No one goes to Istanbul at Christmastime.
No one but us. An American couple who occasionally display a stronger sense of adventure than sense.
Like most tourists, we stayed in Sultanahmet, the peninsula where Byzantine emperors and Islamic sultans built their palaces and houses of worship. But few Istanbulians reside there.
That meant that in mid-December, when the air was cold and bone-achingly damp and the sun dropped out of sight by 4:30 p.m., my girlfriend, Amy, and I had Sultanahmet largely to ourselves. This was fine during the day, when there were no lines to tour Topkapi Palace, few throngs at the Grand Bazaar.
Nights were something else. If we didn't eat by 7, we might not find an open restaurant.
So we were delighted to discover an outdoor cafe that had neatly pitched a walled tent near the Blue Mosque and kept it warm with outdoor heaters. There were painted hexagonal tables and low chairs, hookahs with sweet-smelling apple tobacco, snacks and endless hot tea.
Tired of our hotel, we camped out in the cafe for hours some evenings, playing backgammon, writing postcards and reading. Amy was working her way — very slowly — through a mystery in French, dictionary at the ready.
The French dictionary attracted the attention of Esref, a guy in his 30s who worked at the cafe. Besides speaking Turkish and Kurdish, he'd learned English as an adult and was now teaching himself French. Serving tourists was how he practiced his languages, and on a few slow days in December he got a lot of practice with us.
Like many working in Istanbul's tourist industry, Esref was a Kurd from eastern Turkey, where jobs were scarce. After his compulsory military service, he'd decided there were better jobs than weaving rugs, and so even though his formal education had been short, he'd decided to learn English and French with hope of emigrating to Canada.
Turks love to chat
Turks in general were among the most natural conversationalists we met during 10 months of crisscrossing Europe in 2002 and '03. The countless landmarks were awe-inspiring, but one of the particular joys of visiting Turkey was exactly this type of encounter, in which the people were generous with their opinions, their observations and even their frustrations with living in Turkey.
Turks also seem to lack "gaydar." It's not expressly illegal to be homosexual in Turkey, but the place is no Fire Island either. Amy and I, like many lesbians, rarely got as much as a sideways glance traveling together. We did, however, get a lot of hotel rooms with twin beds.
Esref, who had been so chatty as he won game after game of backgammon, grew quieter one afternoon when we were joined by his boss, Mehemet, who was owner of the cafe. Though not much older than Esref, the Boss was more self-assured and spoke proudly of his trips to Europe and the United States. He wasn't with us long, but as he left, almost as an afterthought, he asked whether we would like to go out later to hear Turkish music.
Of course we would. This is why we'd traveled 10 time zones: to gaze at the minarets, taste the kebabs, listen to the troubadours.
We rendezvoused at the cafe around 10 p.m., but only Esref was there. After a cellphone consultation with Mehemet, we hopped in a cab for a short trip to a livelier part of town.
The phrase "Turkish music" had conjured up specific images: long-necked lutes, or trance-inducing Sufi music. Belly dancing, perhaps.
We found ourselves in a Turkish disco.
The nightclub was not cheap. It seemed chosen to impress the American ladies, to show them the sophisticated side of Istanbul.
The place was dark — my memory holds only black tables lining black walls, surrounding a small black dance floor illuminated by colored lights bouncing off a mirrored ball. The music was not halk muzigi (folk music) or fasil (gypsy-sounding ballads). It was grating Euro-pop sung in Turkish.
This guy can dance but not to their tune
Missed signals and a lack of familiarity with male-female dating rituals result in an awkward night out on the town in Istanbul.
We've upgraded our reader commenting system. Learn more about the new features.
Los Angeles Times welcomes civil dialogue about our stories; you must register with the site to participate. We filter comments for language and adherence to our Terms of Service, but not for factual accuracy. By commenting, you agree to these legal terms. Please flag inappropriate comments.
Having technical problems? Check here for guidance.