A City in Love with Itself

It is more appropriate to say a people love their city – but in my mind, Istanbul is so much its own entity, with its deep history only fleetingly shared by its current inhabitants.

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Istanbullular (the people of Istanbul) love flowers.  In early spring, the title for this post popped into my head as we were out walking.

This meticulous flower bed in a local park named this blog post.

This meticulous flower bed in a local park named this blog post.

It was barely past winter and obviously municipal workers had been planting.  A lot. This is a different phenomenon from residents trying to cure winter cabin fever by planting blooms.  It is public and pervasive.  It represents investment, identity, and political will.

Early March, on the way to the ferry pier.

In March, on the way to the ferry pier.

I began noticing the flowers before it was tulip-time, but the tulip is the embodiment of spring for Istanbul. Tulips are a reconnection to the Ottoman past.   From about 1730, when mobs destroyed the lavish gardens of Sultan Ahmet III until the 1960s, when a special garden in Emirgan Park was created, Istanbul’s tradition of tulip cultivation was suspended.  Tulip gardens that had lined the Bosphorus disappeared.

A roundabout in Moda in late March. The center of it is a mini park.

A roundabout in Moda in late March. The center of it is a mini park.

We kept hearing about the display in Emirgan Park, although tulips are all over, everywhere.  Since 2006, the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality has planted millions of tulips from November to April each year in preparation for the annual tulip festival.  2013 is the 8th year of the festival.  For this festival 14,420,000 tulips of 270 varieties have been planted in parks, gardens, avenues, roundabouts, and rest and walking areas in the city.

Emirgan Park, once a private garden, is a beautifully landscaped public woods on the Bosphorus

Emirgan Park, once a private garden, is a beautifully landscaped public woods on the Bosphorus

Hilly and beautiful Emirgan Park on the Bosphorus on the European side is the main venue.  With the addition of other bulbous plants, such as hyacinth and amaryllis, 20 million plants have been planted in that park alone.  On Wednesday April 10, Jim and I marveled at the display on a sunny, but chilly day—not too chilly for a Mado dondurma (ice cream) cone, however.

Emirgan Park

Emirgan Park

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The variety is breath-taking. These were earlier ones, beginning to curl. Bulb planting is sequential so that blooms will continue from late March through April.

Tulips are so associated with the Netherlands that tulip bulbs are sold as souvenirs in the Amsterdam airport.  However, the tulip, lale, in Turkish (from Persian lâleh) is indigenous to the central Asian steppes, primarily the Pamir, Hindu Kush and Tien Shan mountains.  The Ottomans (1299-1923) cultivated them and brought them to their capital city Istanbul, where they were planted in the gardens of palaces and the elite.

Amazing variety, riotous color.

Amazing variety, riotous color.

The Lâle Devri (tulip Age) period of Ottoman history, during the reign of Sultan Ahmet III saw an explosion of passion for the bloom, from its actual presence in gardens to its appearance in costume and ceramics.  Reportedly the sultan so loved the gardens that for an evening party, tiny lanterns were strapped to tortoise’s shells and they slowly roamed through the flowers.  Imagine!  The flowers came to signify commodity culture and excess and most were destroyed in the Patrona Halil Revolt in 1730.

Iznik tiles with stylized lale motif .

Iznik ceramic tiles with stylized lale motif .

Nearby societies also adore the flower.  In Persia, lovers declared their love with a red tulip, whose black center represented the lover’s heart burned to coal by passion.  Yellow tulips signified helpless and utter devotion.

This was one of my favorites, reminding me of the Iznik tulip.

This was one of my favorites, reminding me of the Iznik tulip.

In Emirgan Park, flowers are arranged in all variety of beds and shapes, forming the Turkish flag, waves, dolphins, and stylized tulips for example.  The park itself, at one time a private backyard for a sultan’s magnificent wooden yalı (seaside mansion) now includes three restored 19th century pavilions originally built as hunting and guest lodges.  It remained private property until granted to the city in the 1940s.

Sarı Kösk (Yellow Mansion), a restored 19th C. lodge

Sarı Kösk (Yellow Mansion), a restored 19th C. lodge

Ottomans cultivated more than 1800 varieties of tulips. The first tulip seeds and bulbs are thought to have been sent by an ambassador to the sultan of Turkey to Europe in 1554, but the flower became popular due to Dutch botanist Carolus Clusius’ work at the University of Leiden around 1593.  Tulips were exotic and different from other European flowers of the time, and demand grew quickly.

One of Jim's favorites, he said he always wanted a car of this color.  He said he never found it.

One of Jim’s favorites, he said he always wanted a car of this color. He said he never found it.

There are single hued tulips and wild multi-colored varieties.   The exotic varieties are produced by the “tulip breaking virus”, which “breaks” the plant’s lock on a single color.  It takes 7-12 years to grow to a flower producing bulb from a seed, and since the virus only operates on a bulb, the exotic, highly valued “broken” flowers can only be produced from the few “offset” buds that grow from a bulb each year, not seeds that are harvested from flowers.  Because the virus also weakens the bulb, fewer offset bulbs are created, making the most exciting flowers very rare. Tulip Mania, a speculative bubble of tulip bulbs brought the Dutch economy to its knees in 1636-37.

Emirgan Park

Emirgan Park

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Here this spring, I began noticing beautifully planted flower beds in early March, and tulips blooming at the end of March.  On our morning walk, Lucy called my attention to an attractive group of sidewalk planters…she thought they would be really nice to walk – and maybe do other things – in.  I redirected her and took out my camera.

This photo was taken at the end of March.  Today the tulips are white fluffy ones.  There are a few red petals left, and some yellows that bloomed in between the reds of March and the whites of now.

This photo was taken at the end of March. Today the tulips are white fluffy ones. There are a few red petals left, and some yellows that bloomed in between the reds of March and the whites of now.

Someone's kids in Emirgan Park.

Someone’s kids in Emirgan Park.

I love watching as urban areas don their spring attire, and Istanbul is in a class of its own.  I remember long dense beds of tulips blooming in the median on Park Avenue in New York, flowers beds in Rockefeller Center, residents planting their window boxes and the flowering trees lining the neighborhood streets.  A big event was commercial, the annual Macy’s flower show filling their Herald Square main floor.

Emirgan Park

Emirgan Park

Emergan Park

Emirgan Park

Last spring we enjoyed the magnificent spring plantings in Buchart Gardens on a visit to Victoria, British Columbia.  In the northern California suburbs,  spring is a more private celebration.  I enjoyed noting the daffodils sprouting on highway 280 – some years ago someone planted bulbs on gentle ridges along the freeway, and we always joined the many people buying backyard annuals at plant nurseries in April.

Emirgan Park

Emirgan Park

Tulips are a favorite of private window boxes.  We'll load our boxes with bulbs this fall too.

Tulips are a favorite of private window boxes. We’ll load our boxes with bulbs this fall too.

Here in Istanbul, though, it is SO public, exuberant, coordinated…and gorgeous.  The planting is staged so that beds will have new blooms emerging as earlier ones fade. Emirgan Park is the main venue, but not the only park to be full of tulips, not to mention the bloomers that adorn expressways, main roads and most any little triangle of dirt anywhere. Too bad each tulip only lasts about a week.

Enjoying Emirgan on the Bosphorus.

Enjoying Emirgan on the Bosphorus.

On the way back from Emirgan Park.

On the way back from Emirgan Park.

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Cultural Immersion Confusion

This weekend, we didn’t swim or tread water very elegantly, but we didn’t sink, either!  And we are ready for more.

We have been lamenting our lack of basic Turkish conversational ability after 12 intense weeks of studying Turkish.  We have been so dedicated and focused, that when our friends get here next week and later in May, I can’t wait to become a tourist in Istanbul.  We have studied at Tömer, a branch of Ankara University.  We’ve been well versed in grammar, in such detail that we have learned esoteric ways of writing Turkish for newspapers, but we haven’t gotten to future tense yet.

In our last two classes, we will be tested, and we know we will fail.  We contemplated bailing on the test, but have decided it won’t hurt us to cram for it, just for fun.

We must be forced to speak the language to Türks, without the option to speak English.  Our Turkish friends converse with us in English.  This weekend, however, we had to do our best to speak Turkish.  It began with our arrival home on Thursday evening.  Our landlady was in her car in the front of the building and in Turkish invited us for kahve or çay.  She said she would contact her daughter, who was the prior occupant of our apartment, as well.  I wasn’t clear where we would meet.  I asked nerede? (where) a couple of times (nerede?, and nereye?, and neresi all mean where, and I honestly don’t know how to use them), and was still not sure, so I said “Bizim Ev?”  (our home).  She said “evet” (yes).  Fine, we set it for Pazar (Sunday) at birde (1 pm).  I wasn’t clear if it was in our apartment or hers, and I wasn’t exactly sure which apartment in the building she lives in.

Friday night we had expat friends to dinner. They have lived in Turkey for many years and speak Turkish.  I asked them what sort of plans they thought I had made with Neriman.  My understanding was our landlady had invited herself to our home, but I didn’t believe it, thinking it odd.  Linda confirmed that Neriman meant it to be at her own apartment, and that we should take a small sweet.  We could ask the kapıcı (doorman) which was Neriman’s unit.

For Saturday night we were invited to the home of a class friend’s Turkish mother-in-law for dinner.  Arne, who’s German from Munich, and his Turkish wife speak German and English.  Arne is struggling with Turkish as we are, and Semin (his wife) and her mother Hikmet agreed that what we have learned isn’t what we need first.  Hikmet speaks very good English, way much better than our Turkish, but we still need a decent level of Turkish to be able to converse well with her.  So, our language chops, such as they are(not), were exercised last night.

Hikmet is a very interesting woman, who has traveled.  She is outgoing, with a career and life full of stories.  We got the gist, but would have loved to understand better.  One unfortunate tale, she was in New York City last year with a Turkish friend,  at a subway stop near Wall Street waiting with heavy luggage to go to the airport.  The train was delayed and by the time it finally came, the station was full.  When the doors opened, her friend boarded ahead of her and a young African American woman behind started screaming at Hikmet that she was rich and shouldn’t be using the subway.  She was pushing Hikmet’s big suitcase and yelling in her face.  No one in the car reacted.  Eventually Hikmet entered the car, and the train moved to the next station, the woman yelling at Hikmet until she exited there.  After that, the predominately white passengers were solicitous and helpful to Hikmet, but no one intervened during the incident.  Hikmet tested an interpretation on us…”have black people in the US now become aggressive because they have been emboldened by a black president?”  Given the profile of passengers and the stop where she was waiting, we felt Hikmet was the victim of a crazy woman, and we hated to hear the story.

This morning, we had a couple of hours before we had to head upstairs for kahve/çay. I prevailed upon Jim to go out in the rain and find a small box of candy.  It being Sunday, I wasn’t sure what he’d find, but our favorite little gift place, Ҫikolata Dükkan (Chocolate Shop) a couple of blocks away was open, and so we felt properly prepared to visit our landlady.

The little shop is as cute as the package.

The little shop is as cute as the package.

We have an L-shaped salon, with an area for TV viewing, the dining table, and then another sitting alcove.   For entertaining we use the alcove area which has a great sea view.  I wanted to test if switching the furniture between the seating areas would serve our usage better, so we moved it all around, distressing Lucy and Rita in the process.  (Since  the chaos of moving out of our California home, the necessary vet visits, the plane flight and the month in Cihangir before settling here, they get nervous at the slightest hint of change.)

The Marmara Sea at night. The big sehpa (coffee table) holds a lot of meze for appetizers.

The Marmara Sea at night. The big sehpa (coffee table) holds a lot of meze for appetizers.

I had just gone to change clothes to walk upstairs, when the doorbell rang at 12:50.  Oops.  I opened the door and there stood our landlords all dressed up with a gift in hand.  I clearly didn’t look ready, and I said “Merhaba. On dakika.”  (Hi, ten minutes).  They gave us 20 minutes which was enough time to change clothes, set up the samovar for çay and arrange the cake we had bought for Friday night dinner when I didn’t remember if I’d asked our friends to bring dessert, which they did.

This servant offers hot çay all afternoon

This servant offers hot çay all afternoon

Neriman and her husband Selatin don’t speak much English. Their English proficiency might be less than our Turkish.  So we bumbled along, and here is what we learned, accuracy unknown:  Lucy barks all the time if we are not home, and it’s been worse in March and April than January and February.  So we determined that we must leave all of the windows closed when we leave her in the house.  We don’t want to get evicted from this place we love.  (Lucy probably is making sure we go back to California).

We learned that their granddaughter, Lara, who goes to school at University of Virginia is graduating this summer and she and her mother Figen, are going to tour America.  Then the whole family is going to Bodrum on the Mediterranean coast for a wedding of a family member here in the building.  I found the words to ask if Neriman has a new dress.  Yes.  Later in June they will go to their summer home down the coast where they will garden and fish.  I asked if the building would be boş (empty).  No, just a few folks leave.  We’ll be here holding the fort too.

Lucy and Jim now share the little sofa in front of the TV.

Lucy and Jim now share the little sofa in front of the TV.

Having to fly solo, without any translator, is the best practice we can have.  We don’t think we got an “A” in hospitality.  For one thing, there was that awkwardness at the door.  Then they wanted filtre kahve ,which they called American coffee.   I didn’t ask how they preferred it, although I did understand that she wanted süt (milk) and şekirsiz (no sugar). I did consider what to brew, and since Türk kahvesi is strong, I decided that’s how they would want it.   In hindsight, I remembered that our tutor orders filtre kahve weak, and, I think, with milk.  I learned how to ask what I would like, but not what she orders for herself.  What I offered Neriman was what I like: kahve sert olsun çok az süt olsun (Dark coffee with a little milk). They did not want tea, and I’d made enough for the four of us for a couple of hours of non-stop drinking – which the samovar facilitates (tea IS what we do in Turkey after all!).  Neriman commented on the strength of the tea I was drinking, calling it kırmızı (red). In the ensuing conversation I ascertained that she likes weak coffee and tea.

We learned that there are Americans living on the top floor.  The wife is Mexican (which is the Americas) and doesn’t speak English.  We aren’t certain if the man does – but we decided to leave a note in their box.  We are here a lot, and we’ve never seen them.

I also learned that I need to ask many more questions about tea and coffee preferences.  The samovar takes care of that if people pour their own – the pot on top is very strong, and one adds water to the glass to taste, sometimes 10:1 water:tea, I read somewhere.  On Saturday night we learned that dropping by unannounced is very Turkish.  When we were meeting to rent our apartment, Neriman would offer us çay or Türk kahvesi. She’d phone her maid who would bring down fresh beverages and wonderful little nibbles. Clearly she had them on hand.  I know her standards.  We didn’t meet them.

I hope we get another chance with Neriman and Selatin.  Maybe we won’t because we are just tenants; or because we are such horrible hosts, clearly not worth wasting time on.  The cake was not fresh, it didn’t taste good. The coffee was too strong…

Having to swim under our own power in the language arena was great practice, and I hope we can do it with them again.  They brought us a lovely housewarming gift, and we have a box of chocolates to eat. Also, we tested the new furniture arrangement much sooner than we expected to…it works well. Afiyet Olsun.

Home Cooking

By the time we are in our 60’s we’ve had a long life, as I have been reminded twice in the last two days.  Last night we joined an expat friend and her house-guests from Alaska for dinner at Çiya Sofrası ( http://ciya.com.tr/index_en.php ).

About “the Çiyas” as they call them on the English version of their website…”they” are a destination restaurant.  Frequently when a restaurant gets popular it expands into adjacent but separate storefronts.  There is another wonderful restaurant(s) we happened to walk by and enter in Beyoğlu last year, Ficcin.  It can seem kind of confusing to see several restaurants of the same name on a block…it requires coordination between dinner partners who arrive separately, but it works.  Çiya is about a 7 minute walk from our place, and we find it SO convenient when people we’d love to see volunteer to make the ferry trek from the European side of İstanbul to Kadıköy to eat there.  It is worth a trek from anywhere in the world, in my opinion.

This post, however, is not about Çiya, but rather about memories and a different miniature food place in Moda.

A TV Food personality...our newest cookbook.

A Turkish TV Food personality…our newest cookbook. (this book is not related to Çiya either…)

So, we ate delectably with Barbara, Scott and Cindy last night, and as we unfurled the stories of our lives for each other we were amazed at how long our tongues had become.  Then this afternoon with our Türkçe tutor we (trying) repeated the recitations in Turkish. The trick to keeping peoples’ attention is to paint with a VERY broad brush.

The Silver Palate Store on the cover.  This is one of 3 Silver Palate cookbooks I brought from California, out of 9 books total.

The Silver Palate Store on the cover. This is one of 3 Silver Palate cookbooks I brought from California.

I moved from Los Angeles to the Upper West Side of Manhattan in 1976.  In 1977 on Columbus Avenue, between 72nd and 73rd a tiny food shop opened called The Silver Palate.  I walked by it for years.   Two women catered prepared foods, originally cooked in their home kitchen around the corner, via their storefront and developed a line of foodstuffs that are still sold in various locations.  They sold the store in 1988 and it closed in 1993.  Sheila Lukens and Julie Rosso also wrote several cookbooks, the first being The Silver Palate Cookbook.  At its 25th anniversary re-issue they said:

It took slight madness to open our little store in 1977. Florence Fabricant was writing an article on the renaissance of Columbus Avenue, … she was on a deadline and called and said, “What are you calling your store?” We didn’t know. “Why don’t you call it The Silver Palate,” she said.

1980s nostalgia..their hair, their clothing...

1980s nostalgia..their hair, their clothing…

I wasn’t  their target customer because I cooked, and I’m not sure I ever bought a meal there.  But I have been cooking out of their books since they were published, and of the 9 cookbooks I brought to Turkey, 3 of them are dog-eared Silver Palate editions.

The back cover of a very ratty The New Basics Cookbook.  More 80s nostalgia, including food presentation...

The back cover of a very ratty The New Basics Cookbook. More 80s nostalgia, including food presentation…

What this has to do with Istanbul is Bizim Ev.  Istanbul and Turkish cuisine with its regional variety is foodie Nirvana.  There are many Istanbul and Turkey food bloggers, and tracking down the great places is easy.  Once you start following their advice you learn that the look of the place doesn’t mean much.  Pick any place with a lot of Turks and you’ll likely have a good, if not great, meal.

Jim, with lunch.

Jim, with lunch.

When we first moved to Turkey we didn’t have the energy or, actually, the bravery to cook.  Figuring it all out took so much time.  I stood in grocery aisles frozen, eyes glued to my smart phone, trying to figure out what I needed was called, and to understand what I was looking at any time it wasn’t patently obvious.  So, we ate a lot of take out.  Walk down any large street and there are steam tables loaded with food.  Istiklal Caddesi has many of these mutfaklar (kitchens), Karadeniz (Black Sea) Mutfağı, Kayseri (town near Kapadokya) Mutfağı and so on.  We also found our favorite kebapçı and balıkçı (kebap and fish houses), and we’d pick up food on our way in.  After awhile, however, the food all started to taste alike, we outfitted our own kitchen with the basics and we began to cook.

Handmade mantı pasta for sale, Kayseri style, by the kilo.  Mantı is like small raviolis.

Handmade mantı pasta for sale, Kayseri style, by the kilo. Mantı is like small raviolis.

There are still those days when we are tired and there is no food in the house.  Enter Bizim Ev (means Our House).  Not surprisingly, this is a common name for a restaurant.  Our Bizim Ev is a 5 minute walk away.  It is a tiny storefront, about as big as The Silver Palate was.  What comes out of it is a miracle for the tired and hungry.

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I’d walked by it many times and it looked like a tiny bakery – that’s because homemade borek is sitting in the window case.  It has a table or two inside…and one or two outside, which no one was ever sitting at.  And, it has Nezahat Hanım, a woman who appears to be in her 50s and cooks like an angel.  It is a truism that all food is compared to Mom’s here in Turkey.  We’ve found our own Turkish mother.  Her husband Ali Bey works with her… it was always him I’d see as I walked past, he’d be closing up the place before our dinnertime, at the end of their day.  (Those hours confused me also, bakeries are often open quite late).

Nezahat Hanım dishing up our lunch.

Nezahat Hanım dishing up our lunch.

Eventually, I read about this shop, and one day we walked in, carrying home a paket for lunch.  It did not taste the same as all the other kitchens.  Nezahat Hanım’s food is fresh, beautifully cooked, not oily, and delicious no matter what items we choose.  She cooks a limited menu each day. There is no steam table.

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After rereading the article, http://istanbuleats.com/2011/12/bizim-ev-the-stash-house/  I must go try all of the borek, which Jim has realized he does like after all!  (see post https://2istanbul.wordpress.com/2013/03/25/entry-in-the-diary/).

Bizim Ev is reminds me of my early adult days in Manhattan.  I’m not sure whether I love that link to my younger self or the food better.