September 8th, 2006
These were some of the first words we heard upon arriving at the street corner outside of the Hotel Nomade in Istanbul. They were uttered by a young waiter at the restaurant across the alley, a young man we commonly referred to as “Orlando Bloom” over the course of the next week, because of his ponytail combined with a mustache and chin-tuft, á la Will Turner in Pirates of the Caribbean.
Orlando Bloom greeted us hopefully whenever we would pass his restaurant, one day making us feel quite at home by saying, “Hello, neighbors.”
At other times, we were annoyed rather than charmed at the habit all Istanbullu restaurant owners and carpet-sellers have of addressing strangers on the street and pressing them to sample their wares. “Excuse me, here, please.” “Tenemos buena comida!” (K and I noticed that we were addressed in English during the day, when we had our sunglasses on, and in Spanish at night, when our features were more visible.) Whatever language you speak, you can be sure that some entrepreneur in Istanbul knows enough of it to be able to sell you something.
(At some point during the trip, I wondered aloud about what introverts in Turkey do for a living. “Prairie Dog,” K’s friend who joined us in Istanbul after our first two days there, replied, “They’re the ones in the back room weaving the carpets.”)
In any case, we felt spoiled that we didn’t have to learn Turkish in order to get by. We learned and implemented our “hellos,” our “pleases” and “thank yous,” and I picked up some other random words, but we didn’t really even need those phrases. So easy to get lazy.
Except for the day we tried to find a bit of a ruined wall from a Byzantine palace.
We knew that the ruin was at a place called Yedikule, and we knew that Yedikule was on the outskirts of the city proper, but we didn’t exactly know how to get there. However, we read in our guide books that fixed-route taxis called dolmus often went to places that the buses, trams, and metros didn’t. After wandering around the west side of the city, we finally found a parking lot full of vans that we thought might be dolmuses. So we went around asking if any of them went to Yedikule.
The first driver we encountered pointed down the hill and said, “Otobus. Otobus to Zeytinburnu.”
I remembered having seen that Zeytinburnu was the last stop on the tram, and K thought she remembered that Zeytinburnu was close to Yedikule, so we set off for the bus stop. We waited at the stop as bus after bus passed us, none of them going to Zeytinburnu. When we eventually did see a Zeytinburnu-labeled bus, we jumped up and rushed toward the curb, only to have the driver cheerfully honk and pass by. 15 minutes later, another Zeytinburnu bus finally stopped, and we got on, paying our lira to the fare-taker, and taking seats right behind him.
At first, the bus seemed to be going in the right direction. But then, when the bus turned right, and the arrows on signs for Zeytinburnu pointed to the left, we started to get worried. As the neighborhoods we passed through got increasingly sketchy, we started flipping desperately through our map, intermittently looking up at the fare-taker and asking, “Zeytinburnu?”, as if it were the magic password that would land us home safely.
He seemed to be replying in the affirmative to our cries of “Zeytinburnu?”, but at one point, he started saying, “Problem. Problem,” which seemed to be the only English word he knew other than “Yes.” Given his body language, we guessed that he meant “No problem,” a ubiquitous English phrase among English-speakers in both Turkey and Egypt, but had omitted the “no,” not quite understanding its significance to the phrase. Needless to say, we didn’t find “Problem. Problem” very comforting.
We still have no idea what was happening or where the bus was supposed to be going, but finally the bus let us off at the Zeytinburnu tram station.
As we were preparing to get off, the fare-taker, with the help of a passenger who knew more English, asked, “Where from?”
“America,” we replied, because few people seemed to understand when we said, “United States.”
Then our fare-taker revealed that he knew one more English word. “Bush,” said he, as we stepped off.
I made a face indicating my displeasure with said president, hoping my reaction would endear three poor, silly tourists to the fare-taker. I’m not sure he would have understood correctly if I’d said, “Bush. Problem.”
Anyway, after our adventures, we asked K if we could just take the tram home, without continuing to search for the Byzantine wall.
Our Zeytinburnu adventure ended up being a good thing, however, because we needed to pass through that station and change from the tram to the metro on the day we left for the airport. At the station, as we stood in line for our metro tokens, a Chinese woman came up and asked me how to get from Zeytinburnu to Eminonu (a stop we were actually very familiar with).
I started replying in English, and she looked surprised. “You speak English?” she said.
“Yes,” I smiled and nodded.
“You are not Turkish?”
“No,” I laughed, and proceeded to give her directions. Only another tourist would have mistaken me for a Turk who knew my way around—but, still, if we hadn’t gone to Zeytinburnu that fateful day, I wouldn’t have been able to give her such confident instructions.
Oh, and before we’d left for the airport, we had one final lunch. We finally patronized the restaurant across the alley from our hotel. We couldn’t leave without saying good-bye to “Orlando Bloom,” our neighbor.
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