Sunday, June 23, 2013

Memories of Taksim

Taksim Square.  Gezi Park.  Istanbul.  Recently the world has watched as Turks peacefully protested against a government that responded with violence and tear gas and water cannons aimed directly at its own citizens.  But when I think of these places, I don’t just remember the protests and the ugliness.  I am hit with a barrage of beautiful memories of the time I lived in Istanbul. 

The first time I went to Taksim Square, I was new to Istanbul, and on my way to buy a wedding dress.  Accompanied by my future mother-in-law, my future Aunt Nalan, and a family friend named Emine, we set off for Istiklal Caddesi, a street of shops just off of Taksim Square.  Istiklal Caddesi was closed to traffic, which made it feel quiet and calm, especially in comparison to the bustling activity of Taksim Square.  A red tram rolled up and down the street, picking up passengers like a San Francisco street car.  The street was lined with elegant shops and restaurants.   I thought I was going to try on bridal gowns that day.  I was wrong.
Emine led us to a shop across the street from Galatasaray High School, a French speaking high school for Turkish students established in 1481.  Galatasaray looked more like a French palace than a high school.  Emine took us up a dark, winding staircase to the second floor of the shop, where the owner seated us and brought us steaming cups of rich, dark Turkish coffee.  And then he proceeded to show us an assortment of silks, satins, and lace.

That was when I figured it out.  I wasn’t going to try on any bridal gowns.  I was picking out the materials that Emine would make into a dress.  After my initial panic subsided, I pulled out a photo I’d found in a bridal magazine of a dress that might be suitable, and Emine proceeded to pick out what she thought she would need to create the dress.  In less than an hour, my bridal dress shopping was over, and in less than eight weeks, I got married in my beautiful dress.  I was married only a few miles from Taksim Square, high on a hill in the Golden Dome Salon, a ballroom of the Hilton Hotel that overlooked the Bosphorus.
In the early days of our marriage, my husband and I would often go to Taksim Square and stroll up and down Istiklal Caddesi.  He introduced me to one of his favorite sweets there, profiterole from the Inci Pastanesi.  Profiteroles were small cream puffs put in a bowl and drizzled with a chocolate glaze.  The shop was founded in the 1940s by a Greek immigrant from Albania.  It is the perfect example of the beautiful diversity of Istanbul, French pastries created by Greek immigrants with a passionate group of young Turkish patrons.

We had drinks with Aunt Nalan and Uncle Nuri in Cicek Pasaj, which means Flower Passage, and is an L-shaped courtyard in one of the first European style buildings constructed during the Ottoman Empire.  It is a lively area filled with restaurants and bars, and a wonderful place to enjoy good food, a glass of raki, and the colorful night life of Istanbul.
We attended a Christmas Eve service there with our good friends Bonnie and Bulent.  I think the church was German or Swiss and close to one of the embassies.  Istiklal Caddesi is dotted with churches, embassies and synagogues.  We have Jewish friends in Istanbul who share a long history with the city.  They came to Istanbul during the Spanish Inquisition, when Istanbul was one of the few ports open to Jewish immigrants.

I often used to explore the area with my good friend Sena.  Sena was from New York, but she had a love of Istanbul that was contagious.  Together we discovered so many nooks and crannies and interesting little places in the city, and she was the person who introduced me to the Pera Palas Hotel, at the opposite end of Istiklal Caddesi from Taksim Square.
The Pera Palas Hotel was built in 1892 to host passengers travelling on the Orient Express.   Agatha Christie wrote “Murder on the Orient Express” while staying in room 411 of this hotel.  As Sena and I sat sipping coffee in faded velvet chairs, I felt like I’d stepped back into time.  I half expected Agatha Christie herself to come through the doorway at any moment and join us.

Now as I watch the protests in Istanbul from very far away, my heart is heavy.  But Istanbul is a city that has survived countless wars, endless social changes and a wide variety of governments, sultans and emperors.  It is a city with an old soul, but it is the people of Istanbul who are its life blood, and with their peaceful protests and their firm dedication, they are working hard right now to keep it alive.


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