly #2 or #3, i’m not entirely sure) paying homage to the infant Jesus in the school nativity play… well, words fail me. Unfortunately, the camera failed me too, so i have no pictures of that one.

So, maybe my mum did enjoy the imaginatively choreographed dance that C and I performed to the song “Y.M.C.A.”. Or maybe she too was wondering why someone had written a song about a hostel.

*A bit like demonstrating how a wheel works while wearing a muff**
**As in ‘handwarmer’!

The grey mist

I was reading a blog the other day in which the author was talking about depression. Not for the first time I was struck by how misunderstood this is as a phenomenon. Even the name is misleading: depression – at least in my experience – is not so much an experience in which you feel ‘low’, as one in which you feel distant, separated even, from the world on the one hand and yourself on the other.

I suffered a serious bout of depression a few years ago and my most vivid memory, in so far as you can describe any memory from that period as vivid, is of sitting in a restaurant by the river with a friend and looking through the window at the people outside. I felt as if some invisible but unbridgeable chasm separated us; almost as if we were in two different worlds. Actually, it was as if I wasn’t really in the world at all. My emotions seemed to be enveloped in a kind of grey mist and I just couldn’t find them, no matter hard I tried.

The only way in which the depression lived up to its name was in its effect on my energy levels. I couldn’t run or exert myself in any way that required enthusiasm. Fortunately, walking – always one of my favourite things – was still possible; and so I would force myself to go out each day and walk as far as I could along the river.

This was during the ‘acute phase’, the five weeks I was off work. The depression lasted for about six months in all and for most of that period I had to work or at least try to. Looking back it’s clear I should have stayed off longer but, like many people afflicted by ‘the black dog’, the two feelings that didn’t desert me were shame and anxiety. The absence of physical symptoms – or at least symptoms that can be definitely attributed to depression – tends to make you feel like a fraud, or as though you’re perceived as a fraud by others. Returning to work before you’re ready is one of the ways in which you ‘apologise’ for your illness; and also one of the ways in which you try to hide it.

Signing up for prescriptions of anti-depressants is another way. This has the additional benefit of legitimising your sickness (you wouldn’t be taking ‘medicine’ if you weren’t ‘ill’); and provides everybody – including you -with the reassurance that something is being done. I know that for some people the drugs do work, but for me it was definitely more a case of showing willing. I didn’t notice the slightest impact on how i felt; whereas when I came off the drugs the withdrawal effects were, by contrast, all too noticeable.

In the end, the depression didn’t ‘lift’ any more than it ‘descended’ on me. What happened was simply that the mist cleared and the chasm narrowed; and I began to feel not necessarily more cheerful, but just something.

The next bend of the river

I was always running away from home as a child. Not, as you might assume, because i was desperately unhappy, but because i was desperate to see the amazing world i was sure was just round the next bend of the river. Or maybe the next bend after that. I was a keen reader of adventure stories of all kinds, especially those involving the Famous Five; but my great inspiration was a film (or possibly a TV programme) i saw about a boy who ended up living by himself next to a river in a forest. I think it might have been set in Canada, but what did that matter? There was no doubt in my mind that there was a forest just as vast, wild and magical just a bit further along my river. If only i could get there.

Two attempts at reaching it remain in my memory. On the first occasion i ran away with my brother. We planned it all quite carefully and made a stack of jam butties to keep us going on our journey. A mile or two along the river we discovered we were already hungry; so down we sat and ate a butty each… and then another. In no time at all they were all gone – much to our surprise. We’d never really thought about how many we would need for our trek; four had seemed quite adequate. Still we continued on and on, past E_____ village and into the uncharted territory which lay beyond it. I was starting to get quite excited. I had never been so far along the river before and was convinced we must be nearing my much imagined forest – after all, we’d walked miles! Then disaster struck: we encountered nettles. I was determined to carry on (we were so close!) but my brother started to cry as he was repeatedly and painfully stung. Our memories differ at this point, it has to be said: he is convinced that he (and only he) was wearing shorts, whereas i am convinced that we both were. Anyway, we were both starting to get hungry and so we turned back. End of attempt.

Later i tried again, this time with our dog Sally. Alas, the adventure was over even more quickly! First of all, it was impossible to get Sally to grasp the seriousness of our quest. She kept wandering off. And then only a mile or so along the river she decided to go for a swim (she loved swimming), but unfortunately then discovered that she couldn’t get back out; the bank was too steep and too slippy. There was no alternative: i would have to get into the river and help her. So i did. I hauled her, i pushed her and then i hauled her some more – all of this with no help from Sally herself. She seemed to think the whole thing was a game and didn’t appreciate that i was trying to get her out of the water. By the time she was back on dry land (none the worse for her ordeal) i was wet, cold and tired. And hungry, the food having been eaten even more quickly than the last time. Note to small would-be adventurers: provisions do not last long when they’re shared with a dog.

Perhaps i made more attempts, i’m not sure. In the end though my mission was doomed. Not just because the forest wasn’t there – although i grant you that was a factor – but because i was growing up. The geography of the real world was supplanting that of the imagination.

The iPhone: freedom, frustration & fun

I’ve had my iPhone* for about 6 months now. Long enough to get a sense of what I do and don’t like about it.


It’s a computer pretending to be a phone! Much better than a phone pretending to be a computer which is what my previous ‘smartphone’ (a Nokia N77) tried to do. In no time at all it has become indispensable as a source of information, general communication aid and office tool: for example I now use it to take notes in meetings, which I can then sync. Saves all that time previously spent laboriously writing them up (made worse by the fact that occasionally even I can’t read my own handwriting). And I love the ease and abundance of connectivity: easy to set up email (I never did figure out how to configure it on the N77), access to my social networks, blogs synced to my phone so I can read them on the way to work… The iPhone has changed the way I interact with the virtual world.

It’s a GPS unit pretending to be a phone. Using an iPhone for navigation makes you realise just how clunky those handheld Garmin units are (never tried Satmap so can’t comment on them). Ridiculously expensive too: units and maps. At the moment all the iPhone apps providing maps (as opposed to access to online maps) are geared to drivers unfortunately, rather than us walkers. Come on app makers – and don’t worry about turn-by-turn: I don’t need a robotic voice accompanying me when i’m out for a stroll.

The App Store! It makes me feel like a kid in a sweet shop. Or at least it did when I first got the iPhone. So many apps to choose from: some practical, some pointless, some fun, some educational. I found an app which allows me to practise Japanese calligraphy (iShodo), an app which helps me to make and keep track of shopping lists (Shopper) – which would be great if I remembered to use it, and my most over-worked app of all: Echofon, my Twitter app.


It’s a computer pretending to be a phone! The iPhone is the most uncomfortable unit I’ve ever used for the making and receiving of phone calls – the core purpose of a phone. Does that matter? To me, not much: I hate talking to people on the phone.

It’s a phone pretending to be a computer. You can type emails, take notes, theoretically even write a novel on the iPhone – but, dear God, is it painful. The keyboard – which I’m using right now to type this post – is an ordeal to use. The predictive text is bizarre: why did the coders think “Reading”, capitalised as in the name of the town, would be needed more than “reading” as in that thing you’re doing at this moment? Why prioritise “mr” over “me”? You daren’t turn it off however as the keys are just small enough to make mistyping a commonplace and the flat keypad means you won’t notice till it’s too late. Typing is also very very uncomfortable on a keyboard that doesn’t give. Don’t let anyone tell you that it gets easier. After 6 months I can tell you: it doesn’t.

It’s a phone pretending to be a games console. Yes, when you come to play games the iPhone does reveal itself to be a mere phone after all. Actually, it’s worse than that: my previous non-touchscreen phones (especially the Samsung D600) provided a much better game playing experience – for all their more basic graphical capabilities – than does the iPhone. The passion killer is the lack of tactile sensation: I long for the physicality of hammering buttons; but the touchscreen also causes problems at a more practical level: controls for FPS** and RPG*** games are typically awkward and sometimes near-unusable. The only type of game where the screen provides an advantage is strategy, as it allows you to use your finger as a mouse. Even then there’s a frustrating lack of precision and the screen seems often to fail to register when you’ve released a selection: resulting in the item being dropped in the wrong place.


It looks at first glance as if it’s a 50-50 split, but actually that’s not true. The iPhone has one last trick up its sleeve: the fun factor. It’s bright, it’s colourful, it’s got funky icons and a slick interface. It really does make a difference. Functionality is great, but fun is fab.

* For the record it’s a 3G 8GB, but the model is irrelevant as far as the points above are concerned.
** FPS = first person shooter. In this kind of game you play ‘in the first person’, that is you see the gameworld through the eyes of the character you are playing. Storylines are relatively simple, your character is little more than a person with a weapon and most of the focus of the game is on killing the enemies you meet on your journey.
*** RPG = role playing game. Some of these games have you play ‘in the first person’, as above, and some in the ‘third’, that is you observe your character from the outside (a sort of ‘God’s eye view’). Storylines are usually complex, you will often have a choice of parameters with which to build your character – who will then have strengths, weaknesses, specific attributes, etc which reflect the choices you have made. In addition to the main quest there may be optional side quests. The scope and depth of these games varies according to the capabilities of the technology on which they’re played: a game designed for a modern state-of-the-art desktop computer can afford to be a lot more complicated than one created for the iPhone.

Tin can cookers and bakewell tart

On Saturday I went to my boss’s house for lunch. Arriving in the neighbourhood where my boss lives, my friend and I couldn’t help laughing at what her reaction might be if she ever came out to those where we live. My neck of the woods is bleak, 60s concrete; while M’s area is going for the early 20th Century grotty look. In no time at all M had devised a brand new detective duo: step forward Ed Bleak and Sandra Grotty, private eyes* in search of a story. Alas, we reached the house before we’d had a chance to take the project much further.

We were late (my fault) and so most of the other guests had already arrived. There is nothing like the sensation of walking into a party midway through. Everyone seems to have found their place. People you don’t recognise are chatting easily to people you do, which always induces in me an irrational feeling that the latter have ‘gone over to the other side’. Still we had come armed: we brandished our contribution to the food at our hostess and got a drink in return. Then came the real ordeal – entering the circle of the already arrived. I always dread this moment, not least because in making my way round to shake hands and introduce myself, i inevitably step on someone’s foot or knock their drink over**.

Yet it actually went quite smoothly. What’s more, once i got over my discomfort at seeing my colleagues, especially my boss, outside of their every day roles, i found i was really enjoying myself. It was fascinating to see people’s partners: so often referred to in conversation but never before glimpsed. Most interesting of all though was to get to chat with individuals that i rarely talk to at work, as our roles are so separate.

For example, one of my colleagues, S, is from a Somali background. At work she’s very quiet, so it was a real surprise to encounter her sociable off-duty alter ego. We got into a conversation about her family and how they came to live in the UK: they went into exile in Dubai in the 70s before moving to England in the 80s. Her mother, who appeared to be the head of the household, had begun her life as a nomad, living a traditional existence in the desert. Imagine making the transition from that culture to life in modern Britain!

S went over to Somalia when she was eighteen. She experienced first hand what it’s like to use a perforated tin can as a cooker and to bury a hot coal in the remains of the fire so that you’ll be able to relight it the next day. The first night she was there she didn’t realise what she was supposed to do and had to go round the neighbours in the morning to beg a piece of coal from them.

I was shocked. As a student i’d stayed in a village in India where life was very basic, but in comparison with what S was describing that place was a world of comfort. More than that though i was surprised to realise how many assumptions i had internalised about Somali women. Without even being aware of it i had formed a picture of them as essentially silent and passive, which is not how S portrayed her mother at all. Religious, conservative: yes. But also a woman of strong opinions and considerable pragmatism. A survivor.

Good food at that lunch too, especially another colleague’s bakewell tart. We definitely need to do it again. But in the meantime, does anyone have any suggestions for the adventures of Bleak & Grotty? Ed’s character needs a bit of fleshing out for a start: he’s a bit too ‘enigmatic’ for my liking right now. And Sandra seems to be getting all the best lines…

* We always imagine ourselves as private eyes. It would take too long to explain why here!
** Indeed, i have an earlier post on this very topic