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 chatTurks 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.
We had to speak loudly to hear one another, but we ordered beer and discussed Turkey and its own delicate dance with the European Union.
When the Boss arrived nearly an hour later, he slid in next to me at the table and launched into the self-aggrandizing patter he'd started at the cafe. He told me that he was divorced and that now he wanted nothing to do with Turkish women. He told me he sold carpets to celebrities in Los Angeles. He told me he could win over any woman on the dance floor.
I can't pinpoint the exact moment I realized this was a double date. But when I looked over at Esref, and he had his arm around my girlfriend, I was sure.
My eyes met Amy's. We ordered more beer.
'Boyfriend' questionsBeing unfamiliar with heterosexual dating rituals, Amy and I do not know how to flirt with men. Likewise, we have no skills for giving them the brushoff. When the Boss said we should dance, we played along, despite the fact that we dance only at weddings and in our own kitchen. We suffered through a slow dance like awkward middle-schoolers.
Despite two beers, I was startlingly sober. I suspected there was no alcohol in the beer.
Amy, I decided, was getting the better end of this deal. Sure, Esref's arm was still lingering behind her shoulders, but they were talking Kurdish politics.
My conversation with the Boss was along a different tack. Did I have a boyfriend back in Los Angeles? Who was my last boyfriend? How long exactly had I been without a boyfriend? Was I looking for a boyfriend? Didn't I want a boyfriend?
My answers were honest. I'd been without a boyfriend since 1990 and no, I wasn't actively seeking out another one.
The Boss looked me over and smiled, a bit sheepish. He shook his lowered head. If there was a title for this image, it was "Lothario Defeated."
"Here," he said, "just give me a kiss on the cheek." It was a consolation prize.
Until he turned his head quickly and pecked me on the lips.
There was nothing lewd about this behavior. It was just adolescent. If he thought that his kiss was going to produce a Prince Charming-style transformation, he was wrong. My cheeks burned, but it was too dark to tell.
He wanted to dance again, but I was having none of it. Amy and Esref sided with me, and we watched as the Boss hit the dance floor alone.
I'll say this for him: Boss man could dance. Really dance. As in, if this whole carpet-exporting and cafe-owning thing didn't work out, he could live on tips as an exotic dancer in the U.S. He moved so dramatically, so unself-consciously, that people stepped back and watched. He was in jeans and a white cotton sweater that glowed on the black-lighted dance floor.
Later, in the marble and wood ladies' room, Amy and I plotted our escape.
"We're really tired," I said upon our return. "Walking around Istanbul has worn me out."
If Esref remembered that we'd spent about the bulk of that afternoon in the cafe, he said nothing.
The Boss retrieved the check, which was outrageous for seven buzzless beers. We offered to pay half, and — even after hours of bragging about his carpet-cafe empire — he accepted.
I got into the front passenger seat of his Nissan, Amy and Esref in the back, and the Boss drove us home, listening on the radio to the same horrible Euro-pop. There was no drama. No resistance. No excuses. They drove us back to our hotel and we thanked them.
And then he drove off. The last man who ever kissed me.
Robin Rauzi is an assistant travel editor and keeper of the Slow Motion Tourist website.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times