Archive for May, 2012

  • Reflecting on the ordinary

    May 17th, 2012

    The reflected natural light in Istanbul is something else. Nowhere else do I remember the casting of such a gleam. It’s particularly lovely in the evening and at dawn (though I’m rarely conscious enough to record it). My favorite thing about the light is how it limns everyday objects, giving the mundane — and sometimes even the ugly — a strange flashing moment of glory. Stone, metal, wood, concrete and glass all take on new dimension when reflecting the lengthy beams of the sun. Switched off lampposts, metal fences and fence posts, street signs, building facades, even puddles gleam like mystic revelations in the Istanbul light.

    Perhaps that’s just one of the gifts of this city. Its light can transmute the experience of something ordinary into the extraordinary. Thanks for illuminating me, Istanbul.

  • Weekday Escape: Atatürk Arboretum

    May 15th, 2012

    In Istanbul green space is at something of a premium. In fact, I read somewhere recently that it’s as low as six square meters per resident. So if you’re like me and have an unusual schedule to keep, or are a gentleman or lady of leisure you might just appreciate the Atatürk Arboretum in Bahçeköy. For a couple of TL you can stroll about at your leisure—whereas on weekends and holidays you need to be a member get your dose of naturally filtered air. While the occasional rampaging student or a gardener with a verge trimmer might shatter the trilling birdsong, there are plenty of paths to explore.

    This will be a great retreat on sweltering midsummer days, when the city atmosphere is thick with particulate. The first thing I noticed was the air, which I gulped down like water. It tasted of flowers.

  • No other place: Yeniköy

    May 14th, 2012

    Is it the architecture of yalilar, and konaklar? Your broad boulevard of plane trees? The secrets promised in your hidden lanes latticed with vines?  The glimpses  granted through spiky gates? The crumbling stone walls, the tucked away churches. Is it the wash of sea air through the fragrant leaves? Or the light that paints incredible texture on wood and stone, slanting low in the evenings?

    Could it be the meetings you’ve brought me? The welcome sound of familiar voices? The cups of coffee, the glasses of wine? Is it your slinking alley cats, eyes flashing between the grass? The street dog who beats her tail into the pavement every time I pass?

    Perhaps it’s all of these things, Yeniköy. But there’s one other thing that makes you indelible. You’re my daughter’s first home. Now there’s no other place. It’s strange, even though you’re with me, I’m missing you.

  • Profile: Eko Zeyno

    May 11th, 2012

    Since last summer I’ve been looking into stories about what’s right, what’s wrong and what’s downright scary about Turkey’s food supply. When you become a parent you suddenly want to educate yourself about things you’ve never thought enough about in the past. One of the most interesting aspects of the story is the organic food industry and what’s holding it back when so much of the world no longer needs convincing as to its merits.

    Recently, I talked to Zeynep Çelen, the natural living (these are my terms) guest expert on Star TV’s Melek about the organic food scene and her take on what needs to be done if it’s to take root. If I were to derive a one-word response from her on the greatest obstacle to Turkey’s organic food movement, it would be: attitude.

    You’ve been quite vocal in social media countering negative opinions towards the organic foods movement. What’s the problem?

    ZÇ:  In Turkey people don’t trust new things. They’d rather pay less and know they’re eating sh-t [unhealthy food] than risk being tricked. We don’t trust that people are doing the right thing, and we suffer.

    But as I understand it, organic food is the only food that’s stringently regulated in Turkey, right?

    ZÇ: Yes, with all the scandals in milk, olive oil, honey people are beginning to understand how scary the regular system is. When non-organic food is tested, we’ve found banned chemicals. Migros has just started Iyi Tarim, a program that meets EU standards for non-organic foods. But I don’t know how stringently they test these things.

    In conventional farming — what you call artificial farming — there is always an allowed amount of pesticide on each tomato you eat. Can you believe that? In organic there is no amount of pesticide, and if or when they find a residue on organic products and cancel the certifications — the amount they find is usually less than a tenth than the allowed amount in conventional farming.

    What are your credentials? How did you get involved in this movement?

    ZÇ: I studied biology and then did a Masters in ecology. A few years ago I discovered and became involved with a group called Buğday they had a magazinewhich is now out of print—but provided materials on how to live “naturally” in Turkey. I helped them with everything, then started doing EU-funded projects getting involved with farmers and producers, helping to educate them as well as create more than just raw produce but value-added products so they can earn more money and stay viable. I was also on their committee for several years, but then I started teaching yoga.

    And your guest expert role on Melek, the TV show?

    ZÇ: They found me through a video I did on which has experts giving how-to videos on everything, which Melek‘s producers watched. Then last June they emailed me. I’d almost forgotten about the video but you never know when something you do in the digital world will pop up. As with Buğday, we try to educate people about harmful choices they’re making and then give them a positive alternative. I consult with several doctors and organic producers on each topic to try and investigate beliefs get rid of the myths and then educate them on healthy alternatives.

    What’s the most important thing for the organic food movement?

    ZÇ: Consumers need to find their voice. They are incredibly powerful. But to do that we need to educate the consumer. A real tomato costs more than an artificially produced one. But despite higher labor costs it also employs more people, meaning more jobs, which is obviously a good thing. Certification is expensive, but it can be shared among producers. My philosophy is to pay more but eat a little less. I only eat out at two places because I know the quality of the ingredients they use. Prices will begin to come down as more people buy and produce organic, but the cost of a real tomato will never be as cheap as an artificial one.

    It’s interesting when you talk to farmers who have gone organic. You should go and listen to their stories. They’re so passionate. One farmer made the switch because his wife was poisoned (not fatally) by the harmful chemicals they were using—people die every year here—once they stopped using the chemicals they see the changes quickly. Now they see birds and wildlife they’ve never seen before on their land.

    What do you think? Do you trust the food you eat? Do you worry about where it comes from and what goes into it? Would you prefer to eat better food if it meant eating less? Let me know, I’m listening.

  • Reading List: China Míeville

    May 11th, 2012

    Genre fiction is sometimes regarded as beneath other forms of literary enterprise, but I think that’s unfortunate. To dismiss certain authors because they write stories that are not firmly planted in the “real” world is to miss out on staggering feats of imagination and mind-expanding ideas. And isn’t that one of the roles of fiction? There are superb writers creating fantastic stories who should not be ignored simply because they veer off the path of the ordinary into the extraordinary.

    However, I must admit that until recently I had gone off fantastic stories unless they were somehow anchored in the world we recognize. I needed the sense of place, the grounding in places with which I had a passing familiarity—and thought the realm of high fantasy, the realm of authors like J.R.R. Tolkien and Frank Herbert had become a little lackluster. Then I discovered China Míeville’s The City & The City on a bookshelf in Beirut. Though set in our present day it created a fictional Balkan city that overlapped with another city in space-time. Its description of two overlapping cities, the residents of each deliberately trying to ignore the other, immediately made me think of Istanbul. The book was compelling enough that I decided I would venture into Perdido Street Station next, the author’s second novel, set in a wholly fictional steam punk universe. I don’t know if this book is a masterpiece or not—I’m not fond of such back page pronouncements—but I can tell you I will read the book again. It unfurls a little languidly at the beginning, making a worthwhile investment in setup, and then becomes one of the most exciting, vivid novels I’ve read in years.

    I haven’t yet read all of Mr. Míeville’s works, but I can tell you that he’s an extremely gifted author. His descriptions of cities, real or imagined, are beautifully rendered, full of the grit, grime, scents and smells that bring a place to life on the page. This is an author who understands what cities mean. I recently finished King Rat, his debut novel, which weaves the musical genre of drum n’ bass with the legend of the Pied Piper set in contemporary London. I was completely hooked.

    There’s nothing tender or sweet about Míeville’s books. If you’re looking for “likable” characters or soft focus whimsy don’t venture into his worlds. However, if you like staggering feats of imagination, interesting scenarios and writing that’s so vivid you get a taste—sometimes the metallic one of blood—in your mouth, drop by a bookstore and pick up one of Mr. Míeville’s works.

  • Dear Advertisers

    May 9th, 2012

    Don’t know about you, but the sight of trees makes me happy. Beautiful, green, oxygen-producing trees. Perhaps some of you see them as raw materials, a good backdrop, or simply in the way?

    Once upon a time I worked full time in the advertising industry as a creative. I know and believe that good ads can make a difference. Not just for profit-motivated brands, either. Many cultural and charitable organizations can and do benefit from insightfully strategized, beautifully executed campaigns. I’m not an idealist. I live in the real world (mostly) and understand that commercial messages also make good editorial and entertainment possible. There is nothing inherently evil about advertising, it just needs to be placed in the right context. Otherwise it goes wrong for all parties involved.

    Now I must admit that I never worked in media placement, but I do know enough about the discipline to understand that no matter how great your creative is, it’s not only wasteful, but harmful to place it in the wrong context. Your media planner should be able to tell you the number of impressions you make with the following billboard, but can they measure which are positive or negative?

    I, for one, am vowing to never, ever buy Koroplast again and will also insist that no one in my household ever does either. It’s hard enough to get an unobstructed glimpse of nature in the raw these days, so perhaps, dear advertisers, you can explain to me why you would want to put your most precious commodity—your brand name—in the context of blighting a beautiful view?
    Thanks for your time.

  • The rites of spring continue: Hidrellez

    May 7th, 2012

    Every May 5 Hidrellez — or Ederlezi in Romani — erupts into the mother of all street parties in the backstreets of Sultanahmet. It is a celebration of spring, and a fusion of the names of the two prophets Hizir (the Green One) and Ilyas. Central to the rites is the practice of writing a wish on a scrap of paper and pinning it to ribbons on great swaths of fabric hung up in the streets. Traditionally, these wishes would be affixed to rose bushes at night, and then found again the following day and thrown out to sea.

    This year some opportunistic parties seem to have tried to relocate the celebrations to Park Orman and put on a concert, but to me this seemed like a crass maneuver to steal the thunder from what has traditionally been a truly great street party. I’ve tried to attend every Hidrellez I can since moving to Istanbul, because the local spirit is so great. However, if you’re not keen on crowds, music, raucous fun and dancing in the streets, don’t go. It’s one of those occasions where one minute the darkening streets are empty of everything except lengthening shadows, and the next they’re teeming with party-goers, all of whom are intent on making their wishes come true.

    Here’s a small glimpse of the festivities, and my own hope that all those good wishes come true.

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  • Old Corners, Bright New Lights: LOS DU MAL

    May 4th, 2012

    Istanbul has plenty that could, and perhaps should, change. However there are still plenty of old pieces of this city that only need a little polish to produce volumes of atmosphere. That’s why I’ve been really pleased to get acquainted with Metin Ilktekin and Raphael Faeh, the like-minded talents behind Los Du Mal.

    These two interesting characters are making it their business to illuminate and energize some of the overlooked corners of the city, and have recently set up their Muvakkat Studio in Roumelie Han, one of the great Pera buildings that has fallen into decline over the years, yet still manages to provide plenty of inspiration for painters and other artists, as well as serving as the HQ for the latest incarnation of the Turkish Communist Party.

    The pair met in Zurich three years ago but came from entirely different professional disciplines. Metin is a former private jet salesman and Raphael has a background in design and was working in a social media company. Neither were feeling entirely fulfilled in their roles, but spent plenty of time re-imagining uses for urban spaces.

    Perhaps their first job will be finding a new plan for their current digs, Roumeli Han, which has acquired a new owner and an uncertain future. The two don’t seem worried that in August they might have to uproot again and leave. In fact, their demeanor is quite the opposite. They seem energized by this possible transition. “We have until August to celebrate the weirdness of this building,” says Raphael.

    When I ask if they are working on a proposal for the building, they smile. For Metin, who grew up in Switzerland, but is half Turkish (on his father’s side) and Dutch from his mother, the choice of Istanbul, and this location certainly has personal relevance. “I want to give something back,” he says. “But it’s not about nostalgia, which can be dangerous. This is about drawing on the energy that’s here.”

    That energy is symbolized by the han they currently occupy, whose residents represent a fragrant mix of Istanbul, offering trinkets, cafes, a bar, a betting house, and a home to painters and other artists. It’s a place that billows atmosphere. While I’m visiting, an attractive young student from Mimar Sinan University knocks at the door of their studio asking if there’s an exhibition going right now. Is it Kismet? Maybe.

    So what exactly is it Los Du Mal offers? Individualized tourism, a look at the city, tailored for a musician, an architect, an author, something creative people with very specific needs just can’t find in Lonely Planet, or Fodor’s. A place to set up shop if you’re a band hashing out a new album, or an artist looking for inspiration. It’s not just about space, it’s also about providing a network of insiders that can outsiders into the places the everyday visitor to Istanbul, or even an Istanbullu hasn’t ever heard of, let alone glimpsed.

    Essentially, it’s about experiences. “Stories are a powerful tool,” says Raphael, the more introspective of the two, scratching his beard. “We are the stories we tell ourselves … pulling stuff from the past, without nostalgia.”

    That’s what’s interesting for me about these two complementary talents. They aren’t blind to this city’s cracks. And rather than ignoring or avoiding them, they let the light slip through — not the opportunity — revealing something both Turk and foreigner can appreciate, without having to obliterate the past and thus start over.

    “It’s a people city,” says Metin. “Compared to [other] European cities, you can do things. There’s a lot more heart here. It’s about talking.We want to use our space to fuel events, discussion panels, paintings, music. When people come here they think about possibilities.”

  • Istanbul’s Otherworldy Inhabitants II

    May 2nd, 2012

    At the risk of anthropomorphizing here, I think cats have quite distinct, individual personalities. Some are friendly, others aloof, some mean, some soft, some weak, some strong … there are endless variations, especially among those that have regular contact with humans. Sometimes I wonder if the ones who have regular contact with Homo sapiens, don’t absorb something of their traits. Like humans, no two cats are identical, there’s always some quirk, some oddity that provides them with such individuality.

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