” In San Sebastian, Spain, my soon-to-be husband and I drank cold beers at an outdoor cafe, watching children speed through an open square on scooters and bicycles, yelling as their parents drank nearby. ‘ This is what it’ll be like when we have kids, ‘ I thought.
I was wrong – so very, very wrong. Because in Los Angeles, and in the United States in general, we don’t have gorgeous town squares where parents sip beer and nibble on Manchego and jamon iberico while their offspring frolic nearby. We have Gymboree and Jump ’n Jammin, corporate kiddie warehouses designed to amuse screeching, pushing, crying children and to incite suicidal ideation in their parents. That’s what you see clouding the faces of those parents at The Little Gym and Pump It Up, standing around awkwardly in their fucking socks with their hands stuffed in their pockets. They’re thinking about death’s sweet embrace, and the alternative: spending the balance of their days on Earth watching kids shove each other in some padded, primary-colored purgatory.
And what protects most of us from such dark thoughts? Lager. Vodka. Pilsner. Tequila. But do they dispense alcohol at these godforsaken amusement centers? Of course not. Because just as American children are not meant to cartwheel through non-commercial public spaces paved with unfriendly cobblestones, troublingly devoid of Apple stores and Panda Expresses, American parents are not meant to pour alcohol down their throats in the company of children. As a result, American parents rarely have the chance to enjoy themselves in adult ways, away from home, with loose talk and salty cured meats and booze in the mix. If your kids are there and you don’t feel demeaned and edgy, there’s something wrong. If you’re not agitated and overwhelmed by the pointlessness of human existence, if your hair looks combed and you’re still wearing your shoes and you’re making eye contact with another adult who isn’t talking about bad teachers and potty mishaps, if your ears aren’t ringing and you don’t have the urge to strangle someone? You’re a shitty parent, basically.
I’ve been home ( “home” — increasingly, an idea ) for two weeks now. Summer vacation is well and truly over. Two and a half months. Some countries I’d been to before, Germany, Italy, Greece, Spain .. some I hadn’t, Turkey, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, Albania. Also, I went to Gibraltar ( “why on earth would you go there?”, people in Spain said. “Because I thought it’d be weird”, I said. And it was, it was ), which is a British Overseas Territory. I’m not sure if that means that, technically, I went to Great Britain too.
Istanbul, Turkey : new and old, a big, modern city, but still very much the showplace, glittering jewel, of the Ottoman Empire. Famously, the bridge between east and west – half of the city is in Europe, half in Asia.
In travel writing ( I read a lot of it, although I’m making an effort to live vicariously through books and blogs less and actually, uh, travel more ), a common theme is spontaneity – ” leave your return date open ” ” don’t book hotels ahead of time ” ” throw out your guide book and just walk the streets ” ( the core message often being something like ” don’t be a tourist, be a traveler, and seek the authentic “ – whatever THAT means ).
While I have a more extemporaneous travel style than a lot of people, I call bullshit, especially when it comes to research. Why would you not want to know as much as possible about the place you’re going to visit? Which leads me to the giant rookie mistake I made with Turkey – I went to a country in which 99% of the population identifies as Muslim during July, the month of Ramadan, the most important holiday in Islam. Totally clueless, me.
Most of the important tourist stuff was open ( believe me, you want to see these amazing places, like this ), but the Hammams, Turkish baths, were closed, as well as a lot of the cooler restaurants, museums, post offices ( yeah, I still send postcards, a lot ). Add huge crowds to that – something I fully expected, traveling to a major tourist destination in the summertime, but couldn’t help getting a little bummed out by ( not all places were crowded, mind you – when I went to the gigantic and awesome Istanbul Military Museum, I was the only person there ) . Throw in, as well, the weather. One of the reasons I took this trip was to escape the famously unpleasant summer in New Orleans, but here I found myself in a place even hotter than that.
Oh, so, the purpose of this post : Istanbul contains some of the biggest and most famous mosques in all of Islam, and every neighborhood has at least one as well, and every one of these mosques has a muezzin who sings the adhan, or call to prayer, five times daily. In some smaller Turkish cities and towns I visited, you can hear one muezzin at a time, which becomes routine. In a huge city, though, you’re within earshot of 2 or 3 at the same time, which makes a crazy sound – more than once, I stood in the street, transfixed. Here’s a recording I made in the Sultanahmet district.
Dueling Mosques, Istanbul
One evening, I went up to a hotel rooftop garden to get a beer and watch the sun set on the Sultan Ahmed Mosque. ( there’s the uniqueness of Turkey – I don’t think a visit to any other Islamic country would result in a sentence containing the words ‘beer’ and ‘mosque’ ).
I was walking past, up some steps, when this little guy started screeching at me – I squeezed off two pictures, real quick, and then his mom, a full-sized monkey, grabbed my arm, bounced off me, grabbed the kid, and took off down the cliff.
Enver Hoxha pyramid, Tirana, Albania : I joined various European graffiti kids in climbing this fantastically ugly structure today. If you’re from a first-world country, America, Japan, Sweden etc., it seems crazy that these crumbling vestiges of Communism aren’t surrounded by fences, patrolled by cops or soldiers. It’s steeper than it looks in the picture – if I’d have slipped, I would have hurt myself, severely. Wheeee!
“ From the blood of communists and patriots fists were born: fists of revolt and warning, fists of the revolution, fists of liberty. We were shot, but never killed, never subdued. We crushed the darkness and paved the way for the Sun. “
Guard barracks, Crveni Krst ( Red Cross ) concentration camp, Niš, Serbia. One of the best-preserved Nazi camps in Europe, and the site of the biggest-ever breakout from a concentration camp.
I’m in Izmir, which is on the coast of the Aegean Sea and is the third-largest city in Turkey. One of the things I did today was drink tea at a hole-in-the-wall sidewalk joint, where the owner DJed crackly old Turkish 45s.
For the dorks, that’s a German-made Perpetuum-Ebner Musical 5V from the 1950s, which happens to be the same model Elvis used when he was in the army.