The first full day in Istanbul

May 30, 2013

29 Mayıs iki bin on üç


Where to start?

From late night last night to right now which is 12:32 Istanbul time I could write a short book!

I had to bring my suitcase to my room, 3 high ceilinged stories to climb up with 50 lbs in my arms. I thought my heart was going to burst out of my chest! My quads were really mad at me and I could barely breathe. But I did it.

The hostel is cozy, nothing fancy but very warm atmosphere. I have a single bed in a shared dormitory but so far no one else has taken possession of the other two beds.

I went for a short visit of Beyoğlu’s neighborhood. Istikal sokak is mostly a pedestrian street, with some motorcycles, city and police vehicles and the Tünel, an old fashion tramway that rolls down a set of rails.

I remember a comment from a friend of mine from Ireland who had asked about Richmond, BC’s extra wide yet empty sidewalks “Where is everyone?” She had just landed in Canada and was wondering why no one was walking on those sidewalks.


Here, everything, everyone moves. There is constant honking of horns, but not like in North American cities where the laying on the horn is basically a clear unveiled “F..You” Here it is quick double beeps, light on the horn, determined, possibly annoyed but not in a show of rage. It’s just part of driving. I keep jumping when a big truck or a bus will honk.

There are the cats too. Lots and lots of cats. I hear they get fed and given water by the people in the neighborhood. Some look pretty good, some really rough. Some stay by homes, others elect residence at the various shops that line the street.

There is so much color, architecture from current buildings to ancient walls, gates… The energy is incredible. I was told the city has 20 million people now.

I grabbed a sandwich from on of those stores and headed back to the hotel as the sun went down. I was still pretty beat from flying and jet lag and all.

My evening I passed in the downstairs of the hostel, there are a few round tables, a bench around the room, music playing and candles on the tables. I ended up wrapped into an incredibly deep conversation with one of the hostel employees. I marveled once more at the difference in views between a Turk and a North American. Suddenly I’m looking at things from a whole other vista. And the honesty can be crushing if you are to take it personally. I actually played him my first Turkish song, “şafak soküyor” and without wasting too much time he said he did not like it and that it sounded like the blues. He proceeded to explain why and I could see exactly what he was talking about. Totally see. But that is why I am learning. Of course I’ll never be a Turk, I’m not sure where this will all take me, but it’s not even the point. I really appreciated how he explained that he thought the song had this constant push forward when Turkish music has constant rhythm changes, mood changes and that my song actually keep going. He talked about “pockets” but as opposed to what we call “being in the pocket” in the Western world, this meant ‘pockets’ of change. Where you stay in this pocket here and in another there. And keep in mind this guy is not a musician, but he knows his music.

The conversation sparked a lot of thinking. A lot. As we discussed all sorts of things, even love. He would say “I will be a bastard again..” Meaning he was going to ask a lot of deep questions regardless!

The discussion went into the wee hours.


This morning I woke up famished. I found a very neat cafe and had an omelet… Oh My… They served this with tomatoes, Turkish sausage fresh greens, and vinaigrette it was absolutely heavenly… there was bread and espresso along with that.

Later, I was to go meet my teacher Özkan Alıcı . He works at TRT, Turkish radio and television. I walked up there, it’s not very far from the hostel. We went inside the building. He is very solicitous, making sure that I am OK asking me if I wanted anything, at this point it’s water I need. It’s quite warm out, and the walk up here had me sweating as I carried my saz and my shoulder bag which is a bit too heavy. The place very much reminded me of the CBC, except that it’s way, way older. He said he wished I had arrived a bit earlier as they were recording live music. He pulled me into another studio where another session was taking place. It was just gorgeous, I wish I could just be a fly on the wall here and listen to all that takes place. I felt incredibly lucky to be there.

We went back outside and met with Burak, one of Özkan’s students and friend. Their relationship is obviously one of great respect and friendship. I’ve been noticing the presence of that beautiful respect that people have here. It is kind of refreshing and very beautiful. Özkan wanted to eat so we went to a cafe all together. The communications are a bit difficult, my Turkish being so weak, his English better than my Turkish but still weak. Thank good for translators on cell phones! So we talk and when we hit the wall the I-phone comes to the rescue, sometimes successfully, sometimes it’s hilariously wrong, like the time I said something in the phone and the translation came out as: “505”

We discussed a bit how to do the lessons, it is not quite figured out just yet, but it is shaping up. We left the cafe we went to get his car and we drove over to the Asian side of Istanbul, What an experience! This is a whole other experience than what you’d go through in Los Angeles. The cars are much smaller, no big Escalades to be found. But lots of those high cargo work trucks, motorbikes, and the small cars weaving through the smallest of openings with total disrespect for the lines that delineate the lanes. Somehow it all moves forward in a energetic race forward. Maybe more akin to a salmon spring run up a river than what we know as our orderly North American version of rush hour stand still.

We see a man yelling at another words I cannot make out.

“Aahh, Turkish people” says my teacher.

We get to Kadiköy where is the “office”. This area is quite different from Beyoglu. The tourist trappings are gone and the reality of this land is more palpable. The buildings are worn, all the roofing shows some signs of hand made repairs. Windows are tired, junk lies in corners. A cat comes out, forlorn, dirty, with clumps of hair missing.

The studio is a the top of one of those buildings. We go up a long narrow set of stairs up to a gate that creaks and groans when it is being opened. Up another set of stairs and we get to the “office” at the very top of the building. The ceiling is so low I have to bend down to walk in some places. I was thinking how Forrest would have a hard time in there!

“Come, come Dani!”

He says inviting me in and showing me around. It’s a four room apartment. Kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, studio and living room. The living room faces the sunset and offers an immense view all the way to the other side of the Bosporus where the sun sets, I can see an imposig mosque across, in the distance. Inside, it’s a bare room where rectangular cushions line the walls and beautiful long red rugs are lying in front of them. There is also a kitchen table with 4 chairs.

On the other side is the studio. the room is lined up in wood, there is 1 laptop, 2 speakers, one microphone on a stand and a couch.

Come, come! Özkan says.

I sit on the couch and he pulls a chair in front of me. He grabs a long necked baglama and plays a bit. Oh… right there in front of me. This music I so dreamed about. I feel immense amazement and the magnitude of what I don’t know all at once. To be a total beginner all over again…

“There are keys” he says

“Keys to playing. I will show them to you. Then you have to use them.”

Yes, it’s all up to me to be humble and climb the learning steps one at a time.

“Key number one…”

He places the baglama on his right thigh and his right arm on it, he traces a line in the air where the arm meets the body of the instrument and shows how it is perfectly balanced. He passes the instrument to me and I struggle a bit to place it. He shows me again. I see.

“Key number two…”

The thumb. I place my left hand on the neck and my thumb immediately goes to its usual place, right in the middle of the neck.

“Guitar position!” he says.

I have to completely change how I do this. This is probably going to be one of my biggest challenges, to bring the thumb up so I can use it to play, something completely alien for a classically trained left hand!

Key number three, the index finger.

An arched, strong, index finger, which is the main finger for the left hand. That is pretty good. He gives me one of the simplest possible exercises to do, up and down the neck and I sound like a complete novice. I’m hoping it’s not going to drive him crazy!

Soon Burak comes in with a saz and starts rehearsing parts for a song. Özkan plays the track for me. It’s Burak’s girl friend singing and she sounds heavenly. This recording is intended for her university marks. They are overdubbing saz parts. I sit there in wonder. The proceedings are super relaxed suffused with simplicity. As this takes place, the whole building keeps on living along with this gigantic city, doors slamming, traffic rumbling, the call to prayer resonating outside.

2 days ago I was in Los Angeles, and now I sit here in this place, listening to these brilliant musicians, being part of this world from which I knew nothing. These kind of thoughts pop up from time to time. I followed this call to come here, a called based on intuited thoughts, on knowingness from the unseen. I am here and it seems… normal… wondrous and… normal.

A couple hours later, jet lag caught up to me and Özkan noticing that, offered me to rest in the bedroom there. I didn’t want to be rude, but my eyelids were literally drooping.

“Come, come!”

He pulled the sheets off the bed and within minutes I was in deep slumber. I awoke to the sounds of a beautiful voice, drum samples and much laughing. I got up and met with Yeliz, Burak’s girlfriend. She is so sweet, beautiful, like a joyful breeze. They are done with recording, I was really hot and went to sit out on the balcony as the sun was going down. Özkan joined me we chatted a bit, as much as we can with this lack of language skills. He said:

“Here it is very poor and dangerous, you have to watch for mens, Across it is …” He makes a gesture with his hands to describe high faluting, snob.

“Para” (Money) I said.

“Evet.” (yes)

We talk politics a bit. He does not like this discrepancy of money, the haves and have nots. I can see that being poor here is quite a step down from being poor in America. We really don’t realize how much we have. We really don’t quite know what “having nothing” truly means.


Dinner is ready. Yeliz made a pot of mantı, a kind of Turkish dumplings served with yogurt and hot sauce. The dinner had been cooked on a single gas burner propped on a gas tank. I am so grateful for their hospitality. The sharing that is taking place. I surprised everyone when I thanked Yeliz with the “Eline Sağlık” (health to your hands) that is generally offered when someone cooks food for you. Again, much laughter. It is good. So good.

Yeliz says she thinks of quitting her English classes, and I offered to help her. She is very excited. It feels good to be able to contribute something. That is certainly something I can do.

Soon after dinner Burak and Yeliz head out. Özkan and I close the place down and we take those precipitous stairs back down.

“I am drunk so no driving” he says. We walk to the bus and head a little further into Kadıköy. When we get off the bus, he brings he takes me to buy a bus pass. Now I can go everywhere by bus, metro and whatever other public transport there is.

We walk into the neighborhood. There are people everywhere, the cars wind up narrow roads, honking their horns, the motorbikes and scooters zig zagging. I follow him, looking around taking all this in. It feels something like Europe and something I do not know of. We walk up to a hospital.

We talk a bit about the lessons. Then I ask him about the money. I still have no idea how this is going to work out and I don’t want to take advantage of anyone. But as soon as I say “money” his whole body and face stiffen up. I’m not sure if we actually understood each other. He says something that I don’t understand. He gets his phone out and types and shows me:

“I do not take money for teaching”

OK I thought. But that hardly seems fair… but then I remember in Ottawa, Turks have a very different notion of money than we do, especially if they have decided that they will help you.. I’m not sure what to say and I said

“I want this to be fair…”

“Fair?” He does not know the word. I’m trying to remember the Turkish word for fair, it’s in my notes, Selim, zalim… I can’t remember and I’m at a loss. He gets the phone once more, types fair. The translations pop up, I can’t see as I don’t have my glasses on… He relaxes. All is well.

“Do you trust me?” he asks

“Yes.” I answered without hesitation

We talk some more. He asks about me. What is my work, job, how long will I be here. I try to explain. I am thinking that the question here is about what kind of life I have. For most that would mean having a home, a job, kids, pets… And my being here like this is puzzling.

The conversation continues and I try to answer his questions

“I have nothing so I have nothing to lose. I trust life.” He reflected on that. Smiled.

We stopped in front of a hospital

“My friend works here.”

We get inside and go up in an elevator. There is air conditioning and it is a relief. Up there I meet Mehmet. Mehmet is a manager there. He loves the saz.

He asks if he can see my saz, which I had been carrying all along.

“Of course!”

He pulls it out plucks a few notes and hands it to Özkan who starts to play. We are all still, taking it in. And there was another magic moment, in a small office of a Kadikoy hospital. The song ends. Özkan passes the saz back to Mehmet who says:

“How can I play now after what we just heard!” But he goes ahead and plays and he is quite good. When he is done he hands me the saz and wants me to play. I am a bit shy, but I go ahead. The saz is now tuned up a third, and it is a bit of a mind bending exercise to play the notes on the same fret and they sound different.

Then we listen to a few things on the internet, on song Mehmet wrote the lyrics and Özkan plays the saz.

After a while we head outside and sit at a cafe across the street. There I meet more friends. I am bone tired, but yet I am thoroughly enjoying this. One of the friends is Uğur who coincidentally works at the foreign affairs office, which deals with residency permits and such… coincidentally right?!? He explains how it is done.

He asks me how I came to want to play the saz so I told him about Ottawa, about my discovery of Turkish music and how this saz came to be gifted to me. He says:

“When I hear the saz, I go away.” He then starts to tell me about the origin of the instrument 3000 3500 hundred years ago in Mesopotamia. How it has such deep roots in different parts of Turkey. For many the saz will be the cause for a deep, deep reverence. I can relate in the way the saz brings me such happiness, such peace and joy. I am not a Turk, but for some reason this instrument hold me in a deep embrace.

What an amazing night… day… every step of the way reveals more, and things seems laid out for me. I’m tuning in. Peace, joy, fluidity. We hang out a little longer Yeliz and Burak show up again. Soon we leave, ride back to the bus station in Burak’s car. Yeliz and I ride the bus back to the metro. She has a Turkish opera exam tomorrow. I wish her luck. We get off at the same station but she goes in one direction and I the other.

The air has cooled. I can’t help but smile. That was my first full day here and it was beyond all hopes. I ride the metro to Taksım Meydanı (Taksim square) and from there walk down Istikal cadde back to the hostel.

I smile. It’s so intense and beautiful. There are pedestrians everywhere, locals and foreigners. The smell from the food cooking in the shoppes fill the air. There is music coming out of each store. One melody to another, to the rhythms of the discotheques to the streams of folk music. Street musicians, I recognize this one lady who plays old French songs on the accordion. She has a couple of kids posted on the street who also play at different times of the day. How good the air feels. I smile some more.

At the hostel I drop everything in my room and go get a bit of food. The simplest things are so tasty.

I am so tired, but I am feeling so good. I take a quick shower. Lay down and fall quickly into a deep slumber on my second Istanbul night.



5 Responses to “The first full day in Istanbul”

  1. Flip Says:

    I’m glad you made it safe and sound… I am enjoying reading about your adventures. So many still await.

  2. Açalya Says:

    Say hello to your all Turkish friends from me.

  3. bob skoot Says:


    what an adventure to be absorbed into this culture so fast. I can tell that you are very excited to be there

    Riding the Wet Coast

  4. Danielle Liard Says:

    Ça semble merveilleux, toutes ces rencontres en une journée. 🙂

  5. Lela Shifton Says:

    I LOVED reading this. I’m SO pleased for you. What an enchanting place and experience. Thank you so much for taking the time to write this and share it with me 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: