• the wonder of the pinewood

    January 19th, 2014

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    In Istanbul it’s increasingly difficult to remember that our world isn’t comprised entirely of concrete and glass. Luckily this city has a few surprises left in store. One of which is only a few hundred meters from Haci Osman Metro station. Rough and unkept, unlike Emirgan Park or Belgrad Forest, is a large, and largely unused, pine wood. Although it’s open to the public, it’s not open to cars — although, unfortunately, it did seem to be open to the  odd motorcycle.

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    A few hundred meters from the entrance, you begin to lose sight of anything but the stands of pine. A blue sky looms overhead, and sunlight filters through the branches. Soon the city disappears, and aside from the wail of the occasional siren, you hear little more than the wind through the trees. Stray a little from the beaten paths and you’ll soon feel the soft springy carpet of pine needles underfoot. It’s then that you can occupy yourself with the important things in life — such as locating the perfect pine cone.

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  • Cathar Country

    July 12th, 2012

    It’s often strange to think that this region of France we’re now in was once the site of one of Europe’s bloodiest persecutions. Hundreds of years ago this was the land of the Cathars, a religious group who believed that the material world was the creation of Satan and that worldly possessions were something that should be abandoned. It wasn’t long before the Catholic Church feared their growing sway over people’s hearts and sent in the Inquisition.

    Read More…

  • Büyükada Day

    July 9th, 2012

    Prinkipo or Büyükada, as the name in Turkish tells you, is a big island. It’s also a big tourist destination right now, much to the distress of Istanbul’s weekenders. That’s why you should never go on weekends this time of year without your own private pad to enjoy. My advice is visit between Sunday evening and Friday morning. There will still be some tourists, especially in the vicinity of the ferry port. However, if you grab a horse and carriage, walk or rent a bicycle—as I did at the staggering expense of 10TL/day—you can easily escape for some quiet seclusion in the hills and enjoy a vista worthy of Elysium. Read More…

  • A New Spring

    April 9th, 2012

    I have a recurring dream:

    A hundred years work is accomplished in one brief night. Istanbul wakes to find the cars, the trucks, and the roads which convey them swallowed by an unstoppable force. A forest. The corridors and hills of broken asphalt are gone. While we all slumbered the parked cars and roads have been broken into their constituents by an inexorable patrol of ivy, to nourish the earth. And from their ruins have sprouted trees—the kind that take a hundred years to grow to their full splendor—who are now the city council, all interconnected and communicating through a network of roots. The forest is king and holds sway within the city confines. It has commissioned foxes to sweep the city of its rats and falcons to cleanse the sky of its pigeons. Every rooftop is an island rising above a swirling sea of green. From outside the city traffic grinds to a halt. The noise and blare of horns is replaced by birdsong and the soft wash of wind through the fragrant trees. Meanwhile, the human inhabitants have been given a second chance. We rise in wonder to find there is fruit aplenty, gardens to feed everyone …

    Then I wake up. That’s why I’ve been thinking a lot about this city and my dream recently. I’m not sure when it started. Perhaps when my father-in-law described Istanbul before the population explosion began in the 1970s. Perhaps it’s when a Kadirga resident kicked a still living rat into the air which nearly hit me. Perhaps there’s probably no single moment.

    Cities aren’t going away. If you believe the projections — and there’s no reason not to — they’re only going to get bigger. In the 70s nobody could easily see where Istanbul was going. Now we have an idea. This particular city is at a critical juncture in its history. Its latest conqueror, in a long line of conquerors, isn’t human though.

    It’s the automobile, a beast that isn’t content to steal every square inch of walking space, but also our breathing space. And so great is the automobile’s tyranny that just about everyone needs to get into one to be granted a breath of fresh air. How bitter an irony is that?

    Before my daughter was born we made a conscious decision to leave the city center for the hills above the Bosporus. Not everybody has that luxury, which is why it’s probably time to start thinking about how this metropolis will work. I’m excited about the Marmaray Project which will convey humans and commerce through our city and lessen our dependency on the automobile. It’s not enough, though.

    When I first came to Istanbul, it use to stagger me that people would picnic on the narrow grassed-in triangles between highways and on-ramps. But when you think about it, where else are they supposed to go?

    I don’t want to diminish the hard work that’s going into this city. Often, in fact, I want to congratulate those in charge with how well it functions considering the enormous forces exerted upon it from within and without. It’s a magnificent place. But what would Istanbul’s heroes like Fatih Sultan Mehmet, or in more modern times, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk say?

    Would they marvel at its size and progress, or pause to ask what happened to the blessed trees? The decision to tear out the last slender trunks from Istiklal Caddesi some 5-6 years ago seemed to me to be a tragic indicator of the value of trees in this city’s plan.

    What do you think? Are green spaces, wider sidewalks and the opportunity to be safe from the constant assault of traffic a human right. Should they be?

  • A Dream Named Thessaloniki

    April 2nd, 2012

    It has excited my imagination for some time, but I know very little about it. I know it’s Mustafa Kemal’s birthplace, but ironically not part of the great modern state he created. It’s often compared to Izmir. Its history, rich, significant … Greek, Roman, Ottoman, 20th century, Jewish. It’s a port city, Aegean, named after the princess born on the day of a great Macedonian victory.

    To hell with guidebooks. Wander. Get a vague sense of direction and then to let all five, or is it six, senses lead me. I don’t want anybody else to discover for me. Why not relinquish the burdensome anxiety that something will be missed without Fodor’s or Lonely Planet?

    Yes, I have expectations, but seeing how close one’s imagination stands up to reality is another pleasure. Thessaloniki … Salonika … Selanik? doesn’t disappoint. There are echoes of other port cities, Izmir, Beirut, common architectural details like shuttered windows, but this is a city with its very own feel. Perhaps it’s the imprint of that vast and important aforementioned history.

    The Greeks are a far more resilient people than the images on the nightly news would suggest of late. Despite their recent economic woes, the locals here seem very much up to the task of appreciating the kind of wealth that only their geography can provide. Everyone is concerned but overall, I sense resigned calm, not panic, not depression. Why waste sunlight and spring?

    Other things I notice … the choice of a single species of tree for each of the central streets. Sunlight spilling down on the wide sidewalks, filling the cracks in the cobblestone malls. Corners and alleys alive with a kind of decrepit charm. But mostly space … space without excess emptiness. Spaces creeping with interest and imagination. It’s not a big city, not especially crowded, but there a lot of places where the inhabitants can go out and enjoy themselves. And they’re full to capacity. Metal jugs of wine. Grilled sardines. Grilled cheeses. Clinking plates. Cigarette smoke spiraling up into the air. Greek voices suddenly penetrated by clamorous Turkish ones. The streets, the city continue to replenish themselves.

    Atriums. Passages. Shafts of blue colored light and then Hermes Bar. High ceilings, tall windows, long late afternoon light. More cigarette smoke. I need to find this place again. Is it fate that I’m brought to a bar named after the God of all alchemists? And no, I can’t tell you where it is, the card is in Greek. But its location is no longer a mystery withheld from me. It will not dissolve like a dream.

    The vastness of the Aegean washes in empty except for a handful of freighters. Olive trees toss in a salt-tinged breeze. Orange trees hang heavy with fruit. Children play at their parent’s feet. Teenagers gather to greet and gawk at each other across Aristotelous Square.

    Time to find another glass of wine. The economy is not thriving. Life is.

  • The Mystic Emptiness

    March 19th, 2012

    Ever have those moments when the light strikes the surface you’re looking at in a certain way and suddenly there’s a change, an almost mystic feel in the air and you want suddenly to say, “Yeah, baby!”

    I do all the time. Then I realize I’m alone, or in a church, a mosque or some sacred site where such an expression would be highly inappropriate. The world really is an incredible place at times, particularly when you get to see the most mundane things all over again, but in a new way.

    Perhaps that’s why I’m so relieved to have my camera and this blog. Being a writer or a creative person is very solitary at times. You’re always trying to capture a moment, hold it, freeze it in glass. Now it’s not so lonely.

    I could say more, but somebody else has already said it far better:

    “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious—the knowledge of the existence of something unfathomable to us, the manifestation of the most profound reason coupled with the most brilliant beauty. I cannot imagine a god who rewards and punishes the objects of his creation, or who has a will of the kind we experience in ourselves. I am satisfied with the mystery of life’s eternity and with the awareness of—and glimpse into—the marvelous construction of the existing world together with the steadfast determination to comprehend a portion, be it ever so tiny, of the reason that manifests itself in nature. This is the basis of cosmic religiosity, and it appears to me that the most important function of art and science is to awaken this feeling among the receptive and keep it alive.”

    I don’t generally like to use other people’s words, but Albert Einstein’s, above, hold as much truth for me as any religious text.

    Perhaps that’s why I’m here … this city is full of these moments. There are times in fact when I’m almost paralyzed by the beauty of this place and its almost indescribable quality. You can’t quite fathom it, only goggle at it for a moment or two before you trip over your own two feet. It gets a bit addictive.

    I can be so impatient for this city’s revelations, that I have to remind myself that it’s a state of mind. You’re either open to it, or you’re trapped in a hole of your own digging.

    Do you ever feel that way? Ever want to get lost with someone else in the mystic emptiness? If so, feel free to join me here.

  • The Wood Next Door.

    January 13th, 2012

    TRESPASSING IN AN OVERLOOKED PLACE.

    Beside my house there’s a vast wooded lot which both fascinates and haunts me. It has a voice. Looking outside our side windows, I see tall, ivy entwined trees and long weeds obscuring a darkening western sky. This overgrown, unkempt expanse feels both beautiful and malevolent. One of the pines—old, gnarled and unforgiving as Chronos himself—looms over the gully separating our balcony, and regularly dumps branches without warning or even a whisper of wind. He’s like a neighbor who never smiles or meets your eye but wears a constant sneer.

    Three weeks after we’d moved into our apartment one of our cats answered the nocturnal calls of this strange wood.  As soon as we took up residence, the cat itself started howling out in a new voice, as if answering some inaudible cry that stirred from without. Despite the baying of dogs, and the fact that he’d previously lived a spoon-fed Nisantasi existence, Jarvis couldn’t resist the pull of this place. We never saw him again.

    It’s something unusual this unkempt grove. It’s prime real estate, owned but not developed. I’m told that once upon a time it was slated for a project, but then the deal and the permission fell through. Usually, high fences, CCTV cams, barbed or even razor-wire deter wanders from such places, but this one only has a hedge. On occasion I see the odd Romani in the wood, usually represented by no more than a knit cap poking above the tall grasses.

    Yesterday afternoon, I answered the call, and disappeared into the wood.

    OPEN OR CLOSED? WHAT DOES THIS BREAK IN THE GATE MEAN?

    First, I walk up the road to gain entry. There’s a shambling stone fence, no more than a meter high, which is easy to hop, but atop it someone has stacked bunched branches as a deterrent. Nowhere does a sign say: NO TRESPASSING, or its Turkish equivalent, it’s more implied by the old stone and makeshift barriers.

    Just before the road forks, there’s a broken gate through which you can slip. But to be honest the house beside, all smashed and abandoned gives me a serious case of the creeps. After peering at the entrance for a moment or two, firing off a few pictures, I decide to go back down the road and climb the wall within sight of my home to gain entry.

    It’s much less forbidding place to enter here, and the proximity of my house and living, breathing residents is reassuring. Once over the wall and inside the perimeter of trees I realize it’s not such a forest at all, that the trees deceive you somewhat. There are many clearings, where Romani or someone other secretive people are cultivating some crop. And there are more stone walls, either old fences or overgrown foundations. Whatever, it’s clear that people once inhabited and still use this land. The smell of wood smoke filters through the trees. Someone is still here, somewhere.

    The guilty feeling of trespassing never quite leaves me. But, camera in hand, I feel somewhat less criminal. If challenged, a simple shrug of the shoulders, a gesture with the Nikon, and pointing back home should be enough, right?

    That’s what I continue to tell myself.

    As I probe deeper I make newer discoveries. Well hidden from view in every direction are what looks like makeshift miniature gecekondu (shanties) concealed inside a stand of trees. Someone’s making honey. I’m not sure I’d want these golden honeycombs though, as the hives are constructed from old peeling painted wood scraps, brick and roofs made from corrugated asbestos sheets. Organic honey? Not quite.

    MAKESHIFT ROMANI BEE SHANTIES.

    As I crouch to inspect and snap the hives, there’s a rustle over my shoulder. Unlike the sacred bees who hum along, ignorant or unconcerned by my presence, I’ve drawn someone else’s attention. I jump up and twist around at the same time, not a graceful or intimidating gesture.

    Or, so I think.

    Scrawny, shivering and far more pitiful than scary, the dog cocks its head at me in wonder. What are you doing here? is not so much the challenge, but the question suggested by its gesture. A simple “hello” knocks the dog back two steps.

    One of the reasons I find this place so intimidating is the baying of dogs after dark. And I’m a certified dog-lover. I’m not afraid of, and am, in fact, quite fond of the street dogs I encounter during my daily walks here in Istanbul. But the dogs that belong to this wood are menaces, and have been known to corner people in our parking lot. At sunset, the call to prayer sets them howling like the hounds of hell.

    GUARDIAN OF THE FORBIDDEN WOOD… ? NOT QUITE.

    But this is no satanic canine, merely some scruffy, underfed dog. The click of the shutter makes her retreat three more steps. After taking a few more dog portraits, I go on my way, slightly emboldened. Unconsciously my steps take me back towards the abandoned house. There’s an old well, dark with brackish water. Perhaps this place isn’t so scary, after all.

    Definitely maybe. Despite being close to the perimeter of this strange plot, the abandoned house once again quickens my heart. This building feels wrong. I’m not being scientific, that’s for sure, but how something feels is just as important to me as how something reasons. There may be a perfectly logical explanation for its continued dereliction … but I’m not perfectly logical, am I?

    Still, my curiosity gets the better of me. Somebody lived here once. Where did they go?

     WILL SOME GRIZZLED FACE APPEAR AT THIS SHATTERED WINDOW? I  F____ ING HOPE NOT.

    I’m kind of wishing for my canine companion from a few moments ago, but she’s disappeared back into the weeds. Bitch. Maybe she knows something I don’t?  Still there’s something impressive  about this old building, its texture … it’s kind of like a nobleman in rags, dilapidated but once proud. It tugs at you.

    I snap several pictures from a distance of about 10-15 meters. Then I suck in my breath. The casement and the way the light and shadow wash across it are too appealing not to capture.

    Finally, I draw close enough to peer through another window, this one slitted by rusted bars. The feeling that some head, grizzled and toothless, will pop up and at me, to cackle or scream at me, never goes away. What is so compelling about this place?

    OPTICAL DELUSION: THE HOUSE SEEMS BIGGER INSIDE THAN OUT …  AM I MAD? PROBABLY.

    A strange notion takes me as I continue to gaze inside the house. It seems, or rather feels bigger on the inside than on the out. Suddenly I’m remembering a book I put down and never picked up years ago — The House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski — not because it was bad, but because I started having intense nightmares. Its documentary-reality feel was far more terrifying than any Blair Witch Project.

    I shake my head and move away from the windows. Get a grip, buddy. It’s time to take a last few shots of the broken gate from the other side. But a feeling that something is watching from over my shoulder persists, and after a few more hurried shots, probably not worth presenting, I slip out through the broken slats in the gate.

    Once firmly footed on the solid asphalt I feel intense wave of relief. The sun is suddenly warm, and I’m relieved I passed the courage test. Well, sort of …

    Anyway, don’t forget to take your imagination on a stroll this weekend.

  • Volumes of silence, Part II.

    December 20th, 2011

    ESCAPING THE MIDDAY CRUSH. FROM THE BOSPORUS TO THE SEA OF MARMARA.

    How and where do you find quiet, urban dwellers? Do you or don’t you? I love city life, but it’s so easy to get distracted, sucked into a vortex of sound, movement and confusion. Do you go to a library, do yoga, get a massage, or instead clamp on the headphones  and blast out all the other noise with your preferred brand of clamor? I’m interested. Do you find quiet? Is it enough? Read More…

  • Volumes of silence, Part I.

    December 5th, 2011

    KARAKÖY QUAY, MID-MORNING.

    In a city of 15 Million, it’s not always easy to find space, let alone quiet to fill it. But Istanbul is full of surprises, whether you’re in ferry-crowded Karaköy, or Sirkeci Train Station. Can you feel the silence? Amazing.

    Read More…