Thursday, July 12, 2007

Travel Journal (7)--I Learn to Curse in Turkish

During my Istanbul sojourn, I decided to spend a day on one of the Princes Islands. In Byzantine times, deposed emperors and empresses and out-of-favor court officials were exiled here; hence the name, Princes Islands. In the 19th century, Greek and Armenian merchants from Constantinople built their summer homes here. Today, all the islands are becoming increasingly Turkish in character, as these homes are being acquired by wealthy Turks. Yet, the Christian minorities are still alive here, offering a rare glimpse back to the days when Istanbul was truly cosmopolitan. Indeed, this may be the last redoubt of the Constantinopolitan Greek and Armenian communities.

Last year, I visited Buyukada, the largest and with its lavish villas, hilltop monastery and horse-drawn carriages, the most popular island. I opted for Burguzada this year--much smaller and even quieter. Outside of a reportedly excellent beach, Burguzada offers nothing much beyond peace and solitude.

Of course, half of the fun of the islands is getting there. Ferries ply the waters from the wharf at Kabatas every two hours or so, all day long; stopping first at Kinaliada, then Burguzada, then Heybeliada and finally Buyukada, before reversing the process. I always get a seat on the upper outside deck on the bow of the boat. The views are spectacular--Istanbul is best seen from the sea. A ferry ride to the islands offers an unparalleled view of the vast, modern city that is Asiatic Istanbul, something most visitors never see. But most importantly, the ferry ride provides for some excellent people-watching.

I settled back and zeroed in on observing two young couples traveling to the islands together. Both of the young men were dressed much the same, in the style of young Turkish men--button-up shirt, jeans and black shoes. The girlfriends, however, were a different matter. One was dressed casually in jeans, in a western style. The other wore a headscarf and an elegant long white coat, in the Islamic style. Among the boat's passengers, women in head scarfs were a distinct minority. Both couples sat next to one another, and they spent the ride, shall we say, "canoodling," if that is still a word. It was life-affirming to watch young people in love. While the one in western dress was perhaps slightly more demonstrative than her friend, I really noticed no appreciable difference between the two couples. This little scenario illustrates an important truth about Turkey. Islamic sentiments, while obviously in evidence, are ultimately sentiments filtered through Turkish culture. As such, they are inevitably more muted and moderate than similar expressions in other Muslim countries.

One of my guilty pleasures in Turkey is passing for something--anything--other than an American tourist. I was so flattered by a restaurant hawker who mistook me first for a Spanish tourist, and then an Italian tourist, that I actually sat down and had a bite to eat at his establishment. So, on the ferry, I was able to join in with the young Turks around me--with an arched eyebrow and knowing look--as we somewhat bemusedly took stock of the chattering American tour group who invaded our deck, a veritable flurry of heftiness in white sneakers, shorts and sun visors. Somehow, the conversations of American tourists rise above and drown out all other talk. The Turks around me seemed mildly amused and somewhat curious at the mutual sunblock-smearing rituals observed by these Americans once they had settled in. One lady was gushing to one of her fellow travelers about her necklace. It was an amalgam of religious symbols of all the major faiths of the world: a Christian cross, a Muslim crescent, a Jewish star of David, a Hindu something or the other, etc., all jumbled up together. A gaudy, unholy mess, in my view, but she was explaining just how spiritual it made her feel and just exactly how her new friend could order one just like it. How quaintly American.

There were only a few of us who disembarked at Buzukada. Everyone else apparently headed off towards the beach. I lingered around the harbor town, which consists of a cluster of 2-story frame stores and cafes which quickly give way to the surrounding villas. The centerpiece of the town is the impressive Church of St. John the Baptist (with blue dome in the picture to the left). The shopkeepers in the town are all Turkish. But if you pay attention, you can catch glimpses of the Greeks, relaxing on their patios behind the summer homes. A few are making the rounds to do a little shopping. Grandsons in bathing suits and flip-flops are making their way to the private pool. Later in the day, matrons stroll down to the cafes with their Turkish nurses or housekeepers, to have some chai, or drinks, and sit and smoke. How do I know they are Greek and not Turkish? The henna hair rinse is usually a dead give away. Or you may catch a glimpse of a cross necklace. And then, of course, Greek woman smoke in public. Turkish women smoke in private.

I decided to circumnavigate the island in a counter-clockwise direction. I followed the shoreline around to a concrete jetty. This was not the beach, but 4 or 5 young Turkish men were swimming and sunbathing. I relaxed on a park bench and enjoyed the ocean view. The island of Heybeliada (Halki in Greek) lay directly in front of me, with the shuttered Orthodox seminary commanding the hilltop. The water certainly looked inviting. As I was wearing cargo pants that zipped off at the knees, I quickly transformed myself from John the Tourist into John the Beach Dude. I have always loved to swim and before long I dove into the crystal blue sea. A short and invigorating spell in the ice cold water was enough for me.

After drying off, I set off again on my walk that took me near the summit of the island. From here I had a clear view of the town, nestled in the cove below, the other islands, and Asiatic Istanbul in the distance. I began to descend the hill, as the path became a street through neighborhoods with homes awash in hydrangeas and oleanders. I passed a small, pristine ochre-colored Orthodox church. The courtyard was locked, so I could not investigate. In short time, I come upon the Church of St. John the Baptist. A painter was working inside, so I was able to slip inside the sanctuary. He found me there, and was apparently trying to tell me that it was closed and I shouldn't be there. I pulled my cross from within my shirt and showed him, which seemed to satisfied him. I was able to spend a few quiet minutes there among the ornate Greek icons.

I finished my tour of the island and walked down to the dock, to learn that the next ferry would not arrive for another 1 hour and 20 minutes. So, I strolled back into town and took a seat at the Cafe Kardesler. Lunchtime was long past--I had totally forgotten about eating. I chose an ice cream snack and sat down to relax a bit. I felt bad about occupying a table for a great length of time without ordering much of anything, so I ordered a glass of chai as well.

The waiter--as most Turkish waiters are apt to do with tourists--struck up a conversation with me. This presented some difficulties as he knew little English, and I even less Turkish. I can count to 20 and say thank you, but that is about the extent of it. I learned his name and that he was from Urfa. I tried to tell him that I had been there and that I thought it was a nice city. He then asked me where I was from. Oh dear, I thought. Here we go. I replied, "the U.S.," to which he quickly asked, "Where, U.S.?" I motioned for him to come closer, I put my hand to my mouth and whispered "Texas." He jumped back excitedly and exclaimed, "George Boosh, George Boosh, George Boosh!" All the while, I was trying to shush him. That's the trouble when we Texans travel abroad. Nobody associates us with people such as Lady Bird Johnson, or Tommy Lee Jones, for example. No, they automatically think of J. R. Ewing or George Bush.

My waiter friend would walk by, grin and say "George Boosh." I would respond with a thumbs down sign, to which he would copy. At one point, he came out and gave me a gift of Turkish worry beads that Turkish men are so fond of fingering. In return, I made a show of rolling my komboskini off my wrist and giving to him. He stepped back and motioned no, as if I were trying to hand him a snake. He knew what it was. After all, this is still a Greek island.

On the third glass of chai, my friend started teaching me some phrases in Turkish. He was say something like: George Boosh, sher-ef-eeze; and Deek Chaney, or-as-pu. I would repeat what he said, and then he would double over in paroxysms of laughter. I surmised that whatever it was that I was saying was not particularly edifying to our Commander-in-Chief. Or to Mr. Bush, either, for that matter. My friend came back with his cell phone and took a video of me reciting these lines. He then took it over to a co-worker and replayed it for him. I was glad to be able to provide so much amusement to the wait staff.

I saw my ferry approaching, so I left a nice tip and waved goodbye to my waiter friend. The ride back to Kabatas was uneventful. The end of the tram line lay directly opposite of the dock, so I was soon settled in on a car, counting off the 8 stops until my neighborhood. On the 3rd stop, the doors opened, and my friend Turan, stepped onboard, right in front of me. What a coincidence. I knew he had business in Istanbul, but we were to meet a few days hence in Cappadocia and had no plans to get together in the city. We embraced and started catching up on things. Turan and I got off together and walked down to Cembelitas, where he knew of a nice han down a side-street. We ordered chai and a nargile and were soon deep into politics and world affairs. I suddenly remembered my notes from lunch. I pulled out my journal and asked him what "sher-ef-eeze" meant, and then "or-as-pu." He turned red, started laughing, and then translated for me. Sher-ef-eeze roughly meant "one who sells their wife as a prostitute," and or-as-pu implied that one was, well, an employee of the sher-ef-eeze. This is about as racy as it gets in Turkish. The language doesn't really lend itself to cursing. They depend on us in the West for that.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the great travel log -- beats the Hell out of Frommers. Though I'm turning green with envy, keep "rubbing it in," I can take it!

John said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
John said...

Thanks, you talked me into it. Next up: Cappadocia, then Rep. of Georgia.