“You can’t be a real country unless you have a beer and an airline. It helps if you have some kind of a football team, or some nuclear weapons, but at the very least you need a beer.”
— Frank Zappa
I have now technically been to Cyprus, but it will have an asterisk by the entry in my country list because (a) my passport records only a visit to the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which is NOT A REAL COUNTRY by any stretch of the imagination and (b) I was sick in bed for most of the long weekend anyway. Ways in which “North Cyprus” is not a real country: no top-level domain (URLs end .tr), no own money, not recognized by ANYONE except Turkey, which orchestrated the coup in the first place. Anyway it is a ghetto extension of the horrible British tourist industry, catering to horrible British people with its garish off licenses and plastic surgery weekends.
We flew to Nicosia (ahem, “Lefkoşa,” as we pretend to call it under the polite fiction that it is Turkish) and caught a bus up to Kyrenia (“Girene,” ditto) where we had rented a beach villa from the internet. The airbnb lady was very sweet and pointed us at the Tempo where I got soup, tea, and cereal for us sickies but was annoyed also to be presented with shandy in the cold section and pornographic Bic lighters with English Premier League team colors. Gah. I made a dumbshow of “expectorant” to the pharmacist, and then went back to the nice Ikea couch for the next three days to watch Conan O’Brien ring in the New Year with Turkish subtitles and Al-Jazeera English updating me about the fiscal cliff. The thing that gave me the most pleasure was picking up a Cyprus Today on the way out of the airport, which refers hilariously to South Cyprus as if that were a thing and has whole sections on UK news and Thatcher politics for its horrible expat constituents.
Happy New Year. I am a curmudgeon.
Not to be hyperbolic or anything, the the Göreme Open Air Museum might be almost 37% as cool as the Maze district in Utah. Almost. We packed a picnic of parsley bread and pomegranate juice and took a dolmuş (Turkish for louage) from Ürgüp to the UNESCO site, a rambling few acres of post-iconoclastic Byzantine cave churches and a tenth-century nunnery. Most of the decorations have been vandalized but quadrants of IC | XC | NI | KA are visible in most of the rooms, and the ochre Deesis is still quite attractive even though everyone’s eyes have been gouged out by purists.
We stayed up late playing saz and drinking beer with the village doctor and our hotel friend. The village doctor smokes and drinks and his best friend went to MIT so he recognized our rings, hooray. On our final day we attached ourselves to a Korean Christian group from Busan and had a guided tour of an underground city and a hike through the Red Valley to look at pigeon houses. The underground city was eight floors deep where Persians could hide from the Romans and Christians could hide from Arabs and so on for millennia. Dovecotes are also a great way to display your wealth to your future bride’s father (“My pigeons produced 25 kg of fertilizer this year!”) and were apparently no joke in the poor volcanic ash soil that makes the caves so interesting but the pumpkin fields so hardscrabble.
With slight colds, we boarded the evening bus to Adana, sought out a taxi driver who spoke German, and made it to our hotel before midnight. Even though I was claustrophobic with all the planning and the neverending pages of email recommendations I felt like Cappadocia had a lot to offer outside of tourist traps and heartily recommend a visit. I would even endorse the balloon ride if you’re feeling splurgy 🙂
Woz and I successfully worked out the bus system, getting a twinkle from an old lady for insisting that she take my seat, and lingered over another honey cream breakfast at the trendy Sutiş cafe, watching oil tankers and Russian submarines proudly make their way home through the beautiful blue waters of the Bosphorous. Wednesdays in the Istanbul suburbs are free museum days so we went to a really complete Monet exhibit at SSM, a mansion-turned-museum up the river in Ortaköy. I felt very vindicated at my book choice for the trip, Louis de Bernières’ “Birds Without Wings”, where the white horse belonging to the village imam is called Nilüfer (water lily), how apt. Anyway, the permanent collections at SSM include post-1923 Turkish painters, of whom I really liked Fikret Mualla, and Islamic calligraphy.
It is the very beginning of anchovy season when they are at their oiliest so legions of fishermen were out along the seawall with sparkling little fish in their buckets. We walked a few miles to a little bazaar with “world famous” kumpir, which is basically an overrated baked potato bar. I would have been disappointed if we hadn’t run in to Scott, a super fun Scripps engineer on shore leave whose country list beats mine. The three of us walked together back to Kabataş and parted under the agreement that space is great.
Turkish seems pretty approachable, I don’t know more than a few dozen words but I can extract airport/tram announcements and different parts of speech. There’s a mishmash of unmodified Arabic and Persian words and names, and they play pretty fast and loose with Latin and Greek as well. I’d like to go back to Istanbul sometime by myself and explore properly without babysitting a new traveler, but for now I join the ranks of basically everyone in thinking nice things about it. It is indeed a city just like San Francisco, except with minarets instead of the Financial District and Asia Minor instead of Oakland Chinatown.
“Take it from someone who’s read the Wikipedia entry: this is how the Ottoman Empire was won: mad horsemen fueled by lethal jet-black coffee-mud.”
–Cory Doctorow, Little Brother
This Christmas I went to Turkey with Amanda Wozniak on an ultra-low-key sightseeing vacation, no adventuring or anything but perfectly amiable. European/Western Turkey is absurdly safe, unexpectedly modern, and unreasonably hospitable–I make no claims for deeper Anatolia because we didn’t go anywhere ten thousand monthly Germans hadn’t been before, but it seems like a worthwhile place to investigate.
I arrived in İstanbul via Frankfurt on a Sunday, but that is the last time I am going to spell it correctly because I don’t know the keyboard macro for capital-I-dot! Atatürk airport is a nice efficient airport, and I’m not just saying that in compliance with lèse majesté laws about being nice to Father Kemal, it actually is. Public transportation is well-signed and reliable, there’s a post office in the domestic terminal, the second layer of PKK-proof security at the entrance is relatively unintrusive. Christmas season in the Mediterranean means roasted chestnuts at all the pushcarts and freshly-brined olives in all the homes, so you can see why a lot of the expats here never intended to stay, they just get “stuck”.
Monday morning I was up with first azan (Prayer is better than sleep!) and eventually we fought our way past the queues for the 45 million/trillion lira new year’s lottery and got döner. Woz has not yet figured out how to don a headscarf in respectful-yet-secular Benazir Bhutto style so visiting Blue Mosque in the afternoon took a million tucks and tugs, and we did not end up buying a carpet from the seller with the cousin in LA because we didn’t want to carry it yet. We pushed through the Spice Bazaar grumbling about counterfeit saffron and acrylic pashminas, but I was happy enough with my Turkish Delight because obtaining it was my first conversation of any substance.
Istanbul is nearly identical in latitude to San Francisco (39 vs 38 degrees N) so the sun goes down around 5pm in December. We took advantage of the long evening to play backgammon in a nargileh bar near Sultanahmet, learning numbers one through six with great fluency and drinking Anatolian pinot noir. I was struck by just how aggressively secular things were, with men determinedly puffing on their marlboros and ordering another eres lager upon hearing the evening call. Eventually we walked home the long way around the waterfront, caught a tram to Kabataş and the funicular from there up to Taksim and our apartment in Beşiktaş.