• the blessing

    May 24th, 2014

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    Open a newspaper or turn on the television and you’ll probably get a pretty troubling picture of things in Turkey these days. Sometimes it’s enough to make an outsider want to switch off entirely. Fortunately, peppered in amongst the drama, life still presents many moments of genuine hope here on a daily basis. One such was a couple of weekends ago in Yeniköy. Over the last couple of years I’ve been truly fortunate to attend and enjoy the welcome of the local Rum (Byzantine Greek) community at various events and ceremonies. It’s something that grounds you. And witnessing the baptism of one small but treasured member of their community was a highpoint in my nine years in Turkey, moreover since it was something my family was welcomed in to share.

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    Until a couple of Sundays ago, I had never been fortunate enough to attend such a ceremony. It was truly interesting to watch. Religion gets a lot of bad press these days, but when you are part of such an event, it’s much easier to understand the contribution that belief and spirituality makes for a community. Especially in such a small and tightly knit community. Read More…

  • Osman Usta: the Master beneath the mosque

    January 25th, 2013

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    I don’t know about you, but I like a well made shoe. In fact, I prefer a pair. These days, however, it seems you have to go to Italy or Spain to find a good handcrafted shoemaker … or so I thought. Skeptical? I was too. Despite a tip from my friend, Metin — a man of substance and style —I learned about a fine shoemaker in my own backyard. Much to my amazement, beneath Yeni Camii (New Mosque) in Yeniköy, there is, in fact, an artisan shoemaker. He is also turning out some extremely stylish men’s boots in supple leather and silky soft suede, and has been doing so for no less than about 50 years. To my embarrassment, I walked by his shop for almost two-and-a-half years without a second glance. Perhaps it’s because it seems like a relatively modest storefront and workshop. Let this be a lesson to me to be more attentive. Osman Usta has clients from as far afield as England, France, Argentina, Spain. Now the term usta (master) is somewhat overused in Turkey as it can refer to anyone from the guy slicing slivers of döner off the spit, to a second-rate carpenter, or to a man like Osman. In this case, however, the title is well earned. While I sipped a tea I had the pleasure of watching him work. It’s truly something to behold. I will definitely be seeking him out the next time I look for a new pair of suede or lea footwear. In fact, I can hardly wait to put in an order for some shoes from the Master beneath the mosque.

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    OSMAN USTA
    Küçüktepe Sokak No. 15, Yeniköy, Istanbul +90 212 262 3760

  • The Epiphany

    January 6th, 2013

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    Today was not a warm day for a stroll beside the Bosporus and no one with any sense was dressed in anything less than full headgear and warm winter clothes. Then again — for some there is a strong sense of faith in both community and tradition. Today is a special day for Turkey’s Orthodox Community, who marked the date of the Epiphany, or the revelation of God to the Gentiles through the form of the Christ. Into the Bosporus jumped four brave souls on the most blustery cold day of the season. We were expecting snow today, so you had to be brave to leap from the shelter of a boat to the warmth of a waiting terry cloth bathrobe. Nevertheless some young men from the Orthodox community did just that to mark this important date on the calendar. Once again, I’m grateful to have witnessed one of the many different traditions from an important cornerstone community in Turkey’s rich history.

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  • Turkish nuts

    September 5th, 2012

    To be honest, the man above is not a nut man at all. He’s a fig man. The title of this short piece should really be Turkish nuts and fruits, but it’s not as catchy. Even more sadly the nut lady beside him wouldn’t let me take her picture. There are far fewer photos of the sweet teyze (aunt) street vendors on this blog than I’d like, but traditional women with headscarves are a bit camera shy, especially when the person holding the camera is a great big male yabancı (foreigner/stranger). However, if I were her, I’d be proud of my nuts. Just look at them. They’re worth a Maşallah or two, don’t you think?

    Anyway, I love the fact that you never know what fresh produce—whether it’s figs, hazelnuts or walnuts—is going to show up on your street corner, farm fresh and pretty much irresistible. Turkey is one fertile country. Have you ever tasted a freshly picked fig? The taste of paradise, my friends. Enjoy.

  • Delicate flowers

    August 8th, 2012

    Yesterday as I was walking through my neighborhood, I decided to stop and appreciate the flowers you see above. Right now the area is bursting with them, and has been for over a month. I was thinking to myself, what a paradise Turkey can be with its abundance of flowering trees, fruit and fresh produce. I continued to walk in a large circuit around my neighborhood before going home. The slanting evening light was nice and there’s a sloping street I  like with lots of vines like those above spilling over the high stone walls on either side of the road. You have to be a bit careful on these roads because there are plenty of Range Rovers and Mercedes tearing through the lanes at high speed, usually with drivers nattering away at equally high speed on mobile phones.

    Mindful of this, I proceeded to take some pictures of the vines spilling over the high stone wall, but couldn’t get the exposure quite right. As I was adjusting my shutter speed, I heard the electronic whirr of a gate swing open behind me and moved out of the road. But it wasn’t a Range Rover or a Mercedes that issued from the gate. It was a security guard. I was promptly and quite rudely told that I wasn’t allowed to take pictures of this street. My response to the security man was that I was taking pictures of flowers, which I offered to show him. He told me to get off the street — a public street. My Turkish isn’t quite good enough to retort with anything that wouldn’t have simply been vulgar and escalate the situation, so I retreated, burning not from the summer heat, but from indignation. I live five minutes walk from the spot.

    I was in a public street taking photos of flowers. Then I realized what stops this place from being paradise. Fear. Despite high walls, expensive security, razor wire, and plenty of wealth for those who dwell behind the high walls, the fruit that swells from the abundance of flowers is fear. What a bitter fruit.

  • The boat yard sandwich

    June 25th, 2012

    I’ve noticed lately that Turkish men are frighteningly adept with knives. Fortunately they seem to put their dexterity with razor sharp implements to good use. The man above is filleting bonito, a type of mackerel used for my favorite sandwich in the whole world — balik ekmek. In Istanbul, you can find these fish sandwiches in just about any seaside spot, especially by high traffic ferry ports. However, my favorite balik ekmek spot just happens to be close to home in the tersane (boat yard). Read More…

  • The two shores

    June 11th, 2012

    Nowhere is the contrast between Istanbul’s coexisting communities more apparent to me than on the Beykoz-Yeniköy ferry. Everyday these small, roughly 30-passenger capacity craft putter back and forth across the Bosporus, bringing Anatolia to Europe and vice-versa. Once upon a time there might have been a more upstairs-downstairs style transition as wealthy businessmen crossed one way to their factories and warehouses on the Anatolian shore, while wage-earners and house servants crossed to the other. In Ottoman times, Yeniköy was an affluent mix of Greek and Turk, and later on, Jewish settlers. Now that the Greek and Jewish communities have dwindled but still exist, it’s a mainly Turkish, primarily Republican group, with a strong sprinkling of foreigners. By contrast, Beykoz is a much more religious and conservative area, with no sycamore lined boulevards or fancy cafes. In Beykoz there might be a tekel or two selling Efes beer, but they aren’t readily apparent in the harbor crowded with small fishing boats. From what I understand, the Beykoz shore has become more “conservative” over the last 10-15 years.

    But what does “conservative” mean? What’s interesting are the new class of religious Turkish women, that aren’t poor, undereducated, or sequestered. Their brand of conservatism is certainly not the same as a Saudi Arabian woman’s. I’ll never forget the moment my cab to the airport was not so gently nudged out of the fast lane by a blazing white BMW 5-series piloted by an expensively attired 20-something woman with a headscarf, bobbing her head to the pulsing music within, hauling on a cigarette and chatting with her similarly attired friend. It’s with Turkey’s women that the most visible shift is taking place, a very real transition, from one shore to the next. How dramatic that shift will be, and what that really means still remains to be seen.

    Meanwhile on the Beykoz ferry, strangers maintain a wary distance. There are furtive looks, not hostile, but perhaps a little judgmental, as a certain amount of categorization and head-counting goes on.

  • Neighborhood watch: Tarabya

    June 5th, 2012

    In a few months we’ll probably be leaving our beloved Yeniköy for Tarabya, one village farther up the Bosporus towards the Black Sea. Like Yeniköy it’s originally a Greek village (Therapia). However, it differs from Yeniköy significantly in that it has a large natural harbor dominated by the architecture of the Tarabya Hotel which is currently under renovation. This building is unique to the Bosporus in both its architecture and its size and under normal circumstances would be an illegal building for the Bosporus, exceeding its building height restrictions, yet somehow this one snuck through. While I wouldn’t want more hotels like this crowding the shores of the Bosporus, I’m actually quite fond of it and its placement at one of the last points before the strait curls towards the Black Sea.

    Tarabya is a very mixed neighborhood. Waterside there are pricey properties and perhaps one too many a fish restaurant. Cresting the hills above, there are mansions and gated houses. In between, tumbling down the hills—sometimes literally—the buildings tend to be a bit more of a shambling affair, some from neglect, others because they were probably hastily assembled by flashlight. Regardless, there’s a friendly feel, and as I was exploring the backstreets this morning, I was hailed by three men having tea who invited me to join them. Originally from Rize in the Northeast/Black Sea region they were taking a break from working on a building behind the mosque. They were curious what a funny-looking foreigner was doing roaming the streets. For a glass of tea they got me to surrender some of my story. While I’m still not sure exactly how I feel about moving to Tarabya, it’s good to know there’s a friendly neighborhood watch.

  • Cold tea time

    May 25th, 2012

    It’s not always easy to get a beer in this city. Sometimes, it has to be done on the sly. Recently I was in a nice little eatery a bit too close to a mosque to have an alcohol license, which used the code name soğuk çay (cold tea) for beer. There are times when I enjoy these little rituals and games and  then there are times when I just want a beer without any secret handshakes or fuss.

    Yes, there are days when it seems that there are a few too many fences between me and the swinging Sultan style of life I believe I desire. Some days I’m half tempted to just knock at the gate of someones’s yalı and find out what’s going on for those fortunate enough to live within toe-dipping distance of the Bosporus. Fortunately there are a few places where you can almost pretend you’re an Ottoman aristocrat, if not a full fledged Sultan. One of those is Gazebo in Yeniköy. I’d never visited the place before as I was a bit put off by its name, a word which I associated with small town squares not majestic Bosporus shores. Still I was not disappointed by what I found. There’s a good view,and liberal splashings of sea and sun, and the soğuk çay was properly cold if not exactly cheap. Not sure if I felt like a Sultan or even an aristocrat, but at least I didn’t need a code word to be on the right side of the fence.

    GAZEBO CAFE  Köybaşı Cad. No:175 Sarıyer – Yeniköy, İstanbul – Avrupa (0212) 299 8487

  • Yeniköy’s Friendliest Resident

    May 24th, 2012

    One of my favorite Yeniköy friends isn’t human, but is one sweet being nevertheless. This morning I finally captured the beauty in those bright orange eyes, sometimes hidden beneath her dusty brows. I try to feed the street dogs when I can, but I’ve never been in the right place at the right time to give my favorite a treat. Still, she recognizes me everyday, and when not deep in the realm of doggie dreams, affectionately smashes her tail against the pavement in welcome. Despite objecting to certain marks of cars like Toyotas—she demonstrates surprisingly good taste for a street hound—or anyone pushing a cart, she really has the kindest disposition of any creature I’ve met. I feel like I should have a name for her. She has soul. Any thoughts?