Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Anatolian Days & Nights

If you've followed The Collected Traveler, either my books or this blog, you know (because I've often said it) that some of the best moments for me are when I have the opportunity to meet the writers whose work I champion.  I feel really fortunate when this happens, and recently I was able to meet a really warm and wonderful writer who is also the co-author of a book I recommend with much enthusiasm, Anatolian Days & Nights: A Love Affair with Turkey (Wild River Books).

Most of the time, it's me who tries to meet the writers I work with, but in this case it was Joy Stocke (her co-author, Angie Brenner, lives in California and I haven't met her -- yet) who reached out to me.  The book was published last year and Joy and Angie kindly sent me a copy.  I was, at the time, bogged down with other books, and didn't get to it until a few months ago, though I admit I was anxious to start it as it seemed to have my name all over it, so to speak.  (As an aside, this seems like an appropriate place to mention an online piece I read at the nifty Web site The Second Pass called "Tales of the Unread," which makes the observation that “publishers naturally want to tell you about what’s new or what’s evergreen.  But most readers know the pleasure of somehow discovering and falling in love with a book that has fallen from view.”  Great books are great books, whenever they were published, and what’s “old” to one reader is “new” to another.  Just because Anatolian Days & Nights is not brand new doesn't mean it isn't fresh, relevant, and worthwhile; it's all of these, and it deserves a wide audience.)  Antaolian Days & Nights is unique for several reasons, the most important one being that there aren't a great number of contemporary books about personal stories of traveling in Turkey.  I love that each chapter opens with a relevant quotation, my favorite being "By the time the wise woman has found a bridge, the crazy woman has crossed the water" (a Turkish proverb), and don't be mislead by the sub-subtitle -- 'Land of Dervishes, Goddesses, and Saints': this book is not just for women.   

Joy and I met for dinner at one of my favorite Turkish restaurants in New York, Hanci (854 10th Avenue, 56th/57th, (212) 707.8144) and in a short while I felt like I had known her for half my life (always a good sign, I think).  Over our very good meal we spoke about the cookbook that Joy and Angie are currently working on,
Anatolian Kitchen: A Celebration of Friendship, Travel, and Food.  This will not be a Turkish cookbook per se, but rather something much more interesting: in addition to stories about their travels and treasured recipes from friends, families and chefs (including some of the most celebrated kitchens in Turkey) there will be Turkish-inspired recipes and those that have crossed borders, such as Spicy Empanadas with Turkish Red Pepper (there would be no Turkish pepper without trade routes to Mexico) and some from Joy's German grandmother, like Kale in Creamy, Nutmeg-Dusted Bechamel Sauce (it has been said that Bechamel sauce was perfected in the Byzantine kitchens of Constantinople).  They have spent a lot of time asking themselves, what is Turkish Food? What is American food?  And how might they be connected?  Here's a link to a chapter about beets: 

http://www.wildriverreview.com/WILD-TABLE/Essay/A-Legacy-of-Beets/Anatolian-Days-and-Nights/Joy-E-Stocke.  Look for more about this book in a future post! 

Since Angie couldn't join us, I had previously interviewed Joy and Angie via e-mail.  I was curious to know how they might answer some questions I was receiving about the protests in Istanbul as they were in the city at the time (in the meantime, I told everyone confidently that while it might not be the best idea to stay at a hotel near Taksim Square, there was no reason to cancel a trip or not plan one, and I stand by that recommendation).  As I type this Angie is in Istanbul again with her nephew, and she writes that "street protests and talk of war with Syria have not deterred many travelers from flocking to Istanbul's abundant sights. We may be part of the noticeably fewer Americans in the city, but there are plenty of European as well as Turkish tourists...Hotels are full and the sidewalks are often four to five people abreast.  If you don't arrive at one of the main attractions like Aya Sofya when it opens, plan to stand in line. I think Istanbul must have always felt overwhelming and chaotic, however, its modernity makes it no less exotic.  New construction remains in force giving old Sultanahmet the feeling of an Ottoman Disneyland, sans the rides."   What follows below are Angie's and Joy's thoughts and recommendations: 

*You’re just back from Istanbul – what was it like, and what advice would you give to travelers planning on going there this year? 

Angie and Joy:
Since the events in Taksim Square, we've had friends ask if it's safe to go to Istanbul. Absolutely. The city is ancient and one can explore it for weeks without ever going to Taksim Square. Still, if people are staying in Sultanhamet, we encourage them to cross the Galata Bridge, perhaps take the world's shortest tram, and wander below the Galata Tower. If they are staying Çihanğir, they could walk through Cukurcuma to enroute to Beyoğlu to visit the antique shops or stop at Orhan Pamuk's Museum of Innocence. Perhaps, they'll choose to have a drink at the newly renovated Pera Palace Hotel bar.

Truth is, every time we're in Istanbul there is something new to discover. Last year we explored exciting new restaurants. Many are recreating beautiful Ottoman dishes once prepared in the palace kitchens of the Sultan, as well as regional Turkish cuisine.

For first time travelers seeking to visit popular sights like Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sophia, the Blue and Süleymaniye Mosques, we recommend hiring a private guide. The history and symbolism that goes with much of the religious imagery is so immense, a guide will help you sift through it. And let's not forget the archeology museum. Istanbul, an east-west crossroad, is as fascinating today as it must have been during the reign of the Emperor Constantine.

Angie: We never get tired of spending an afternoon on one of the Princes’ Islands or taking a local ferry to one of the towns up the Bosporus for lunch or dinner. Most of all, we love to walk and get lost in the neighborhoods. We can always find a taxi to bring us back.

Joy: Istanbul is a romantic city in all seasons. One winter afternoon, we visited the charming Pierre Loti Cafe overlooking the Golden Horn and had many Turkish coffees while we watched thick flakes of snow fall in dreamlike swaths. The cafe was named for the French writer, Pierre Loti, who had his own interesting love affair with Turkey.

Angie: We still find the delights that early travelers like the sixteenth century Lady Mary Wortley Montague, wife of a British ambassador to Turkey, found and wrote about after visiting a Turkish bath and dining at Topkapi. Which brings to mind the restaurant Karakol, just behind Topkapi palace. During warm weather, you can sit outside, watch the passing parade, and enjoy wonderful food.

*Where are some places you particularly like to stay when you visit Istanbul?  

Joy and Angie
For several years, we stayed at the Mavi Ev, the Blue House, located in old Sultanahmet near the Four Seasons Hotel. From the rooftop restaurant, you can see both the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. The owners also own the famous Lale Pudding Shop nearby. On our last night in Istanbul, we have a tradition where we buy cups of pudding as a treat before reluctantly packing our bags. 

There are several small hotels in Sultanahmet that also have great views. Lately, we’ve stayed in Cihangir, as that is where we have several friends, but staying in Sultanahmet puts you in the center of easy sightseeing. We’ve stayed in luxury at both the Ritz Carlton and Çırağan Palace Hotels , which were wonderful, but their locations require taking taxis and we like to walk out the door in be in the heart of the city or neighborhood.

On our last trip, we stayed at the Ottoman Park in the area near the Küçük Agia Sophia, which still has the funky flavor of old Istanbul. From there you, can walk anywhere including the Street of Fish Restaurants, Kumkapi, which is always fun. Pick a restaurant and order a whole fish backed in salt.

Joy: My husband, who has never been to Istanbul, won a gift certificate to stay at the Four Seasons anywhere in the world. We batted back and forth a few cities, and finally he said, “Let’s go to Istanbul.” So, in November, we will be stay at the Four Seasons in Sultanahmet, a former Ottoman prison, which Angie and I watched being restored years ago when we were staying at the Mavi Ev, the Blue House.

*Can you share some of your other Istanbul favorites?

We love going to the Grand Bazaar. One of our best friends, Hasan Semerci, owns a carpet shop there called Adnan & Hasan. While we’ve purchased many carpets from him over the years (actually we will purchase carpets anywhere anytime!), Hasan is a gracious host to our friends traveling to Istanbul.  We also make our way through the Antique Bazaar to find treasures. We have a friend, Fuat Öztürk, who owns Sultan Jewelry & Art Gallery, an antique store specializing in rare pieces like hamam bowls and one of a kind pieces of jewelry.  On our last trip, we stopped into his shop and bought exquisitely crafted gold and pearl Hands of Fatima, which protect against the evil eye. Later we stopped in at a silk scarf shop near our friend Hasan's carpet shop, and purchased beautiful scarves.  We also buy spices – red Antep pepper, mint, cumin, to name a few - in the Spice Bazaar.

A favorite lokanta is the Sultanahmet Köftecisi located midway between the Grand Bazaar and Topkapi Palace. They serve simple lunches of lentil soup, white bean salad, and grilled lamb köfte which we wash down with the yogurt drink called ayran. It’s just as popular with locals as with tourists. 

The restaurant scene today in Istanbul is a culinary paradise and several restaurants are recreating traditional Ottoman dishes. Two that we really like are both pricey but we think worth the splurge: The Tugra restaurant inside the Çırağan Palace Hotel has patio seating along the Bosphorus (plan a visit during the full moon!). In Sultanahmet, we enjoyed the Matbah restaurant in the Ottoman Imperial Hotel. Of course, whenever possible, we like to shop at the markets with Turkish friends and dine in their homes.

There are two locations that we love to frequent for fish dinners in Istanbul: The flower passage in Beyoğlu, and the street of fish restaurants in an old Armenian neighborhood called Kumkapi (meaning sand gate) located downhill from Sultanahmet near the Sea of Marmara.

The owner of the popular Hamdi restaurant that overlooks the Galata Bridge serves  spicy, sumptuous cuisine of southeastern Turkey. We could eat there every day. Hamdi is always humming with families and friends.

Although we’ve visited several Turkish baths in the city, from elegant hotels to rustic neighborhood hamams, a favorite bath remains the Çemberlitaş Hamam, which we write about in our book. Architect Mimar Sinan, a contemporary of Michelangelo, designed this bath.  We haven’t yet visited another hamam built by Sinan, the restored Baths of Roxelana that caters to high-end clients, so are looking forward to this down the road.

And speaking of high-end clients, we had the opportunity to explore both locations of the Istanbul department store, Armaggan. The merchandise, more like art objects, harkens back to the crafts guilds during the Seljuk and Ottoman Empires. Armaggan owns gold, silver, leather, and textile studios. Their artisans research natural dying techniques and materials to create exquisite, museum quality designs.

*Describe each of your very first visits to Turkey – where did you go, and what inspired you to go?

Angie:  Our mutual friend, Wendy, was the catalyst for Joy and me. At the time, I owned a travel bookstore and additionally designed personalized trips for clients. I met Wendy through her company when she booked Aegean and Mediterranean boat tours. She had this dream of hiring at Turkish gulet – a wooden sailing yacht – for herself and her friends to cruise the Turkish coast for a week. When she invited me, no arm-twisting was required.  Few of my customers were then traveling to Turkey and most Americans still  thought of the country in terms of Oliver Stone’s movie, Midnight Express. Turkey was considered dangerous. To me that was like a red flag to a bull; I don't trust negative opinions by people who have never been to the place they're afraid of.  I immediately planned to spend several weeks after the boat trip traveling solo by bus,across the country. I had only one agenda, and that was to go to Konya to see the whirling dervishes.

The boat trip was fabulous, however Wendy never showed up. While I learned that the dervishes only whirl during a December performance, I met a carpet seller who was studying to be a dervish and played the ney - a reed wind instrument used during the ceremony - for me. I also went to the mosque where Rumi is entombed, and was there during the festival of troubadours, where young men would stand in courtyards reciting poetry and singing ballads.  I also met a man with whom I had a three-year relationship (Sami in our memoir) and who has remained a friend. So, all in all, I’d say that this was a life-changing trip. In Turkey, anything is possible.

Joy: Wendy and I took our first trip abroad together in 1982 landing on the Greek Island of Kos, which is a short ferry ride across the Aegean Sea from the Turkish Coast.  So, of course, we were curious about a place that looked so beautiful and which was still a source of heartbreak for many of our Greek friends whose families had been uprooted during the Great Exchange of 1923.  We took a ferry from Kos Town to Bodrum, which was a sleepy place back then and felt that we had not only crossed a physical border but a psychic one a well. We knew so little about Turkey.  I had spent years researching the roots of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic traditions and much of the history lay within Turkey’s borders, so I was eager to travel through Turkey and see the sights such as the first Christian Church in Antakya and the Caves of the moon god Sin Sanliurfa.

Wendy and I had once talked about opening a guesthouse somewhere in Greece, but during the nineties Greece was booming and real estate prices and rentals had risen.  Wendy was now traveling regularly to Turkey and had met a Turkish man in the village of Kalkan.  Together they leased a pension while she closed her business in the States with the goal of living in Turkey, she asked Angie and me, whom I had yet to meet, to run it.  The rest is chronicled in Anatolian Days & Nights.

*You are very familiar with the poetry of Rumi, the 13th century Persian poet and Sufi mystic.  When did you become interested in Rumi, and what are some of your favorite sources you would recommend to readers who want to delve into his work?  

Angie:  I remember waiting at the train station in San Juan Capistrano (yes, where the swallows return each year) to pick up my then boyfriend, Norm. The Los Angeles train was late, so I used the time to read my Lonely Planet guide about Turkey in advance of my upcoming trip.  “There are whirling dervishes in Turkey,” I had said to Norm when he got off the train. “Don’t you want to meet me there?”  He was not impressed or enthused. It was pretty much the end of our relationship and the  beginning of  my love for Rumi's poetry. My favorite book is still Coleman Barks’s Essential Rumi.

Joy:  I am founder of an online magazine whose tagline is: 'Connecting People, Places and Ideas, Story by Story.Rumi, in the great tradition of mystics tells beautiful parables and stories, which is why, I believe, he is so beloved. We are blessed to have the niece (Catherine Schimmel) of one of the world’s greatest Islamic scholars, Annemarie Schimmel, on our staff.  Annemarie Schimmel was an expert on Islam and the poetry of Cellaludin Rumi (or Mevlana, the Master, as the Turks call him); and in fact her translations were source materials for Coleman Barks’s translations.  So, I would recommend her book, Look This is Love: Poems of Rumi (Shambala, 1996).

*What’s not in your book? 

Joy and Angie: Looking back, it's surprising how many stories we were able to weave into the book. But, we left out quite a few. For instance, when we were in the east, we found the history of the Urartians of interest and tried to write about it.  But each draft seemed heavy-handed.

Joy:  Angie also wrote a beautiful passage for our Cappadocia chapter from the vantage point of a Cappadocian father.  What he would have been thinking about at the time Emperor Constantine and various bishops who were trying to create the Nicene Creed.  The challenge was that it belonged in a different book. 

Angie and Joy: We have an interesting story of  our meeting with an organization of Turkish women fighting for the right to wear the headscarf at university and in public office. We were staying at the Ritz Carlton not far from Taksim Square. Our secular friends warned us that the women would create a scene in the hotel lobby to get attention. About seven women arrived at the front desk with a single male companion, all dressed in long dark coats and headscarves. Heads turned, of course. And it seemed to us that indeed, these women were eager to make a political point.

We decided it was best to invite them to our room, and so we ordered tea and cakes through room service. It was an enlightening, intense meeting. We enjoyed talking to all of the women who ranged in age from about 20-50, and they were open with us. “If Turkey is a democracy, why shouldn’t we be able to wear what we want?” asked one of the young women.

We couldn’t disagree and still wonder how the conversation might have gone if their chaperone hadn’t been present.

But, in Turkey, nothing is simple or black and white.

*On page 6, you write, “…one moment leaving us delighted and the next leaving us ready to pack our bags and take the first flight home?”  Explain more about what you mean when you say there were moments when you wanted to pack your bags and leave.

Angie and Joy: We love the spontaneity and surprises that come from travel and meeting people, but it can also be frustrating. We developed a case of amebic dysentery when we were in the southeast and suspect it might have been caused by a watermelon we ate on a dusty back road near the Syrian border. The following day, we were heading to the Aegean town of Seljuk near Ephesus. To get there we had to take two buses, a flight to Istanbul, a flight to Izmir, and a taxi to our hotel. On the second flight, we were more than ready to pack it in and head home. But once we settled in and had started a course of Flagil, sold over the counter and something that would have required a prescription in the States, we breathed in the moist sea air and balmy breezes, and everything became light and easy again.

*Where’s your next trip in Anatolia?  Is there a part of Turkey you haven’t yet visited?

Joy and Angie: We never made it to the Armenian town of Ani. In the introduction of Anatolian Days & Nights, we share the story of the breakdown of our rental car and the farmer who helped us get it towed back to Erzurum from where we had set out.

Angie:  I’m looking forward to visiting Göbekli Tepe, a Neolithic site northeast of Sanliurfa. Imposing monoliths were carved 11,000 years ago by people who had not yet developed metal tools or pottery.

Joy:  I’ve wanted to fly to Salonika and take a train over the Greek border into Turkey and on to Istanbul.

The more places we visit, the longer the list gets.  Plus, each time we go to Istanbul we find something new to see.

Joy is founder and editor-in-chief and Angie is West Coast Editor of Wild River Review.  They'll be among the guest speakers at the upcoming Women's Wellness Conference in Torrance, California on Friday, 11 October.  The conference is organized by Providence Little Company of Mary Foundation and will be held at the Torrance Marriott South Bay, 3636 Fashion Way. Personally, if I were anywhere in the remote vicinity of the West Coast I'd be attending this Conference.  Meeting Joy all by herself was a treat, but I think the opportunity to meet these two accomplished women together would be a banquet.     

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