Archive for the 'memory' Category


Frozen out in York: how I never made it all the way

Some of my posts take ages to get published.  This is the first of a series of four of them, about a trip during a massive snowstorm one year ago this week that I took to York, England.

All I wanted to to was get to the Yorkshire Air Museum to muse over a piece of family history.

On the night of March 30-31, 1944, during the Nuremburg bombing raid, the Halifax bomber in which my uncle Vince was flying was shot down 7km north of Frankfurt, Germany.  He managed to bail out, but was captured along with three others of his crew and confined to a German prisoner-of-war camp.  After he was liberated he made it back to Canada, started a family and lived his life.  Despite the amazing nature of his ordeal, uncle Vince told us all very, very little about what happened during his war years.  There were whispers to us when visiting that asking him wasn’t what he’d want, that he didn’t like to talk about it.

So the family legends out of what might have happened to him only grew.  They were ALL wildly off the mark, but they remained stuck in my mind, and it was precisely this shroud over the facts that instilled a fascination for my uncle Vince.  He was the only one of the three boys on my father’s side to go to war.  My father – the eldest – was excused on medical grounds, while the youngest of the three was in still in air force training in Canada when the war ended.

A few years ago my uncle Vince’s widow was asked to attend a ceremony at a flight museum  in York, England commemorating the Canadian airmen who served in the war.  I’d always wanted to go to see how my uncle is mentioned there, and to marvel at the reconstructed Halifax bomber family legend says holds pieces of the plane he’d been shot down in.

But I never seemed to find the right time to go to York until one week at the beginning of December last year.

You might remember that week one year ago now.  A fistful of winter.  It’s not that it snowed that much, but this is England, remember.  The British bureaucrats in colonial times made sure that railway station roofs in subtropical Malaysia were built to withstand the weight of three feet of wet snow, but as soon as a few flakes start to build up on the railway tracks back home even today, the whole country’s system screeches to a halt.

No, wait.  First they make sure to get you on the train and half-way to your destination, and then they shut it down.

So it was on my way to York after having hopped to London from Hamburg to stay with a friend for a couple of days.   Things didn’t look bad pulling out of the station on time, and once we left the bleak wastelands of London’s sprawl the trip north through the blankets of snow was an endlessly changing panorama of slow-laden trees and hedgerows stitching together the rolling hills.

But after a few delays and false starts, the train came to a full stop about an hour short of York.  Before they finally announced that we couldn’t proceed owing to snow blocking a level-crossing gate, I’d imagined the worst.  On a lot of lines in England, if there’s any build-up of snow on the tracks the contact between the “third rail” – the one with all the juice running the train – and the train itself gets clogged up with ice, and it all just stops, and they have to close the line until it can be cleared.  This can take hours or even days if the weather doesn’t change.

Tomorrow: visiting the Air Museum.  Or not.


The hockey game I will always remember

OK, I’ve had a few beers, eh?  So go easy.  But stick an expat Canadian in a hockey game – a Canadian who’s been marooned on the frigid shores of northern Germany for going on two decades –  and 45 years of puck-whacking start to flood back.

Times we’d set out rocks for goalposts 15 yards apart on a road, play street hockey and pretend we were Jean Belliveau, Guy Lafleur, Guy Lapointe…  Can you tell I was a Montreal fan before the Vancouver Canucks finally made it to the NHL?

This is the game I will always remember –  only a part of it, but it’s enough.

A nothing game, the playoffs already decided, the Canucks eliminated weeks before in a badly losing season, their second in the NHL 1971-72 when they finished dead last in the league.

Dad’s office at the copper mine had season’s tickets.  Section 10, Row 15, Seats 9 and 10 in what they used to call the Pacific Mausoleum, a crowd so quiet you could hear The Queen fart.  The seats were divvied up among the office employees and Dad got four games a year.  Our seats were right behind the goalie, and in those days you had to keep awake or get a puck in the chops.  Screw the lawsuits, life was too simple back then.

So it’s late in the third period, game tied 2-2 in a tight contest against the Buffalo Sabres.  For those old enough to remember, the Buffalo Sabres were the Canucks’ main rival because Buffalo and Vancouver ascended to the NHL together the season before.  This is why it was so important, even though both teams had already been eliminated from playoff contention.

The game was tied 1-1 until six minutes left in the third period when Buffalo scores, sending many to the exits as it was obviously going to be just another loss.  Then the Canucks tied it up with about 2 minutes left and those on the way out are rushing back to their seats.   It’s fierce action and it goes down to the final 14 seconds with a stoppage in play.  There’s a face-off near the Sabres’ goal way down across the ice at the far end.

Much like the face-off we saw tonight:

That was taken two hours ago when Canada’s national team defeated Germany’s 4-1 in Hamburg!  It was a lot of fun…. More on that game later.

Back to the game 38 years ago.

This is the scene that is burned in my mind forever:

André Boudrias wins the face-off and the puck goes back to the right point to Jocelyn Guevremont.

They say that every time your mind replays a memory the subsequent memory is changed a tiny fraction, so that what you saw in real life is altered each time you recall it.  Sooner or later, what you retain as a memory has been changed beyond all resemblance to reality.

That may be true for some things, but this is exactly what happened.  It will never change.  It’s in the books.  It really happened.

Guevremont, a defenceman known for his incredibly hard shot from the point, takes aim as the puck approaches. The crowd of 15,000 holds its breath as he  pulls his stick back and, without even stopping the puck, sends it flying up through a half-dozen bodies, sticks and legs to the far corner, over the shoulder of the Sabres’ goalie Roger Crozier and into the back of the net.  I’ll never forget the sight of the net rippling from so far away across the arena.

There were 11 seconds left on the clock and the Pacific Mausoleum erupted in pandemonium as the red light went on.

I’m 11 years old, and all around me people are jumping on top of their seats, they’re screaming, they’re going crazy, they’re throwing drinks and junk onto the ice, they keep screaming, you think it’s going to stop and they keep on, it seems to last forever, like an encore call that won’t quit until the band finally gets back on stage, until one guy takes a thermos – it was probably filled with whiskey until half-way through the second period – and he hand-grenades it from the second tier.  I can see it now, sailing through the air right in front of me, end over end, a slow loop-de-loop arc, and when it hits the ice, the interior shatters in a spray of glass all over our end of the ice.

The crowd goes whoa!


It takes them 10 minutes to sweep the ice clean so they can finally play out the last 11 seconds.

All this before the eyes of an 11-year-old from the sticks. It was the first time I was in a crowd that went absolutely crazy.  I loved it.

It was tribal, I guess.  I miss that.

That’s why tonight’s game was so much fun. The chance to get together with some Canadians to see some of Canada’s best players playing the game we love best.

Thanks for jogging my memory, guys.


Lawrence of Arabia would weep if he saw the Sinai Desert today

In the classic 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia the American journalist Jackson Bentley asks Lawrence what he loves so  much about the desert.

Lawrence answers: It’s clean.

It’s a good thing T.E. Lawrence died a long time ago, because he’d be absolutely horrified if he saw the condition of the Sinai desert today.

When I first visited the Sinai 30 years ago in December, 1980, I was awe-struck.  I’d never been in a place that looked so stark and felt so empty, so unsullied by modern life.  I remember looking at the Sinai’s towering folds of jagged rock, the endless craggy peaks splashed with rust or slashes of black fault lines running for miles from the desert floor to peak and thinking: who needs Eden?  This is purity.  This is paradise.

Even more striking was the contrast with the seemingly endless array of tropical fish and coral just under the surface of the clean, clear waters running for hundreds of kilometres along the Sinai’s eastern coast.  You’d be swimming along in the water with fins and snorkel one moment, stop, look up, take off the mask, and be equally dumb-struck that such a barren landscape could be the backdrop to the completely foreign world teeming with life just below.

Not that it was complete wilderness back then, but aside from a few paved roads and some scattered coastal villages there was hardly any sign of human intrusion.  What was to become the all-inclusive, charter-flight Eurotrashed hell hole sprawl of Sharm-el-Sheikh at the peninsula’s southern tip was still a modest little town.  I really wish it had stayed that way, because if you travel overland by bus for nine hours as we did from Cairo to Dahab, you will be astounded at how dirty and spoiled it is, both from afar and up close.

How can they have allowed one of the world’s most beautiful expanses of coastline to be cluttered with faceless holiday villages, many of which stand empty as half-built ruins?  The horror show starts about 15 minutes after you leave the tunnel under the Suez Canal and start heading south.  You start seeing one ugly clump of concrete after another, and it goes on for miles and miles.  On the northern end closest to Cairo the resorts look ready for business, but they look empty of guests.  As you travel further south you see the more recent attempts at construction: columns and slabs of bare, grey cement with no sign of activity for miles, the site abandoned for who knows how long to the salt air and desert.  Those piles of rubble that seem closer to completion but remain unfinished are often linked to the roadside by a crumbling entranceway, the road behind it to the resort lined with the stumps of palm trees left to dry out and die in the sun.

As you leave the last military checkpoint heading north out from Sharm-al-Sheikh toward Dahab 90 kilometres away, the visions of what the world might look like after the apocalypse get even worse if you dare to look up close. The sight as you slowly rise through a wide expanse of desert ringed by high mountains on either side should be awe-inspiring, and I’m sure it once was, but today it’s sickening.  How else to describe the feeling of seeing mounds of discarded plastic strewn about everywhere?  It’s like driving through a garbage dump, only instead of the garbage staying in one place, it’s spread out for miles.  Whipped about by constant winds, it’s even creeping up the mountainsides to lodge in crannies hundreds of metres above the desert floor.

Once we were settled into our place in Dahab I could ignore it and really enjoyed the place, but as soon as you venture away from the coastal strip you’re jarred back into reality.

This is the main street of Dahab running parallel to the tourist strip along the water:

This was a stone’s throw from a beach where tourists were taking windsurfing lessons:

This is the coastline just north of Dahab:

This is the garbage dump / desert landscape along the highway running past Dahab:

I looked at the pile of empty plastic water bottles we’d accumulated in our week in Dahab and knew that because they obviously make no attempt to dispose of their waste properly, to say nothing of reusing or recycling, that our mere presence there was actually making the situation worse.  I know that the cash we spent on our hotel rooms and daily restaurant visits helps support jobs in a country where unemployment is high, so that’s a good thing, but how much more can the environment take?  How much more garbage will have to lodge itself into the landscape before tourists are so turned off by the sight they’ll stay away?  I guess Sharm-al-Sheikh will always attract the last-minute crowd, the idiots who don’t give a damn about anything beyond their immediate gratification and conspicuous consumption and never leave their tourist ghettos unless it’s via air-conditioned bus to another pre-fab tourist ghetto …forgive me, I’m starting to rant here….

But if they really cared about the place, they’d do something about it.  If they have enough money to build concrete ruins, if they have enough money for all the military installations littering Sharm-al-Sheikh, if they have the money to build, staff and maintain the array of military checkpoints you have to go through, then they have enough money to collect and properly dispose of waste.  There’s no excuse for it, I don’t care if it is happening in a developing country like Egypt.



His name was Kleinwalker.  I’m sure he’s dead now – it HAS been more than 30 years.  He was the first mate on a tiny ferry I worked on as a deckhand in the summer after I turned 16.

He had an enormous belly, a great pendulous chunk of thick, hard flesh that closed so low over his overstretched, sagging belt, the bottom lip seemed to curl back under to touch his thighs.

He smoked roll-your-own cigarettes, the curly brown frays stained wet on short and stubby fingers burnished hard to tones of oak to mahogany.

I’d never seen anyone smoke a cigarette like Kleinwalker.  He had no teeth, but wore no dentures, so that when he took a drag, the burning ember would plunge to the back of his mouth as if pulled by an invisible string, the smoking ember almost disappearing before sprouting forward, spring-loaded.    The first time I saw him suck in that butt, I thought I was watching a cartoon.

He didn’t pay much attention to me.  As a two-month summer relief hire, my job was to make a good pot of coffee in the morning, clean the heads with a rag mop once a day, polish the brass fittings once a week, and stay out of the way.  That and raise the bar upon docking to release the cluster of workers leaning forward, impatient to drive home.  At the mill side I’d have to haul the chain across in preparation for departure.  It was a brain-dead easy, overpaid union job, but at 800 bucks free and clear in one month – a huge sum for a 16-year-old in the mid-70s – I wasn’t complaining.

Standing around the dock one morning with three other colleagues before the first shift of pulp mill workers stepped aboard, Kleinwalker was holding court.   Suddenly, he came out with this:

You know, this morning gettin’ up, I gave the wife a nudge ‘cuz I felt a little bit of a rise comin’ on, just a sec or two, but then I had to get up to take a piss and it was gone.  Damn.  I haven’t felt what that was like in years.

Just as I was absorbing the fact that this man was spilling to his colleagues things I’d never heard spoken of in my own home before, he turned to me and growled out: What about you, you young cunt?  You gettin’ any on it?

No, I wasn’t getting any on it, but I was too stunned to even stammer out the words.

The moment passed and we were soon taking up our positions on the ferry.  As he walked away to climb the steep metal stairs to his office, wheezing as he walked and straining to lift his enormous bulk up the narrow passageway, I remember thinking: no adult, not even – or perhaps, especially –  my father, has ever asked me that.


A life in a box

I’ve been carting around a chaotic jumble of ribbons, string, paper, plastic and metal in a ratty old box for most of my adult life. Entirely useless yet absolutely essential, it sits in a closet waiting to be hauled out and dusted off whenever I feel like a wallow through the muddy ruts of memory lane. It’s way better than a photo album. It’s my life in a box.

A sampling:


Most have a story behind them, some of which I might even get around to one day.

ian-new-years-noisemaker-19681 New Year noisemaker, ca. 1968

ian-sugar-scoop-for-metalwork-class-grade-81 metal sugar scoop made in Grade 8 metalwork shop, 1972. I hated that class. The teacher was two metres tall and had a horrible temper he let loose with a booming voice. He once humiliated a classmate to tears by smashing his work flat with a sledgehammer.

molson-molstar-gold-ski-racing-pins-1978-794 gold Molson Mostar ski racing pins won at Whistler Mountain, BC. They were fun ski races. A ski instructor or patroller would weave through the gates, with his timing used as a benchmark for yours. If your timing was less than 10% slower than his, you got a gold pin.

ian-canadian-flag-sewn-on-backpack-19811 Canadian flag, made of cloth and sewn on backpack for trip to Europe and Middle East in 1980 – 81.

ian-hiking-shoes-1981-backpacking-trip1 square of leather cut away from the long-discarded boots I wore on that trip.

On the Pyramids at Giza, with sweaty socks:

1 Eurail Pass. Expiry sometime in September, 1980. After first validation two months before in Calais, France it became worthless in Lisbon. Not a good idea if you want to get to Greece.

melkweg-membership-pass-card-amsterdam-19811 Melkweg membership card, valid until Nov. 1, 1980 – from Amsterdam nightclub memorable for what I probably don’t remember of my only evening there.

t-shirt-moshav-neve-ativ-mount-hermon-ski-resort-northern-israel1 t-shirt remains from Mount Hermon ski area in the Golan Heights, Israel, where I worked as a first aid ski patroller in the winter of 1980 – 81.

elite-instant-coffee-can-israel-19811 can of Elite instant coffee, bought in Kiryat Shmona, Israel, 1981.

katyusha-rocket-nose-cone-kibbutz-kfar-giladi-hotel-may-19811 exploded nose cone cover of a Katyusha rocket which hit our Kibbutz in the north of Israel in Spring, 1981. Nothing much has changed.

shell-casing-boer-war1 shell casing from the Boer War, picked up by my maternal grandfather and passed on to me.

old-car-keysSpare keys to the only three cars I’ve ever owned. All bought used. The ’85 Honda Prelude was the best of the bunch.

skiing-canadian-ski-instructors-alliance-pin-level-21 Canadian Ski Instructors’ Alliance pin. Best and worst job I ever had. Low pay, deep tan.

via-rail-canada-uniform-buttons-lapel-last-spike-1990-pinVia Rail uniform buttons, lapel and a souvenir pin from definitely the worst job I ever had. I still refer to it as Vile Rail.

splicing-tape-and-razors-for-editing-radio-stories1 roll of splicing tape and razor blades for editing tape for radio reporting. I can’t believe it was only 15 years ago they were teaching this in journalism school. Now it’s all done digitally, of course. A bit of a loss, really.

montreal-forum-canadiens-hockey-press-pass-19931 photographer’s press pass to see Canadiens hockey games at the old Montreal Forum, 1993. Never got to go interview the players after the game, but free entry to Canada’s most revered hockey shrine was priceless.

toronto-blue-jays-baseball-cards-1992-championship-season-donruss1 deck of Donruss original 1992 Toronto Blue Jay Championship Season baseball cards, sealed. A press package gift. Is it worth anything?

montreal-expos-baseball-cards-25th-anniversary-collection1 deck of Donruss original Montreal Expos 25th Anniversary Edition baseball cards. Opened. Another goody-bagger for journalists. Please ignore the McDonald’s logo.

china-cultural-revolution-mao-little-red-book-beijing-19971 Little Red Book. Bought in Beijing, 1997.

china-mao-cultural-revolution-red-detachment-of-women-postcards1 book of postcards depicting glorious and commendable revolutionary dance drama theatrical production Red Detachment of Women flying the red flag.

hong-kong-one-cent-note1 Hong Kong cent note. Value: next to nothing.

hong-kong-press-club-bar-chitAbout 20 Hong Kong dollars worth of bar coupons to the Hong Kong Press Club.

various-id-cardsA slew of identification cards, including:

1 Vancouver Expo ’86 season’s pass. I swore I would never go to that circus, but ended up actually working there for a time.

1 University of British Columbia library card with some longhair who must have showed up for the picture sometime after 4:20pm.

1 Concordia University library card.

Not shown: 1 Whistler Mountain season’s pass. Price in 1978? $165. You might squeeze two days out of that much today.

1 Quebec driver’s license, expiry 1994. No photo required. Guaranteed to induce derisive laughter in California Highway Patrol cops.

1 Canadian Association of Journalists membership card

2 Vancouver Polar Bear Swim Club buttons, Jan. 1, 1990 and 1995. Best hangover cure other than waiting 36 hours.

1 guest membership card to Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents’ Club.

2 Canadian National Railway pins

1 Queen Elizabeth silver jubilee medal. I really do love the queen. Honest.

1 Canadian Red Cross blood donor card, now useless. Because I lived in France in the early eighties, they think I might pass on Mad Cow Disease to recipients, so I am no longer allowed to donate blood in Canada.


See those coins in the sugar scoop? I used to collect coins, and so people gave them to me from time to time. I’ve got piles of them, hundreds from all over the world. I look at them and tell myself I should find out if any of them have value or at least put them in an album instead of having then crammed in the bottom of a box, but I’ve been dragging them around forever and never get down to doing it.

I will retire someday, though.



Part 8: a dive into nostalgia and things we didn’t do


If you permit me one short indulgence in pure nostalgia… On the train from Istanbul to Kayseri there were two backpackers from Devon, England a couple of doors down who brought back memories. The fellow was very tall and lanky, soft-spoken, his girlfriend bright-eyed, friendly and chatty without getting too up front about it. I envied the way they were travelling – heavy backpacks, open-ended plans and easy way of talking about their days on the road: Oh yeah, we heard Diyarbakir’s something to see, we might head there or beyond depending on the situation – which of course got me launching into the seductive beauties of Lake Van and how they absolutely must go further than Diyarbakir if they want to see the most fascinating parts of the country beyond the well-trampled tourist trail.

I suppose the days when we got the notion we were the first and only foreigners who’d ever been through some of those remote mountain towns because that’s the way the people treated us – so special, so different – are gone forever, but do you remember the feeling of being on the road with no set return date and just letting yourself be driven by the urge to GO GO GO – see what’s beyond the horizon, dealing with things as they come up, stopping to rest when you needed to and moving on? That’s what I saw in that lovely English couple: the freedom of the open road.

I think it’s dangerous to bring a delicious guidebook to a country the size of Turkey if you’re only going to stay for two weeks. Leafing wistfully through our Lonely Planet one evening, I read aloud to K. the routes we took through the far east of the country – they still say it’s very remote, not easy to get to, and that few take the trouble to visit – and wished we’d had a whole month. Maybe next time?

Do you remember being in Kars and having to forgo a visit to the ruins of Ani because the red tape of having to get a permit merely to approach the Soviet border was just too daunting a hassle to bother with? The former Armenian capital of a quarter million strewn across the plain is open now. You can get there without a permit.

I believe in doing things right, after all – even 30 years later. One day I want to see Ani, because it’s still there waiting. We were so close, but didn’t go.


Approaching Kayseri I noticed something which, again, made me think I was walking around blindfolded last time. How on earth could I have missed the sight of that enormous volcano looming over the city? Mount Erciyes is nearly 4,000 metres high! When we finally made it to Uchisar 70 km away – we didn’t stay in Ürgüp – it was still the most dominant feature of the distant countryside. We loved watching the sun rise over it in the morning and paint it gold in the evening. For some reason I have no photo of it from those days. We had good weather, didn’t we? Why don’t I remember it?


If you look at the extract from my journal back then I did mention the mountain, so I wasn’t walking around turkey-journal-kayseri-steam-engine-erceyes-dagiblindfolded. On the same page I wrote that we’d seen a working steam engine in the switching yards there – imagine, a steam engine still plugging away on the rails in the 1980s!

As our taxi – crammed with our loveable English couple, a Spaniard who spoke German and the three of us and all our gear – up loomed what else but a steam engine, proudly restored and on display at the road entrance to the station area. I wondered aloud if it wasn’t the same one we’d seen back then. Who knows?

I do remember being stared at, but back then all golden-haired, and now… didn’t really expect it this time. But just as we were getting off the train and figuring out where to grab a taxi, a couple of Turkish women – mid- to late-twenties I guess and dressed in traditional clothing with headscarves – were slowly walking past us down the platform. I realised one was looking straight at me, so I looked at her back. And looked. And looked some more. Normally by then I’d have averted my gaze but I kept looking deep into her eyes because I though OK, I’m not breaking any laws here or even making eyes, I’m not afraid to look back at someone even if it is some sort of intercultural taboo, so I’m just going to keep looking at you until one of us blinks. Then I smiled at her and she smiled back, which I thought was the most natural thing to do, really, and then she went back to talking with her friend and was on her way. I’m still wondering what that was all about.

In Kayseri we were also greeted with a reminder on the way into town of how militarised Turkey is. Right beside the tracks and practically in the centre of town is a huge military barracks, base and ammunition depot – stacks and stacks of arms, weapons, materiel of all sorts, guarded by mean-looking soldiers who look like they’d shoot if you looked at them cross-wise. At another point on the way back we saw a whole trainload of new tanks headed east, convoys of military vehicles on the roads. We also passed a couple of enormous radar bases.

Remember the chaos of bus stations back then? A muddy corner lot with hulks parked any place they could find a spot, touts yelling at you to take their bus, hello-English-where-you-go? where-you-go? I can still hear in the chaos of the Ezerum station a man spilling out the itinerary of that magical route we took near the eastern border, at one point the road hugging the side of a canyon with cliffs a thousand feet vertical above and a raging river ten feet below. Ezerum – Savsat, Savsat – Artvin, Artvin – Kars…. Do you remember that? It seems like such a banal moment, but for some reason that whole scene has always stayed with me.

The bus station in Kayseri, by contrast, looks like a modern airport. An extremely high ceiling, white, fluted support columns, and so clean I thought this couldn’t be the centre of Turkey.

Part eight in a series. Part seven: Knife fights, confusion and a freezing cold night; Part six is here, part five – underneath Istanbul; part four: the Blue Mosque smells like cheesy feet; part three: Sleepwalking through Turkey – was I even there? Part two: Istanbul memoir, and part one – the intro.


Letter to my friend about Turkey – Part 6

In which we have arrived at mid-point of perhaps the longest letter I’ve ever written.  It’s OK, she’s a special friend, and the trip back was wonderful.  This section is a bit of a ramble.  Please bear with me, or read part one here, part two here, part three here, part four here or part five here.

The only time I have ever taken a photograph of a meal was the time in France when I ate roasted sheep heads for dinner with the family I was living with as a student.  Or was it goat?  Anyway… not about to start taking phots now just for a blog, but I will mention…

Food! I haven’t told you about the food yet!  Trish, the food is the one big improvement over the time we were there. It’s simple, honest fare and outside the tourist areas, still a great deal. Ten euro will buy three people a good lunch, dinner around 15 or 20. Even in the areas with higher tourist traffic, we felt prices were reasonable. And no worries anymore about falling ill. We were also smart this time around, drinking only bottled water, which is cheap and sold everywhere. Sometimes I think back then that for a few more dollars a day we could have saved ourselves a lot of grief in the long run.   Remember how sick we were?

turkey-istanbul-topkapi-palace-line-upI was going to say you shouldn’t go to the Topkapi Palace unless you’re a masochist, but I still have to post the section on Turkish trains.

But if hanging out with hordes of people in line-ups starts to turn you off and you’re prepared to pay yet another entrance fee once inside the place just to see the Harem, where you’ll be treated to the most interesting part and be sheltered away from the crushing throng. I found the idea of seeing all that wealth and religious relics kind of enticing – who wouldn’t want to see a whisp of the beard of Mohammed himself? – but having to stand in line to do it just turned us off, so after a while we just didn’t bother.  The Harem, by contrast, proved to be quiet, sheltered and full of gory little details about palace intrigue and death.  Great fun for the kids.

I hate to harp on about the tourists, but they kind of ruined our visit to the Chora Church as well. Although we marvelled at some of the most well-preserved and beautifully restored Byzantine mosaics anywhere, the tour groups just wouldn’t GET OUT OF THE DAMN WAY long enough for you to stand back and really appreciate the setting and feel of the place.


I wanted to collectively bash together the heads of this particularly annoying group of blue-rinsed Greeks, who seemed more interested in yakking on amongst themselves about the weather and taking pictures of each other than really seeing what was in front of their blabbering gobs. I’m starting to feel the annoyance leading to aggression I felt at that moment, so will stop now.


Except to say the Little Hagia Sophia and the Mosaic Museum were ours to enjoy all to ourselves. Little Hagia Sophia is what they call a smaller mosque down on the southern shore of Sultanahmet coloured the same ochre as the Aya Sofya. It’s newly restored, and a jewel that had me holding my breath after walking in and turning skyward. The Mosaic Museum wasn’t even around when we were there because the actual restoration work didn’t start until a few years after, and wasn’t completed until the mid-nineties. Wonderful pieces, not all complete but when you think of the number of invasions and the looting that must have gone on, it’s a miracle they’ve survived at all.

turkey-istanbul-bosphorus-wooden-villa-yaliWe also had the pleasure of enjoying the amazing autumn weather on a Bosphorus cruise, taking an old tub from Eminönu right near the Galata Bridge way up to a small town on the Asian side very close to the Black Sea entrance. It stopped at several little ports along the way, giving us a great look at the grand old houses still left, what hasn’t burned down over the years. Those old wooden buildings are disappearing fast. Apparently if you buy one they have a law which says you have to restore it to its original look,which of course is too expensive, so people live in them and one day, a candle happens to fall over, or be given a nudge…


Speaking of fires and the Bosphorus, do you remember that huge, black, half-sunken shipwreck dominating the harbour back then? For the life of me I can’t figure out WHY I never took a photo of it, and I’m kicking myself still for not having done so, but I remember being so dumbstruck that amidst one of the busiest and most important waterways in the world this wreck should be even there.

On the outside of the Haydarpasa station there is a mention of the accident on a placard. We MUST have also seen it close up, because it was only 500 metres offshore from the station we had to have taken if we took the train going east. Again – no memory of it close up, but the view from afar I’ll never forget. I found this on the net:

1979–The Greek cargo ship Evriyali spears the Rumanian tanker Independenta offshore of the major Haydarpasa railway station, shaking the city with an explosion and causing pollution in both the Marmara Sea and the Bosphorus. About 95,000 tons of oil were spilled into the water and the wreck burned for nearly two months before the fire could be extinguished. Out of the 44-strong crew, only three survived. The wreckage of the tanker affected the area for many years.

So I’m not losing my memory after all.



Part 5: underneath Istanbul


Once outside and in the fresh air we strolled over to Hagia Sophia – they call it Aya Sofya these days – to find another enormous queue, a €30 entrance fee for the three of us, a backdrop of white tour buses… At least I was happy to get off this shot, which I kind of like and have taken to calling the Three Wise Men.  Notice the cellphone the guy in the middle is carrying.


We headed for a café in the area the two of us must have stayed. I’m sorry to tell you that I couldn’t find our little hotel. Maybe with another day in the city and time all to myself I might have stumbled upon it, but since there are so few of the lovely old darkwood houses left – those old apartments which used to hang out over the streets to lend the area so much of its unique atmosphere – I might not have even recognised it.

turkey-istanbul-underground-cisterns-ceilingOne huge improvement, though, is the underground cisterns. Do you remember visiting them? They’re just across the street from Hagia Sophia. I recall how we paid a few cents to go through this nondescript portal, down a stairway and out onto a wooden platform, stood there for a few minutes, then went back up. Back then that’s all you could do. I have this fuzzy photo of a few columns rising out of murky water and a sad-looking stick pointing up at an angle out of the sludge. That was it – no explanations beyond what we could glean from the guidebook, nothing, though I do recall hearing a story of how they used to give floating tours, until the day back in the sixties a few acid-soaked hippies on a stopover on the Kabul trail fell off the boat and drowned.

They restored them about 20 years ago, cleaning up the columns and building walkways so you can now stroll their entire length and breadth, giving you an idea of just how HUGE it is and the work they put in to ensure a ready supply of water for the city. It also amazes me how they built such ornate capitals – the flowery Corinthian capitals adorn most every column – for something most people would never see, because it’s all underground. That and the upside-down heads of Medusa tucked far away in the northwest corner – huge sculptured heads which most likely sat in water for centuries, forgotten.


We made it back to Hagia Sophia a few days later, timing it so there was no queue. Despite floor-to-ceiling scaffolding under the central dome the place still strikes you as deserving its reputation as one of the world’s great buildings, its mezzanine and frescoes a pleasure to gaze upon despite the crowds. Again, I don’t recall going up to the galleries when we visited Hagia Sophia. How could I forget walking up that spiral walkway or looking out across the vast interior to the huge, circular wooden boards hanging from each of the four corners?turkey-istanbul-hagia-sophia-interior

Five places we managed to see that the two of us never got a chance to were the Little Hagia Sophia, The Mosaic Museum, Topkapi Palace, the Chora Church and Prince’s Islands – the latter a wonderful ferry ride on the third day. Two hours’ hopping from one island to the next until we left the boat at the largest and furthest away. We then hired a horse-drawn carriage for a reasonable fee to be drawn through a sunny, Mediterranean landscape of old villas, still older trees, and – this is the great thing about the islands after the pace of Istanbul itself – no cars! The man dropped us off at the foot of a pathway and we walked up to have lunch – almost completely by ourselves – at a restaurant near an old Greek Monastery at the very top, the sprawl of the city clearly visible across the water to the east.


Part five in a series of 10.  Part one is here, part two here, part three here, part four here.


Part 4 on Turkey: The Blue Mosque smells like cheesy feet.

This is the continuing saga of our recent two-week trip to Turkey, which for me was a look back in time because I’d traveled through the country 27 years ago.  Part one is here, part two here, part three here.

We stayed on the Beyoglu side a few short paces off the main drag in this grand old 19th-century hotel that really did live up to its name: Grand Hotel de Londres. We got to calling it by its Turkish name – Büyük Londra Oteli – because that’s what everybody calls it, even our German-speaking friends.

turkey-istanbul-grand-hotel-de-londres-lounge I hate clichés, but it’s got the look and feel of an old lady who knows she’s old, cares what she looks like when she goes out, but doesn’t mind if a few of the bags and wrinkles show because, well… she’s OLD!

The lobby overwhelms you with its thick carpets, plush, flowing red drapes, ancient televisions and radios, Far East and African bric-a-brac, one of the gaudiest chandeliers you’ve ever laid eyes on, and a grand, sweeping stairway five floors to the rooftop that seems to invite you with: don’t take the elevator – you’ll miss all this great stuff lining the walls on the way up! Old postcards of Istanbul, photos of World War I battles, the obligatory shrine-like Atatürk frame, wooden chests, stained-glass windows lined with lead, ancient telephone call-boxes. turkey-istanbul-grand-hotel-de-londres-bar

The room came equipped with things that hadn’t worked in decades – a wooden box with a dial and button which I suspect at one time was a radio, an old telephone receiver, an unplugged fridge, a couple of tears in the wallpaper… but where it counted – the beds, the bathroom, the fixtures – all were new and the showers scalding hot, so I was happy to stay there.

We had to see the sights, of course. Tell me Trish: was Istanbul, and especially the area around the Blue Mosque really such a tourist hell back then?

This is something I thought I was mentally prepared for, but I’m sorry to have to tell you: it’s just such a trampled mess right now, you have to wonder whether it’s incompetence or good ol’-fashioned greed the way they’ve let it happen. I have nothing against a country wanting to show off its greatest assets, and I realise tourism has boomed everywhere including Turkey over the last three decades, but there has to be some sort of limit put on the throngs of groups crushing into the three most famous monuments – Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque.


The God-damn cruise ships are behind it all. How can you not have too many people there at once when you have four floating cities lined up bow-to-stern only 10 minutes away in the harbour at any one time? I wish they’d designate one day a week as no-group day, so individuals can enjoy the most-visited sites without fear of being crushed underfoot like in some cartoon. Staying open an hour or two longer and designating the first two hours as off-limits to groups would also be a solution, because they’re all still troughing their snouts through the ship’s buffet table ’til 10 every morning anyway.

turkey-istanbul-blue-mosque-tourists-queueThe Blue Mosque was the worst. When we arrived the long lines of white tour buses almost obscured our view from afar, but that was only the beginning. The courtyard was knotted with groups but big enough so they weren’t too intrusive, but then no sooner had we got into the long line to enter the mosque – right behind a group of Japanese – we were squeezed from behind by a group of elderly French tourists. No surprise: they were on a cruise.

Sandwiched between the two, we slowly shuffled along to the steps, where we turned a corner to find multilingual signs posted to take off our shoes – it’s still a mosque, after all. Then you either placed them on a shelf for retrieval later or carried them with in a plastic bag from a dispenser which looked exactly like what you find in a supermarket produce section. The hand motions of pulling a flimsy plastic bag free from the roll just like you would do on any trip for grocery store added to the impression that we were on a routine trip to consume a mass product rather than actually feeling the atmosphere and learning the history of a unique and sacred site.


On the way in we were rudely jostled by a couple of Japanese men elbowing themselves ahead to catch up with their group, earning them tut-tuts from the French, one of whom who rolled her eyes heavenward to say, Ah, vous savez, les Japonais! And since Turkey has been hit by terrorism, you’re also forced to run the gamut through an airport-style metal detector.

Then, once inside, it hits you. The little red-haired girl blurted out what I’m sure everyone thinks: IT STINKS LIKE CHEESY FEET! With the hundreds of thousands of tourists shuffling over that enormous rug in their sock feet every week, even a milligram of sweat per foot is going to add up pretty quickly. Though it wasn’t nauseating, it did reek of old socks, which, in addition to the thickets of people milling about as if it were half-time at a football stadium, drove us out far sooner than I’d wished.


Sleepwalking through Turkey: Was I even there? Part 3 of a series

Part three of a series of 10, a very long letter sent to my friend in California about my impressions of Turkey this time around.  Part one is here, Part two here.

Istanbul has grown tremendously. A whole slew of high-rise buildings has been thrown up in a new business district in the north of the city, thoroughly changing the skyline in that direction.

turkey-istanbul-bosphorus-bridge1The grand bridge over the Bosphorus – did you know it’s the 4th-longest suspension bridge in the world? – still looks austere and functional by day, but at night it’s now ablaze with colour, ever-changing hues of pink, purple, red and orange, switching colour in rhythmic timing like a huge neon sign swishing in a concave sweep literally from one continent to the other.turkey-istanbul-bosphorus-bridge-with-boat

Those with money definitely have it to burn. One Saturday night we were watching the bridge’s light show from the window of our friends’ place in Cihangar when there began a succession of fireworks displays, each lasting a good 10 minutes. Birthday parties, stuff to impress friends with.

There were times, though, where I thought I must have been sleepwalking the whole turkey-istanbul-sultanahmet-blue-mosque-minaretmonth so long ago, because I seemed to be experiencing for the very first time so much of daily life that hits you full in the face.

How could I have forgotten so much of it? Was that call to prayer really so loud? Was the first blast of the day really that early, and, in their cacophonous wailings, did they all seem to be trying to outdo one another?

I realise there are now 70 million in the country instead of 40, 16 million now crowding Istanbul, but do you remember seeing turkey-istanbul-blue-mosque-from-window-of-hagia-sophiagreat throngs of people around the mosques for Friday prayers? The mosques were overflowing on Friday, the faithful spilling out into the courtyards and onto sidewalks, each with his own rug and facing Mecca, the passersby walking respectfully around them.


Were there really that many cats walking around the city? There are cats EVERYWHERE in Istanbul, some gathered in groups of 30 or 40, and dogs too – usually lying around sleeping. You sometimes see little piles of fresh meat or kibbles-n-bits left out for them, though strangely, there’s very little in the way of scat on the sidewalks. Don’t recall dogs or cats at all back then, nor did I mention them in my journal.

I don’t recall seeing the aqueducts at all.


The trams in Istanbul are now as new and modern as anything you’re likely to find in Zurich or Amsterdam, and they’re pretty crammed in the downtown area at any time of the day. I don’t even remember seeing trams back then, though there must have been, because they’ve preserved two lines from the olden days. turkey-istanbul-tram

turkey-istanbul-tram-tunel-taksim-istiklal-caddesiOne sweet and charming old rattletrap that reminded me of San Francisco streetcars runs the entire length of Istiklal Avenue from Tünel to Taksim Square, squeezed full, often with kids hanging on the side. The other line has new equipment but runs – believe it or not – on the oldest underground stretch of rail in the world after that of London – an inclined railway built in the 1860s. It costs 40 cents and takes you from near the foot of the north end of the Galata bridge up to the south end of the old tram’s line.

I wish back then we’d explored a little more beyond the realm of the Sultanahmet side, but unfortunately we didn’t get over to Beyoglu at all except – if my journal is anything to go by – one night when we went out with a couple of Istanbullus to a bar for some dancing and singing. The traditional stuff, not karaoke, and put on by and for locals, not tourists. I remember having a lot of fun that evening.


Third in a series.

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