LETTERS FROM AROUND THE WORLD
For Better or Worse:
An “Of Fawlty Towers and Minarets” Essay
My first visit to Istanbul was a happening of chance, perfectly in sync with the city itself. For Istanbul is a city where coincidence and spontaneity reign high; a city full of ups and downs, a continuous rollercoaster with all the fear and excitement of such. Istanbul easily becomes an obsession, an addiction that gets into your blood and keeps you on a continuous high.
Like so many people I came here and fell in love. Not with a person, at least not at first, but with a whole city. And had it not been for a rather rash decision to leave my hotel management career behind in Manhattan with the intent to become a writer and a painter (two dreams that haven’t quite materialized yet), I might never have gotten here in the first place. For it was then that I began travelling the world in search of inspiration, visiting any friends in any remotely interesting country who would agree to have me stay with them.
One of these friends was Henry, who had worked with me years earlier at the St. Regis Hotel in New York and who now happened to live in Istanbul, working for another fancy hotel. I’d planned to travel for about one year, but that quickly turned into twenty months. I visited myriad cities in myriad countries, and although many proved fascinating, none had the impact on me that Istanbul did. It swept me right off my feet, and thus my decision was made: This would be my new home!
I fell in love with the Turkish people, with their warmth and friendliness, their hospitality and their ardent love for their country, all this combined with an enthusiastic interest in foreigners. I was surprised how open-minded and tolerant they were about other people’s life-styles and religions. They seemed so honest, so positive, so helpful, and so incredibly good-looking.
Day-in, day-out I gazed at the Bosphorus like a love-sick puppy: its constantly changing shades of blue and turquoise; its silvery shine on a rainy day. I relished the familiar Beşiktaş neighborhood sounds of our local muezzin passionately chanting his call-to-prayer with the odd street dog happily howling along; the laughter of children playing soccer in a side-street; unintelligible street vendors yelling out the wares carried on their backs; the perky ice-cream jingle of a gas canister truck; deep horns of giant cruise lines vying with purring little motor-boats and then… a swarm of seagulls suddenly crying out in unison.
I spent my days exploring the riches of Ottoman palaces and Byzantine mosaics. I walked through dilapidated districts like Fener, looking up at the rainbows of laundry adorning quaint wooden houses while almost stepping on a tiny stray kitten. I inhaled the scents of henna and spices in the district of Eminönü, kebabs roasting on an open fire, pide bread sliding out of the oven, and freshly-caught fish frying on a gently rocking boat. I squeezed succulent peaches at colorful street markets ending up with kilos of flavor-bursting fruit for a mere dollar or so, which I then had to carry up the steep hill of Serencibey in Beşiktaş, where Henry rented his apartment.
Once back “home” at Henry’s place, I’d quickly pour myself some ice-cold Çankaya, a fruity Turkish white wine. Glass in hand, I’d sink into the cushioned balcony chair, while nibbling on olives and endless amounts of precious pre-peeled Antep pistachios, staring at the view. Butterflies would fill my stomach as I watched the red cargo ships and black oil tankers slide through turquoise waters, while ferries sped back and forth, till the sun set over a skyline of domes and minarets, a blushing heaven revealing abominable pollution in gentle shades of orange and pink.
Then Henry would come home from work to pick me up and, after a nerve-wracking taxi ride, we’d dive into a feast of mezes and kebabs at the hippest new places with stunning views and even more stunning prices. Here I was: shoestring tourist by day; high-society Turk by night. I couldn’t have wished for a more perfect combination.
“Isn’t Istanbul great?” Henry would ask me with glistening eyes, as we flew up and down the hills in our taxi, knowing the obvious answer from the smile on my face.
Sometimes I would treat myself to a day at the swimming pool of the nearby Çžrağan Kempinski Hotel, where the water seemed to flow directly into the Bosphorus. I couldn’t have felt more like a princess as I stared into those deep turquoise waters through the cheerful rows of orange marigolds, while one of the pool boys came by with yet another frozen face towel or a little bowl of plump dark-red cherries.
Istanbul brims with social events and often we were invited to consulate parties, cultural gatherings, or to some friend’s house for dinner. Especially our friend Andrew’s BBQ’s I remember well. Most of our friends had nice views, but this one was different. This one was without any doubt the most spectacular. A full water view from above, starting with the Bosphorus bridge, Ortaköy and Dolmabahçe Palace on the left, passing over the Asian side, and with a quick wink at the Maiden’s Tower on to the Marmara Sea, followed by the mesmerizingly lit minarettes of Sultanahmet, the Golden Horn and the entire neighborhood of Cihangir. Here I stared at the moonlight’s serene reflection, specked with stars and city lights, leaving me with one thought only: how great it must be to live in such a place and how hopelessly unlikely that chance.
The first time the metaphor of a rollercoaster came to mind was when I flew up and down the hills in a Dolmuş. They say Istanbul is built on seven hills, but I’m pretty sure there are more than that. A Dolmuş is a shared taxi and has a distinctive different feel from other public transportation. While in a bus or metro, one can sense a certain competition amongst passengers, vying for space or the best seat, wishing the other people weren’t there. The dolmuş has a pleasant feeling of comraderie and since this little bus doesn’t leave unless all seats are filled, new passengers are generally welcomed instead of frowned upon. There is an unexpected friendliness as we pass each other’s money to the driver and hand back the change with polite “thank you’s and “you’re welcome’s, limiting lengthy cell phone conversations or wide open newspapers. It’s all in some unwritten code, and you only have to ride once to understand it.
Most passengers could probably afford a taxi, but prefer to save their money for something else. This adds to the feeling of comraderie. An imaginative wink of “I won’t tell anybody” seems omnipresent. And anyone who’s ever taken the Dolmuş between Taksim and Beşiktaş must know what I mean with this rollercoaster feeling. When you fly over Inönü Street towards the Dolmabahçe Palace, just as you feel the hill in your stomach, the silvery water of the Bosphorus appears in front of you.
Like all Turkish drivers, the people who drive the Dolmuş are crazy and impetuous. Ranging from assertive to aggressive, they know how to cut others off, flying from lane to lane, up and down the hills. The Dolmuş is by far my favorite mode of transportation. Unlike taxis, there is no unwanted talking or smoking going on and since you don’t have to worry about the driver taking the wrong route, you can just relax and enjoy the ride.
My life in Istanbul has proven to be much of a rollercoaster as well. Exciting, fun, sometimes scary. And scariest of all is the fact that this time I am in the driver’s seat with gears and brakes and pedals that seem to have a mind all of their own. Whether it’s the tourism industry, my relationship with my staff or my amorous antics, when things are going exceptionally well, I start getting nervous. I get the same scary feeling of helplessness and desasperation as when that rollercoaster is about to go down. For I know I’m going to fall and that there’s nothing I can do about it. Many people have told me they admire my courage, but I don’t think they realize that this courage is based on the continuous acceptance of fear.
The odds of finding a decent job seemed to be against me. I used as many connections as I’d gathered by then, but it turned out to be impossible. My interviewers gazed at me with mixed feelings of disinterest and suspicion. They either presumed I had a crush on some boyfriend that was bound to blow over, or they thought something had to be psychologically wrong with me. Why, they wondered, why would I want to live in Turkey, all by myself, if I could live in much “better” places, be it Europe or the US? I felt disillusioned and tired of having to defend my choice to everyone around me, both in Istanbul and back home. So I moved back to New York eventually, and then to Paris. But although these are two of my favorite cities, I just couldn’t get Istanbul out of my mind.
I longed to get out of the corporate hotel management world and played with the idea of opening my own little place somewhere, preferrably Istanbul and more precisely Beyoglu. I had looked at some buildings already, so far without much success, but the outlines of both concept and business plan were there, in fact in much detail.
It wasn’t till two years later that I finally got my cue to go. Andrew sent out a mass e-mail saying he was moving and I instantly picked up the phone to tell him I was on my way. Thus I was to take over my dream apartment, the one with the big balcony and the amazing view, the one I’d thought I’d never get to live in.
Then 9/11 happened. I hadn’t even moved yet. Travel warnings were issued for Turkey and the whole hotel idea suddenly seemed ridiculous. Still, I decided that if I wouldn’t move then, I never would, and that I would regret this for the rest of my life. So I went. And for the first time in my life I bought furniture. Each previous habitat having been considered temporary, I’d always lived in furnished apartments. But this time it was serious. I was smitten beyond description and I’d come here to stay.
High on honeymoon jitters, I skimmed through each part of town, flying in my dolmuş between Asia and Europe, looking for the best deals on charming furniture and high-quality white goods. Meanwhile I kept looking for suitable hotel buildings and, a few months later, I found the Sarniç Hotel in Sultanahmet.
The building was (and is) owned by the construction company who built it. They ran the hotel for 3 years, but then realized they didn’t know much about the hotel business and that they would be better off renting it. After endless negotiations with the owners (first agreeing about the price, then starting over with a suddenly doubled price, re-negotiating, and so on), we signed the rental contract at last.
Finally I could tackle the redecoration of the place. How I’d longed to get that silver-colored 3-dimensional Sultanahmet skyline off the wall and paint over that nasty mint green color. Away with those fake yellow flower wreaths under the glass top of the coffeetable. I decided red chili peppers looked a whole lot better there. Away also with that eternally snowy TV screen in the corner.
But at the same time I still had the owner breathing down my neck. There wasn’t a thing the old man agreed with. Not that it was any of his business, yet he clearly thought otherwise. One day I got two kisses with a “You’re like a daughter to me now.” While the next day I saw our coffee table being carried out as he cried in fury: “No flowers. No coffeetable!”
I had that table brought back at once of course. After all, I had already signed for the inventory.
A few days later he felt the need for yet one more encouraging remark: “The hotel has started to look sick with all that yellow paint on the walls,” he said.
I thought he looked a little green himself, with envy perhaps.
In those days I still had a business partner, who (besides coming in handy as a driver) functioned a bit as peacemaker between the owners and myself. But then it started to go downhill between the two of us as well. For three months we sat there without any clients, and each time I suggested we should do something, go somewhere, visit some travel agents perhaps, he’d look up with the calmest complacency from his tiny glass of Turkish tea and smile: “Don’t worry, they will come, my dear. Be patient, there just aren’t any tourists this season… ” Of course he didn’t have to worry, he hadn’t invested a penny in our business.
After those three months I couldn’t stand it any longer and in one week I visited 70 travel agents. In August, the partner decided to leave after another big fight, speaking the noble words, “I don’t want any money, I just want to get out.”
Alas, it didn’t take long for him to change his mind. I’d better save you the aggravating details, but I finally realized that B&B in Turkey can stand for Blackmail and Bureaucracy.
I was left behind in a terrible chaos. We were three staff members short, so the first few weeks I spent on interviewing only. After that, I could finally throw myself into the smaller details: painting some tulips here, placing a few shells there, simple little things that give a hotel its character and homey feel.
“You keep on losing yourself in details,” the partner liked to say to me with a clear note of contempt. But how else could I differentiate my hotel from another? Business started picking up and just as I thought all was going well, the rollercoaster continued and I suddenly started to wish I could get off it for a moment.
The Iraq war destroyed all my previous efforts to get business going. SARS didn’t help either, nor did the world-wide economic recession that followed the war. Booming business again in October, then bombings in Beyoglu that cancelled everything a month later.
It may sound romantic to some: “Istanbul, bridge between East and West.” But the reality is that no matter what disaster hits the world, Turkey somehow gets involved in it. I used to work with budgets and forecasts, here they just make me giggle.
It’s going well now and that’s making me nervous. I’m swamped with work because besides running a full hotel, I give Turkish cooking classes to tourists. And I never managed to find that perfect new business partner. Still, it’s been fun so far. I love my new-found freedom, of coming and going as I please. I enjoy making my own decisions and having no one else to blame when they turn out to be wrong, although there are times I secretly wish I could hire a boss.
My instinct is to go against the current. But Istanbul is not a city where one can go against the current. Just as the currents of the Bosphorus are known to be unpredictable and dangerous, Istanbul is a city where one has to take a deep breath and dive in with closed eyes, then go with the flow and just hope for the best. It’s the only way to enjoy it.
Looking back now, it’s interesting how many things Istanbul and Manhattan have in common, yet how some basic characteristics are suddenly so strongly divergent. Besides the many coincidental similarities, such as the yellow color of cabs and the city’s 212 area codes, there are many other common points, like tipping customs, the hype about new restaurants, and the ease of socializing simultaneously in widely divergent circles: gay, straight, married, single, local or expat, all of them thriving on a ubiquitous unstoppable energy that becomes more addictive each day.
But Manhattan is a place that trains regular people to be exceptional fighters. Going against the current is common daily practise. It’s fun, it’s part of life, and what’s also common practise is to get a million things done in one day. Manhattan is high-paced and organized, while Istanbul is slow-paced and chaotic. Manhattan is about winning. Istanbul is about surviving.
If you get one thing done in a day, you should consider yourself lucky. You can’t go against the current. It’s too strong, too exhausting. It makes you miserable if you try. As a control-freak, I’m constantly challenged by everything being hopelessly out of control. As a perfectionist, I cringe when I find the toiletpaper not folded in a neat little point, nor can I walk through the hotel without picking up some lint or straightening a magazine.
But perfectionism is not a word that translates into Turkish. Even the national English newspaper has hundreds of typos on every page, not to mention the hilarious spelling mistakes one finds on the menus of most restaurants. Needless to say, I’m not looking through the same pink glasses anymore. I’m married to the city with all its ups and downs. Like a wife cursing her husband’s snoring or his smelly feet, I curse the city’s pollution, the traffic jams, the lack of iniative amongst staff, the inability to anticipate. I get irritated by the smallest things. That constant honking of cabs trying to get your business even if you are clearly walking in the opposite direction. Those sleazy “psss psss” sounds coming from fishermen when you try strolling along the Bosphorus. The standard stupid jokes of touts in Sultanahmet. Sales girls that glue to your back while you’re browsing. Supermarkets that never carry the same toiletry twice. The blaring of the ezan, yes, the same call to prayer I used to find so intriguing and mystical. I have no more patience and the longer I live here the less I seem to want to adapt. But that doesn’t mean I don’t love it still.
When I walk down from İnönü Caddesi into my Ayazpaşa neighborhood, I nod to the guys at my taxi stand, I greet my local grocer, I wave to my hairdresser who’s hanging out of his window, smoking a cigarette, I “merhaba” the fruitseller, the shoemaker, the street dog, and many familiar cat faces. Such a big city and yet each neighborhood feels like a little village in itself. A woman lets down a basket from high above to buy vegetables for her family’s dinner tonight. Dark blue water peeks through the apartment buildings as I walk down the steep stairs leading to my place.
I love music, but sometimes I like silence better. Imagine living a 5 minute walk away from Taksim, the center of a metropolis with somewhere between 12 and 16 million inhabitants, and yet when I come home, I step into a relatively large private space combined with pristene silence, two things I never had while living in Manhattan or Paris.
Some Sundays, when and if I grant myself a day off, I sit on my couch, afraid to move even a millimetre, afraid almost to breathe, afraid to do anything that might break that beautiful silence. Space and silence are two of the greatest luxuries in life. Silence is space for the ears. And just as space can only be appreciated by the presence of a wall or a few pieces of furniture scattered about, silence can only be enjoyed with a few background noises: a far-away zoom of a ferry, the distant chants of children, a humming bird or wind blowing through the trees. In a city full of background noises one can always find a pleasant silence somewhere. Without noise there’s no silence, just like there is no courage without fear.
Of course I still have my wine and nuts when I come home. I watch the water, calm and serene one day; aggressive with foam-topped waves another. I witness the giant crows throwing their walnuts down from my roof onto my balcony, in the hope to thus break them. I listen to the muezzin scrape his throat before starting his call-to- prayer. Somehow he doesn’t sound so passionate anymore. He borders on reluctant, but still, he’s part of the scenery.
Looking at the Bosphorus, I see the world go by. Purring little fishing boats, oil tankers, cruise ships, luxurious sailing yachts, tourist tour boats with screaming Turkish music and guides talking in various languages. Elegant Ottoman caiques, old-fashioned ferries and speedy seabusses, all coming from different countries and going in different directions. For different reasons, business or pleasure. Some glide, some peddle, some race, just like the guests that pass through my hotel..
Happiest am I when the house is full. After all, that’s what makes it fun: meeting different people, from different countries, as if I were travelling through the world again, while at the same time I don’t have to miss the city that captured my heart.
Eveline Zoutendijk owns and manages the Sarnic Hotel, built over a fifth-century Byzantine cistern in Istanbul’s historic district of Sultanahmet. Cordon Bleu-trained chef, she also gives Turkish cooking classes. Her essay, The Painting or the Boy, appears in the collection Tales From the Expat Harem, Foreign Women in Modern Turkey released in Turkey by Dogan/Kitap Press and to be released in March in the U.S. and Canada by Seal Press.