Tuesday, January 6, 2009
ISTANBUL, Turkey -- With the Epiphany feast upon us, after a blessing of waters liturgy at the church of St. George at the Patriarchate here in Istanbul, I was granted an “akroasi” (meeting for a blessing) with His All Holiness Patriarch Bartholomew Monday morning. I was last to be seen; before me were mostly Greeks from Greece and men who seemed to get preferential treatment. When I finally saw the patriarch, he commented that that as a journalist, I have an important job because I can influence people. However, before seeing him, I was warned not to conduct an interview, which needs more than two weeks approval. Seeing the patriarch at all took quite a bit of waiting and confusion, and a stall-tactic soup consisting of white beans with lemon and spicy dry red pepper on the side. After all that, I learned several things: the Patriarch is indeed a kind man. He administers with Post-its. He has blue eyes. His ibriks for demitasse coffee are very old copper with intricate bronze handles. This may not make me a better Orthodox Christian, but it is what it is, and the patriarchate deserves support given longstanding, and current, oppression by the Turkish government. (On the main shopping street, the Catholics have a church where they can conduct services in Turkish and English. There's a Greek Orthodox Church at the top of the same street, at Taksim Square, but the authorities have only allowed two Greek Orthodox churches to remain open, and they aren't conveniently located.) Anyway, the Patriarch offered me chocolates, and gave me a gold-tone cross stamped on the back with the patriarchate name, a small book in Greek with a CD explaining the church of St. George in the Fener or “Phanar” district and the Church of Chora, which I visited last week. Thought the gifts were very generous; and he took down our Asia Minor [Turkey] family name and village name when I asked if they have a map of the Nicea region. I asked if he had any questions for me; his response was that I am young. I asked him how we know Gods will, but I don’t remember the answer – except that we have to listen and things take time. Other tidbits: he also offered to me that his baptized name was Demetrios – and he told me twice that I had to come back Wednesday, when he throws a cross into the nearby inlet that leads to the Bosphorus. And then, it was all over. A newly ordained deacon who hails from northern Indiana took two photographs, and the Patriarch put on a long black street coat and headed, with a driver, to the hospital to visit his sister. It was pouring rain all day Monday, so the light wasn't good for photos. You can see here the facade of the St. George church at the Patriarchate, with the administrative offices to the right. The brown wood is typical of old Istanbul structures including both hotels where I stayed. Surrounded by the sea, anything else deteriorates. Which begs the question, why would the builders of St. Stephen of the Bulgars use iron?
That means I'm a woman in Istanbul. And what an amazing city Istanbul is! There is no way I can see the modern art museum, and Topkapi might fall off the list too. On Monday, after visiting the Phanar, which is nearly on the water and a 10-minute cab ride from anything important to tourists, I wandered in the neighborhood. Lots of very old, brick-and-wood buildings being restored, but others very run down. I was told the "Fener" neighborhood is the most religiously conservative neighborhood in Istanbul; nearly every woman sported a headscarf and long coat over long dress. Fascinating too: a man selling garlic from a makeshift cart, hawking to second and third-story customers. From there, I hopped into a cab with two English speakers headed to Taksim Square -- they wouldn't let me pay -- and capped all this off with a walk from Taksim through the shopping street, Istiklal Caddesi (second photo here). The boys would love because a small red trolley runs up and down the street at very long intervals. I bought lots of little, Turkish things today: rose water (for a face toner or food flavoring), some antique post cards and Turkish music. (Books are very expensive here $50+) Huge New Year sales here. I found hand-knit baby booties from a villager selling on the street.
Had dinner by myself, wishing I had someone to talk to. But traveling alone means you meet more people, and experience more instead of concentrating on your companion. I asked in stores twice about places to eat, and landed in a bustling mezze taverna -- a "meyhane" -- the kind of place where locals have small portions of pan-seared fish, pickled greens that look like miniature olives leaves, spicy puree of tomato and raw onion, with raki diluted in water. It was perfect.