Real people Real Experiences

Behind the Crescent Part 2

Things were going in the “right” direction, so I returned to Turkey the following year. It was hotter. The lack of air conditioning more obvious, especially at night.  I discovered that they had rolling blackouts…to reduce the costs of generating electricity from oil-fueled generators.  They were moving away from coal which made a huge difference in air quality as I would notice later when I traveled there in the winter.

My girlfriend’s parents lived in Istanbul in the Sisli district on the asian side of the Golden Horn.  Most residences were small apartment-type buildings with less than eight floors.  Many had only one apartment per floor.  With elevators being a rarity…moving was quite an adventure!
In the meantime, there were other pressing issues as a result of the blackouts, primarily water.  Water pressure at street level was insufficient to reach the upper floors. So nearly all buildings had 1) a small electric water pump in the basement and 2) a large water tank on the roof. When the power went out, so did the water pressure as soon as the water tank was empty, unless you lived on the first floor.

Usually the “doorman” (aka Superintendant/handyman) lived on the first floor with his family.  It was his
responsibility to distribute the gas and electric bills to the residents as well as to collect the money to pay them.  At that time checking accounts were normally used by businesses only (that had to do with a Moslem ban on Usury / money lending).

It was also the Doorman’s responsibility to wash down the street and sidewalk in front of the building daily, and to sweep the stairwell and mop the foyer.

Aside from daily garbage removal (every tenant placed their household garbage outside their door each evening) and very occasional minor maintainance, the doorman also kept vigil over the activity around the front door.  He would sit on the front stoop with his newspaper, which more often than not was held upside down.  I discovered he couldn’t read.  He was Kurdish…and his parents didn’t trust the schools so he rarely attended as a child, he was now in his fifties.  Instead, his children would read the news to him as homework practice and he would look at the pictures in the meantime.

Each day, usually in the afternoon there would be a young boy in the street shouting out a list of fruits and vegetables. A few minutes later a truck would appear with the aforementioned tomatoes, beans, oranges, and lemons. Then you would shout down your order and the driver would send his kid up to your apartment with your veggies.  You were expected to tip for the delivery.
A favorite street snack was roasted corn.  I found it to be a bit unpleasant – large starchy kernals, nothing like the sweet Jersey corn I was accustomed to. It also tended to awaken Montezuma and his revenge!

Trash was put into the street for pickup weekly. It was picked over by stray cats, and gypsies who would salvage anything of worth…scrap metal to be resold and furniture.  Stray dogs in the street were on the decline due to a fear of rabies…many had been killed outright, the rest poisoned.

Fast-forward two years…we were engaged. I was graduating in the spring, she had another year to go.  We had heard that winter that a moderately popular lunch establishment just up the road from her parent’s apartment, had gone up in flames following an explosion.  It was believed to be the work of terrorists.

At that time the PKK or Kurdish Workers Party, was very active in disrupting both the civilian and military status quo. Terrorism was so wide spread, that the first reaction, invariably, was to blame terrorists. But the lunch-joint explosion was just due to a leaky propane tank.

It was common to keep a propane tank indoors to fuel the stove. A bad idea, but a common practice.  That is why the propane there stank so badly…to get your attention in case of a leak.  Unfortunately, it smelled just as bad when burned…quite unappetizing at mealtimes.  In fact, fossil fuels in general had a very high sulphur content. This was most noticeable in the winter…I remarked on it the first year my girlfriend returned from winter break (she had been visiting her family.)  When I picked her up her clothing reeked from the Istanbul smog!

My flight to Turkey that summer was an adventure!  I was flying British Airways through Heathrow, to Instanbul. Well…there was an engine problem that they had supposedly fixed during a lay over.  Thirty minutes later in-flight it became apparent it had not been fixed at all.  So, we had an unplanned stop in Frankfurt.

Thanks to my American passport, a temporary visa for an overnight stay really was a rubber stamp.  Not so for most of the rest of the passengers.  That trip taught me a valuable lesson…I always travel with two pairs of underwear and socks in my hand luggage, and one seasonal shirt as well as a toothbrush in case of a repeat.

The hotel was ok despite the restaurant kitchen being closed.  Dinner was a pack of peanuts and a coke. The next morning however, my worldly education hit new heights, or perhaps lows.  I discovered that the German employees in the International terminal only spoke German, in contrast to nearly every other terminal in my experience.  Their stubborn foolishness was made apparent through several strings of colorful adjectives, invectives, and generally improbable body part interactions, which elicited the expected reactions.  By then the game was stale with no graceful recovery possible.  C’est la Vie, mon cherie.

I arrived in Istanbul a day late. The wedding was the following day, and my family was due that afternoon.  We had found rooms for them in one of the newer hotels not far from my soon-to-be-in-laws. My dad had a chuckle over an awkward translation – he discovered that he could have the coffee girl anytime after 2pm…what a convenience!

The next morning it was time for wedding preparations.  She was getting her hair done, and my father-in-law and I were procuring the flowers.  But first…a minor disaster…a blackout! No one had showered, and it was already 90 degrees. I soon understood the importance of cologne.

We trudged, by taxi, to the flower district…he had a childhood friend who was a wholesaler (I would discover that he knew people from all walks of life, low and high).

Before conducting business there are social niceties to be observed.  The ritual of drinking Tea – strong sweet tea accompanied with “savory” not sweet pastries – followed by Turkish coffee – impossibly strong as well as sweet with a flourish of foam on top. Then inquiries must be made as to the health of each other’s families. Once that is finished, on to the business at hand.  Flowers for your daughter’s wedding? The groom is scrutinized and found to be worthy.  On to the flowers. Selections are made. Price agreed upon.  Delivery in an hour. Handshakes all around. Elapsed time since exiting the taxi? Two hours. Life runs on Eastern Time here.
To be continued…..

Image Copyright Shuterstock

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