Posted by: cousindampier | 28 December 2013

Two Finns and A Turk in Istanbul

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“If you drink beer, you sleep here.  If you drink Raki, you get lucky,” said Mehmet the Turk.  We were sitting outside of a bar off of Iskatal Avenue, near Taksim Square.  Mehmet was chainsmoking Parliaments and the two Finns sitting next to us were dropping Efes Pilsners like it was the cure to modern Christmas woe.  It was warm in Istanbul, and the bar we sat at was one of many on the same street, each one revealing small wooden tables in the low bar light, not offering privacy as much as attempting to offer mystery.

I’d been asking Mehmet what I should try in Istanbul, and his eyes lit up.  Mehmet was tall, maybe six feet, and he had one brown tooth from smoking too many Parliaments at the exact same spot on his lip.  This was the basis of our meeting – I’d been walking through Taksim Square, slowing to look at stuff in windows.  I learned to never come to a stop, because that is when a person exits the store and eyes lit up like Scrooge McDuck.   Mehmet asked if I had a light.  A lighter was something I’ve carried around travelling since I studied in London – it is the best way to meet somebody and ask where the good place to eat is.

Mehmet was 29, with a wife and three daughters who lived in Central Turkey.  Istanbul had better work, he told me, but he was looking forward to someday moving back home.  He saw his wife about two months out of the year.  When I asked what that was like, he smiled and said, “It’s like I have ten months vacation.”  His friends were headed to a club later that night.  All I knew was that “it was one with girls.”

And so while he waited for them to show up, he taught me about Raki.  It’s a hard alcohol which tastes like black liquorice, and one drinks it after mixing it with water.  The water turns the drink into the same colour as watered-down milk.  You take a sip of it followed by a sip of clean water.

It is also much like cognac: Drink too much in one night, and you never want to see the stuff again.  Never drink it for too long.

Mehmet smiled as he explained all this.  He told me about how much he enjoyed football – his club was Galatasaray – and what his daughters names meant.  They were pretty names – each one was named after a type of rain, one either being moon-rain or moon-halo – and every now and then the Finns would chime in.

Istanbul attracts an eclectic crowd for Christmas, but all were there to avoid Christmas back home.  The Finns hated its commercialization and some members of their extended family.  I met a Scottish guy who simply said, “It’s just best for all if I’m here for Christmas.”

People run away from Christmas to Istanbul.

Mehmet got up to leave, wishing me a good three days.  By this point, the Finns had consumed more beer than I had fingers, and were warning me about Raki.  They’d had it the night before, when they arrived, and were pretty beat up because of it.  They did Union work in Finland, and when I asked them about the Baltic countries, they just smiled.

I learned a lot about the Baltics that night.  And the finer parts of Stockholm.

I kept drinking Raki, which you only consume after a meal – or, as instructed by Mehmet, “beer first, Raki second,” and I was feeling pretty good.  I bid the Finns farewell, all of us thinking we’d meet up for fish the next day, and I started walking back along the avenue, packed full of people, about half the shops still lit and open.  The doner places seem to run all night (and they are delicious.  Just delicious), and there were still juice vendors outside (probably more delicious than the doner places, because fresh mango juice).  The whole wide street was encased in a dome of storelight and cigarette smoke.

My hostel was in the older part of Istanbul, by the mosques, about a 30 minute walk past some of the prettiest night scenery I’ve ever seen.  Istanbul is a city of old mosques with four minaret towers, and each of these is lit in a gorgeous way in the evening, the towers shining brightly and the domes lit as if they had one eye open, just waking up to the night sky.

I passed the Galata Tower and headed towards the bridge, admiring the night skyline, about to do one of the stupidest things I’ve done travelling.

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