Our Man In Istanbul

[from The Billfold / June 29, 2015]

He keeps a map of the world hung on his kitchen wall, its surface littered with pins to mark where he has been, and because he has managed to carve out a certain kind of adulthood he finds himself often with the time, disposable income, and inclination to seek out new frontiers. “Anywhere once,” he likes to say, “although most places not twice.”

He traces these tiny signifiers of his own scattershot trail across the globe: Ohio; South Korea; Ireland; Alabama; New Zealand. He notices an unmarked stripe of Earth running diagonally to the northeast. He runs his finger along its surface, reciting the names of cities and nations until he finds one that resonates, one that sounds to him like that unidentifiable It. His eyes and hand reach the middle of the world and he thinks of exactly what might be waiting for him there and knows immediately where to start.

He finds a flight for $800, which is far less than he had expected. He finds a very nice hotel in a very happening district for about $70 a night; he notes to himself how certain he is that he is exploiting some kind of imbalance in exchange rates or preying in true capitalist fashion upon the people of a country which deserves better, then secretly hopes that somewhere out there a Turkish hotel owner is laughing at the American he suckered into paying $70 a night to stay in his hotel.

He spends a lot of time answering questions from the people he has known the longest. Questions about what the people “over there” will think of him and his country; questions about just who, in light of things happening in the world these days, might not be so happy to run into him or, even worse and depending on how you look at things, who for very depraved reasons might be ecstatic. He goes to great lengths to explain that the city to which he is going and the ravaged nations of which they speak are two very different places, let alone the hundreds, sometimes thousands of miles separating the two. Sometimes they listen; more often they don’t.

He forgoes obtaining the electronic visa beforehand because goddamnit, if he is going to fly eleven hours across the night, an ocean, and two continents, he is getting proof in form of the sticker in his passport. He arrives and follows the signs, heeding their warnings about all the time and money he could be saving buying the electronic visa for $20 instead of the sticker visa for $30. He thinks for a moment about how that extra $10 isn’t really that much money in the larger context of what he’s just done, but then he looks around the airport at his fellow travelers, some quite obviously carrying a home’s or life’s worth of possessions with them. He sees the arrivals board overhead announcing vessels arriving from countries he only knows in the context of headlines and reports of endless war, and he understands that there is a chance some of these people are not really “travelers” in the sense that this is some jaunt but rather voyagers in some more permanent fashion, and that $30 is sometimes in fact far more money than he is able to comprehend.

He turns his currency into theirs. Two-point-seven-one to one, he reads. “Here you are sir,” he hears. “Five-hundred and six Turkish Lira.”

I’m rich, he thinks.

He can’t speak the language. Doesn’t even try. He is immeasurably thankful that so many of the locals have learned to accommodate so many just like him.

He gets really good at ordering food by pointing at pictures of it. He gets even better at only almost getting hit by a car.

He notices (of course he notices) so many women of this city and notes the style and beauty so effortlessly carried by so many of them and, all other adjectives failing him, he returns time and again to the word “glamorous,” even if he knows that word sounds clumsy.

He walks for miles each day, his cynicism and years of living in an American city allowing him to ignore so much noise coming from people he passes on the street while still allowing his heart to break every time he hears a baby crying behind a building, sees a family living in an alley, steps over and past man after man sleeping beside dumpsters in the midday sun.

He visits museums. Churches older than his country. Mosques older than his last name.

He pays one night what he later realizes to be a $7 cover charge to see a show in perhaps one of the best music venues in the world, during which he falls in love with the Finnish jazz singer gracing the stage. Falls in love, you think. Yeah, he knows, and no, not really. He drinks a few more beers because, what the hell, by his math they’re only a buck.

He tries something called an islak hamburger, which he can best describe as a hamburger patty marinated in ketchup and then steamed in more ketchup. He is disgusted. He is compelled. He will eat many more of these before the week is over.

He makes a joke to himself about the difference between a traveler, a hippie, and a traveling hippie. He laughs. He immediately forgets the joke, later only able to remember that it was hilarious at the time.

He returns to that nice hotel to find a letter from hotel management slipped under his door:

We want to inform you in advance that there may be some protests and demonstrations around Taksim area. In the cause of not facing with an unusual circumstance, we advise you to be careful during your visit of Istanbul outside the hotel.

He notes the date: tomorrow is the first of May. He recalls hearing about full-blown clashes in years past. He cannot wait to see what the good people of this city have in store.

He spends the next day walking the neighborhoods, taking in the eerie sight of a preemptively closed city, the powers that be having decided that what had happened before could not happen again. He steps around barricades, peers through walls of armed officers, heads east on foot because they’d gone so far as to shut down most of the transit system. He hears that there are 10,000 policemen on duty in the city to handle an anticipated crowd of 2,000 protestors. He has seen this kind of thing before back in the country he calls home and he, like everyone else, knows exactly what is coming and exactly how this will end.

He misses the police riot by about an hour.

He sees the streets littered with the garbage and detritus left over from a morning of righteous political outrage. Police department-commandeered city buses loading up with officers headed back to wherever they were really from; press photographers cleaning out the insides of their gas masks; young men comparing marks left on their wrists by government-issued zip-ties; helicopters circling overhead just in case anyone gets any more ideas.

He finds a cafe nearby and grabs a seat. He ends up in conversation with a group of three who’d been there for the whole thing. He asks what it was like.

“You should know,” one of the men says. “This is in your country right now, too, isn’t it?”

Good point, he thinks. He wonders what his friends back home would think of all this. “So is it over?” he asks. They nod and laugh.

“For today, yes,” says the woman.

“But forever?” adds the other of the men. “No. Never.”

He and his new friends raise a glass to protest, to revolution, to the people, to a better tomorrow, to all that.

He says goodbye and walks on, pocket still full of all those foreign riches and he, somehow, discovers he is unable to even pretend to have such gaudy taste that would let him spend it all. Later he is once again not far from that nice hotel, at the far end of another bar, its front windows wide open and the street bustling with life just beyond. He watches clouds cover the moon and lightning tear open the night sky above, and as the rain begins to fall he watches the people of this city so effortlessly and coolly walk by outside until finally he leaves, alone, off first to that nice hotel and ultimately to home, and to another world.

He stands alone again in his kitchen some days later, another pin newly stuck in that map on the wall. He looks at all the strange foreign currency he forgot to exchange on his way home and does some more math. He thinks back to all those people fighting all those battles in a war that may never be won. He thinks of people taking to the streets in the name of the people sleeping in them. He thinks of everyone he had spoken to about his plans in the first place and wonders what they think of when they think of the cities and the nation they — and he — call theirs and if they know that in some ways the corners of this world are neither as far nor as different as we might otherwise believe.

He thinks of the innumerable and staggering problems out there, and far as he may go these things will still be waiting in his country when he gets back, and while he understands he is not capable of solving all or even any of them he knows he is at least capable of helping those who would try.

He counts out that unspent money again, and with all of that in mind he suddenly knows now exactly what he will do with it.

Istanbul, Turkey / Chicago, IL
May, 2015 / June 2015

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