Friday, May 28, 2010

The Second City

Day one: Izmir

I’m sitting at my desk with a complementary fruit basket stuffed with apricots, cherries and tiny plums, overlooking the bay of Izmir lit up like Christmas and the freightliners still inching across the waters. I seriously debated taking a bath and writing this in my hotel robe, only I know I would fall asleep on the keyboard.

The flight from Athens to Izmir, from the time the airplane engine begins to rumble to the time that you clear customs, takes under one hour. I would like to take one moment to boast that I got felt up by the security girl and she complemented my legs.
"Very strong!"

For all of the comparisons that Greece gets to Italy, Turkey is certainly their neighbor. Why is it that so many neighbors are the bitterest of enemies? Israel and Palestine. India and Pakistan. Greece and Turkey.

Why is it, also, that the route from an airport to your destined city, always takes you through the most tasteless, colorless roads in a fifty mile radius?

I was going down just such a road in the backseat of a black Volkswagen, a very quiet ride as my driver didn’t know any English and I know Turkish like I know Quantum Physics; it struck me that this road looks an awful lot like the despairing road between Venizelos Airport and Athens, with a few minor differences. Minarets piercing the sky, for one, all capped with little upward facing sickle moons on spheres. Then we got into the greener, more utilized section of the city and I started snapping. The houses are all stacked into the hills, all different colors. Pink, blue, white, yellow...and I was getting to observe all of this as we were stuck behind a horse buggy, but not of the tourist variety, no. This one was carrying the sorts of things the Paliadzes, or the “Junk Man” of Athens would be toting in his little wind up toy pick up truck. Thirty minutes and we arrived in the animated area of Osensuk, at the Ege Palas, a giant skyscraper of a hotel compared to the squat little concrete houses in Izmir. Rightly so as Izmir is a city that knows its earthquakes.

“We are a city that KNOWS earthquakes,” I was told later by Handei, my hostess and companion for the evening.
“We can look at the crack, the depth, and tell you exactly what number it struck on the Richter scale!”
Handei means “Love.” All of the names in Turkey mean something like poetry, and probably Handei has a more complicated meaning than “love” but I soon learned that Handei is a progressive girl with her head in the future. Sometimes her own culture evades her. Still, she escorted me to the hotel where I was met by the owner, who I later learned is associated with a royal family. She was aristocratic and demure, genteel in the way that she lead me to the cafe for a glass of water.
“Wouldn’t you like some fruit?”
“Well yes, that sounds refreshing!”
And there was soon a plate of cherries, watermelon, and these little green balls on my plate. Being a proper southerner I didn’t feel right eating in front of royalty.
“Go on, go ahead...”
So I stuck the fork and knife into the little green ball out of outright curiosity. The hotel duchess laughed. “GO on.. just bite into it!”
I believe she meant to take a bite like you might an apple. I was thinking this AFTER I had stuck the whole thing in my mouth and was rotating it from cheek to cheek trying to figure out how to break it down so that it might actually fit down my throat.

She politely looked away.

The three of us worked out the itinerary for the next three days. They threw out a lot of names of towns and ancient sites, I asked a few questions and they decided whether or not it was interesting enough to take me there. When all was settled, Hotel Highness bid Adieu and Handei and I were left to decide how to start.

Handei asked me if I’d like to go and rest before I saw the city.


I changed my shoes in my room on the 18th floor (which I took a moment to do a Cinderella twirl and throw open my curtains to reveal the gorgeous sea view)

And then I was down. We went first to the Ancient Agora. Sound familiar? Yeah, we have one in Athens, too. That’s going to happen a lot in these next three posts I think.

There is no comparison on the level that it’s been excavated, however. It’s still an archaeologist’s jigsaw puzzle, stacks of the tops of Corinthian Columns like chess pieces all down the square of land. There are some interesting warrens of shop stalls that aren’t open to the public. It’s also in the poor section of the city, giving the whole place a “Mad Max” apocalyptic feel of post-civilization chaos. The industrial skyline thrusts up just past the view of the slices of columns and wall.

We agreed that in sixty years this place was going to be amazing and moved along.

Passing a statue of a woman circled by two eagles, I asked Handei the significance.
“Well, Izmir is a city for girls.”
I asked her if she would please clarify.
“There is a saying here. Don’t trust the weather or the girls if Izmir!” and she explained that it was, in a way, a complement to the open minds of women from Izmir who have always been exposed to more customs, people, and ideas than the rest of Turkey and were therefore, likely to act unpredictably. She went onto say that the President has historically despised Izmir for being the wayward thinkers of the country. She said it with a certain anarchistic gleam in her eye not unlike that which I’ve detected in some Athenians.

We drove past Konak, a pier of posh shops and restaurants based in a building designed by none other than Mr. Gustave Eiffel. He designed another popular structure:

The seaside was lined with joggers, strollers, carts of breads, fisherman
“I don’t know how they eat that fish. I wouldn’t,” Handei
You would never know it by looking at it. It is that inky black-blue that the Aegean is famous for, crashing up in gentle little licks along the rocks and piers. With the sun beating down it’s tempting to dive in, which apparently had been done up until twenty years ago.
“All of our grandmothers have pictures of taking swims on their smoke breaks, but that’s over now,” said Handei.

The driver continued to reel us around the city, past the few neoclassical buildings that have stayed in spite of the great fire and the countless earthquakes, past the all too familiar stacks of block apartments, and finally he pulled up to a green area with an arched sign that read “ALLAH” in light bulbs. This was the entrance to the Bazaar.

(to be continued, as it is nearly 11 and all of this will start again before I’m ready to open my eyes if I don’t close them sometime around ten seconds ago.)