Street Smarts

Navigating the streets of Istanbul offers either adventure or challenge, whichever you make it. I enjoy it, especially now that I know my way around (after four years). Good maps are an absolute necessity, at least early on, and my favorites were the back pages of the DK Istanbul guidebook. One thing they don’t have on those maps, though, is the location of public rest rooms. Crucial information. I often just make a point of stopping for a cup of coffee or tea and use the restaurant’s facilities, but I’ve also located some very lovely tuvalets near tourist spots. My favorite is the one at the Arasta Bazaar, just around the corner from the Blue Mosque. The rest rooms cost a lira (about 60 cents), but they’re sparking clean, and definitely eye candy with their brilliant blue, white, and red ceramic tile décor.

The Arasta Bazaar Tuvalet

The bonus of a visit to the Arasta bazaar is always a cup of tea with Hüseyin Palioğlu at Harem 49—his treasure trove of a rug shop. In fact, during my visit with him last weekend, I succumbed to the allure of a lush green Uşak (Oushak) rug. It’s a design I’ve admired since first arriving in Turkey, and now I’m the proud owner of an enviable specimen.

My beautiful new Uşak carpet

A body gets thirsty trekking Istanbul’s cobbled streets, but there’s always a juice seller nearby. Often they’re just little carts or storefronts, but in Sultanahmet there’s a bona-fide Orange stand. Something out of Sesame Street, complete with ornate-vested juice stewards. May I recommend the pomegranate juice? It’s merely 3 lira (about $2). Well worth the wait as they press the fruit right before your eyes.

Pomegranate juice abounds in Istanbul.

If you don’t stick around, though, you’ll have a bit of a shock when you can’t find a trash receptacle for your empty cup. There just aren’t any. You can walk blocks and blocks without finding a trash can of any kind, so I often step into a shop to ask if I can use their wastebasket (Çop var mi?). I’ve been told that the absence of trash cans is due to past bomb threats. Whatever the reason, it’s mighty inconvenient. I’ve carried an empty coffee cup or an apple core for hours. Unfortunately, many people just give up and throw their refuse on the street.

I’ve often seen men pulling huge bags of trash up and down the streets of the city, and thanks to my friend Cristi, I now know that they’re not trash but recycling bags. The city pays men to walk the streets picking up recyclables (and sorting through trash bins for them as well). It’s a humble beginning for a recycling program, but it’s alleviated much of the trash that was once strewn all over the city.

A man at the start of his recycling route.

Last weekend I came across two such collectors relaxing on a half-full recycling bag enjoying a smoke break. They kindly agreed to a photo. (“Foto çekabilir miyim?” is a question I ask many times a day when trekking the city.) Istanbul employs thousands of street cleaners and rubbage collectors, and the improvement they’ve made over the past four years is commendable.

Recyclers take a break.

They also hire men to cruise the streets with large, flat 2-wheeled carts collecting scrap metal. Though I didn’t spot any this weekend, I did snap a photo of the overnight trash accumulated on a street in Kadiköy. Slowly, slowly, the city’s garbage problems are being addressed. Try to imagine how much trash is generated by a city of 15 million…

A night’s trash waits for pick-up in Kadiköy.

There were a few other street surprises, the first one a curbside Turkcell bug holding a Hoş Geldiniz (welcome) sign. Pretty cute, especially in the sunshine.

The Turkcell bug welcomes us to a Kadiköy cell phone shop.

The bigger surprise, though, is an advertising campaign by the Garanti Bank of Turkey, using President Barack Obama to promote their great interest rates. I can’t help but wonder if they got his permission. These posters are plastered all over the city.

Obama unknowingly promotes the Turkish economy.

Yup, you never know what you’re going to encounter on the streets of Istanbul. Never.

A Whirlwind Theater Tour

It’s all about theater—well, friends first, then theater. I’ve had my sights on London since I first came to Istanbul, but between the high cost of airfare and hotels, there was no hope. Enter Easy Jet. It’s brought airfare within reach, and with some serious searching, I found a hotel that wasn’t totally outrageous. So—off I flew!

I arrived on Red Nose Day, a huge charity fund-raising day in England. Everywhere you turned, someone was sporting a clown nose. I even spotted a few on Saturday—the day after. This year Red Nose antics raised a total of nearly 58 million pounds—about 82 million dollars. Now THAT’S IMPRESSIVE!!!!

A few red noses on Saturday

Friday night three friends and I met in at the Victoria Theater for Billy Elliot, a truly powerful musical. Set with the backdrop of Britain’s year-long miner’s union strike of 1984, young Billy Elliot traded his boxing lessons for ballet class. His father, already stressed by the strike, nearly blew a gasket when he found out. Elton John’s music evokes feelings from elation to angst to anguish as the story progresses. I doubt there was a dry eye among us as we stepped outside after the show, still shaking our heads in wonder at this gifted young dancer (about 11 years old) and the rest of Billy Elliot’s amazing cast. A GREAT start for my theater weekend.

Saturday my friend Larry and I wandered Covent Garden most of the day— loverly. (It IS where Liza Doolittle sold flowers in My Fair Lady.) Unlike the bevy of flower and vegetable vendors it once was, Covent Garden is now a tourist spot. It still features an open market, but vendors now offer clothing, jewelry, and gift-type items. Pretty intriguing ones, at that. There are also shops, cafes, and restaurants to suit any taste
My favorite thing about Covent Garden, though, is the buskers. Musicians, jugglers, mimes, and you-name-it draw crowds of onlookers to every cobbled street and lane.

I’m not sure who’s the better actor!

one of many buskers—the man in the red derby

a knife juggler in a green beret—on an 8-foot tall unicycle!

A Chinese man plays the Sheng, a precursor to the pipe organ and the bagpipes.

We watched string quintets (very talented) who performed stunning acrobatics as they played without ever missing a note. A brilliant tenor entertained his extensive audience by removing a woman’s boots and donning them himself as he sang an aria from Carmen. Then he wrapped another woman’s scarf around his neck. Go figure! He was sheer delight, and the women he “stole” from were both charmed and charming with him.

a multi-talented chamber quartet performs acrobatics

a music aficionado among the masses

the tenorial robber

The tenor sings his final notes—a virtuoso!

After a pub lunch, Deidre, Larry and I trekked to the Noel Coward Theater, where we had box seats for Avenue Q, an x-rated version of Sesame Street. It’s about Princeton, a recent university graduate with no money who is trying to “find” himself. I blushed for the few children in the audience, as the music was more than risqué. In fact, the songs were hilarious. Just imagine puppets and their actor counterparts singing “It Sucks To Be Me,”  “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist,” and “The Internet Is For Porn”, a spirited dispute between the sweet little monster named Kate and the more earthy internet-surfing Trekky Monster. Need I say more? If you have a chance (and you’re not a prude), be sure to add this play to your list.

You can tell  it’s not a children’s production…


We wanted to catch dinner afterward, but as you may know, England isn’t renowned for its cuisine. Pub lunches are usually good, while the best evening option is ethnic food. We went to an Indian restaurant, the Govinda, where we had a delectably spicy vegetarian meal—cheap (at least for London). The  Govinda is a Hari Krishna restaurant, replete with interesting characters. Later that evening we encountered them again on their evening processions, singing and dancing their way through the streets of Soho.

Truly London—the signpost and the phone booth

I was so, so impressed with this solar-powered parking meter.

…and in Hyde Park, “a host of golden daffodils.” (Thanks, W.W.)

Sunday morning I was on my own, so I walked Hyde Park in the early morning sunsine. It was great to just walk, walk, walk. The daffodils were “nodding and dancing in the breeze” while the Bobbies were cruised the walkways, ever on the alert. After a long walk to Victoria Station, I found it hard to hop on the bus for the airport. Oh, well. All good things must end, eh? I seriously think I’ll plan one more trek to London. Want to join me?

Fast Food a la Turka

The food in Turkey is incredible—beyond compare, I must admit. It was one of the things I was most excited to get back to. I get a Turkish meal every day at school, and tonight our bartender at the social center fixed us all a delectable meal of grilled fish, four delicious Turkish salads, flat bread, and a dessert. All that for only 12 Turkish Lira (about $7). Incredible! (Actually, I was disappointed to see that the fish was served whole, but once I took a bite, I could have cared less. It was çok lezzetliı (delicious).

One thing that always amazes me, though, is the convenience of the fast foods these people put out. You can always pick up a bite on the road, at least a simit—a large bagel-like bread coated with sesame seeds, sold all day long from glass-encased street vendor wagons.

a shy simitçi—simit seller
The other two things you can often pick up along the way are rice-stuffed mussels and roasted chestnuts. I don’t actually like either of them, but they’re certainly popular fare here.

Chestnut vendor on Istaklal near Taksim…

…and his wares.
The Turks are masters of fast food. The two things I’ve often succumbed to are börek and döner. Börek is a pastry made with thin layers of filo-like pastry (yufka), often layered with cheese, spinach, or other delectable treats. They slice it from huge pans in a flash, then cut it into bite-sized pieces, bim-bam thank-you-ma’am. Brushed liberally with olive oil, it carries the rich flavor of that delectable fat.

The börekçi—börek vendors.

Döner is a favorite of nearly everyone. It’s sliced from a huge conglomeration of meat  (usually lamb or chicken) that’s spiced and stacked on a vertical skewer. We’re talking a LARGE skewer, anywhere from 3 feet to 6 feet high. The meat turns around and around next to a vertical heat source, and the chef cuts thin slices from it as the meat cooks. It’s usually piled into a small French loaf or a piece of pita bread, complete with tomatoes, peppers, and onions. YUM! You can get a half-loaf döner for less than a few lira (about a dollar). Lots of people are familiar with Greek gyro sandwiches—well, döner is nearly the same thing, but without the yogurt sauce. In fact, sometimes they put French fries in the sandwich as well, which DOESN’T appeal to me in the least. Sort of like a mashed potato sandwich. Starch!

Döner, either lamb or chicken. Note the French fries in the tray…

Unfortunately, McDonald’s and Burger King have caught on here as well. McDonald’s has come up with a McTurko, which must be a lamb-wich, but I don’t know. I refuse to patronize them over here. It seems a bit sacrilegious somehow.

The famous McDonald’s McTurko—What? Never heard of it?

One interesting thing about the Istanbul McDonald’s, though, is that they deliver. Yup. Every fast-food restaurant, Western or Turkish, has motorcycles with little delivery boxes on the back. Last year at Robert College I had Turkish meals delivered to me numerous times—they’ll even deliver an inexpensive meal for one person. Turkish hospitality, I guess.

No one should starve in Turkey, let me tell you!

Checking out Istanbul’s Ads

Teaching at Koç (pronounced “coach”) is similar to teaching just about anywhere. I have motivated kids and lazy kids, bright students and slower ones, and everything in between. For the most part, though, I have to say that Turkish kids are wonderful. They’re warm and respectful (for the most part), though a titch chattier than their U.S. counterparts. Usually it’s an endearing feature, though. Turkish charm. I teach both 10th and 11th graders, and right now I’m enjoying it.

Yağiz, me, and Pinar

My juniors just finished a whirlwind poetry survey, and now we’re diving into a lengthy media unit—the businesses behind it, the advertising that promotes it, and the social propaganda that pervades it. This is a weighty and interesting unit, to say the least. We started with a PBS video called “Merchants of Cool,” which investigates the researchers behind marketing to teens, the group with more discretionary income than anyone else on the planet. Not only do they spend over 150 billion dollars a year (in America), but each teen filters over 3000 discrete advertising messages a day. EVERY day! Unbelievable.

So—I made it my mission to document how that translates here in Istanbul, this ancient, beautiful city. Actually, the real truth is that I needed an excuse to go into the city last Sunday. The sun was finally out after three weeks of clouds and rain, and the weatherman had promised a full day of sun. How could I resist? After a leisurely Turkish breakfast with a friend at the Marmara Café (egg, tomato, cucumber, cheese, olives, and bread), I headed out, camera at the ready.

Istiklal Caddesi, early Sunday under hanging decorations and Turkcell bugs

İstiklal Caddesi (Liberty/Independence Street) is a mile-long pedestrian street that may well be the busiest street in the city. It’s about 30 feet wide and paved in marble blocks, with a quaint red tram clanking up and down its center. Early on Sunday morning Istaklal is relatively quiet, but by noon it’s mobbed.

Decorations are strung overhead year-round, with both seasonal symbols and ads hanging from them. In past years red coke bottle cut-outs graced the skies (embarrassing to Americans), but now it’s the Turkcell logo—some kind of a cutesie little bug. In case you’re wondering, Turkcell is the major cell phone company here.
Everywhere I looked, I found ads: neon ads on storefronts, ads painted on metal roll-down doors, banners, billboards, and entire buildings covered with humongous ads—even over the windows!

Istiklal’s neon signs

a roll-down door ad

The full-building “billboard” ad

Everywhere I looked, there were ads, ads, ads. I took a bus to Ortaköy, a magical spot on the Bosphorus, and even the handles on the bus (for standing passengers) sport ads. Imagine!

…and even the “handles” on the bus!

While wandering the weekend arts market in Ortaköy, I came across a group of young men promoting Nescafe (something they love over here) with yard-long  pillow-like Nescafe envelopes. When I explained that I was taking photos for a media and advertising unit, they were happy to pose for me. AND—I came away with a pocketful of Nescafe Cappucino envelopes (little ones). Go figure!

A Nescafe Marketing ploy—cute guys!

I’m particularly intrigued with the contrast between the old and the new here; it’s no surprise that glitzy ads compete with the city’s historical sites. Photos say it best, I guess.

Turkcell bugs invade Ortaköy.

Can you find the Russian Orthodox Church behind the ads?

Unfortunately, the advertising here is mostly clutter—just visual noise—while the lines of Istanbul’s centuries-old buildings are striking and awe-inspiring. Gosh, which do you think will endure?