Monday, May 13, 2024

Istanbul 2024: Back for Buryan!

Scroll back to the first entries of this blog and you find that it was begun as a diary of a trip to Istanbul we made in 2006. Fumie had a job as photographer for the time Out! Travel guidebook to Istanbul, and we spent about two months in the city. It was enough time to get to know the cultural rhythms of the place and pick up a smattering of Turkish language. We traveled to Istanbul a lot in that decade - it was affordable and just a cheap bus ride away from our usual Balkan summer jaunts. and the food was immeasurably better. Its worth checking out those early posts - I looked a lot less like Grandpa Simpson in those days.

Surrounded by attractive people at Çiya Lokantaşı.

It has been over ten years since we were last there, so when Fumie took Turkish Airlines to fly home to Tokyo, she opted for a return stopover in Istanbul, we jumped at the chance to return. My son Aron, who lives in London, joined us. We were only there for four days - not enough. But better than nothing. 

Rustem Pasa Mosque

I set myself a few guarded parameters. I was not going to buy a carpet. I was not going to buy a new bağlama saz, any or Pontic bagpipes, or kemençes, not even a tiny three stringed uçtelli saz that can easily fit in hand luggage. I was not going to do any of the things that I did two decades ago when I returned home to Budapest with a small orchestra strapped to my back and a huge Turkmen rug wrapped in the worlds largest  plastic shopping bag. I was, however, going to eat as much Turkish food as possible. 

Karalahana: Black Sea stuffed collard greens

We were there for the last two days of Ramadan. Many Turks don't have a problem eating during Ramadan, but eating pit roasted lamb in the Kadinlar Pazar (aka, the Siirt Market) in the strongly conservative Muslim Fatih district would have to wait. We ate at at this market for iftar - the nightly feast after a day of Ramadan fasting - back in 2010. Most tourists avoid Fatih, and "cool" people from the trendy neighborhoods would warn us against going there. They were wrong. Sure: you can't buy beer in the neighborhood, but you will find, hard core Anatolian hospitality rules in effect here. You can drink tea.

Kadinlar Pazar: The Baby in the Watermelon Haunts my Nightmares

For the time being, we took the ferry to Kadikoy on the Asian side. Çiya is a restaurant founded by a Turkish chef turned ethnographer which presents dishes collected as folklore through different areas of Turkey. I ate there twenty years ago and have gone back ever since - it rates as one of the world's best restaurants, with absolutely amazing food at normal prices. Over the years Çiya has featured in Anthony Bourdain's show, a Netflix series, and gets written up in all the tourist brochures, but it still keeps high standards and low prices.  We had a salad plate of regional specialties, and then some meatballs made with fresh almond fruit, and I - ever adventurous - went for a plate of good old beans.

Çiya salad plate.

We stayed in our old neighborhood of Beyoğlu near the Galata Tower, but the area has since become a victim of over tourism: crowded streets, expensive restaurants pushing out the old neighborhood local kebab shops. Restaurant prices were a bit of a shock: Turkey has had a bad economic year and between inflation and currency devaluation food was up around 130% over last year. Working Istanbullus traditionally eat out during the day and their sticker shock was leading to a lot of small local restaurant shutting down.  In the future I would definitely consider staying on the Asian side of Istanbul. Quieter, Cheaper, And some of the best classic Turkish food in town. 

Fatih, Kadinlar Pazar

Once Ramadan ended, it was time for Seker Bayram, more widely known as Eid al-Fitr. Celebrating the end of Ramadan, people feast on sweets and for the three day holiday crowds of families go visiting and the guidebooks told us to expect crowds in public transport. They weren't kidding. Everybody was out and gulping baklava and halva from dawn to dusk. We finally made it to Fatih to visit the Kadinlar Pazar, which is a market serving the needs of the southeatern Anatolian internal emmigrants in Istanbul, ringed with restaurants serving the specialties of Siirt, Bitlis, and Mardin: buryan kebab - whole lambs roasted for hours in a pit oven, served simply on Anatolian flat bread and an esme pepper salad. There are few foods I love as much as buryan lamb. Popeye's fried chicken. Sarajevo Cevapcici. Cantonese rice rolls. Maybe Shake Shack burgers. But Buryan wins. I'm already planning to go back.

With only a few days to stay in Istanbul, and city traffic nearly unpassable due to the seething sugar-crazed crowds, I did miss out on seeing any live music. I did encounter some of the most classic Istanbul sounds on record, though. 78 rpm records, in fact. I passed by an antique record shop in Kadikoy and noticed some gramophone discs in the window, walked in, and immediately rediscovered my long gone fluency in Turkish. "Do you have any old Ottoman records? Greek or Armenian music?" and the shop owner sits me down and starts pulling out carefully preserved 100 year old discs, properly stored and protected in new paper sleeves, including classical Turkish recordings by Tamburi Cemil Bey. 

Cemil Bey was an Armenian Istanbullu who mainly recorded playing the classical Turkish kemençe, a small three string fiddle played on the knee.  In the 19th century, a majority of the musicians playing Turkish classical music were non-Muslims: local Greeks, western Armenians, Jews, and Gypsies. Playing non religious music as a profession was not considered suitable employment for a good Muslim. By the middle of the 19th century this sound had become the contemporary Urban Pop sound of the Black Sea and eastern Mediterranean, which is why so many of the melodies and musical practices of Turkish fasil (light classical) have entered into the repertoires and playing styles of modern Greek Rebetika, Jewish Klezmer, and Armenian halay music. Tamburi Cemil Bey's versions of makam melodies have gone down as the defining versions. His Nikriz longa is still played across the post-Ottoman world. 

Modern musicians still adapt Cemil Bey's work. Salih Korkut Peker from Izmir plays a modified electric cumbuş - an oud neck stuck to a banjo body, and changed the rhythm to reggae. This version was my particular ear worm for this year.

No, I didn't buy any of the old records. I am very careful to know my vices, and collecting 78s is not going to become one of them. I know 78 collectors. They are very odd people, often well beyond obsessed, and most of this music can be found on reissues. But that won't stop me from rooting around old record shops. We are already planning to go back in the future. Maybe I'll get one of those Black Sea bagpipes yet.

Friday, March 29, 2024

2024: The State of the Blog Address

 Who even reads blogs anymore? Ok, you do, obviously, but the Golden Age of blogging joined the fate of the Wooly Mammoths over a decade ago with the ascendancy of Tumblr, Facebook, Insta, TikTok, and Twitter (now known as Elon's Edsel.) Users of social media no longer consume prose. They like captions, blurbs, viral visuals. Its a trend that I discovered back when working as a print journalist. Publishers began demanding blurbs, not feature articles. More photos, less words. Small local newspapers fell like flies. Finally, Capitalist God declared a pox on all their houses, and print media - along with its modest paychecks - went the way of the ocelot (i.e: its still there but you can't see it.)  

Gone but not forgotten

I began blogging back in 2004 after reading a NewYorker article while flying from NY to Budapest. Thought I'd give it a try. It was an easy way to keep in touch with friends and share photos and stories of our first trips to Istanbul, where Fumie was working as a photographer for Time Out travel guides, (a great travel series that was eventually replaced by an ingominous "app".) And then I kept it up. The end result is that I have a non-comprehensive diary of various crap that I engaged in for the last twenty years. I have visual documentation of nearly every pastrami sandwich I have eaten in the last two decades.

I used to write for and edit the culture section of Budapest Week - Hungary's first privately run English language weekely newspaper begun in 1991. The saga of BP Week remains to be written, perhaps someday when all the bodies are finally buried, but suffice to say I enjoyed being read by a few thousands of folks weekly - folks I would often meet later at then flourishing Budapest alternative bars like Tilos Az A, the Raczkert, Picasso Point, and the unforgettable bar "A Széklet" ('the stool sample.') There was evidence that real flesh and blood people read the stuff that I - under numerous assumed names and aliases - wrote. 

This was often pleasant, and when it wasn't, it didn't matter because by then I was drunk and belligerent. But I really liked knowing who was reading me. It felt like real communication. Later I wrote for email newslists, magazines, travel guides, even a series of educational readers for American teens. Blogging was like my personal writing excercise space. But in the glory days I could clock in over a thousand readers a day. Nowadays, readership rarely hits double figures.

Perhaps my masterpiece

Budapest Week folded due to gross mismanagement and fraud, and subsequent attempts to revive it failed due to gross incompetance but mainly fraud. Most of the publishing industry in Hungary fails due to corruption and fraud. Heck, we can extend this to explain the failure of business in Hungary in general - note that Hungary has recently slipped behind Romania in the lower rungs of economic vitality in the European Union. Does this sound like a swan song to blogging? A dear John letter to blogspot? Naaaah... not happening. I am way too narcissistic to shut up entirely. I simply do not update the blog every three days like I once did. I'm older and time moves more slowly. My advancing dotage no longer merits the kind of adventure that I once spent so much time pursuing. (To quote the song: "Its getting to the point where I'm no fun anymore. And I am sorry.")

My idea of fun 

And I don't care to write much or comment much on the contemporary Hungarian society I live in. If you read the news you can find a lot about our Prime Minister and his policies. You don't need me for that. Every time I read the NY times or the Guardian and they call Orban a fascist I want to rush to the keyboard and spew out an eloquent rebuttal: He's not a fascist! He's just a common garden variety capital-A asshole! His henchmen are a bunch of high school bullies and lickspittles and corrupt wheeler dealers, but they don't have the competence to rate the label of "fascist." It deflates the power behind the term "fascism." Heck, he barely holds a candle to Trump! The young Viktor Orban initially hoped to become a professional football player in Hungary. He was rejected because he was too short, so he got into the ELTE Law School instead. Orban doesn't model his style of government on Mussolini or the Nazis. He models it on FIFA, the international body governing professional football (soccer to us yanks) which is known for deep pocket corruption, quisling politics, and a relationship to its players that evokes high stakes serfdom. If you want to know how Hungary is governed, look at the worst aspects of international football. Viktor Orban may have graduated from the ELTE Law school, but he spent at least an hour a day playing soccer in the Law school dormitory backyard, and believe me, he does not like to lose. I know. I was the resident English teacher at the dorm (albeit a year after Orban had graduated, but he still showed up for games.)

One of my lesser known works
But I digress.

People ask why I remain in Budapest. My answer is that much of what originally drew me here is still here. I arrived at the end of communism, so I am used to living under a deeply cynical incompetant government that has no program except the maintanance of its power. The extreme polarization that characterizes Hungarian politics and social life is not of my making. I only live in it, but I am not of it. What really kept me here were my friends, mostly folk musicians, and the traditional music that consumed their lives. Although that music is mostly found in Transylvania, across the border in Romania, I have lived most of my adult life in Budapest and this is the city I call home. I like the food, although I no longer enjoy it as I once did  (I lost a lot of weight this year by avoiding carbs, and that includes bakeries.) I can finally ride the metro for free! I can get Serbian radio on AM. And I do not watch Hungarian TV, for the same reason I do not watch professional wrestling. I can live my life without Kayfabe.  I like the real thing, and I know where I can find it. 

Ioan "Nuku" Harleț. Budești, Romania. It don't get realer. 

This said, I can happily get on a plane next week and fly off to Istanbul, the city where this blog began 18 years ago. My son is coming to meet us there and I can't wait to take him around to places where the public bathroom may well have been built in Byzantine times, where the lowliest kebab shop is better than the best food in London, and where the best roast lamb on the face of the planet can be found (the Kadinlar Pazar in Fatih!) So expect a bit more from the blog in the weeks ahead.