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Archive for the ‘travel’ Category

Having finally finished with my posts on last summer’s stay in Turkey, I can move on to some of the other travels I was privileged to engage in this past year. In late November, I traveled to London to present at a conference, and jotted down the following notes/thoughts.

11/29/18

These last few days in London have been just wonderful. I guess maybe I don’t quite remember my last few trips to London too clearly (though I could just look them up in the blog), but somehow I think that maybe this time I’ve really felt that feeling of being able to come back, and wanting to come back.

Scones and tea at Gail’s Bakery in Exmouth Market. Sometimes the simplest things are the greatest highlights of a trip.

I think getting my SOAS Alumni card made a big difference. I don’t know why I never tried to look into that possibility earlier. Having a card and being able to go in and out of the campus as I wished, and to use the library, as well as meeting up with one of my SOAS professors from many years ago not in an intimidating student-teacher sort of way but in a laidback, friendly, collegial sort of way, really helped I think. It made me feel welcome and to feel like I have a place here (that is, on previous trips perhaps I felt like SOAS was no longer a place for me, no longer a place where I belonged). Meeting up with (just a very few) friends and professors, even though I didn’t really get out into the city all that much, and certainly didn’t really do any super extensive touristy exploring or anything, I dunno, somehow I just really felt like I was on top of things, knew what I was doing for a change. By which I mean to say, yes, I did have a ton of false starts, wasted a lot of time going to the British Library only to find I couldn’t get anything done there, walking around looking for a cafe or restaurant that suited what I was in the mood for at that time, only to end up at a Cafe Nero, but, still, overall, I feel like I settled in, however briefly, to a routine, to a life, as if I were to be staying here longer. I visited a few museums, went out to a few restaurants, but also spent some considerable time just walking around or sitting in UofL student spaces, having a drink or a sandwich and getting a little work done, not feeling too out of place.

The Junior Common Room (JCR) at SOAS.

SOAS is an interesting place. Many of the students – or, at least the ones who most make themselves heard – are super activist liberal, to an extent that often rubs me the wrong way. Crazy ideological, without the nuance and complexity that comes with further age and experience.

But at the same time, it is so inspiring and interesting to be in a place where everyone around you is a non-Western specialist. Where people are actively and passionately engaged in studying everything from Kurdish language to Senegalese music to Burmese politics to Tongan economics. Where the entire library and not just some corner of it, is organized into Africa, Asia, Pacific, etc. And where most of the signs and flyers on the walls, and the books in the bookstore, are non-western, decolonial, culturally oriented, with true serious diversity unlike you ever see in a US institution’s library. Incidentally, SOAS Library is currently being threatened by terrible budget cuts. See here for information on the latest developments, and on what you can do to help.

Opening slide for a wonderful presentation by Gaylen Vankan, on a 1526 series of depictions of Turkish (Ottoman) warriors on horseback.

The Perceiving Processions symposium I was in London to attend was wonderful. I suppose that in the end I am afraid I must admit that, as almost always is the case, I sadly did not actually come away with any new insights, new methodologies, that might truly inform my research/writing going forward. I had hoped for some new insights into how we talk about processions as performative acts, as acts that actually function in some fashion to make meaning through the unique qualities of processions as a particular form of display and action. But, nevertheless, it was a lot of fun, met a lot of great people, and got some surprisingly interested excited reactions. I half expected that as the only East Asianist on the docket, people would largely just ignore me, taking my work as a curiosity but as something outside of the much deeper, more involved and engaged conversations they would want to have with one another, with their fellow Europeanists. But during the first coffee break after my talk, and to a certain extent throughout the entire rest of the day, multiple people kept wanting to talk to me, which was really something. Many of the other presentations were also really interesting, working on really interesting topics, with beautiful or otherwise really engaging sources.

One on a series of tapestries depicting Congolese royalty as Brazilian kings, in a sort of pastiche of Dutch Brazilian tropical Empire – I had no idea that there was a Dutch Brazil, or that Congolese courts or polities sent any kind of formal embassies. Not to mention the fact that the only place where this set of tapestries is still displayed in full, in order, is at the Knights of Malta Council Chamber, on Malta. The incredible degree of internationality of these topics is stunning.

Matthew Gin presented on rituals in which a Spanish princess was sent over to France to marry a French prince – a tiny island in a river between Spain and France still remains today shared between the two countries. And at that time, temporary ceremonial buildings were erected, to receive the Spanish princess and to convey her into her new life in France in a manner which ceremonially treated both countries as equals. Neither the Spanish nor the French side of the building was larger than the other, or raised up higher, or anything like that – in order to help ensure ritual equality between the two sides. As an architectural historian, he found records of these temporary buildings and reconstructed some notion of the effects or implications of that design, as well as considering the ceremony itself, though he has no pictorial representations at all of those ceremonies or their associated processions. Interesting too, that he noted that even as these Spanish princesses went and took on roles/positions within the French court, they were always considered foreigners, “of Spain,” and thus took on an identity much like the island itself – ambiguous and in-between, not fully belonging to either country.

Visit of Albrecht Dürer in Antwerp in 1520, Jan August Hendrik Leys, 1855, Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp, 2198. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Another presenter, Gaylen Vankan of the University of Liege, spoke of Dutch depictions of Ottoman riders, specifically Suleiman the Magnificent and several other figures on horseback accompanying him. Though often grouped together as a procession, these can also be taken to be five separate images of separate classes of Ottoman riders. The key point he made, which I thought was interesting, is that even as one would expect in the late 15th and 16th centuries that Europeans would see the Ottomans as a horrible, barbaric, non-Christian horde, a serious threat to Christendom (and that’s putting it mildly, even, considering the fall of Constantinople and the fall of so much of the Balkans to the Ottomans, all the way to the gates of Vienna) – and they are indeed depicted in that fashion in a great many works. And yet, in these works as well as in many others, the Ottomans are depicted with some considerable nobility – the artist obviously admires or respects them or at the very least finds something appealing about the aesthetics and style of their clothing and accoutrements.

Nicholas Crummey (Central European University) talked about a wonderful diary he had found in the British Library, by a member of a late 17th century British embassy to Ottoman lands. Though re-published several times and oft-cited, it would seem the original copy of this diary – complete with wonderful illustrations – is very rarely consulted. He showed us some great maps and illustrations that this figure, John Covel, drew, relating various aspects of his journey.

Inside at Gail’s in Exmouth Market.

But what I think I’ve really enjoyed the most these last few days has just been the nice little shops I’ve visited, and just the free sort of lifestyle. Even if it was super chain sort of shops like Cafe Nero, or eating out of a supermarket, it has that extra cultural cachet for me because it’s “foreign,” because it’s British or European. For the first two nights, the symposium put me up at a nice hotel just a very short walk from Russell Square station, pretty close to SOAS and to the areas I was familiar with but just different enough that I could feel I was exploring/experiencing something new. I missed breakfast in the hotel both mornings, which was a shame, because I was so jetlagged and basically just overslept both times. Well, on the day of the conference I didn’t oversleep, I just took too long to prepare and didn’t have time for a proper breakfast. So I just grabbed something at the Simit Sarayi across the street. This is (one piece of) what I’m talking about. Here’s a Turkish chain store, selling Turkish pastries and stuff – I’m not sure we have any Simit Sarayi in New York or LA, and if we have anywhere at all selling this stuff you really have to sort of search it out, whereas here in London, because Britain and Turkey are both in or on the peripheries of Europe, you can see this sort of intermingling of the stores. Anyway, sadly the food was not nearly as good as at even the Simit Sarayi in Istanbul, let alone the proper local places. But even so, it existed. The second morning, after the conference was over and I was free to be on my own time, I did sleep in, until like 10:30 or so – never got over jet lag the entire trip, so I’ve been sleeping from like 11pm or 12am until 2 or 3, and then being up until 5 or 5:30, and then sleeping until 10:30 or so…. But, on my way to SOAS or the British Museum or wherever it was, I found a wonderful little bakery called Gail’s. Which I’ve now learned also has multiple locations, but it doesn’t feel like a chain at all, feels like a nice cozy cafe like I might also expect to find in the Yanaka neighborhood of Tokyo, or in all sorts of other places (except, this one is more authentically British). I had a wonderful little breakfast, a real highlight of trip, haha, as I could imagine going back there or places quite like it regularly, if I were to be living here. I got a scone with jam and clotted cream, and a pot of English Breakfast, and honestly I could have just relaxed and stayed there all day, enjoying tea and pastries, the bright, airy, and relaxed background-conversations sort of atmosphere, putting me in a good relaxed mood to be productive on my computer.

I’m sure these kinds of places must exist somewhere in LA, but I would have to really seek them out, and drive to them. Unless you live in Santa Monica or certain other neighborhoods, in my very limited experience, I feel like there’s really nothing properly walkable in LA. No sense of a local neighborhood. If I were to live in Islington/Bloomsbury area, I could definitely imagine myself having breakfast at Gail’s and just settling in to work there on many days. Or even at Café Nero. Or at one of the UofL cafes. Any/all of these feel different than just going to a local Starbucks or whatever here in LA…

The Rocket. A pub near the British Library. I don’t think I’ve ever been inside, but certainly a familiar sight.

I once again made a trip to London during which I barely got out of the Islington/Bloomsbury sort of area, but, this time I’m not feeling down about it at all. When I first relocated from the hotel to the AirBnB, I was feeling a little bummed out, kicking myself for booking a place here in this same neighborhood rather than getting out to explore the rest of the city at all. And, sure, who knows what kind of experience I might have had if I did stay in an entirely different, new, neighborhood. But, it really worked out just fine. I did not allow myself to get stuck going up and down the same streets or areas that I already know have been a bust in the past, and actually by walking just a little bit off my own personal well-beaten track, walking south to Exmouth Market and then west towards the British Museum rather than going straight back to King’s Cross and Euston and Gray’s Inn Road and whatever else I’m already too familiar with, I made it a new experience.

I just love these little market streets, lined with cute little shops. I loved Gail’s, and I can easily imagine if I were living here to either go back there regularly or to explore other shops up and down and in neighboring streets and so forth. I also happened upon Judd Books again, a small but really good little used book store right near SOAS and UCL; the SOAS on-campus bookstore also, though extremely small, has a good selection of things, obviously, since it’s all the books that SOAS professors are assigning for their classes. And some “random” stuff that I wouldn’t expect to be able to find anywhere else, like CDs of the London Uyghur Ensemble for one quid.

And though I pretty much only got out of this neighborhood to meet up with a friend for pizza near All Soul’s Church (near Oxford Circus), to go to the Royal Academy of Arts (near Picadilly Circus), and to have dinner and drinks with a professor out near Borough Station (near London Bridge), and didn’t really see or explore the city at all, somehow that just really felt like enough. I think having a SOAS alumni card and being able to get into the campus, not feeling like I had nowhere to be allowed to belong, made all the difference. I didn’t need the card at all to get into the Institute of Education pub, or for that matter the Brunei Building, or half the times I tried the Senate House, but, still, I dunno, for whatever reason, sitting around on or near campus and pretending like I was actually based at SOAS for the week, it just really worked. Go to the campus bar, sit and pull out your computer and get some work done. Go to the library. Use the old shortcuts you remember to go through Senate House to the side entrance of the British Museum rather than going all the way around. Visit Judd Books.

SOAS Main Building, with its statue of Tamil poet Thiruvalluvar.

I think meeting up with one of my SOAS profs, and with another scholar who he had put in touch with me, really helped too. Maybe my experiences in Japan these last few years, and at UCLA too, have helped me too, to develop a much greater familiarity with the identity of being an outsider who’s come to use the library, or to have a meeting, or whatever. Even though most Japanese universities do have security gates for their libraries – turnstiles or gates that won’t even let you into the building at all without a library card or whatever – number one, if you just ask and explain that you’re a visitor and fill out a tiny bit of paperwork, they’ll typically let you in, and two, I think every other campus I’ve ever been to has let me walk in and walk around campus without anyone checking or asking. Okinawa University of the Arts in particular comes to mind – I’ve been there quite a few times now, either to use the library or to visit with a professor there. And no one asks me questions, no one looks at me funny. The first time I went, I asked at the desk before trying to get through the gate, explained that I’m a visitor, and they just said sure, go right ahead, without any need for any paperwork or guest visitor badge or anything. And so I used the library database on my own computer, found the books I wanted on the shelves, asked when I needed help, did my own photocopying… and left, and came back another day. Anyway, the point being that I’ve grown used to feeling like that person. I’m no longer the awkward alumnus or total outsider who is worried what am I even doing here, what am I trying to get out of this, what kind of nostalgia am I trying to claim; I no longer feel like an invader in other students’ space. Maybe that just comes with age as well. Because instead of feeling like some kind of intruder or impostor compared to these real (current) SOAS students, who have some kind of more real claim to the space than me, I feel like an alumnus, who has already been affiliated and associated with the place, however loosely, to be honest since most of the current students were still in primary or middle school, and I feel like a scholar – I wouldn’t call myself “experienced” or “established,” but still, a stage or two beyond these undergrads and study abroad and Master’s students. I don’t feel threatened by them.

At the SOAS Student Union Bar.

Much of campus is much how it always has been, I suppose. To be honest, I don’t remember it all that clearly, to know whether or not the hallways or the library has changed at all. Though I can imagine that at the very least the technology of the library probably has changed. And I know the pub was redone since I’ve left. Though, SOAS has also expanded into Senate House, so they have this whole new “Paul Webley Wing,” which I imagine has a lot of classrooms, offices, etc. Super high-tech-looking meeting rooms or study rooms which I suppose you can reserve, and the touch-screens outside each room show a clock in green or red which I guess means it’s either available or not, or that your time has come up or not? From what little I was able to access, I mostly just saw a big very new-looking, very clean and bright and nice-looking atrium. Beautiful gathering / studying spaces. And, of course, having a SOAS Alumni card now was a crazy breath of fresh air, as I said, since I was able to get into these spaces, and to not feel like I was unwelcome or denied or un-belonging. Though, frankly, I’m really not sure what I think about limiting these spaces to SOAS students. I mean, I suppose I understand that with so many other colleges in the area, if it were left totally free and open it would be too easy for the place to become overrun with students from UCL and elsewhere, and it would be much harder for any of the spaces to develop or maintain a distinctly SOAS character – and thus, for the School as a whole to build or maintain quite as much of a strong sense of community. So, that’s all important and valid; I can very much see the strengths of that. But, at the same time, I really appreciated when I was at SOAS getting to go to the Institute of Education cafeteria next door, the Senate House cafe, and the pub down the street (is that part of Birkbeck? I was never sure). Even if not to actually mix with students from other Schools, to have more additional different spaces to choose from, and perhaps most importantly just to not feel shut-out. I’m not saying that any of these schools have such great, amazing, fancy cafeterias or pubs or whatever, that we are (or would be) being denied access to the “nice” pub or whatever. But, just for the sake of variety. Of course I don’t want to see the SOAS pub overrun with anyone and everyone, but I also hate the idea that I wouldn’t be able to go and experience that, intermingle even a little bit, if I were a student at one of the neighboring colleges. I wonder, I don’t actually remember if it came up while I was there, if SOAS students wanted to bring their UCL or LSE friends in to have a drink together, if the guards would block them. Because that would really suck. Anyway, maybe it’s me personally, I don’t know, but I really do have a thing about access and about belonging. I hate being treated like I’m not allowed in somewhere. Even in visiting the SOAS library’s Special Collections earlier today, I tried to ask about how the process worked, whether I could just request items or whether there was a long and complicated approval process, and the librarian said “can you identify yourself? I mean, who are you, where are you coming from?” I sense that maybe English isn’t her first language, and more to the point maybe she just wasn’t choosing her words very carefully in that moment – I certainly don’t always say exactly what I mean, in exactly the best way, and so I give her the benefit of the doubt. But, still, I’m a SOAS alumnus, and even if I wasn’t, I’m a University of California graduate student, and even if I wasn’t, I’m someone coming in to try to use your Special Collections. I suppose I can understand that if I truly were just some person from off the street, some random person, then, *maybe* there’s some call to say who is this person. But I should like to think that many (if not most) librarians at many (if not most) other institutions would simply assume that the person asking is probably some kind of legit academic. I just really hate gatekeeping. Don’t ask me to “identify myself” as if I’m already an intruder until I prove otherwise. Don’t treat me like I’m not welcome, like I don’t belong. Give me the benefit of the doubt, assume that I am a legitimate researcher, assume that your own job is to help provide access for researchers rather than to block it. Rather than the first step being to challenge a person coming in, under the assumption that they can’t be granted access, assume they can, and make your very first step starting to help them with the right paperwork or whatever. “May I see your SOAS ID, or your ID from your institution?” “Oh, I see you’re a SOAS alum. Okay, you have X and Y privileges but I’m afraid if you want to do Z, that’s restricted (or, then you’ll have to fill out this additional form).” or “Oh, I see you’re from the States. Okay, well for visiting researchers from outside of the U of L, we have these forms that you have to fill out.” Something like that. And then you welcome them. Just like being granted a Reader Card at the British Library. Just like when UCLA granted me a library card so I could borrow books (but not have certain other privileges) even though I’m a UCSB student. Just like when prefectural and national and local archives and libraries as well as university libraries all across Japan let me in as a guest, and allowed me X but not Y level of access, or whatever it may be.

Anyway, sorry for that rant.

Hoa Hakananai’a (‘lost or stolen friend’), one of the many iconic objects in the British Museum. A moai ancestor figure from Rapa Nui (Easter Island).

The British Museum

I’m not sure I have too much to say about the British Museum that I haven’t said before. I love how they use objects to tell a fuller story about culture and history, and not just artistic style or aesthetic form, and that they do include things that are historically significant (and often quite beautiful), and not only things that fall into a more mainstream “art” sort of category. I don’t even mean historical artifacts without much artistic value (whatever that even means); I mean genuinely beautiful, skillfully-made, art objects that happen to also allow one to speak of their content, of what they depict or how they were used… And, I love that the museum is so extensive!! I mean, I was a little surprised to learn that they don’t actually have a gallery for Musical Instruments, or for Arms & Armor, as the Met does. There are certainly categories for which they don’t have much on display, I suppose. (And, actually, Chinese painting in particular, is oddly sparse, given that they have a huge permanent exhibit of Chinese history from ancient through modern, featuring mostly ceramics, sculptures, I’m not sure exactly what else off the top of my head, but then only a very few paintings?) But, they do have a whole gallery of clocks, and a whole gallery of the history of coinage from around the world, not to mention the Enlightenment Gallery which is just really wonderful.

I was a little bit hoping I might happen upon a protest by Rapa Nui people demanding their ancestor moai back. One of the most iconic, famous objects in the Museum’s collection – its fame aided by the fact that it’s right there in front of you when you walk into the Wellcome Gallery right off the main atrium – the statue is a sacred object for the people of Rapa Nui, an embodiment of a specific individual ancestor, and as some articles I read put it, how would you like it if people busted into your home and took your grandfather and put him on display in a museum?

Well, in any case, I had heard that there were supposed to be some kind of in-person protests. Whether that would (or could) take place right there in the gallery, or when they would take place, the articles I read didn’t say. But if it did happen, it would have been good timing, a nice opportunity to catch the experience – and photos – of something I would otherwise only read about.
That didn’t happen. But, whatever.

I think one highlight of the BM during this visit was the new Islamic galleries. I really appreciated and enjoyed the way they incorporated all different parts of the Islamic world, with individual displays on the Ottoman Empire, Safavid Persia, Islamic North Africa, etc., covering the history of each different period and region. One thing I was a bit disappointed about, though, was the absence of discussion or representation of other peoples – yes, these are the “Islamic” galleries, but if you’re not going to include Sephardic, Mizrahi, Kurdish, Armenian, Coptic, etc cultures in these “Middle East” galleries, then where will you? Nowhere, it would seem. Maybe mixed in with Europe or Africa, but certainly not where you’d expect to find them, i.e. right here in the Middle East (“Islamic World”) galleries.

What’s really kind of funny also is that I even had moments this weekend when I thought I was kind of over London, or that London feels a bit too familiar already, now that I’ve lived in Istanbul. I certainly won’t say that I remember or ever really properly learned or adopted British ways of doing things. I’m still probably pretty blatantly visibly American in terms of the way I walk, the way I order at cafes and restaurants, all kinds of things. I’m still awkward at asking for “some tea” or “a tea,” not knowing whether I should be asking for “a pot of tea” or how people ask for it. Still fumbling with coins. Still sometimes not looking the correct direction or not knowing properly when I can and can’t cross. Nearly got hit by a car the other day, as he turned onto the small side street that I was crossing just not thinking not realizing that anyone might be turning into it. While it’s pretty cool that they have those yellow-lighted crosswalks where cars are supposed to stop for pedestrians even without any change of red/green, when it comes to crossing anywhere else, they really don’t stop for you. American drivers will get annoyed at you, often, or they just won’t even expect you or won’t see you, but generally speaking they know that once a pedestrian is in the road, whether they’re jaywalking or whatever, you have to stop for them. They have the right of way, actually, especially if they’re in a crosswalk. Doesn’t seem to be the same here.

But, all of that said, even so, even despite all the little cultural quirks that so frustrated and depressed me my first time in London, and even despite difficulties with language, the fact that my accent is noticeably decidedly different, and terminology is often different, and I don’t always actually know what others are saying (or they, me), even so, the fact that people speak English here as the truly primary language, as compared to negotiating with my minimal Turkish and other people’s varying range of English, or just regardless of other people, navigating myself with signs and posters in a foreign language, … I dunno, I just really enjoyed Istanbul. I don’t know how well I would have managed on my own; having Simone was extremely helpful. And I’m not saying I’m looking to just run off to anywhere, but, having now gained a certain degree of familiarity with Istanbul, having learned some very minimal level of Turkish, I dunno, London doesn’t feel adventurous enough anymore. Which is a terrible shame. Because I don’t want it to lose its appeal, or its magic. I don’t want to grow bored or uninspired by London. Even worse, I wouldn’t want to grow to dislike it, to have all the utterly mundane practical things start to ruin my feeling of the city.

Sir Joshua Reynolds, at the Royal Academy of the Arts.

For now, London still feels like an adventure. And I want it to still feel like that. Even the most basic things like Tesco sandwiches are for me cultural capital, they’re a feeling of knowing something, experiencing something, becoming familiar with something that I never had before. It’s being able to go back home and talk to people about … whatever it may be about London that reveals some (shared) familiarity, … Or, I don’t know, just to feel like I’m being or becoming my best self, like I’m living my best life. I’m not saying I necessarily want to live in the UK or Japan or anywhere else permanently, that’s too big a decision to make, just far too much too deep a matter in terms of both practical and other sort of considerations. But at the same time, there’s a part of me that just can’t help but feel like traveling less is somehow a failure, a failure to launch, as it were. When I did study abroad in Japan for the first time and felt like it might prove to be my one and only big trip in my life, and at that time I couldn’t have imagined that I’d end up living in Hawaii or California, or that I’d ever do half (or, any) of the traveling that I have since, … that feeling of coming back from Japan and not knowing if I ever would go back, and indeed I didn’t go back for a good four years, which felt like a pretty long time at the time … there’s a part of me that just really feels that even if I did settle in an exciting big world city like New York, that’s still going home, that’s still seeing an end – a failure – to all the traveling that I had done.

Anyway, London has its faults, to be sure, and I am sure that if I ever were to get a job in the UK and really spend a real amount of time here, I would come to feel all those flaws, and perhaps all the more so in a smaller city like Durham or Leeds or wherever. But, at least for now, it’s still an adventure. It’s market streets and Gail’s Bakery. It’s the Flat Iron Square / Food Arch area, with all these great little food stalls, some of them serving things like Turkish mantı which I’ve just never seen (or never known to look out for) in the States.

(4 May 2019)
I did, in fact, apply to quite a few jobs / fellowships in England this year. Didn’t get selected for any of them in the end, unfortunately. Strangely didn’t see a single job posting/advertisement for anywhere in Scotland, Wales, or Ireland, though I would have jumped at that chance just as much. I don’t know why, maybe it had something to do with this London trip, but even all these weeks later I’m still really feeling that I would have so loved to live in Britain for a time. Who knows what’s going to happen with Brexit, of course, but that aside, as much as I **love** Japan, and much as I would have been up for whatever adventure the job market may have brought me – staying in LA, moving back to the East Coast, getting a teaching job at a small liberal arts college in the Midwest – I would have been up for that. But somehow, for whatever reason, I just find myself in a place right now where I just so wished I might have gotten a chance to move to England. Maybe sometime in the future…

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Seen in the neighborhood. Somewhere in Cihangir or Beyoğlu.

I feel like after six weeks in Istanbul I have so much more to say. I want to write separate posts about the Pera Museum and the Jewish Museum of Istanbul, but I seem to have lost my copies of notes that I took at the time, so it would have to be recreations just from memory and photos :/
Maybe I’ll still write something in future. But in the meantime, I’m kind of desperate to finally be done with Turkey for now and to write about my trips elsewhere, as I’m still way way behind. So, to finally wrap up, here’s some of the stuff from the notes that I do have – further thoughts and reactions written during my time still living in Istanbul with my girlfriend last summer.

I guess one place to start is to say a little bit about the language. I never took any classes or anything, never learned much beyond some very basic phrases. But, after six weeks of being immersed in it, just from signs and storefronts and menus and book covers, from overhearing conversations, and from the very few words and phrases that I did learn, I guess I feel like I have some sense. I can’t say much about sentence structure, verb conjugation, anything, because I don’t know them. Except to say that it’s nice that it’s basically similar to Japanese, in just a few very basic ways. The word order is similar – while I’m sure most learners of Turkish have trouble wrapping their minds around the Subject-Object-Verb word order, as I did when I was first taking Japanese, I’m now pretty comfortable with it. So whatever few phrases I did learn in Turkish, it felt pretty smooth to me to think about ordering my words in that way.

Right: Just a few examples of Turkish loanwords: Tost for “toast” (a grilled panini-style sandwich); Salata for salad, presumably from the French salade, Arabic sulta or the like. Not the greatest example, I know, but the best I could find, apparently, out of my photos from the summer.

The idea of using just small roots for your verbs and conjugating out of that is common in a lot of languages outside of English. In English we use the whole word “drink,” for example, when we say drink, drinks, drinking… Okay, drank and drunk are sort of exceptions but hopefully you take my point. In Turkish, like in Japanese, it’s just short stems. in Turkish becomes içmiyorum, içemiyorum, etc. Nomu in Japanese becomes nomimasu, nomimasen, nomemasen…

Anyway, I think one of the things I’ve enjoyed most about Turkish just from the very basic exposure I’ve had visiting here, and helping my girlfriend study for her vocab quizzes, and not actually studying the language myself is the way they use so many loan words, and spell them phonetically in their own way. Of course Japanese and pretty much every other language do this too, but even so, Turkish being what it is, not a romance language, not a Semitic or Sinitic/Japonic language, but something else, and doing this in a different way , but still in Roman letters – everything looks so foreign and yet so familiar.

Kek for cake. Müsik for music, vagon for train cars, istasyon for station.

A display at the Alaçam Population Exchange Museum (Alaçam Mübadele Müzesi), a small house museum in Istanbul dedicated to the story of Greeks forced to return to Greece from Turkey, and Turks forced to return to Turkey from Greece, at the fall of the Ottoman Empire, and the difficulties of the journey and re-settlement, etc.

Another thing I just loved about being in Turkey (Istanbul in particular, I suppose) is that it’s right at the center of so many different cultures and ethnicities that you normally would never hear about, learn about. Here in the US, we might learn about French, Italian, and German history, or about Chinese, Japanese, and Korean culture. And walking around our neighborhood, we might meet Black, Hispanic, Jewish, Arab, Indian, East Asian, Irish, and Italian people. But in Istanbul, you’re encountering either people or cultural elements from Armenia, Georgia, the Black Sea region, the Prince’s Islands (Adalar), Turkic peoples from all the way across Asia… Just talking to people in Istanbul, we met Jews, Kurds, Armenians, Arabs, Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Azeri.. all kinds of people. And just a couple minutes walk from the very center of tourism in the city (i.e. Sultanahmet; the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque), there is a whole row of houses and a restaurant housing some kind of pro-Uyghur activist organization that isn’t trying very hard to keep their heads down, stay off the radar, at all.

“Pray for Muslim citizens of East Turkestan that have been oppressed and assimilated by Communist Chinese regime!”

Speaking of ethnic minorities, many parts of Turkey have in recent years become home to significant numbers of refugees from Syria and elsewhere. I don’t know the details, but I believe I remember hearing/reading that the Turkish government made some kind of agreement with the European Union, that so long as Turkey takes X amount of refugees and doesn’t allow them to enter EU territory, in exchange for, according to Wikipedia, a “re-energized” consideration of Turkey’s bid to become an EU member country, eased visa requirements for Turkish citizens, andsome 6 billion euros in aid. From talking to shopkeepers, musicians, barbers, fellow visitors, etc., we got the impression that a lot of people in Turkey are worried that the Syrian refugees, simply by their presence, their social/societal/cultural influence, are pushing the society & politics further to the Right (and towards Islamist fundamentalism). But others we spoke to said the Syrians they knows are very modern and tolerant people. And that most refugees are not so fundamentalist – they’re just poor people. They suggested that it’s the Erdoğan government or other institutions that pressure people to be more religious or more observant in order to receive benefits.

I don’t think I have any pictures of Syrian refugees, so I’m going to go with this photo of a café and alleyway in Izmir, with a large Turkish flag. I imagine this flag must carry very mixed and complex meanings for many people.

Trying to find something to say to wrap up my whole Turkey experience this past summer, I find I barely even know what to say. I suppose this is in part because it was my second time, so it’s not so unusual anymore, and because we were more in “living in Turkey” mode than tourist mode, really. Spent a lot more time in shopping streets and malls, and doing other simple sorts of things than we did visiting museums or historical sites, or actively trying to try / experience new things. So I guess that makes a big difference.

Mostly, I guess I would say my main impression coming away from it is that Istanbul is a pretty nice city to hang out in for a few months (or maybe even up to a year, or longer…?). I would definitely be interested in seeing more historical sites, more museums, more art galleries + shows, more music performances. I’d definitely be interested in seeing more of the country, too. But at the same time, it’s just a good city to live in. So long as the purchasing power parity remains as it is – and most especially how it was this summer, much more so than last – we Americans, even on a paltry grad student stipend / summer funding, can afford to live pretty damn well in Turkey. We had a beautiful apartment (for $1300 / month, not exactly pennies, but even so, a place that would easily cost twice that in any major US city) with a gorgeous view. We ate out nice breakfasts about half the days, and went out to nice (not super ultra fancy, but nice) restaurants for lunch or dinner quite frequently. I don’t think we were living some incredibly lavish lifestyle, either, but just the sort of standard big-city sort of life that we all wish we could afford in New York, LA, or San Francisco. A meal that would have cost let’s say $60 or so, or likely even more, for two people back home, including a salad or appetizer, two entrees, and basic drinks (e.g. lemonade), was 100 lira – at the current exchange rate, about US $16. It’s just such a wonderful privilege to be able to go out for dinner, and not worry about going out to dinner to begin with, as an expensive option to begin with, but also (2) to not have to feel like ordering a drink, or an appetizer, or a dessert, is too extravagant. That alone, regardless of the particular cultural feel of the city, or anything else, makes Istanbul just a fantastic place to be. I so wish that one could live like that in New York or LA, in Honolulu or Tokyo or Kyoto, in London or anywhere else in Europe.

Just some cats, chillin’, at the top of the stairs near our apartment in Cihangir.

It’s weird. I don’t know. Last year, when I went to Turkey for the first time, it was my first time going to a Muslim country. And I was nervous. Istanbul is not just like any (other) European city. The mosques and the several-times-a-day call to prayer, the dominance of certain foods and not certain others, not to mention the largely invisible but nevertheless ever-present looming danger of the authoritarian state, make it a very different place from what we typically picture when we talk about visiting Europe.

And I do definitely still feel much happier, more comfortable, more excited to be in, say, Tokyo or Kyoto or Naha than in Istanbul. It’s just not my first choice of cultural appeal. Ask me which cities (or cultures) of the world have the best food, or which country’s historical sites or music scene or art museums I most want to see more of, and Turkey is admittedly not at the top of my list. I still have never been to China or Taiwan, or most of Europe.

But, while I never would have expected it a year ago, I think I really have grown pretty comfortable with Istanbul. The people are nice, the language of course is difficult but thankfully it’s written in Roman letters and uses a ton of loanwords, and just, overall, even the things that are decidedly “foreign,” such as the mosque-dominated skyline and the sound of the muezzin every day, are things I’ve grown used to and just don’t see as so unusual anymore.

And there’s just a lot of basic everyday things to enjoy about Istanbul. So many nice cafes – if you want to call them hipstery, or if you just want to call them nice. A good public transportation system, with tapcards (New York is still behind on this one), and streetcars (trams), subway, and ferries that all run more smoothly and nicely, through nice clean stations. Not to mention, the deepest subway tunnels in the world, connecting Europe and Asia. I mean, few public transportation systems in the world compare to Tokyo, but Istanbul is certainly levels above New York or Los Angeles, and I would say compares well to most other cities I’ve been to. I love taking the ferries, and getting to see those wonderful water views of the city. And I love that you can get most places on public transportation. Strangely, it seemed super often that we had to take a bus, rather than the tram or subway, to get where we were going, but… oh well, I guess.

A historical streeetcar running down İstiklal Caddesi (Istiklal Street, or lit. “Independence Avenue”), one of the chief shopping/tourist streets in the city. Not really so indicative of the real everyday Metro experience, but, makes for a nice photo perhaps.

And the shopping malls and clothing stores and so forth are super modern, super sleek. Cleaner, nicer, brighter, more modern feeling than even in Japanese shopping malls probably. Of course, the exchange rate / PPP really helps with this. We could afford to go to the fanciest malls, the nicest shops. A shirt that might be $50 or $60 back home, or even $100 might be 50 or 60 lira – less than ten bucks. And a dress from a fancy high-end store or little boutique that might be hundreds of dollars back home, even if it was 300 lira, that’s still less than $50 at the moment.

I’m not sure Turkey is my number one top favorite place for food (sorry!). I’m much more excited by even the most basic everyday food scene in Tokyo, Kyoto, or Naha – or by Italian pasta and pizza – but, even so, I loved getting to know the distinctive Turkish specialties. Totally fresh juice, fresh squeezed directly from the fruit as you watch, for just 5-10 lira.

A fresh fruit juice vendor in Istanbul. Somehow out of my hundreds of photos, I never took one of one of these stands. So this is a photo from Turkish blog http://berfendber.blogspot.com/.

We got lucky, or I guess maybe we knew about it as part of the selection process, but we ended up just a couple of blocks away from a ton of different cafes + breakfast places, including some of the most widely best-rated, best-reviewed breakfast places in the city. But it was such a nice combination of these kinds of totally modern, clean, sleek, good cafes, and also right in the same neighborhood good mom+pop sort of stores. When we ate breakfast in, I would go up to the local bakery and get fresh bread every day. Simit – often badly translated as “bagels,” they’re rings of bread covered in sesame seeds. More like a circular pretzel than anything. So fresh, so good, and so cheap!

Let’s see… other foods. I loved the rice pudding (fırın sütlaç). And of course there’s döner kebab, falafel, köfte (meatballs). I found these all to be pretty meh compared to what I’ve had elsewhere. The shawarma joint in LA, for example, which pretends to be a shawarma joint in New York at the end of the first Avengers movie, is surprisingly excellent. Not just a funny fandom / movie history sort of take a photo and check it off the list sort of spot, but really genuinely tasty food. Much better than the meat I had in Turkey. Sorry. But, still, so many other foods! It was nice from time to time to have what they call “tost”: just basic panini-pressed sandwiches, with cheese + tomatoes, or cheese + pesto sauce, or whatever. And kumpir – baked potatoes loaded with whatever toppings you choose. Oh, and börek, of course, though I think maybe having that every day for the one week we were in Turkey last year maybe got me a little bored, a little “over” the borek. Oh, and manti was a good experience. I’ve been bad and have been slipping ever farther from any semblance of observing kashrut (oh well); though I still get nervous that my body isn’t used to certain foods and might get angry with me and make me sick, even so I did enjoy several times a dish called manti, which is tiny little meat raviolis served in a mix of tomato sauce + thin yogurt.

Rumelihisarı, the first Ottoman fortress built on the European side of the Bosphorous. Built in 1452, it played a key role in allowing for the Ottoman conquest of Byzantium/Constantinople the following year, as it was used along with the corresponding Anadoluhisarı on the opposite shore to block Byzantine reinforcements or re-supply via the waterway.

But the non-Turkish food was good too. It varied a lot, as it does for example in Japan. You’re not going to just step out your door and find good Italian or Chinese/Japanese or Indian food, let alone Mexican. But if you research around online a bit, or just get lucky, there’s some amazing food. Simone said that at most restaurants, the pasta is not served al dente, but rather overcooked, soft, by Western standards. But we ended up going several times to a chain restaurant called Midpoint, which I still find a little funny since it’s basically like an upscale mall restaurant, a corporate chain. But, still, damn it was good. I’m blanking on which restaurants to compare it to in the States, but it’s like when you find that that one place just has such amazing mushroom tortellini, or whichever one particular dish it may be… I want to go back and have that mushroom tortellini again.

Oh, and the çay – Turkish tea. How could I forget? I still haven’t tried Turkish coffee, haha. We kept putting it off with the plan of finding somewhere where they might read your fortune with the coffee remains at the bottom of the cup. We never did. But, oh, how I love their tea. I love all tea, really, if it’s made right. Somehow brewing my own tea never really did it, but just a basic 4 lira çay (black tea with or without sugar, no milk) at just about any shop, much like the free green tea they give you at most places in Japan, is just *the best*. I love it so much. I wish I could just drink tea endlessly. But enough about food, I guess.

A guy who lived right outside our apartment, usually to be found atop this car. He was rather anti-social, but my girlfriend was determined to befriend him, and so named him ‘My Best Friend.’

One thing I’m definitely going to miss is the kitties. The street cats. If you’re familiar with the documentary Kedi, then you’re already familiar with this, but there are street cats everywhere in Istanbul, and the people are really kind to them. They get food and water, they get petted and loved, and they get left alone. Sometimes people shoo them out of restaurants, to be sure, but for the most part, they’re just around, and they’re friendly, and good. I very much miss living with a cat, and I very much look forward to doing so again, but even that is just not the same as having a wide variety of cats at your disposal every day. Sure, the street cats won’t come and sit on your lap (or on your laptop) while you’re working at home, or curl up with you in bed, but you can go just about anywhere and meet new cats, or check in with the same cats day after day, and you can enjoy the variety. We definitely got to know some of the cats in our immediate neighborhood. Right outside our apartment was a fussy guy we called “My Best Friend.” He seemed to have no interest whatsoever in being anyone’s friend, and pushed Simone’s hand away whenever she went in to pet him. He had this look on his face like “ugh, I don’t want to have to deal with this woman. Leave me alone.” It was super cute. We also met cats who followed us for blocks.

I had always sort of felt bad for indoor pet cats, because they’re stuck in the same small space all the time. I always imagined that free street cats would wander and explore the whole city. But as I learned, to my surprise, they don’t. They just stay in one spot, one street corner or whatever it may be, of their own volition.

And at the top of the stairs (a set of stairs linking our street to the next parallel street up the hill from us), a kind man was just there constantly tending to this whole bunch of cats. He set up a whole little camp for them, with a tarp providing shelter over a whole little area of pillows and boxes and food dishes and so on. And these cats, some fifteen or so of them, just hung out there at the top of the stairs, all the time. There was a super friendly one Simone dubbed “Longcat.” A calico one we called “Anne,” the Turkish word for mother, since she constantly had tiny kittens (mostly or entirely not hers) suckling at her. A tiny one the man had named Kerchu, possibly because she was sick for a long time and was always sneezing. Kerchu loved to nuzzle and cuddle, and would just curl up on Simone’s lap for ages and ages. Another tiny one was called the Bumbler, since when we met her she just seemed so lost, and bumbled around, not really interacting with the other cats, looking quite disheveled with her fur all over the place. We then didn’t see her for a long time, and got worried, but we then saw her again, and she’s doing so well now! Not disheveled anymore, not looking lost, just living a nice happy kitty life.

Kerchu, a cute little kitten with a sneezing problem.

What else can I say about Turkey? I don’t even know. On my first visit, it was all so new to me, and so I was so struck by the overlapping layers of history, just trying to wrap my mind around how aspects or elements of Greco-Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman, and modern Republican histories overlapped and intersected and poked through, their influence still visible. And not just these periods of history, but also the many cultures that were once part of the Ottoman Empire and are still very much a part of Turkey today, even if ethno-nationalists and religious fundamentalists wish otherwise. We met tons of people – shopkeepers, booksellers, musicians – who had nothing negative at all to say about Greeks, Armenians, Kurds, Jews, and talked about how they wish their society was more multi-cultural, or more accepting or acknowledging of the multi-cultural, than it is. Of course, I mean, what are they going to say, to us, other than to be polite and positive in that kind of way? But, still.

And of course, that’s politically sensitive, and complicated. But on a related note, I guess, let me just conclude by saying something about how interesting it is to travel to different parts of the world and see which cultures have any kind of prominence there. In Japan, of course, there’s plenty of Chinese and Korean music, Taiwanese TV dramas, I dunno, whatever. And plenty of American and European stuff too, for sure. But I can imagine that if I went into a record store in Tokyo and was looking for Turkish, Armenian, Greek, or Jewish music, they likely would have next to nothing. Hell, they often have only the slimmest of an Okinawan section, and that’s for a region within their own country.

Of course, I would expect record stores in Turkey to have a ton more Black Sea music, Greek music, Armenian and Kurdish music, music from tiny ethnic groups I had never heard of such as the Laz and the Hakkari. But what I’m getting to, and what I found quite interesting, is that because of Turkey’s historical and cultural connections to the various Turkic peoples of the world, there’s actually (in certain ways, just here and there) a lot more presence / prominence of Uzbek, Uyghur, Azeri, and other Central Asian Turkic cultures than I would expect you’ll find most other places. Just looking around at the other people in the restaurant, or on the street, it’s of course quite difficult to tell sometimes who’s Turkish vs. European, who’s Turkish vs. Arab, and of course there are a lot of white/Western, Arab, and East Asian tourists. But, every now and then, somehow or another, you realize (or gather, or suspect) that someone who passes you on the street, or someone standing near you on the subway, is Uyghur, Kazakh, or Uzbek. And it makes sense – the languages have similarities, the cultures have some similarities; they probably visit Turkey for much the same reasons as Arabs do, seeing it as a country that’s not too foreign, a country they can visit and have some familiarity with the language, culture, food. It would be interesting to know some kind of tourist statistics, maybe. With most Uyghurs (and various kinds of Mongols and Tatars too) being Chinese citizens, that of course would complicate matters, but even so I’d be curious just how many of the tourists who might otherwise pass for East Asian (or white) are actually Central Asian.

It just goes to show how much your worldview and experiences can expand when traveling – to visit Turkey is not only to encounter Turkish culture, but to encounter so much else, of Balkan, Central Asian, and Sephardic culture as well. The world is so rich and complex and diverse. Get out there and explore, with an open mind, and broaden your horizons.

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At the airport.

Just before we left Turkey for the summer, we traveled to Izmir (Smyrna), an ancient city on the west coast of Turkey, facing the Aegean Sea. There, we were fortunate to receive a proper tour from a local tour guide.

From what we saw, it seems the city for the most part extends across the northern and eastern/southern sides of a bay. While we were staying not far from the Konak area (home to city hall, a major bazaar, and some of the city’s museums) and the Alsancak neighborhood (perhaps the chief center of live music bars), both of which sit on the eastern end of the bay facing west out over the water, these are connected by ferry boat (vapur) to other major neighborhoods on the northern side of the bay. We began on that northern side, at a former synagogue known as Mezakat Arabim in a neighborhood known as Karşıyaka. Built in the late 19th c. and out of use since the 1930s or so, it fell completely into disrepair, but was recently turned into a music school by the municipality of Karşıyaka. Free music classes are provided there by the municipality. But some parts of the former synagogue, such as the stained glass and aron hakodesh (the “ark” or special cabinet where Torah scrolls were kept) have been maintained or restored. The ark is now used as a regular cabinet, but the original Hebrew letters have been repainted and maintained, and the stained glass is partially original and partially restored.


The former synagogue Mezakat Arabim.

We learned that Ataturk’s mother spent her last years in Izmir and is buried in Karşıyaka. His wife was also from Izmir. Also, the Greek invasion of Izmir in 1919 is said to have been the final straw on the camel’s back which really sparked Ataturk to go to the Karadeniz (Black Sea) provinces and start his nationalist movement. So Izmir claims a certain pride or responsibility in connection to the Republic.

Looking at a map, I learned that a number of islands just off the coast of Turkey, just a very short distance from Izmir, are governed/administered as part of Greece. These islands serve as a rather striking example of how arbitrary and ahistorical national borders can be. All of Greece was, of course, part of the Ottoman Empire for hundreds of years, and before that, the entire region was under the Eastern Roman (or “Byzantine”) Empire, which many called or considered “Greek.” It was only at the end of several wars and a massive population exchange that the borders ended up where they are today. Who’s to say whether Izmir (Smyrna), Edirne (Adrianople), Rhodes (today part of Greece but far closer geographically to Turkey), these islands near Izmir, or even Istanbul (Constantinople) itself should rightfully be considered “Greek” vs. “Turkish” territory? What do we even really mean by that when there was no country of “Greece” or “Turkey” for all those hundreds of years? A pretty interesting and potentially eye-opening example for world history courses.

As we rode the vapur to Karşıyaka, Tilda told us that the first settlements here came around 6500 BCE. Over at the other end of Turkey, near the Syrian border, is Göbekli Tepe, quite possibly the oldest known, excavated, religious site in the world, dating back as far as 11,000 BCE. As so much of our basic education on the ancient world centers on Greece, Rome, Egypt, the Levant (Lebanon/Syria/Israel) and Mesopotamia, it can be really easy to forget, or to not realize to begin with, just how far back the ancient history of Anatolia / Asia Minor (i.e. Turkey) can go.

The next later major settlement was around 3000 BCE. The third was founded by Alexander the Great, who conquered over from the Greek mainland, and through the islands. Later, Alexander’s generals decided to establish a major treasury at Pergamon (about an hour north). Some time later, while the general was away, the guards of the treasury decided to keep it for themselves and used it to start their own Kingdom of Pergamon. That kingdom lasted only about 150 years, but was apparently quite rich both economically and in arts, philosophy, etc. The last King of Pergamon gave his kingdom to Rome, rather than risk being conquered or destroyed or anything.

Rome then controlled the area until around the 4th century CE, when Rome fell and Byzantium (i.e. Constantinople, i.e. Istanbul) became the capital of a new Eastern Roman Empire, which ruled until the Ottoman conquests. Over the course of the 12-15th centuries, Turks, Byzantines, Venetians, Genoese, and others repeatedly gained and lost control over parts or the whole of the area around Izmir/Smyrna. The Ottomans then took Izmir definitively in 1424, nearly thirty years before famously taking Constantinople in 1453.

The Ottomans were not the first Turks to come to Turkey, though. There were also the Seljuk Turks who, if I’ve got this right, expanded out across Persia and over to the west, conquering much of Anatolia (i.e. Turkey) by the end of the 11th century. They were led at that time by Alp Arslan, who won an important battle against the Byzantines at Manzikert in 1071. Manzikert is one of those battles that I definitely knew the name of, knew it must be of some real major significance in European history, but never knew/remembered what the significance was. Like the Battle of Lepanto.

But now, excavations in Beşiktaş (a neighborhood of Istanbul) have apparently recently shown evidence that Central Asian (Turkic) peoples may have arrived in Anatolia much earlier than the 11th c (Seljuks). So, that’s something. Sadly, I was only told about this verbally, and don’t have an article to link to or to read to learn more about it myself.

The Izmir Clock Tower (Saat Kulesi).

Jumping to the modern period, at this point in our tour we had come to the Izmir Clock Tower, at the center of a major plaza in the Konak neighborhood, which includes Izmir’s chief bazaar and several of its major museums. The clock tower was apparently built in 1901 in celebration of 25th year of the reign of Sultan Abdulhamid II, with the central clock mechanism being a gift from Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany.

Konak means “mansion.” At one side of the plaza, the former residence/office of the Ottoman governor of the area is now the official government office for the governor of Izmir Province.


The Karataş synagogue.

We would come back to Konak later, but first went to a neighboring area called Karataş. Though I would assume it has a far far older history, in terms of modern urban development this area first began being settled and built up in the 1800s. It quickly became the second (modern) Jewish neighborhood of Izmir, and by the 1880s-1890s, a significant portion of the Jewish community of the city had moved to Karataş, and received permission from the Sultan to build a new synagogue. That synagogue, built over a roughly ten-year period from 1907 until about 1917, is today the largest synagogue in Izmir, with seats for about 400 people. It is a gorgeous space on the inside, built according to a basilica plan, with the Aron Hakodesh (holy ark where the Torah scrolls are kept) and bimah (stage) at the front. Most of the other synagogues in the city, and indeed most I’ve seen outside of the US were built in a central plan, with the bimah in the center, though many were later rearranged to put the bimah at the front.

Today, the building is pretty much only used on Shabbat, holidays, and for events such as wedding or bar mitzvah. Due to its size, beauty, and history, it is one of the chief locations in the city that people choose to host their Jewish weddings and bar mitzvahs today, but outside of those occasions, even on the High Holidays (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur), we are told that sadly they may get only a few tens of people.

Because of basic geographical considerations the building is not oriented to the east (towards Jerusalem). The Aron Hakodesh is to the South, and even though they read Torah there (facing south, with the readers facing north), various other parts of the service are performed facing east. Even though they haven’t built a second bimah or anything at all to that direction.

Above: A view out over Izmir from the top of the Asansör.

Walking a short distance from the synagogue, we came to an Izmir landmark known as the Asansör, or “elevator.” Nissim Levi and another Jewish businessman built the Asansör in 1919. I am not sure when the first elevators were invented, or what a steam-powered elevator might have looked like in 1919 Izmir, but it’s kind of hard to imagine. I mean, as a historian 1919 feels pretty modern; but, at the same time, it was literally one hundred years ago. I don’t think I realized that elevator technology in any form went back quite that far. Now run by the municipality, and redone with totally modern elevator technology, use of the elevator, which provides quick and easy access between the areas of town high up on the cliffs and those down below, is now free. Originally, Nissim Levi had donated his house to become a hospital, charged fees to use the elevator, and used that revenue to help run the hospital.

Sephardic Jews – descendants of those who were expelled from Spain and Portugal in the 1490s and settled in the Ottoman Empire and elsewhere – seem to have long been a prominent presence in Izmir. And even long long before that. There was already a significant community of Jews in the area, we were told, by at least the 1st century CE. Smyrna was, after all, a significant site in earliest Christianity, who were of course Jews. Others also came with Alexander the Great, or that is with his empire. This was the Romaniote community – Jews who trace their lineage and traditions back to ancient Greece. We can be very self-oriented and narrow in our perspectives as Ashkenazi Jews, and as the broader gentile communities in New York and elsewhere, thinking that Ashenazim (Eastern European Jews, like myself) are the default Jews, the primary type or category of Jews, the only Jews, or (particularly problematically) the only true Jews following the only true correct or proper version of halakha (Jewish practices). I had always had some sense about Sephardic Jews, coming from a tradition stretching back through centuries in Ottoman lands, Italy, or elsewhere, back to medieval Spain, and about Mizrahi Jews, whose ancestors had lived in Arab or Persian lands for centuries and centuries, in some cases of course stretching back to long before there was ever even such a thing as Islam or Christianity, and long before the Arab conquests of Palestine and so many other lands outside of the Arabian peninsula. I had also heard about Ethiopian Jews, Indian (Mumbai) Jews, even Jews from Uganda, Zimbabwe, and Peru. But somehow it had never occurred to me, and I certainly had never been taught, about the Jews who lived in Greece and elsewhere before even the Sephardim came. Of course they existed; of course they would have had a separate identity and traditions. And now, as bad as it is that the Sephardim and other groups are getting Ashkenazified in the US and around the world, and that the Ashkenazim, Sephardim, and indeed everyone is getting Israelified over in Israel – some new, specifically Israeli, form of Jewish culture developing and taking over as the “real” or “true” or most correct form of being Jewish – as bad as all of that is (and many Muslim communities in the Balkans and elsewhere are simultaneously being Arabized), how much worse for the Romaniotes! Side note, we also visited at some point in the last year or two a Greek synagogue in New York’s Lower East Side, the only Romaniote synagogue in the Western Hemisphere. And yet, rather than being able to strongly maintain and practice and pass on Romaniote traditions and identity, they have to struggle with/against the many Sephardic members of the congregation, whose traditions inevitably influence and alter their own.

The Algaze Synagogue.

A section from a Turkish siddur (prayer book). Of course, Jewish prayer books come in all languages, but it’s always interesting nevertheless to see them.

In Izmir, many Sephardim came in the 1490s-1500s, greatly boosting the size & strength of the Jewish community in the city but of course dramatically impacting the community’s cultural character as well. Ets Hayim (“Tree of Life”) is considered the earliest synagogue in the city that still exists. It is believed to have been built in the early 15th century, even before Sephardic arrival.

We later returned to the winding streets of the bazaar area to visit another set of historic synagogues. The main streets of the bazaar form a semi-circle through the area, with everything else branching off from that. One of those branches is Havra Sokak – literally “synagogue street” or “synagogue alley.” It is full of grocers, fishmongers, all sorts of shops and stalls, and only a few synagogues. But four synagogues sit back to back with one another, perhaps the only place in the entire world where this happens.

Today, all of these synagogues are in varying states of closure. Some take turns, being closed most of the time and being opened up for weekday services for a month or two, and then closed again while a different one is opened for use for a month or two. As someone who grew up in a synagogue that at that time had a very lively and actively community – minyan morning and evening every day, Hebrew school for the kids on weekday afternoons and Sundays, a good 50-100 people every Saturday morning – and in a region where almost every town had at least one synagogue that was at least that well-attended and many towns had multiple, I cannot help but feel this is a sad state of affairs. That so many synagogues should be in such disrepair and disuse. But, then there is the flip-side. These synagogues are still here; they haven’t been demolished or turned over to other uses. They haven’t been abandoned by the community, and quite to the contrary, with the help of the city, they are actively working to maintain, operate, and restore them, and to convert some of them into a sort of museum area, opening them up to Jewish and Muslim Izmir locals, tourists, whomever, to come and learn something about Judaism and about Izmir. A professor and his students from Helsinki (I didn’t catch the name) come ever year to work on restoration of old textiles, such as parochet (ark curtains). Şalom synagogue has been able to establish a climate controlled storage room for these precious textiles. And while I have no doubt that every Jewish community – every community of any kind – has its rifts and feuds, it seems like the core people at least work together to operate and maintain and use all of the synagogues; unlike how I imagine it would be in my home community, to be honest, where each synagogue is struggling on its own and no one really thinks of themselves as having any connection or belonging or association with any of the others.

Bikur Cholim synagogue.

The first small synagogue we visited is called Bikur Cholim (“Visiting Patients”). The origin of the name is unclear, but the congregation may have been involved in organizing visits to hospitals or something like that. The building was donated by a Chavez family in the late 17th or early 18th century. It burned down several times and was rebuilt, and much of what survives today is from the 19th century.

The Algaze Synagogue dates to 1724. It has a central bimah. The basement used to house a council of elders, providing them housing in exchange for them regularly praying for the well-being of the community, providing minyan, etc. This basement also houses a genizah, a place where papers and documents that cannot be thrown away or otherwise destroyed – anything with the name of God written on it, such as torn pages from old prayer books, for example – are stored until they can be ritually buried.

We were told of a major historical episode in the history of Turkish Jewry, in which a rabbi named Sabbatai Zevi, in the 17th century, claimed to be (or was claimed by his followers to be) the Jewish Messiah. This created all sorts of trouble, especially from the perspective of the Islamic government (the Ottoman Sultan was also the Caliph of all Sunni Islam), and in 1666 Sabbatai Zevi was forced to convert to Islam or be executed. He and several hundred of his followers converted, or at least claimed to, but he was later found to be singing Jewish psalms with a group of Jews, and was executed. (according to Wikipedia). I had never heard of this story before getting involved with Sephardic communities, but then I had scarcely ever learned anything about Sephardim before. This seems to have been a pretty major incident, though, because I remember it being described not only in the Jewish Museum of Istanbul, but also in the Jewish Museum in Athens (and/or the one in Salonika, I forget). In any case, after this incident, rabbis forced the community to become much more conservative. The community turned inwards in the late 18th to mid 19th centuries, with much focus on religious study, and little on secular education. Secular education only advanced again, bringing greater openness and economic well-being with the Alliance Schools being founded in the mid-to-late 19th century. Or, perhaps that’s just one way to see it. I don’t know if this is a controversial subject among Sephardic Jews or among scholars, but – kneejerk reaction – as someone who has studied non-Western histories, theories of colonialism & imperialism, studies relating to indigenous heritage, and so forth, a system of schools established by Western European Jews to teach Ottoman Jews French language and provide them a “modern” “Western” education seems a bit more complicated and potentially problematic than simply “they brought us secular education and openness and economic well-being.”

Left: The entrance courtyard to Şalom Synagogue, behind a relatively non-descript metal gate from the street.

In any case, we were told of another nearby synagogue, La Sinyora, which is no longer in use for religious events but is still used for community events. Another area called Foresteros (sp?) was at one time turned to use for kosher butchering, kapparot, etc.

A synagogue known as the Portuguese Synagogue (no 8), fell out of use in the mid-20th c. It was loaned to the Aegean Young People’s Association for 25 years to use for social & cultural activities, with the condition that they restore it and also make it available to the Jewish community. Today it is in disrepair but is still controlled by the community and there are plans to clean it up and make it into part of the museum.

Our guide pointed out a small area with ruined and graffitied walls, which used to contain within them the house and office of the chief rabbi. The building still belongs to the community but the land does not so it’s an ongoing problem.

Right: Beit Hillel is a small space, so it’s hard to get a good shot of it.

Another building in the immediate Havra Sokak area, known as Beit Hillel, wasn’t really a “synagogue” but a small house where people gathered to prayer. At one time, an earthquake and the ensuing fire destroyed much of the city, including 10,000 shops or homes belonging to Jews. The synagogues thankfully were mostly spared. But even so, with the community having such difficulties, some wealthy families gave over a room or a secondary house to the use of the community for prayer etc. Beit Hillel was one such place. It was given by the Palaci family. Hayim Palaci (b. 1788) was a great scholar, who wrote some 70+ books on religion, including many respuestas – answers to questions people might have as to correct practice, etc. Some of these books are still in very active use. He and his son Abraham Palaci (pictured) are buried in an old cemetery called Gülçesme, no longer actively in use today. A small sect of Hasidic followers follow his teachings in particular, and some 30-50 people come from Israel every year on the anniversary of Palaci’s death, and do whatever it is they do. Palaci was named a Minister of Justice (kadi) , one of the highest members of the Sultan’s Court in Izmir Province, able to hand down decisions on judicial conflicts or petitions pertaining not only to Jews but to Muslims or anyone else as well.

Beit Hillel is today a “memory house.” Not quite a museum, but housing some displays and objects. Since all the synagogues are normally closed except when actively being used, this house, open regularly, provides a little bit of an opportunity for any Muslim or anyone else who’s interested to learn just a little something, some sense of what goes on in a synagogue. And to learn something about the Palaci family and that particular story.

Meanwhile, the Ashkenazi community in Izmir grew over the 19th century, and built its own separate shuls, schools, butcher shop, etc. But then after 1919, many left. The Ashkenazi synagogue was forgotten, and rediscovered only more recently. Today, the entrance is blocked off, but is labeled.

One of the many han (caravanserai plazas) in Kemeraltı.

Returning to the bazaar, we were introduced to several “han” – like caravanserai, but small ones located within a city. Historically, these were enclosed plazas where merchants could leave their horses, camels, etc., and then on the second story, all around the plaza, were inns where the merchants could stay. Today, we walk down the bazaar streets and from time to time find an opening, an entrance into one such plaza, today used as open-air restaurants or bars, sometimes with live music. I would not be surprised if the second and third story rooms are still today used as hotels or the like.

Finally, we went to the ruins of the ancient agora (main marketplace) of ancient Greek Smyrna. Today, large sections of it are excavated, and are maintained as a public park. Professors and their students continue to actively work on the site, gradually excavating more and more. There were plans at one time to build something in the site, some sort of cultural displays or cultural center, but for the time being that seems to be on hold.

The agora was destroyed in an earthquake sometime in the 2nd century CE. Marcus Aurelius had it rebuilt in honor/memory of his wife, who loved Smyrna and who had recently died, and her picture can be seen on the archway.

In western Anatolia, esp. southwestern Anatolia, we were told, the ancient Greek influence or identity was so strong that Latin never really replaced Greek language entirely. Even well into the Roman period, inscriptions continued to be in Greek.

As someone who never really studied Greek/Roman history, I learned a number of interesting little things about their architecture. Terracotta water pipes were made with holes covered over with lids. They could then unseal a lid to clear blockages in the pipes, without having to replace entire lengths of pipes. Ancient Smyrna featured main shopping avenues of tiny showcase shop spaces. And sections of columns and sculptures were often held together with metal joins, which were poured in through small channels carved in the side. I had always wondered about that – you can’t make such statues, with outstretched arms and so forth, without some kind of supports, right?

So, let’s see. How to sum up? Izmir was an interesting time. The only Turkish city outside of Istanbul I’ve yet visited; definitely had a different vibe, but not too different. Really cool to get to see more music shops, indeed a whole (small) Museum of Musical Instruments which contains a working luthier workshop; we actually ended up meeting up with some of the instrument-makers based there and got to visit their master’s workshop as well. I love how these workshops are so often hidden on the second story of nondescript buildings – just like in Kyoto and in so many other places it’s just such a wonderful feeling to think about how much more is going on all around you, behind the scenes, that you wouldn’t know about. We did miss out on going to any meyhane (live bars). But on the other hand, we got to have some boyoz, a distinctively Sephardic food which has become widespread and mainstream (only) in Izmir.

I still kind of can’t believe that I’ve been to Turkey, period. But now that I’m with someone who’s so involved with Turkish music and culture, I’m definitely looking forward to going back to Turkey with her, and maybe visiting some other parts, such as Edirne, and maybe even Cappadoccia, the Black Sea region, or even Kurdistan. We’ll see.

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Topkapı Palace

One of the major gates within the Topkapı complex.

(Returning to my long-overdue posts on last summer’s travels…)

Topkapı Palace is an interesting place. Having missed it on my earlier trip to Istanbul, I was going to make sure to see it this time. I was especially interested because one piece of my research had been considering the physical layout and arrangement of the Shogun’s Grand Audience Hall (Ôhiroma) at Edo castle, in Japan, and I thought that Topkapı, as the palace of another great non-Western empire, could make for an interesting comparison. Or could provide insights that I just couldn’t get from the scholarship on Japan. Topkapı is also of interest for its extensive collection of Ottoman artifacts.

As it turned out, I am sorry to say I found the palace a bit of a disappointment. I think that if/when I go back, I’ll try to get a tour guide, hopefully someone who can give a fuller explanation of how the rooms were used, why they were arranged the way they were. It’s an incredible, very impressive set of spaces, no doubt, and many of the rooms are lavishly, very impressively decorated with tile and so forth. Beautiful. Gorgeous. Very palatial, and in a distinctly Ottoman way; this was an earlier palace, quite unlike what I imagine Dolmabahçe Palace – inspired by Versailles, and by the modern/Western trends and pressures of the 19th century – looks like.

But, sadly, I really didn’t get a sense from the map pamphlets, or from the plaques on the walls, how this palace was used in an administrative, governmental, or ritual way, so much as just a focus on its artistic beauty, craftsmanship, and the lavish lifestyle of the sultan.

The Inner Palace Library of Ahmed III.

The collection was interesting, though frustratingly they didn’t allow photos in most of the exhibition rooms. It was neat to see weapons and other historical artifacts directly associated with some of the most historically famous or significant sultans – objects not only beautiful in their craftsmanship and artistry, but of historical note as well, such as the sword of Mehmet II, or the sword and bow of Bayezid II. The palace collection also included a number of items from other cultures, many of which I imagine were formal gifts from foreign rulers or governments. This included a sword belonging to Stephan the Great of Moldavia, several *huge* Hungarian greatswords, and several Japanese swords. While one of the Japanese swords bears the imperial chrysanthemum on its lavishly decorated gilded scabbard with purple velvet ropes, the rest had ivory scabbards which looked to me, if anything, like export art, not imperial gifts. But, then, I could be wrong.

The “Inner Treasury” exhibit was… well, it was something. If I hadn’t been told about this ahead of time, I would not have expected Topkapı to house such a room of such absurdities. They claim to have the sword of King David himself, the turban of the biblical Joseph (Yusuf), the staff of Moses, and of course numerous relics of the Prophet Mohammed. King David, of course, having ruled sometime around the 10th century BCE, not only is it fully unbelievable that his sword – even assuming it survived at all – should be in such good condition, but further, whatever a 10th century BCE sword should look like, this one seemed far too similar to a medieval sword in style; clearly an absolute anachronism. The turban and the staff, similarly; I can’t judge style, but both lived many many many many generations before even King David. Wikipedia suggests that Joseph, if he did live, lived sometime around the 1500s-1440s BCE. Did people wear turbans back then? Of what style?

What’s the story behind these treasures, I wonder. When we’re they made, or obtained, and for what purpose? They’re so obviously fakes, what’s the point? Or, is it so obvious? I really wondered what so many of the tourists around me, Christians and Muslims most of them, what they thought about all of this. How many see them as real religious relics, as something they’ve been so honored to get to see?

Since I don’t have any photos of the Inner Treasury, something completely different. A gate known as the Sublime Porte, a metonym for the Ottoman government as a whole.

Another set of very interesting and much more plausible artifacts pertained to the Kaaba, the most sacred site in all of Islam. Located at the center of the most sacred mosque in Mecca, it is strikingly iconic for its relatively unadorned black square form, and for the masses of pilgrims regularly (constantly?) forming circles around it. It’s easy to think of Turkey as an outlier on the margins of the Muslim world – Turks aren’t Arabs, after all. And, to be sure, Turkish history and Turkish culture are distinct from that of the Arab Middle East in all sorts of ways. But, what I hadn’t known is that for centuries the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire was regarded as the chief (or sole?) Caliph of Sunni Islam.

After the Ottoman conquests of much of the Middle East, the keys to the Kaaba (to open and close it at certain ceremonial hours of the day) were sent to Istanbul as symbols of the sultan’s authority over the administration of Mecca. When the Kaaba was in need of repair at one point in the 17th c., doors of the Kaaba were apparently sent to Istanbul. And a number of other treasures associated with the Kaaba are still held at Topkapı today. (Or at least, that’s what is claimed. After that last set of rooms, who knows what to believe.)

We learn that a stone supposedly placed by the prophet Abraham (Ibrahim) marks the location of the circumambulations, even if the Kaaba itself is damaged or under repair. This stone was damaged by catapult stones during the Umayyad siege of Mecca in 756, but was repaired with silver. It broke again in the 17th c, but the Ottoman sultan had it gilded and repaired with lead and silver.

We are also shown items claimed to be the swords and bows of the Prophet Mohammed himself. Hard to know what to think, but I suppose I could actually believe this, since they’re hidden underneath later scabbards and cases and so forth, and since Mohammed lived far more recently than, for example, King David or Moses. So, it could be. Of course, even so, it seems just a bit too unlikely for these things – and his beard hairs, teeth, etc – to have actually been passed down and passed down and never lost. Then again, it was the 7th c CE, not super ancient times. If Japan can retain things from such a time, then I suppose Islamic civilization could too… Even despite all the wars and conflicts, from one sultanate or caliphate to another. maybe? I wonder if any of my readers might happen to have insights on this?

In the very last room, we finally get to 16th c. objects – letters and documents from Sultan Selim, and a large royal banner. Much more believable.

The sultan’s breakfast pavilion.

I’m honestly not sure what I expected from visiting the palace. I guess I was hoping for something which might more explicitly compare to, for example, Edo castle or Shuri castle, so that I might find something interesting in similarities or differences in how foreign delegations were received, how court ceremonies were conducted, etc. But you get very little of that at most historical sites, actually, right? Shuri has models in the gift shop of New Year’s celebrations and investiture ceremonies, both of which (alongside live reenactment events and scholarship) have been very informative and inspirational for me, but the castle itself, in its explanatory plaques and such, doesn’t really give visitors all that much of a sense of it. And Edo castle, of course, has nothing at all, since the entire Honmaru – the main section of the castle, where the shogun’s audience halls, meeting rooms, administrative offices, etc. were located – burned down in 1863 and was never rebuilt. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, it is now just an open public park area, just grass, while most of the rest of the castle grounds is now the Imperial Palace and is off-limits to tourists. Thankfully, though, the Edo-Tokyo Museum, among other places, has models and other sorts of recreations of what had been. Nijô castle in Kyoto has been perhaps the best of the places I have visited, really talking about who would be received in which rooms etc., and even going so far as to display mannequins arranged in the main audience hall to show how lords would have been seated, and what the room really looked like when it was in use. But here at Topkapı most of the palace rooms have been converted into museum galleries, displaying paintings or arms & armor or religious relics of questionable veracity, so we don’t get as much discussion as we might of how ceremonies or court business was conducted.

Then again, it might be simply a matter of reading about it ahead of time. Had I read Gülru Necipoğlu’s book about Topkapı more extensively before going there, maybe I would have known what to look for better. Certainly it was because of my knowledge of Edo, Beijing , and Shuri, from a combination of experience and study, that I understood the Korean palaces (which I visited in June 2017 and realize now I still have never blogged about) better.

The exterior of the Imperial Council Hall. A plaque explains how the space would have been used, but that’s about it.

A few final notes, small things I found interesting.

One label in the Palace Kitchens section mentions a Polish page, Ali Ufki Bey (Albertus Bobovius). Apparently, according to Wikipedia, he wasn’t merely a page, but actually became one of the most prominent or influential musicians and dragomans (interpreters/guides) in the 17th century court. One wonders how common this was, and how diverse the court.

Some 4,000-5,000 people lived/worked at Topkapı in the 16th century, and the number rose to 10,000 in the early 17th. The palace chose the finest fruits, vegetables, meat, grains, etc from all incoming ships or caravans, before the remainder was allowed to go to the people of the city.

Tons of Chinese porcelains, celadons, etc. were used in the Ottoman court, alongside Persian ceramics, Turkish metalware, etc. I suppose I should not be surprised at this, but nevertheless it is interesting to see, firsthand, in person, the incredible extent to which Chinese goods (not ugly “export art” goods like we see in so many Western museums, but nice, good, blue and white porcelains) were integrated into the everyday courtly material culture. The newly reorganized Islamic Art galleries at the British Museum (which I would visit in November) reflected the same.

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Six Weeks in Istanbul

A view of the Istanbul skyline from the top of Galata Tower.

Having finally finished my posts about my Japan travels in summer 2018, I can now move on to talking about what I did with the rest of the summer. I know all of this makes it seem like I’m doing so much traveling, and I guess I have been; but since the summer it really has been mostly just buckling down and working. And a few conferences here and there.

Istanbul is a fantastic city, much like a dozen other places I would love to visit or try living in, from Dublin to Copenhagen to Brussels to Amsterdam to Berlin to half a dozen places scattered across the Balkans. It’s no Kyoto. I find myself much more comfortable, much more in my element in a certain sense in a place like Kyoto than Istanbul – not just because of logistical conveniences like the fact that I know the language and the culture better, but also because this is a culture which for the better part of the last 20 years has spoken to me. Walking along the Kamogawa, hearing shamisen music, seeing wooden machiya, makes me smile makes me happy in a way that the Istanbul equivalent does not. It’s just not my thing, in the same way as Japan doesn’t spark that similar excitement in my girlfriend, who studies Turkish music and who loves Istanbul.

But, all of that said, I loved living in Istanbul, and I miss in particular the experience of constantly learning new things. Living in a city I never expected to even visit, I learned a handful of words in Turkish, learned about foods and places and all kinds of things I never would have been exposed to otherwise. And now I can come back here to my life in the US, and bring back a certain bit of knowledge, experience, which I never had before.

I also love the feeling, or the idea, of having favorite restaurants in faraway cities. Living in the Cihangir neighborhood, we had several of the best breakfast places in the city right at our fingertips. Van Kahvalti Evi is probably the best, but we went a number of times to places like Kahve 6* and Cuppa Cafe as well, all within super close walking distance. Though I never really took full advantage of it, it would have been an excellent neighborhood, too, for just picking cafes to sit and do dissertation work in; I did that a couple of times at a cafe called Journey, one called Kronotrop, and also at a chain place called Espresso Lab once on Istiklal (one of the most main shopping boulevards in the city).

Breakfast at Cuppa Cafe, including menemen (eggs w/ tomato & pepper), fried eggs, vişne reçeli (sour cherry jam), nutella, acuka (a spicy pepper paste), bal kaymak (honey and clotted cream), several kinds of cheeses, cucumber, tomato, bread, pişi (fried dough), and of course çay (tea). Not pictured: tahin pekmez (tahini + grape molasses).

I guess before I go on I should talk about Turkish breakfast. I happened upon an article recently, long after coming back to the States from Turkey, which said something like “Turkey has the best breakfast in the world, hands down.” And I think it’s true. I mean, I thoroughly enjoyed a nice tea and crumpets on my last trip to London (to be discussed in an upcoming blog post); somehow despite living in London for a whole year (way back in my very early grad school days), I somehow never discovered the wonders of jam and clotted cream and a good cuppa. … And I’m plenty happy with the kind of breakfasts I scrounge together for myself when I’m in Japan – most often, steamed buns or egg salad sandwiches or something like that from the convenience store; really, more like lunch food I guess than “breakfast,” but so it goes. But in Turkey we were enjoying a real proper breakfast – basically, the experience of a nice Sunday brunch in San Francisco or Brooklyn, but affordable, and every day. Kahvaltı (lit. “before coffee”) just means “breakfast,” but kahvaltı tabağı (“breakfast platter”) means eggs, several kinds of cheeses, some nice cut-up tomatoes and cucumbers, at least one kind of jam (I think the vişne / sour cherry is my favorite), clotted cream + honey (bal kaymak), and a mixture of tahini and grape molasses (tahin pekmez), along with plenty of bread to eat it all with, and at many places, free refills of Turkish tea (çay). We also often ordered menemen, a dish made chiefly of eggs, tomatoes, and bell peppers. So damn good.

We also discovered a chain called Midpoint which had surprisingly excellent pasta – like, seriously, amazingly amazingly good, not to mention nice atmosphere and a cool menu. Midpoint is like one of those fancy restaurants you might want to go to at the shopping mall but never do because it’s too expensive.

Galata Tower. Built in 1348 by the Genoese, roughly a century before the Ottomans (Turks) took the city. And it’s still standing and looking beautiful.

I have to admit, I do think that a lot of the appeal of Istanbul for me came from the fact that it was so affordable. Because of basic purchasing power parity (it’s a poorer country, and so things are cheaper there overall; the US dollar, or Euro, or British pound, goes a long way) and all the more so because the Turkish lira tanked while we were there, going from roughly 4.5 lira to the dollar to closer to 7 more or less overnight, we could live so much more comfortably than we ever could here in the States. Living in a nice apartment, going out to nice cafes and restaurants all the time, and not having to worry too much about how much we were spending… It wasn’t pennies a day by any means, and it’s not like we were absolutely living like kings, but to be honest, just sort of living the nice sort of “young people in the city” sort of life that so many TV shows and movies have taught us should be within reach (look at, for example, the kind of apartments people live in on Friends or New Girl, or in movies like Julie & Julia). Clothes were suddenly what I would consider a normal reasonable price – closer to $15-20 per shirt or pair of pants, for example, instead of $60-100. And it just means getting to spend time in the nicer parts of town, like Beşiktaş and Nişantaşı, and, again, trying out nice cafes like Yeşil no 11, and buying new (knock-off) Birkenstocks without having to spend hundreds of dollars on them. It also means that little nice features of life, like getting your clothes tailored or your shoes or luggage repaired, suddenly becomes affordable enough (more than affordable! actually, really quite inexpensive indeed) that you can do those things. And order a drink, appetizer, salad, and/or dessert with dinner without constantly constantly feeling like you need to hold back and watch your spending like I do at home.

But, I feel bad for thinking that that alone should be the reason I should love Istanbul. I mean, it’s a great thing for living a decent cosmopolitan life to be affordable. But I don’t want to think that I didn’t or don’t love the city for its own distinctive culture and history as well… But, while I sort of waver and worry on that point, I think overall I’m safe. I’ve been to Morocco and Jakarta (Indonesia) as well in the last couple of years, and while things may be more affordable there, I really can’t imagine enjoying living there for any real length of time, unlike in Istanbul.

The view from our apartment in Cihangir. Photo courtesy of my partner.

I’ve been thinking about it lately, and I am not really sure what kind of experience I might have had if I had gone to Istanbul by myself. I’m not sure what kind of experience I would have if I went back there again by myself. So much of what I enjoyed about the city was because I was with my girlfriend, who had been in the city for about two months already by the time I got there, was studying Turkish, and is super into and knowledgeable about Turkish music and a whole lot else; I don’t think I would have ventured into nearly as many bookstores, CD stores, music venues, without her. More to the point, I just don’t think I would have had any idea where to look to go, where to try to go. If I had for some reason found myself in Istanbul without ever having gone with her – like, if I had never met her but then ended up going to a conference in Istanbul, for example, I don’t know that I would have ventured much past the most standard tourist sites. I certainly never would have experienced the city as fully as I have now, after living there for six weeks. I wonder what it would be like if I were to go back again on my own – certainly I have a stronger sense for myself now of a lot more of the neighborhoods and such, beyond just the touristy parts, and I have some sense of which shops and which brands to look for, which foods I like, and so forth; how to get around by subway, bus, and ferry boat; and a very few key words of Turkish (which, who knows how long I’ll still remember…). But even so, traveling alone is so different than having someone to go shopping with, to go to breakfast and dinner with, and so forth. To go on errands, as it were, seeking out a tailor, or the best cheapest produce, or other things… A certain way of exploring and experiencing a city that’s quite different from being there as a tourist. And so much of the book, CD, and clothes shopping was for her – though some was definitely for me. I wonder, if I were to go back, would I be able to feel I was getting anything out of going into some of these shops, or would it just feel empty?



*Kahve 6, or Coffee Six, kahve altı in Turkish, being something of a wordplay, since it sounds so close to kahvaltı, meaning “breakfast.”

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For the final week of my crazy jaunt around Japan this past summer, I enjoyed the privilege of taking part in a “graduate summer school” run by Kyoto University. It was a great program, introducing us to the university’s great collections, and presenting just a tiny glimpse into how archaeological research is done, how medieval documents are read, and so forth. I was certainly blown away by the items in the collection, the opportunity to see such things up close is always such a pleasure.

Still, I feel bad to say so, but while I think it would have been a fantastic program for students earlier in their programs, I’m at a stage right now where anything not directly related to helping me improve and finish the dissertation just doesn’t grab me right now. I must admit, I spent much of the week thinking about how “I could/should be working on my dissertation right now.” Especially after two weeks of just travel, even though that travel included archives and libraries, I was feeling guilty for not just buckling down and getting back to work. But, still, I’m very glad for this program as it (1) gave me an opportunity and excuse to spend a whole week in Kyoto, easily one of my most favorite cities in the world, and (2) allowed me to meet a whole lot of new people, make new friends/acquaintances/colleagues.

Yasaka no tô (Yasaka Pagoda), as seen from a small street near Ninenzaka.

At the end of it, I am sad to leave Kyoto. I had a really fantastic time. Even after all the rest of the traveling, I can tell that Kyoto, more so than Fukuoka or Kagoshima or Tokyo, is a place I could really enjoy being for a real length of time. I wish I had another week, or a year, to sit in cafes and just write, interspersed with going out to dinner with friends, going to theatre, visiting historical sites… I suppose that having friends around makes a whole lot of the difference, that that’s a part of what made this week in Kyoto so great. Without friends it wouldn’t be the same. But even so, it would still be such a wonderful city. I love exploring Kyoto, the shrines and temples and historical sites and cafes and restaurants and everything. I love the particular aesthetic and charm of so many Kyoto cafes. And I love how just historical and cultural everything is.. You can feel it, it’s in the air.

On my first trip to Kyoto, I remember writing in my LiveJournal (haha) that it was a small city with just enough of the modern city amenities. I remember that I was thinking in particular of Harajuku, and how you can in fact get cool fashion and other “modern” city experiences in Kyoto, but that it’s much smaller. That if you want the ultra-modern X, Y, and Z of Tokyo, you have to be in Tokyo. (Or Osaka, I suppose, but I still have never spent any time in Osaka). But, I’m not sure I feel the same way about Kyoto anymore. I know it’s because my interests have changed – I don’t need the anime stores of Ikebukuro anymore. And because Harajuku itself has changed, too. What once was, is no longer, even in Tokyo. Now, I’m more interested in history and culture and theatre and cute cafes and so on than I ever was before.

A view along the Kamo River.

I think I would really love to live in Kyoto for a year or so. Or even just for a few months. It’s not a city with too much direct relation to my research, unfortunately. So much talk all week about the Heian court and such… very far from my studies. But who cares, right? … And there are plenty of universities in Kyoto, hopefully one of them might be looking for a postdoc or something.

After this trip, I really do feel I could stay in Japan long-term. Maybe not indefinitely, make my whole life and career here. But certainly for a few years. It’s just such a good place to be, and with so much great stuff to see and do. Life is clean and good. It’s not dirty and falling apart like NY. It’s not a society pulling itself apart at the seams over politics like our own. Japan has its problems, to be sure, and in certain respects all the moreso as a foreigner. But sometimes I just really want, need, an escape from the insular, local, problems and politics of home. I feel like Kyoto is such a city of possibility. Not that one can’t say the same thing of any other big city, but there’s somehow something that just grabs me about Kyoto, that makes me feel like there is such a wealth of experiences to be had. That if you met the right people, made the right contacts, heard about the right opportunities, you could get into just so many incredible spaces and experiences. From Noh to Butoh, from tea to Zen, from shamisen to Nihon buyô. From dozens of cool or cute cafes to amazing temples, archives, seminars. I would love to live such a life.

Apologies for the disjointedness; for the rest of this post, I’m just going to share my thoughts-at-the-time on a couple of sites I visited in Kyoto.

The Ninomaru Palace at Nijô castle.

NIJÔ CASTLE

Nijô castle was built in 1603 to serve as the base of Tokugawa presence in the imperial city. Though as it turned out no shogun visited Kyoto for over 200 years from 1634 to 1863, representatives and officials continuously occupied the castle, overseeing goings-on in the city, handling various administrative matters, and so forth. Today, Nijô is of particular interest (at least to people like myself) because it’s the chief surviving site that might offer some sense of what the shogun’s main castle in Edo was once like. (The main residence and administrative buildings of Edo castle having never been rebuilt after an 1863 fire) Here are some thoughts I had at the time while visiting there for the first time in 15 years:

When you really think about it, it’s so weird, to walk around these rooms, these very rooms where these events really took place, and not be able to enter them to experience the space more directly. On one level, sure, it makes perfect sense, and I don’t need to enter the rooms at Independence Hall, for example, and to sit at those desks, to get a sense of what happened there and its gravity. But, somehow here it’s different. Walking through the honjin at Futagawa, and actually sitting in the room, you really get a sense of the space that you don’t by walking around only in the corridors. There’s just this incredible disconnect I feel here. The whole building becomes such a completely different space when the chief areas become unused, and the corridors become the main areas in which any human activity takes place.

The Ôhiroma, or Grand Audience Hall, of Nijô castle, arranged with mannequins to show how lords would have sat or bowed before the shogun. Sadly, obnoxiously, no photos allowed inside the building. This photo from Hananomichi blog.

I don’t know why, but somehow it just feels weird to me that a building of such great importance should become so empty, so dead, just put on display like this. I know that’s the very essence of the historical house as museum and I’m glad it’s preserved and open to visitors – neither destroyed nor kept limited to official business. I’m glad I get to see it. But somehow, more so than all the other castles and historic homes I’ve seen, this one struck me somehow. I somehow really wish we could engage with it more directly, or more extensively somehow.

Of course, there are simple practical reasons why you can’t let people walk on the tatami – it would get ruined so quickly. But, I wonder if some replica experience could be produced somehow. So people could experience these rooms not only from the outside, but from within the space, surrounded and immersed in the effect intended by the designers, and experienced by the people of the time.

TÔJI

Somehow, in my previous visits to Kyoto, I had never actually been to Tô-ji, one of the oldest temples in the city, and home to the tallest pagoda in Japan. I guess part of the reason I’d never gone was because Buddhist sculpture has never really done much for me. But somehow this time was different. To see them all arranged together, in 3D space, in context, and especially the grand size of these works, I think one really can sense the impact, the feeling of peace and spirituality that’s being evinced.

You can really feel / sense the deities looking down upon you. You can really imagine them being not sculptures buy actual deities manifesting before you. And the smell of the statues, of the wood, and of the incense also makes a big difference.

I think, at least in my own personal experience, that for a lot of Japanese arts, one just needs to be in the right mood, or catch it from the right frame of mind. I’ve been so moved by Buddhist sculpture two or three times, even when dozens and dozens of other times it didn’t really do much for me, and there have been a handful of times that I became truly taken in, entranced, moved, by Noh, though so many previous viewings I never managed to cross that mental or emotional divide. And the same for paintings – seeing paintings in person, with no glass or anything, is almost always a breathtaking experience, but seeing them on display, it’s really not so often that a piece takes me in. So, maybe it is just the timing, or just catching me in the right frame of mind.

Photo of the interior of Sanjûsangendô from the Nikkei newspaper, because god forbid they should allow regular people to take photos of some of the most famous examples of beautiful, masterful, Kamakura period artworks in all of Japan.

We also visited Sanjûsangendô, a very long hall containing 1001 medieval (c. 12th c.) sculptures of the bodhisattva Kannon. I had been there before, but this time we happened to arrive on a (slightly) historic day. These sculptures were long designated “Important Cultural Properties,” but were very recently upgraded to “National Treasures.” In connection with this (I think?), they moved many of the sculptures back to an earlier Edo period configuration just today (August 1), rearranging the exact arrangement of the auxiliary figures surrounding the central larger Kannon, as well as switching the Raijin and Fûjin (Gods of Thunder and Wind) sculptures at the very ends of the arrangement.

Today’s Keihan [train line], feels good.

Finally, I guess I’ll end this post with just a few thoughts on Kyoto as a tourist city.

Are some parts of Kyoto getting Disneyfied? Absolutely. And it’s a shame to see. But I would be curious to know the numbers, the statistics, regarding tourism – is this gentrification, this “touristification,” this Disneyfication, primarily in connection with appealing to great numbers of domestic (Japanese) tourists, or foreign tourists? But, then again, does it matter? Does it make a difference in how we think about it, does it make a difference in whether we are critical of it or not?

I’m frankly not sure how I feel. On the one hand, I can absolutely sense, feel, that Disneyfication, and it’s worrying. It’s problematic. No one should have to feel like their own home is no longer their own – that their own neighborhood is designed around tourists and not around residents. It’s something I’ve seen in Hawaii and Okinawa as well, and it’s no good. But, if there’s a silver lining at all it’s that a great deal of the city doesn’t look/feel like Ninenzaka or Hanamikoji, and it’s still vibrantly authentic, for lack of a better word. I know some people who say Kyoto’s too far gone already – they won’t come here, they won’t bother anymore, because it’s already gone to the dogs, so to speak. Maybe it’s just because it’s been so long for me since my time in Kyoto, and since my time this time around was so constrained; maybe it’s just because I still entertain fantasies of what it’s like rather than knowing how it truly is, but for me, it’s still very much worth visiting. I had a marvelous time this time, and an all the more astounding time the previous time around, and I think I would again, if I ever got the chance to live in Kyoto for an extended period again. I don’t think it’s time yet to write the city off.

Kyoto is still full of wonderful cafes, temples, universities, museums, theatre, and all sorts of other arts and cultural goings-on. And all of these, I am sure, sway with the winds that are blowing, feeling the impacts of increasing tourism and increasing touristification. But for now at least I think we can still honestly say that a great deal does continue to go on in this city in a relatively authentic fashion, disconnected from catering to what the tourists want.

I wonder if there is anything meaningful or worthwhile to say about the touristification of Kyoto regarding that it may date all the way back to the Edo or Meiji periods. That this isn’t an entirely new phenomenon. After all, tourism in Japan really boomed towards the middle and late Edo period (18th-19th centuries), and during our workshop we saw some tourist maps of the city, pointing out Buddhist temples and other sites of interest. In the Meiji period, after some considerable debate and waffling and so forth, the government decided to keep Kyoto as a traditional, historical, imperial city, in contrast to the very modern city they were going to turn Tokyo into. Not that any of this is necessarily perfectly pertinent to the current phenomenon of what’s happening to Kyoto, but even so, context.

I wish I had anything more to say, more insightfully, regarding this interesting and important issue. But I guess I have to just leave that to those who are actually in tourism studies, unlike myself. I’ll just end this already very lengthy blog post by saying that “Let’s Make a Bus Route” (バスルートをつくろう) is a wonderful little board game in which you compete with other players to build the best bus route around Kyoto. No Japanese language ability required. (h/t to my friend Evan for introducing me to the game!)

All photos my own, except where indicated otherwise.

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The garden at guesthouse toco in the Iriya/Uguisudani neighborhood of Tokyo.
Now I’m trying to remember where I stayed in each of these cities, during this crazy journey.

I’ve already touched upon my lodgings in Naha, Kagoshima, and Fukuoka for this trip. Two great hip hostels/guesthouses, and one crappy boring-as-hell ordinary business hotel.

In Himeji, I ended up staying in a business hotel again (Himeji Green Hotel Tatemachi), because I couldn’t find anything else. It was fine. Served the purpose, on a basic level. But, honestly, really, nothing impressive or positive about the experience. I really do think I’m going to try to avoid these places as much as possible from now on.

I didn’t stop in Ise overnight, but ended up staying that night in Nagoya. Actually, I didn’t really have a plan for where I was going to stay that night – didn’t book anywhere because I didn’t know if I’d end up in Nagoya, or all the way back in Tokyo, or where, by X hour of the evening. So, using Agoda.com (or perhaps some other app; I don’t recall), I found at the last minute, late that night already, a place just outside Nagoya Station. EcoHotel Nagoya. Since I was arriving late at night and leaving the next morning, it certainly served my purposes. But it was the most absolute basic arrangement. The one staff guy was pretty much only there for check-in, and the entire arrangement was just basically here’s a room. Shared showers in the basement. Elevator didn’t go to the ground floor, so you had to lug your bags up the stairs. I’m not sure if it was converted from day laborers’ dorms or what, but it was just really small rooms, a place to lay your head. One towel. A big trough with pipes flowing over it, just the most basic thing you could image that allows for the basic needs of brushing your teeth and washing your hands without having to go all the way downstairs to the showers. I don’t even remember what the room looked like, just the hallway, entranceway, stairway, which looked completely un-renovated, like no one made any effort whatsoever to make this look nice/clean for visitors. But I guess that’s okay, when you’re paying #20/night or whatever it was.

At least I got to have a room to myself. Didn’t get that one night in Tokyo, at Tsubame Guest House, which was not only rundown-seeming, with a faint sense of mildew or the like, and with no elevators, and with multiple beds in a shared room, but also it was quite a bit of a walk from the nearest station; not a convenient location at all.

Still, I’m glad I got that place to stay in Nagoya at all. It was already 9 or 10 at night by the time I booked it, using the wifi at the Starbucks at Nagoya Station.

Returning to Tokyo, I spent one overpriced night at FirstCabin Azabu, but also managed to score a few nights at a cool guesthouse called guesthouse toco. FirstCabin is a chain of glorified capsule hotels. I guess this “cabin” thing is getting big now. Unlike a capsule hotel (which I’ve never tried; too claustrophobic), you get a space with a more normal height of ceiling. But otherwise, it’s still less like a full proper room than it is a whole row of over-large capsules (or “cabins”). There’s no door to lock, and indeed for whatever reasons you’re not allowed to lock it at all. There’s a sort of curtain to pull down, like a garage door, and inside your little box, you have just the bed, and just barely enough space to keep your luggage, and like a small bedside counter. Anyway, I didn’t mind this; it was private enough, and comfy enough, for my purposes. But, I don’t know, I can’t quite put my finger on it, there was something just too impersonal, too depressing or dystopian about the aesthetic somehow, it just really put me off. The main lobby was like a hotel lobby – unnecessarily fancy, and generally impersonal and off-puttingly over-professional (i.e. unlike a hostel/guesthouse where the young cool hip staff might be more friendly). And the whole rest of the place felt empty, even more inhuman, like being on a spaceship or something, disconnected from Earth. I know, it’s a funny thing to say, but there just really was something about the sterile, antiseptic, high-technology, dark-colored decorating scheme that just made me feel this way. Sure, there were other people around, but it’s not like we talked or anything. The whole hotel was the 9th, 10th, 11th floors or something like that, with only one elevator, and guestroom cards that were required for accessing certain areas (e.g. the showers) but which wouldn’t get you into other areas (e.g. the women-only floor). Which is fine, it makes sense, but it also gave me a sort of dystopian, space station, too high-tech HAL 9000 sort of vibe.

The entrance area at guesthouse toco.

In any case, the other place, guesthouse toco, was great. I mean, it wasn’t some super amazing special experience like I thought it just might be based on the fact that the place was featured on Nippon.com, as if it was really a unique special place worth knowing about. Based in a repurposed Taishô-era (c. 1910s-1920s) house, it definitely has character, in a good way. When you first walk in, there’s a nice little bar/café area all in wood, with a bunch of tables and a little bar towards the back, which in my experience I found to be a very friendly collegial, fun place for conversation. I almost never hang out and talk to people at hostels – I’m no backpacker, I’m usually a fair bit older than most hostel-stayers, and I’m usually much more experienced with Japan, being here not for some wacky once-in-a-lifetime adventure but for, well, something else. But, at toco, at least those particular days, it just seemed like a really good mix of people, and people willing to talk and just chat and be cool. I dunno. It just worked.

A staircase in that first room is painted all rainbow, and leads up to some of the guest rooms. Then, you cross out the back of the bar and cross a small outdoor garden sort of area, into the somewhat more traditional-design older house. Two (or more?) big main rooms are taken up by six or eight beds; I don’t like sharing a room, but it worked out fine. I basically just hung out in the bar area until I was fully ready for bed and then just went to sleep. It’s tough not having any full-on private space to yourself for a few days, but it was only for a few days. Sliding doors, wooden veranda planks, a nice little garden to admire out the window, the whole deal. Very nice.

One more downside of the shared room and bunk beds – nowhere to put your luggage. I suppose I was being kind of entitled and obnoxious to keep my luggage outside of the room, but, seriously, I’m not going to go through my luggage right in front of someone else’s bed, and then try to shove it under that bed… Even if I am comfortable enough with having just a bed and not a whole room to myself for sleeping, I need a little space to sort myself out. I don’t know if I’m just getting too old for this, or if that was never my kind of thing to begin with. But, really. I’m flexible, I’m easy-going, I can manage a lot of different living/sleeping conditions, and I certainly did on this trip. But I really would prefer having a bit more space to myself, if only for basic logistical purposes of not making noise and taking up space directly around other people who are trying to sleep!

In any case, behind these main sleeping rooms was a kitchen & common area, with bathrooms and showers, and a little outdoor garden area with laundry machines and clotheslines. I feel bad that I did laundry and then left my stuff out all day – and it then rained – such that my stuff was taking up almost all of the clotheslines such that no one else in the whole guesthouse could hang their stuff out to dry for a day or two. But I guess maybe that’s just how it is? .. And the staff also cook you breakfast in the morning, which is really nice and also provides another opportunity for chatting and hanging out. Again, I wasn’t really looking to make friends; I had my own things to do and wasn’t going to find/make a traveling buddy. But, still, it was nice to feel a little social interaction after so many days of traveling on my own.

So, yeah. There’s my short run-down of a few more of the different sorts of places I stayed during this trip. All in all, I think my favorites were places like &AND HOSTEL AKIHABARA and the Abest Cube Naha, as well as WeBase Hakata, all very clean, sleek, hip, white aesthetic sort of places. Small rooms on halls with shared showers or whatever, but still, private rooms, which makes all the difference to me, and with a nicer aesthetic than business hotels. Even if I have to share a bathroom with others, I still prefer that to the sort of “box” bathrooms in these business hotels, which always feel too small to me, and just somehow never feel clean enough. Quite frankly, if my bedroom and bathroom are going to be that small, I don’t want them to be so close to one another. Even if I have to go all the way down the hall to a shared bathroom, that’s better than feeling like I’m basically in the same room as my toilet, as if it were a camper van or a prison cell or something. I don’t feel that way in normal-size hotel rooms; only in the tiny Japanese ones.

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