THIS IS TURKEY!

There was a time, long ago in a land far far away called Minnesota, where a little boy named Robert Hildebrandt had concocted the perfect storm of deciding to focus on Middle Eastern history, of staying up late the night before watching “300”, and of deciding to play the boardgame-cum-friendship destroyer “Diplomacy”. As was certainly inevitable he chose to play as the dying Ottoman empire and spent much of the game shouting “THIS IS TURKEY!!!!!!” and pretending to kick all those who would try to double-cross him (and they were legion) down imaginary bottom-less pits or, as we sometimes call them, onto the floor of the Norse lounge. Needless to say, he was a nerd.

Flash forward to present day. Robert is a little older, probably less wiser, and certainly more beardier, but one thing hasn’t changed, when landing in and walking around Istanbul, he has a hard time not screaming the aforementioned war cry and looking around for Robert Kennedy (the Carleton student, not the presidential candidate) to kick.

Istanbul is amazing. It’s like Paris or college or thai food. Everyone says it’s amazing but you don’t really believe it until you see it. For me, Istanbul is to Beirut what Beirut had been last year to Jordan: a complete and welcome change.

When I first came to Lebanon it was so exciting to see beer and ham and the ocean and women’s necks and garbage collection that I was oblivious to all the things that have become so gallingly apparent when seen in contrast with America. So there’s no sense of public space, well there’s more than there was in Jordan. So people still throw things on the ground rather than take the minor effort to throw it in a bin, at least they pay someone to pick it up instead of burning it. So everyone drives stupidly short distances in stupidly congested traffic that belches horrifically toxic smoke; have you even BEEN to Amman? In retrospect, Beirut was just exciting because it was a break from the norm, a little weeklong adventure to help escape the drudgery of Arabic.

Istanbul’s the same way. I’ve been living a very domesticated life of late and my time as centered mainly around going to class, cooking, and doing homework (hence no blogs though I think there are enough things that I should write a little Lebanon blog when I get back). Now, for one week (it’s my Fall mid-term break, if only they’d been this long at Carleton) I get to break out of the norm and adventure, and Istanbul’s been my kind of adventure, in that it consists mainly of walking a lot, eating lots of food, and, surprisingly, talking a lot.

There are a few things that really jump out as different and special here as compared to Lebanon. First, there are PLAYGROUNDS! I counted 8 during my first day’s wandering. Second, there are PARKS. My god, it’s like someone decided that there should be a public space for people to gather and meet, perhaps play with their children. What a concept. In line with all of this, there is a great Metro system that makes the whole place feel, well, more cosmopolitan and less privatized. It’s sort of like going from LA to Chicago, it just feels better run (now, of course, there are lots of reasons why Lebanon lacks some of the same social order as Istanbul but this is a story for another blog)

My initial couchsurfing plans have fallen through but fear not! Not only have I found a new place to couchsurf starting Tuesday but I’ve so far gotten to enjoy something like a couchsurfing experience at the hostel I’m staying at. After wondering for hours with a massive-enough pack yesterday, I found the hardest to find but most worth finding hostel in the world. This is due entirely to the people working at it. It’s mainly just a troupe of college students who all know each other and who’s friends have been hanging around all day. After an exhausting-but-worthwhile day yesterday I spent the day sharing breakfast with them, cooking dinner for them, and generally chatting about life in Turkey and America. It’s done wonders for alleviating the typical loneliness I feel as a solo traveler and let me feel more like I’m actually visiting a place rather than just passing through. Sort of like breaking the 4th wall travel-wise.

Turkey is like one giant snack buffet: Kabab stands, chestnut stands, fried fish stands, Doner stands, the list goes on. This website (http://istanbuleats.com/2010/11/lades-2-a-beyoglu-greasy-spoon/) has basically become my unofficial guidebook. The page I’ve linked is the place I went to last night called Lades II (wishbone) which serves only eggs and eggs mixed with things (and a great assortment of puddings, the baked rice pudding was especially delicious). Just around the corner from Istiklal Street (aka “independence Street” aka the Grafton Street/Miracle Mile/Hamra Street/any other street you can think of full of shiny stores full of shiny people walking around, it’s sort of the non-alcoholic version of “Rose’s”, something wonderful and proletarian in very bourgeois background. They had a TV showing an FBC Barcelona V. Real Zaragoza game on the TV and a little boy (5-6ish?) was kneeling on a chair and got so excited when Barca scored that he feel over. It made the pudding all the sweeter.

I’ve been really enjoying how the mosques here are both beautiful (unlike much of Jordan where they’re fairly utilitarian) and open to the public (unlike Morocco where non-Muslims aren’t allowed in). It’s been great to just walk in and quietly taken in the majesty of the space: the soft carpets underfeet (taking shoes off just adds to the soft “visit to grandma’s house” sort of feel), the intricate tile work above, the names of the caliphs that I can read (so 3 years of Arabic not wasted right?), the Quranic inscriptions that I can’t (calligraphy is hard), and the quiet reverence of the little clumps of worshipers scattered around the immense space. I tried to sit an read the Quran before remembering that the Quran is hard to read (perhaps I should be like my near-comic-book-named fellow Arabic student MATT STEELE and go study at a Quranic school in the Mauritanian dessert).

I still don’t have much of a plan for the next few days, but if it revolves solely around finding a new type of street food to eat, a new mosque to poke around, and a new sport to explain to the Turkish hostel owners (I tried to explain baseball, they seemed pretty lost) then I’ll still call it a win.

I’m sure when I get back to Beirut I’ll appreciate it more with some contrast, and I promise I’ll write a blog about what I DO like about Lebanon so you don’t worry about me hating things (key word: manooshe), but right now it’s hard not to walk around, smell the crisp autumn air rolling off the Bosporus and want to shout “THIS IS TURKEY!!!!!”

. . . If only Robert Kennedy were here to shout it at