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!

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At the exhibition: Henry Moore

A missing nose.
A sad nose.
A questioning nose.

These observations about noses are from the notes i made at the Tate Britain’s Henry Moore exhibition. It wasn’t all just noses – sad, missing or otherwise – though. In fact, one of the reasons why i put off writing up my notes for so long* is that they go on for pages and pages. Everything was interesting, everything was noteworthy – especially in the first couple of rooms, because you could see Moore’s style evolving in front of your eyes. Frantically, i wrote and wrote, trying to preserve the images in my mind, but of course most soon faded. Already i have forgotten the three sculptures with remarkable noses. Some i do recall however:

The first non-stone sculpture I’ve seen here: carved from walnut. Golden-red-brown. Geometric. Large holes through the wood. It’s maddening that we’re not allowed to touch.

That first walnut wood sculpture, coming after two rooms of stone, was an amazing experience. As for the last sentence, i’ve written before about my frustration at this. Henry Moore so obviously made his sculptures to be touched. You can tell as much from the use of texture:

From the front these statues are both smooth, but from the behind one is rough. It has waves carved into it.

Front and behind – that’s the other thing i love about sculpture: its three dimensionality. As you move around the spaces rearrange themselves, expressions seem to change, meanings seem to alter:

This one seen first from behind looks squat and menacing. She appears to be clenching her left fist. Seen from the front the effect is completely different. She is gazing out in curious concern at us, right hand absent-mindedly placed in her belly.

Halfway through the rooms i came across my favourite sculpture, the Mother and Child which the Tate Britain owns:

Green Hornton stone. 1938. Recumbent Figure. The space below the breasts is part of the beauty. And the blind eyes. It’s beautiful from all angles and different from all angles. That’s what’s so wonderful. And the scale is perfect. And still feels almost as though it could be a natural formation. The curves seem the rock’s own curves.

A bit gushing but that’s awe for you! I’ve seen that sculpture more times than i can remember and yet each time i encounter it the impact has the force of a first encounter. In the next room i really did have a first encounter; i had never seen the drawings Moore did as an official war artist in WWII.

These war drawings are spooky, haunting things. The building in the process of collapse. The figures huddled in a shelter (uncoloured in they remind me of Egyptian mummies). The dark indistinct figures in groups on a street.
And these. Apart from the figures in the foreground the rest are like pale-outlined ghosts.
And now these sleepers – terrifying! Like wraiths. Especially the ones who have no faces. The white lines they are made from are like bandages.

In the final rooms Moore’s style became more monumental and industrial:

Atom Piece. It’s terrifying. Like a vision of another world. A world with no home for us. That great smooth domed ‘head’. What kind of ‘mind’ would inhabit it? Close up the surface of the back reminds me of leather.

Yet, paradoxically, it also drew closer to nature:

Upright internal/external form. Plaster. 1852-3. Like the inside of a dead tree. Hopeless. Moving.

And then in the final room a truly poignant sight: a room full of huge Elmwood sculptures:

Ghosts of a British landscape before Dutch Elm Disease. They’re huge and seem less dense than the sculptures made from stone.

By this point i was flagging, however, and the museum was becoming far too busy for my comfort so my notes contain no details about the individual pieces. I do not do crowds.

Was the exhibition worth a visit? I hope my notes make it clear that indeed it was! As for my notes themselves, were they worth the ordeal involved in taking them – i had a stiff back and aching fingers by the end of the three hours. Well, yes they were. They may not be enough to call to mind each specific sculpture that i wrote about, but they certainly bring back the intensity of the morning. A wonderful experience.

* I went on Saturday 6 March.

Your mother’s face

We never really look at those we know and love, yet will gaze at other passengers on a train noticing all their little details. Take this carriage and the people sitting facing me. One woman has black-painted nails gnawed down to the quick. The man next to her – pink shirt, tiny cut on his throat where he presumably nicked himself while shaving – is beginning to lose his hair. It’s fine and blond, and a bit tousled. Perhaps he overslept? Had to get ready in a hurry? That would explain the cut too.

And so it goes on. I notice their clothes, their lips, the length and shape of their fingers (as they fidget, write a text, turn the pages of their book). I wonder where they’re going. All but two of the people are blue-eyed. The exceptions are both girls: they’re sitting together but I don’t think they know one another. The one nearest me has brown eyes – in fact they’re almost black – while her neighbour’s are green (i think). She has turned her face away and is staring into space.

‘What is she thinking about?’ I wonder.

Describing people

Just started (what I assume) is the latest lnspector Sejer novel* by Karin Fossum. Normally, I love her books, but I’m struggling to get into this one, mostly because for the first time I’m noticing the mechanics of the story, the stuff that, when you’re swept away by the writing, goes undetected.

There’s an excruciating passage on page 5 where she’s trying to flesh out two minor characters, a couple who are about to discover a dead body (lucky them!). She writes:

She brushed her long hair away from her cheeks and forehead. It was thick and brown with auburn streaks. She was petite, her face was small with a high domed forehead and round cheeks. She had tiny hand and feet, and indeed her husband would in more affectionate moments call her his ‘doll’. Reinhardt, too, ran his fingers through his hair. A short, sandy-coloured tuft stuck up at the front, it looked like a shark’s fin.

Why doesn’t this work (for me anyhow)? The answer: it’s too obvious that she’s describing people. It feels to me as if Kristine (that’s the woman’s name) and Reinhardt are messing with their hair for no other reason than to give Fossum an excuse to remark on it – and in Kristine’s case to tell us just about everything else she can think of about her appearance. Making it worse, this occurs in what feels like an interminable passage in which our two protagonists do almost nothing but stand by a lake while we hear all about their troubled marriage, Reinhardt’s domineering and childish personality, Kristine’s lack of self-confidence – when all we really want is the body that we know is waiting for us out there somewhere! Sorry if this sounds callous, but this is crime fiction after all.

I think that the only time that a writer can normally get away with extended descriptive writing is at the beginning of a scene, when we have not yet focused in on specific people, specific perspectives, but are peering at the scene as a whole, watching it come into view. I’d compare this to the kind of sequence you get at the start of some movies, where the camera pans around the setting for a while, before dropping down into the story itself. Once we enter the characters’ world, descriptive writing only feels natural if there’s a reason – a convincing reason – for one of the characters to notice the attribute being remarked on.

For example if characters Smith and Jones have never met before, it’s quite believable that they might notice something striking about one another’s appearance. A third character, MacDonald, who accompanies Smith but doesn’t join in the conversation might conceivably notice even more: this does tend to be the case when we are observing rather than participating. But if Smith and Jones are alone, know each other well and nothing in particular is happening – and yet the novelist starts describing one or the other of them in detail, the information feels incongruous. Who is noticing these details? You might get away with it in the kind of story where there is an intentionally intrusive narrator, but if the storytelling style is naturalistic then this kind of descriptive ‘anomaly’ will quickly undermine its authenticity.

* The Water’s Edge (ISBN 9781846551703)