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 Grandmother – Fethiye 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.
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.
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.
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.