Euroland Part II, Turkey

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:

Long way from home
Long way from home

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.

Day 2

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:

Authentic Istanbul
Authentic Istanbul

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.”

George: “Hmmm.”

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.

Europe gets a visit

So what’ve you been up to? I’ve been In Europe. Here’s what happened.

Greek cruise, or: The Odyssey, as re-written by P.Diddy

Aboard "Alexandros"
Aboard "Alexandros"

To celebrate his 65th birthday, my dad chartered a yacht for an 8-day sail around the Cyclades, the Greek islands in the Aegean Sea. The trip wasn’t my idea. I was actually lobbying to celebrate Dad’s 65th with a round of mini golf and an ice cream cake. But maybe this cruise would be good, too.

We would set sail from Athens and head East into the Cyclades, visiting the islands of Mykonos, Delos, Santorini, Pouros, Milos, Porto Heli, Spetzes, Hydra, Porros, and then heading back into Athens.

Our ship, “Alexandros” was 68 feet of mahogany and fiberglass conspicuous consumption: 4 bedrooms, an upper sun deck, a jet ski, zodiac inflatable dinghy and, perhaps most importantly for the high seas: 4 dozen bagels, which we had brought with us from Montreal. Honestly, when i think of all the times I’d been aboard a boat that DIDN’T have an onboard jet ski, it makes me sick to my stomach.

Alexandros’ crew were a terrific bunch. Captain George, a consummate professional and as good natured as they come, kept us on course and out of harms way, and he was expertly supported by Isam, the ship’s engineer. Rosie, the ship’s cook, worked her culinary voodoo in a galley the size of a broom closet. Care for a small mountain of 50 shrimp tempura? Rosie has you covered. Perhaps you would prefer some homemade Tzaziki with your bagel? Done. Or would you prefer fresh sea urchin, batter-fried and breaded in Cocoa Puffs? She makes that for a midnight snack.

When you’re on a cruise, the food is the most critical element of the trip. You plan your days around your meals, and when you aren’t actually eating, you’re talking about what you might like to eat – or drink – for your next meal. This is an actual exchange I had with Jesse, my brother-in-law, while we snorkelled next to the boat:

Jesse: “do you suppose you’ll have white wine or rosé with lunch?”

Me: “that’s a good question, i guess it depends what Rosie will be preparing. I hope she’s making shrimp tempura again – I quite like that.”

Jesse: “Hmm…indeed.”

To be sure, life was good on the high seas.

The scenery was epic: tiny churches and pastel-colored houses perched on hillsides, narrow cobble-stoned roads, donkeys used as everyday transportation, landscapes riddled with olive and cypress trees, and the boats – big sailing vessels, little Greek fishing boats, futuristic mega yachts, the latter no doubt owned by your friendly neighborhood Russian oligarch – every picture was a postcard.

Hydra at night
Hydra at night

Speaking of which, there were gorgeous sunsets every evening, especially the one we saw from a cliffside bar on the island of Hydra, where we spotted a pack of six diving dolphins, and captured them diving in and out of the water, right across the line of the setting sun. You almost wanted to yell at them: “Really, dolphins? Don’t you think you’re overdoing it, waiting until sunset and everyone’s watching so you can leap out of the water? I get it, ok? I get that you’re cute and acrobatic and stuff, and that you work well as a team. But maybe dial it back a little, okay?”

As for the cultural fare, Athens, where we spent our first day before boarding Alexandros, was obviously the main draw. Touring the Acropolis, one remarks two things: 1) how well-preserved these 2000-year old monuments have remained, and 2) how, in the name of Zeus, they were able to build these things 2000 years ago.

The Big House
The Big House

After the Acropolis, we did a quick guided tour of Athens by car, including a stop outside the Greek presidential palace, where we viewed a changing of the guard, pictured below.

Ceremonial dress, jacked up to '11'
Ceremonial dress, jacked up to '11'

I’ve decided that it takes a particularly tough soldier to pull off a ceremonial military dress that includes pom-poms for your shoes. Our tour guide could not tell me what these funny shoes were called, so I dubbed them “souvlakis”.

I can’t tell you about Athens’ nightlife, because i didn’t stray very far from our hotel, as i was pretty exhausted. I did a quick walk around the neighbourhood, and found two strip clubs, but not a single regular bar. Strange. I decided to return to my room and fell asleep watching a Greek soap opera.

The Greek islands, especially Mykonos, were especially known for their vibrant nightlife, but you wouldn’t know it on our ship. With the exception of our first night in Mykonos, where we had a couple of post-dinner cocktails by the port, our nights consisted of watching a movie or playing scrabble. One such night, we happened to be moored about 50 meters away from a busy nightclub. As I watched my dad nod off – as was common – while trying to organize his scrabble letters, I couldn’t help but think how simultaneously cool (being on a fancy boat) and uncool (playing scrabble) we must have seemed to the club goers. Triple nerd score indeed.

On another night, bored of scrabble and my back issues of The Economist, I decided to watch some satellite TV when the rest of my family had gone to bed. As the pickings were slim, I settled on “Truck Turner”, a classic Blaxploitation film. It starred Isaac Hayes as the title character, a bail bondsman who won’t let The [White] Man get him down. Here is the Wikipedia description:

“Truck Turner (portrayed by Isaac Hayes) is a former professional football player who becomes a bounty hunter (along with his partner Jerry) in search of a bail-jumping pimp in Los Angeles, California. After a shootout where Truck has to use deadly force to kill the pimp, Turner becomes a marked man and is targeted by hired assassins.” Not bad, eh?

Here are some realizations i had while on the boat:

1) If you are prone to the pitfalls of one-upmanship, then parking your yacht in a crowded marina can be psychologically crippling: imagine sunbathing on the deck of your perfectly ample 69-foot luxury yacht, thinking life could not possibly be better, when along comes a 72-foot luxury yacht, and parks itself next to yours. Suddenly, those 3 extra feet mean everything. How much more amazing might the other guy’s boat be than yours and, by extension, his life? What does he have in those 3 feet that you don’t? X-box? Extra-fancy backgammon set? A very skinny mistress? Star trek commemorative champagne glasses? You’ll never know, and it will drive you nuts.

2) When you’re a 34-year-old seafaring chap, it is best to marry a 21-year old woman – so says Isam, our boat’s engineer and part-time relationship expert. In his words: “ok yes, she very young, but when I old, she still beautiful!” indeed, Isam, from your words to God’s ears.

3) If you own a yacht – that is, any boat measuring longer than, say, 30 feet – you are a douchebag. It doesn’t matter how nice a person you are, or how much money you give to charity. Fait accompli. Sorry, it’s science.

4) I want to be a douchebag.

5) I really like that all yachts get to be named, however in the interest of good taste and international goodwill, I’d like to institute a pay-as-you-go policy towards the naming process. Owners should pay by the letter. Vowels are extra. The money will go towards the public school system of the country of the yacht’s home port.

6) Even with my aforementioned suggestion, money cannot – and rarely does – buy taste:

Classy
Classy

7) A grilled cheese sandwich tastes good. A grilled cheese sandwich made by your on-board personal chef tastes much, much better.

8) Our chartered yacht, “Alexandros“, is powered by 2 twin-turbo M.A.N. 12-cylinder diesel engines, putting out a combined 2500 horsepower. She will reach a top speed of 60 knots, and will achieve this speed, regardless of whether you’ve remembered to flush the contents of your cabin’s toilet.

9) The Greeks are a proud people. Most will agree ancient Greece was the cradle of modern civilization, with its innumerable contributions to the arts, philosophy, government, sport, etc. Greeks today, however, much like Israelis, will not only remind you of their culture’s past contributions to society, but will also take credit for random things that they did not invent. A typical Athenian: “You have heard of the microwave, yes? It comes from word ‘micros‘, meaning ‘small’ in Greek…so it is obviously a Greek invention…you’re welcome!”

10) Jet skis, whether zipping around the open waters of the Aegean sea, or buzzing around a small lake in the Laurentian mountains of Quebec, are always obnoxious. They should all be incinerated, and their owners forced to pile together into a giant canoe and paddle, together, in circles until the end of time, or until they become courteous people – whichever comes first.

11) The Greeks rarely use butter. They use olive oil instead. Nothing funny about that, I guess.

12) The Aegean, during mid-July, is incredibly warm and clear. It is so warm, in fact, that peeing in the sea will actually make you colder. Is there a worse feeling than feeling simultaneously cold and ashamed? I can tell you, there isn’t.

13) The pigeons in the Greek islands are a dusty, light shade of grey, somewhat brownish. Not unlike their Canadian cousins, they are terrifying.

Lessons I learned:

I am extremely fortunate

1) Isam, the ship’s engineer and a very nice guy, was telling me that he financially supports his 5 younger siblings, as his parents died when he was young, and he was left in charge. He works his ass off on this boat, and then in the off-season, works as a deckhand on a large container ship, sending most of his money back home.

2) Captain George recounted to us that during WWII, the Nazis had closed down a good chunk of Greece’s elementary schools. As such, the nearest school George’s father could attend was on a tiny island, about a 20 minutes swim from where he lived. So every day, he would swim to school and back, 20 minutes each way, with his school books tied to the top of his head. Damn.

Appearances are deceiving

3) You never know who is in charge on the Greek Islands. Case in point: this bearded fella, a friend of captain George, looks like he might be in charge of the backstage passes for ZZ Top. It turns out he’s actually a wealthy Greek-American expat, who owns two nightclubs on the island of Hydra, and helps run the marina, just for fun. Nice guy, too.

Hydra's most famous business owner - no joke
Hydra's most famous business owner - no joke

That was Greece, in a nutshell. It was an incredible experience, and I hope I was able to relay to you a small part of the voyage…stay tuned for Turkey!