Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Istanbul... Ah, Istanbul

The vıew from the rooftop of our digs in Istanbul. I shall be forever grateful to our host, the editor of the great Istanbul Eats blog (and now book, advertised on every wall in the Beyoglu area) and a great place to unwind at the end of a day of kebab hunting and bazaar shopping (or non-shopping as the case may be.)
I had been hoping to post daily about our travels here in Istanbul, but alas, that was not to be. A few days ago thieves broke into our flat at dawn and within 30 seconds ran off with everything they could grab off the kitchen table: laptop, digital cameras, cell phone. We are OK - passports safe, cash accounted for... but millions of pixels of photos and videos of local music, gone, lost, yok, yok, yok... So descriptıon and comparison of the inner world of kebabland will be delayed until İ get back to Budapest this weekend. Luckily Fumie's photos are safe... and so we will have to wait a bit for some of the food porn and kilim pictures. At least by then I won't have to struggle with these devilish turkish computer keyboards.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Alec Wittek: Mourning A Mensch during Ramadan.

One of the harder things to bear if you live a traveling life is that when something happens back at “home” you are not there. In fact, I am almost never at “home” – in Budapest, in New York, or wherever my backpack is parked, “home” is more of a state of mind. But someplace out there one has family who keep track of you and whom you love and tend to take for granted as a constant. And now one of my constants is gone. Since I arrived in Istanbul I received the news that my brother in law, Alec Wittek, passed away suddenly in New York at the age of 59. My family in the USA immediately rallied to my sister’s side, but I had to deal with the tragedy from afar, via email and skype.
Alec was a patient and loving father, a good husband to my sister, a son to my parents, uno amigo para todos, and – like me – a Yiddish language loving fisherman. He and I spent hours at the seaside in Delaware (or “Delfer” as it is called in Yiddish) not catching fish while chatting about how stupid President Bush was in in broad Galizianer Yiddish. Fish were not important. Friendship was. Alec was one of the last of the generation of Brooklyn Jews who really understood and cared about the old time Yiddish aesthetic, like a living bridge between the 1920s and the 2000s, and he was one of the only guys in my family who really understood what exactly it is that I am doing with old style Yiddish music and why. Alec was what we call a mensch. I will miss him, not the least because he was one of the two Yids (“yud’ yud”) that I could make a l’chayim with who understood the irony – it takes two yids (the Hebrew alphabet for “yah” and “weh”) to make the name of God. Now half my l’chaim is gone. My sister is in mourning, but my nephew Max has really stepped up to take the man’s role in the family, and … sin nuestra hermana Mexicana, no podríamos manejar todo el esto.
If I were anywhere else in the world – including Budapest – at a time like this I would feel terribly alienated, alone, and simply wrong for being away from home. But not here, at least, and not now. I am in Istanbul, Turkey during Ramadan. All around me people are fasting during the sweltering and long summer days without complaint and waiting for that moment after 8 pm when they can indulge in the pleasure of life for a night before taking on their fast again. All around me people are focused on the value of their lives. I scratch through the language barriers and talk to them in a mix of my terrible Turkish or their fluent English, which so many speak. I am surrounded by people in a state of contemplative grace, people spending a fasting month considering the worth of their lives and their moral values and personal responsibilities. I sometimes ask the local people how it is during their fast, and what it means to them. And every person so far has taken the time to answer carefully that it is hard but good. Like life. “We are people. We can do this.” It makes me grateful to be where I am at a time when my family has experienced a loss. During Ramadan nobody feels alone.
This evening Fumie and I decided to venture into the staunchly Islamic conservative neighborhood of Fatih to experience the ending of the fast and the iftar feast which follows. We went to the Siirt Bazar Market, which is the center of a community of internal immigrants from the area of Southern Turkey bordering on Syria, and Arabic is heard in the Market as often as Turkish. Outside the market the Fatih Municipal city council had set up a free feast tent for those who had no money for the feast. Of course, while taking photos we were invited to take part.But we want the amazing roast lamb that is sold by about a dozen Siirt “Buryan Kebab” restaurants located around the market. We sat down at one about fifteen minutes before the final call from the Mosque ending the fast. All around us people were fiddling with their food – squeezing water bottles, playing with salads. Each restaurant sets out the tables in a pre set iftar feast, just ready for the minute when the faithful can finally break their fast.
And just about 8:10 pm, in the middle of the call… everybody simultaneously peeled open their plastic cups of water and drank… and drank… and drank. Cig kebabs (raw spiced lamb wrapped in lettuce) were popped into mouths, chilled salty iced yoghurt ayran was drunk… cigarettes were lit. Life begins again.Afterwards we sat in the tea tent and listened to an ashik play the saz and sing Anatolian songs of devotion. I could not ask for a more proper atmosphere than the one I am in now to contemplate the passing of my brother in law. It makes me grateful to the people opf Turkey that they can welcome us during the month of their fast in such a warm and accepting manner.
Alec would have loved it here. But he’ll always be here with us in our memories and in how we take actions in the world. Alec... legn zol in Gan Eden. May you lie in the Garden of Eden. There are good people out there in the world, people of many religions, of many cultures. We are honored to have shared it in your presence. And everyone, take the advice of Alec’s son Max, who posted a facebook message the evening his father passed: everyone, go out and hug your parents. If you can. While you can.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Istanbul: Defying Cliches since 1454

I wake up each moring and this is my view out the window of the flat my good friend Yigal has allowed us to use. Pull head off of pillow to the right and I see Asia... to the left, Europe... and all around me... I'm in Istanbul, a city that is plagued by cliches that can never come close to describing it. I've been waking up rather refreshed these days, granted that at three in the morning some kids run through the back alleys beating drums.It happens to be Ramadan (Ramazan in Turkish) and the drummers are waking people to eat before the fast begins at sunrise. Istanbul is a city that too often gets more than its share of cliches. East vs. West, Europe meets Islam, Old meets New, you name it and some hack writer has applied it to Istanbul. And some of those cliches may be valid, but they get packed into nearly every Sunday magazine supplement ever written about the place.
For me, Istanbul is one of my favorite cities in the world for a simple reason. It is a History Sandwich. Take two slices of Empire, add a generous smear of social history, mix in a salad of religion, sprinkle with politics, and the pile on some nice spicy ethnicities. Serve on a twin peninsula straddling Asia and Europe. Now, that's what I call lunch.
This blog started back in 2006 as a chronicle of one of my trips to Istanbul, and it seems only reasonable that I retrace some of my steps during this trip. Of course, back then I was here a lot longer - two months - and had a fresher command of the Turkish language than I do now, but I am excited to be back, even though Istanbul is undergoing a heat wave that is nasty even by Anatolian standards. But Istanbullites know how to deal with the heat - almost every indoor space is air conditioned in either modern or Byzantine style: ancient thick stone walls that keep places like the covered bazaar comfortable even in the miserable baking heat.
The heat has another consequence: a lot of shops and markets are closed for Ramadan. In most of Istanbul this isn't a problem - in Beyoglu, Sultanahmet, and other areas everything is open as usual. Turkey remains stubbornly secularist, and about a third of Turkey are not strict muslims or are Alevi who do not fast during Ramadan, but in conservative neighborhoods like Fatih the city is almost deserted in the afternoon.\Folks can't drink, smoke, or eat so their is little action. And you don't want to be rude and walk among the more pious fasters sipping cold water or slugging down mojitos in the burning heat. Traditionally, Ramadan is a time when restaurants do renovations and shops take inventory. And then, at night, canons mark the end of the fast time and the city goes on an eating binge.
The iftar is thhe feast that follows the day of fasting and there are special iftar set menus advertised at every restaurant in town.
Tents are put up serving specialty foods, and Ramadan is a time when money is no object and the family goes all out for fancy sweets, intricate baked goods, and quality snacks each evening.There are even free food tents set up in Fatih to feed the pious poor. But prices in Istanbul are extremely reasonable - you can eat quality food served with care at low end kebab shops as well as in posh restaurants. In fact, in most high end places you are paying for the atmosphere and the snob status. For me, I'll be eating street meat for a few weeks. And posting about it. Afiyet olsun!

Monday, August 09, 2010

Koprivshtitsa: Like Burning Man... for Bulgarian Music.

We are in Koprivshtitsa, a mountain village in the heart of the Balkan Mountains in central Bulgaria, and we are surrounded by music. Literally – music on every street corner, in every café, and music sprawling over the mountain slope behind us. Think of it as the Burning Man of Bulgarian folk music. Every five years Koprivshtitsa hosts a folk festival unlike any other, a weekend filled with folk musicians, dancers, and singers from all regions of Bulgaria, none of whom are professionals.None of the prancey, choreographed showbiz routines that usually plague national folk festivals. These are village folks, or representative regional groups that may meet weekly to practice singing or dance, competing in annual regional festivals and eventually reaching the level of being sponsored to perform in Koprivshtitsa every five years. The village fills up each evening as buses arrive to unload some of the best Bulgarian folk dancers and musicians in an army tent camp set about mile outside of the center. Some of the best music happens here, without an audience, around the tents and beer pavilions as the groups relax and visit and dance late into the night.
During the day the action moves uphill to seven stage areas on the mountain above town. The performer to audience ratio is something like 1:1, and for the Bulgarians it is as much a chance for them to meet foreigners and shower them with gracious Bulgarian hospitality, which means being offered drinks, food, and having a gaggle of grannies decked out in full Thracian folk costumes grabbing Fumie and her friend from Tokyo, Rieko, to have their picture taken with them (for some reason Rieko gets more attention than Fumie…)I’m amazed at how well these folks hold up in the heat, dressed head to toe in layers of heavy folk costumes, some part of which is always made of raw wool, but there were no casualties that I know of during the festival.I play Macedonian and Bulgarian music, although less these days, but I’ve been able to fight off my compulsive acquisition of folk instruments. It isn’t easy. There are gaida vendors up on the hill, and I was thinking of picking up a new bagpipe, but the instrument has been subtly changing over the last twenty years. Except for the players of the large Rhodope kaba gaida, almost nobody performs using the drone pipe anymore. Plugging the drone makes it easier to play with accordions and other orchestral instruments, but it’s a bagpipe, fer chrissake, you need a drone.Also, gaida reeds have become harder, making a much louder instrument better suited to playing for larger crowds, but the cost is a loss of the buzzy warmth that one hears on older gaida recordings. I bumped into UCLA ethnomusicologist Tim Rice last night, who has been studying Bulgarian folk music and its sociological dimensions for four decades. We commiserated about soulless composite gaida reeds a bit, but he pointed out that that is the way folk music adapts and changes. Nothing you can do ‘bout it.
Dr. Rice is the author of “May It Fill Your Soul” a fantastic book and CD set examing the development of Bulgarian folk music through the experiences of two master musicians – Ivan and Todora Varimezov – whose lives spanned the changes of the twentieth century. If you are interested in Balkan bagpipes, Bulgarian music, or how humans learn music, get this book. Rice focuses on the concept of how Bulgarians learn their devilishly complicated music, which traditionally was “learned but not taught.” It is an eye opener to anyone who has ever tried to learn a folk musical form or instrument from a culture other than their own.We’ve been to the last two Koprivshtitsa festivals, in 2000, and 2005, and at the last one we discovered a tradition that I had not known of before, the Koleda dancers of Yambol.These are troops (literally in Bulgarian “cheta”) of young men, often Gypsies, who do a marching and dancing routine each Christamas and New Year and compete against each other for the title of best of the year. The dances are related to the ancient ritual dance tradition in the Balkans such as that of the Calusar in Romania as well as the moresca dance of southern Europe and even the Morris dance of England.
And these are some heavy masculine dudes, tattooed up the wazoo, bayonets tucked in their boots, knocking back buckets of beer before each performance and dancing non-stop in between sets – often dancing in feminine belly dance styles. Really tough tattooed muscle guys are allowed to do that. The Koleda troops are so fascinating that I will write more about them later in the blog, but Koprivshtitsa has almost no internet access – there are a couple of hotels up the hill, but we can live without wifi for a week, can’t we? Can’t we?In fact, Bulgaria is pretty well wired and internet savvy – anybody who finds themselves with some time to spare in Europe should make the effort to take a detour to Bulgaria. For tourists, it is about the most affordable place in Europe. Face it – regarding tourism, Hungary is rip-off city, Romania has gotten expensive, leaving few places where one can just relax and spend time without feeling like you are being milked for cash. Bulgaria – which has a fantastic traditional culture, a beautiful Black sea coast, and lots of stunning mountain scenery – deserves more travel attention. Food, internal transport, lodgings are a fraction of the western or even Eastern European price and you will never feel ripped off ( except if you take a taxi that waits in front of the Sofia train station. Use the taxi stand in front of the neighboring bus station instead.)
Our next stop is Istanbul, the city that stole my heart and made me start this blog back in 2006. Music? Food? Tradition? Istanbul has it all in spades. I will miss Bulgaria, but the Ottoman influence pervades Bulgarian culture in many of its more positive ways – the hospitality, the pursuit of pleasure in food and music. I’ll be back. The next Koprivshtitsa Festival is only a half decade away.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Going South!

Its been a busy July, and I'm finally due a vacation. In my part of the world, that means going south - and south of here is the deep Balkans. I'm off to the Koprivshtitsa festival in Bulgaria tomorrow. Every five years the historic village of Koprivshtitsa in central Bulgaria hosts a festival of folk music performed exclusively by non-professional village musicians. It's like the Burning Man of Bulgarian folk music. A weekend of Bulgarian geezers blowing their bagpipes, sawing away on gadulkas, singing in their tight village harmonies, amidst some of the most inedible crap festival food on this blessed earth. Ten years ago a kebab from Koprivshtitsa sent me to the emergency ward of Sofia hospital. I have since learned a thing or two about eating during Bulgarian heat waves. And I will be there. And posting. I have been to the last two festivals in Koprivshtitsa, and there is no way I would miss this, killer kebabche or no. After that I will spend a few weeks in Istanbul, the Best City in the Grilled Meat World. This blog actually began years ago as a document of my addiction to Turkish grilled meat in Istanbul, and grew from there.
Last week I played a gig with Muzsikas at the Artist's Valley Festival in Kapolcs, near Veszprém. Luckily, the festival food is a bit better in those parts. The The Técsői Banda from the Ukraine was busy playing at the Katlan Toni village-style catering area, growing fat on free gulyas and rooster ball stew.After leaving Kapolcs we headed back to Veszprém, my Mom's home town, to catch the train back to Budapest. I still have a lot of relatives living here, and it is certainly one of the prettiest towns in Hungary, if only because it isn't flat.
As soon as I get into Bulgaria I'll be posting more: truly disturbing food, flacid pastries, amazing peasant ladies, and those frightening bagpipes - the gaida - that I love almost as much as Transylvanian Gypsy music.