The Word Show
Travel has always been the enriching, drug-free way to expand one’s mind and broaden one’s horizons – a way to suck the savoury marrow out of the bone of life, and then chuck that bone out the open window of the speeding shitbox of your youth.
But let’s be honest, what’s so great about expanded horizons? What was wrong with the undeniable comforts of stereotype, prejudice, and narrow-mindedness? Nothing, that’s what.
The Spurious Traveler agrees, and in this new series I aim to introduce a new, groundbreaking kind of food and travel writing, where I will recount my own, fictitious experiences at real establishments, inside which I won’t ever actually set foot, for reasons ranging from anxiety, being cheap, simple sloth, dietary restrictions, and/or simple, irrational contempt.
Every place The Spurious Traveler visits, he will pass judgement – sometimes harsh, sometimes complimentary, but always undeserved and unfounded. And it will be a refreshing take on food and travel criticism, this, in its uniquely malinformed and myopic mandate. I should probably edit that last sentence but I’m not going to bother – there’s traveling to be done!
Put your blinders on and stay tuned – this is gonna be one wild ride.
I am occasionally asked if there’s a distinct style in Quebec – a unique sensibility, beyond the obvious language difference – that separates us from the rest of the country; from BC’s unhurried coastal cool, from Albertan cowboy oil-&-gas swagger, from the quaint modesty of the Prairies, and the seafaring bonhomie of the Maritimes.
The answer is yes, we Quebecois have our own style. It’s called “One notch too far” or alternatively: “the result of overfunded arts programs”.
It’s the bad-ass looking biker dude who sewed “flames” onto his leather jacket. It’s the businessman who chooses to unicycle to work. We take a delicious char-grilled rib steak, and smother it in macaroons. We like to ruin things, is what I’m saying.
Because we’re whimsical – often at the expense of good taste, and the latest version of this stylistic sadism reared its bedazzled head the other night, at a boxing match. In fine Quebecois form, the mid-bout entertainment wasn’t the expected rock band or hip-hop DJ. No, it was this winner: rock violinist in a leather suit.
Apologies for the low-quality photos – I was shaking in incredulity throughout the display and couldn’t keep my camera steady.
Monsieur “Rock Violinist” flounced and fiddled his way through 10 minutes of “Le Violon Roquant!” – delivering the whole arena to a dark, awkward place. Why did he have to leap around so much? Why a leather suit?? How many boxing fans are into rock violin???
Bittersweet: Eating a delicious homemade croissant at my favourite indie coffee shop, while the hipster owner, a nice Tunisian dude, hands me a leaflet to the vernissage he’s hosting, displaying Palestinian kids’ drawings of life in Gaza under Israeli attack.
If impotence-causing skinny jeans didn’t prove it, this does: Indie cred costs too much.
Hey Israel, can we talk?
I want you to know: your awful settlements in the territories aside, you’re still kick-ass. Your beaches, uzi-wielding babes, Western values, history of science and tech innovations, and impossibly huge grapefruits are all awesome. However, your graffiti is WEAK.
Seriously, if these photos I snapped in Florentin, the hipster-est part of hip Tel Aviv, are anything to go by, you are still, clearly, laggards in the subtle art of shit-disturbing. Your game is off, my brethren. Where is the colour? The inspiration – the bubble lettering? And what’s with the obsession with bodily fluids?
I don’t blame you. If I spent the whole of my own short existence fending off rocket attacks and building universities and irrigating land and developing portable lasers that cure sleep apnea or whatever, I would not be the best at “cocking about” and defacing public property. Hey, it took America 200 years before graffiti got good – and they weren’t even distracted by having to develop techniques for subsistence agriculture or defend against murderous neighbours. So I do get it.
But still, this is embarrassing:
Israel, please get on this NOW.
It happened again yesterday evening – twice in the span of fifteen minutes: driving through the Plateau, turning onto a one-way street, when a cyclist, unhelmeted and barely visible in dark, non-reflective clothing, shot out of said street, going the wrong way, as I narrowly missed mowing him down in my Subaru. I slammed on the brakes and honked my horn, all to little effect, as the biker wheeled on without looking back.
This isn’t a rare occurrence, obviously. If you’re a motorist in this city, you’ve likely had a similar experience.
So what’s my point? That Reckless Cyclists are a nuissance, a scourge on our roadways? Brilliant, you say. And in other news, our city has lots of potholes.
No, my point is the Reckless Cyclist is a specific breed of scofflaw, and he/she must be treated as such. In place of helmets, high-visibility clothing, and a general respect for the rules of the road, the Reckless Cyclist favours smugness and a sense of entitlement, for being on a much smaller machine – one that has a Zero Carbon Footprint, dontcha know? It’s an attitude that deludes them into feeling entitled to not just the whole road, but their own set of rules of the road – above those motorists and pedestrians are expected to follow.
On the one hand, we have the stereotypical absent-minded soccer mom – that reviled poster-mom, who hurtles down the road in her huge, gas-guzzling SUV. Sure, her Range Rover has a truly obnoxious carbon footprint. But at least she isn’t driving the wrong way up a one-way street and burning stop signs and red lights like she’s in her own imaginary Presidential Motorcade Of One.
Reckless Cyclists, on the other hand, do this all the time, yet they seem immune to public scorn. They expertly play the underdog in the ongoing, roadgoing discourse between motorist and cyclist. Just look at them: so fit; economical; so deft – weaving in and out of traffic, flouting the rules and, seemingly, the laws of physics. They look so cool – look at that one there, barely visible, blending in seamlessly with the nighttime scenery in his dark, non-reflective clothes – he’s not even holding onto his handlebars and – oh look, he just burnt a red light.
Let’s be clear: I am not a sociopath. I am a decent person. I hold the door for people. I send Thank You notes. When I’m on the road, I am courteous, respecting speed limits and using my turn signals, and when I see cyclists, I give them as wide a berth as I can. And I’m all for urban cycling – I use my own bike a lot and I appreciate Montreal’s ongoing efforts to make our roads more bike-friendly.
But it’s always that same scenario: I barely miss a Reckless Cyclist as they barrel the wrong way across an intersection, and then they speed off, unconcerned by the near-miss that nearly ended their burgeoning career of on-road idiocy.
So what happens if I accidentally hit one of these clowns? I have to deal with that guilt for the rest of my life? I wish there existed a ray gun that could blast a “guilt ray” (patent pending) at such offending cyclists, so they might instantly feel remorseful for their lousy road manners. The smart money is on an Israeli – Jewish (he knows about guilt) and well versed in “high-tech” – developing this.
But until science catches up with science fiction, we need a different solution.
And then it hit me: Rather than be worried about a potential accident with a reckless, two-wheeled miscreant, I should relax and approach this scientifically. In the most pragmatic sense, a serious accident with a Reckless Cyclist, while tragic, is perhaps a necessary approach to population quality control. It’s Darwin’s Survival of the Fittest theory at work on our local roadways. In simplest terms, if I accidentally hit a Reckless Cyclist, I will have just done the world a favour, eliminating one more wrongdoer from the gene pool.
Hence, I’m now totally cool with Reckless Cyclists. I’m Zen. If the aforementioned happens, I understand it’s just Darwin’s will.
I’ve already experienced backlash from this approach: my girlfriend, for one, is not thrilled with my new laissez-faire attitude. But as I clarified to her, I don’t wish ill upon anyone, and I’m not about to start hunting Reckless Cyclists down, like some crazed vigilante. I will not be retrofitting the front of my Subaru with a Mad Max-style brush guard, fashioned from old, mangled bicycles – though i admit that would look kind of cool. I’m still going to brake for these heedless idiots when I can, but if my braking effort proves tragically insufficient, I won’t feel badly that I failed to prolong a Reckless Cyclist’s career of jack-assery – and neither should you.
So, to the red light-burning, wrong way-riding, helmetless, barely visible cyclists out there, do not treat this as a threat – treat it as a note of encouragement to carry on, dear sirs and madams, per usual.
Darwin’s got my back.
Sweet jesus in a Cabane-à-sucre. This is, apparently, how the Quebec Toursim Bureau once promoted the sport I love. I realize the 1970′s were a dark period: the OPEC crisis, Watergate, Vietnam, The October Crisis, disco music, but….skiing? Daaamn.
I could see the crack team of creative directors back in 1976 having a brainstorm session:
“Eh, Jean-Yves, we need to promote ski tourism in La Belle Province. What do you think of a picture of a guy performing le Ski Ballet?”
“That’s a great start, Pierre-Luc. That shit is hot right now. But is it homoerotic enough? Maybe give him wings.”
“Mais oui! And make them big. They will connote power and freedom.”
“Freedom from Anglo oppression!”
“Errr—sure I guess. Maybe also give him a moustache – the bushier the better. It will counteract the ballet stance and make him look tough.”
This is a short, true story about a series of choices I made one night, long ago. It is my hope that this story will prompt you to part with some “sympathy” dollars, which, when donated, happen to work just as well as regular dollars, and which you might consider pledging towards my Movember campaign.
Twenty years ago, when I was in the sixth grade, I attended my first weekend house party. I was both excited and terrified, because I went to an all-boys school and I had heard there would be girls at this particular party.
I made sure I had my outfit picked out many days in advance: navy blue blazer with brass buttons, white t-shirt, acid-washed jeans, white sport socks, black Doc Martens. Yes, I thought, this would be the perfect ensemble — classy, but not too showy.
At this point, feel free to take a few seconds to close your eyes and imagine me, 1 foot shorter, 90 lbs lighter, with a voice three octaves higher, dressed like a 1980′s New York City stand-up comedian – or more accurately, how someone from Saskatchewan would have envisioned a 1980′s New York City stand-up comedian.
I made sure I knew the address of the house ahead of time. And I made darned sure I did not arrive late, because that would be very uncool, I thought. It’s cool to be on time, I had figured, and probably even cooler, by that logic, to arrive waaay early.
So I arrived at the house two hours before the party was scheduled to begin. The hostesses (they were twins) ushered me downstairs to their basement and then returned upstairs, where I overheard them complaining to their mom that there was “a weird kid downstairs who arrived super early,” and what should they do with me? Suffice it to say, I was embarrassed. I was actually devastated. I was not “cool” at all, it seemed, and I don’t think the twins had even noticed the brass buttons on my blazer.
I was so traumatized that I honestly cannot remember what I ended up doing in that basement, as I waited those two hours for the other party-goers to show up. I blocked out that memory completely — so painful, it must have been.
I probably sat in the basement and ate the snacks that had been laid out for the thirty other awaited guests. I probably put down at least a few lbs. worth of Cheetos. I remember really enjoying Cheetos back then. Alternatively, I may have just passed out for 2 hours. I do not remember.
Since then, as a result of that mortifying faux-pas, I have often erred on the side of tardiness for many important events.
Which brings us to Movember 2011. It’s already the 22nd of the month, and I am very late to this party. Do you like how I tied this story to Movember? I hope you did.
I have been growing my moustache, or ‘Mo”, since November 1st, as the Movember rules stipulate. So in a way I haven’t missed the party at all.
Attached is a picture of how I look today, Movember 22nd. Not very pretty. I’ve been getting a lot of strange looks from people. It’s not easy having this thing on my face — ask my girlfriend, who hasn’t even cast me a sideways glance since November 15th.
Worse yet, my moustache is only getting longer, bushier, and more unruly. If I can borrow a quote from the U.S. Navy SEALs, whenever they are asked to describe their brutally intensive training course, they famously state “the only easy day was yesterday.” Having a moustache, I can totally identify with that sentiment.
But at the end of the day, my Mo’ is for a great cause, as you can read about here, http://ca.movember.com/about/, so I press on, all the way to November 30th.
Thanks for taking the time to read this and I really hope you’ll consider donating.
All the best,
I hope this note finds you well. As we are all very busy, I will get right to the point: I have recently undertaken the growing of a moustache, in observance of “Movember”, the campaign to support the fight against male-specific cancers. I have created my own page within the “Movember” website, and I am writing to ask you to consider donating money to it. You can view my site here:
For those of you with a bit more time on your hands, here are some FAQ’s:
What Is Movember? Great question: “Movember” is the annual month-long campaign, always in November, to raise awareness and, more importantly, money towards the fight against cancers that specifically affect men. Movember has an official website, www.movember.com, where you can learn more about the cause and donate money to it. The name “Movember” is a combination of “Moustache” and “November.” That’s right, moustaches are involved.
That’s weird – why moustaches? Another really good question. Moustaches are (thankfully) a uniquely male facial accessory, as uniquely male as the cancers that the Movember campaign was created to help combat. These days, moustaches are also conversation-starters, especially when sported by youthful types who would otherwise shy away from wearing a hairy broom under their noses. The moustaches get people talking about the cause of Movember, and they hopefully get people donating, too. The idea is for people to support your growth of a moustache – in this case, my moustache – by donating money.
Fine, but it’s still weird – and are you really earning these donations? You aren’t exactly running a marathon or climbing a mountain; it’s a bit lazy, no? Look, I didn’t invent the campaign, but it’s a cause that we should all get behind. For what it’s worth, I am trying to eat more iron in my diet, as I read once that iron promotes hair growth (yes, I know, my baldness would beg to differ). So you could say I am doing SOMETHING. That said, I realize that in order to be taken seriously as a fundraiser, it wouldn’t hurt to do something in addition to growing a moustache.
Ok, so what else will you be doing? I’m glad you asked. This is what’s known in the retail industry as a “value add.” For those who choose to donate, in addition to viewing daily photographic updates of my moustache – one that will guarantee me no female attention whatsoever for the next 3 weeks – I will also be writing a daily mini-blog about moustaches within the “Comments” section of my Movember page. I’ll be writing about famous people who had moustaches, why I think they’re great, and anything else that might fall into moustache-related subject matter. By the end of the month (that will be 22 separate blog entries), all who donate will effectively have a bachelor’s degree in “Moustache Studies,” thanks to my blog. When you think of the expense of a “traditional” university bachelor’s degree, it’s incredibly cost-effective, plus you won’t have to wear that silly cap and gown.
What is the target $ amount you wish to raise? In all sincerity, I wouldn’t want to limit your imaginations with a specific number, but however much you would like to donate would obviously be enormously appreciated!
I’m sold. This is such a great idea and you are truly leading by example. How do I donate to this cause? Glad to have you on board! Simply follow this link (http://ca.movember.com/mospace/160429) to my page, and click on the “DONATE TO ME” button – it couldn’t be easier!
So that’s it; that’s my pitch. I would also encourage you to pass this on to anyone else whom you think might be interested in giving money towards the cause. Thanks for taking the time to read this and I hope you’ll think about supporting Movember, a worthy cause that needs all the support and money we can throw at it.
I left Istanbul with my brain and belly stuffed to the gills, with historical facts and delicious kebab meat, respectively. I was ready to move on and head north, towards a region that I imagined would be more familiar to me – or one at least less socially and religiously conservative as was Turkey. The next stop on the itinerary was Minsk, capital city of Belarus.
On the one hand, I’d figured Minsk, as a former part of communist Russia, would still be a little rough around the edges. Maybe we would see a few relics on display from Minsk’s past history behind the Iron Curtain: perhaps a smattering of brutalist Soviet apartment buildings – those ones that take up 2 or 3 city blocks and don’t look all too different from federal prisons. Maybe I’d see a handful of old statues dotting the city, honouring past Soviet heroes. But I also figured, since it had been a full twenty years since the fall of communism, Minsk, if not all of Belarus, would be positively dripping with post-Soviet capitalistic swagger – and it would feel not unlike other newly-westernized European cities, like Prague or Budapest.
But I was wrong. At least compared to western Europe, Minsk was still reminiscent of Old Russia, and the little things i noticed hammered this home: there were the incredibly wide, traffic-free roads (good for inevitable student demonstrations, and no doubt better still for Russian tanks to get around and quash said demonstrations) with narrow sidewalks (to make the populace feel small and insignificant), there was the distinct lack of commercial signage or billboards of any sort, and block after block of those depressing, Soviet-era apartment buildings. I feel like HBO could have easily filmed parts of “The Wire” in Minsk.
The population was very homogenous: everyone was blonde-haired and blue-eyed, and in seriously good shape. Sports and fitness were big tenets of communist life, and they still seemed to be today in Minsk – and it made sense: just think, if you were a Belarusian youth, what better way to vent your frustration at the inadequacies inherent in Soviet daily life (the bread lines, the tedious work, the lack of cultural stimuli), than by going to the gym and pounding out a few reps at the bench press?
Indeed, all the men look and dress like they’re perpetually training for spots on the 1984 Russian Olympic shotput team. As the men were in shape, so, too were the ladies – slavic amazons as far as the eye could see. This seemed to be at odds with the fact that most of the food these people eat is calorically rich, deep fried, and plentiful (more on that later). That’s genes for you – or perhaps just portion control and self restraint, as in: maybe these people don’t eat 50 shrimp tempura in one sitting – as we were doing regularly, not one week earlier.
Actually, that’s not entirely accurate – the people of Minsk are, by and large, attractive and in shape, but only up until they reach their 40th birthday. At that point, waistlines seem to expand, skin becomes blemished, and what was once supple and perky becomes deflated, shrivelled, and – well, you get the idea. It’s as if there’s a state-sponsored fairy god mother who roams the country, tapping each citizen on the forehead with her magic wand as they turn 40, and their looks go out the window. I’m not saying this can be scientifically proven – it’s just a theory at this point.
We stayed two nights at the Hotel Belarus. In the 1970′s, it was the best hotel Minsk had to offer, and if you were at the top of the communist societal hierarchy (i.e. if you were an olympic athlete or a politburo honcho), the Hotel Belarus was where you stayed. Naturally, nothing had been updated since that swinging decade of polyester leisure wear and gelatin desserts. Therefore if you were going to rate this hotel on the conventional 5-star hotel rating scale, you’d probably end up giving the Hotel Belarus a measly 1- or 2-star rating.
But this misses the point entirely. On the much more important and indicative Soviet Kitsch Factor scale, the hotel scores a whopping 10 out of 10. It’s got everything you really need and nothing you wouldn’t – two examples: pimp-tastic 70′s time-warp decor and a surly hall monitor stationed on every floor of the hotel. This second feature was genuinely weird. Every time I tried to venture out of my hotel room, these hall monitors made me feel like a 15-year-old sneaking out after curfew.
Day trip to Pinsk and Horodna
Most Westerners who choose to vacation in Belarus (I’m guessing there are as many of those as there are Belarusians vacationing in the West) make the mistake of staying only in Minsk. In doing so, they’re really short-changing themselves, because you haven’t experienced Belarus until you’ve visited both Minsk AND Pinsk. Haha – just kidding! Pinsk is not memorable. What’s more, the truth is once you’ve committed to vacationing in Belarus, you’ve already effectively short-changed yourself, so whether or not you decide to visit Pinsk in addition to Minsk is immaterial.
But we drove 3 hours to Pinsk from Minsk as a means, not an end. Our ultimate destination was Horodna, a small village south of Pinsk, and now I will explain to you why that is:
Jokes aside, the reason we undertook this family trip to Eastern Europe was a somber one: to visit the concentration camps of Poland (which we’d do later in the itinerary) and to retrace the roots of Chaim Schmidt, my late, maternal grandfather, in Horodna, the impoverished village into which he was born and raised. We didn’t know much about Chaim’s early life – that is, until my mom had decided last year to translate his memoirs, which he had originally written in Hebrew.
After reading my mom’s translations, we were able to get at least a semblance of what my granddad had endured in his early life. There were certainly elements that stuck out in my mind: the hunger, the back-breaking manual labour, his exhaustion and ensuing stunted growth, due to overwork and malnourishment, the brutally cold winters…it’s difficult not to feel guilty and useless when you read about your grandfather’s childhood, and how starkly it contrasted with your own. I suppose all one can do is be thankful for their lot in life, and try to live as well and richly as possible. Oh, and maybe never again complain about anything.
In Horodna, we met Barbara, a sweet, elderly lady, who appeared to come straight from Central Casting for “Eastern European Grandma”, and whom my cousin Lev, who was with us and spoke fluent Russian, had charmed and bribed with some gifted groceries.
Barbara in turn offered to show us around the village, taking us on a tour of the village’s old Jewish area, where there stood abandoned farm houses in various states of disrepair. She also took us into the woods to view a memorial that was erected in memory of the Jews of the village, many of whom were killed by the occupying Nazis and their sympathizers. Among the victims were members of my grandfather’s family.
Needless to say, there wasn’t a dry eye in attendance at the grave site. That this elderly lady would still be so emotional and grief-stricken some 70 years after the fact tells you everything you need to know about how bad things were during the war. All in all, it was an emotional day.
We spent Day 2 back around Minsk, where we spent the morning visiting the Memorial for the Khatyn Massacre. Check wikipedia for the full rundown of what happened there. It’s horrible, horrible stuff. The memorial is beautifully done and incredibly moving.
The rest of the day, we enjoyed some more conventional sightseeing – walking around the old town and along the scenic Svislach river. The day’s highlight was lunch at a riverside restaurant, which served traditional Russian cuisine. I’ll go ahead and lay my cards on the table, as it were: I find most Russian food to be less than delicious - perhaps even gross. But some people really enjoy it. Maybe if you grew up with it, it’s different.
As far as I can tell, perhaps second only to the BP oil spill and the controversy surrounding the Ground Zero mosque, the biggest recent news out of America has been that KFC managed to render the hamburger bun obsolete, with their innovative and disgusting “double down” sandwich. The sandwich consists of bacon and cheese, group-hugged by two deep-fried chicken patties.
But what America probably failed to realize is that the Double Down was old news: at least in the world of Foods That Will Induce A Coma. You see, the Russians have been perfecting deep-fried slop for quite some time, apparently, as this is what my sister ordered. If i had to take a crack at describing it, I’d probably term it “double-deep-fried dark matter.”
Call this dish the Sputnik of the culinary world, because this was proof that the Russians had beat the West again, but this time they traded early aerospace supremacy for early artery-busting supremacy. I suppose it’s still impressive. But I don’t doubt America will bounce back with something bigger and more disgusting – actually, chances are they probably already have.
Anyhow, these are all the things that stuck out from our visit to Belarus. I’ve made a lot of jokes, but the truth is it was a fascinating place – certainly the closest I’d ever been to Russia - especially when you consider Belarus in its historical context of world wars, communist dictatorship, and, yes, even fried foods. I don’t know if I’d ever go back, but I’m glad i visited.
Ooh, one more thing: if I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times: nothing says “outlaw biker” like decorating your “hog” to look like your great aunt’s favourite flower vase. Oh Minsk, just when I thought you maxed out the chintz-factor – you drop this 2-wheeled wonder right smack dab in the hotel parking lot, just as we’re leaving. Message received, Minsk, message received!
Following our unforgettable Greek naval odyssey, it was time to say our goodbyes to Alexandros and her crew, and contemplate a return to a lifestyle that did not include daily snorkelling and/or gorging on mountains of shrimp tempura. A horrifying prospect, if I’m honest.
My family flew home, and I continued on to my next destination – Istanbul, Turkey. Like many people, I did not know anything about Turkey, let alone Istanbul – only that it had an enormously complicated history, rife with religious wars, imperial conquest, decline, and then conquest again. The only thing I did know was that it was quite fashionable to say “I am dying to visit Istanbul” – certainly more fashionable than saying “I am dying to visit Old Orchard Beach, Maine, because their fried dough is awesome.” So off to Istanbul I went.
A few surprising facts about Istanbul:
It has a population of 17 million
It is 99 percent muslim
It is one of the worlds epicentres of textile production and exportation
These guys work there:
I arrived at my hotel, a little boutique job in Sultan Ahmet, the old city. The place was located a short kebab’s throw from many of the major historical sites, which is what I’d wanted. Unquestionably, the highlight of the hotel was its rooftop terrace, which provided an unimpeded, 360 degree view of the city. Dusk on this rooftop offered an unforgettable picture: a spire-filled Turkish skyline, crescent moon resting in the heavens and with the audible chants of the “Muzin” playing on nearby loudspeakers, corralling the city’s 16 million Muslims for their nighttime prayer. It makes one feel very, very foreign, and very far away from the nearest Jewish deli.
Nighttime in Istanbul
That first night, I hopped in a cab (after a failed attempt to use the allegedly easy-to-navigate streetcar system) and headed across the Bosphorous river, my destination: Istiklal Caddesi. This was the main thoroughfare on the Asian side of Istanbul, and it was insanely busy – it had the frenetic pace and volume of an Oriental Times square, if Times Square were placed in a vice and squeezed and elongated into a sausage – a big, noisy, delicious, raucous party-sausage. Every night of the week, certainly even on the Monday night that I was there, Istaklal Caddisi floods with tourists and locals alike, all looking for a way to unwind in that most festive and booze-filled of ways.
The strip is flanked with clubs and restaurants of all sorts, but the real fun begins when you start to duck into the alleys at every block, and explore the countless little bars and cafes nestled there: swanky wine bars, hip-hop lounges, cafes, rock clubs, even the odd Goth den; there is something to quench all manner of thirsts. I found one place, Hayal Kahvesi, that featured live Turkish blues music. That’s right, Turkish blues. They said it couldn’t be done, and yet, there it was. The lead singer was groaning and moaning his way through a number that sounded suspiciously like Turkish-dubbed Howlin’ Wolf. The fella sounded hard-done, by someone or something. Authentic blues, then. It was an interesting scene, but I wasn’t long for it – I had an early meeting the next day with Arif, a lovelorn tourguide.
Touring the sites
As I was only going to be in Istanbul for 2 full days, I figured I should make the most of my time by joining an organized tour for a day or two. So the next morning at 9am, I met Arif. He was a pudgy, affable guy in his late 30′s. He had studied English and Hospitality Management at university in Istanbul, and he knew his job well. We breezed through the big sites of the city: the Blue Mosque (a very big, old, ornate mosque), the Hagia Sophia (an old church that became an old mosque, and is now a museum), the Grand Bazaar (an enormous, labyrinthine flea market that used to sell interesting things like skulls and precious stones infused with camel’s blood, but now sold normal looking jewellery and snowglobes), the Obelisk (a 2500 year old ancient Egyptian monument carved out of granite) , Topkapi Palace (former palace of the Sultan), and I’d even convinced Arif to take me to the Basilica Cisterns – an attraction that wasn’t on his prescribed itinerary. They were a true marvel of ancient subterranean engineering.
Perhaps the most memorable part of my day, however, was my heart-to-heart conversation with Arif. During our lunch together, he had decided to go into detail about how he had been jilted by his ex-girlfriend. He had found out, on Facebook, of all places, that she was seeing another man. His anger at “the Facebook”, merely the medium, rather than the message itself, was as clear as it was misguided:
Arif: “Tell me, Mr. Daniel, do you know who is Mark Zuckerberg, the boss of facebook?”
Me: “Uh, yes.”
Arif: “I kill him!”
And so it went, over kebabs and turkish coffee. Where Arif went into detailed explanation of the construction methods used for the Basilica Cisterns, and how he might like to bury his ex-girlfriend’s new beau in said cisterns, I reciprocated with emotional reinforcement, telling him there were plenty of other fish in the Black Sea, and that he should get back on the horse, etc., etc. I like to think that i left him in good spirits.
I suppose the other highlight of the day was my getting suckered into buying a decorative rug, called a Kilim, from a local vendor that Arif’s company worked with. I know it’s standard operating procedure for certain tours to work with the local crafts vendors to try to milk some extra cash out of the tourists, but I didn’t mind. Fact is, I needed a rug to tie my room together. I was assured that my Kilim was hand-sewn by one woman in rural Central Turkey, who worked out of her simple home and was actually a distant descendant of Ghengis Khan. I made up that last bit, but Ghengis had may offspring, and so, to be fair, it wasn’t entirely unlikely. I feel like a got a fair price after a good bit of haggling, and if they ever knew how well the piece would eventually be tying my room together, they’d realize they should have charged me way more. In the end, it was THEY who got swindled, really.
The morning of Day 2 in Istanbul, I was grouped with about 40 other tourists for a boat tour along the Bosphorous. This is the river that separates the Asian and European sides of Istanbul, and connects the Sea of Marmara to the south with the Black Sea to the north. We got a good look at all the seaside historic buildings, government offices, and expensive residential properties, on both the Asian and European sides. One impressive thing about the Bosphorous is the sheer volume of cargo traffic – it’s riddled with giant tankers, and one is reminded of Istanbul’s millenia-old importance as a trading hub.
But the cruise was not the high point – or low point, depending on your outlook – of my tour. That came right before lunch. As mentioned earlier, tours are often in cahoots with local businesses to try to sell you their crap, and often successfully (as in my aforementioned case). No doubt in keeping with this practice, our guide on this day announced that we would be visiting a leather market. I was intrigued, because I hadn’t heard of Turkey’s importance as a leather goods producer. I envisioned a traditional bazaar, with vendors hawking exotic leather products like dagger sheaths, fez tassels, or perhaps a falcon hood or two. Instead, we got something more reminiscent of Dimitri’s Wholesale Leather Outlet:
Your eyes aren’t deceiving you. After our tour bus pulled up to a business park near the city limits, we were herded into a nondescript building and seated in a smallish room that was set up for a runway fashion show. Please take note, we did this as part of our tour of Istanbul. I kept waiting for a “candid camera” presenter to pop up behind the curtain, which would have explained the lunacy of the unfolding action, but that never happened. So after a couple of incredulity-filled minutes of models strutting around in leather jackets and coats, I quietly escaped the retail hostage scenario, hopped in a cab, and finished the day on my own. I checked out the spice bazaar, a few more mosques and topped off my visit with a deluxe session at the Cemberlitas Turkish bath, which, obviously, deserves a separate paragraph.
The Turkish Bath
Ah yes, the Turkish Bath. Like Liberace and Jazz-hands, the public bathhouse is a favoured butt of Western homophobic jokes. Indeed, there was even a Turkish bath down the street of my old apartment in Montreal, which my roommates and I used to jokingly accuse each other of secretly frequenting. And to be fair, what’s not totally gay about one sweaty, half naked man vigorously massaging, lathering, and scrubbing the body of another equally sweaty, half naked man? The answer is, perhaps surprisingly, “nothing, really.”
As far as I’m concerned, thanks to the vicious bathhouse fight scene in David Cronenberg’s excellent “Eastern Promises”, the gay stigma of bathhouses has been lifted, and where they previously may have been viewed as bastions of grab-assery and other such nonsense, I view them as they once were: bastions of manliness.
I arrived at the Cemberlitas Bath where the pretty cashier, no doubt used to dealing with nervous, bumbling Westerners, such as yours truly, reassuringly led me to my changing room, where I was instructed to change into my towel and head to the main steam room. The room was a large ante room of sorts, featuring a tall, domed ceiling, and was dominated by an enormous circular marble slab, where various other men were laid down, some being scrubbed by attendants and some laying alone, peacefully. I laid down and tried to relax, letting the steam open my pores, and my mind drift towards serenity. I enjoyed this, right up until “George”, a shirtless, Turkish version of Seargant Slaughter appeared over me, ordered me up, and instructed me to lie on my stomach. I did so, at which point he began to pummel the flesh of my back and my legs into a submission that I did not know how to vocalize. So we chatted:
George: “You America?”
Me: “Err, no. Canada.”
Good talk, I thought. Then, when George went to work on my calves – perhaps not the beefiest specimens on which he had laid his gorilla-mitts, I finally shrieked in agony. “Yes! Good!”, he said, evidently pleased that he had located and neutralized some tension – no matter the long-term tissue damage. I was pretty embarrassed, as the room, though filled with about 10 other bathers and attendants, had been silent until then. But I did appreciate the physical effort/torture George had employed in tenderizing my muscles.
Next came the lathering and rinsing. Despite my skepticism, it didn’t feel like a homo-erotic sponge bath – instead, I felt more like a newly-processed maximum security prisoner being deloused, or maybe just like a sheep being sheared. Either way, not gay. It was done with hot water and, despite the considerable heat of the sauna and the fairly oppressive heat outside in Istanbul, it was remarkably refreshing.
After rinsing off and getting dressed, I had to admit, I felt good – in fact, I felt amazing. George actually ambushed me as I came out of the changing room, poking a basket of cash at my chest and barking, “Tip!” Clearly, he was as shy as he was fully clothed, but I happily obliged, because he did a good job, and I didn’t feel like finding out what happens when you disappoint a guy who has to spend his days in a dark, 400-year-old bathhouse, rubbing down clueless tourists.
So that was the Turkish bath. It was great. In fact, it was probably the highlight of Istanbul, and I highly recommend you try it – just make sure you keep your tip money handy.