Patience – an undervalued virtue

I’m as guilty as anyone for undervaluing both my own work and that of others. I tend to overlook the time it takes to do something, to create something, to produce something – and in doing so I’m invariably surprised at the price of said somethings.

Take some Hungarian cross-stitched embroidery. Beautiful stuff. Hours and hours go into making just one table piece. The patience required is incredible and for me, given my notable lack of same, barely imaginable. And yet, although I know it takes hours of work, I don’t want to pay what the shops are asking and I feel guilty about not paying enough when I buy from source. Somewhere, there’s a mismatch.

In Istanbul, I had the  (good/mis)fortune to visit a couple of carpet shops. I was given the whole spiel on how they’re made and where each type is from. The price tags were quite incredible. We’re talking thousands of dollars here for pure silk and a thousand plus for artificial silk and cotton. The smallest one I saw had an asking price in the hundreds of dollars, and even that was out of my reach. No matter. I’m a chobi fan myself (an expensive hobby to have) and have neither the money nor the floor space to mix my designs.

Regardless of the material used though, the same amount of work goes into each carpet. And that’s a lot of knots. A carpet that is 10×10 (I can’t remember if it was feet or metres) in size requires more than one million hand-tied knots and a hell of a lot of patience.

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I watched one lady as she worked on a silk carpet and I was gobsmacked. Yes, it was a tourist promotion thingey – she was outside a carpet shop down by the Blue Mosque. What struck me was how incredibly good-natured she was. I can imagine the sort of foul mood I’d be in if I had to pay my bills by sitting at a loom all day tying knots only to have some tourist like me ooh and aah and then cringe at the price.

Her tip box wasn’t exactly weighed down with millions of lira and I couldn’t quite figure out the math. Apparently the carpet she was working on would take six months to finish (she is paid 1500 a month – about $660). It would sell for $4000 and so cost far more to make. I thought I might have lost something in translation but the salary seems right, as an intern at Microsoft makes on average $1200 per month. And with all due respect to said intern, this lady may well have more talent in her little finger. The carpet was exquisite. Perhaps she’s paid more as a performer and some little old dear in a Turkish village gets just a fraction of that. Who knows.

IMG_4573 (800x600)I often wonder how much money buskers make, or mime artists, or others who spend their day showcasing their talent in front of an often ungrateful public. For me, if I like the music or, better still, like the attitude with which the musicians play – it’s worth a bob or three.

I’ve been lifted out of a melancholic haze when walking by a chap playing the sax. I’ve done double-takes when I pass that lad down by Déak tér who looks as if he’s sitting on air. And while I’m no great fan of table-hopping musicians as I eat, I’m all for musicians on public transport.

I just wish that the general public would pay more attention, be a little less distracted, and acknowledge the creative talent of those for whom the street is their stage. Note to self already made.

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2014 Grateful 14

JTWhose idea was it to go see James Taylor anyway? When the question was thrown out on the table, we had a hard time answering it. Between us we could only come up with half a dozen of his songs and the tickets were horrendously expensive, even for Dublin. But we were celebrating one of De Wimmen’s birthdays and no matter whose idea it was, James Taylor got to come along, too.

My walk through the IFSC to the Point (or the O2 or 3 Arena or whatever it’s known as now) was an eye-opener. It’s a village in the heart of Dublin’s docklands, another world. Not for the first time this week did I feel like a tourist in a city I grew up in. Most peculiar.  Pre-concert vino and eats at Lagoona primed the stage for what would be an emotional evening.

Born in 1948, Taylor was just 20 when he signed for Apple Records – the first non-British musician to do so. He had all but given up on making it in the music business when his fortunes turned. He was recording his first album in the studios at the same time the Beatles were recording The White Album. Paul McCartney made a guest appearance on his recording of Carolina in my mind. He admitted, amongst other things, to stealing shamelessly from the Beatles. His easy banter and pleasant disposition shrank the packed arena to the size of a living room where each of us felt as if we were the only ones there. I’ve not seen than happen in a while.

Reading of his life, it’s a miracle that he’s so together. Early battles with depression and heroin took their toll.  Breaking both hands and both feet in a motorcycle crash didn’t help either. And while he still fights with his demons – which he describes as ‘an inseparable part of [his] personality’ –  the man we saw on stage on Tuesday night was lovely, simply lovely. Ordinary, down to earth, human. There was no changing outfits – he wore his sweat stains like a man, and that’s what he was: a man and his guitar in conversation with a crowd.

I’m the world’s worst when it comes to recognising songs and who sings them, yet it’s a constant source of wonder to me as to how a particular song can transport me back in time and unleash a tide of emotions that I’d thought were long since buried. Everything about James Taylor that night touched a button. It was electric. [And this is even more amazing considering that there were many times in the last few months that I’ve had to check my diary for his name and really had no idea whom I was going to see.]

At one stage I was bawling shamelessly. His hit Fire and rain about his time in mental institutions and the suicide of a friend was a  favourite of my best mate Lori who died a couple of years ago – and that line ‘I always thought I’d see you again’ pushed me over the edge. I always thought so, too, and I didn’t. The biggest mistake we make is thinking we have time.  In my mind’s eye, as he sang, I went through the years of our friendship and what I lost when she died. An emotional roller-coaster.

James Taylor looked so like an old boyfriend of mine that I pulled out my phone and texted him (said boyfriend, not JT!) – something I’ve not done for years. Too long. And that sent me down a whole other path related to whys and wherefores, reasons and seasons, and the passing of lifetimes.

And when he sang Shower the people, something else kicked off:  Shower the people you love with love, show them the way you feel. Was there a full moon that night? I wonder. Whatever was in that man’s music pulled me every which way. His How sweet it is has to be one of the simplest love songs out there. Clean and uncomplicated, which is interesting given that his own love life was far from being either. He was married three times, most famously to Carly Simon and most recently in 2001. Third time’s a charm.

Then his classic rendition of Carole King’s You’ve got a friend took me back to my first year in college to revisit the huge life change that happened in 1983 – a year of unrequited love and teenage angst that left an indelible mark on my psyche. And I was off again. [Did you know that Joni Mitchell did the backing vocals on the original recording?]

It was a magical evening spent with great friends in the company of old memories. This week, I’m grateful that I made the trip home just to see James Taylor, even if I didn’t realise it was him that I was going to see not having made the connection between the man and his music. The night itself and the conversations that resulted the following day helped me turn a corner. You know who you are – thank you.

Comments and their consequences

Dining out alone one evening lately, I got into conversation with a couple of Canadian tourists who were on a driving holiday through the region. They seemed very impressed with Budapest, so I didn’t feel the need to switch into ambassadorial gear and sing its praises. We agreed that Prague, while interesting, was simply too full of tourists to be enjoyable. And we shared similar impressions of Vienna as an aging dowager who had lost some of her joie de vivre.

They still had two weeks left of their tour and were in the process of planning their route to Zagreb. I’m a pathetic poker player. If a thought registers in my head, it’s clearly visible on my face. I have learned to immediately shift into self-correction mode, and I am getting faster at adjusting the image presented, but if you’re looking at me and paying attention, I’m like an open book. They were looking at me and they were paying attention; they registered and correctly interpreted my ‘Zagreb? Are you mad?’ look.

I had hoped to be let off lightly with a blasé ‘as a city, it just doesn’t do it for me’ but they were obviously looking forward to their visit and my careless reaction had thrown a big wet blanket on their enthusiasm. I had been introduced to them by the restaurant manager as someone who travels extensively and they wanted details.

IMG_1447 (800x600)Zagreb really doesn’t do it for me. I thought it tired, listless, and somewhat jaded. No matter how much I tried to conjure up some of the magic that must have been there back in the days of the Orient Express, I failed miserably. Even saying in the fantastic Esplanade Hotel wasn’t enough to fill the void. I tried to find some contemporary Croatian writers in translation to see what I was missing, but sadly, what I found was far from inspiring. We did walk about, we did explore, and apart from its wonderful cemetery, I can’t remember anything else of note. I’m glad I visited, but I’m in no hurry back.

My Canadian travellers decided that as they’d already booked and paid for their accommodation, they’d press on regardless of the fact that to my mind, a couple of days in Subotica and then on to Belgrade would have been far more interesting and rewarding.

Later that evening, I stopped to reflect on how easily I offer up my unsolicited opinion. Some might find this charming and even a little engaging. But not everyone really needs to know what I think. At least with blogging (and indeed, this column) people can choose whether or not to read what I have to write. But when we’re in conversation – short of telling me to shut up – there’s little you can do but listen or walk away.

I think I might need to revisit the carelessness with which I sometimes venture forth and perhaps take a second or two to give some thought to the consequences of my comments. So, Zagreb mightn’t be up there on my list of places to visit, but that doesn’t mean that you won’t enjoy it. And while Budapest has its drawbacks, if you caught me on a bad day when nothing was going right and life in Outer Mongolia was looking positively attractive in comparison to yet another day in this city, I’d hate to think that my opinion on a given Tuesday might put you off coming to see it for yourself.

This week, I’m left wondering what sort of menu my comments would make if, as Robert Louis Stevenson once said: ‘Everybody, sooner or later, sits down to a banquet of consequences.’

First published in the Budapest Times 26 September 2014

Laughing and crying at lunchtime in Dublin

I love having you home, but I couldn’t afford it if you moved home permanently. So said a mate of mine as we spent a leisurely Saturday in Dublin recently rediscovering one of the city’s hidden gems.

Upstairs in the iconic Bewley’s Café on Grafton Street, there’s a small theatre that seats about 50 people. Here, at lunchtimes, starting at 1pm, you can have your bowl of soup and your brown bread while watching some of the best of Irish talent on stage in one-(wo)man shows. If I’m lucky, and I time it right, trips home can include a crossover so I can catch two shows. I was lucky this time.

Last Saturday, it was the brilliant Phelim Drew starring in a stage adaptation of George Orwell’s first book Down and out in Paris and London. With nothing on stage except a table and a chair, Drew (son of the late great Ronnie Drew) played his heart out over the course of an hour bringing to life a host of characters, none more credible than the character’s ex-girlfriend. Any actor who can make me believe I’m listening to or watching a woman just by a change of voice, posture, and tone is impressive. When I go to the theatre, I expect both to suspend my belief and still believe in everything I see and hear. No wonder I’ve been known to drive people to drink with my expectations.

As is usual for Orwell, Drew’s character is never named but we get a sense of who and what he’s like through his narrative. He was so credible that being an ‘everyman’ didn’t matter. For once I didn’t need name, rank, and serial number. I was completely absorbed and for an hour, genuinely believed that he was real.

HFThen on Tuesday, we went to see the inimitable Hilda Fay in My name is Alice Devine, a play by Shay Linehan about ‘one woman’s struggle to cope with everything post-boom Ireland can throw at her’. Hilda Fay is better known for her role as Tracey McGuigan on the long-running Irish soap, Fair City. I saw her years ago in Roddy Doyle’s The Woman who Walked into Doors and was impressed. So impressed that I changed plans and made sure I had this opportunity to see her again.

As an actor, she took us to the edge so many times in one hour that I lost track. We laughed, we cried, we hated, we loved. Like Drew, she too brought a cast of characters to life so vividly that I could picture what they looked like. Crying into my soup on a Tuesday lunchtime in Dublin wasn’t quite what I’d planned for my day (and little did I know that I’d be crying again later that evening – that’s another story though). I was reminded of the lines from Rod McKuen

However wretchedly I feel,
I feel.

I can be emotional, I admit. But had you told me that I could feel (really feel) so many emotions in 60 minutes, I wouldn’t have believed you. This really is theatre at its best. If you are in Dublin, it runs till 11 October. Go see it.



What makes an Irish pub Irish?

I’m fussy about my pubs. I’m even fussier about foreign pubs that claim to be Irish. They need to be Irish owned with at least one genuine, dyed-in-the-wool Irish person behind the bar or working the floor. Someone who knows how to banter, to give the nod.  Otherwise, in my humble opinion, they have no claim to being an Irish pub. I’ve banged on about this for years and rightly or wrongly, that was my belief and I was glued to it.

whiskey mirrorI can still remember the shock of discovering (in San Francisco) that you can order an Irish pub on the Internet. You send in the square footage, pick your package and it’s delivered – lock, stock, and  three smoking leprechauns. The frosted mirrors, the plaques with witty sayings, the pictures of the usual wittysuspects – Joyce, Behan, Beckett, Wilde et al., all come neatly crated ready to be unpacked and hung on the walls.

The Juke Box comes loaded with the Waterboys, U2, The Cranberries (am I dating myself?) or whomever has carved a niche as being Irish on the international music circuit. Depending on the politics of the location, you might get a rabble of rebel songs from the Wolfe Tones and the Chieftains. Or a few Daniel O’Donnell albums for the crooners.

fryThe bar itself will have the usual Irish whiskey and pints of Guinness or Kilkenny with bottles of Magners in the fridge. The food, always optional, will be vaguely Irish, or at least Irish-themed with local takes on original classics like the Full Irish. [There’s a completely different conversation to be had about what constitutes a Full Irish and how it differs from an English Breakfast. Answers on a postcard please….]

But these are just the trappings. Looking like an Irish pub doesn’t make it an Irish pub. Having sawdust on the floor isn’t enough to turn your hostelry into the like of what you might find in the west of Ireland. And playing a few jigs and reels should never be mistaken for atmosphere.

When I’m abroad, I avoid Irish pubs with the same enthusiasm that I avoid bacon and cabbage, unless there’s a match I want to see… then I go out of my way to find one. I tell myself that I didn’t come to Istanbul or Athens or Rome or wherever to sit in an Irish bar and drink imported beer. Like any self-respecting Irish tourist, I know my boundaries. So when I was wandering around Taksim on my first night in Istanbul in search for a reasonably priced glass of white wine, the last place I thought to look was the local Irish pub – The Dubliner.

dublinerI did stand across the road though and take a photo for posterity. I struggled with my conscience and the consequences that crossing the street might have for my reputation. And the lads, seeing my hesitancy, did what any Irish publican would do – they gave me the nod.

I walked over and checked the menu to see what they were charging for a pint of blackened Liffey Water. We sparred a little, going back and forth about how sacrilegious it would be for me to go inside and sit down, me being Irish and in Istanbul to see something new, something different. But they had it nailed. They had the banter and the smiles and the ‘we-couldn’t-care-less-what-you-do-but-sure-why-not-have-a-quick-one-while-you-make-up-your-mind’ attitude that is hard to fake. And in I went. For one.

The following night, I was joined by a colleague from Romania. We had dinner and then I heard myself suggest that we go to this Irish pub I’d come across the night before that played music from an Ireland I’d thought had died years ago. As we approached, the lads recognised me, bade us welcome, set up the white wine, broke out the apples and the nuts, and kept an eye on us all evening. We were joined later by a third colleague from the Czech Republic. And each of us received the same attention. They said the owner was Irish, from Cork. So I felt vindicated. I met him (a lovely man) and it turned out that he was local but had lived and studied in Cork for so long that he himself felt he’d made the transition. And I felt a little cheated but two nights in a row meant that I’d gone beyond redemption, lineage be damned.

On the third evening, we went back again, all three of us plus a couple of Serbian colleagues and so the pattern continued. I had such a good time that I got over the fact that it wasn’t meeting my strict criteria of being Irish owned and Irish staffed. We didn’t go every night but we dropped in for one if we were in the neighborhood. And each time, we got the nod – that acknowledgement that we weren’t  simply customers, currency on legs. And this is what makes a pub Irish: the nod.

It’s not rocket science – and yet so few pubs manage it. Treat your customers as if they’re more than customers and they’ll come back. Take the time to chat. Pay attention to the amount of attention they seem to want and if they’re up for some banter, then engage. If they’re not, keep a watchful eye from a distance and keep them fuelled. Know enough about what’s going on in the world to be able to find something to talk about. Remember what they talk about – because if you show interest, they’ll come back. And if they feel they were given their due, without being fawned over, then they’ll come back with friends.

I’ve officially changed my mind. My long-held belief that to be really Irish, an Irish pub has to be Irish owned and staffed by real Irish people has wavered. While still the rule rather than the exception (as is the case in Budapest), there are places, like The Dubliner in Istanbul, that have managed to make it happen, and happen in style.

One day, when I’m president of Ireland, I’ll make Hadi and Mehmet ambassadors for Ireland 🙂 In the meantime lads, le mile buíochas for looking after us so well.









2014 Grateful 15

I’ve heard tell that fear is faith that it won’t work out. It doesn’t matter what IT is – new job, new relationship, move to a new city – whatever. You’d think that the older we get, the less likely we are to be afraid. Armed with decades of life experience, various degrees of formal schooling, and a list of minor, yet not insignificant achievements that would stretch from here to the Balaton, you’d think that I’d have gotten over my fears. But no. There’s always the one remaining.

I did a quick search for the top ten fears and while Google coughed up a litany of lists, most didn’t vary much at all, so let’s use this one.

  1. Fear of flying (What’s the worst that can happen? I die. Am I afraid of death? No)
  2. Fear of public speaking (The cheapest, legal high you can get – ditto re the death thing)
  3. Fear of heights (It occasionally bothers me but not enough to stop me climbing)
  4. Fear of the dark (It has never been an issue as long as I’m not conscious that I’m in the dark – I know I am obviously, but if it’s not stated, then I’m fine)
  5. Fear of intimacy (Nope – not if there’s trust involved)
  6. Fear of death  (Nope – there are worse things in life than death)
  7. Fear of failure (One to come back to)
  8. Fear of rejection (As above)
  9. Fear of spiders (Not afraid of them, just don’t like them)
  10. Fear of commitment (I grew out of it – but there was a time when I wouldn’t commit to a six-month magazine subscription)

So we have two possibles – and both are closely linked – fear of failure and fear of rejection. In 99% of my life, I fear neither. Failure is relative. What might seem like failure to you, could be a huge achievement for me. Rejection, in my book, says more about those doing the rejecting than those being rejected. Better to know the score, I say, than wonder …

But that other 1% – the dream I’ve been harbouring for more years than I care to remember, the dream of being a published author whose books sell – that small percentage is rife with fear. I have been afraid to go for it not because I am afraid that I will fail, or that my work (and therefore me) will be rejected, but because of the void it will leave if I discover that my dream won’t come true. As long as I don’t try, I will always have hope, I can always dream.

American philosopher Henry James Thoreau said: Do not lose hold of your dreams and aspirations. For if you do, you may still exist but you have ceased to live. And this is what I’m most afraid of.

I have very little in the way of ambition. I’ve never been one to want power and glory and string of initials after my name. I’ve never coveted a corner office on the top floor or wanted a private secretary, a personal assistant, and a chauffeur-driven limo. I’ve never held out any hope of winning a Nobel prize or discovering something that would change the world for the better. My aspirations are much more refined – to live as well as I can for as long as I can, doing the least amount of harm and the most amount of good. That, and to have no regrets. And yet, from the day I chose my first book from a shelf in the village library, I’ve wanted to have my own book there, too. In the intervening years, I’ve managed to be sure that I have never had the time to write seriously. And when I’ve felt the urge get a tad stronger, I’ve found other work to occupy my time, justifying it all by telling myself that I need to pay the bills.

But last week, the subject of fear came up in conversation, as did death and dying. I decided that enough was enough. I realised that I would simply hate to die wondering. So I’ve signed up with a mentor whom I believe has the fortitude necessary to deal with my excuses and procrastinations and the talent and know-how I need to help me master this craft. Watch this space. If all fails and this dream turns to dust, I can always vacuum.

This week, I’m grateful to those who utter seemingly innocuous comments and throw-away remarks that lodge in my brain and make me think. And I’m grateful that such thinking occasionally leads to action.




The uncomplicated joy of being

I was reintroduced recently to the joy of simple living and reminded that the value of simplicity is something we’re in danger of overlooking as we measure our lives in upgrades: the latest iPhone, a newer laptop, a bigger house, a fancier car, a more exotic holiday.

I was reminded, too, that entertainment, though plentiful in Budapest, is not limited to theatre, cinema, concerts, and exhibitions, or confined to bars, restaurants, galleries, and football stadiums.

This city has so much to offer. No matter your personal taste or choice of entertainment, there is something for everyone. I love it for that very reason. My diary is full of lunches, dinners, openings, events of all sorts that could fully occupy my time and can, admittedly, prove a tad stressful as I try to juggle my schedule with those of others.

And yet, just minutes from this metropolis that I call home, is another world entirely, one where people live a quieter life, a slower-paced existence that has none of the frantic fervour evidenced by the city’s morning commute. A world where gardens provide fruit to be preserved; produce vegetables to be cooked for dinner; and offer peace and quiet to still the inner workings of an overactive mind.

Many lifetimes ago, in Alaska, I had romantic notions of homesteading. I’d have a log cabin in the wilderness. I’d grow my own vegetables, hunt and fish for my food, and while away my evenings reading the library I’d bring with me, or penning my memoirs, or even trying my hand at quilting. My time would be my own. My life would be simple, uncomplicated. But I was dreaming.

So I compromised. I did have my log cabin, but in a town of 4000 people. I fished and cooked my catch. I failed miserably at hunting but was happy to cook what others brought home. And I did while away my evenings reading books borrowed from the local library or simply marvelling at the silence.

Fast-forward a couple of lives to Budapest where I was immediately caught up in the energy it exudes. My intention, on leaving the corporate world, was to have a slower pace of life, one that would give me time to visit museums; to have long, leisurely lunches; to have a life that wasn’t centred on work. This lasted six months. I was soon completely embroiled in the rat-race that is twenty-first-century living.

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And then last week, I went foraging for mushrooms in the Pilis Forest. A 30-minute bus ride from Budapest and I was in the wilderness. We’d had heavy rain the night before and all morning, too. The trees were wet, the ground was soggy, and there was evidence everywhere that wild boars had been out before us. Within minutes, I was drenched. But it didn’t matter.

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We found mushrooms you can extract ink from but if you drink alcohol 24 hours before or after eating them, you’ll get alcohol poisoning. We found mushrooms that looked and felt like pieces of raw liver and others that looked like slivers of chocolate. We found mushrooms of all sorts of shapes, sizes, and colours, living happily together without issue. Some were edible, some were poisonous. All looked safe. Each find came with a sense of achievement and was followed by seconds of quiet appreciation. Time seemed to stand still. It was glorious. No phones. No Internet. No people, save one man and his dog.

It was a much-needed reminder that life is only as complicated as I choose to make it.

First published in the Budapest Times 19 September 2014

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A history of unrest

Not that long ago, the hive of activity that is Taksim Square in the European part of Istanbul was in the news all over the world… and not for the first time.

Back in 1969, in February some three years before Ireland saw its last Bloody Sunday, about 150 demonstrators were injured in clashes with right wing groups on a day that is also remembered as Bloody Sunday. In May of 1977, in what is known as the Taksim Square massacre, 36 demonstrators were killed by gunmen on the square on Labour Day.  Fast forward to 2000 when two Leeds United fans were stabbed to death on the even of the Leeds vs Galatasaray (UEFA Cup semi-final). In October 2010, a Kurdish suicide bomber injured 15 police and 17 civilians in the process of taking his own life. Most recently, in June 2013, protestors trying to save the park from government developers keen to turn it into a car park and expand the shopping area, also met some heavy-handed treatment with three demonstrators and one police officer losing their lives.

IMG_4455 (2) (800x591) (800x591)IMG_4458 (600x800)There is little about the square to mark these events. It’s throbbing with activity day and night – with kids and adults alike just hanging out, chatting, enjoying the evening sun.

Like spokes on a wheel, the streets that converge on the square are lined with shops offering everything from designer gear (is it real?) to Turkish tat. And off the main arteries, the side streets are a maze of bars, restaurants, and cafés. I felt a little like Alice in Wonderland when she went down the rabbit hole – I had no clue what to expect and was soon caught up in the melee. On a Friday night about 7.30, the place was like Grafton Street on Christmas Eve, with tides of people moving in either direction. Moving back and forth was fine – but crossing the street required sharp elbows and bare-faced determination.

Here in Budapest, there’s a pharmacy on every corner – or so it seems. When I went in search of one in Istanbul, I had to really look. I wonder what that says about the nation’s state of health? Is there a correlation?

IMG_4454 (800x600)If you’re into people watching, Taksim is the place to be. Every shape, colour, size is on view. Watching the tourists flail around like headless chickens (no doubt someone somewhere was watching me do likewise) was amusing. Those who’d already been in the city a few days knew enough not to take out their map. Maps are like magnets for the helpful agenda-ists – best to soldier on and pretend you know where you’re going. And if you pass the same people hanging on a corner three times in a row, just offer up their knowing grins to the tourist god.

It was here that I found a bookshop with English-language translations of local writers. It’s a habit I’ve gotten into over the years whenever I travel – looking for translations of local authors who are not widely published. I am currently engrossed in Buket Uzuner’s Two Green Otters: Mothers, Fathers, Lovers, and all the Others. It’s a fantastic read – so good, in fact, that the typos are just niggling rather than annoying. And that’s high praise indeed. While I was there, I read Olen Steinhauer’s The Istanbul Variations,  an impressive account of the Cold War set in the city in 1975. And for later, when I come down off this post-Turkey high, I’ve another of Uzuner’s waiting in the wings.

Istanbul – you were quite an experience. Nearly two weeks on, I’ve made my peace with you and, if you’ll have me, I’ll happily return.



A fish out of water

I’ve never been more aware of the fact that I am partial to a glass of wine or two than when I was in Istanbul. Unlike Budapest or Dublin or other places I’ve lived, it’s not a given that every restaurant will serve alcohol. And having to ask before I sat down, while not quite making me feel awkward, certainly drove home the fact that for me, dining and wining are almost intricately interlinked.

That’s not to say that I have wine with every meal or drink every time I’m out – I don’t. But I am quite partial to a glass of vino.

IMG_4409 (800x600) IMG_4410 (800x600)Walking underneath  Galata Bridge was high on my list of things to do while I was in the city – it was a short list as I’d done very little to prepare myself other than to email a friend who had lived there and ask for advice on what not to miss. The view at night from the bridge is stunning. With construction on this edition ending in 1994 (the first version of this bridge having opened in 1845), it’s close to 500 metres in length, spans the Golden Horn, and has featured in tales of the city since the nineteenth century. Underneath, rows of fish restaurants and cafés compete for business as if their lives depend on it (and perhaps they do). Touts lure tourists in with all sorts of banter, not too dissimilar to what you’d get on the markets in London’s East End, except with an accent and the inevitable first question: Where are you from? There’s not much to choose from menu-wise and the prices are pretty standard so you’re left (as I was) to count how many locals are eating where and going for that one.

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IMG_4411 (600x800)Up above, lines of fishermen fish for mackerel (or at least I think that’s what was coming out of the water, but I wouldn’t swear to it). Be it fact or fancy, it definitely gives the illusion that everything served in the restaurants below hasn’t been too long out of the water.

Reviewers on Trip Advisor seem to have missed the point of it all. They warn to stay away, using loaded terms like tourist trap, cons, rip-offs, etc. Of course it’s a tourist trap – and yes, you can eat for less elsewhere in the city, but if you’re eating elsewhere, you’re not eating under Galata Bridge. The mind boggles. As for the bantering … that’s all part and parcel of the experience. Just indulge them and enjoy. I challenge you to find better entertainment for the same price anywhere else in the city.

IMG_4430 (800x600)IMG_4514 (800x584)From the bridge there are great views of the Yeni Cami (New Mosque) which was finished in the 1600s. This gives some indication of Istanbul timescales. Way back in 1591, the residents (mainly Jewish) were relocated to make way for the mosque. (Resettling is not a recent thing, then.) I was reminded of an Irish priest friend of mine who lives in Brussels. He was moaning one day about the notion that because he’s a priest, everyone feels he’s fascinated by churches and so visits to new cities end up as an ABC tour – another bloody church. I’d been in the Blue Mosque already and was suitably impressed so when I went inside the Yeni Cami, I was expecting something different. But to the naked untrained eye, it’s pretty much the same, albeit it on a slightly smaller scale. IMG_4499 (800x600)IMG_4509 (800x600)IMG_4494 (600x800)The tiled ceilings are impressive as are the carpets. The vast expanse of pew-less space takes a little getting used to for a Catholic girl used to seeing the congregation in straight rows alternately sitting, kneeling. and standing.

Rightly or wrongly, the urge to see any more mosques left me. Churches vary according to religion and style – some are more ornate than others, some are simple to the point of paucity. But each has its own character. Am open to correction; if there are mosques that differ, please tell me.

Islam is a religion I’d like to know more about. Its rituals are fascinating. I was particularly taken with the ablutions, where hands up to the wrists are washed three times; the mouth is rinsed three times; the nostrils are cleansed three times; the whole face is washed three times with both hands, from forehead to chin and ear to ear; both arms up to the elbows are washed three times; the whole head is wiped once with a wet hand; the inner ears are wiped with forefingers, the outer sides with thumbs; and finally both feet are washed three times up to the ankles, beginning with the right foot. And this is only a partial ablution. As I said, fascinating.








2014 Grateful 16

There’s a saying in Turkey that a cup of coffee commits you to 40 years of friendship. That’s some commitment.

I grew up with instant coffee, granules that you add to boiling water and then add milk (white coffee) or don’t (black coffee).  A simple choice – black or white. When I first went to America a couple of lifetimes ago, I was completely bemused by the differentiation between filtered coffee or instant coffee, and completely confused when I went a second time to find that ordering a coffee now took serious thought. The styles: latte, espresso, frappé, cappuccino. The substance: skinny, decaf, leaded.

Today, it is even more complicated. I can have a long or short espresso (depends on how much water I add). I can  add some steamed milk and upgrade to an  espresso macchiato. Or I can top with whipped cream for an espresso con panna. And if I add some booze (e.g. sambuca or cognac) I can have an espresso corretto. And that’s just an espresso…

tcI had my first Turkish coffee in Sarajevo. It’s definitely an acquired taste. I prefer mine with a little milk, which borders on sacrilegious, and is not so much frowned up as simply not understood. Why would anyone want to add milk to Turkish coffee? The apologetic, wheedling smile that accompanied my request worked most of the time in Istanbul, but not always. One chap simply refused point blank. Another turned a deaf ear and ignored the milk part. A third explained to me that it just wasn’t done. Fair enough. When in Rome and all that, I thought…but it didn’t stop me asking.

What I didn’t know though was that Turkish coffee (the culture of it rather than the actual stuff itself) is inscribed in 2013 (8.COM) on UNESCO’s  Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity:

Turkish coffee combines special preparation and brewing techniques with a rich communal traditional culture. The freshly roasted beans are ground to a fine powder; then the ground coffee, cold water and sugar are added to a coffee pot and brewed slowly on a stove to produce the desired foam. The beverage is served in small cups, accompanied by a glass of water, and is mainly drunk in coffee-houses where people meet to converse, share news and read books. The tradition itself is a symbol of hospitality, friendship, refinement and entertainment that permeates all walks of life. An invitation for coffee among friends provides an opportunity for intimate talk and the sharing of daily concerns. Turkish coffee also plays an important role on social occasions such as engagement ceremonies and holidays; its knowledge and rituals are transmitted informally by family members through observation and participation. The grounds left in the empty cup are often used to tell a person’s fortune. Turkish coffee is regarded as part of Turkish cultural heritage: it is celebrated in literature and songs, and is an indispensable part of ceremonial occasions.

Had I known that the grounds left in the empty cup could have been used to tell my fortune, I might be viewing the world in a whole different light today.

At the end of a week that had days I thought would never end and days that I thought ended far too soon, I’m in need of a Turkish coffee or three. I’m knackered. So much is going on that it’s hard to keep track of it all. I want to scream at the world to stop, so that I can get off for a while and disappear. But that ain’t going to happen. And while I know that it’s sleep and not stimulants that I need, this week I am grateful for the restorative power of coffee. For the rituals that it comes packaged in. And for the conversation it encourages.

To the Sufi monks in Yemen – you have my undying gratitude.