Paris… finally

Last month i realised a long time ambition to travel to Paris by Eurostar. What had took me so long? More than the cost it was the perception that Paris was far away. I couldn’t just nip over on the train for the day; yet that is exactly what i ended up doing. It was disorienting to find that this strange city, so different from London, wasn’t far away at all – at least not via high speed train: St Pancras International to the Gare du Nord took just over two hours. Not the most thrilling of journeys, mind: grass, concrete and barbed wire mostly.

I’m not sure what i expected Paris to be like but i know i approached it in a spirit of trepidation. Would it be too big, too busy to be enjoyable? Would the people be as unwelcoming as their reputation suggested? Would it be all Tourist Sights? Or would it feel just like anywhere – that is just like nowhere, just another city full of shops and streets?

In the event it was neither as overwhelming as i’d feared, nor as different as i’d expected… and yet in some ways more different. Walking down from the station i first passed a fifty-something man clad in slit-sided white pantaloons and a tight fitting gold lamé top and then found myself in a street full of Asian shops – that’s Asian in the British sense, i.e. South Asian. There were places with names like “Wembley Foods”. For a moment i felt as though i’d got on a train going the wrong way and ended up in Birmingham or Manchester instead!

But no, i truly was in Paris. Little Pakistan gave way to Middle Eastern shops and then i began to see signs to the Pompidou Centre. This houses the Museum of Modern Art and was on my list of probably-must-see sights. First though it was time to get coffee. When i’d visited France back in the 80s as a teenager cafe owners never seemed to speak English; but this time the proprietor switched to my language the instant he heard my accent. Nor did he seem particularly self-conscious or resentful about this (my other memory of communicating with the French in the 80s was that when they did speak English they gave the impression it was a great concession on their part).

On to the Museum which had some magnificent sculptures by Giacometti, Arp and Calder. The big discovery however was a sculptor i hadn’t heard of called Etienne-Martin: his work included strange sculpted ‘coats’ which reminded me of the armour that Samurai used to wear. In an immensely pretentious section celebrating porn as art i came across a poem i liked. I wrote down a fragment of it:

My image leaves the city… It crushes the fruit against its breasts / It spreads sand over its stomach / It slides fish in between its legs

Love the line about the fish. The artist (and poet?) was called Evelyn Axell.

After the museum i went to see the Seine. To my eyes it was a rather ordinary looking river for such a magnificent city but i did like the way the main road ran alongside it, much lower down than the city itself. The traffic seemed to flow by the city, rather than through it. And the bridges decorated with the heads of lions: wonderful. There were also pet shops – lots of them. I found that amazing, charming even. Think about it: can you imagine coming across streets of little neighbourhood style pet shops in a street right in the centre of London?

Notre Dame Cathedral is on one of the islands in the Seine. It was a disappointing place. From the salvation candles which were available at varying prices depending on the quality of the saint through to the priest waiting in a booth which resembled one of those cubicles you see at banks the whole thing felt like a money-making enterprise. There was nothing spiritual about the cathedral; it felt more like an IKEA store or garden centre, especially with the crowds snaking through the aisles.

The Louvre wasn’t disappointing, but it was bl**dy frustrating! I spent most of my time there lost. Still, i did get to see the Mona Lisa which isn’t as small as i’d been told. The bright colours of the Renaissance paintings in that part of the museum are wonderful but it was far too packed with tourists. I preferred the serenity of the Ancient World – even if, as with the British Museum, the wealth of exhibits is really a testament to colonial looting. Best of all were the turquoise tinted friezes in the Assyrian section. I also visited the special exhibition which traced the history of Saudi Arabia: from prehistoric stone tools through to early Islamic gravestones and beyond.

Then it was back to the Gare du Nord to catch the train home. So much remained unseen! Yet Paris did have one last surprise in store for me: the Gare du Nord has the most extraordinary installation – part sculpture, part machine, part dance, part dream. Impossible to describe, impossible not to watch.

Two more hours or so and i was back in London which felt like a much bigger, fiercer city than Paris despite being much more familiar to me. In fact, what struck me about the latter was that it felt less like a big city and more like a blend of small towns, most of which i never got to see. Next time though…

The us and them of comedy

Two books which i read within days of each other have got me thinking about comedy – or about British comedy anyway – and modern Britain in general. One of the books was a biography of the singer-comic-ukelele player George Formby who was once the country’s top box office draw. The other was a book about the work of the mysterious Banksy, graffiti artist cum social commentator of our times.

George Formby was your classic Northern comedian. His comedy was as broad as his Lancashire accent; there was nothing political or sophisticated about it. To me though the most important thing about Formby was that his humour was ‘us’ humour. By that i mean he located himself inside the group he was laughing at. Even when he joked about idiot superiors they were ‘our’ idiot superiors. And most of his fans probably thought he was as simple as his stage persona – certainly he never seems to have gone to any trouble to disabuse them of the notion.

Increasingly though comedy seems to be of the ‘them’ variety. The comedian removes himself from the people he’s mocking, observing them as though through a window rather than from in their midst, and tries to remove himself from the joke too. When he makes himself the joke – for example Ricky Gervais as David Brent – then he is careful to cultivate an off-stage persona which disavows the stupidity of the character he plays. No-one wants to be seen as a Fool anymore.

Why is that? A big part of the reason in my opinion is that no-one feels safe enough. The spirit of our time is cynical rather than sentimental. Some people would say more truthful or more honest but cynicism is  not more truthful: grey-tinted shades distort just as much as rose-tinted glasses. Where before people kept unpalatable truths about dysfunctional marriages and back-street abortions hidden from view and concealed their ‘dark side’, now people fear to be exposed as caring too much, trusting too simply or believing too sincerely.

Banksy’s work is often extremely funny. As i looked at one piece after another though i noticed how often the humour seemed to be used as a tool to protect the artist from being mocked for his convictions. He says something serious with one of his stencils and then immediately inserts something humorous as if to assert “But i’m not being earnest. I’m not one of them.” He makes his point and then exits before he can get caught.

It’s ironic because Banksy, like most modern comedians, considers himself a progressive – meaning he wants to move society forward. Yet few things hamper social action more than this withdrawal from ‘us’.  It’s all their fault and we can’t do anything because they have all the power. But – hey! – at least we can laugh at them.

Our books

I bought another book this morning. Nothing remarkable about that, especially not for me, but for some reason I started to think about how the contrast between the many books i have surrounded myself with as an adult and the few – the much cherished few – we had at home when i was a child.

We didn’t buy books but that’s not to say we didn’t have any at all. My dad had a few books on farming, a book about the minerals of the earth and a set of art encyclopaedias he must have bought in instalments, though I never saw him read them. I read them surreptitiously – we children weren’t supposed to touch them, discovering in their pages the wonders of prehistoric art and the women of Titian, both of which I still love. I also read the book about minerals but the farming textbooks were too much and so I never did learn how to raise cows for milk.

For her part, my mum had a beautiful leatherbound anthology of stories (“Alice in Wonderland”,”The Water Babies”, tales from the Mabinogion, etc) and poetry (mostly Tennyson, Kipling, Walter de la Mare & co). This book had a poignant history: it had originally been a present to one of my mother’s uncles from the German family who sheltered him after he was shot down during the Second World War. It was intended for his daughter Katherine who, having survived polio, was now bed-ridden with TB.

Sadly, she died and the book passed to my mum who was another quiet, sickly, careful child: when she passed it on to us, it was still in pristine condition. Not for long. The leather covers came off one by one and ink ‘annotations’ soon ‘decorated’ the pages. I didn’t mind. I read it from missing cover to missing cover over and over again. I’ve loved the smell of old paper ever since, as i have the weight of a book in my hands – two reasons why e-books have never tempted me.

The Victorian stories inside the anthology were as different as could be to the bland tales the teachers regaled us with at school: slightly macabre and supernaturally inventive. The language was richer but more formal. The sentences were longer and exotically punctuated: there and then i fell in love with the semi-colon. Then there were the pictures: Tenniel’s illustrations for Alice in Wonderland in particular. I was less keen on the poetry apart from the nonsense rhymes of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear.

It was in this book that i first had my heart broken by a story. It was the Mabinogion tale about a knight who leaves his dog guarding his young son. A wolf comes in and attacks the baby. Although the dog is unable to save the child he does succeed in killing the wolf. But when the knight returns and sees the the dead infant he believes it is the dog who has killed him: he slays his faithful hound only to  discover, a little while later, the corpse of the true killer lying bloodied behind a curtain. I cried when i read that story and even now the injustice of the dog’s death fills me with sorrow. By contrast, i can scarcely recall what the books we read at school were about.

Finally, we had one other book in our house and it was the book from which we were taught to read: the Bible. Well, a children’s Bible. This contained all the best stories from the Bible with magnificent coloured drawings on each page (Cain, i recall, was clad in a strange tasselled coat of the kind a Country Music singer might wear). The language was simplified from the original but retained the tongue-twisting polysyllables that passed for names. How i struggled with those Babylonian kings! My dad used to record us reading: on the one fragment that still survives i can be heard stumbling repeatedly over “Nebuchadnezzar”  while he corrects me – quietly in the background – and gets me to try again.

The Bible was an even greater rollercoaster of a read than the “Great Anthology”. It was supposed to explain what was good and what was bad and indeed it did contain stories of beautiful wisdom: Solomon judging the women fighting over a baby, Jesus challenging the would-be executioners of an adulteress. Yet it also contained examples of terrifying carnage such as the destruction of Jericho.  Eve seemed to me to be more victim than transgressor while the Philistines were like the “Red Indians” in American cowboy movies: condemned merely because history had come to belong to their enemies. I began to think and haven’t stopped since.

What a summer

I made up my mind when i came back from Turkey in April that i was going to make the most of this summer and not let it ebb away the way most of those before it have done. I set myself to searching online to find out what was happening in London over the next few months, particularly things that were free or cheap.

Many adventures followed – far too numerous to list, but two events, both exhibitions, stand out:

The first featured sea paintings, etchings and sculptures by Maggi Hambling. I hesitated to attend it, unsure of the welcome i would get at the posh private gallery where it was being held, but decided to stick to my promise to myself and not be deflected by nervousness. I’m glad i did. The sculptures (bronze reliefs) i wasn’t keen on, the etchings were nice but forgettable – but the paintings! There were only three but they were spellbinding. It was as though she’d trapped the Sea itself in her whirls of paint. Looking at one of the paintings I noted:

Shades of white, blue and navy – sometimes so dark it almost looks black. No edges. Utterly still and silent yet full of movement and you’d swear you can hear it roar. It makes me feel drenched.

The other exhibition was very different. It featured the work of not one but many artists whose names however are long since lost. They lived in a state which falls within the boundaries of modern Nigeria and were contemporaries of the European Renaissance artists – and every bit as marvellous.

This was the exhibition of sculptures from the Kingdom of Ife.  Held at the British Museum it was visibly playing second fiddle to the exhibition of Renaissance drawings – including some by Leonardo da Vinci – that was showing at the same time. It saddened me that so few of those queuing up to see the sketches of the great Italian Masters would bother to see the works of their African near-contemporaries, but in truth i nearly didn’t go and see them myself. The ticket was bought on a moment’s impulse.

Inside i wrote:

Incredible! Some exhibitions are interesting; this is mesmerising.

About the sculptures themselves i noted:

Each figure is subtly unique, to the extent that you feel they contain real people, present with you in the rooms of the British Museum. And they’re old: some date to the 800s it seems (the Anglo-Saxon period in England).

The one that has made the greatest impact on me so far: a seated figure (one leg crossed) made from copper which has been dated to the 13th Century. Eyes closed, lips slightly parted, as though drifting into sleep. One arm is missing as is the lower half of the other arm, but the round, narrow shoulders are beautiful. Interestingly androgynous: I think it’s a plump, slightly built male but it could be a boyish small-breasted girl. Revered as a fertility symbol it seems. Naturalism is exquisite: tiny folds of fat above the hips.

Other figures are more stylised/monstrous: one from the 14th Century has bulging eyes, tiny clenched fists & an elongated torso.

They still haunt me those long-dead Africans immortalised, albeit anonymously, in copper. It haunts me too how close i came to not going. Even once i’d bought the ticket i wasn’t sure – would it just be an endless array of near-identical, earnestly exhibited antiquities? Then on the day itself i had transport problems and almost turned around and went home.

Not everything i’ve been to this summer has been that good; indeed some of the events have fallen rather flat. But those moments of wonder make the rest of it worthwhile. How glad i am that i stuck to my guns and made the effort to do, see, hear and go this year.

Trip 2010: back to Turkey… and for longer than expected

The trip diary for the remainder of the days i spent in Turkey is a bit more basic than for the earlier part, mainly because i wasn’t expecting this part of the trip to last for quite as long as it did and was too busy dealing with the uncertainty of the situation to make notes each day. From memory…

Thursday 15 April

This time my cabinmate on the night train was a Greek although i didn’t find this out till the morning as he was asleep when i got on the train. I made my bunk up in no time; in fact i felt like a bit of an old pro to tell the truth! As was the case on the journey to Thessaloniki i found myself half-asleep half-awake, listening to the train moving over the railway track, for much of the journey. Not that i minded: i love the sound and the sensation of a chugging train, especially a sleeper train. On the one hand, the feeling of being sheltered and taken care of; on the other the feeling that we are hurtling towards some magical destination. By dawn we were nearing Istanbul and when my roommate got up and we put the bunks away i saw the very same towns and suburbs appear that i’d seen on the evening of my journey to Thessaloniki. Only the order of their appearance was reversed! Eventually, i realised we were nearing the end of the journey. We weren’t quite as close as i first thought however and there were some more areas of Istanbul to pass through (the city is huge!) before we did get to Sirkeci. At one point we travelled alongside a yard containing several stray dogs. A man came out of a building and threw a stone at one of them and laughed. Human beings, honestly.

At Sirkeci my cabinmate and I said our goodbyes. I was thrilled to be back in Istanbul. “Civilisation!” i said to myself. I had a day of book-buying ahead of me but first i needed my breakfast. I can’t remember now whether it was while i was eating breakfast or later on during the day that i received the first text (from my mum) about the eruption of an Icelandic volcano. Surely it was later – after i’d spent hours rushing round Istanbul, convinced that i had only one day left in the city. The warning about the volcano sounded ridiculous, surreal even: the very idea that an event in Iceland could have any relevance to me in Turkey! In fact, to be honest, it sounded like someone’s idea of a wind-up. About five minutes after the first text another arrived about the same subject. This one was from my son. In it he urged me to check whether or not my flight would be going.

Back at the hotel i tried to find out but couldn’t. I shrugged and decided i’d find out in the morning. I’d got my books anyhow including three books F had recommended to me. Two of these were novels: Dear Shameless Death by Latife Tekin and A Mind At Peace by Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar. The other was a memoir called My GrandmotherFethiye Çetin‘s book about her Armenian grandmother who lived most of her life ‘disguised’ as a Turk. I also bought a book of poetry by Nazım Hikmet. More of an extravagance was the book (two books as it turned out) that i bought at the Istanbul Modern about the work of the painter Erol Akyavaş. Oh well.

Friday 16 April

In the morning it quickly became evident that my flight would not be going. The news didn’t upset me nearly as much as it did some of the other guests who began to discuss flying to Madrid, where the airport was still open, and getting a train or more likely several trains home from there. Mind you, they were German. It was easier to decide to stay where you were if you were British. The idea of being stuck at Calais did not appeal.

I arranged to meet up with B but once she arrived we were at a loss to know where to go. I think we first headed back up to Beyoğlu and the bookshops where i bought yet more books of poetry: Oktay Rifat, Cevat Çapan and Ataol Behramoğlu this time. Then it occurred to me that she would really like the museum of modern art. In fact, when i’d been there the week before i kept thinking of her and wondering what she’d make of the paintings. Off we went, down the hill. It was much more fun going round the museum with B – even the paintings i didn’t like seemed more interesting when there was someone to discuss them with; plus, the fact that B (unlike me) is actually artistic meant that she noticed things that passed me by. I showed her ‘my painter’, the afore-mentioned Erol Akyavaş. Eventually, it was time for her to go to work however and i was forced to allow her to escape.

Saturday 17 April

Immediately after breakfast we were informed by the lady on the reception desk at the hotel that there would be no flights for at least another two days. Would we like to extend our reservations? My answer: yes, please. I had already been thinking about what i would do if – as had seemed likely the night before – i had to stay in Istanbul a bit longer. My favourite part of Istanbul – of those i’ve been to so far – is Kuzguncuk. I’d assumed i wouldn’t have time to visit it again during this trip but now i had the opportunity i was determined to do so. I took the ferry over and walked along the road to Icadiye Cadessi, just as i’d done the previous year. The only difference was that this year i knew where i was going. By the time i arrived it was lunchtime and i walked up the street looking for the cafe i’d been to last time. I couldn’t recall its name for the life of me but i was sure if i saw it…

Suddenly i recognised it: Pita Kuzguncuk. As i walked in the proprietor looked up and saw me. I was absurdly pleased to realise that she recognised me from my visit the year before. She greeted me and asked me how i was. Did i live in Istanbul? It was rather wonderful. Being in a strange city for any length of time does that to you though: you develop a craving for human contact – for another human being to greet you as an individual and for that moment to be transformed into a person, not just a body passing along streets full of millions of other bodies. I had quiche. I had lemon cake. I drank tea. Then i left and it was back to being anonymous again.

Kuzguncuk houses

Kuzguncuk street view

View from Kuzguncuk

Synagogue in Kuzguncuk

Church door in Kuzguncuk

Another house in Kuzguncuk

Another view of Kuzguncuk

Still at least i was in Kuzguncuk. I wandered about photographing the pretty houses, painted many different colours. I also photographed the tree-lined roads, the synagogue and a Greek Orthodox church (this was once an ethnically mixed neighbourhood). Running out of things to snap i followed the road up the hill, noticing how gradually the look and ambience of the area altered. By the time the road terminated at the top of the hill it was a lot less quaint and a lot less affluent. A man stopped me and asked me where i wanted to go. When i tried to explain that i didn’t want to go anywhere he looked at me like i was mad.

Afterwards i explored the nearby neighbourhood of Harem and then took the boat back across the Bosphorus.

Sunday 18 April

My great idea for Sunday morning had been that i would take a walk, heading west out of Sultanahmet. At first all went well but i very quickly got lost. In some streets there were no signs or plaques to tell you what they were called; in others i could see the names but couldn’t find them on the map. F told me later that street names are forever being altered, so perhaps it wasn’t just the fault of my lousy map-reading skills. Finally, i found myself outside the gates of Istanbul University. From there i was able to find my way back to Sultanahmet where i sat for a while in a cafe. I half-heartedly considered re-embarking on my walk westwards but couldn’t work up any enthusiasm for the idea; then i remembered that my friend Ö had recommended that i visit Kadıköy on the Asian side of the city.

Istanbul University gate

Haydarpasha

Parade on Istiklal Cadessi

Off i went on the ferry, a different one than i’d taken to Üsküdar the day before when i’d visited Kuzguncuk. Kadıköy is further south. The boat was chock-a-block, a fact which ought to have made me suspicious in itself. When we arrived at our destination i found it was a shopping district, snighing with people. No matter which way i turned, which street i went down, i couldn’t break free of them. I couldn’t work out what they were buying: none of the shops looked especially impressive or interesting; although admittedly few shops do look impressive or interesting to me other than bookshops. After about an hour of battling the crowds i gave up and returned to the dock. I made one last ditch attempt to explore the area, heading towards Haydarpaşa Railway Station which i could see in the distance but abandoned it when i found my route blocked by a bus station. Enough already! I returned to the European side of the city and trudged up the hill to Beyoğlu where i watched a mysterious procession of people wearing letters of the alphabet.

Monday 19 April

My extended holiday was extended even further on Monday when it became obvious that i wouldn’t be flying home that day and probably wouldn’t be able to fly the day after either. I’d arranged to meet up with B and F again if i was still in Istanbul on the Monday and at 10 am B arrived. I’d had the idea the evening before that i’d like to visit Balat and Fener, old neighbourhoods of Istanbul. According to the guidebook these were best accessed via the Golden Horn Ferry. We hit a snag however: it was by no means obvious where the Golden Horn Ferry sailed from. Eventually, we found the dock – or i should say B found it, mostly by asking everyone she met until we got there. We boarded a ferry we’d been assured would take us to Fener and take us to Fener it did; the only problem being that it didn’t stop but just sailed straight on! It was the same story at Balat (or was Balat before Fener, i can’t remember). We were stuck on the boat until it reached Eyüp, quite a bit further west along the Golden Horn than we’d wanted to go.

Cemetery in Eyüp

Old men in Fener - 2010 april 19

Fener
Once off the boat we tried to work out how we could get back to Fener. Again, it was B who sorted it out: apart from speaking Turkish she’s also charming. I stuck to my dumb tourist impression; i’m quite marvellous at it. The best solution seemed to be to take a taxi which we did. On arrival we set off in search of the seat of Ecumenical Patriarch of the Orthodox Church: the Ecumenical Patriarchate is still based in Istanbul although this is nowhere near as important as it was in the past; Greece, Russia and other predominately Orthodox countries have their own national patriarchates now.  I have to confess we never found this elusive location but we did walk up and down a fair few hills, peek at the ruins of a church through a locked gate and chat with the locals. This was the friendliest neighbourhood i have ever been to in Istanbul. From the man in a workshop who got B to bring me in so he could say hello to me, to the ladies sitting on chairs by the side of the road, to the young men who proudly recited the Muslim profession of faith (the Shahadah or, as we used to call it when i was a kid, the Kolyma) in English – everyone we met in this conservative, run-down neighbourhood was welcoming.

When we’d finally accepted that we were never going to find the church we took a taxi back to Taksim Square and found a cafe to recuperate in. Later F joined us and we sat chatting for a couple of hours. A wonderful day and, truth be told, i wasn’t all that bothered about the phantom church: it was just a destination to aim for; i didn’t care whether we ever arrived.

Tuesday 20 April

This was supposed to be my first day back at work! I’d emailed work on Monday to let them know i wouldn’t be there – although i suspected they would guess. As there was still no sign of flights resuming i headed off with the idea of – finally – visiting the Islands. I was unable to find the dock from which the ferry departs however. Stubbornly, i refused to ask anyone (i hate asking for directions!) for hours. By the time i gave in and found that the ferry now departs from Kabataş i’d lost all enthusiasm for the trip (and probably wasted too much time too). Instead, i headed up to Beyoğlu where i spent what turned out to be my last day in Istanbul (as opposed to the airport) making one last tour of the bookshops and exploring some of the back streets. I bought yet another book: a biography of Nazım Hikmet called Romantic Communist.

It was later this day that i realised i’d had just about as much of Istanbul as i could comfortably take in one trip. There were just too many people and too few places to go to get away from them. I couldn’t restore myself in my usual fashion, with a walk along the waterside, because in Istanbul main roads run right next to the Bosphorus and Golden Horn. There’s no equivalent of the Thames Path.

Wednesday 21 April

Finally, it seemed Heathrow had re-opened! Turkish Airlines’ website showed that a flight had departed for London but there was no other information – in particular no information about what those people whose flights had been cancelled earlier in the week should do; nor was anyone answering the phone at the airline. I came to the conclusion there was nothing else i could do but go to the airport. Once there i discovered crowds of other stranded passengers. It was hard to work out what to do as there were no signs, no members of staff giving out information. It was a Dutch couple who’d been trying to arrange a flight for the past two days who eventually explained the procedure to me. They pointed towards a row of counters at the far end of the departures hall and told me that the key thing was to get a ticket (from a dispenser hidden amidst the sea of would-be passengers). Once i’d got one it was just a matter of waiting for three or four hours to speak to a member of staff. I was one of the lucky ones: when i did reach the counter the lady was able to put me on a flight the next evening – once she’d managed to locate my original booking (which had been purged following the flight’s cancellation) anyhow.

I’d checked out of my hotel before leaving for the airport. I knew that once i got there that would be it and i was right. I couldn’t bring myself to leave for fear that something would happen while i was away from the airport: there would be an announcement of some kind; i’d get back to find all the flights had been re-allocated and i’d lost my place. It sounds crazy now but it’s an easy frame of mind to get into in that sort of situation. I spent the night sitting in a chair in a 24/7 Starbucks in the Arrivals hall. It was a comfortable chair and though i got no sleep i did at least get plenty of reading done; in fact by the time i got back to Britain i’d read most of the books i’d bought in Turkey and Greece.

Thursday 22 April

One week since i’d returned to Istanbul from Greece – and what a week! I stayed in the Starbucks till about 10 am, mainly because i couldn’t think of anywhere better to go. My flight wasn’t due to leave till 7 pm. I decided i’d better return to the Departures hall however… just in case; and when i got up there i noticed that Turkish Airlines had a check-in desk open. I forget what they were calling it: communal check-in or something like that, but it occurred to me that perhaps i might be able to check in for my flight already. That would move me one step closer to a secure seat on the plane! I approached the desk and my luck was in – i could indeed check in. The relief as the lady handed me my boarding card is something i can’t describe; but immediately i started to worry: perhaps this still wasn’t final, perhaps they could still turn me back. B had said she would come to see me off at the airport but in my paranoia i was unwilling to wait even a couple of hours on the ‘wrong side’ of Passport Control. I wanted to be ‘safely’ inside the main part of the airport. It was irrational of course and i regret it now, as it means we never got a chance to say our goodbyes.

In any case, even once i passed Passport Control i still worried. It wasn’t until i was actually on the plane and it had taken off that i relaxed. Only then did i start to feel sure that i was on my way home. Four hours later the British coastline appeared below us and i almost cried with relief. Finally. Home.

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!

Magical houses

The other week i went with some friends on the candlelit tour of Dennis Severs’ House . I’m guessing a lot of people won’t have heard of this place – I hadn’t until M told me about it – so let me try and describe it: it’s like a cross between a time capsule, a three-dimensional still life, a junk shop, a museum and the story of a fictional Huguenot family who (we are meant to imagine) lived in the house in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. In other words, it is a lot of things – or tries to be a lot of things – all at once. And therein lies the problem: it tries too hard.

Walking around the house we were struck by the fact that, as impressive as the spectacle often was visually, it rarely succeeded in being immersive. You couldn’t fully enter into the illusion of the Huguenots’ ghostly presence, for example, because the composition of the rooms as ‘artworks’ belied any idea of them being actually inhabited by ‘ordinary folk’. Art is self-conscious in a way everyday life is not. The sounds and odours, which i’d imagined would be so effective in creating an atmosphere, just couldn’t overcome this self-consciousness. Even worse were the little notes on display in most of the rooms, which alternated between warning you not to touch (as though visitors were anticipated to be in the throes of dementia, incapable of remembering this rule from room to room) and asking you if you’d “got” it yet. What we got was irritated. It was as though the guardians of the house (a glum-faced lot it has to be said), despite all their assertions to the contrary, lacked conviction that the house itself would be enough. And so they kept on intruding, reminding you of the magic you were supposed to be experiencing.

You can already sense this if you read the blurb on the website. The tone is one of breathless admiration – ostensibly for Dennis Severs and his creation but in reality for the experience they are offering you. Quite an odd idea – like the actor writing his own review. Responsibility for enjoyment is transferred to the visitor: there is no possibility of the house being less than its custodians claim; only of you being less than you might wish. Apart from being patronising this is also a cop out. As it happens there are lots of reasons why the experience might not take. Some of them i’ve described above but there are others: your mood on the day plays a part for example. Then there’s the number of other people present. I’d imagined there would be just our party and perhaps one other small group. Had this been the case then i think the experience would have been far more atmospheric: ‘ghosts’ need silence and space. As it was, i was as conscious of the other visitors as i was of the house. Only when i finally got free of them, in the attic, could i really appreciate the power the house had.

This isn’t to say i didn’t enjoy the evening. Some of the rooms, especially upstairs, are beautiful. I loved the lady’s bedroom which reminded me of a set from a period drama. The decoration on the wall – i don’t know what you call it but it’s a sort of arrangement of china ledges – was gorgeous; and the moment when i glanced through the four poster bed and spotted a brass monkey clinging to the bell cord was thrilling. Likewise, the arrangement of jellied fruits (petit fours?) on one of the landings. I stood and gazed at it for maybe ten minutes; the colours and the candlelight were magical. Then there was the attic which i’ve mentioned above. All you hear as you stand within it is the relentless tolling of a cannon somewhere in the city. The king is dead. I believed it.

Still, i can’t help remembering another “imagined house” that i visited some years ago which affected me far more deeply. It was the Sherlock Holmes Museum – a ‘recreation’ of the house at which Holmes and Watson lived at 221b Baker Street. I went there on a whim after reading a collection of Conan Doyle’s short stories and wasn’t really expecting anything special. As it was i was captivated. Despite knowing that Holmes was a fictional character i found myself looking at the rooms and wondering how he had found them. ‘They’re much smaller than i expected. Didn’t he find them claustrophobic?’ I looked at the needles and syringes in a box and imagined Holmes using them to inject opium. I looked at the violin and imagined Holmes playing it. I looked at the bed upstairs and imagined Holmes sleeping in it. ‘God, it’s narrow.’

Precisely because it never asked me to believe in it the house allowed me to do so. Its lack of self-consciousness made it seem authentic and so did its sometimes chaotic nature (I wondered how Holmes had ever found anything!). That’s not to say that it felt like Holmes had just walked out of the room. It felt instead as if in gathering up so many of his ‘possessions’ and returning them ‘home’ the curators had summoned up his presence from ‘the dead’. A spooky feeling! Even the tacky souvenir shop on the ground floor couldn’t break the spell. Would the house have the same effect a second time? I don’t know and i’ve never cared to find out. As i’ve said above, there are so many factors that can affect how you experience a place. The Sherlock Holmes Museum may have been all the things i describe but still – in another mood for instance – it might not have come alive for me.