far too much writing, far too many photos

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Next door to the teeny, funky hotel that served as my refuge during this visit, there sat a café. Owned by a 30-something Turkish couple. He spoke a little English, enough for us to connect. She spoke none, but gave me kind smiles and small plates of excellent chow. I stopped in there every day of my stay, late afternoon/early evening, after miles and miles of hiking around. Ordered a tea — the national drink, as far as I can tell — and something to eat. The joint looked out on a small park that wrapped around the grounds of a small mosque. Children played, locals sat drinking tea, chatting, smoking hookahs(!!) — I relaxed and watched, occasionally exchanging smiles with the owners or other customers. Appreciating the atmosphere, appreciating sitting still after a day spent on a forced march exploring, appreciating the local version of regular life.

The café was wider than it was deep, the side fronting on the tiny street consisting of nothing but glass — windows that opened and folded together to one side, completely opening the space indoors to the world outside. I loved that. The owners appeared to have a permanent claim on three or four parking spaces directly outside, filling them with small tables and seats that were almost always occupied by people talking, sipping tea. The park extended from there off to a berm that supported train tracks, commuter trains passing every now and then. Beyond that, out of view, lay a wide, busy multi-lane highway, and beyond that a park that extended along the shore of the Sea of Marmara, almost always busy with people. Having the water so close by gave the air a different feel, softer, less dusty than up the hill.

That block, with park, café, mosque, provided a point of delineation between touristy and residential. In one direction: traffic, hotels, restaurants looking to snag passersby, shops making a living off tourists. In the other: narrow streets, residential buildings crammed together, clothes hanging from lines, children. Much more fun to walk through than the residential area.

I drank more tea in my three days in Istanbul than I have in months. Tea served in small hour-glass-shaped glasses, the liquid hot and rose-colored. In bazaars and along commercial streets, men with trays like weighing scales (carried by holding the high point of a hoop, the tray nestled in the low point) carried glasses of tea, passing in and out of shops, leaving the sound of small spoons clinking against glass in their wake as businessmen fueled up on caffeine.

I avoided big restaurants in Istanbul. Needlessly, even bizarrely expensive, with males stationed outside the entryways whose job was to try and drag people in from the street — an approach that sends me off in the opposite direction. I stuck to smaller, more humble joints, places that made no attempt at a hard sell. And ate stupendously well, ’cause the food in Istanbul is wonderful. Never had a bad dish of anything — the food was always tasty at the very least, often far better than that.

Sunday afternoon, after a long day of wandering parts of the city on the Asian side — up hills, through sidestreets and alleys, commercial zones and residential areas — I found myself in a popular, crowded, noisy warren of mostly pedestrian streets, wall-to-wall restaurants, clubs, shops. Hungry and looking for a quiet place to sit down and feed myself a plate or two of something good. Finally found a hole in the wall, the few tables inside occupied by middle-aged men quietly working away at pretty attractive dishes of chow. Stepped inside, claimed the only available spot. No one spoke English or Spanish, I ordered by pointing, wound up with a big bowl of red lentil soup and a vaguely saladish dish that were so wonderful I had to take a moment to just sit and savor. (To drink: a cold glass of surprisingly satisfying ayran — I could easily get used to the Turkish diet.)

I adore good food. It’s a miracle I remain slender.

[this entry in progress]

España, te amo

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