Coffee, Scones, Pastries, Live Girls

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I am in Seattle, it is the second week of February, and the sun is shining. It wasn’t shining yesterday, but it was the day before that. And several days last week. Believe me, I’m not lying.

Still it is that time of year when people are beginning to talk about warm places. Yesterday, we imagined Mexico, Jamaica, Hawaii, Spain. Name a place, think of the beach, take a minute to imagine the smell of sunscreen.

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I am realizing I like Seattle even when the sun isn’t shining. Our sunless days are long but I appreciate the time. I sit at my desk and feel grateful to be able to do the things I’ve been wanting to do. And even when the sun isn’t out, Seattle is still very pretty. There is moss. Yesterday, I saw the first pink cherry blossom. And our sound, our lakes, are an amazing slate blue.

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We had some wonderful fog a few weeks ago. I work up in the night and all I could see from my window were red and green traffic lights and yellow street lights. A few of the street lights were blue, I imagine, from the new energy efficient blubs. Everything was white but these cones of color.

The park, a few hours later, was suddenly small, and secure. I thought of the expression I sometimes use, of being in a fog and how wrong it is. The fog does obscure things, but it also makes the world close to us so much clearer.

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Yesterday, we were out in the mountains because the forecast had called for sun. But it never came. When we got back to the city we stopped for a coffee. I thought: I like Seattle! I even like the grey.

Where else could you find a coffee happy hour, an antique cash register, and –for only five dollars–Coffee, Scones, Pastries, and Live Girls?

(P.S. This time, as you can see behind the register, it was a live man!)

Pressing Concerns

I don’t usually take pictures of garbage piles, but that’s what this is. We’ll, not garbage exactly: compost.

In Washington this year we voted by mail. I dropped my ballot in the box two weeks ago. So yesterday, instead of going to the polls, I went to my friend Jim’s house to help with his “press” and to poke around the garden.

Over the last few weeks, as the grapes have come in, Jim has crushed and fermented Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Sryah, Cab Franc and several others. Then he stores the mash—juice, skins, seeds and all— in his shed outside. He stirs it twice a day and lets it ferment for a couple of weeks. Our job was to scoop the mix into the barrel press and collect the young wine that came off. At first it flowed easily then we had to put on the press and crank. In a few weeks there will be a racking. And then a bottling, and then many parties to come.

The whole week I had been asking Z what we should do election night. I wanted to have a party. I had the feeling that we should be with people.  But nothing had come together, and I was feeling a little sad. Without going to the polls it almost felt as if nothing had happened.

When I got home from the press I turned on the TV and settled in to watch the results. Then Z called. Friends were in town and they wanted to get together.

“When?” I asked.

“Now,” he said,”I’m in the car outside. Come outside.”

So I grabbed my coat and we met them at the bar and the whole place roared and booed and cheered together. I must learn not to worry.  It turned out to be a very good night indeed.

Making God Laugh

My dad used to have a set of Post-It notes on his desk that said “If you want to make God laugh make plans.”

One thing I planned to do was write on this blog more often; every Thursday morning at nine according to my calendar. Several friends, good friends, blog-reading friends, have asked me, in that semi-hushed voice, are you still blogging? I think, of course, I’m going to post Thursday, at nine. And then I sigh to myself and wonder what it is that I’ve been doing. Then a little voice answers: living life, and making god laugh.

It’s been almost a year since Z and I headed to Sri Lanka and then Istanbul, which I’ve written about here, and then Spain and Portugal, which I haven’t even gotten to yet. I’ll tell you all about it soon (next Thursday, at nine?), when the winter sets in and my desk feels warm, but right now, the sun is out in Seattle (!), I’m furiously editing my book, foolishly starting another one, and playing with our new puppy.

She is four months old and a snuggly ball of brown fuzz. I planned to walk her in the morning—before nine– and in the evening and work with her at my feet in between. But God laughs and we have all sorts of fun instead.

A few days ago we were walking in the park. Something about the air reminded me of travel, or changing seasons, of picking up and taking off: of freedom. For a moment I looked at my little dog and felt sad. Now that we have a dog we won’t be traveling the way we did. Then she looked up from the twig she’d just found. It was one of the very first cold mornings and when she breathed out her breath hung in the air.  Just for a moment. And then it was gone, a small sign that the morning was cold and she was warm and we were both in the park, alive, together.

I tried to explain to her how great this was.  But you know how dogs are. She just wiggled and looked at me like she understood every word, which is nice for a writer sometimes. And then a breeze blew and her brown fur ruffled and I was glad that I was close to home, without any plans to go anywhere soon.

Over the Edge

Istanbul, TurkeyIstanbul, Turkey

Z and I finished our breakfast, walked up our hill, and then down to the end of Istiklal Avenue. All of the people had gone home. Street cleaners and cats roved up and down picking up bits and pieces. Sleepy-eyed simit sellers stood behind their red carts, made change, and then shoved their hands in their jackets and waited.

The street had the feeling a carnival ground in the morning.

We stopped under a tall brick cylinder. The Galata Tower.

“So this is home,” Z said, “If you get lost.”

I looked up.

Z looked at me. “You can see if from all over the city.”

A burly man set up his brass shoe shine stand. Two older women walked past, hand in hand: same ankles, same waist, same long coat, head scarf, low heeled shoes.

“So apparently this the tallest structure in the city when it was built in 1348.” Z looked up from his phone. “By the Genoese. When Istanbul was Constantinople.”

He chuckled to himself. “Wikipedia says that in 1630, a man jumped off of this tower wearing a pair of wooden wings and sailed all the way to other side of the Bosporus.”

Icarus, I thought. The women sat down and crossed their ankles in the same direction.

“And his brother,” Z said, “Shot himself off the top of the tower with a rocket. They both survived.”

The women looked up at the tower. Dear god, I thought, their poor mother.

*

We walked down the hill, long shallow steps, with empty tea glasses stuck in the corners, by doorways, on electricity meters.

“And that would be the Galata Bridge?” I said, “And the fisherman?”

Z nodded.

Shyam had said they were always fishing. And there they were, with long poles, and ironed slacks and buckets full of tiny fish.

I could not remember the name. Thanuja’s book of restaurants had mentioned them. We were supposed to eat them battered and fried. And we’d seen them last night, a man crouching in front of a bucket of the finger sized silver fish, snapping off their heads. I scrolled through my photos. Hamsi.

*

From the bridge the wind was strong and the Bosporus was dark. One of the fishermen pulled up his rod. A string of hamsi wiggled a foot apart on the line. He dropped them into his bucket and his line back into the water. Another fisherman did the same. And then another.

I looked over the edge. I expected to see the glint of the hamsi in the water. But I could not. Instead, there were jelly fish. Hundreds, thousands. Floating, translucent, like plastic bags, breathing in and out with the current.

One summer when I was young, my father ran and jumped off the seawall into the ocean. When he came back up again, his right eye was red, blood shot, swollen. We went over and looked in where he’d jumped. Floating there, in our warm green bay water was a similar slight purple creature, breathing with the current.

“Do you see all the jellyfish?” Z asked.

I nodded. I could see the Galata Tower behind us.

“I wonder if anyone ever jumps in?”

Call to Prayer

The call to prayer in the still-dark Istanbul morning reminded me of Sri Lanka. I got out of bed and stood on the balcony. There was nothing to see but lights on Istanbul’s Asian bank and the ships moving across the Bosporus. The voice called again and I felt cold. But also warm.

“What are you doing?” Z asked, propping up on one elbow.

“Listening,” I said.

“Can you listen with the door shut? It’s cold.”

*

One day years ago, I was stuck in traffic on the 520 Bridge that connects Seattle to The East Side. To the south: rough water, and Mt. Rainier. To the north the water was as smooth as a bath tub. A call like I’d just heard came over the radio, followed by an NPR voice. At the time I’d thought the story was fantastic: Turkish Imams were called in for voice training based on neighborhood complaints on their calls to prayer. While they were gone the voice teacher gave the mosque a tape of his call to prayer to play morning, noon, and night. The question, the NPR voice asked, was whether the Imams returning from voice school were still playing the recording and sleeping-in in the morning.

Of course they wanted to sleep in, I’d thought. But now, shivering, I felt they could not but want to be awake.

Chicken Pudding, Tavak Gogsu

Istanbul, Turkey

Several months ago, when Z and I decided to go to Istanbul, our good friends and eating companions, Shyam and Thanuja decided to go too. Not with us, but before us. They got home a week before we left.

“The women there know how to dress,” Thanuja told me. We were in Seattle, on our way to pick quince. “You need good boots, and a nice coat. And I have a book for you, for recommendations, restaurants and little places to eat. From the same people who wrote the Istanbul Eats blog.”  This is great, I thought. It’s like I have a scout.

As soon as we got to Istanbul, Z  had the book out and was flipping through it, looking for dinner.

“They left notes for us,” he said, almost smirking. “Says here that Shyam won $500 dollars—betting that some chard they had in a meze was steamed and not sautéed.”

“And he was right?” I asked. Thanuja is more of the cook.

“I guess so,” Z said, “If he won the money.”

I laughed. If you know them, this sounds quite familiar. It is wonderful to have friends. They were so far away, but it felt like they were right there with us.

*

We rattled down the stairs and up the hill and onto a road so full of people that they seemed to flow like a river. Lights hung between the buildings, above the glass store fronts, from the old ornate molding. Chestnut roasters stood behind red carts, turning their chestnuts and warming their hands. A trolley that reminded me of San Francisco slowly parted the people and the women, in their boots, clicked and clacked on the cobblestones.

When I was living in Italy, I had a night, alone, in Milan, on my way home for Christmas. Heels and coats, window displays, lights between buildings. It was so beautiful it had made me lonely. I took Z’s arm.

“What are you thinking?” he asked.

“It is like Milan,” I said. The biggest difference was not in the place, but in his presence.

“What were you expecting?”

Only when I said it did I realize: “I was expecting it to be more foreign.”

Z nodded and steered me towards the side of the street. We peered into a window. Trays upon trays of small confections were stacked on top of each other. Green, brown, crispy, soft, translucent…

“Baklava.” Z said. I recognized them, and yet they were completely different.

Before I could go in he steered me back across the street and pointed to another glass case. The light in the shop lit up his features. “And tavak gogsu.”

“Is that the..?” But before I could finish my sentence Z was inside the pasteleria, talking to the man at the counter. I followed him in. We sat down. The man brought a dish to our table, white and wobbly, browned on top.

“Sweet chicken pudding?” I finished. Z already had the spoon in his mouth.

He nodded.

“So there’s chicken in there?” I asked, more to emphasize my skepticism that to hear his answer.

“It’s a thickener,” Z said, when he swallowed. “You can’t even taste it.”

“Then why use it?” I asked.

“It’s a texture thing. Here have some, it’s delicious.” He stuck a bite in my mouth, quick and decisive, like he was feeding a toddler.

Smooth and thick, rich and toothsome. My first thought? “This is so familiar.”

“Did I ever tell you,” I asked, as I took another bite, “how my sister used to make pudding at night?”

Z nodded and I began the story.

Very safe. Very boring.

Istanbul.Turkey

After several weeks of waiting for a reply from the Servas hosts, Z and I decided to go ahead and try to extend our hotel stay.

“We can always meet them for dinner,” I said, “If they get back to us later.”

Z made the call. “All taken care of. The hotel even insisted on sending a taxi to pick us up at the airport.”

*

We flew into Istanbul at the pink of sunset. “Look,” Z said, taking my book from my hands, “We should be able to see the mosques.” I leaned over him and into the window. The plane banked. I saw only sky. Z sighed. “I guess we are on the wrong side.”

I looked up. All of the passengers from the middle of the plane over were bent towards the windows. Sighs eased from their mouths. An orange ray shone on their faces and up onto the cabin ceiling. I leaned over too, but I couldn’t see a thing.

“Do we call when we land?” I asked. Z shook his head. ‘They said the driver would be there with a sign.”

We walked out of customs, looking. Men leaned against the railing, some clean-shaven, some in beards, some wearing the same small cylindrical hat Z said Sri Lankan Muslims wore after making a pilgrimage.  They held signs with names, clipboards and tour company posters. I’ve always wondered who these signs were for, who would be meeting someone they didn’t know, what the meeting would be like. We looked for our names. And then looked some more. Then we looked at each other. There was no one here for us. “What do we do now?” I asked, just to say the words.

Z shrugged. “Wait?”

And so we waited. I watched the women. One, in a track suit, leaned over the currency exchange counter, petit, but rounded. She had the figure of my best friend. Another, young, her head covered in black, ran into the arms of an older woman, smiling so widely I had to smile too. She put the woman’s hand to her forehead, and then kissed it, before falling into her with a hug. She was a large woman, but soft. Good, I imagined, for a hug. Many others wore scarves over their heads, silk flowers folded into a triangle, and tied under the chin. With this: long winter coats that came to their ankles. Children holding their fingers. Their cheeks ruddy, their eyes kind and black.

“More heads are covered,” I said, “than I expected.”

Z nodded. “They are probably returning from their Pilgrimage too.” We’d seen many muslim families in the airport in Sri Lanka. “It is the season.”

I looked over again. One woman took a small child from her shoulder and handed it to a man with the same eyes, and lashes. The woman next to her took two corners of the child’s blanket. The mother took two others. The man placed the child inside, and walked away. The women swung the blanket and the child back and forth, laughing. His cries ceased. I turned Z to show him. When I turned back a man with a sign was rushing past. 5 Oda it said. And then it said my name.

*

“Besh oda?” The man asked. And I learned my first word in Turkish. Besh, rhymes with mesh. Five. 5 Oda.

“Besh oda,” I nodded.

The man sighed. “This way please.”

We drove along the Bosporus, black and glinting, in Friday night traffic, passing, with busses, under what I’d call ruins. We stopped and started. In the distance the minarets glowed, tall yellow spires. “Four is Suleymaniye, 6 is Blue Mosque,” the driver said. I leaned over Z to look. They looked like tall thin, supermodel rockets.

The driver turned into a narrow road, with small shops lighting it from either side. People pulsed down the sidewalk. The car rumbled over cobblestone. The driver made another turn, as if into darkness, and stopped.

“Here?” I asked. I am always amazed that ‘here’ can be anywhere. And that when you don’t know where you are you can arrive without even knowing it.

“Besh Oda?” The driver said turning around, tired, with a hint of exhaustion and doubt.

“Yes,” Z said, “Besh Oda.” The driver sighed.

“Tesh…” Z closed the door.

“What did you say?” I asked him.

“Tesh…”

“Say it again?”

“Teshekur ederim,” Z said, very slowly.

I tried, he shook his head. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I couldn’t say it either. When I was here before Murat’s mom invited us over for dessert, and when I tried to thank her, she said, ‘Speak Turkish, you are in Turkey! She then drilled me till I was perfect.”

“Tech…” I tried again. Z shook his head again.

So I turned to the driver, and said “Thank you.”

*

We walked through a small homey kitchen and right into an elevator. “We’ll see,” said the young man who met us, “which is faster, technology, or legs.” He patted his legs as he said this, in case, I imagined, he had gotten the word wrong. As the elevator door closed I could hear the metal stairs ring under his weight.

Z smiled that “we’re here” smile and the doors opened again. The man was waiting for us on the small platform. Behind him a ship in night lights floated down the Bosporus. “As I thought,” he said, “Legs!” and smiled. He wore a slight mohawk, an earing and a cashmere sweater.

He showed us all the light switches and extra pillows and then unfolded a map on the dining table. It might as well have been his home.

“How many days do you visit?”

“Six,” Z said, “Seven nights.”

“Ah,” he said, and I thought how that sound, to me, belongs to a much older man.

“This is here,” he pointed and then circled, “and this is Istiklar,”he drew a long line, “and this is where antique shops are,” he said, drawing a circle. “But for tomorrow, the Mosques?”

He looked up, we nodded, he picked up his pen.

“From here, you go over the Galata Bridge, or under, there are very good fish restaurants to the right, there, and then you see the Mosques, and the Bazar. Spend maybe one day. Look, see, and then cross the street. There the prices are,” he clicked his tongue, “much lower.”

Z took the pen and pointed to the larger areas around the mosque. “Is it safe?”

Our host took the pen back, and made larger and larger circles. “Here and here. Very conservative areas. Very safe. Very boring.”

“Anything else?” he asked.

“Laundry?” Z said.

“Ah,” he said, with a smile, “I do not know. I give my laundry to my friends. Sorry.” He turned back to the map and made another circle. “This is a very nice place. 5 Kat. You can go for a glass of wine, and see the view.”

He smiled, and closed the door. The stairs rung as he descended.

5 Oda was great. You’ll hear more about it soon, but it is definitely recommended.