Sunday, March 25, 2012

3.22 March Shade

There is no shade in March.
I wondered why it was so hard to keep at the raking this week. One unlikely reason was the heat of March, not a phrase we get to write too often.
It was in the high seventies again today, for the third day a row. The warm spell started Sunday. The crocuses, already up and starting to bloom when we got home from Beirut 12 days ago, shined gloriously for a few days this week, but this morning I noticed they’re mostly used up. No shade for crocuses because the trees aren’t leaved out yet. Normally, that’s not a problem.
Does “normal” make any sense any more when we talk about weather?
So I rake the leaves, last year’s dry brown dusty leaves off the garden plantations this week, starting last Saturday, ramping up on Sunday, even taking on the dreaded razor-edged maiden grass, finishing one of the big ones out front without open wounds, deciding not to press my luck with the other. I work a little bit more each afternoon this week. Dry sunny days all, but I get tired and lose interest after a while.
Spring fever?
Some of that, I suppose, but while I started on the sunny patches first, most of the front yard and then the western half of the back where the relative amount of open space lets in considerably more unfiltered sun, after a while that spring-proved strategy – keep the sun on your back to stay warm – backfired. I took off my layers, sat on the ground to save energy, and pulled the old leaves off the plants – some new shoots, some dry quiet places where no-shows showed me nothing-yet – into piles, before making myself stand up and burn energy. I was warm enough already.
I sing a little hymn to March shade. Go east, old man, and find it in the shadows formed by the house when the sun goes behind it. I work in the shady part of the cherry tree circle this after, get a little more done, but still quickly tire.
Too much heat for a body to get used to in March.
Crocus season is already over.

Friday, March 16, 2012

2.29: Journey to Santralistanbul

The name itself is exotic, like some sort of Eastern Traveler’s Fantasyland, both magical and remote, attainable only by the stout of heart or the favored of God. Perhaps not even visible to those who cling to the beaten path, the common run, the guided tour.
Okay, it’s a power plant. Or it used to be. Now it’s what Frommer’s calls “an astounding new art space,” the transformation of the nerve center plant that served the center of Istanbul from 1911 to 1983 into a mega-sized artistic play space, giving power plant scope and scale for big ideas in visual arts and installations.
Obviously, you won’t find room for a 20th century industrial site in the Old City crammed with historic monuments and great buildings going back two millennia and new planeloads of tourists every day. But where exactly is it?
Getting there turns out to be not only half the fun but a serious challenge to urban pathfinders with skills honed on New York City subways and Arab minibuses. The solution turns out to be best value for your travel money west of Suez because Turkey’s estimable public transportation system enables you to ride up the Golden Horn, the city’s unique interior seaway, on a ferry or “seabus” that costs the same as a ride on a tram or an ordinary bus. Which is to say about $1.30.
Unlike explorers of old, today’s travelers are equipped with handy resources such as guidebooks and the internet, as well as the vague memories of friends. But in practice (don’t we all know it) these airy directions fail as soon as our footsteps leave the well-trod path to the city’s Big Attractions. Once on the ground, the rush of the three-dimensional unfamiliar chews up the simplistic reference guide prose and spits out those cheerful internet advisories – “a university shuttle bus leaves from Taksim Square”: Oh? When? Why?– like so many useless bits, bytes and pixels. The well-intended gestures of people whose language you don’t speak don’t help much either. “Heidi-ho,” we say in bad Turkish, “can you show me the way to your big electric buttons?”
As to how to get to Santralistanbul, we hear different accounts. There is the puzzling assurance of a shuttle bus, a piece of information that makes no sense until you learn the bus serves Bilgi University, a kind of Greater Istanbul campus that now encompasses Santralistanbul. The shuttle bus remains an unattractive option because busy Taksim Square, one of the main transportation hubs for a city of 10 million, is two tram lines away from our hotel. We also learn certain that several numbered city buses will bring us near our goal. But the labyrinthine complexity of Istanbul’s bus lines resembles the New York City subway map, only in Turkish.
So when we discover the existence of a seabus which will ferry us up the Golden Horn, shuttling from coast to coast across a water way that separates the Old City from the so-called “new city” (a relative term), we think we are golden indeed. What a great transportation system, we think, that offers an inexpensive ride up a fabled body of water named for the way it completes a mental picture of the city’s geography by resembling the horn of a rhinoceros! (Please see a map to understand what the city’s inhabitants had in mind with this name.)
Directions on what to do when you get off the ferry, however, are vague. There is even a division of opinion on which side of the Golden Horn to disembark. We choose to ride to the last stop, the charming village of Eyup (Old City side), which appears close to our destination on the map.
But not close enough.
“How do we get to Santralistanbul?” we ask the ticket clerk at the ferry station. Mention is made of a “little bus.” The reply is intimidatingly vague.
Can’t we walk?
“Walk? Impossible! Much too far!”
Enter the hero of the piece, a tall commanding station master whose skill set includes an excellent command of English, a rare find in the country’s customer service bureaucracy.
“Santralistanbul?” he asks. We nod, imploringly.
“Wait,” he commands. Then: “Follow me.”
We do, out to a busy avenue, with no indication of bus service or signs in any language. Our public conveyance arrives soon. Something between a minibus and large van, it cruises the main drag, stopping where people want to get off or on.
The station master conveys our destination to the Turkish-speaking driver, wishes us goodbye, accepts our thanks, and strides authoritatively off. I’m not sure how we would have managed this transaction by ourselves.
The little bus drops us off close to Santralistanbul, though I have my doubts at first, and the uniform lack of signage in any language remains staggering. Here the intrepid traveler must rely on resources other than English, trusting that a thin line of foot traffic to Bilgi University will lead us to our destination. We travel through a puddle-strewn, packed earth parking lot, the sort of path the dainty feet of tour-guided camera-toting tourists seldom tread.
We arrive at a little booth where you can ask directions and get incomprehensible answers. Our daughter does better by accosting an “arty girl,” her term, who confirms we are indeed on the road to Santralistanbul.
It’s not exactly retracing the Silk Road by mule and camel, but finding your own way to a destination off the beaten tourist track does provide the solid satisfaction of arriving some place where you’re not expected, regardless of the guidebooks’ raves. It’s different. It’s foreign. When we stumble on the correct entrance into the right oversized building we find an empty hallway with a lonely man behind a distant desk speaking Turkish on the phone. He looks like he hasn’t had a visitor in a week. He also looks like he was one of the guys manning the great power station when it closed in 1983.
What hooked us in the guidebooks’ description of Santralistanbul was the promise that along with the creation of huge spaces for big art the new incarnation retained many of the power plant’s original structures, including the “turbine-generator groups” that produced the electricity and the control room with its fat clock-face dials telling you how many minutes to go before the world blows up and other such useful technical information.
The place doesn’t disappoint. I doubt we explored all of Santralistanbul’s vast interiors, but we gave it a good try. Its block-long, semi-darkened spaces reminded me of Aya Sophia, the most famous vast interior in a city of big enclosed spaces. While the famous church was dedicated to spiritual needs, Santralistanbul was created to serve a modern demand for more power. It’s the dynamo to Sophia’s virgin. Both buildings are technically retired, but the memory of the functions they served and the needs they met is steeped into their bones.
What you see in Santralistanbul’s “Museum of Energy” is high ceilings, steel beams, extra-tall metal-framed windows like open mouths walking on stilts, steel walls, monstrous generators of power. For those of us (our number is legion) who don’t know what happens when we flick a light switch, and don’t expect to ever know, exploring the cavernous, silent once-powerful space – an atmosphere suggesting a forgotten cathedral or sci-fi underworld – gives us something to put in our imagination when we think about the source of the energy we constantly consume. You walk through the great corridors of power, empty now except for our own small party and those giant turbine-generator groups referenced in the museum’s brief and outdated brochure, and feel you’ve discovered the deep and secret hive which keeps us all humming.
While making movies in your mind, since aside from patriarchs and emperors movie-makers are the great fans of these dark, evocative interiors, you work your way into the promised control room, which has preserved the kind of faded industrial green in which mad scientists and end-of-the-world dramas must play out their demented dreams. My wife and I happily discover those afore-mentioned period piece dials, their pointy-tipped fingers capable of signaling all clear on one side or imminent apocalypse on the other. These dials symbolize the red lines in human aspirations.
As for the art on display, the size of the building swallowed it up, at least on our visit. I was expecting vast installations, multidimensional universes spinning from the ceiling, video projections on the galleries’ big blank walls, large sculpted fantasies. I think Santralistanbul has such shows (the brochure touts 433 works by 20 Turkish artists), but these are probably saved for the summer tourist season. Late winter visitors are treated to a one-man show of works described as “three-dimensional paintings,” designs in bright colors, in fact colors brighter than paint ought to be (I kept looking for some hidden light source). Inside the place’s extensive, darkened galleries – together composing a great horizontal space of 3,500 square meters, about the size of a shopping mall – the show resembles a nighttime street scene at night in one of Istanbul’s brightly lit tourist sections, the elements stretched out over the void between them instead of packed together the way the city’s narrow streets do it. The setting draws you to them, but the painting’s bright orange and red surfaces left me thinking of neon signs.
Santralistanbul also offers a very clever “Energy Play Zone” featuring 22 interactive exhibits intended to teach you the science behind electricity production. The gadget-rich displays are pitched toward family groups and give you things to touch, pick up, move or even whack at. Exhibits have names like “The Energy Bike,” which encourages you petal as hard as you can in order to power successive appliances. The light bulb goes on, the radio plays, the egg beater whirls, the drill revolves. The “Stubborn Suitcase” resists your effort to pick it up because the gyroscope inside it resists changes to its spatial orientation.
Some exhibits, however, failed to produce the desired effects when we tried them, as if they’d been whacked too much already or somebody turned off a hidden switch, maybe to save energy for a busier day. The fascinating “Reactable” exhibit invites you to move shapes along a magnetic surface while a light board illustrates the new connections you’ve created. But the movements are also supposed to produce sounds in a kind of spontaneous musical composition, and – ta da! – they don’t.
But these are minor disappointments. Even if getting there on a cruise along the fascinating shorelines of the Golden Horn wasn’t sufficiently fun by all by itself, and it totally was, Santralistanbul’s real-space “Museum of Energy” is a blast, clearing out the mental cobwebs of crowds, guidebook prose, the onslaught of historical facts such as the names of extremely important figures you won’t remember (was that Mehmet II or Ahmet or, everyone’s favorite, Selim the Sot, commemorated in a portico with blue mosaics and a rococo roof?), oversized tour groups, and overly persistent restaurant touts, substituting in their place a vision of a cool, vast, secret space where machines and people come together to produce both function and beauty.
Santralistanbul is the place that made a new industrial civilization’s machines work. It’s the place where you can contemplate how enormous the change must have been – and still is in many parts of the world. It’s a setting that fires the imagination and inspires artists. Getting there rouses the inner explorer inside the convenience-loving modern traveler.
Besides, how grumpy can you get in a city that provides public transportation by waterbus?

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

2.28 Aya Sophia (or Hagia Sophia)

The Turks are tough. They do not complain about the weather. They move about the streets in ungodly blasts of wind and freezing rain from the Bosphorus, which has conveyed the depths of the Siberian winter down upon our unsuspecting near-spring excursion to this Capital of Fantastic Cities. They go about their business like the citizens of the busy cities of the north, I am thinking of Londoners here, who race through their underground shelters like the secular, deadline-conscious money-loving capitalists the world knows them to be. But what does the world know of Istanbullus?
Nobody here apologizes for the ferocious winds and day-long driving rains of our first full day in Istanbul. They do not huddle inside cafes and whine to one another about the beastly weather like self-respecting Mediterraneans. They do not wear hats in the rain and snow, as if permanently traumatized by the loss of the fez under Ataturk. A few have umbrellas; not a high percentage. A much higher percentage of tourists do have umbrellas, such as our little party: 3 for 3.
Waking to the dark squall on the second morning, we borrow three transparent umbrellas from our the hotel. One is hidden on us later, so we buy a third from the man who stands outdoors in the rain all day selling them, holding his own in frozen fingers over his rain-swept body. Street-vendors throughout the city stand out of doors, unsheltered, all day; looking less miserable than I did after five minutes of wind-driven rain in my puss. Later one of our umbrellas self-destructs, bursting into a million pieces as we stride down Istiklal Caddesi, the main drag of the new “European” city at the height of the evening torrent. We toss the broken remnants into the nearest trash bin.
The next morning it snows. (Cue the snow on the Blue Mosque photo.)
This is the day we go to Aya Sophia, one of the world’s oldest and best buildings, which so defies any single identity that it has an array of names, all of them correct. It was Hagia Sophia, under the Byzantine Christians who built it and worshipped in it for almost 1,000 years. In Greek, the church’s full name means Church of the Holy Wisdom of God. Sophia is the Latin alphabet transliteration of the Greek word for wisdom. When the Western Europeans of the Roman Church took over the city’s rule for a brief, troubled episode in the 1200s, they named it Santa Sophia, as if Sophia were a saint.
The current name, Aya Sophia, is the Turkish language rendering of Hagia Sophia.
After the Ottomans conquered Constantinople in 1453, they used Hagia Sophia as a mosque, making changes to the interior, adding Islamic elements such as the great calligraphic seals that still hang there and plastering over the old mosaics. According to the guide books, the original wall treatment included 1,000 gold mosaics, the Byzantines having the reputation of the world’s greatest goldsmiths perhaps since so much of the stuff in ancient times ended up there. The gold and other mineral wealth of the city was long gone by the time of the conquest, having been looted by Western crusaders in the 1200s.
The church was built around 525 AD under the emperor Justinian (sidetrack: there’s a Justinian Street in Beirut too near a Lebanese Army checkpoint at the same place used for that purpose by the Romans 2,000 years ago). The great dome astonished, and still astonishes all who see it because of its enormous open space unmarred by interior structural elements such as columns or beams to hold up its domed roof, in addition to the interior ornamentation, precious stonework, golden mosaics, etc.
The great interior swallows up its visitors. It was lightly snowing and very cold the morning we visited on Feb. 28, but with tour groups included we must have amounted to a few hundred inside. You don’t step on anybody’s toes. You don’t hear their voices. Unlike the Blue Mosque, where chatty oblivious tour groups mar the presentation, Aya Sophia seems to laugh off visitors. Its heart is unreachable. It’s in heaven.
Its grand domed ceiling illuminated like some living book of the world, Aya Sophia feels like a building that lets the universe pour inside, its great open wound dressed with beauty. Much of it still bleeds beautifully before us because it’s not perfectly preserved. Some parts of the original surfaces are partially restored. Other touches, such as the trompe-l'oeil columns and windows seen up close from the balcony (you walk through a twisty stone passage to get there) emerge in the guise of arty-smarty pants games played for the ghostly eyes of millennia watchers, a kind of na├»ve ruse offered to the heavens. The church persists through the grace of good fortune and the generosity of centuries of rulers, who both let be and restored. It survived earthquakes, requiring various repairs and structural upgrades throughout the centuries. It shows its age.
Today the Aya Sophia doesn’t look like it did in 525, but it does look and feel like a building that’s been around for 1,500 years. It benefited from massive restoration work by the Turks, who turned it into a museum in the 1930s (under the secular Turkish Republic) and another recent facelift, but the work does not impose a new surface or make it look clean and pretty. It’s beautiful with wounds still showing, the old bones in evidence, and the workings of history clearly visible in the giant Ottoman seals, calligraphic inscriptions suspended high upon the walls from it’s a half a millennium as a mosque. Romans were here. The Greek-speaking Eastern Orthodox Byzantine Empire used it as its Vatican. Ottomans were here, preserving the building and trying to equal it with the great mosques built during their reign. Turkish nationalists found the old mosaics under layers of plaster and were able to restore some of them. The place endures.
The high place of honor, located behind the altar and high up toward the top of the dome, is given to a colorful iconic painting of Mary, who emerges from all this history and love as eternity’s representation of divine wisdom.
And in human terms, equally applicable here to the divine, Mary looks like a conventionally veiled woman. She looks like a Turk. She pays no attention to the weather.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Istanbul: First Principles

Don’t Drive. No one should drive a car in the old part of Istanbul. It seems impossible that our taxi driver will find his way through a warren of thousand-year-old streets to our hotel, especially since he turns up his nose on our written-in-Turkish directions. But he navigates his way through narrow straits and deposits us in the fantasy land of tall towers, stone walls, and the breathing room to enjoy them.
We are staying in a very small hotel room in a very big location, the best part of the old city of Istanbul, called Sultanahmet. We have three of the great monuments of the ancient world and Middle Ages, Aya Sophya, the Blue Mosque, and Topkapi Palace outside our doorstep across the beautifully designed open square. The paved square, furnished with its own smaller monuments including a column lifted from Pharaonic Egypt, provides prime viewing space for what must be one of the best skylines in the world.
The mosques are lit at night and the Blue Mosque with its comely dome and six minarets looks especially like Disney’s Magic Kingdom then. We could not stop taking its picture (you probably know this by now). On our second morning, we woke to snow falling on the mosque’s curved rooftop segments, a peak travel experience (for once, no pun intended).
Beyond the Mosque-Sophia skyline is the blue water of the Bosphorus, where you can take a boat up to the Black Sea and Russia. The old city of Istanbul is situated at the convergence of three large bodies of water: 1, the Bosphorus (the word means “throat”) which separates Europe from Asia like a greater Mississippi of blue salt water in which hundreds of freighters, ferries and fishing boats pass from one continent to the next. Scores of them parked contentedly in the smooth wide water in plain view from our glassed-in breakfast terrace. 2. The Sear of Marmara, which bathes the southern shoreline of Sultanahmet and along which we taxied on our way from the airport past hunks of the old city wall. 3. The Golden Horn, the name suggesting the city’s wealth in the time of the Ottomans, a branch of the sea which separates the old city from the new, more European-built city, often called Beyoglu for its commercial and fashionable district, where the city’s “waterbuses” now ply from shore to shore for the price of a subway token.
Our first day, with beautiful weather, we do a little bit of almost everything. Posing with Turkish visitors to Sultanahmet Square, piecing out the old inscriptions on the columns and other monuments there; enjoying the expansive courtyard of the Blue Mosque, where we are hustled by charming English-speaking would be guides, including one who leads us on with promises of back-street rambles to view “Turkish craftsmen” until we find ourselves in front of two stiff men in black suits inside a shop devoted to sultan-styled jewels, magic carpets and other credit card delights – and execute a hasty course correction. Inside the garden of Topkapi Palace where crowds stroll in a Sunday in the park atmosphere consisting of both weekend tourists and Istanbulus (as residents are called) enjoying their own playground, we are reeled in by an American operator who happens to be sending hundreds of carpets back to his shops in the US. Would we like him to teach us how to buy a rug?
We decline. I’m only interested in carpet that would pay for itself by flying us home.
That’s also the day I fall in a hole because the Turks are rebuilding one of the many paved walkways that tied this Disney Land of the Millennia’s great stone works together. It wasn’t a little hole. When one foot went into the void, the next part of me to make contact with pavement was my behind. My daughter usefully pointed out that landing there probably kept me from twisting an ankle. I was absurdly okay; a little sore in one calf afterwards. Remarks about “mind the gap” followed for days afterwards. I am guilt of a failure to mind.
Determined to keep going before jetlag sleep-deprivation grounded us, we navigated narrow lanes filled with shops, looking for someplace to fuel up in a bottleneck of restaurants and cafes almost as hard to cope with as too few options. After eating (we pick a good one; outdoor table, roasted vegetables), we find the tramline after eating – map reading, after restaurant choosing, being among our chief fixations – and decide to walk it down what feels like the Commerce Avenue of the Old City, a moderate-income Fifth Avenue of shops and cars and bustling sidewalks – all the while admiring the juxtapositions of the built, the decayed, the half-built, the somewhat restored, the replicated, the totally new, the sublime, the tacky, and all the various shadings from ancient to contemporary in between. These too we photograph, compulsively, until I realize that wherever I put the camera I will find something interesting – and give up, overwhelmed by the embarrassment of riches.
We cross the Galata Bridge to Beyoglu. (See the division of the city in tres partes described above.) The bridge is mobbed. It’s not a matter of automobile traffic but of people, everywhere; and boats thick below. I christen it the Central Park of Istanbul because on a nice day everybody goes there to get the fresh air, the exercise, to throw a fishing line over the side, to people watch, or eat or snack or drink in the long row of cafes and restaurants on the bridge’s lower level. The vitality is infectious. It’s like – a comparison my son points out later – London Bridge in the Middle Ages. In a dense old city you build on all available space. We stop on the bridge and gaze on the boats below, ferries, excursion boats, motor boats, yachts; and on the piers on both sides, the Golden Horn on one hand, the Bosphorus on the other.
On the New City side, the neighborhood is called Galata. The dominating landmark is the looming stone Galata Tower, built in 1348 by Genoan traders who used it to fortify the district they were permitted by the Ottomans to settle. It’s well maintained but expensive to climb. Instead we ascend a series of narrow stairs and inclined streets through a neighborhood of old buildings, apartments, restored and decaying, patisseries, more cafes and small stores, until we get to the elegant Tunel Square, with views over the Golden Horn. You can also take a funicular up to this point and skip the walking, a common choice. In the square Sonya’s guidebook skills locate an elegant, very European alley, open air but under a roof, shared by a half dozen cafes serving a collection of outdoor tables (including some with their own heating unit). We drink coffee and eat sweets in the open air, until I’m finally worn out.
A tram ride takes us back to the hotel. After a restorative nap – we haven’t slept in a day in a world seven time zones behind – one of the guide books (we juggle three of them) comes through with a wonderful, close-by fancy-modern Turkish restaurant. Lamb kebab with roast vegetables for me.
The world is alight after dark, and a sense of the fantastic follows us back to the square, where Anne takes the spotlights-shining-on-the-Blue-Mosque photo.