A syrian Refugee, an elderly Turk and a Pharmacist | An early hour excursion into Istanbul

4:30am and we land in Istanbul airport into a flurry of activity. The airport buzzes like the brain activity of the city, gaining movement and energy before the eyes open and the day begins.

We stand blearily picking up boarding passes for the next flight in 17 hours, a mammoth layover is ahead. Somehow in these early hours after a longhaul flight you feel 20 years older than you really are, and can easily imagine the sense some of the elderly purport to have of being ‘tired of life’.

To the counter at our right a tired romaine French-speaking lady with more make-up than is healthy at her age, exacerbatedly argues with the only attendant who can speak french back to her.

I turn to try and get assurance that we don’t have to pick up our bags as I imagine them circling the carousel alone inviting any chancing thief. Something about travelling with a bag endears you to the ownership of it. It is not the value of it or even that it constitutes the majority of your earthly possessions but it carries an emotional weight. Like a left over imprint from the child hood chastisement to remember to bring home your lunch box.

The customer service rep plucks up his broken high school english to say a single word; “automatic”. Somehow his english ability leaves me less than assured of our bags safe arrival. Oh well, faith I suppose. Air travel seems like one protracted act of faith – faith the airline won’t go out of business in between the booking and the flying, faith that you will get to the airport on time, faith the overhead lockers won’t spontaneous choose to give in after their years of heavy lifting on your head, faith that the wings will continue to serve the laws of physics, faith the plane food was prepared in a way that won’t leave you vomitting, faith the background hum of an announcement in a language you don’t understand isn’t calmy narrating your coming demise, and now faith that your bags are entrusted to the nether regions of an airport logistical operation more complex and yet fragile than you realise. Faith that somehow, independent of your involvement but attached to your progress, your bags will end up coming out of the humble orephus at your destination with the plastic flaps and present itself back to you.

By this time the exasperation of our romaine French-speaking friend has found its pinnacle, there is open shouting and what was obscured by my own poorly maintained ability to hear french, is made clear in the broken english where we discover the last 30mins of anger and frustration revolve around validating a parking ticket.

Onwards and upwards, we head towards passport control. Serving at a passport control desk at 5am must really have you reflecting on life decisions, how ever much passion you have for stamping. I smile in that tired but eager way I imagine they have seen countless times to now render it a default expression. Wanting to seem warm enough to assure them “I don’t wish your country any harm”, but not overly try-hard in a way that may arouse suspicion that I somehow have a connection to norwegian terrorism.

And Freedom. Out past ‘nothing to declare’ and over to the familiar hotel desk I’ve been to before. Within another 30mins an over priced starbucks granola pot is consumed, whilst our bodies shrug the strangeness of eating food at what seems like 8 hours earlier thanks to our recent transition of time zones.

Two near eastern looking gents join our school-like queue for the bus. One clearly encourgaing the other to play the part of interpreter to ask us where we are from. What comes next is unexpected, his friend (who must be in his early 50’s) urges him to say something that comes out so jarring it doesn’t seem likely to have been his first intention. “Your face is nice”, they both grin happily at me as I scan the phrase for any undertones of disrepute. I’m standing next to my wife, who at least in my experience is more likely to receive this kind of boyish affection in this region of the world. But there they are, grinning at me, so I’m left to do the only appropriate british thing in this cross-cultural moment, thank them and hope the whole thing becomes quickly forgotten. Fortunately that was the last adventure into the english language my tongue tied yet affectionate friend made in our time together.

Arriving into an awkwardly out of place baroque entrance, I realise Istanbul is not feeling as cold as it should at 7am on a november morning. As we drove through the streets I thought how strange it is that despite knowing no-one here and almost entirely due to these types of flight layovers this city feels positively familiar. We passed another hotel we remember staying in for a night, and the skyscape around the airport reminds me of the almost dozen times we have come in and out of this airport. The large red signs for ‘wow hotel’, and they retro typography of ‘THY Teknik’.

As we drive down the great arterial roads of istabul 10 lanes wide in all. We circle off a slip road, as I look down on to the grass verge I can see a small, but clearly ancient bridge. At one level the commitment to preservation is admirable, but the fact it has been marooned into a grass verge in the middle of a slip road of this vast motorway seems to underplay its longstanding presence.

Maybe constantine himself crossed it once, maybe the bishops contributing to the nicene-constanipolitan creed crossed this bridge, maybe republic-initiating ataturk bent over to tie his shoelace on this bridge, but here it is, no sign, just the dignity of a half-hearted preservation.

Maybe this was all some history appreciating bureaucrat could do in not having it broken apart in the rampaging pace of progress that begot the road in the first place.

I know we pass close to the bosphorous to get near to sultanhmet, but unexpectedly we come to a stop by the side of the ten lane carriage way at another hotel. We are definately not near sultanhmet.

Maybe turkish airlines have decided they are less comitted to down town tourism than they are to looking after an ailing 5ish star hotel that someone’s uncle Yuri owns.

It is not an old hotel, but it looks like it never lived up to its intent, maybe that is why the owners are brought to filling it up with turkish airlines passengers on a free layover? Maybe the trip advisor ratings make it worth it? Maybe the meagre day rate from turkish airlines are more profitable than empty rooms? Who knows.

The restaraunt where breakfast is served is a more humble state of affairs than the court yard inspired entry way. As I walk around the offerings, there are more types of white bread then I knew possible, next to mushroom soup, unidentifiable sandwich meat, and a philo pastry stuffed with eggs. Not exactly what I had in mind. after spending 13hours flying in the direction of europe from asia I had hoped for a culinary selection that felt even slightly more like home. Turkey is at least good for fresh juices, I remember a frosty december morning where we drank pomegranite juice freshly squeezed at a road-side stand. To my horror, although the fragrances register all the right notes, the orange juice tastes like blended sainsbury’s carrier bags. Off to bed to recover some sanity. But not before an unscheduled trip to find a pharmacy.

We walk down some back streets surrounded by tall unseemly tenements that look soviet inspired but built well after that era and well after architects should have known better. We enter a newsagent and attempt to start an apologetically toned conversation in english. The younger shop assistance gestures wordlessly to a much older gentlemen behind the counter. On first glance the scene seems like it would more easily be reversed and quite possibly the younger of the two was beligerently deflecting an unwanted recovery of school day language ability. At least the older gentlemen gave it his best shot, but soon we were demoted to the level of actioning. Trying to act out the word pharmacy is as tough an assignment as it sounds. Finally we arrive at mutually incomprehensible arrival point, and with great relief he exclaims the word “eczane!”. The only trouble being that until your ear is trained to hear words in another language they float away like helium balloons from the hand of a 6 year old birthday girl. We trapse off back into the early morning streets on a search. It is still early for the city and pharmacies being the life-saving, yet pedestrian places they are, once we found one we discover they do not open until 9am.

In the meantime the loo is in order. We walk past some restaraunts, too fancy, not open enough, then McDonalds. The shame of it all, we are walking towards those golden arches in the city of baklava, turkish delight and hookah pipes. Although the doors are open I don’t think I’ve ever seen a McDonalds look more closed. We only wanted a bathroom after all.

Next door a smiling near eastern face, somewhere in his 20’s looks up from vacuuming a carpet with a warm smile. We venture in and he tries to gently dissuade us from interupting his opening routine by saying they’ll be open in 10mins. We communicate the polite urgency of our need for a bathroom and his middle eastern hospitality obligations take over our interaction. Mrs B heads up to the bathroom while I make myself at home in the awkward faux red leather chair on a small plastic wood effect table. Looking around, it is clear this establishment is meant for an altogether other time of the day. Not quite a late night spot but certainly sometime after lunch. I retreat to the world of open wifi network exploration when I realise our vacuuming friend is looking across the room working up the courage to have a conversation. I can intuit this but my jet lag brain is far from getting the rest of my body to respond in a way that suits. He asks where I am from, I say the UK but living in South Africa in my best slow but not patronising pigeon english that I have been employing in taiwan for the past 3 weeks. He then asks if he can get me coffee and begins to list an array of espresso based drinks that would be bewildering if it continued so I interuppted by selecting his first offer, espresso. A small cup so we could make a move after the bathroom, and if it was truly terrible easy to throw back in one gulp. Nothing will keep me from the impending slumber that air travel exacts. “I’m not from turkey”, he proclaims as if asking a question I should have asked him in return but didn’t. “Thats why I speak english”, I ask him where he is from, “Syria” he responds. Immediately I am drawn into the conversation and long forgotten is my research into un-secure wifi networks. He is from Aleppo, I tell him we know someone from damascus. I ask him about his family, he is married. He doesn’t look old enough, but then we move on. I tell him about being in Jordan, that we have been praying for Syria, He thanks me. We jointly try and remember the name of the large camp I was near in jordan, “Zaatar”, he exclaims, although he was never there. “Turkey is better than Egypt”, He had been in egypt for 10 months before. “I have been all over Turkey, but istanbul is better for jobs.” I tell him the situation in Syria is terrible, as if he didn’t know, but you search for something that carries empathy in a world so overwhelming.

Mrs B comes back from the bathroom, he works away at the coffee bar as I regail her with my new found information on our server. Within no time he brings over a latte complete with the squiggles of milk which count as latte art. “On the house” he proudly states, we thank him, although I can tell this might be the last thing Mrs B might want but she is overcome by the gesture itself and sips away.

I suddenly realise I have no cash! We came off a flight from taiwan not 3 hours ago, I ask him if he can take credit card, he can, I ask him if I tip on a credit card will he get it, He says he won’t.

Only a single try to charge the credit card the meagre 4 turkish lira and he gives up. “4 lira is nothing!” don’t worry about it. Are we about to walk out two coffees and a conversation later without paying? There are not many places in the world this scenario seems plausible, but middle/near east hospitality reaches new heights in my estimation.

We cross four lanes of traffic at an entirely unmarked spot. “Istanbul is not pedestrian friendly” I remember reading a few hours before when researching public transport options to get back to sultanhmet and plan A. Through death-defying feats of bleary eyed travellers we make it across and into the ‘eczane’ that we had earlier learnt means pharmacy.

Earlier the shop had been dead and unlit, now it was positively transformed, with bright white led’s shining on every tiered glass shelf enlightening the way to the latest remedies for colds, skin care and allergies. Every sign was completely incomprehesible though, the allure of familiarity of the latin alphabet quickly gives way to the realisation that the combination of letter registers no similarity to any words in other languages we know. We approach the two young turkish pharmacists dressed in white coats at the counter and attempt to begin in english. No avail. We are once again brought to our figurative knees by attempt to act out our ailments but this time our amateur dramatics fail us.

One of the pharmacists decides to employ google translate on their till computer, but I can tell he is not technically oriented and our hopes fall to an older gentlemen who has taken up residence on a small stool by the counter. He obviously doesn’t work there but seems like the kind of guy who gets out just to be around people. Fortunately for us, his english is a little better, but even he is bamboozled when it comes to translating medical terms. Back to google translate which eventually brings us together in understanding and 35 lira later we walk out of the eczane. Everyone feeling a mutual sense of achievement and relief from our inter-linguistic encounter.

Its 10am, We wind our way back to the hotel and I marvel at how this little neighbourhood in Istanbul became a short term familiarity, how we found it’s banks, it’s refugees, it’s elderly, it’s pharamacists. Yesterday we were in down town Taipei and then by tomorrow we’ll be at the south western-most tip of Africa. We live in a funny world.

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