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.

And where you are.

Z took my hand. We dipped into the side streets and away from the crowds.  That morning we’d had an argument.  A misunderstanding.

Sometimes traveling is more of a journey into my own unknown places than it is into the world; a visit through the structures that stand, old and unused, beautiful or crumbling, in my mind.

A car honked. Z looked up. “We cross here.”

I didn’t argue. I felt cold. I wanted to stop and sit and drink tea with cubes of sugar. I did not want to tour, but to live.

I once asked Z where home was.

“Seattle,” he said, “And where you are.”

But when I am in a place, I feel that I could stay.  Like I almost live there.  He is the immigrant, but he knows where home is. He didn’t have to think a second.

Z ordered us each a short strong cup of coffee. The waiter opened a wooden desk drawer. It was full of cubes of sugar. He placed one each on the saucers next to our little cups.

When I finished Z took my cup and turned it upside down.  “Now we read your fortune.”

The tip of my nose was cold. Coffee seeped out from the rim of the cup.

Z removed it and peered in. The grounds spread over the saucer. “Humm,” Z shrugged. The corners of his eyes crinkled. “Your future looks muddy. How about lunch?”

We walked hand in hand along rows of antique shops, peering in like strangers. In the window of one I saw a row of tiny cameos, no bigger than my pinky nail.

I did not want to see any more monuments. “We could look for Turkish Delight,” Z said.   “It is supposed to be the best in the city.  Maybe the world.”

We crossed the bridge again and ducked into the streets behind it.  The shops were narrow and slouching, like they had had a long day, and were tired.

I looked up. “The book says it is here. Just around the corner.”

A spot of Technicolor in a black and white film. Pastels and sugar and spun candy. Rose, hazelnut, pistachio, orange. The soft little cubes piled into a small mountain and then into my bag.  The bell rang and another couple came in. The bell rang, and Z and I went out.

We crossed the bridge. Constantinople, the Ottoman Empire, arguments. They all come and go. My teeth ached from the sugar.

I tapped Z on the arm. “Look at the fishermen. They are still fishing.”

He kissed my forehead. “Shall we go home?” The trace of his lips felt cool in the evening air.

To the hotel, to the States, to Seattle to each other?

“Not yet.” I opened the guide book. “I want to try the lahmacun. It is supposed to be the Turkish answer to pizza…”

The Trouble with Monuments

Fall 2011. Istanbul, Turkey

More tourists at the Blue Mosque. And chestnut sellers and roast corn.  The Hagia Sophia, and then a glass of tea from a small boy in a vest and a hat, like I imagine on a monkey. With sugar it smelled like bitter roses.

The air smelled like rain. Dirty puddles reflected dark clouds and tired faces.

In both places, I think I was meant to feel splendor. But I felt cold. When I looked up at the great domed ceiling all I could think about was the people who built it: their hands and their backs, those stones and those lintels.

Christian, then Muslim, then museum. Constantinople, Ottoman Empire, Republic of Turkey.  Impermanence; even in a building so old that paths are worn into the marble.

Which is the trouble with monuments, mostly. By the time you are allowed to be there, their day is done.

Red and Delicious

Istanbul, Turkey

In the windows, in the shops, there are round red fruits with stems that look like lips, in a pucker. They are made of ceramic.

I point.  Zilla nods. “They used to fill them with rubies, to represent the seeds.”

I don’t know if this is true, but I like to imagine.

In the crates, in front of the stalls, the real red fruits are cut open, the seeds in shapes like henna on a hand.

I point. The man behind the counter nods.

He reaches for a pomegranate and slices it open. Several rubies fall out.

Quickly, he brushes them to the floor.

He puts the fruit in his juice press and pulls down the lever. Pure color drips out.

I hand him a lira.

He hands me the cup.

It is cold but his hand is warm.

Raspberries, sweet corn. Or pomegranate.

Maybe I have never tasted pomegranate before.

In the window, my lips are red.  So were his fingers.

To Buy a Turkish Carpet

Istanbul, Turkey

Z and I walked stepped out of the courtyard of the Suleymaniye Mosque quiet.
“Shoe shine?” a man asked loudly.

Z shrugged and smiled and put his boot up on the man’s stool.

“Madam?” the man said, after he had finished with Z.  His boots glimmered.

I put my foot up on the  stool too. His thick dark fingers wrapped around his brush. He polished and buffed, and then nodded. I took my foot down. He looked up at Z: “Twenty Lira.”

“Twenty lira?” Z asked. My scarf was ten lira, Zilla’s coffee was two. Twenty was too much. We shook out heads.

“Twenty lira,” the man repeated. He pointed to the mosque. He looked up at us from his stool. “Have three hungry children. Twenty lira.”

*

“Next time,” I told Z, as we walked down the cobblestone street, “keep your foot on the ground.”

He shrugged. “When you travel, you open yourself up to these things.”

“I know,” I said, “But it doesn’t feel good to feel cheated.”

“Maybe I should have kept my scarf over my head,” I said.

Z smiled. “Maybe.”

*

We walked around the corner, past a row of small shops, welders and smiths working. Inside one of them I saw a pot of beans.

I was still full from breakfast, but I gazed a moment too long. A round man smiled and waved us in, ladled us a plate of beans and set down a basket of bread.

When I was a child, I would spend afternoons with my Grandma. Probably whole days too, but I remember the afternoons. She’d make me Campbell’s Bean and Bacon soup; open the can, add water, and ladle the white beans and orange broth into a heavy white bowl.  Then she would set it in front of me and unroll a sleeve of Saltines.   Her house was quiet, shadowy, and now, years ago, sold.

I took the last bite.

“You were hungry,” Z said, smiling.

“My grandma used to serve me something like this when I was young.”

He nodded and motioned to the man for the check.

He walked over to the table and peered into bowl, smiling.

Twenty lira, I thought, but instead he held up five fingers. “Bech?”

Is that fair? Are you satisfied? He seemed to ask. He patted his belly and smiled.

*

We walked out feeling warmed.

“He wasn’t trying to scam us,” I said.

“No,” Z agreed, “He wasn’t.”

We turned a corner and followed the wall of the university. Students passed us, holding books, holding hands. Large red Turkish flags hung over the walls, swaying gently in the breeze.

A man scooted by us, and dropped something. Z dropped my hand to pick it up. A shoeshine brush.

“Sir! ir!” Z said, running after him.

The man sighed and bowed in thanks and continued on in his direction.  A moment later he was back with us. He put down his shining stand and took out his recently recovered brush.

“Please,” he said, “Please.”

Z put up his foot. A moment later, another man appeared.

“I him cousin,” he said pointing to the man we had helped, “Please.”

And so I too put up my foot. When they were done, we thanked them.

“Twenty lira,” The first said whose brush Z had retrieved.

“Twenty lira,” the cousin added, frowning.

“No,” Z said. “I thought…”

“Three hungry children,” the first said, with great injury.

“Three hungry children,” the cousin said to me.

We paid them ten each and walked around the corner to the edge of the Grand Bazar. Our shoes had never been shinier.  A man was setting out his wares, on the sidewalk.

I turned to Z.  “Do you want to buy a carpet?”

Bizarre

Istanbul, Turkey

“Spend your money! Madam, Sir, Hello, MADAM!”

I turned my head.

“Please,” he said softly, his eyes glittering, his hands together, as if in prayer.

I stopped and looked at him.

His mouth moved into a smile, “leave your money HERE!”

I jumped. Z took my hand. Another man in grey stubble swept through the scarves and saffron, lanterns and locum, with his tear-drop tray tipping, collecting abandoned glasses of tea.

We ducked out of the close gold light of the Bazar.

“So bazaar, means market?”

Z nodded.

Bizarre, I thought. For me it still means crazy.

*

Behind the Bazaar the shops were full but the streets were empty.  Naked mannequins, and plumbing parts, coats and carpets and vacuum cleaners and samovars stacked quietly behind glass.

“What’s next?” I asked.

Z looked at the map.  “The Mosques. Suleymaniye is closest. It’s just around the corner.”

I nodded and sighed as we climbed the hill.  When I looked up two women were walking down the street past us. The older covered her head. The younger, the daughter maybe, did not.

I stopped.

Z looked at me.

“Should I cover my head?”

“If you want to.”

I wrapped my scarf around my hair, knotted it in the back, and brought the tails into my coat like a scarf.  I was sure it looked wrong. But Z nodded. And you should know he is very honest.

“Not bad.”

*

Suleymaniye was quiet, almost empty.  Slabs of grey marble rose into the distance and slim spires rose into the sky.  Long thin grave stones leaned against one another, like they had been blown over in the wind. Dry leaves danced around them.

“What is he doing?” I asked.

A man sat on a small stool in front of a long wall of taps.

“Cleaning himself,” Z said. “Before prayer.”

We passed a great pile of carpets, removed our shoes and stepped inside. The ceiling domed upward like a great round breast. Large gold lanterns floated down, like jeweled earrings.  The windows glowed blue and green and gold. Red carpets covered the floor.

No nave, no cross, no echoing footsteps. Silent. Still. A place to look inside, not out.

*

I stared.

Z read the sign in a whisper. “Built in 1550… the biggest dome at the time of construction…the carpets are gifted by the faithful.”

A man rose from his prayer. His long white cotton dress flowed.

Z turned to me.

I took his arm. “Can you imagine all of the prayer it would take to wear out a carpet?”

Z reached for the shelf where our shoes were stacked.

“Taking our shoes off  probably helps,” he said, “keeps them clean.”

Then he pointed to a vacuum in the corner.  The cord plugged directly in the mosque wall.

I turned to him to smile and headscarf almost slipped off.

“I guess they’ve upgraded since 1550,” Z said.

Bizarre, I thought. Imagine the noise.

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?”