Sunday, January 8, 2012

Istanbul: Part II. I Get My Tourist On

Sometimes the dream of being more than just a tourist is impossible to fulfill. You know what I'm talking about: that sudden, melancholic desire that sloshes over you at the sight of another anaemic German couple beside you, bickering over their plate of scorched kebabs. Such moments fill you with self-hatred and a longing to escape, ditch the guidebook, find something no one else named Dieter or Gudrun would ever think to see or eat, to do something impossibly, unremittingly culturally authentic for once. 

But this, let's just admit it, is impossible. It's impossible for two reasons: 1) You are an incredibly lazy fuck and 2) You, in this very specific instance, are a woman. 

Which means that, as much as you'd like to escape the crowds, take the unknown tram, plunge into the unmarked neighborhoods barely mentioned in your guidebook--places practically labeled "Here be dragons" in the Lonely Planet index--chat up the stranger, sit at the dingy little side street bar you've stumbled across, hang out for hours in the market stalls drinking tea, you can't. As a woman, this kind of whim can turn dangerous in a heartbeat. And while Istanbul seems to be a very safe city--safe, that is, if like me you've stuck to the largely touristed grid--there are still hazards. For a woman, there are always hazards. The one big difference between being a woman alone in Paris and a woman alone in Istanbul is how I have to remember--constantly--to keep my face impassive. In Istanbul, I always have to wear the same blank expression, my eyes focused straight ahead or slightly down, my mouth never turned up at the corners.

Most men reading this post won't understand why, but I bet most women will. When you, as a woman, feel comfortable in a place, when you feel free, there's an expression that you allow to come over your face. You let yourself show if you're surprised, when you've just seen something that's interested or delighted you. Sometimes you'll nod or half-smile at strangers, sometimes you'll spend a fraction of an instant too long glancing at someone on the street. These expressions can be problematic, because in some countries, if the person happening to catch these looks is male, there's about an 80-90% chance that this stranger will suddenly be sitting beside you, trying to hold your hand.

This week, I've forgotten to "blank" my face two very notable times, with the result that I've had to pay for a museum I didn't want to visit in order to ditch the man that started following me, and I had to change my bus seats in a nearly empty tram not just once but TWICE to avoid the same man who kept trying to sit veryveryveryclose to me. 

This is nothing. I've traveled a lot and there have been far scarier events I've weathered, including getting attacked in Scotland: Istanbul still ranks pretty high on my "Safe for Single Women" traveler's scale. But that safety rank admittedly comes with a self-inflicted cost, which is that in order to stay safe, I've played it far more conservatively than perhaps I'd like. But as my Turkish is nonexistent and my international health insurance coverage minimal, best not to push my luck.

And there are some joys in just giving up and doing the touristy thing.

For instance, this week, I went to a hammam. And not just any old hammam, but The Guardian's  "One of 1000 things you must do before you die" hammam; the Kate-Moss-Sat-Spread-Eagled-Here-For-W-Magazine! hammam, the  "'Oh-madam-but-this-is-a-tourist-rip-off,' says-the-hotel-manager" hammam. That's right: I went to Cagaloglu Hammam. For obvious reasons, I don't have pictures of the interior (though you could just Google "Kate Moss W Magazine Hammam" and see not only the interior of Cagaloglu but very nearly the interior of Kate Moss), though I do have some quick snaps of the entrance to the hammam. It looks like this:

What's just past that is a cavernous hall of pale marble, little brass spigots and buckets lined around the walls at thigh-height, in the center an enormous octagonal slab of marble on which the various (all female, obviously) customers flop and drip like so many recent caught herrings. Not wanting to be the evening's Uptight Yanky, I went in buck naked. This--as it turns out--seems to be the wrong thing to do, as everyone else INCLUDING the German tourists (which is incredible: in my experience, Germans love being naked. They THRIVE on nudity. Their whole vacation seems to revolve around how soon they can strip out of their leiderhosen) went in still wearing their panties. Actually, they were all wearing thongs. (Side note:  When Europeans enter a public bathhouse in their late fifties, it should be part of the Geneva Convention's rules for them not to also be wearing a thong. Being naked in a thong is a horrible, horrible thing for other people to have to witness, as it not only makes people uncomfortably aware of the "thongitude" of your appearance, it also makes them more acutely aware that you are, in fact, naked except for a tiny piece of string. Indeed, seeing said sad, shriveled string hanging between two slackening butt cheeks will not just make people embarrassed and uncomfortable, it will rob them of their future appetite for holiday meats, as your pink ass will now remind them--perpetually--of a Christmas ham with its string truss loosening. But I digress.)

There's a huge steam room off to one side, also made of marble. The whole place is worked by a bunch of older Turkish women, each clad in a black bathing suit that looks like a weight lifter's kit from 1920s. These women are shriveled like raisins from spending their entire day in steam, their hands stuffed into loofah mitts, ready and eager to scrape away the top two layers of your skin.  Which is what happened to me. The Turkish attendant who got me kept pointing out how much she managed to scrape off, bending my knee or arm close to my face for inspection. "DIRTY DIRTY YOU!" she kept crowing, something that probably would be more charming were I also not the only one in the room naked as a rhesus monkey.

This woman also took it upon herself to shampoo my entire head and face, splashing water all over me, exactly as if I were a baby. Actually, all of us began to look vaguely infantile as the hour went on, as each of became pinker and more slack by the minute, until we began to resemble those strangely boneless women in an Ingres painting. One of the attendants, as if thinking this herself, actually blew raspberries on her customer's stomach for a joke as she scrubbed her. (This did not, THANK GOD, happen to me.) Overall, the heat made us too droopy to do more than slump, blinking as we were pummeled and rubbed and dashed with water, which overall felt pleasant but looked--from afar--like we were patients in an upscale insane asylum being hosed down after our lobotomies.

So, you know, that was fun.

Afterwards, I decided that if I were willing to be this much of a tourist suck, I should go the distance. "Let's Turk this shit up!" is in fact what I said to myself after exiting the hammam, and so I went to Tophane, near Istanbul Modern, to the huka district (the pipes, not the women, you spell check freaks) to sit, eat a chicken kebab and a plate of fresh fruit, drink some apple tea, and smoke a caramel-flavored bowl with the boys on the docks.

Here's me doing just that. Actually, here's my pipe, the fruit and (I cropped it) part of my knees. One other difficulty of traveling alone--female or not--is having no one readily on hand to take your picture doing stupid things.

And how was it? The attendant told me to keep the smoke in my cheeks, not my chest, so--like Bill Clinton--I smoked but never inhaled. (This, by the way, is not the real way to do it. You inhale.) Still, I got a little woozy, and slightly nauseous from the caramel flavoring, but it was fun, and evidently I can still be considered electable as president. One thing that's great about the huka cafe is that it seems to attract a range of ages and personality types, so that the same cafe that serves a bunch of 20-something year-old co-eds also attracts middle-aged backgammon freaks (every table came with a board), old men and their wives, and shockingly pink-faced American tourists fresh from the hammam.

Still, having confessed to being Ms. Touristy Tourist, I also feel like I need to say that I did stumble on some things that were slightly off the beaten track. In the upper reaches of Tophane after doing a tour of art galleries, I ran into the swankiest little wine bar which serves all Turkey-local wines and is precisely the size of a meat locker. The place is called Sonia, I think (can't totally recall) and is next to a bunch of hip clothing stores and is serviced by a 90-pound waitress who seems to lack the upper arm strength to hold a bottle upright, as she's got the heaviest pour I've ever seen: in the goldfish bowl they gave me for a wine glass, I think she poured me about 1/3 the bottle. Which is why I can no longer recall the name of the bar. 

Also a good deal is a tiny little mezze restaurant on a side street just off Asmalimescit which has no name (I'm not kidding) and has the best kofte (meatballs) I've ever had in my life. Here's a picture of the place.

That's a picture of the plate of food they gave me. The whole thing cost 8 dollars. 

And if you're interested, right across the street from it is another restaurant called Sofia 9 which is also fantastic (get the lamb pot) but about 4 times more expensive. This is my favorite picture of the week, however, as you are looking at the hands of a very nice waiter who is holding out an entire tray of different mezze dishes and asking what I might like to eat. This is pretty much my definition of heaven, only it would soon be followed by several other trays, one of which will hold nothing but bottles of scotch.

So. Now that I've earned my non-tourist badge of honor for the week with these last two offerings, let me say good night and good luck to you all out there and add as well, for those of you traveling who are--like me--too practical or lazy or tired or nervous or female or all of the above to do much more than the obvious, the well trod, the Totally German, have hope. There's still pleasure to be had. Even if a man named Deiter shows up in a thong to join you in it.

Onwards and upwards and off to Vietnam,



  1. You're very brave, P. I can't imagine traveling on my own, especially in a place where I don't speak the language. I can pretty honestly admit I've never had a man (or woman for that matter) follow me around anywhere . . . that narrative put a lot into perspective for me. Chalk another unearned advantage up to my being born male.

  2. every thing about Istanbul