Diary of an Expat, Part 68
Istanbul
One of the things about my job is that I spend a lot of it traveling.

This sounds glamorous to many people, which is fair enough, although most of the traveling I do is to places like Helsinki. I like Helsinki a lot, but it doesn't seem to engender a strong positive response from the "oh-cool-you-get-to-travel" crowd.

So this week I went to Turkey. I was in Istanbul for a conference.This was interesting. Lots of interesting things about Istanbul. For instance, the amount of time it takes for jokes about Constantinople to stop being funny is far less than you think.

I landed in Istanbul late, because there was snow in Berlin (surprise!). Americans cannot enter Turkey on their passport alone, and since I am still an American at the moment I had to obtain a visa. This, lest you think that this is a complicated process, fraught with international intrigue, you do by going to a counter in the airport and giving the Turks some money.

"That will be fifteen euro," the lady at the counter said. I handed over three €5 notes and she disappeared for a spell. Finally she returned, and then smiled at me: "that will be fifteen euro, please."

"I just gave you fifteen euro," I said.

"No you didn't," she said.

"Yes, I did."

"No, you didn't give me anything."

Oh, I thought to myself. So this is how you're going to be, Turkey. But it turned out that she had just forgotten, or... something... so she gave me a little stamp in my visa and sent me on my way. At this point I discovered that the van that was supposed to take me to my hotel had left (because it was now 2 in the morning) and I had to acquire another one.

You know how all cab drivers, everywhere, are insane? So does Turkey. The added plus is that Turkey is not entirely a first-world country, and it appears that cab drivers lose their sanity more or less in relation to their country's human development index. This is how I discovered that Istanbul

a) has lines painted on the roads, but
b) so what?

While we are at it, if you are an Istanbul van driver and therefore know the city well, Istanbul

a) has freeways, but
b) so what?

Therefore we tore through back alleys along the hills of Istanbul in some terrifying combination of Need for Speed and parkour, narrowly dodging stray dogs and American fast food restaurants. The dogs in particular made my van driver very irritated, although not as irritated as he was made by every other car on the road. On his behalf I'll apologize to everyone who might've been trying to sleep at 230 in the morning, but from what I could tell this was not many people.

Istanbul has its slums, to be sure, and very rattily constructed houses that look almost third-world. But it is also very, very beautiful. Glimpsing the

Anyway, one thing that is slightly interesting about this, to me, is that my traveling has never taken me out of the first world. Germany, Finland, Germany, the UK, Canada, and Spain are my most frequent destinations. Then this week I went to Turkey, and spent the week in Istanbul. The Hagia Sophia and the Sultan Ahmet mosque at night were breathtaking — literally, it was almost hard to breathe for a few seconds the first time I saw them, it was so overwhelming. The Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge, too, is astonishing, and racing up along the coast we crossed directly under it, all done up in glittering lights.

I checked into my hotel and got to sleep at around 330. The hotel was very hot. It was also very new — indeed it opened yesterday, and I was checking in Monday, so I was one of the very first guests. A trial run for hotelness. Anyway they had the room heat up far, far too hot so I opened the huge window and slept.

For three hours. After three hours, if you have your window open, you are woken up by the adhan. If you are like me, this is a very good way to determine, quickly, that you are in a very different country. In the following days I would come to realize the adhan as uniquely beautiful, although admittedly on three hours sleep it was more... irksome than anything else.

I was working for most of the trip, so I didn't get to experience Istanbul as much as I would've liked. I did get a chance to walk around Tarabya, which is where I discovered that it offers easy access to such bastions as Popeye's, Burger King, and Domino's Pizza. This latter demonstrates something else about Turkey, which is that labor costs are ridiculously low. This means, for example, that at a single street corner you can have no less than eight people spinning signs and handing out flyers for your pizza.

I didn't eat there, though.

Mostly, because it was That Kind Of Trip, I ate coffee and cold sandwiches snagged from passing crew lunch trays. The restaurant I am most fond of, however, was outside the hotel and a good example of Tarabya's fishing heritage. I have no idea what its name was, and it had no menu. I went there with a coworker, and when we sat down a man appeared bearing a tray of plates.

His English was virtually nonexistent, which made it far better than our Turkish (the only thing I know how to say in Turkish that is not the name of a food is "the dog chased the cat"). "Sea bass," he said, pointing to one of the plates. Then he pointed to the next. "Um. Very good," he said, which was also the name of every other plate on the tray.

At this point we decided that it was a tapas place, so we picked the sea bass, some red very good, some green very good, and some dolmas. I don't know what the red very good was, except that it was meatless, and had some tomato and pepper going on. It did taste delicious, though. For good measure, when he asked: "ah, kalamar?" we also got some squid. And some salad arrived, and it was fantastic salad.

Then the tray came back, accompanied by the chef (the restaurant being at this point empty) except that it was full of freshly caught fish of various denominations. One of them was a sea bass, one of them was a very good that looked kind of turbotish, one of them was a very good that looked more breamlike, and one of them was a very good that I have no idea what the hell it was. We went with that one, and it disappeared to be grilled.

You have this thought, about halfway through, where you stop and think: "ah. Either this is going to be one of those amazing things where the food is ridiculously good and the bill comes to ten cents, or this is going to be one of those things where you didn't know what you were getting yourself into and you have to give them a kidney."

Dessert came in the form of sliced oranges, apples, and some of the best kiwifruit I have ever had. Then it transformed into some weird chocolate thing, and then the bill wound up being 180 lira for two people, which is about €45 a head, by my calculations. Worth every piastre.

Everything I ate in Turkey was stupendously good, and for all I know the Domino's would've been too. It's also possible I don't really know food anymore because I have been living in Berlin for so long I don't know what good food tastes like. I had some lamb kebab that was so ridiculously good I almost had to stab the hovering waiter to get him to leave me alone so I could enjoy it.

Um.

What else? Because this is mostly just "Turkey, rah rah rah!" because the more I think about it the more cool it was.

There are negatives. People engaged in the service industry in Turkey are friendly to the point of something like obsequiousness, so I guess that's tough to get used to. I ordered room service on my first full night, because I was completely exhausted. The phrase "very well, sir," said in a bright, chipper voice, was used six times during the course of placing an order for a lone sandwich.

The person who brought the sandwich to my room took excessive care in aligning the napkins and pouring me a glass of water. Ten minutes after this the front desk called to make sure the meal was progressing well. Twenty minutes after that they called again to check that everything was alright, and to ask me if I wanted anything else. Half an hour later they called once more, to ask if they could take away the tray and plates.

Also, Turkish airlines is a really, really good airline, but Istanbul airport itself is a bit of a shit show, and the wireless Internet doesn't work all that well. But you can get really good baklava for not so much, so it's kind of a — oh! right, I almost forgot. I was at one place, where they had some honey out, but because Turks know how to fucking honey it was literally a slab of honeycomb with honey dripping from it.

This was a very boring post, guys, sorry :/

Have a picture:

Crowded architecture defines Istanbul. (source: flickr)


and then have another:

The Bosphorus is normally a striking blue-green. (source: flickr)

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