When last I left you, I had checked into my hostel after wandering the thrillingly noisy night-time streets of Istanbul on Saturday night. I was on such an Istanbul-related high that I didn’t go straight to bed. Instead, I sat in the hostel living room and searched on the internet for jobs in Istanbul.
Don’t worry though. I’m not staying. I’m going back to Dublin to finish my PhD and work one final year in Hall.
The hostel is a hostel, not really any better or any worse than any other. There are timid Koreans, and fairly nerdy group of Italians and a core group, of young English people, Australians, Germans and Spaniards. This group is led by a good-looking Australian boy who makes ridiculous amounts of noise, especially when there’s a girl within earshot, making it clear that he’s the leader of the pack – and that his antlers are bigger than those of any of the other stags. (Having seen him in tight underpants, I can confirm that he does indeed have large “antlers”.) That first night, while I excitedly checked the internet for dreams, he was telling an English woman about his studies. He’s apparently doing two degrees at once, because he’d be “bored” if he only did one degree. As the conversation progressed, and the woman questioned him more, it became clear that he was not, in fact, doing two degrees, but was pursuing two majors in one degree, something loads of people I know have done. On another evening, I heard him telling a group that he loved smoking and that he had a bit of hash that he’d got from a girl who “smuggled it in from Iran in her pussy.” I didn’t warm to him. In spite of his antlers.
Turkey is one of those countries that I’ve heard about but never been to before. A country where you don’t flush your toilet paper. Ewww! In the hostel, beside the toilet there is a bin, into which you put your soiled tissues. Ewww! It’s basically a bucket of shit. There are signs up all over the hostel warning you not to put your toilet paper down the toilet. Ewww! I know I’m stupidly sensitive, but it just turns my stomach. The bucket of shit freaks me out so much that I managed to not go to the toilet at all on Monday.
On Sunday, myself and my friend did the “sights”. We saw the Bazaar and the various mosques that you’re meant to see and we meandered around the more historic bits of Istanbul. At lunch, I accidentally ordered two main courses. This meant that the €100 I had borrowed from my friend was almost gone, between four nights in a hostel, the taxi from the airport and my double lunch. I put out an emergency call for cash, and my sister came to the rescue.
On Sunday afternoon, we took a walk along the sea front. It’s nothing like Dublin. There are huge rocks beside the road, not at all beach-like, lots of concrete, lots of rubbish, very dirty and uncomfortable-looking, and with a dual carriageway less than three feet away, but the people of Istanbul bask on these rocks like happy seals. Hairy old men fish. People swim. People sunbathe. They erect tables from bricks and rubbish and families eat together. Old men play cards under beach umbrellas. And, like everywhere in Istanbul, people sell things. If there is one smell I associate with Turkey, it is the smell of burning sweetcorn. You can’t go five yards without coming across a cart cooking and serving corn-on-the-cob. Almost as common are the carts roasting chestnuts, and the pomegranate juicers. And of course, there are people selling cheap fake branded aftershave, handbags and t-shirts too. My favourite vendor of the day was an elderly man on an old-fashioned motorbike. He drove his motorbike up and down the seafront at slower than walking speed, with a sidecar full of watermelons and a weighing scales taped to the seat behind him.
The main activity you can pay to do on the seafront is shooting. At regular intervals along the waterfront, there are men who blow up balloons and tie them to a washing line. They also line up old bottles and cans on the rocks. And while the children play around you, you can pay this man and he’ll give you a gun and you can shoot the balloons or the cans. What fun! We didn’t try it.
Monday was the conference that I am here to speak at. It was a massive conference, with people from all over the world. Both myself and my friend were speaking at 1:30, in different rooms. When we arrived at around midday, we met another one of our fellow PhD students. She’s much older than either of us and is a lecturer as well as a student. She chatted for a while and then said, “If anyone asks, you’ve seen me at the conference. Now, I’m off on my Turkish holiday.” And she left the university. We didn’t feel any guilt when we did the same later on.
I gave my paper. It was well-received and I got some good advice and some great questions. I also did my networking, exchanging email addresses with a Peruvian, a Dane, two Germans, an Austrian and an Englishman. I talked to a German woman who was very angry with me for using the word “diary” when I clearly meant “chronicle” in my paper. How very dare I? There was also a lecturer from Strathclyde who tried to make me promise to go to his session later. I said something vague like, “It certainly sounds like an interesting topic.” I found my friend and we made a run for it. Connor had conferenced enough.
We found a café and toasted our international academic debuts with some lemonades.
That night, we had dinner on a rooftop terrace with incredible views of Istanbul. It was a happy evening and I stayed out too late. I made it to the last tram, but when I got to the end of the line, the funicular train that brings you up the hill to Taksim Square had stopped running.
Anyone from Cork will be familiar with the pain of walking up Patrick’s Hill. It’s very steep and walking up it costs you: it costs your legs, your lungs, your reason for living. The hill to Taksim Square is like three Patrick’s Hills one after another.
I walked and I huffed and I puffed. I was passing a grassy area when I heard barking and some dogs started bounding towards me. Istanbul is absolutely full of stray dogs and cats. Everywhere you look, there are emaciated and sad-looking animals. And here were some of Istanbul’s strayest of dogs, running at me, barking, growling and being terrifying. One of them jumped at me. And I started to run up that hill. The dogs ran around me, barking. As I ran, lungs coming so far out of my chest that they knocked on my knees while I ran, I considered what would happen if one of them bit me. Would the hostel staff know what to do? Other questions that genuinely occurred to me while I ran were: Are they hungry enough to eat me? (I’m really not an animal person. I don’t “get” animals.) Were they big enough to kill me? I figured only one of them was big enough to topple me over. The traffic on the road was very fast. If they chased me onto the road, I could die. How long would it take my friend to realise I was dead? Who would find my body? Who would identify me? These were my fevered imaginings as I ran up that hill. After a minute or two, the dogs ran off. After an hour or two, I stopped panting.
I continued up the hill, passing – among other things – three open travel agents. Who needs a travel agent after midnight on a Monday? And what are they on the run from? It really is a twenty-four hour city.
I eventually got to the main street that had impressed me so much on Saturday night. I walked along it, looking for somewhere to buy a bottle of water after my titanic battle against the stray dogs of Istanbul had left me dehydrated. As I walked along the street, three different men approached me and asked me for a light for their cigarettes in Turkish. When I answered in English, each of the three said to me, “Ah, my friend! I thought you were Turkish!” Really? I don’t think there is anyone in Turkey who looks less Turkish than me, with my big red face and my red hair and my general lack of swarth. Then they put their arms around me, no longer in need of a light apparently and asked me what I thought of Istanbul. Then they tried to convince me to go to a bar with them. I’m not sure what exactly their scam is, but they need to work on their script.
As I crossed Taksim Square, having bought my bottle of water, I was confronted, yet again, with a line of riot police. Although I am a drama queen, I do find the vast numbers of police here very threatening. I really am incredibly lucky to live in Ireland, where the police generally don’t pose a threat and where life is relatively stable. As I went out of my way to avoid the police, I stumbled into some damp cement, leaving two footprints behind. Connor had made his mark on Istanbul.
Tuesday was a quieter day. We went on a cruise around the Bosphorus and saw the world famous Spice Bazaar, which is impressive, except for the men who kept jumping out in front of me, saying “You like to buy some saffron, my friend?” At first, I politely declined the offers of saffron, but after a while, I got frustrated and got snippy with them. “I’m fine for saffron, thanks.”
We had lunch in a courtyard café. When we took our seats we asked if they served food. The waiter said, “we have food, drink, what you want my friend”. They didn’t have a menu. The waiter said we could have whatever we wanted, they would make something “very special” for us. He asked, “you like toast? A sandwich? A salad? A meal?” A waitress then approached us saying she could get us a “very special” sandwich. She then showed us a photo of a sandwich she had googled on her iPhone. As it was the only concrete option presented, we both ordered the sandwich. The waiter told us he would make a “very special” lemonade, just for us. We got our “very special” lemonade and our “very special” google sandwich. Afterwards, the waiter brought my friend a tea, with which he had a “very special” biscuit. My friend confirmed that the biscuit was in fact quite ordinary. At this stage, I got out my map, to look at where I would go next. The waiter came to me and said that my map was old and that he would show me a “very special” map. He then proceeded to try to sell me a map and a guidebook.
It was a very special restaurant.
It was my last day in Istanbul and I had to have a genuine Turkish experience: the hamam. I went to one of the four-hundred-year-old bathhouses in the centre of the old town.
I paid the fee and was sent to the changing room, a wooden cubicle with a bed. I stripped down and put on the tea towel I had been given around my waist. I then made my way downstairs where I was directed to lie on a huge marble table in a hotroom with four or five other men. I sweated and sweated, so much that my contacts almost came out. After twenty minutes or so, my masseur came in.
“You are big man, my friend. Strong man. Power.” And he grabbed my belly. He was wearing nothing but a tea towel too. I was very hot and it was a relief when he took a bowl of cold water and threw it over my head. “Is good, my friend. No?” It was.
He then started on the exfoliation process. He started with a scrubbing mitt but he said it wasn’t hard enough. He left and returned with what was basically a sheet of sandpaper. And he sanded me down. He showed me the rolls of skin that were coming off me with pride in his voice. And as this middle-aged, almost naked man sandpapered my inner thighs, I got to thinking about life and about how I had ended up getting to this point.
After the exfoliation, it was time for the wash. He spread suds all over me, a bit like someone icing a cake. And then he started washing me. And pummelling me. And it was sore, but pleasant. Not quite a massage, but a lot more relaxing than just being bathed. And when he was washing my belly, I got something I haven’t had in a long time: tickles. I couldn’t stop laughing. Of course, he found this highly entertaining and he laughed and tickled me more. And I lay prone, giggling while a grown man tickled my belly, like I was a labrador puppy.
I’m actually adorable.
After I had been lathered, massaged and tickled, I was once again sluiced with a few bucketfuls of cold water. Then I was left alone. After a while, my masseuse returned. “I give you a douche, my friend.” For many gay men, a douche is a little enema you give yourself in preparation for anal sex. I really hadn’t expected it to be part of the Turkish bath experience. And it wasn’t. He meant a shower.
He led me to another room. He soaped up my hair, scrubbed me behind the ears and in the armpits. And he rinsed me off with saucepanful after saucepanful of cold water.
Then he led me to another area and started drying me. It was all very strange. But I would definitely do it again. I felt clean, refreshed and very, very relaxed after it.
From about halfway through the process, my masseur started talking about tipping. “You like this washing, my friend? Is good? You tip me. No tip the man in changing room. You tip me.” He repeated this information a number of times.
When I went back to the changing rooms, I got dressed, and sure enough, the attendant there put out his hand and said “tip”. I walked past him. He shouted after me in Turkish. When I got to the door, my masseur was waiting. I was happy to tip him. I guess he won that round in the tipping war.
That evening, we met some of the other PhD students and some of the lecturers from my college who had come out for the main part of the conference (as opposed to the postgraduate section that I had spoken in). We all went for drinks and dinner on a rooftop terrace. We had quite a bit to drink and I remember talking a lot. I remember thinking that I was being highly entertaining and was being a very witty raconteur. No doubt, I made an absolute eejit of myself, in front of my supervisor, as well as the Chair of Education and the lecturer who is in charge of allocating my teaching hours. Oops! Hopefully they were all drunk too.
I hadn’t been near Taksim Square all day. When I got home for my last night in the hostel, there were even more police than usual. Apparently, someone had been killed in another city in Turkey that morning and there had been louder protests than usual in Taksim that evening. While I’d been enjoying my rooftop dinner and telling silly stories to lecturers,
riot police had sprayed tear gas at protestors and sprayed more down side streets for good measure, including the alleyway that my hostel is on.
There were crowds of people around – police and people watching the police. It was very scary. I couldn’t take my normal road back to the hostel, but I found a way eventually. As I did, I saw the riot police, in full gear, practising charging. It’s not something I ever want to see again.
Istanbul is a wonderful city, easily one of the world’s great cities. As I leave (with every intention of returning in the future), I can only wish Istanbul the best and hope that its people come on better times.