Saturday, December 1, 2007

Istanbul, Part I


Istanbul. 17 November. I disembarked my BA flight after a twenty-minute descent over matte grey waters––here and there, the occasional Black Sea oil tanker, commercial fishing boat––and worn-down ochre-orange landscape. An affable Canadian seated next to me on the aisle had managed to keep my mind off of passport control and taxi directions, money exchange and customs officials. (In my checked luggage a fresh box of rice crispie treats was being smuggled in, at special request.) And while I love to travel, the anxieties of airport security, fickle gate numbers and the like, are the source of much undue ennui. Chalk it up to temperament, I guess.

Needless to say, after nearly eleven hours in the air I was feeling quite haggard. A cashmere scarf spritzed with CdG Avignon provided solace for the weary globetrotter. It did not, however, draw my attention away from the smells I encountered when first I stepped from out the terminal doors. Like the landscape and the failing light of protracted afternoon, things smelled as if they had been overlaid in a smoky grisaille. Minarets rose up around me as my cab sped the first leg of the journey from Atatürk Airport, then succumbed to traffic in Sultanahmet before passing under the original city walls and aqueduct and crossing the Golden Horn to my final destination in the vicinity of Taksim Square. There again, before the evening call to prayer, my nose registered smoke: coal smoke, wood smoke and kerosene. Even the quarter-moon seemed veiled, hanging there, as if expectantly, beside the minaret framed by the terrace window.

Later that night, after walking to Galata Tower with my friend Bas, I realized that there was another, perhaps less romantic, reason for the grisaille: cigarette smoke. (And, I might add, nothing as beguiling, sweet and exotic as SL Fumerie Turque.) American cigarette smoke. Lots of it. Not even France decades ago, I thought, was this “smoked.” In the restaurant, attractive twentysomethings hacked away between bites; that is, before lighting up yet another. Quickly the Orientalist phantasm of quaint old Istanbul faded. A cigarette dispenser outlined in queer blue LED adorned the tavern wall. The golden chain which once stretched between the shores of the Haliç had been replaced with chain-smokers, a smoke-darkened icon with a cigarette dispenser, the Thousand and One Nights with a thousand and one smoldering butts.

To be continued…

5 Comments:

Anonymous Andy said...

Istanbul, one of the few places left where man can smoke freely ...LOL
I hope your nose bud will recover soon and send you fragrant greetings from the clean Swiss alps ;-)

December 1, 2007 at 11:54 PM  
Blogger Vetivresse said...

Andy, good to hear from you! You make me laugh. My beef is not with the freedom to smoke, but rather the chemical-doused über-addictive American cigarettes (the smokers' equivalent of fast food). One night at a quaint little weinstübe-style restaurant a terribly chic Turkish woman at the next table smoked a slender cigar of high-grade tobacco and I nearly went into a swoon. Conversely, every time the hammam attendant's hands brushed my face my eyes stang from nicotine.

December 2, 2007 at 7:58 AM  
Blogger helg said...

Ah, you stumble across the last bastions of smoke-mania! Remember: Turkey is a big tobacco producer and therefore it is somewhat "natural" for them to smoke heavily.
And people at this/that part of the world like to be rebels and not conform to rules ;-)

December 4, 2007 at 5:09 AM  
Blogger Patty said...

I look forward to the rest of this! I've always wanted to go to Istanbul.

Too bad they have taken up American cigarettes. I don't mind cigarette smoke, but I far prefer the untreated variety

December 4, 2007 at 6:20 AM  
Blogger Vetivresse said...

E., You just taught me something new. I did not know that Turkey produced its own tobacco, but from what I could see whatever it does produce is a multinational venture. Perhaps in eastern Turkey old ladies still puff on the narguile in the parlor, but I cannot stress how Americanized the whole smoking phenomenon is there. Kind of sad to think that fifty years ago the Turkish cigarette had a caché which now is the stuff of mere legend. As for rebelliousness, it makes sense that a 99% Muslim country would adopt chain-smoking over, say, cocktail culture. And it's a relatively inexpensive pleasure.

December 4, 2007 at 7:10 PM  

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