Letter from Istanbul
From: Joely Merriman '07
To: "Swarthmore College"
Subject: Re: Letter from Istanbul
oday I saw the Hagia Sophia. I saw many other things, too, but in truth they did not really matter. I saw the Dolmabahce Palace. It was gaudy and spectacular in an overkill of luxury and it convinced me that there is indeed too much of a good thing out there. Ornate reliefs and marble and ivory and gold for 480 rooms made my head move very quickly from intoxicated to exhausted. All I wanted to do was stay in the courtyard, which felt much closer to paradise than all of that extravagant excess. Still, the courtyard had stone statues of lions with their cubs, as well as palm trees - its saving grace, on this beautiful day, was that it had marble steps leading into the ocean. The amazing thing about the city is that it is the ocean. Everything is coastline, as the city is basically a conglomerate of peninsulas. This was my first day out sightseeing.
But the Hagia Sophia. Oh my goodness. So rarely have I found myself in such a sacred space. You can feel its age - its shadows and stones worn in from millions of feet. It is slowly succumbing to the pressures (quite literally) of time, but there is no question in my mind that it is just as beautiful today as it was a thousand years ago. It is integrated and organic and glowing. I feel that to say more would only take away rather than add anything - like the best of art (at least I think), it is made to be experienced more than it is to be talked about.
One thing that I have found funny is that the Turks (to the best of my knowledge) do not have a word for corny, or kitschy, or trite. I tried to explain it once, but we could only get as far as cliche and not even in the corny sense, but more as "lacking originality," I guess. Maybe it is because of things like this that I cannot figure out what exactly constitutes the Turkish sense of humor - it is very much lost in translation. My friend Nadia and I sit in her kitchen and try to make Turkish jokes and explore Turkish junk food together. Both junk food and desserts alike here put all else to shame. The Turks basically turn honey into gold.
Everything here is just fine. I love my classes. The kids here are very bright as well as able to enjoy life, and thus seem to have the best of both worlds - something that is very hard to find. Studying globalization / migration / nationalism here is pertinent and fascinating. My Turkish is actually improving, but due more to my determination than to my Turkish class. I can ask for directions. I can read a menu. I can bargain. I can chat with my roommates using the sparsest (though expanding!) set of words. I love the cadence of Turks when they talk to each other or to me. I told someone recently that Turks do not use the word 'awkward' nearly as much as Americans, and thus (as a direct result of this omission in their vocabulary, I think) moments are just never that awkward. Conversations and the individuals engaged in them are often strong enough to stand a minute of silence while both people just think and collect their thoughts. I love the slowness of it - maybe because it does not feel slow to me, so much as simply more natural. The hardest word for me to pronounce in Turkish is sahlep (steamed milk with orchid root and cinnamon). The hardest word for my friend to pronounce in English is colloquialism. All right so maybe colloquialism looks harder - but believe me when I say that this language is a beast!
The kids that I walked around the city with today were the first Americans I had hung out with for a while and to my dismay they once again made me embarrassed. When in the afternoon we heard the call to prayer one of them announced 'why can't that man just shut up when I don't understand what he is saying?' this was while we were waiting to enter the Sultan Ahmet Mosque. I know that it is not intentionally disrespectful so much as merely ignorant, so I let it go as best as I can. Still, I think I'll (once again) stay away from most Americans for a while. My three roommates are Turkish, and all have strong personalities. One has a wicked sense of humor (and a mother that cooks like nobody's business) and the other the most melodic voice, and the last one embodies phenomenal patience.
I walked through the pazar (the bazaar), which is so much easier to be at when you are with a man and it is a Sunday. That's when you see most families - husbands and wives out with their children. Much less touristy and more manageable. The pictures that I'm sending are true to the city but only a piece of it. It is huge!