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Tuesday, 29 January 2013

A Sense of Place – Istanbul

Writers often need a sense of place and time to help inform their work. One place and time that has greatly influenced me is Istanbul, Turkey in the year 1963. I still feel, fifty years later, that my living there for a year at the age of thirteen will result in a book some day, perhaps a memoir or, more likely, a setting for a terrific historical thriller.

I lived in Istanbul in 1963-64 with my parents who both taught at the University of Istanbul, my father on a Fulbright scholarship. It was an experience that would ripple down the decades of my life. I still thrill to watch movies filmed in Istanbul the year I was there: Topkapi with Peter Ustinov and Melina Mercouri and From Russia With Love, the James Bond thriller with Sean Connery. Both films evoke the sense of place I felt when I was there, riding ferries on the Bosporus, strolling through the Grand Bazarr, the Palace of Dolmabahce, Taxim Square where crowds of beggars followed me and the new Hilton Hotel where I got to see my first and only belly dancer at the tender age of thirteen.

My memories of the sixties as a special time also resonated that year, just before the Vietnam war exploded, along with all the civil rights movements of that tumultuous period in the United States. In Istanbul, I attended dance parties where we shuffled to Chubby Checkers and the Twist or Do the Locomotion. My father wrote about dancing at a party given by our landlord where all the Turkish women were very fat. They were trying to dance the Twist and it was like "dancing in the midst of a herd of elephants."

I was madly in love with with a girl in my international class. Her name was Susie Eitner. There was also Batu, an incredible acrobat from Norway and Peter Cook, my best friend from England who went on to join the merchant marine. My school was next to Roberts College, a well known institution located in the shadow of the great fort of Rumeli Hissar overlooking the Bosporus.

When we arrived in the fall of '63, our apartment in the city of Bebek wasn't ready so we lived for two weeks in a trailer lent to my father by colleagues. The trailor was literally feet from the high stone ramparts of Rumeli Hissar. One day, my father came rushing home from work to tell us that Jackie Kennedy was going by on Aristotle Onassis's yacht. I ran to a bluff overlooking the Bosporus where there was an ancient graveyard, climbed up on a headstone and there, cruising just below was the yacht. I could clearly see Jackie and her sister Lee Radziwell on deck. They looked up. I waved to them. They waved back. I have often wondered if there might be a photo of me somewhere in the Kennedy family archives of that "cute Turkish boy waving to us from the top of a gravestone."

Perhaps that gravestone was a prescient symbol. Less than a month later, Jackie's husband, JFK, was dead. I was one of the few who would not be surprised when Jackie married Ari Onassis on the rebound some years later. My parents and I were likely some of the last people on earth to learn about JFK's death. We were on a cruise at the time on the Black Sea. Several days after the assassination, my mother noticed a man reading a newspaper at the next table. The paper had a large picture of JFK with a black border around it. In bold letters at the top it said, as nearly as I can recall: Kennedy Olduolru. My mother looked it up in her Turkish dictionary. It meant killed or mortally wounded. That's how we learned Kennedy was dead, on a ship where no one else spoke English, many days after the event.

When we returned to our apartment, our landlord, who lived upstairs, brought his entire family down all dressed somberly in black to offer their condolences. It was heartfelt on their part, and I often think, in that clear-eyed age before America's great mistaken war in Vietnam, that it may have been the last time such a thing might ever happen.

Another evocation of the innocence of that age came in how my parents allowed me to roam all over the city by myself. One can hardly imagine permitting such a thing today with a thirteen-year-old. But I would go out to the street in front of our apartment and flag down a dolmus (a sort of shared taxi filled with other riders, cages of chickens, laborers, etc.) and go to Taxim Square in the heart of the city. There, I would walk down the street and select an English language movie to see. Westerns were popular and I remember how strange it felt to be listening comfortably to the actors on the screen while everyone else in the theater had to read the Turkish subtitles.

Often that year, my mother would take me on a long drive the length of the Bosporus to an American air base on the Black Sea where we would watch English language movies in a large gymnasium sitting on folding chairs surrounded by soldiers. This was, in a sense, an age of innocence for America. We were still revered for helping to save the world from Nazism. JFK and Jackie were wildly loved in foreign lands, and no one would have considered claiming to be Canadian or Australian when they traveled abroad. American tourists were sometimes called the "Ugly Americans," but in my experience we were envied, our dollars coveted, our broad world view appreciated.

Our apartment had a fantastic view of the Bosporus, and I never tired of staring out the window at the cavalcade of ships: colorful fishing boats, warships of many nations, private yachts, sailing sloops and the huge cruise liners like the Queen Mary, which seemed to fill the channel from Europe to Asia with their massiveness.

Below our living room window, a man came regularly up our cobbled roadway with an enormous brown bear that he would have do tricks beneath us. And across that same cobbled street were the crumbling ruins of an ancient palace. I have a picture of myself skiing down the steps of that palace after our one and only snowfall that year.

In many ways my sense of time and place became rooted in Istanbul that year. I was thirteen, on the edge of puberty and in a fascinating new land. Surrounded as that year was by other years in my American home where little seemed to change, that time stood out like a beacon and demands, still today, to be written about.