Wednesday, November 4, 2009

It's Raining in Istanbul

Not too sure how to describe Istanbul on this visit—unlike some of the places I’ve been, this remains a popular spot for tourism, so many of you likely have been here and can readily tell me the great hidden places I’ve missed or others that I’ve overrated. No matter. And more than that, I’m here for a conference, which just limits my roaming time as much as a bad cell phone contract.

Nevertheless…there’s no getting around it: this is a wonderful, exciting, fascinating city. Sure, there are sections that are hardly auspicious, but this is no third world location. The nice parts—the hilltops, the places by the Bosphorus, the views from the hilltops of the Bosphorus, the Sea of Marmara , and the Golden Horn —make you appreciate why people have fought over this prime spot for centuries.

The U.S. papers may have been full of accounts of Hillary Clinton’s trip to Pakistan but you may not have noticed that at the same time, Bill Clinton decided to stop by here yesterday, with Gerhard Schroeder in tow. Since they both told the Turks they belong in the European Union, the accounts in the English-language press were glowing. I’m not sure where Bill decided to step out later for some fun, but he was in the right place.

Probably more than New York , this is the city that never sleeps. I’ve never seen or read about as many restaurants and bars and clubs that stay open until morning—or never bother to close at all. The only dampening influence was something totally out of control—it’s been both cool and rainy most of the week.

One high point was a chance to see the Çirağan Palace , an Ottoman grand building by the Bosphorus that has been revived as a hotel—but most of the rooms are in a new annex that leaves the public rooms in the palace part, lovingly restored. The Turkish Ministry of Justice picked this place to host a celebratory dinner for the conference, so beneath the massive chandeliers, we dined on traditional Turkish meze, the first courses now popular in the U.S. , and then some good fish—not surprisingly this turns out to be a great place for seafood of all kinds.

Despite the irony of this 99% Muslim country being a haven for serious drinking, my recollection of local love for cherry juice has been confirmed. Turkish Airlines must have run out on the late flight to New York by the time I boarded for its return here but I’ve been making up for it ever since I got here. As with every other country at this end of Europe , one may imbibe all the raki you want but I’ve been steering clear of it. It seems that it originally made its way to the Balkans from here, another benefit conferred by the Ottoman Empire .

The beauty of Ottoman architecture is evident from many of the old and thus beautifully stone-carved mosques, not at all like the modern ones I recall from Pakistan and Indonesia that have all the charm of most contemporary religious buildings. Dolmabahçe Palace , right up the road from the one where we dined, is overwhelming right from the massive carved gates that greet you at the entryway. This is where the sultans came to escape the summer heat of the old part of the city, Sultanahmet (naturally), although today you would probably say they left to get away from all the tourists and grifters at Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, and inside their old in-town hangout, Topkapi Palace .

This is also heaven for transportation buffs—you have your choice of a new Metro, not completed, so it operates in isolated sections, modern trams, old trolleys, two funiculars, and ferries of all kinds connecting the two continents, even though there now are two bridges tying them together across the Bosphorus. The city itself is vast—with many different distinct sections, some quite swell—especially the ones by the water, on the Bosphorus. Just like everyplace else.

My timing hasn’t been the best: next week they have a major international film festival, Filmekimi, here where Woody Allen debuts his latest, Whatever Works, a return to Manhattan featuring Larry David. There’s also lots of art and music of all kinds around. And although I’ve mostly been on the European side, the traffic is totally Asian, relentless and forcing to remember that the motorist always has the right of way.

The conference I’ve been attending is totally up my alley, in that it’s on court administration, and I’ve met up with people with whom I’ve worked all over, from a young lawyer from Georgia (the country) who’s now deputy on a project there, to other consultants with whom I’ve labored from Macedonia to Tulsa. It’s also impressive to see that other countries are as advanced or even ahead of us in some areas—the Turks, for example, demonstrated a fantastic computer system that almost is able to lean up and spit in your eye, among other capacities.

I also missed Republic Day, which was last week, commemorating the founding of the Turkish Republic and yet another occasion to remember Ataturk, whose picture graces many stores and offices—including the hotel where I’m staying—and appears in displays along at least one major thoroughfare on which I traveled yesterday. In one of the English-language papers today, a woman recalled the day in 1937 when he turned up at her history class. Lots of Turkish flags remain hanging above many streets.

Not too much chance to shop or tour, mostly because it’s been raining most of the time—which did wonders for conference attendance. But I explored the markets and shops yesterday—particularly enjoying the mountains of spices for sale. In addition to the fabled Grand Bazaar—the world’s largest salesroom—there now are about 15 major shopping malls hereabouts, emphasizing upscale British stores like Harvey Nichols as well as Marks & Spencer.

Enjoyed a chance in a brief sunny interval (to use one of the BBC ’s favorite expressions for weather) to join an American student here whose parents are friends of friends and hear about his adventures while we looked out across the Bosphorus at a delightful little village called Ortakoy, which is hard by the first bridge built over the famous strait. With many meals included in the conference schedule, I’ve also been less rangy in my explorations on the dining front, but I did savor gulbroken, which are Turkish pancakes, sometimes filled with spinach or other vegetables. On the dumpling front, the Turkish version of manti are small dumplings on the order of small Siberian pelmeni, as compared by the larger-sized manti found in Kyrgyzstan or the even larger khinkhali of Georgia.

The streets along the Bosphorus are particularly upscale, with small shops and restaurants that are more reminiscent of the well-heeled sections of European cities: think the quais of Paris . This is also a city of hills—sometimes I’ve seen references to the Seven Hills, which is yet another bow to Rome , whose equal this town originallybecame when the Roman Empire was divided. I trudged up and down a few steep ones yesterday—thinking of doing “hill work” preparing for a race—in an area called Karakoy, which is at one end of the Galata bridge that goes across the Golden Horn to the “Historic Peninsula,” which is the old city. This section was a lot scruffier, with the auto and electrical parts stores and huge old solidly-built bank buildings that had been constructed in the early 20th century by the Greeks and Jews who settled in this part of town and became major merchants. The Galata bridge itself is unusual, in that it has a lower deck that is populated largely by cheap but excellent fish restaurants.

In case you thought the rest of the world had given in because the NFL played in Wembley last weekend, they won’t be watching the World Series here tonight: football, i.e., soccer, still rules, and Liverpool v. Lyon is scheduled to be on the screen in the bar.

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