Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Heavy fog shrouds Istanbul...

... and there's a strong element of Groundhog Day too. Why? Because in 1987, flying home from Bombay (now Mumbai) my Turkish Airlines plane, which was due to land in Istanbul prior to flying on to London, was diverted to a military airport in Adana on Turkey's southern coast, due to heavy fog shrouding Istanbul.

Then, as now, the airport had been closed and should this fog continue, I'll be holed up here until it clears. Here's hoping that when I wake up tomorrow morning it will be a clear day.

One thing about Istanbul and, indeed, many foreign cities, apart, perhaps, from the USA, is their lack of concern for the safety of their people. Now, I'm saying this as a resident of the United Kingdom with its so-called 'nanny state' and its 'health and safety' culture, but it's only when you find yourself walking the streets of a city like Istanbul that you realise just how lucky you are...or not as the case may be. One of the attractions of Istanbul is its quirkyness, its chaos and the fact that it really is like one of those places you expect to find in an Indiana Jones movie or earlier films starring Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Ustinov and Peter Lorre – you know who is he, the guy in Casablanca who says to Bogart, "Why don't like me, Rick?"

Sydney Greenstreet
There's also a great smell of roasted chestnuts in the air, which I love. 

Yesterday I took a short walk in search of a shop selling a notepad. My first problem was trying to convey my need to the male receptionist of the Renaissance Istanbul Bosphorous Hotel, not to be confused with the Renaissance Hotel nearer to the airport (although that didn't stop my taxi driver yesterday costing me a cool 100 lira). But when I eventually got through to him, via sign language, I was cryptically directed to somewhere across the street and ended up walking considerably further than I needed to; not that it bothered me, but what I noticed, first and foremost, was the very dangerous conditions endured by Turkish pedestrians. For a start the quality of the driving in Istanbul leaves a lot to be desired; in short it's darn right dangerous as there appear to be very little in the way of rules. Motorcyclists think nothing of riding on the pavement, 'taksi' drivers duck and dive and drive at furious speed, nobody is averse to a bit of cutting up other drivers and it's fine to ride a motorcycle without a helmet.

"Why don't you like me, Rick? Actor Peter Lorre.
Worse still, pedestrians find themselves exposed to fast traffic on precarious (and narrow) pavements close to the looney drivers who simply do not care about anybody but themselves. Just a shortish walk  – I say 'shortish' but it was probably 30 minutes in total – and I quickly realised that it was a case of 'survival of the fittest' on the streets of Istanbul.

But it all got me thinking about the possibility of Turkey joining the EU and I soon realised that, on so many levels, it will probably never happen. When I think of all the EU directives designed to protect the individual, I can't really imagine the Turks ever conforming in any concerted way and becoming a 'nanny state'. Add that to the fact that Turkey is very much a kind of halfway house between Europe and the Middle East (and all the ramifications of its Islamic links) and I wonder whether EU membership will ever become a reality for Turkey. Having said that, Turkey doesn't strike me as a nation of unhappy people eager to escape and struggling with very, very low salaries; it's a nice place, an unusual place, where the weather is a million times better than in a lot of EU countries and where just going to work in the morning is an adventure of sorts. If Turkey did become a member of the EU, I don't think the British tabloid media would have to worry about hoardes of Turks queuing up to work in the UK. In fact, thinking about it, I wouldn't mind working in Turkey (while on the tram tonight I noticed a couple of English language schools near Kabatas – that would suit me fine!).

Peter Ustinov
It's worth mentioning Turkish 'taksi' drivers, none of whom appear to know much about the city in which they work. This morning I took two taksi cabs to my destination. I paid one 10 lira and then another 12 lira to a second one to get me to where I wanted to go; and this was after first taking a tram from Beyazit (where I'm staying) to Kabatas (pronounced 'Kabatash').

The traffic situation is very bad and it's not dissimilar to Bangkok or Bombay during rush hour. There's miles too much traffic and it takes an age to get anywhere – you can't even get nowhere fast. This morning I left before 0800hrs to reach my destination by 0900hrs. I was a good ten minutes late. The best part of the journey is the tram, but I was amazed by the way the Turks board the tram without letting passengers off first. Earlier this evening I had to travel one stop beyond Beyazit as I physically couldn't get off for people crowding into the carriage I was trying to vacate. In the UK there would be a voice saying: "Kindly let the passengers off the tram first before boarding." No such politeness here!

But it's all part of Istanbul's character – and I mean that. Staying in the Beyazit area is good too as it's a place of magic carpets and bazaars and street sellers offering cheap shoes and belts, there are cobbled streets which, incidentally, are hosed down by local shopkeepers – all very well, but it makes for a slippery surface and nobody's putting out any yellow plastic signs stating 'caution: wet floor' – and on street corners there are men congregating, drinking Turkish tea out of small hourglass-shaped, vase-like shot glasses. Is this, I wonder, real Turkish tea in the true sense of the word or just Lipton's served without milk and accompanied by two sugar cubes? I'll never know and besides, what IS 'real Turkish tea?'

For the past two nights now I've been having dinner in the hotel restaurant (I had lunch there too yesterday – chicken noodles and a small glass of Efes Dark, Turkish ale (very pleasant). The restaurant I've been using is on the 7th floor and on a normal day it offers great views of the city, but not today. The aforementioned fog blocked out virtually everything. It was a real 'pea souper' as they say and reminded me of Jack the Ripper's London.

There is a restaurant on the 6th floor, which doubles as the breakfast room, but it's always being used at night time for private functions and so is out of bounds for run-of-the-mill hotel guests like yours truly. Last night I had fillet of seabass on a bed of spinach with potatoes; not bad, but there were a few bones (which can't be helped) and I ordered a glass of wine as a wine list was not offered. Yesterday the 7th floor restaurant was virtually empty. Today there were more people and, for the first time, I was offered a wine list and chose a very good half bottle of a Turkish red to accompany my stuffed salmon followed by a chicken curry with rice (all very minimalist) and, of course, a selection of 'seasonal fruits' which today included kiwi fruit, banana, strawberry, tangerine and sliced apple; yesterday it was the same but minus the strawberries.

I love Istanbul although it does get frustrating sitting in a taksi during rush hour waiting for lights to turn green or shielding your face with your hands as your driver ducks and dives his way through horrendous traffic jams, but other than that there are so many good things going for this great city: the general street culture, the smell of roasting chestnuts, the exquisite-looking bakeries with their wonderful patisserie displays, the street sellers, the carpet salesmen, the list goes on.

Prior to flying back Friday I've got a couple hours to spare and might use them (and the tram) to reach other parts of the city. I've also seen what looks like a decent sort of 'caff' in Gulhane for my other blog, so I've got my work cut out. More to report later, but right now, with the time approaching 2330hrs, it's time to hit the sack in preparation for another busy day tomorrow.

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