Without planning it, I was lucky enough to arrive in Istanbul a few days before their Republic Day, October 29th, the anniversary of the country’s constitutional amendment that made it its own state. There were an inordinate number of flags flying from every building, strung across streets, and in front of homes. I had thought that there was just an incredible sense of pride for the Turkish, and wasn’t totally wrong; apparently the number of flags displayed were only slightly inflated for the day.
It was on this day that I made my first journey to Asia. It’s an easy thing to do here; you can say, a little dismissively, that you’re going to Asia for the afternoon. It’s a twenty-minute ferry ride from Karaköy to Kadiköy, and yes, distinguishing between the two neighborhoods is half the battle when given verbal directions. This transcontinental journey costs two Turkish lira each way (roughly $1.06 at $0.53 to the lira) and offers some of the best views from the Bosphorus of both sides of the city.
I was going to meet my soon to be new friend Ayşe and her friend Victor, visiting from Oakland, CA, my old home. Ayşe was raised in Cambridge, MA and Berkeley, CA, mirroring my own background, and whose family owns the best cheese shop ever (that’s right, I said that), Formaggio Kitchen. Victor, a bartender, seemed to bring this whole, random meet-up into the cosmic realm; he works with old friends of mine and we know a lot of the same people, but we had never met. Now, in this small world, we meet in the unlikely location of Istanbul.
I arrive on the Asian side and realize I have no idea what they look like. I text her, tell her what I’m wearing. I tell myself that, “we’re all Oaklanders, we will recognize one another.” And five minutes later, I see with distinct clarity two of my people coming directly towards me. Their hair, his mustache, the clothes…we knew on first glance that we were cut from the same cloth.
Ayşe leads us through the hilly and cobbled streets and alleys of Kadiköy. We roam through bookstores, looking at Turkish language history books, romances, and comics. Their extra-wide newspapers from decades ago, some from before the Alphabet Revolution of 1928 changed their written language from the beautiful Ottoman script to the extended Latin alphabet, are preserved in plastic sleeves. We spend a lot of time looking at records with old-fashioned covers featuring artists we do not know. Victor buys comics, created in Turkey, for his nephew in Spain. We lose all concept of time looking through baskets upon baskets of old photographs and postcards. I buy a postcard, addressed to Miss Georgina Wilson at Rose Cottage, complete with a Shakespeare quote and a stated hope that she is feeling “fit” today, from her “new relation.” It has too much charm to pass up, and it was postmarked 1908. We linger longer; Ayşe practices her Turkish with the cute shopkeeper.
He head to lunch next door at Çiya Sofrası Restaurant. I had read about this place; the New York Times and Istanbul Eats (the website and book to refer to when visiting the city) both call Çiya some of the best food in the city. And this is an eating city, so such a recommendation is not to be ignored. Çiya Sofrası has mostly vegetarian dishes, set up on giant hot plates flanking both sides of the entry. The left side has pots lined up on this hot plate, varying sizes and contents. Without labels, the diner just points and judges by color, contents, smell. Of these twenty or so pots, Victor and I entrust Ayşe to get us a proper Turkish spread. We eat lentil soup with tomato puree and dried oregano, pastries stuffed with ground lamb and fennel seeds, stewed chard with herbed yogurt, köfte (ubiquitous Turkish meatballs), fresh flatbreads, braised eggplant with peppers, and a light, brothy, vegetable soup. We add the spicy red flakes (aptly called “soup and salad mix” at the Spice Market) one finds on any Turkish table to our dishes, making the flavors pop with the additional heat.
As with any Turkish meal, or moment, there is tea. Black tea, served in an hourglass-shaped glass on a tiny white saucer with gold and red embellishments, served with a sugar cube on the side and a tiny spoon. The clinking of spoon against tea glass will forever be audible in my mind after so much tea on this trip. We also drink şerbet, a juice made from fruits, flowers, or flower oils. It has long been a customary drink in this region and other Muslim countries, acting as a festive and delicious drink in places where alcohol is forbidden. So popular is şerbet that its praises have been sung by both Lord Byron and Francis Bacon, and terms of affection in the languages of this region stem from its base. Words for sweetheart, cuties, and even the verb “to drink” link back to this word (http://www.saudiaramcoworld.com/issue/200505/the.world.s.first.soft.drink.htm).
We head out for the rest of our very full day—we are off for a shave and a hamam—but that’s a story for another time.