Zürich, Switzerland // 28 January 2019
Hello, dear friends and relations!
I’m in Zürich, lying on G.’s couch, in massive amounts of pain. We had glühwein and Eritrean food earlier. I’m in pain not from the food, but from running the marathon yesterday. More on that later.
I just returned from five days in Istanbul with E. Our crusade was the most exciting travel adventure I’ve been on. We drank tons of tea, we saw tons of churches, we saw amazing known-only-to-archaeologist ruins, we got very little sleep — and yet we didn’t do nearly all the stuff we wanted to do.
Every night we sat in sidewalk nargile cafes and I stream-of-conscioused 3,000 to 5,000 words into my laptop. I’m so psyched on Turkey now. I want to go read everything I can about Istanbul and Turkey and the Ottomans and the Byzantine Empire. I want to read all of Orhan Pamuk’s books.
But right now, I want to share a few special moments from our trip.
I arrived in Istanbul Sunday morning on the sleeper train from Bulgaria. It had just rained and everything was wet, but the sun was shining through a hole in the clouds, and from the train station you could look across the Golden Horn and see the city lit up against the dark background.
It took an hour to walk to the hostel in Beyoğlu. When I got there, E. was sitting on a divan drinking tea. He had flown in that morning from Athens. He was wearing a leather jacket and a long, flowing Pashmina scarf, in iridescent turquoise. I never saw him take off either throughout our trip. The scarf, when unwrapped, draped below his waist.
“I finally gave in yesterday and bought this book I’ve been eyeing since November,” E. said. “Architecture in the Balkans from Diocletian to Süleyman the Magnificent! It’s 1,000 pages long and cost 70 Euros.
“I didn’t bring it with me, because it weighs ten pounds and would take up half my bag. So I spent all day yesterday reading the ‘Constantinople’ section and taking notes, in preparation for our adventures.” He patted a clipboard with a thick stack of paper on it.
“But I didn’t finish, because it was 1:30 AM, and I had had several glasses of whiskey, and I was tired and couldn’t concentrate. So the last like 50 pages I took photos of with my phone.”
The Hagia Sofia is amazing.
We went to see it our third day in Istanbul. I wasn’t prepared for how beautiful it is. I wasn’t prepared at all. I knew it was a famous church, and probably the main sight in Istanbul, but that was about it. Compared to E., I’m a cultural ignoramus.
But I was just so viscerally awed by it. Totally floored, in a way that I almost never am by things visual and architectural.
I thought of Grandma Jean’s exhortation to me when I went to India in 2014: “Andrew, you HAVE to go see the Taj Mahal. You have to see it. Don’t skip it because you think you’re too good for it and you want to go off on one of your silly little adventures. It’s absolutely one of the most remarkable places I’ve ever been, on any continent, anywhere.”
That’s how I feel about the Hagia Sofia.
It doesn’t look like much on the outside. It’s just a bunch of blobs on top of other blobs. It looks like a building that’s been haphazardly added on to over the years (which it is). The lower part of the exterior is dull red brick that looks like it needed to have been re-pointed or stucco’d over a millennium ago. There’s a long line. Do we really have to go see this?
We entered, and walked through the narthex into the nave.
I was instantly overwhelmed.
It’s so huge. It’s so enormous. It’s so beautiful. I don’t know how to describe it.
The main dome is 180 feet high. It’s higher than the nave is long and wide, which must make it feel even taller. It’s just incredible. It’s so huge. It’s such an enormous space.
There was a tower of scaffolding under the main dome, off to the side, reaching most of the way up. It must have been at least 150 feet tall. It was covered in black construction netting, giving it a solid form, and if it were outside, it would have been a pretty big building in its own right. Yet it was INSIDE, fitting ENTIRELY within the huge main dome, with plenty of space to spare.
The whole thing was built in SIX YEARS, too. That’s SO FUCKING FAST. You read about all these medieval cathedrals that took decades or even CENTURIES to be finished. How was this all built in SIX YEARS?
I kept staring at the walls. They’re so gorgeous. There are nice frescos, but the interior walls are mostly unadorned marble panels, and what stands out about them is a) that they’re unornamented, and b) their diversity in color and texture. They’re all so different from each other. They weren’t quarried or installed to try to make the walls look like a continuous piece of marble. And they’re all so pretty. I like it so much more than had they all been identical slabs of marble. It’s so much more visually interesting.
Even on a weekday in January it was crowded inside. Good. Everyone should see this. (There were a number of cats inside, too.)
We waited in line outside for 20 minutes. Guides kept trying to hawk their services. One guide told us that his tour of the Hagia Sofia takes an hour and “is the same as reading a 300 to 350 page book.” He showed us his tourist guide license and said he was “a professional.” After he left, E. patted his clipboard, with its thick stack of notes and printouts, and said, “Little does he know that I’m a professional.”
Inside E. described a project by some professor at Stanford that used 1990s-era computer graphics technology imagine what the Hagia Sofia, and Byzantine artworks, would look like if illuminated by the flickering light of a candle (as they would have been a millennium ago).
“The current scholarly fad in Byzantine Studies,” E. said, “is trying to investigate the Gesamtkunstwerk, i.e., the total phenomenological experience of the space. You and I would call that ‘what it was like to be here during a service.’”
The Stanford person more recently has been trying to recreate the soundscape of Byzantine chant. How did Byzantine chant interact with the architecture of the churches it was sung/chanted in? What did the liturgy actually sound like? She got special permission from the Turks to empty out the Hagia Sofia and set up dozens of microphones in different parts of the church. They gave her permission to record only five seconds of sound. So, in the center of a silent and empty Hagia Sofia, she popped a balloon. The recordings, together with knowing the plan of the space and the materials used, together with a whole lot of technological skill (she is at Stanford), allowed her to make an acoustic model of the space. What did it sound like to attend mass in the Hagia Sofia in the year 600? Now we’ve got a computer model.
As E. was saying this, a group of a dozen blind tourists walked past us, tapping their canes on the marble floor. I’m not making this up — their timing was really that perfect. They get to experience the Hagia Sofia only through its soundscape!
E. says the Stanford professor made a documentary about the project, Icons of Sound. I’m looking at her research group’s website right now. It sounds so cool: http://iconsofsound.stanford.edu/
“How quickly do you think I would get kicked out of here if I started playing the Byzantine chants on my phone at full volume?,” E. asked. (“It’s good darkroom music,” he said as an explanation for why he had it.)
I guess part of the reason I wasn’t as familiar with the Hagia Sofia’s beauty is because it’s harder to photograph. You can photograph the Taj Mahal pretty well: just back up enough until it all fits into the frame. That might not capture all of the Taj’s beauty, but the fraction it does capture is still pretty beautiful. The Hagia Sofia is an interior space — you can’t zoom out arbitrary far, because you run into the wall. You can use an ultra-wide-angle lens, but outside of a VR headset there’s no good way to display the result.
I mumbled something to E. about geometry and interiors versus exteriors. Perfectly in character, he gave a long, articulate, and extemporaneous disquisition on the symbolic meaning of the interior beauty of the Hagia Sofia vis-a-vis “interiority” in Christian theology.
We spent two hours in there. I could have spent more time just looking. It was so beautiful.
The entire time we were in Istanbul, E. carried around a tote bag (printed with the logo of the Bulgarian archaeological museum) containing a film camera and a thick clipboard full of paper. He had his notes on Architecture in the Balkans, photocopies of floor plans and architectural diagrams of churches and other buildings in Istanbul, and selected papers about the architectural history of various Istanbul attractions.
“My right shoulder has totebag-carrying calluses,” E. said.
E. had the art-historical aspects of the trip covered. My intellectual contribution was political and economic: I spent a day in the Cornell library last month downloading every single article about Turkey in the Economist and the New Yorker from the last five years. I printed them out and spiral-bound them into a DIY briefing book.
“Look at this graph of the Turkish lira!,” I said. “It’s lost 80% of its value against the dollar in the last five years! Even with inflation running at 5–15%, the dollar’s purchasing power has still increased by like 50% since 2014. No wonder everything here is so cheap.”
We went to see Topkapi Palace, the residence of the Ottoman Sultans, which was pretty cool, but what’s REALLY worth writing about is the church E. detoured us to on the way, the Hagia Eirine.
The Hagia Eirine is on the grounds of Topkapi, but is usually ignored by tourists. It’s a Byzantine church that’s basically contemporaneous with the Hagia Sofia, but unlike most other Byzantine churches, it wasn’t converted to a mosque by the Ottomans. Instead they used it as a warehouse.
It was just a giant empty room and dome, all in rough brick and stone. No polished marble. Very little decoration. No artificial light, either: all the light inside was coming in through the windows.
The interior was huge. It’s the second-largest existing Byzantine church. Yet it probably still would have fit comfortably inside the Hagia Sofia.
We couldn’t see the dome very clearly, because there was a sheet of netting stretched across the nave a few dozen feet up. It was made opaque by pigeon poop. That was its purpose: to keep poop off the floor.
There were dozens of pigeons inside, and at one point they all started cooing at once. The sound was amazing. The coos were reflecting off the dome and the church interior, and the way they echoed and layered on top of each other — it was very pretty. It made me think back to E.’s description of the efforts to recreate the soundscapes of the mass in Byzantine churches.
We were the only people inside. What an experience.
E. brought with him a printout of a paper on “Temporal Structuring In the Chora Parakkesion,” a part of the old Byzantine Chora Church in Istanbul. During our evenings at nargile cafes he took careful notes on it, in preparation for visiting. “I’m getting excited!,” he said at one point when I asked him how the studying was going. He finally went to see it on our last day in Istanbul. It was closed for restorations.
We had the best Central Asian food I’ve had in my life.
Two different kinds of laghman. Noodles long and starchy and heteroskedastic. Lamb dumplings in which the lamb was barely cooked and crumbled apart. Grilled lamb kebabs that were equally good. A bowl on the table of a spicy sweet smoky chili paste. All that for USD $7 each.
The restaurant was in the most religiously conservative neighborhood in Istanbul. We had to take the tram several stops out to get there. There was a huge historic Ottoman mosque right outside the tram stop, and the call to prayer was blaring over loudspeakers. Even more women were wearing headscarves than in the other parts of Istanbul (already a lot). When we got to the restaurant, there was some confusion over where we were supposed to sit. E. realized later that there were probably two sections: the men’s section on the second floor, and the “family section” (i.e., women allowed) on the first floor.
There were only two other groups of people there: a Uighur family, and a group of Japanese tourists. I could understand every fifth word they said but not actually figure out what they were talking about. I have no idea what they were doing there, since they were as out-of-place as we were. The menu had pictures, which was good, because the text was in Arabic and Chinese characters. I was able to slowly sound out the Arabic for us. There was only a single toilet in the restaurant — Eastern-style.
“You are from America! What do you think about” — Oh shit, here it comes; I’m going to have to answer for Trump — “What do you think about the dollar? Is it going up or down?”
“Do you want to have Georgian food?,” E. asked. “There’s a place right around the corner.”
The restaurant looked like it had been decorated from a Georgian thrift shop. We were the only people there. The person running it, a Georgian woman in her mid-50s, seemed equal parts surprised, confused, and thrilled that we were there. She introduced us to her “friend,” a “journalist,” another Georgian woman in her 50s, who was “helping.”
“This is so delightfully amateurish,” E. said. “I love it!”
The food was fantastic. We got beef soup, dumplings, and khachapuri. Khachapuri is a food that’s beginning to take off in the US: it’s basically a bread bowl of cheese, butter, and eggs, with an amount of bread that’s tiny in proportion to the other ingredients.
We also ordered what was on the menu as “Georgian lemonade.” When it came was BRIGHT GREEN. Or rather, it was dark green, but a very VIVID dark green. “This looks like a drink in Star Trek,” E. said. It tasted like anise, and was carbonated. Nothing like lemonade at all.
We paid the equivalent of $9 USD each.
Istanbul has incredible public transit. Busses, ferries, light rail, subways, commuter rail, funiculars, bus rapid transit, gondolas. It goes everywhere and arrives (seemingly) in moments. You can take an intercontinental subway. Except for the busses and the ferries, almost all of it has been built in the last decade. V. lent me her guidebook from her 2014 Istanbul trip, but the map of the metro/tram — only five years old — was uselessly out of date and unrecognizable. Even now, on the official maps, half the system is grayed out due to being “under construction.”
Because it’s all so new, it’s modern: countdown clocks for everything, and payment with a buy-at-any-vending-machine RFID card. The payment card, Istanbulkart, even works at a few public toilets in the system. The longer-term goal is to use Istanbulkart to pay for all public services in the city, including museum tickets.
Did I mention the FUNICULAR? There are three of them, and the one we rode (several times) wasn’t some 19th-century historical curio for tourists. It was brand new (or at least, built in 2004, which by the standards of American fixed-link public transit is brand-new). It looked like a typical light rail train, except the floor was terraced and at a slight angle to the stations.
I fulfilled so many Orientalist/Indiana Jones/Tomb Raider fantasies on this trip.
E. and I were looking for something to do, since we had ducked out early from the archaeological museum (mostly under renovation), and then were turned away from the Blue Mosque (prayer time).
We had a tip about some secret underground Byzantine ruins in the area.
So we walked through a fancy, overpriced-looking cafe and restaurant, and saw a sign pointing out back. It led to a big hole in the ground near the kitchen. A rickety and rusting staircase took us down, and then a second rickety staircase took us down some more, and then we ducked under a low doorway, and found ourselves in a totally dark underground chamber.
It was damp. Water was dripping. The echo from the drops indicated we were in a pretty big place. But I had left my headlamp back at the hostel, and E.’s hand-computer screen wasn’t bright enough to illuminate whatever it was we were in.
I headed back up to see about lights. E. stayed underground. A guy working in the kitchen directed me to a different hole in the ground, with a different set of rusting metal stairs. “Lights, automatic!,” he said.
I walked back down. More darkness, more dripping. Faintly I heard E. say, “Is that you, Andrew?”
Then a motion sensor clicked, and a bunch of floodlights on the floor turned on, and HOLY SHIT. I was in a huge underground chamber, twenty feet tall, with a domed ceiling and walls and buttresses made out of crumbling bricks. Dripping water everywhere. A plywood floor (over dirt or rock or who knows what).
There were multiple chambers. E. was several chambers away. “This is so fucking cool,” he said when we found each other.
The lighting was both very poor and very dramatic. The lights were cheap, sodium-orange construction floodlights, placed on the floor, and there was only one per chamber, which meant that we were casting huge, moving shadows on the wall.
One of the pieces of plywood flooring broke when I stepped on it. I fell through, but only about six inches.
This wasn’t a tourist exhibit, or something that was safely sanitized and lawsuit-proof. This was like an interactive archaeological expedition! Even E., who’s been on plenty of actual archaeological digs, thought it was awesome.
We explored. All these separate domed chambers, twenty feet tall and fifty feet underground. Walls of dirt and rubble beneath the arches into the un-exacated parts.
Presumably the ruins were from the basement of the Great Palace, the site of the Byzantine emperors for most of the first millennium. Eventually they abandoned it, and the Ottomans demolished what was remaining when they conquered Constantinople.
The restaurant had put up a small explanatory sign, which said in part: “We have taken this facility with vaults under Protection and have been restoring it. We have proceeded with our work by Removing 600 trucks of rubble out of the facility. For more information www.youtube.com Cities of the Under world Istanbul by History Channel” (capitalization as in the original).
The tip-off for the palace came from E.’s friend Anna, an archaeologist who’s lived and worked in Istanbul but who’s now a lonely postdoc in Heidelberg. E. asked her for Istanbul tips, and she responded by sending us a lengthy Google Maps document with all of her favorite restaurants and sights. I didn’t know this was a thing you could do, technologically! It’s fantastic: a list that’s also organized spatially, and integrated with Google Maps. E. kept it on his hand-computer, and it was a huge help. He could click on things, and get directions for how to get there from where we were.
(“Great for vaulting enthusiasts” was part of Anna’s description for the palace basement ruins.)
There’s an amazing Turkish winter drink made from ground-up orchid tubers: salep. As E. said, “it tastes like thick hot chocolate but without the chocolate.” It’s mixed with hot milk and served with a dusting of cinnamon on top. I fell in love with it and wanted to bring some home. Of course they sell it in the tourist shops, but who wants to get ripped off? So I looked in grocery store after grocery store, but could only find single-serving packets of instant salep. They were ten cents each. Whatever. I bought a few dozen.
One of the nargile cafes E. and I spent our evenings in was, as it turned out, operated and patronized entirely by expat Iranians. As soon as I realized that, I knew it was my chance to be a hero.
I’d spent the entire trip anxious and upset about my lack of local language skills. E.’s impressive command of Greek and Turkish didn’t make me feel much better. E. took a quarter of Turkish at UChicago over a decade ago, and with only that managed to give a detailed and really interesting explanation of how vowel harmony (the sounds and stresses) in Turkish words changes when you decline them into various forms. Plus he did all of our ordering in restaurants.
But then I realized that everyone in the cafe was Persian — one of the many languages I’ve dabbled in. I asked the guy serving us, in very poor Persian, if he was Iranian, and if the cafe was Iranian. It is, he said, confused. Are you Iranian?
“No,” I said, again in broken Persian. “We’re from the Great Satan” (chetan-e bozorg).
His eyes went wide. Then he laughed and smiled, introduced us to the other guy working there, and we chatted for a few minutes in a mixture of Persian, English, and hand gestures.
Sitting outside at the street cafes: all sorts of street vendors walk by and trying to sell things to the people at the tables (often successfully). People carrying sweets. People carrying trays of iced almonds (with ice!). Other people selling what I might call “street vendor consumer goods” (e.g., we were approached by a guy coming around literally selling watches).
We took a day cruise down the Bosphorus to the Black Sea. That’s a fancy name for what was really just a $5 round-trip on what could have been a Washington State Ferry. It was cold and drizzling. We slowly slipped north, past palaces and yali on the shore, and underneath two huge intercontinental suspension bridges.
The ferry ends at a town right at the mouth. Atop a hill are the ruins of an old Byzantine castle, which used to guard the Bosphorus and in a sense still does, since the entire area is a razor-wire’d-off Turkish military base with the same purpose. You can walk up to the top of the hill and castle walls, and look out at the Black Sea.
The town was full of friendly freelance dogs. A big earless orange tabby dog met us at the edge of the road. For the price of occasional pets, he led us all the way up the path to the castle at the top of the hill.
We drank tea at a cafe a little lower down the hill, overlooking the Bosphorus. I stared at all the ships. The Bosphorus gets a huge amount of shipping traffic, since it’s the only liquid outlet to the Black Sea, and thus is a major conduit to interior Russia and Central Asia. So, with geopolitics and economics in mind, I’d been paying close attention to the ships whenever we were in view of the Bosphorus. We saw lots of container ships. Most of them had onboard cranes, meaning they were headed to or from ports without fully-developed container facilities. We saw a car freighter. (They have a distinct look: they’re giant floating rectanguloids, since cars aren’t containerized.) We saw tankers.
Sitting at the cafe we saw a military ship. I took out my telephoto lens to try to figure out what it was. There was only a single marking on it, in Cyrillic. Was it part of Russia’s Black Sea fleet??? E. Googled the marking on his hand-computer: indeed, it was a repair ship of the Russian Navy, whose keel had been laid down in communist Poland in 1973.
The call to prayer started, and we heard it from two continents: from a mosque near us, in Asia, and from a mosque all the way across the Bosphorus in Europe. After a minute the homeless dogs near us started howling in response.
We walked back down to the village. We had lunch at one of the tourist-trap restaurants: a huge plate of fried mullet, a huge plate of fried anchovies, fries, salad, a bread basket, lots of tea. All of this for only $10 USD (total, not each). Presumably the fish were fresh from the Black Sea.
Nearby a guy with a cart was cutting up and selling fresh anchovies (or maybe sardines) to local residents. A cat was sitting underneath his cart, waiting for scraps.
After lunch in one far-flung neighborhood, E. checked his friend Anna’s Google Maps document, and saw there were some really cool hidden underground Roman ruins nearby that Anna knew about that no tourists know about.
We walked around through a middle-class shopping neighborhood trying to find them.
“Keep your eyes open for a Russian shoe market,” E. said. “Anna says it’s inside.”
“Why is there a Russian shoe market?,” I said. “Why do ethnic groups need their own shoe stores? Restaurants I get, but why shoe stores?”
Yet, there it was, a big sign in Cyrillic advertising shoes. We walked inside a commercial building and down a narrow spiral staircase to the basement. Everything was in Russian. A storefront was advertising bus tickets to Moscow. Three Russian guys were sitting around drinking tea. E. tried to ask them about the ruins. That was a bizarre interaction: E. trying to communicate with Russians in a mixture of broken Turkish and English. He pulled out his dictionary to try to look up the Turkish word for for “ruins.” They had no idea what we were talking about. We left.
“Man, if we had been in Greece, that would have been so easy!,” E. said. “I ask people, ‘Where are the Roman ruins?’ in Greek all the time.”
Walking back to the tram, we passed another Russian shoe store (how is this a thing?). It was in the garden level, below the street, and we went down to investigate, but no ruins.
The next day, when E. and I had split up, he came back and found it. He showed me photos: it wasn’t just old Roman ruins near a Russian shoe store; it was a Russian shoe store built inside Roman ruins. And it wasn’t a retail shoe store so much as a big warehouse of shoe boxes. It looked like some entrepreneur had found a basement full of columns and vaulted brick ceilings and decided it’d be a good place to put a warehouse. There was no distinction between the ruins and the shoe storage — just shelves of shoeboxes in the vaults. Architectural reuse, indeed.
E. said there were a few surly Russians down there. They didn’t care that he was poking around.
Exactly three types of street food carts in wintertime Istanbul: the carts selling simit (toroidal sesame’d bread), the carts selling boiled or roasted corn, and the carts selling roasted chestnuts.
We stayed in a hostel E. found called “The Chambers of the Boheme.” It lived up to its name.
On the first floor was a narrow salon, with wood panelling and inlaid mirrors, a built-in bench, marble tables, and wingback chairs. There was a large marble bar, too, with another mirror taking up the wall behind it. The stair up to our room was a huge winding half-oval, with worn-down wooden treads. Our room, on the fourth and topmost floor, was crowded: six bunk beds in two rows of three. But the beds were really nice, with ornate, lathe-turned balusters — not plain rectangular ones. Each morning E. and I remarked to each other how well we had slept — way better than at home.
I couldn’t tell whether the building had once been a nicer guesthouse that had been converted into a hostel, or whether the owner, a late-middle-aged Turkish man named Ahmet, just had a shabby-chic aesthetic. Probably a mixture of both.
On our final morning in Istanbul, E. and I left our bags there. It was only when we returned in the evening that I realized that the left-luggage closet where I had put my duffel wasn’t a closet at all, but the cab of a disabled elevator.
For all this luxury I paid twice what I was paying at my hostel in Bulgaria: eight Euros a night.
I’ve now doubled the size of my samovar collection.
I didn’t get the samovar I would have liked to have gotten: one of the big, boxy, stainless-steel commercial samovars you see in every restaurant, cafe, and corner store. There’s an urn of hot water, and two hot plates on top with pots full of concentrate. Each tiny cup of tea that gets made requires an act of titration between the two.
Turks are serious about their samovars. They’re serious about their tea, too. It’s awesome. I love tea. I love being able to buy tiny cups of tea every few minutes for just tens of cents. I hate that tea in the US is a) a marginal beverage, and b) perceived as being gender-linked (i.e., exclusively as a feminine libation).
But anyway, now I’ve got a companion samovar to the charcoal-fired one I bought in Kashmir in 2014. It’s two stacking teapots, one for water and one for the tea concentrate, with ornate carvings on the outside.
“For you, my friend, special price!” Really? What about half that? I ended up paying about 40% less than I did for my Kashmiri samovar.
(From a nearby metal shop, on the outskirts of the Grand Bazaar, I also bought two little brass oil lamps, in the shape of a ram and a turtle. I hadn’t seen similar ones in any other stores. I thought of another travel dictum of Grandma Jean: if you see something you’ve never seen before and you want it, buy it, because you’ll never see it again! Now I just need to buy paraffin when I get home, and I can illuminate the chambers of my personal bohemia with flickering oil flames!)
On the way to the airport, E. and I got dinner at a restaurant E.’s friend Anna had recommended, specializing in cuisine from Hatay.
Hatay is a defect in my mental model of Turkey. I think of Turkey as being a rectangle with a 2:1 aspect ratio, half of which is cantilevered over the Mediterranean, and half of which is safely anchored atop the Middle East. Hatay ruins this: it’s a tiny nub sticking out of the bottom, right at the halfway point, disrupting what would otherwise be a perfect T-shaped border between Turkey, the Mediterranean, and Syria. The main city, Antioch, is where the first sustained community of Christians formed in the first century. In keeping with the pop-cultural theme of this trip, Hatay is also where the closing act of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was set.
Anna said that the restaurant was one of her favorites in Istanbul. But when we arrived, we immediately wondered whether we should go somewhere else. The tables were all covered in white linen, with heavy China plates and heavy metal utensils. The napkins were origami sculptures. A sign said the restaurant had been open since 1985, and had a branch in Kuwait. It was the sort of place E. and I would never go, at least not if we were paying.
The waiters were all wearing tuxes. We were dressed like gross backpackers.
We looked at a menu and debated. The cheapest entrees cost more than what we paid for some of our entire meals. But it was late, and we were hungry, and we decided to splurge.
To my surprise, the food was fantastic. One of the tuxedo’d waiters brought out a tray of mezzes, and we took plates of hummus, tabooleh, and a spicy chili paste. As a main dish I had a kebab ground up with pistachios and pine nuts. It came with a long sprig of mint, a long sprig of parsley, plus onions and tomatoes and pita and more spicy chili sauce. Usually food quality becomes inversely correlated with price once restaurants start paying for things like tablecloths and a tuxedo’d staff. Yet here the food was delicious.
Our last supper was the most expensive meal we had in Turkey, by a factor of two. In Ithaca it would have been a $60–70 meal. In New York or SF, I have no idea. In Istanbul? $16 USD each.
Gross backpackers, yes, but with American bank accounts.
I love staring at the departure boards in foreign-to-me airports and fantasizing about all the places I could aluminum-tube-wormhole to. The 1:50 AM to 1:55 AM stretch of the IST departure board: Tashkent, Odessa, Mazar-i-Sharif, Mogadishu.
(Mazar-i-Sharif! Not Kabul, mind you, but a second-tier Afghan city.)
You didn’t think I was going to not tell you about how I ran the marathon, did you?
(Did I mention that it was THE marathon? Not just “a” marathon?)
Well, “run” is a generous verb. I completed the marathon. That’s the important part. I did the whole thing. Under my own power. That counts.
When I made plans to go to Greece, I figured that if I were ever in my life to run a marathon, this trip was the time. I’ve never had the particular desire otherwise. Running is great, but 26 miles seems like a lot. Yet, what better opportunity than this? Why not re-trace the footsteps of Philippides 2,509 years ago when he dashed to Athens to announce the news of victory over the Persians?
I told K. about my plans a few weeks before leaving. “Is it an actual race?,” she asked.
“Of course it’s an actual race! It’s THE marathon!”
“But it’s not an organized thing? You’re just running 26 miles by yourself?”
“The original runner ran 26 miles by himself!”
“Didn’t he die at the end?”
The night before my first attempt, at a party at the American School of Classical Studies, I chatted with a colleague of E.’s who’s also a UChicago alumna. “Are you the one who’s going to run the marathon?,” she said. “That’s such a stupid thing to do! It’s a highway! You’re going to die!”
“Well, I didn’t say it was going to be fun.”
“That’s such a typical UChicago stupid thing to do!”
Boy, I’m glad I’ve got such supportive friends.
My first attempt to run the marathon, on my fourth day in Athens, failed before it began. I went to the wrong bus station. (In my defense, everything transport-wise in Athens is horribly labeled.) I was so disappointed. You should have seen me walking away from that bus station, hanging my head like Charlie Brown.
So, my first attempt having misfired, I made tentative plans to run it again on my return trip through Athens.
But that’d be after two weeks of no running.
And running the marathon on my initial attempt was already pushing my physical limits. I was hugely sore and stiff from four days of walking a dozen-plus miles around Athens, and I was having tons of pain in my right foot, on the surface, around the sesamoids, like a tendon or something. I had trained, but not as much as I should have. My longest run was only 16 miles (though I did do a couple of that length). I figured I was in shape to run a marathon, but not to race one.
So, when I was in Bulgaria and Istanbul, still in pain and getting outter of shape by the day, I decided I wouldn’t run the marathon.
But then my foot started hurting less badly.
And, believe me, I really wanted to do this. “I don’t want to injure myself badly enough cause long-term problems,” I thought, “but I’m totally fine with injuring myself enough to cause short- or medium-term problems.
“I mean, it’s THE marathon.”
I was back in Athens for three days at the end of my trip. I tried rolling out my muscles. I didn’t have a foam roller, so I used a bottle of 2018 Syrah. It was the cheapest one the grocery store had — three euros. (I gave it to E. when I left and said it was a thank-you gift.)
It rained the first two days I was back. The third day, my last full day in the Balkans, the forecast was for full sun. So I made the call: go.
And I did it! I woke at 6 AM and took the bus to Marathon, which early on a Sunday morning was probably an even sleepier little village than it normally is. There’s a “Marathon Run Museum,” but it wasn’t open for a few more hours, and I didn’t want to hang around. I made my way to the starting monument in the town square, and pressed “Start” on my watch.
The first third of the run was gorgeous. The Aegean was on one side, and scrub-covered mountains on the other. Fifty-degree temperatures. Full sun and long sight-lines. Olive trees and rosemary bushes dotting the chaparral. Sheep and goats in the fields! Gorgeous rural agrarian Greek scenery. There were even sidewalks for part of it!
The nice views ended after a dozen kilometers. The scrub turned to charcoal and I ran through the scene of a giant wildfire that killed 78 people last summer. The hills were completely black. Houses burnt down to their masonry shells. Eventually that ended, but then the Athens suburbs started, as did an 800’ climb to a pass. Ugh. I stopped at cafes for many, many espressos. I walked for long stretches. Well, who cares? Philippides probably did that, too.
I was in huge amounts of pain for the entire run. Was it my foot? Which I had worried about for the entire trip? Of course not. My foot was fucking fine. You know what it was? MY OLD NEMESIS: my adductors. Scourge of my athletic life since middle school.
At long last, in between a row of concrete mid-rise apartment buildings, the Olympic Stadium materialized. I turned into it, plowed through a group of Chinese tourists, and collapsed. “Hail! We are happy” is what Philippides is reported to have said. That’s how I felt.
My time? 6:42:03. I’ll cut that in half next time. Boston, here I come!
After the marathon I spent the evening lying on E.’s floor. He burned incense from a Greek Orthodox monastery and worked on revising his job talk.
“One of my favorite things about this field to which I have dedicated the last twelve years of my life,” he said, “is that there is a 600-page book, in French, called The History of the History of Philology. It’s not about classics, or even about the history of the study of classics. It’s about the history of the history.
“I really want to read it, but it’s 600 pages long, and in French.”
So that was my trip.
As you can see from the dateline, I’m now in Zürich, writing this from UChicago friend G.’s top-floor apartment in Langstrasse. My plane tickets to Athens were so cheap because they required an 18-hour layover here — but that’s a benefit, since it means I can see G., however briefly. (He’s a Ph.D. student at ETH studying, like everyone else, machine learning.) We had glühwein in the student bar, and then for dinner Eritrean narrowly won out over raclette. The restaurant we went to had the thickest and spongiest injera I’ve ever eaten. It looked like one of those electron micrographs of bone tissue.
Huge snowflakes were falling as we walked back to his apartment. I didn’t have a hat or gloves, because like an idiot I left them, along with my winter coat, in the Istanbul airport bar. Whoops.
I’m at the end of the page, so I need to wrap this up. If you’ve read this far, I’m glad you’ve joined me on my adventures this month. I hope you have the best adventures in 2019 — whether those adventures are in the internal or external, tangible or intangible worlds.