Every morning, some time between five and six A.M. – that’s just a guess because up till the point I am deeply asleep – the predawn Istanbul silence is broken by an amplified, distinctly Middle Eastern-sounding, quavery wail, the official public announcement of the first of five daily Muslim “Calls to Prayer.”
I come to appreciate those atonal “wake-ups.” You never hear morning wailings where I come from. At best, we get seal noises from an offshore island.
I love being someplace else. And those multiple “Calls to Prayer” are a reminding indicator that I am undeniably – and exotically – a long way from Santa Monica.
(Later, in response to a question concerning national religiosity, our self-described secular but hopefully unbiased tour guide Serhan, pronounced…well you should you know that by now, informs us that only about ten percent of Istambulians actually respond to those “Calls to Prayer”, the percentage rising to forty per cent on the Muslim weekly Holy Day of Friday (Saturday and Sunday having already been taken.)
There is currently some ideological tension in Turkey over the balance between secularism and religiosity, the pendulum recently swinging, concerningly to some, in the direction of the latter. But – although this comparison is a little like designating “the tallest Pomerantz” – Turkey remains the most secular of the Muslim nationalities.)
And yet…no, wait, not “and yet” yet.
I need to first tell you about one of my favorite activities of the entire trip. That’s worth interrupting the flow for, isn’t it?
I sit by the tall window in our hotel room, a room named (rather than numbered) Rumeli Hasari, after a fortress built by Turks in the 1450’s on their way to wresting Turkey from the Christians after their more than a thousand-year tenure and establishing what would be a five-hundred-year Ottoman Empire.
What do I see out that window? In the distance on the European side of Istanbul I can make out the distinguishing minarets of Istanbul’s signature landmarks, Hagia Sophia (once an Eastern Orthodox Cathedral, then a mosque, and now a secular museum) and the shimmering Blue Mosque. They are little (because they are far away), but they are out there, providing a magnificent, time-travel inducing background.
Floating in front of them is a fascinating parade of Bosphorus boat traffic, including various-sized sailboats, flotillas of fishing trawlers, humongous, multi-tiered cruise ships, and darkly ominous Russian oil tankers passing through, on their way to heat Europe.
I sit there, mesmerized by the bustling activity in front of me, rising only when I am reminded that the hotel is about to stop serving breakfast.
Okay. Now the “and yet.”
And yet – concerning Turkey’s predominant secularity – walking the streets of Istanbul, one can still observe substantial numbers of women attired head-to-toe in black, in a manner a young Turkish friend of California friends of ours described as “Eyes Only”, because that is the only part of them you can see.
Once, I noticed a young man holding hands with an (ostensibly) equally young “Eyes Only”-clad woman and, ignoring the “holding hands” incongruity, I wondered, possibly even out loud,
(TO THE YOUNG MAN) “How do you know?”
A wiser head than mine later explained that he definitely knew because he was married to the woman. (Otherwise they would unquestionably not be holding hands.) Thoughts then immediately wandered to the idea that she was totally covered up because the man had made a terrible mistake and he did not want anybody to know. There are apparently no limits to my irreverence.) (Please remember I am a comedy writer.)
We toured the bustling spice market to pick up some specialized friend-from-home-requested provisions, for which, as with all Turkish purchases, we were culturally mandated to bargain.
Guilty liberals are terrible bargainers, assuming a disproportionate “Affluence Gap”, which may, in fact, not actually be the case, although, you know, we are on this lavish vacation and they’re standing in a stall full of cinnamon. (Did you catch the “Liberal Guilt” whiplash in there?)
More and better concerning my bargaining techniques later. At this point, still early in the trip, the best negotiating strategy I could muster was,
SPICE VENDOR: “That is a ten percent discount. It is very good price.”
ME: (PATHETICALLY) “Says who?”
I’ll tell ya, if “Bargaining” were an Olympic event, I would definitely be a casualty of the very first round. (Assuming I had qualified for the Olympics in the first place, which I would not have, making this analogy about as lame as my bargaining abilities, which, in a way, is metaphorically appropriate. Nah, it just sucks.)
File this one under: “A Touristical Faux Pas.”
Along with the mouth-watering authentic cuisine selections, “street food” also included irresistible (to me, at least, although our young Turkish friend upbraided us for eschewing Turkish food in favor of a dish readily available at the Indiana County Fair – freshly-made waffles, topped with strawberries, chopped walnuts and sliced bananas.
My waffle order arrives, accompanied by a rectangular, silver-foiled packet, which I reflexively assume contains maple syrup. As I tear open the top of the packet and press the opposite end so that the syrup will ooze out onto my waffle, a waiter comes over and politely informs me that that it’s a “Handi-Wipe.”
I have so many stories concerning the pre-“Official Tour” portion of our journey, including my virtually otherworldly Hamam (traditional Turkish bath) experience, but, not being in the same room with you and therefore unable to directly ascertain your interest, I am not sure how much of my subjective meanderings you are willing to put up with.
With this concern conscientiously in mind, tomorrow, I shall jump to our adventures on what Serhan insistently referred to as “the yacht” but which I will call “the boat”, because, I mean, who am I, Aristotle Onassis?
Five days on the Hayalim-D.
Translation, I was told: “My Dream.”
And for me, it was not far from one.