Thursday, December 31, 2009

Christmas in Istanbul

Christmas Eve
Fatima sits quietly at the end of the pew in Saint Antoine Church on Christmas eve. Jud, Justin and I move into the pew, in awe of the church, in awe that this is the very church where Pope John XXIII preached for 10 years before becoming Pope, the humble beneficent pope beloved by all peoples. Another new discovery on this fabulous journey through this incredible city.

We are early and the choir is rehearsing, Oh Come all Ye Faithful, Hark the Herald Angels Sing, Oh Holy Night, and other familiar carols, plus songs from Africa, Mexico and the Phillipines. The church fills. It's an international congregation, befitting the memory of Pope John XXIII. The church embodies his spirit of love, tolerance and inclusiveness. So does Fatima.

We introduce ourselves, start chatting. I explain that we are Peace Corps volunteers from America working in Ukraine. She is fascinated, curious, wants to know more. She says she was born in Turkey, is a Muslim, and lives in Munich, Germany, with her family. She is a college student in international organizational development. She speaks many languages, loves Munich, is a devout Muslim, and interested in world cultures. She is a beautiful young woman, spiritual and modern at the same time.

What brings you to Istanbul, to this church? I ask. "Istanbul is my birthplace, Islam my religion, and the cultures of the world my great interest," she says.

Pope John XXIII, I know you are here! I feel you. Hear you. You are smiling. We are blessed. Christmas eve in Istanbul.

The Grand Bazaar
Before going to Saint Antoine's, we spent the day at The Grand Bazaar. And it is GRAND. Huge, colorful, ancient, glorious. We decided to buy each other Christmas presents, so we had a purpose. After lots of walking and looking, I bought a Turkish skull cap and spices for Jud, who loves to cook and had a Turkish cookbook, and a red t-shirt with crescent moon and star and a lovely watercolor of whirling dervishes for Justin, our young philosopher.

The Grand Bazaar is an experience in itself. An important aspect of shopping in the Bazaar, well everywhere in Istanbul, is bargaining for the best price, at which the Turks are masters. We were no match, but sometimes we thought we were, or they let us think we were! We tried.

Jud bargained for a teapot, a beautiful Byzantine tulip pattern, but decided not to accept the vendor's lowest offer. He walked away, the vendor stood pat, and the deal ended. Jud later regretted the decision, and so we went back looking for the same price. It took a while but with Justin's scouting abilities Jud finally got his teapot, which he has been wanting for ten years, and some lovely cups and saucers to go with it. He promised to serve us tea in this elegant set when he cooks our Turkisk meal.
I think we covered maybe one-tenth of the Grand Baazar, with its over 4,000 shops, before calling it quits for the day. They sure liked to shop in the Middle Ages!
Taksim SquareAfter a nice lunch at an outdoor cafe next to the Bazaar (it's almost impossible to have a bad meal in Istanbul), and an hour or so rest back at the hostel, we took the tram and metro to Taksim Square, the heart of Istanbul, its Times Square, its Picadilly Circus. This is the metro stop to get to Saint Antoine's, and we were glad! What a sight. Christmas trees and lights, lots of people coming and going, head-scarved girls on cellphones, street musicians and dancers, great shops, restaurants galore, trendy, international, cross-cultural. Urban energy and glow. Modernity and antiquity. It was a fabulous walk to Saint Antoine's, right up Taksim's main street.

Christmas day
We all slept well, a peaceful, easy feeling filling our souls. On Christmas day,
December 25, 2009, we joined each other on the upper terrace of the Antique Hostel, with its magnificent view of the Sea of Marmara and the shimmering rooftops of Sultanahmet Square.

After breakfast we shared gifts. Jud and Justin loved my gifts, and I loved theirs: pretty earrings from Justin, and rose and floral-scented soaps from Jud. We remembered our families, said Merry Christmas to loved ones, and thanked our lucky stars for being in Istanbul at this special time of year. My toast: To a happy and healthy new year and a Turkish meal cooked by Jud!

Our greatest gift this Christmas day: a tour of Hagia Sophia. It is incredible, magnificent. President Obama was here recently, a photo documenting the event. We stood where he stood, in awe of the architecture, the columns and high painted ceilings, the ancient golden mosaics from the time of Constantine being restored to their former glory, the exquisite craftsmanship and art. What a way to spend Christmas day! It is my fondest hope that the spirit of Istanbul stays with our new young President as well.

After experiencing Hagia Sophia, we had a light lunch, a Turkish pizza and salad, at a restaurant where another president had eaten: Jimmy Carter, and his wife Roslynn. Photos posted on walls and windows proudly testify to this visit. It felt good to be sitting at the very spot where one of my favorite president's ate. I can see now that Istanbul is part of his being. I really believe this. It accounts for his largeness of spirit, his search for peace, his goodwill to all people across the world.

That night we had Christmas dinner at Asitane's, a world-famous restaurant featuring Ottoman palace cuisine, food cooked for the sultans. We ate like kings. The restaurant is in Edirnekapi, an Istanbul neighborhood we were unfamiliar with, and for some reason we had a hard time getting there. We came up from the tram stop in the middle of a busy cross-section of streets lined with fences and barricades, and nonstop traffic swirling around us. At one time I felt trapped on a crossroads. "I am not crossing this street," I proclaimed. I was remembering my fall on the streets of Starobilsk. Justin and Jud looked at me. We agreed to take a taxi to the restaurant and forget crossing streets and finding the next metro. In remembering this traffic jam later, we all had a good laugh.

I never thought I'd spend a Christmas in Istanbul. I never thought I'd be a Peace Corp Volunteer in Starobilsk, Ukraine; maybe a PCV some day, but not in Ukraine. It is amazing where life takes you if you take life as it comes.

1 comment:

  1. "It is amazing where life takes you if you take life as it comes."

    That is right my friend.

    And i liked sultanahmet.