The Perfect Blue

With four months on the road we have to watch our lira and Istanbul is expensive on the Australian Dollar. The café’s frequented by the hip crowd say it all with the calories per dish written alongside the price.

Unable to contain my own window shopping desires any longer we head to the ‘Grand Bazaar’ teeming with tourist life, razzy belly dancing costumes, sweets, lanterns, jewellery of every kind, made in china to look like Turkish junk, rug shops, tea houses, antique stores and on it goes. I am searching for the little gems no one else seems to see. Everything here is beautiful but after hours of wandering the vaulted maze-like passageways, it all seems the same. Beautiful glass tiled lanterns and chandeliers hang in a mosaic of colour and light, shop after shop of antique and new kilims, carpets and rugs beckon us. This is our weakness and we are drawn into one wood-paneled store by a rug striped with a licorice all-sort design. ‘Oh, your wife has most expensive taste!’ says the storeowner to Ben, who knows this well enough already and rolls his eyes. But the carpets he flings down and piles at our feet are making my heart stop. All well out of our budget, it has at least been an education and a marvel.

Having trekked the length and breadth of the Bazaar we are ready for dinner. Perched on the corner of a hill we find a little quaint almost disheveled establishment. There are maps of Istanbul and the world papering the wall and an iron-work railing is all that separates us from the street. At a lone table an old violinist in a grubby three-piece suit plays jaunty gypsy tunes and chinches the deal for us and we are seated.  We devour succulent lamb shish, slowly cooked to tender perfection and chat with the owner who – after our numerous visits over the next few nights – has taken to calling me his sister and Paloma his angel. The chef’s wife even takes Paloma off our hands as we eat and it is like we are on a date, just the two of us again. How easy we find it to make ourselves at home in a new place.

Leaving the smog, tourists and crazy city life that is Istanbul behind we board a big boat taking us across the glittering Sea of Mamara to the Prince’s Islands. Dolphins play in the foam out side our window like sleek ballerinas. It is a Sunday and wouldn’t you know it, EVERYONE Turk is out, dressed in their Sunday best for a day on the islands too! Looking back Istanbul stands as a majestic city rising from the mists of a sparkling sea, like a dream the minaret spires of the mosques rise from this dusky atmosphere spiking the horizon line forever. From my vantage point I count 50 plus spires and wonder how many mosques there really are in Istanbul. (Ok so I googled it to satisfy my curiosity and there are more than 3000!!!!)

On the boat, charismatic waiters speed trays towering with steaming coffee, tea and snacks to various people around the decks. Young lovers flirt, daddy’s buy their kids ice creams and everyone is eating Simit, the sesame covered bread rings, sold all over the city. On disembarking we are momentarily separated in the push to get off the boat I find myself standing in front of a giant of a man, so shy, but holding out fresh daisy chains for sale…I slip it on my head as Ben spots me. Fringed canopied horse-drawn carts are clip-clopping all over the streets. Thinking the beach is only a stroll away we start to walk instead of going in horse drawn carted style. And I fall in love with a place once again. This island is built with wooden mansion like houses, not out of place in Swiss Family Rosinsons time. Some ancient with paint peeling, some maintained and white wood gleaming under multiple ornate and carved arch awnings. We enter a giant castle of old carved wood now operating as a pensione, just to see the interior. Rooms with roses embroidered on the bedspread, wall papered to the hilt and views from wooden balconies out to sea melt our heart. This one should be on the pages of my favourite magazine ‘World of Interiors’. After walking three kilometers in the heat of the day, admiring the houses, taking many photos for my mother-in-law Anne who also loves a painted wooden house, admiring the view and tinkling carriages we are wondering where the beach is… ‘Still two kilometers!’ a clever traveler in a cart yells out to us. Turning back we are exhausted, the boat will go soon, I’m limping and Ben is thirsty. Paloma, on the other hand, is happily snoring away, she hasn’t had to walk a step lucky thing. Finally an empty carriage appears out of now where and we take a spin round the island before leaving this little piece of pine scented wonderland filled paradise.

Sultan Ahmed Camii or The Blue Mosque as it’s nickname prescribes, is spectacular. Built between 1609 to 1616 you cannot but feel the peace fill you as your attention is drawn high up the domed ceiling embedded with beautiful hand painted blue tiles, each one the same but different from the next. The calligraphy adorning the boarders and celing is by Seyyid Kasim Gubari the greatest calligrapher of the time. As requested I don a small sheet, to be used as a head scarf and body cover, I am quite partial to a turban or head scarf, but am shocked to see many tourist ladies have let theirs slip off as they walk hurredily through the beautiful mosque, snapping away haphazardly with their cameras while chewing gum and talking loudly and hardly respecingt the place or the religion. An immense chandelier hangs from various thin wires connected to the ceiling and is made up of hundreds of small upside down bell jars, it would have looked glorious in the day when they were filled with burning oil, rather than bulbs. All the pretty Turkish ladies sneak over to where we are sitting cross-legged on the carpet to hold Paloma’s hand and take pictures of her. She is like a talisman of goodluck to so many women wishing to conceive it seems.

Across the park and the old cobbled stone streets, through the throngs of Tourists and rose bushes stands the very ancient Hagia Sophia Camii. It is one of those places so echoing with history one can hardly believe one is walking through it with footsteps scraping a minute amount of marble from the steps as millions of people have done before. When I was studying Interior Design last year we were told this is one of the most important architectural landmarks in the world. Built as an Orthodox Basilica it dates back to 360 AD, it then burnt down twice and was re built, then taken over and used as a Mosque and has been a museum since 1935. As you walk around under the old dome beautiful rustic mosaics of the saints and Jesus peer out at you, some from under plaster, once applied by the Muslims to cover the forbidden icons. Huge discs with Turkish calligraphy adorn the walls and one can see where the stained glass windows have been replace with beautiful floral ornamentation, as any symbol of human form is forbidden in a holy Mosque. Upon leaving it is hard to miss the giant iron door, embellished with flowers and foliage relief boarders, reading the little plaque we are amazed to see this door pre-dates Jesus Christ. Immense in space, layered in stories, we are silenced by our awe of history once again.

Back in the sunshine we are walking down towards the sea. Lining the docks where seagulls the size of hawks dip and dive are canopied restaurants and a fish market. Metal buckets filled to the brim with silver sparkling sardines, Daliesque lobsters wait for the call and ugly flat turbot stare one eyed from the crushed ice bed they lay on. Fresh bream is grilled and brought to the table and we devour it with chilled glasses of the addictive Turkish Raki, the aniseed flavour gets me every time. Two largish men seated at the table in front of us have been bossing the waiters round and gesticulating in a over the top way, a three kilo lobster is delivered to the table, steaming and succlent, a waiter cracks open it’s huge pincers and serves the fancy Turkish businessmen. Ever curious we find out later, that ‘little ole’ lobster costs 200 Euro!

In the backstreets of Istanbul, away from the tourist hordes, we explore again and walk off our lunch. Hoardes of little children chase us mob Paloma to pinch her cheeks and touch her feet and legs. She giggles mischeviously at them all the while, loving this game. Once again, as always here, our baby belongs to everyone.

Crossing the Galata bridge the railings are lined with men fishing, little boys are being taught by grandfathers how to cast the line without gouging someones eye out. Buckets of fish wriggle in the heat of the day and we applaud the man with the most fish, somehow his line is full while his neighbour has no luck. Watching the tug boats, ferries and ships sailing to and fro through the indigo waters of the Bosphorous I only hope they don’t sell these fish to the restaurants.

Paloma spontaneously starts to blow raspberries as her only form of communication for four days, a few days later this ends and is replace with ear piercing shrieks, screams and giggles, startling passers by as she is partially obscured tucked into the ergo. It entertains us and we think it is sooo cute but I’m not sure others agree. Having been sleeping in a fold out tent on the floor thus far she has now learned to turn 360 degrees when sleeping and wakes up stuck across the narrowest part. At 21 weeks she is gaining indepenance and is constantly trying to roll over from her back to the tummy. Forgetting she is in the mastering stage, I leave her on the bed, turning my back for a moment, only to hear seconds later that sickening ‘thud’ all parents dread. And then the ear piercing scream that follows. Spinning round she is spread eagled on the floor, I carefully pick her up and calmly try and settle her. She starts to choke and vomits up milk, she is gasping for breath and looking at me with penetrating eyes, calling out for me to help her. Ben has left the hotel for supplies and I am about to freak out if she doesn’t start to breathe soon. Calmly I sit her down and pat her on the back and remember paramedic Bens word ‘If they are screaming, then they are probably ok, as long as they aren’t limp and quiet’. My heart is pounding, it’s been a few minutes, you feel so helpless! She vomits again and finally takes a breath. Shaking with fright I wash her down and we are both still in tears when Ben returns. It’s not the first time, but it shakes you to the core nonetheless. She’s one tough baby mind you.

Soaking up the atmosphere of Istanbul, smoking nargilie, wandering the spice filled lanes, salivating at the piles of Turkish delights, nougat and other delicacies to tempt one, watching an amazing concert of Whirling Dervishes spin into nirvana and getting lost in the Bazars has been a wonderful time spent in this incrediable city.

Turkish Delights

The heat of the Turkish air hits us as we exit the plane, a scent, new yet familiar, a mixture of Nargilie pipe tobacco, pollution, sweat, humidity…I don’t know but we inhale it like a drug, newness, untold stories and sights unseen await us as we speed through the night under centuries old aqueducts and crumbling ramparts, into the city of Istanbul.

Like the true ‘Gypset’ we are – me  in swirling-skirt and Ben in little waist-coat – allow a bow-tied porter to deposit our now slightly-scuffed but luscious luggage in the foyer of the the old dame that is the ‘Grand Hotel de Londres 1892’. Gilt edged ceilings, ornate golden framed photos of old Constantenople, coloured glass chandeliers twinkling above and talking parrots in massive wire cages greet us as we enter. Surveying the lush raspberry-carpeted stairway, we sip chilled martinis and the small tribulations of our last two days fade away in the face of this boho luxe we now find ourselves in. After jumping on the bed in excitement a few times, we rush out to explore the night.

A city that never sleeps, Istanbul is en-par with New York or London for it’s nightlife… the area we are staying in is filled with narrow winding alleys flanked by towering beautiful apartment blocks of yesteryear. We walk for ages, past hundreds of little ‘hole in the wall’ bars and their packed pavements overflowing with jovial youth, the elderly and tourists alike all eating, drinking and making merry to electric lute bands and singers in every corner. Restaurateurs vie for our patronage as the Turks are famous for, ‘Sir, Madam, this way… you like?’ and eventually, we find a gorgeous corner bar with painted ceiling, chandeliers and fresh fish. Our pedantic need to find the ‘best’ place to dine, often leads us to some interesting places and always by the time we have our meal in front of us it is well deserved. This ‘Rambalas’ reminiscent of the boulevard of the same name in Barcelona, is about 10 meters wide. Day and night it is a huge moving ocean of humanity. There are approximately 2 million tourists in Turkey at any one time, this is the entire population of Macedonia wandering the streets and seeing the sights daily. It’s a game I love to play, the darting through a heavy crowd, Ben following calling out for me to be careful with Paloma clinging like a koala to my front. But having worked in big cities for the past ten years, crowd navigation and survival is my forte. The party atmosphere just keeps turning itself up by notches until we retire to the rooftop terrace of our Hotel Londres where Earnst Hemingway used to stay and watch the view glisten in the reflection of the mighty Bosphorous below.

The city sprawls languidly over vast hillsides. Take a turn and you are standing on a precipice like street, which runs almost parallel down the hillside, while still above you crumbling apartments stand with washing zig-zagging overhead prettily. Having taken our turn off the well-trodden path of tourism, which is rife in Istanbul, we are surprised to find the ‘real life’ or ‘back-stage’ as Ben desribes it, are not too hard to find. Ladies have a lounge room sized carpet out on the street, with their head scarves pushed back and the hijab soaked at the hem, they scrub it with wooden brooms and hose it down to the joy of the neighbourhood kids, jumping through the water like we did as children too. A little girl turns and gives me her best grey toothed grin as she pays the fairy floss man and pulls a bag from the stick he carries laden with this deadly sweet treat. Old men stoop in doorways chatting and wave as we pass. Paloma is growing daily, and getting heavier I should say, testament to her healthy appetite, but carrying her everywhere I have developed some nasty hip pains and the obligatory Turkish tea rest stops have increased in frequency. Back in The Galata the tower is the focus of the area sparrow’s fly overhead and where we find delicious kebabs and fresh salad for lunch. Dotted on every corner in Istanbul are juice bars with bags of oranges awaiting a knife, hung up in colourful net bags.

Breastfeeding in public in a Muslim land is made easier with the pretty shawl my sister gave me on our departure. Paloma unfortunately doesn’t think so and swats it out of the way, constantly exposing me. Turkey is a secular culture dominated by mosque spires and even though people don’t seem to disapprove at all I always try and respect the customs of the place we travel in. Most mothers are surprised to see me breastfeeding her, as even from a young age babies seem to be fed with the bottle here, formula or breast milk I don’t know, but that surprises me more.

Street side we are sitting, smoking the Nargilie water pipe we so love, Paloma desperate to have a toke, sipping sweet apple tea. A gorgeous Turkish couple pass, the hubby looking like a young Antonio Banderas, the woman turns back in a flash showering Paloma with ‘M’ashallah!!! M’ashallah!!!’ seconds later she has ripped my child from Ben’s arms and is kissing her everywhere – on the cheeks, head, even lips… EVERYWHERE!!!! What can one do? I really want to write a sign in Turkish language reading ‘DO NOT KISS ON LIPS, CHILD MAY BITE’ but I never get around to it. ‘Do you have children of your own?’ I enquire ‘NO! In’sallah, we will soon!’ she exclaims with a flash of anger directed at her lothario, squeezing Paloma till her eyes bulge. I politely wrench my child back before she disappears. Anyone else traveling to these parts with a too-cute baby should be well warned that your baby becomes public property and unless you can give a little, you ain’t gonna have fun. It’s great we can inspire people, if only they would ask first!