Across Europe, vol. 1: Istanbul

Çukur Mahallesi

Istanbul, Turkey

10 March 2011

Dear friends, family, mentors, bright spirits and daredevils,

We may or may not have spoken in a while (fifteen years? fifteen hours?), but I’m about to embark on a long, long walk from Istanbul to Edinburgh, and for one reason or another, I thought the notion might amuse you enough to enjoy occasionally hearing how things are going.  At the very least, you’re one of the people whose example has nudged me in this direction; and for this I hope to be persistently grateful even while freezing in Bulgaria, gesturing frantically in France, or swatting midges in Scotland.

So, with a fanfare of trumpets – after a frenzied week’s preparations to abandon Seattle, I arrived amidst heavy sleet in Istanbul on the evening of March 9 to find that the box I had checked through was missing.  Contained in the box were all the things I suspected wouldn’t be allowed in the passenger cabin of the plane – my tent with its sharp metal stakes; my soap and toothpaste; my toolkit with its scissors and knife (and compass and flashlight) – plus some other things that might not have helped my backpack squeeze into an overhead bin, such as a spare pair of shoes, a miniature camera tripod, and a package of instruction manuals.  Along with several other supplicants from TK6 ORD/IST, I filled out a lost-baggage form; I made a hasty sketch of the map I had been unable to print, but which showed the address in Taksim where I hoped to couchsurf; I got onto a shuttle and went bumping into the darkness.  I hadn’t had more than two consecutive hours of sleep in four days.

Derya, my couchsufing contact, had described her neighborhood as “the belly of the beast.”  Spilling off the bus in the sleet, taking leave of some fleeting German companions, out into a whirl of honking taxis, sardine-packed shops and restaurants, hotels, electronic muezzins, phone stores, fast food, incongruous high-rises on the far side of the road (a glassed-in rooftop exercise gym?), feeling the slightest bit conspicuous, and after showing a few people my scrap of a sketch, down Tarlabaşı (“Careful,” he smiles – “it is dark place!”) – turn right at the armored personnel carrier – and into the pitched signless alleys, crumbling masonry, smashed iron bars – satellite dishes – walls craning overhead – a cat in every trash heap – accosted by an over-helpful teenager down alleyways in circles, wary strangers in half-lit doorways – more alleys – refusing to give me back my map – stairs – snatch back the scrap of paper – clutching hands at my backpack, throwing him off – shouting, shouting – running away – back to the bus stop.

The lobby of the Cartoon Hotel contains numerous life-sized statues of the cartoon pantheon, in the sense that Donald, Goofy, and Bugs seem precisely the size of imaginary things.  They were on a main street; they had a front desk; and the lights were on.  They had a scowlingly hospitable security guard with a landline, who didn’t give Derya too hard a time about the hapless American sitting thoughtful and dripping on a cartoon armchair in the lobby.

Against all odds, our destination turned out to be a truly charming apartment, miraculously full of light and air and space, psychotically haunted by a tiny particolored kitten who spent the night pouncing on my head, my remaining possessions, small bits of lint, etc., and purring like a miniature motorcycle.

Now it’s noon, and time to put some things in order, like contacting the airline again to inquire if my tent still exists; finding out why my debit card didn’t work at the airport; acquiring a useable (even unlocked?) phone, and generally getting as ready as I can for another foray through the belly of the beast.  We’ll see.

Hoping all is going well,

Owen

Next: Across Europe, vol. 2: Black Sea intermezzo

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