Letter to my friend about Turkey – Part 1

I just mailed a bunch of stuff to the friend of mine in California with whom I travelled for one month in Turkey 27 years ago. Old postcards, black-and-white family photos of unknown people, a True Love DC Comic circa 1970, promo photos of faded, forgotten stars… just some odds and ends gleaned during a lazy afternoon browsing through a few of Istanbul’s used book stores when the three of us were there a couple of weeks ago.

Tucked alongside a half-dozen CDs of new Turkish music, she’ll also find a 13-page letter describing what I found, saw, observed, felt, reminisced about, discovered anew, regretted we didn’t do back then and what nobody can ever do again now…  Obviously,  8,500 words aren’t going to fly on a blog, not all at once anyway.

So what follows is the first of a 10-part series where you’ll see it slowly fall into place, complete with photos and dog-eared travel journal extracts from May, 1981.

Hi Trish,

So many things to tell you. Get a coffee, sit back…

I’m reading the most beautiful book right now, one I know you’d enjoy, so I’m sending you a copy via Amazon along with a second by the same author: Orhan Pamuk‘s IstanbulMemories and the City and Snow, the latter set in Kars and is being made into a film. The author quotes another writer who says that the enthusiasm for seeing a city from the outside is the exotic or the picturesque, while for natives of the city – Pamuk is Istanbullu born and bred – the connection is always mediated by memories.

I guess I’m no resident, but I do have my memories, so while his Istanbul book simply drips with melancholy for a city that once was and can never be again, that’s what I’m going to have to try to avoid here: comparing what we saw only recently with the voyage the two of us took nearly three decades ago.


I guess I’m going to have to tell you what’s changed about the country, but don’t worry: Turkey is still Turkey, and despite everything I have to say, you’d recognise it instantly. Go into any small town and you’ll still find the same old men in western-style wool suits and flat felt hats sitting around rickety wooden turkey-istanbul-beyoglu-istiklal-cadessi-simit-seller-girl-with-cellphonetables in groups of four or six slipping cube after cube of sugar into fluted glasses of cay, fingering worry beads and gossiping, the younger and perhaps more energetic at other tables playing backgammon or yakking on their cellphone… wait, that last one is new, but you see that everywhere, eh?

turkey-ankara-istanbul-train-ataturk-statueAnd of course you still see the image of Atatürk everywhere. Every store down to the smallest little cubbyhole still has at least two framed portraits of the Father of Modern Turkey staring out at you, every public square has a bust or statue of him, he’s on trinkets and statuettes and 20 times life-size and unmissable in military regalia right by the road and rail line between Istanbul and Ankara. (Now, however, I’m really curious to read some sort of definitive biography of the man. I’d really like to know how he seized power, what he had to do to consolidate it, and why he’s revered like such a God still.)

In the cities, the women are dressed stylishly and walk hand-in-hand with their boyfriends or husbands – even in one small place we saw a young couple holding hands – but beyond Istanbul and Ankara it’s still very much a man’s world, the women still kept behind closed doors unless there’s work to be done in the fields, where you see them out there in droves still toiling for very little. The two of us were there in Spring and so didn’t see it as much, but as we were there in the Fall just now at the peak of harvest time, we’d often pass clumps of women bent double over fields of potato, sugar beet, melon, squash or turnip, dressed in bright clothing and doing all the work by hand. The men drive the tractors which carry the gathered produce to market.

Taxis are no longer the hulking 1940s relics held together with prayer beads, but bright new French and German imports. One out of every four cars on the road in Istanbul is a taxi, and this I swear: there’s still a psycho behind the wheel of nearly every one of them. We landed in Istanbul near midnight and in less than a half-hour were treated to a Formula 1 driver’s view of the ride into the city. I kid you not. He drove 120km/hr in the 50 zone and 80 in the 30 zone, screeching to a halt on the freeway because while passing – more like racing – another taxi, a dumptruck standing stock-still loomed up incredibly out of the darkness on the right-hand side. The other driver tried to squeeze in front of us so both slammed on the binders, the taxi on the right stopping just short of the dumptruck while we tensed up listening to the screech of rubber as the cars following us braked as well.

That wasn’t our only taxi scare. A few days later, the little red-haired girl and I packed our gear into a taxi for a short trip through the city from our hotel to our friends’ place. The driver was extremely aggressive, squealing tires and honking as if his wife were about to give birth on the way to hospital. At one point on a very narrow street a car braked unexpectedly in front of us. He jammed on the brakes AND yanked on the handbrake to send us squealing to a stop a hair’s breadth from collision.

After hauling our gear onto the curb I paid him with a decent tip, saying: This is my thanks for not killing us.

First in a series.

9 Responses to “Letter to my friend about Turkey – Part 1”

  1. 1 Vorpal
    November 12, 2008 at 7:13 am

    In the olden days I drove a taxi in Vancouver, BC.
    I consider myself a reasonably good driver (don’t we all?). The problem is that although I was quite aware of the size of my car, and the sizes of the openings for it, few passengers were as perceptive. One day I was taking a gentlemen through Vancouver’s West End during rush hour. At this time of day, streets are generally blocked with traffic, leaving only the back alleys available for traffic. We chatted pleasantly as we headed into one alley. Ahead were two dumptsters* — one on each side. I judged the distance between them to be sufficient for the car, and proceeded forward at my usual rate of speed. I was quite right in my judgement, but they guy in the back fainted. I, too received a generous tip. Kept expecting to hear about it from the dispatcher, too, but never did.


  2. November 13, 2008 at 7:43 pm

    Dumpsters diving! I taught the red-haired girl that term the other day, when she was doing just that.🙂

  3. November 19, 2008 at 1:50 pm

    I’ve just started the series – Istanbul is one of my ‘dream cities’ that I hope to get to see one day. I’ll probably leave the rest for ‘hospital reading’ … very good so far!

  4. November 19, 2008 at 1:54 pm

    You’ll have a few to get through az – take your time!🙂

  5. 5 nik
    November 20, 2008 at 10:29 pm

    nice last line. but then what did he say?

    ah and the zine…leave me the cash under the third rock to the right behind the old railway bridge. but in case you can’t find it, paypal?

  6. November 20, 2008 at 10:45 pm

    Well nik, I’m sure my English was just a little too rapid-fire for him.

    So do you have Paypal? You can email me your details – I’d like a copy:

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