Saturday, May 23, 2009

Variations on an evening meal

Cognitive scientists theorize that we simplify complex social actions into pre-patterned scripts.  Paying the store’s checkout person, leading a business meeting, rigging a sailboat, can all be reduced to a sequence of process steps and conversational exchanges that become second nature.  And, despite knowing that these scripts are culturally specific, I still fall into the expat trap of applying familiar scripts unthinkingly.

Dinner in Turkey, for example.

Istanbul 017 It usually ask the hotel staff for a recommendation, giving a few parameters such as meat or fish, expensive or budget.  Their first recommendation, the nearby terrace restaurant Doy Doy, was a great find: abundant, quality food with a sweeping view of the Blue Mosque as the sun set.  The bill was about 25 TL, a bargain by western European standards.

The next night, perhaps a good fish restaurant?  The concierge recommended Yengec, a popular restaurant with streetside dining in the Kumkapi district.  Superb food, moderate prices (perhaps 50 TL per person), and they provide transport from the hotel.Istanbul 174  Indeed, the food was excellent; the waiters were friendly and full of advice.  Can’t choose between red pepper and seared shrimp appetizers? Try a bit of both.  White wine is best with the fish of the day; Turkish coffee is the best complement to a sweet banana and honey dessert.  Indeed.  The sun set, the streets filled with locals, conversation flowed, and the staff beamed.  Musicians arrived with the bill, almost triple my expectation. Shame on me for not keeping track: still, it was a lovely evening.

A meat restaurant perhaps?  Absolutely: Develi, in Samatya. I managed things more closely, sticking to items with listed prices, waving off the intermediate Istanbul 276 courses, and having wine by the glass rather than the bottle.  The huge plate of mixed kebab was wonderful, but almost beyond finishing.  Dessert, strong coffee: the food was, again, wonderful, aided by quick and attentive service.  But the bill was half again as much as I expected. I couldn’t help but notice the nearby tables were immersed in conversation, barely noticing the waiters much less actively managing them.

Clearly, I had the wrong approach.  Wonderful food at delightful restaurants, yes, but too much food, too much money.  The young concierge at the hotel had given consistently good advice, so I sat down with him to ask how a Turkish native approaches an evening of dining together.

Turkish families don’t go out to eat often, it’s a special evening when they do and they don’t worry about price.  At a good restaurant, they place themselves in the hands of the staff, who quickly size up the group and arrange for the meal.  Dishes of appetizers, intermediates, and main courses are brought to the table, providing a flow of food and drink for the guests.  Dishes are shared, rather than everyone ordering something on their own.  When the bill comes, it is simply paid,  not dissected.

This was very consistent with the way I’d seen dinner play out at adjacent tables.  The wait staff was probably somewhere between confused and offended by my active interference in their meal, and I may well have missed some of the best experiences by selecting and rejecting.  I just hadn’t realized that Dutch scripts don’t work at a fine Turkish dinner.

‘last night: the hotel staff suggested the Golden Horn, a rooftop restaurant with spectacular views of the mosques and the Bosporus.  This time, I absolutely settled back and let the wait staff organize a delightful flow of traditional Turkish dishes. Relaxed dining, focus on sparkling conversation: remarkably better experience.   And chill on the bill: it was roughly the same for a far better evening.

Istanbul 444

Friday, May 22, 2009

Innocents Abroad in Istanbul

Istanbul 023 I’m back in Maastricht after a wonderful break in Istanbul, aided by cheap fares from Frankfurt on Condor Air (SunExpress) and some favorable hotel prices in the old city of Sultanahmet.   There’s always lots of experiences and ideas to share after an expedition like this one, where the history and culture are so rich and different, and I was looking for a place to start.

A note from Nick at The Expat Files caught my attention: he’d been reading about American author Mark Twain’s visit to Istanbul and hoped that my experiences were better.

It completely diverted me last night. The book is Innocent’s Abroad: Twain’s account of his Grand Tour of Europe and the Middle East in 1867.  The book is widely available for free download and there are both contrasts and overlaps in perspectives shared across 140 years.

“Seen from the anchorage or from a mile or so up the Bosporus, it is by far the handsomest city we have seen. Its dense array of houses swells upward from the water's edge, and spreads over the domes of many hills; and the gardens that peep out here and there, the great globes of the mosques, and the countless minarets that meet the eye every where, invest the metropolis with the quaint Oriental aspect one dreams of when he reads books of eastern travel. Constantinople makes a noble picture.”

The first impression is of endless high-rise apartment blocks, filling the dry landscape as the plane arcs in towards the Sabiha Gokcen airport on the Asia side.  I remember how small-scale developments of only a few buildings ended badly in Chicago’s south side; here they crowd in the hundreds, apparently successfully.Istanbul 006

But the old city, a World Heritage Site, retains much the same  surface character from the water as it must have presented in Twain’s time.

Istanbul 078

Istanbul 142 “Ashore, it was--well, it was an eternal circus. People were thicker than bees, in those narrow streets…The shops here are mere coops, mere boxes, bath-rooms, closets--any thing you please to call them--on the first floor…Crowding the narrow streets in front of them are beggars, who beg forever, yet never collect any thing…A street in Constantinople is a picture which one ought to see once--not oftener.”

Sultanahmet is is, indeed, a jumble of narrow streets lined with piled-upon buildings: stores capped by apartments crowned by terraces and sheet-metal bedrooms.  But each avenue is meticulously maintained and full of life, full of friends greeting one another, goods being bought,  moved, sold, watched from every doorway by alert shopkeepers eyeing every potential customer.

 Istanbul 299 Istanbul 291

The Grand Bazaar is a monstrous hive of little shops--thousands, I should say--all under one roof, and cut up into innumerable little blocks by narrow streets which are arched overhead…The place is crowded with people all the time…full of life, and stir, and business, dirt, beggars, asses, yelling peddlers, porters, dervishes, high-born Turkish female shoppers, Greeks, and weird-looking and weirdly dressed Mohammedans from the mountains and the far provinces--and the only solitary thing one does not smell when he is in the Great Bazaar, is something which smells good.

No evil smells, but the Bazaar is, indeed filled with shops selling brightly-colored/everything-imaginable, shouting outlandish claims of value and murmered in closely negotiated cash prices.

Istanbul 435Istanbul 251

Istanbul 431 Istanbul 432

I do not think much of the Mosque of St Sophia…thirteen or fourteen hundred years old, and unsightly enough to be very, very much older. Its immense dome is said to be more wonderful than St Peter's, but its dirt is much more wonderful than its dome, though they never mention it…The inside of the dome is figured all over with a monstrous inscription in Turkish characters, wrought in gold mosaic, that looks as glaring as a circus bill; the pavements and the marble balustrades are all battered and dirty; the perspective is marred every where by a web of ropes that depend from the dizzy height of the dome, and suspend countless dingy, coarse oil lamps…The people who go into ecstasies over St Sophia must surely get them out of the guide-book.”

Unfortunately, Hagia Sophia seems much as described: dark and peeling, massive and abandoned.  Smithsonian Magazine recently published an insightful article about the political and technical struggles to save the structure; the central space is filled with restoration scaffolding.

Golden mosaics are crumbled, faded, probably eroded by both man and nature. Islamic and Christian artifacts compete for space: the mihrab crowds the alter, yet interestingly angled purposefully just a few degrees off of the main axis of the building.

Everywhere are similar questions and inconsistencies.  The building is an artifact that feels washed up from millennial time and epochal struggles, worn and brooding like the Swedish Vasa.

Istanbul 196 Istanbul 199Istanbul 212 Istanbul 222

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Where’s Dave today…

Place 4

I’m taking a bit of a break from things…back in a day or so and looking forward to catching up and sharing stores.  In the meantime, a few vacation pix to ponder, labels to follow shortly.

Place 2 Place 3  Place 1Place 5 Place 6 Place 7