Friday, November 21, 2014

"A Still Lingering Loose End"

You try not to be xenophobic – believing that where you’re from is the greatest place on the planet and that every place else comparatively sucks.  The thing is, even the best of us – by which, it goes without saying I mean myself – can slip. 

I mean, there are limits, of course.  You do not to respond to everything a culture throws at you with a non-judgmental “That is simply the way they do things.”  Beheadings for example, which seems to be the execution “Method of Choice” of certain militant, Middle Eastern subcultures… 

“Sorry, that’s out.  We’re tolerant.  But not that tolerant.”

(Asserts the citizen of a country that dispatches its condemned via an unreliable lethal cocktail.)

NOTE: During the preceding nine posts chronicling our recent Turkish adventure, you may well have detected signs of suggested Turko-phobia, my discomfort, for example, with some Turkish toilets I had encountered that were just drains.  But in those cases, I kept my disapproval to myself.  Yeah, and then I wrote about them – I know.  But that was primarily for comedic effect.  Which is different, don’t you think?  I mean the joke was essentially on me… is what I am trying to say.  Never mind.

Further exemplifying my determination not to offend was this intense inner struggle I experienced concerning asking about the potability of the drinking water.  I had noticed that the hotels we stayed at, as well as the boat, all supplied bottled water.  Did that mean, I wondered, that the tap water was not drinkable?  Or were they simply being “fancy” with the bottled water?

The thing, is how do you politely ask that kind of question?

“Can Turkish tap water kill me?” is probably not the way you want to go. 

It’s a legitimate issue, the way to appropriate way to ask something.  You are reluctant to inquire of a person who lives there,

“Is this a Third World country, or what?”

I encouraged myself to steer clear of this potentially uncomfortable issue, but, like trying not to sneeze, the more I suppressed my concern, the more the question propelled itself to the forefront of my consciousness.  And so, after three days of holding my tongue, in the least offensive construction I could think of, I said,

“I am curious about the tap water.”

I am informed, without rancor, that it’s fine; it just doesn’t taste that good.  And I leave it at that.  There was no,

“So you’re saying that it’s not raw sewage coming out of the faucets?”

I instead dutifully behave myself, proceeding to less provocative concerns, like, “What’s for dinner?” or “Do you know if the ‘ice-cream guy’ coming today?”  I remain throughout pretty much on my very best behavior.

Until the final night of our journey.

We, by which I mean the five remaining traveling companions and Sarhan, are sitting together at dinner at the Kismet Hotel outside of Kusadasi – forgive me, but this is probably my final opportunity for Turkish beach town name dropping – and the conversation inevitably turns to Jane, who had fallen on the boat and had undergone emergency surgery in Fethiye.  (Okay, but that’s the last one.)

I can feel my adrenaline revving up for a rant.  Being the sensitive person that I am, I immediately identify with Jane’s desperate situation – having no alternative but to go under the knife far away from home, the small town surgeon wielding that knife, an unvetted stranger from a foreign country.

In my admittedly hyper-fearful response system, facing a crisis of this nature inevitably triggers the emotional equivalent of,

“I want my Mommy!

“Home”, the geographical surrogate for “Mommy” instills the illusion at least of the familiar, the capable and the safe.  I encapsulate this contrasting situation, bewailing painfully,

“I mean, who is this Turkish doctor?” 

Do you see what I did there?  Exposing my xenophobic bias to the world, I was essentially expressing a coded version of,

“Who is this not American Board Certified ‘Exotic’ who’s going to be cutting open my shoulder?”

I immediately felt terrible.  Trying to backtrack, by insisting I’d feel the same way about any small town hospital, explaining that only two weeks before I’d experienced my “heart incident” in Los Angeles, I was vacationing at our cabin in Indiana, and I’d have felt exactly the same had I been rushed to the local hospital in Michigan City. 

I then abruptly stopped talking, sensing that the insult I had inflicted was terminally irreparable. 

I had “misspoken” – defined as “inadvertently telling the truth.”  By verbalizing my, more than likely, irrational concerns, I had insulted Turkish doctors and, by implication, the country of Turkey as a whole.  That’s why the next day, when we parted company, I said to Sarhan, “If anything stupid accidentally came out of my mouth…” and I asked for his forgiveness.   

Sarhan gallantly dismissed my apology.  It is true that when I committed my faux pas, Sarhan had behaved like he had not been offended.  But I had looked in his face at that moment, and I had detected an involuntary flinch.

Ah, well.  Two weeks, and only one egregious boo-boo.  (That I know of.) 

That’s better than my overall average.

But still…

Thursday, November 20, 2014

"We Went To Turkey - Odds And Ends"

A Brief History Lesson:  After attaining independence from their post-World War I occupiers (Britain and France) and their proximate proxies (Armenia and Greece) in 1923, Turkey experienced a deliberate and seismic cultural transformation. 

Turkey’s victorious secular leader Kemal Ataturk (which means “Father of the Turks”) issued an order, aimed at his country’s instant modernization, liberating it from 500 years of Ottoman acculturation, propelling it headlong it, as Ataturk believed was essential and necessary, into the Twentieth Century.

Ataturk ended the Sultanate rulership.  He outlawed the traditional Turkish wardrobe, including the fez as well as those baloonish (respectfully) gym pants.  Judging from Ataturk‘s clean-shaven likeness on the Turkish currency, he went aggressively after the mustaches as well. 

Also out was the ubiquitous Arabic alphabet, ordered permanently replaced by the alphabet westerners use, with some minor adjustments so they could still spell their old words.  At that time, they also introduced English words, though they decided to spell them differently.  Not phonetically exactly, but, I guess, a transliteration, of what they heard.  As a result, what you end up with is English words, spelled in a somewhat fanciful manner.


Taksi and Otomotiv. 

Ambulans and polisi. 

You deposit your money in a Bankasi, order restaurant food from a menusu, and look at art in a galerisi. 

You play tenis and basketbol.  Even their own country is not immune to this “ideosyncratic spelling” treatment.  I have two t-shirts, on the fronts of which is emblazoned the single word,


CONTEMPORARY TURK:  “Hey, it’s better than the Arabic Morse Code with eyebrows that we used to use.  That stuff was indecipherable.  Even to us.  By the way, are you sure we’re not spelling these English words right?

It’s a different place.  And they spell things differently.  As long as they understand them, we can only take note and move on.  (And wonder, as I am sure immigrants to our country do why it’s “’I’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c’?”)

Irresistible Silliness.  (Not that the silliness is irresistible, it’s that I could not resist being silly.)

I would spot a couple visiting some touristical point of interest.  The man is taking a picture of whom I imagine is his wife.  The woman stands stiffly, trying futilely to relax.

Just as the man is about to snap the picture, I walk over and stand right next to the woman, smiling pleasantly (Think:  Alfred E. Newman-like) directly into the camera.  Sometimes, I feign draping my arm casually over the woman’s unguarded shoulder. 

I pulled this stunt twice and was “two for two” in eliciting “outright prolonged laughter.”  Even from Asians.  I can imagine them sorting through their photographs when they get home:  “Who’s that?  “It was that silly man, remember?”  And they chuckle happily at the recollection.

Ahhh, the lengths one goes to for the tenuous promise of immortality.

Two Standout Highlights:

One:  I drove the boat.  I stood in front of that big-spoked wooden wheel and I steered the boat for close to half an hour, maneuvering at one point around a sailboat – the captain directed me to go around on the right, but I stubbornly went around on the left, and I made it, without mishap or difficulty.  Have you noticed I have chronicled this entire experience without using a single, technical boat word?  It’s amazing.  Being that ignorant.  Yet able to steer with such masterful command.

Two:  Once in Dublin, a Turkish barber gave me a superlative, straight razor shave.  I could not imagine the best Turkish barbers being in Ireland, so I decided to “top” that experience, engaging the services of a Turkish barber in Turkey.  (While visiting a picturesque beach town called Gocek.)

The shave was fast, and skillfully executed.  At the end, however, the accomplished Gocek barber threw in an unexpected touch, not included by his counterpart on the Emerald Isle.

As I sat comfortably in my chair, the Gocek barber set fire to a slender stick of cedar, and then, without fanfare or warning, he whisked the flaming stick around the periphery of my ears, singeing off my ear hair, and scaring me to death. 

Rising from the chair, somewhat unsteadily, I  proceeded to pay him – adding an appreciative tip for not burning my face off –  and I left.  With a smooth shave, and the rejuvenated ears of a twelve year-old.

A trip – not the Hawaiian kind where you lie on a beach chair and wait for your massage appointment – but a sightseeing trip where you move around a lot – in our case, we started off in the Asian hotel, then moved to the European hotel, then to the boat, then on to the Kismet hotel and finally back to the European hotel – well, it reminded me of a canoe trip – an excursion filled with exhilarating adventures, but sporadically strenuous as well. 

You are happy you went. 

But you need to lie down.

Such was our rewarding and memorable vacation to Turkey.  I sincerely thank our traveling companions – Joan, David, Jane, Marvin and (the until now unmentioned but unforgettable) Marge. 

Thanks also, and enormous appreciation to our tour guide Sarhan and the Hayalim-D’s captain and his exemplary crew. 

And we will never forget the super-hospitable Cinar family, who treated us to a sumptuous banquet (including Raki, the traditional alcoholic beverage, an excessive consumption of which can make your bones feel like they are separating from your body.)

In a word – which I actually used when I thanked Joan and David for including us in their plans, the entire Turkish experience, top to bottom, was

a gift.

We are old.  And we did something new. 

How ‘bout that, huh?

I had help.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

"We Went To Turkey - Part Eight"

It was our final day in Istanbul.

We had been on a guided tour for nine days.  Now, as at the start of our trip, we were back on our own.  Ready to sally forth into the Unknown that was this teeming metropolis with its winding streets and its challenging geography, a single thought percolated prominently in our brains!

(WHINILY)  “We need Sar-han!”

Actually, we didn’t. 

We were no longer the nervous neophytes of two weeks before, unable to negotiate the tram ticket machines and find our way to our destinations.  There were still things we wanted to see in Istanbul.  And we were convinced we could find them.

Besides, Sarhan had provided us directions to them before we parted. 

Not that we couldn’t have found them ourselves; we just didn’t have to.   (It was also easier to find places in the Sultanahmet (“Old City”) section of Istanbul because, unlike the Sumahan, our European hotel, the Armada, was located in the Sultanahmet.  The “Sites of Interest” were almost exclusively within walking distance.  (That is easier, isn’t it.  Of course, if we’d have stayed at the Armada from the get-go, we would have entirely missed Asia.)

The Blue Mosque is a cinch to find.  Because it’s a blue mosque.  (More gray, actually.  The “blue” refers to the blue tile adorning the walls of its interior.) 

The Blue Mosque’s unique coloration and its towering dome and minarets make it spottable from virtually anywhere.  (We could see it in the distance from the other continent.)  Built in the early 1600’s, the Blue Mosque was constructed on the site where the palace of the rulers of the (thousand year-old) Byzantine Empire once stood. 

With its multi-layered history, you continually run into this, what network television calls, “repurposing” – using the same entity for multiple purposes.  And you can readily detect the transformations – the identical structure, once a Greek theater (recognizable by the columns) becomes a Roman theater (identifiable by the arches, an innovation introduced by the Romans), becomes a Byzantine fortification (you can see where they built the surrounding walls higher for greater protection.)

What floats to mind is my Great-Uncle Benny who was reputedly the first Jewish architect in Toronto.  Among other noteworthy originations, Uncle Benny designed a synagogue, which three generations or so later, as the neighborhood demographically altered, transmogrified into a Buddhist Temple.  This seemed naturally fitting.

God’s House – “Now Under New Management.”

It was the same thing in Turkey, only it took substantially longer.  Every five hundred or a thousand years, the country’s rulership changed hands, and, instead of erecting entirely new structures, they took what was already there and gave it an ecclesiastical makeover.  (In mosques that were once churches, Muslim religious requirements led the new owners to plaster over the building’s ubiquitous, Christian-themed murals.  (At the risk of being blasphemous, this reminded me of the Lakers championship banners being draped over at the Staples Center during “home” games played in the same venue by the Clippers.)

Our next stop was Istanbul’s Archeological Museum, which was as spectacular as Istanbul’s Science and Technology Museum was disappointing.  And then some.  We saw some of the oldest exhibits of our trip in that museum, some offerings dating back numerous millennia. 

Most memorable for me were the nine separate glassed-in displays, each containing recovered artifacts from the nine distinctly different incarnations of fabled city of Troy.  Of course, being totally ignorant, I can be easily fooled about that.

SCOFFING ARCHEOLOGICAL EXPERT:  “You see that shard of pottery they placed in ‘The Seventh Level of Troy’?  Please.  It’s so obviously the Ninth! 

Having sufficiently sated ourselves with these accumulated artifacts of antiquity, it was now off to the Grand Bazaar.  Where a virtually impossible assignment awaited us.

Earlier in the trip, we had purchased numerous items – towels and various other textiles – from two different places, which we had arranged to have packed together (by the towels vendor) and subsequently shipped back to Santa Monica (to be delivered after our return home.) 

During the boat trip, however, Dr. M had received an e-mail from FedEx screaming, “Delivery Error!”  We immediately wondered if something had gone awry with our shipment.  Understandably concerned, we decided that when we returned to Istanbul, we would seek out the towels vendor, hoping for a clarification of what exactly was going on.

The problem was,

There are thirty thousand stalls in the Grand Bazaar. 

And we had no idea where the towels vendor was.

Undaunted and determined, we stepped into the Grand Bazaar, and we started to walk.  Down one aisle and up another, scrupulously scouring the bustling terrain. 
Our objective: 

Finding a needle in an emporial haystack.

The Grand Bazaar is a baffling agglomeration of quality merchandise side by side with self-described Genuine Fake Watches.  Two problems arise here.  You have to be able to distinguish the genuine article from the junk.  And then, you have to bargain skillfully for an acceptable price. 

Which brings us to this memorable encounter.

During our (seemingly fruitless) search for the towels vendor, I spotted a t-shirt that I wanted.  I said,

“How much?”

He said,

“Twenty Turkish lira.”

We had been there for two weeks.  We were determined to dicker.

Dr. M:  “Oh, come on.  We saw the same t-shirt for fifteen.”

“Not this one.  I am the only one who sells them.  Twenty lire is my best price.”

I immediately jump in, utilizing an idiosyncratic haggling technique.

“Twenty-five,” I offer.

The guy stares at me.

“Okay, thirty.  But that’s as high as I go.”

I can sense the man’s confusion.  Incredulity flickers in his eyes. 

“Thirty-five,” I call out.  “But that is definitely my final offer.”

At this point, the vendor is convulsed with uncontrollable laughter.  I have made his day. Possibly his entire year.

And I get the t-shirt for eighteen.

The best thing that happened in the Grand Bazaar that day? 

Not even close. 

What was?

We found the towels vendor we were looking for!

Out of thirty thousand stalls!  Dr. M has uncanny directional abilities.  (As it turns out, the worrisome e-mail was unrelated to our shipment, which, as yet, had not even been dispatched.)

I now request your indulgence for a final blog post of scattered but hopefully interesting odds and ends.

Then I’ll be done.

And I can move on to other things.