Last Night in Istanbul

Six young Iranians were also lined up to board the boat for our cruise of the Bosphorus Strait. They were speaking a strange language, but we didn’t think that young twenty-something Turkish males would be lined up for a two-hour cruise in their home city.
“Where are you from ?” Brenda asked them. A lot of the fun of travelling is the people you meet. Doesn’t everyone in the world speak English ?

Their English was limited; not so their generosity. One of them handed us a bill worth 10 000 Iranian rial. We smiled, but handed back their gift. “We can’t accept this,” Brenda replied. She’s more outgoing than I am and doesn’t mind the pantomiming, the gesturing and the inevitable misunderstanding that goes with trying to communicate in the Tower of Babel. Despite the number of countries I have visited, if they are not a fan of the Montreal Canadiens I soon get bored with the conversation.
He shrugged, and smiled. “Won’t go back,” is what we understood him to say. He and his five friends had left Iran under the pretence of going on holiday and their plan was to make their way to London and see where they could move on to from there. Their sense of adventure was not as limited as their English. I’ve often thought about this encounter since returning to Canada. I still have the 10 000 Iranian rial note on my dresser. I am mercenary enough to look up its worth. Maybe I could use it to make a downpayment on a cottage or something. I found out I could….if I was playing Monopoly. The bill was worth almost twelve and a half cents Canadian.

Our last night in Istanbul was spent in Taksin Square. I walked in the middle of the cobblestoned street, my eyes straight ahead, hoping that my gaze would not accidently glance towards any lounging carpet salesman. Patting myself on the back as I made my escape I was soon tracked down by a couple of tiny gypsy girls who made off with most of my baklava. Like taking candy off a baby.
“Alright, that’s it,” I exclaimed in frustration to my wife and daughter. I blew my breath out heavily as I said this, as my father always did when he was fed up with all the bullshit. It always scared the hell out of me. I guess that I didn’t inherit the proper gene… even our pet dog Jasper, as timid a soul as exists in the universe, is not intimidated in the least by my theatrics. “We have a flight to catch tomorrow.” I wanted to show that I knew at least a little of our itinerary, even if I had contributed nothing at all to the planning. “What’s the name of that place where we pick up our rental car ?”
“Goeme”, Brenda answered, as she looked around. I recognized the lost look in her eye; it was my usual condition.
“We’re lost, aren’t we?” Not being able to finish off my baklava, the tastiest one ever, had darkened my mood.
“Not lost … just off track,” was my wife’s rebuttal.
We were in a Muslim country, so I had to guess that Allah was sitting in for God when he led four young Muslim men directly into our path. They were just heeding the minaret’s call to prayer and were on their way to the mosque, which coincidentally was on the way to our hotel. As we climbed another of the steep streets that abound in this ancient city we came across a dance of the Whirling Dervishes, performing for the crowds that were out celebrating the nightly breaking of the fast during Ramadan.
Tomorrow I would be driving the unfamiliar roads of Turkey, but once again my thoughts returned to my stomach. If everyone was breaking their fast, maybe I would be able to find another baklava stand that was open for business before turning in for the night ?

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Eye- Sights in Istanbul

The Grand Bazaar was very modern, attractive and organized.
“Hello, sir. I have very fine belts. I give you good deal as senior citizen.”
The pitch line was good for a laugh, if not for a sale of a fine belt. It was still early in the morning. The Bazaar was just a first stop up the steep, cobble-stoned pedestrian-only street from our hotel, and my short fingers were not yet able to dig into deep pockets. The delicious, all-you-can-eat breakfasts that were served up every morning always put me in a fine mood. Meditteranean cuisine is exquisite and very healthy. Pancakes and fried eggs are nowhere to be found and I always return to Canada several pounds lighter, ready to tuck back into burgers, fries and blueberry pie, until my girth has returned to normal.
The Ayasofya was the morning’s destination if you were speaking Turkish, or the Hagia Sophia if you knew Greek. Your intrepid tourist knows neither, not a word. Picking up French was easy, having had a French-speaking father and growing up in Montreal. I was so much younger then. I made a concerted effort to learn Spanish before leaving for Peru and Bolivia and later walking the Camino in Spain. Well, a concerted effort means I took two night courses through the Ottawa-Carleton Board of Education. I received a certificate, but so does everyone else, even if they miss most of the classes. I attended most of the classes, but never studied. At the end of the second course I could successfully order beer and ask for directions out of whatever locale in which I presently found myself to be lost. That’s it. Which is considerably better than how I mastered Turkish. By the end of three weeks I could express myself in exactly one word, and I soon even gave up on that. No one could make out what I was trying to say.
However, Brenda and Rachelle heard me as I was hauled out of the line to enter the Ayasofya, targeted as a terrorist. The only grim-faced Turk that I encountered throughout our stay had identified me as a security risk and insisted that I reveal the contents of a backpack sure to contain explosives.
“For crying out loud,” I protested, a little too loudly for my wife and daughter’s liking, as I was escorted back to the end of the line, eyed suspiciously by the mostly Turkish tourists who were happy that their security agent was on the job and apprehending blue-eyed terrorists. I decided to let my displeasure be fully heard, even if no one could understand me. “Jesus didn’t tell me to blow up this mosque,” I proclaimed, “and neither did George Bush.” I knew that was a little out there, but I was feeling a lot of self-righteous anger. It’s one of my many weaknesses, I am told.

I soon rejoined my wife and daughter, even if they were doing their best to avoid me. We even signed up with a tour guide who explained the mix of Christian and Muslim icons. “Next stop, the Topkapi Palace,” Brenda announce upon exiting. First, however, she wanted to figure out the Istanbul transportation system. “How the hell are we going to do that ?” It was getting hot and the pleasant effects of breakfast were beginning to wear off. Brenda has no trouble ignoring me. She hurried off to where a machine was distributing tram tickets. A few minutes later she returned with a young, friendly-looking man. My Spidey-senses immediately started tingling. This guy must be selling us something.
“This is Mehmet,” said my wife. “He’s going to show us how to use the transportation system. But first he’ll take us to a good restaurant.” You have to give the devil her due, I reflected. After twenty seven years she knows how to quiet me down.

The restaurant was excellent, off the beaten path and with Turkish, not tourist prices. Yes, his family was in the carpet business and that is how he continually improved his English. He grew testy only when the subject of politics was raised. “Yes, there were Canadians in Iraq,” he countered, when informed of our country’s purity. But buying a carpet was not a political encounter. “No pressure,” he promised. Yes, I thought. What was that story I read as a youngster, the one where the fox was able to convince the farmer that his chicken coop would be safely guarded by the fox that night ?

The carpet shop was a prosperous- looking outfit, I noted upon entering. Prices would probably reflect the upkeep. We were introduced to Mehmet’s uncle, the owner and chief pitchman. First came the Turkish tea. That’s too soften us up, I reflected. How could you refuse a $1000 Turkish carpet after being served $1.00 worth of tea all afternoon ? As Mehmet’s uncle explained the great value of each new rug, the shop’s assistants threw one carpet after another onto the floor until the place looked as untidy as my daughter Rachelle’s bedroom floor after an afternoon of shopping at the discount clothing establishments that she favoured. The prices were also being thrown out there…. 2700…1200…1950 Turkish lira, delivery included. (Two Turkish lira to the Canadian dollar.) Brenda is a savvy, experienced negotiator, and your correspondent is not as stupid as he looks. Our opening bid on one gorgeous floorcovering was a third of his asking price. He chuckled and said that the world of the Middle East was no different than anywhere else; young people could not be persuaded to take up the old crafts after being introduced to the wonders of new technology and the supply of such handiworks was becoming scarce. Turkish coffee was ordered in to speed up the process, as Monsieur Le Carpet was realizing that these two naïve -looking Canadians were keeping a firm hand on their purse strings. Our last offer left the man chuckling.
“You know, we have a tradition in the Middle- Eastern countries,” he began. “It’s called circumcision. You remind me of a doctor who promised only a circumcision, but left his young patient with only…” well, let’s not go there. We all had a chuckle, but out of the corner of my eye I noticed poor Mehmet looking slightly downcast, his afternoon’s commission having gone for nought. “My final price for that carpet…1500 Turkish lira,” the uncle offered. By now we were on the sidewalk, only a dash away from freedom. “We’ll be back on Thursday,” we promised.
The two Turks smiled resignedly. We did mean it… really. But the salesmen probably saw it differently.
Honour among thieves.

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Magic Carpet Rides

Even if the Turkish sun is hot, my trusty Tilley hat should do the trick, even if it’s old and battered, like its owner. Looking in the mirror, I pretended I was on camera, and gave myself a wink.
“Straighten your hat,” Brenda advised me. “You look like Jed Clampett.”

Istanbul must not have much of a welfare system, because everyone that you inadvertently make eye contact with is on the hustle like a Turkish Sammy Glick. They are certainly a likeable bunch, however. After putting our shoes back on and stepping outside the Blue Mosque, we realized that we had lost our bearings. Our confused predicament was picked up on by a personable young passerby, who we took to be a local guide. After pointing out the quickest route to the Basilica Cistern, he ‘fessed up to his personal sin. “I’m a carpet salesman,” he stated without embarrassment, not knowing that I would have felt more at ease if he had admitted he was a serial killer. I grabbed Rachelle’s arm and started scuttling off in what I hoped was the direction of the Cistern. The poor guy didn’t realize that he might as well have told me that he specialized in selling Florida swampland.

Ah, carpet salesmen. My first encounter with the beast was in 1996, when we spent a year teaching in France. Brenda thought that our February break would be best spent by driving through Spain, leaving our car in Gibraltar and taking the ferry into Morocco. It was our first foray into a developing country and it opened my eyes as to what people, especially children, could learn when they possessed the intrinsic motivation. Little boys standing no higher than your waist were pushing in front of each other in order to be your guide, each one hustling for your business in English, French, German; all of which they could speak fluently as well as their native Arabic. After days of resistance we finally succumbed to the salespitch of one establishment, whose proprietor charmingly told us that we had been such sharp negotiators that he would be forced to make up his losses on our deal from the next rich Swiss businessman who stumbled into his shop. To celebrate the deal we all sat cross-legged on the carpet and a large bowl of couscous was brought out. Excusing myself to wash my hands I descended the rickety staircase into the basement where the only facilities were an ancient Turkish toilet and no sign of any running water. I returned upstairs to find everyone digging into the bowl with their right hand. I’m not squeamish by any means, but I can’t say that I dug into that particular bowl of couscous with too much appetite.

The Basilica Cistern was cool in every sense of the term. The ancients’ sense of architecture and engineering never fails to awe me, even if the primary architect seemed to have a fetish for Medusa heads. We weren’t turned to stone, but we were conned into the very modern practice of having our photos taken in mid-thirteenth century sultan-like garb, even if I don’t particularly want to show those photos to anyone.

Last stop in the late afternoon was the Grand Bazaar. I was exhausted from a hot day spent sightseeing after an all- night flight with no sleep. I had run an eight hour gauntlet of vendors, hucksters and con-men and I was now content to throw my wife and daughter to the wolves by themselves; they seemed more immune and better equipped to deal with the hurly-burly of the marketplace than I did anyway. By now I felt as skittish and nervous around vendors as an old carthorse making a delivery to the glue factory. I waved them off, bid them good luck and plunked my weary derriere on a bench outside the bazaar where I promptly fell asleep and probably started snoring.

I came to a little while later and found a young woman seated beside me, texting. She must have noted that I didn’t look Turkish because she spoke to me in English. “You are very tired,” she said, smiling.
I wasn’t sure what was up because I was more used to being conned by men and not women. “I was on an overnight flight,” I said in response, as naïve as if I had just rode into town on a load of watermelons. She smiled, pleased to have stumbled across a pigeon ready to be plucked, and continued to text.
“What’s the name of your hotel ?” she inquired.
By now even I was beginning to catch on and with my usual sharp repartee answered, “Well, I,uh,hmm… don’t know,” was the best I could do. I wasn’t playing dumb; I truly didn’t know. I was squirming in my seat when I saw Brenda and Rachelle approaching from the bazaar. So did the uh, young lady, as she speedily rose and hurried off without so much as a fare-thee-well.
“You should have come into the Bazaar,” both Rachelle and Brenda exclaimed at the same time.
It had been a long day. “I’m hungry,” I answered, “and the only thing I want to haggle over now is supper.”

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On the Road Again

We were given the last two seats on the Air Canada flight; backing right on the restrooms.
“It smells like an outhouse back here,” Brenda remarked. Normally such an odour would bother her, but she was heading out for a five week international trip. With her single-minded intensity my wife is the equivalent of a Muslim extremist when it comes to travel. We were rolling through the Canadian Rockies seven years ago when we got the message at breakfast that a storm sewer on our street had backed up and our basement was flooded.
“I’ll get our return tickets’ date changed,” I said, jumping out of my chair. “No, no,” she retorted. “Finish your pancakes. Paul will take care of it.” Paul was our next door neighbour and Brenda saw no need to rush back when we were still scheduled for another two-and-a-half weeks and hadn’t even reached Yoho National Park as of yet.
The stewardess approached me with a large, very-full glass of red wine. (Oops – I mean flight attendant.) “We’re so sorry that we had to stick you back here… and your screen won’t be working either. So there’ll be no movies, but I hope you like red wine.” She looked at me and smiled. “You look like someone who does.” I didn’t know what that meant. “I’ll keep the wine flowing all flight.” Our daughter Rachelle had walked back to see us from her seat half the plane up. “I don’t like sitting by myself,” she exclaimed. Then she took in a deep breath. “But it stinks back here.” The flight attendant, however, had some good news. “Once we take off you won’t be smelling it anymore.”
She was as good as her word. The wine never stopped but the nauseous odour disappeared and the flight held no new surprises. But the first day after an overnight thirteen hour trip is never easy, especially with a fanatic as your travel planner. We collected our baggage and then Brenda said, “I’ll find out where we catch the subway and then the tram to our hotel.”
Despite a long night of red wine I was suddenly alert to the danger. “Jeezus Murphy,” I exclaimed, even though Rachelle doesn’t like me to use anything approaching profanity. “Why can’t we ever take a vacation like normal people ? We’re on a holiday- not a Crusade.” Two of our last three trips had been Christmas excursions to Cuba and I had grown used to the soft life. Brenda must have had almost as many libations as I because she was unexpectedly accommodating to my whining. “Okay- we’ll ask these taxi drivers.”
One of the points of ‘discussion’ in our marriage is our sometimes differing views on travel . I like it, at least I’ve always been told that it’s good for me, but I’m not a fanatic about it. My view is that we go for two weeks, three at the most, and we travel in a comfortable, accustomed manner like most sane people. Unfortunately, Brenda begs to differ. She would stay away for her whole ten week summer, which is what she used to do before she met me. And she would pay for this by pinching pennies as only a Scot with the maiden name Laird could do. (No offense intended.) I’ve seen her negotiating for a deal on bottled water with Buddhist monks in Burma. Luckily for me I’m writing this so I don’t have to include what she sees as my so-called weaknesses.
After approaching four different cabbies we had to submit to what the going rate to our hotel would be. It was a twenty five minute ride. He let us off at the bottom of a very steep cobble-stoned street. “Your hotel up there,” he pointed. “Cars not allowed.” It was a very hot morning and a very steep climb. My role on holidays is car driver and pack horse. We wouldn’t pick up our car for the first five days, so I hoisted the heaviest bags out of the trunk. “We can check in right away, but I don’t want anyone falling asleep on the beds,” my wife instructed. “We’ll be going out to see the Blue Mosque, the Hippodrome, the Basilica Cistern and the Grand Bazaar.” Rachelle looked over at me and rolled her eyes. I winked back at her. We’d have to stick together.

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Take-off to Turkey

Forgetting my sunglasses for my three week trip to Turkey was not smart, even if it was typical. My wife Brenda had packed another pair, however. She pulled them out of the backpack/suitcase that we had carried around the Camino three years earlier. “Wear these.”
Even being a beggar in this instance did not stop me from being a chooser. “I can’t wear these,” I protested. “These are ladies’ glasses. I’ll look like one of the sultan’s eunuchs.”
That was about all that I could say that I knew about Turkey; that it was once ruled by sultans, and that castrated eunuchs took care of said sultan’s harem. Oh, and that the Greeks and the Turks disliked each other intensely, going back even before the times of the Trojan horse. I had learned that during my first trip to Greece with my wife, back in 1988. We had just gotten on a bus in a hot coastal town and were setting off into the mountains. My wife and I were sitting in the front seats, opposite the driver, in order to get a prime view of the upcoming countryside. The bus driver climbed aboard and started the engine just as the last passenger, an old man in his seventies, took his seat directly behind the driver. He leaned forward and quietly whispered something in our driver’s ear. I could hear it, but of course I didn’t understand a word of the language.
The bus driver understood it, of course. Even as he pulled out of the parking spot he started yelling at the old man, sometimes turning completely around in order to make sure that the old fellow could correctly hear every syllable. We started to climb, but the driver’s anger only seemed to fuel itself as we climbed the switchbacked road which wasn’t encumbered by any guardrails. The old man sat quietly with a straight and expressionless face, completely unaffected by the Pandora’s box which he had opened. I wasn’t quite so calm. I looked over at the steep cliffs we were mounting and tried to steer my eyes away from the abyss, hundreds of feet below, where we were most likely to end up. The bus driver’s diatribe lasted a good twenty minutes before he finally calmed down and the old man had not said another word, sitting silently in his seat without any change at all to his placid demeanour.
I regained my breath, and then turned back in my seat to speak to the young guy behind me. We had talked together in the ticket line before boarding the bus. He was Greek, but could speak English quite well after spending a couple of years in the United States. “What did the old man say?” I whispered very softly. I didn’t want anything to set off another ranting rage.
The old man said, “Your mother is a Turk,” was the reply.
So that was what I figured I was getting myself into. The slaughter of the Aussies at Gallipoli during World War I, the massacre of the Armenians at about the same time, the 1970’s movie Midnight Express about two young Americans put in a Turkish prison, my own nightmarish experiences with Turkish toilets in France; the Turks should surely fire their press agent. But what I saw and experienced of the Turkish people during the past three weeks changed my outlook entirely. My trip was a wonderful experience. But there’s an old expression that I first heard when I was just a young kid and that I didn’t fully understand until I had gained some experience with the passing of time. Like most old sayings it’s probably judged too politically incorrect to blurt out anywhere within earshot of anyone under fifty years of age : “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts.”
To which I will add an adage of my own making: Beware of Turks selling carpets !

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Turkey

I’ m leaving tomorrow for three weeks in Turkey. Nothing will be posted during my trip; but hopefully there will be tales to tell upon my return. But not too exciting ; I want to be writing the stories, not have you reading about another unfortunate Canadian caught in an unfortunate predicament !

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A Far-Off Kingdom

It’s easy to have an opinion when you don’t have to take any responsibility for it. I’ve been dining out on that concept for over fifty years. So settle back and remember; you don’t know where I live.
Once upon a time in a land far removed from this one there used to be a school which graduated a lot of students, many of whom went on to become very successful; it was called Hard Knocks. If you’re over forty years of age then you know the drill. There was no degree to put on your office wall at the end of the ordeal, and that’s the thing. Your lessons didn’t stop when you left the classroom. Your teachers weren’t always kind and gentle and they didn’t write nice things on your report card about all the great potential you had even if you were often disruptive in class and seldom did your homework.
It started with the neighbourhood kids on the street or in the yard at recess. Your mom hadn’t phoned her friend and then driven you across the neighbourhood because there were rumours that some middle-aged pervert in a white van was cruising your street offering Smarties to stray young innocents. The neighbourhood gang probably included one overweight kid who was known as Fatso or Tubby, another boy who wore glasses and was called Foureyes and if there was a disabled youngster included he was known as Crip. Most of your time was spent running around playing Cops and Robbers or pickup sports and if you just weren’t very good at that stuff you were picked last, probably damaging your psyche for life. The littlest brother was called ‘Kid’ and he was always put in the nets or in the outfield and had to chase the ball down the street or to the far reaches of the park when it went astray. I’m just talking boys here; girls were alien creatures who were always put in separate lines at school and to tell you the truth, I really don’t know how they amused themselves. To be totally honest, I still haven’t figured them out to this day. Most women who know me could vouch for that.
Your dad had lived through the Depression and may have fought in the Second World War and now he had a house full of kids, some of whom he didn’t know what grade they were in. You didn’t have a lot of heart-to-heart chats and he didn’t have to drive you to the arena an hour before the game so that you could jog around with the team trainer in your team warm-up suits and get “mentally prepared.” In fact, there probably wasn’t an arena in your town. The hockey season started after Christmas and wound up by the beginning of March.
And so there you go. Another time and place. People didn’t wear seatbelts and bike helmets and there were things called ashtrays lying around the house and offices that were always filled with cigarette butts. I shared a bedroom with one brother for nineteen years. That doesn’t necessarily make for a close family; I haven’t seen him in over two years. Another brother died five years ago and probably some of those lifestyle patterns mentioned above had something to do with that. Even the humour was a lot more rough around the edges. What kid didn’t love watching The Three Stooges calling each other names and cuffing one another on the head. And could Jackie Gleason get away with threatening his wife and promising such repercussions as “One of these days, Alice! To the moon!” My siblings used to love listening to my father talking to service people on the phone, where he would meet up with one bumbler after another. “You don’t know very much, do you?” he would growl into the receiver, blowing cigarette smoke out through his nose. “Put me on with someone who knows something !”
The older I get, the more I understand the old man. I try to keep most of my opinions to myself; I don’t want to get committed. Like my mother before me, the older I get, the less sure of my opinions I am, but the less I care what others think of me as well. But there is always my daughter to keep me in line.
“Have you ever known me to be wrong, Boo?” I have a nickname for everyone.
She looks up from her texting for a second and rolls her eyes. But what does a kid know !

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