Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Journey of an American Lawyer

This is a diary of an American Lawyer Steve Schmidt from his last trip to Turkey during 2003. One of my friends "Haydar" has sent me this to contribute.

It will be a great resource because everything is observed from an American citizen's perspective in this diary notes. Let's keep it short and post the notes of Mr. Schmidt:

September 18, 2003

Before today I had covered nearly everything on my itinerary with the exception of visiting the islands. That would take an all day excursion and I wasn’t willing to spend my last day in that fashion. So, I did what I usually like to do as a capstone, I decided to “just get down amongst them.” To this end I purchased some tram tokens, took it to its farthest extreme and got off to walk back. On the way there I noted there were some patches which just weren’t worth walking. Off I started covering ground 3’ at a time. It’s amazing the things one senses in the sights, sounds and smells of a city and its people. It is incredibly enjoyable to do this no matter where you are. One of the more fascinating things about the mass transit system here is that autos, pedestrians, carts, etc. can all share the tram way with the tram. Therefore you see near accidents all the time when cars are trying to pass, dodge, dart, cross, follow, stop these trains. It’s completely reckless, but it’s invigorating as well. Teaches one to step lively. The trams are air conditioned and a relatively cheap and comfortable way of getting about.

While walking along I found a “regular” carpet store which sold carpet for homes and businesses. There were rolls of padding piled high and I had to chuckle. I passed a small park with a memorial in it where mothers were playing with their children. It reminded me of swinging a small child myself and brought back precious memories. I have to note that I may have crossed over today in the matter of appearance. Would you believe that a car actually stopped and a man, in broken English, asked me if I spoke English. When I said, “Yes,” he asked me for directions. I had to chuckle. I sent the poor guy on a wild goose chase, as if I really knew what I was talking about. There would be no way he’d find me in a few minutes. As I sauntered through the city I enjoyed many things. The sight of a man trying to make a little money with just a scale for people to weigh themselves on, walnuts the size of tennis balls, pastry shops that rival anything back home, and the trading jungle on almost every street corner.

Occasionally I’d hop the tram to whiz through the more desolate, deserted sections, but for the most part I walked from the burbs, through the slums, to the high rent district. It was there, in the nice part, that I got a call from Erol. Last evening Erol and Haydar had planned to meet me at 6:30 to spend my last evening together. There was still some unfinished business with regard to experiences and food. Erol called about 4:00 and said that Haydar’s medical rounds and seeing patients had ended early and what time could I get there to start earlier. I figured about 5:00 by the time I stopped at the hotel to drop off some baggage. I didn’t actually make it until about 5:30 because I had to navigate the tramway and a ferry during rush hour. When I finally arrived and was walking off the boat, Haydar was waiting and he didn’t notice me until I almost walked into him. I thought that was funny. I’m starting to really blend in.

Erol drove up in his car which is powered by methane and we drove to the highest hill on the Asian side overlooking the city. Here were buildings that had been built and used by the Sultans to get away. It was a lovely park area with a nice restaurant and vistas that would take your breath away. We walked about for a bit and then decided to have supper. It was a pleasant meal they ordered me, and I began to realize that they intended to pay the bills for the entire evening. Talk about hospitality! Generosity! Kindness! These two had just met me and were treating me like a king! Now let me tell you about my assessment of them both. First, Haydar. He is very good looking and adventurous. He’s always out in front, leading the way, and seems to be absolutely fearless. I enjoy his personality and the way these two interact together. Haydar loves jokes and tells a good one himself. Both men are absolutely brilliant. By comparison, my impression is that Erol is much more reserved and careful about everything. On this evening he was much more talkative than the night before. One senses that there is within him the desire to be as flamboyant as Haydar, but he just has trouble, like me, in letting it out. In our conversations, Erol was quite interested that I understand the Turkish culture, the Islamic religion, and the entire experience. More than once I was asked what I thought and how I would report things when I got back home. I consistently affirmed that I was having a positive experience, that I would come back, that I would bring someone with me. I noted that Erol was suffering some congestion and breathing discomfort and I was very concerned about him throughout the evening. I suggested on several occasions that we cut the evening short for his sake, but he refused.

Following the meal at the restaurant, we headed for a STARBUCKS. I was excited about this. I had brought my card with me for use, and here I’d have the opportunity. Unfortunately, they don’t take cards here yet, but the young people behind the counter were very pleased to have a westerner come up and order an exotic drink. I ordered my usual: white chocolate mocha, half caff, vente, breve, no whip, no foam. Both guys were really impressed as I reeled off my order. The young man behind the counter understood and was trying to tell me the Turkish way of saying. They don’t have vente’s here. They only have small, large and grande. The grande is a medium in the U.S. Both Haydar and Erol got the same drink and both fell in love with it. I had to write it down for them. We sat and sipped for a while and then headed toward a place they had told me about where people smoke water pipes. As we parked and drew near, they kept asking me if I could smell the odor of the smoke. My untrained sense of smell didn’t detect it, but the closer we came, the more I discerned the smell of apples. There was the mall-like setting where the elite of the city (as Erol said, the most beautiful women) come together and play backgammon and smoke water pipes. Now these are large, bulky affairs with interchangeable mouth pieces, long hoses which lead to a water bottle. At the top is what looks like a #10 can opened at each end and sitting over a device that holds the tobacco. It is generally apple, but there are other selections one can make. The tobacco is in this device and live, burning coals are set on top of this. One sucks through the pipe, drawing the heat over the tobacco, through the water and into your lungs. A long puff produces billows of pleasant smelling smoke. An old man who stoked the pipes with fresh coals came by and said, “You must make the water sing.” We sat, joked and talked for a good while as Haydar attempted to teach me to play backgammon. Unfortunately, while I know some of the basics, I lack an appreciation for the strategies and placement of the chips. This was very relaxing time and a sense of well-being and restfulness came over me.

Following this, Erol and Haydar planned to fulfill my last wish for Istanbul, and that is to try a native drink called “Raki.” I’m told it’s made from hashish and it’s called the “milk of lions.” They took me to the Taksim district to a very nice, cozy club with live entertainment. While I didn’t understand any of the words, the music was all Turkish folk ballads and quite nice. The theme of one song, as related to me, was this: It matters not how beautiful you are if I don’t love you. Quite a comment, eh? There were slow songs and fast songs and our drinks came. Let me describe. Raki is a beverage which is served in this fashion. An eight ounce glass is filled to about 2/5s and then water is poured over that. Finally, ice cubes are carefully dropped in. One is supposed to take a sip of the Raki, then a sip of water. Now I became quite concerned about this since Haydar told me a story about a man who had gotten drunk on this stuff, stood up and yelled to all who would listen, “F--- me!” Whereupon he was taken by some companions and when he woke up the next day he had a severe ache in his backside. When asked about his experience drinking Raki, he replied that he enjoyed it, but it make his seater hurt. I had no intention of finding myself in this dilemma.

It has been some time before we had eaten our meal and I didn’t wish to take in any of this drink on a stomach that I felt was nearly empty. Fortunately, the guys ordered a vast spread of fruits and cheese. So, after fortifying myself with some of this, I ventured a sip. If you’ve ever had a very good licorice, you would know what this drink smells like and tastes like. Since I love licorice, I enjoyed this beverage. Our evening at this place started at 10:30 pm and didn’t end until 3 am. We sat, talked, laughed, nibbled, and sipped while listening to great traditional music. Most was provided by one singer, but during the course of the evening, another lovely young lady got up to sing. I had thought she was a guest, because she came in with a group of people and sat off to one side, and when she got up to sing, I thought to myself, “How nice.” My impression was formed because an aged gentleman went up and took the mike and after a monologue, recited a poem.

This second singer was much better than the first. Indeed, she was quite professional. As it turned out, she OWNED this club and has her own recordings. After she sang a fairly complete set, she went from table to table greeting guests and eventually came to ours. During the course of the evening, Haydar had gotten several unpleasant communications from his girlfriend who was complaining that he wasn’t spending enough time and attention on her. We both agreed if she was this type BEFORE they were married, she would be even WORSE after they were married. So, picture us sitting in this private booth, right in front of the stage, Erol is having a very uncomfortable evening with his sinuses, Haydar is having trouble with his girlfriend, and we’re eating fruit, cheese and drinking Roki. When the owner finally came to our table, we had a nice chat. She spoke some English, and she called waiter over and ordered him to bring one of her recordings as a gift to me. She was very gracious and they have a habit of lifting they hand to their opposite shoulder, flat against the chest, as a gesture of goodwill and greeting. It became apparent that Haydar, ever the man of adventure, was interested in this young lady. She was quite pretty and, as I said, Haydar is handsome. I must inject that Erol is good looking to. He is much lighter in complexion and of a different native culture from the Caucasus mountains.

Finally, about 3 am, they musicians and singer were doing their last songs. The musicians played a guitar and another distinctive stringed instrument which has a whiney sound and a very fat echo chamber. The piece they were closing with must have been very popular and it was fast. Suddenly both Erol and Haydar leaped to the floor and began doing some of the most graceful, folk-dancing. Both were quite good, and I dare not attempt anything. Following this, we bade our farewells to the people at the club and walked to our auto. I’d had four glasses of Raki during the course of the evening, but I felt absolutely no effects whatsoever. There was no dizziness, nothing. When I asked Erol about this, he said I needed to have drunk FIVE glasses and it would have been that last glass that did me in. He suggested that it has a cumulative effect and that at a certain point, it all rushes to the small intestine and knocks you out. When one eats cheese with it, the cheese keeps it in the stomach until it’s released. I will have to say that I enjoyed Raki and hope to bring some home from this journey...

Steve Schmidt