I went to the Feriköy Antique Bazaar yesterday, which is like Les Puces (The Fleas) in Paris, but smaller, and somehow better.
I posted a little video on Instagram and my friend Ben in Seattle messaged me when he saw it.
“That open air market looks like it’s full of treasure.”
It’s my new favorite place in Istanbul, and it’s full of the craziest stuff.
You can find records, vintage textiles, leather goods, hundreds and hundreds of enamel pins, sewing findings and old kolonya bottles and knives and even some Nazi memorabilia which I didn’t know how to handle seeing and hurried past.
You could dig through things at this place for hours, but it only took me one to find the only thing I bought: a single 1000 Lira bill from 90s Italy.
Now, I didn’t make it to Italy until 2000, but the currency still looked the same. This was a handful of years before they adopted the Euro, and I remember thinking the denominations were crazy: 1000 was the smallest bill? It was only worth half a dollar.
I’ve been thinking about that trip to Italy so much this year. It doesn’t exactly seem like it was 20 years ago, yet I also feel like I’ve lived several lifetimes between my first time overseas – when I flew from Seattle and landed in Milan with little more than a prayer to my name – and now – when I flew from Johannesburg to Istanbul to try and make a life in a city I’d never been to before.
In some ways, so much has changed between then and now.
9/11, the anniversary of which was last week, changed the way we fly forever, and the Euro stripped Italy, and so many other European countries, of their own currencies.
And fuck me, you can’t get pages added to a US passport anymore. I wish I would have known that before I renewed my skinny 26-pager only two years ago because it’s already half-full.
But corona has now left flight attendants dressed like intensive care nurses, so I probably wont need those pages anyway because my passport has been rendered virtually worthless.
But some things are exactly the same.
In this strange-as-hell 20 years I’ve maintained the exact same drive to see everything that I had when I was a kid. I’ve given everything else up for it – jobs, cars, apartments, any kind of legitimate financial stability – and yet even the times when I’m eating a banana out of a garbage can (Miami) or getting kidnapped (Paris) or even when I’m forging documents to get on a flight (many times, but literally less than a month ago in Johannesburg, too) the idea that I just have to keep going has simply never left me.
No matter how bad it gets, how poor I become, nor how many places I end up I still just seem to keep on going.
I remember coming home from that two weeks in Italy and immediately wanting to turn around and go back. I had merely criss-crossed a single European country, but most people I met along the way were, at the very least, on their way to a handful of countries in Europe, and I wanted to be just like them.
It took me about a year, but when I landed back in Rome, a month seemed like an eternity to be away from the States, but by the time I had made it to Madrid to catch my flight, I still wasn’t ready to leave.
But I got on that flight, and on it I watched an absolute treasure of a movie, the just-turned-20 Almost Famous, and I remember getting home wondering how I could write and travel, too. Did people do that but just write about…traveling? The only travel writing I knew of at the time was in National Geographic, where I assumed the authors were, like, very serious anthropologists and biologists and stuff, and I was then midway through a shitty college education at a private Fine Arts school populated by privileged white children, so I thought that was out of the question.
Watching that movie, back then, made me feel like the first time I saw the video for Pavement’s Spit on a Stranger, where you see an inordinately baby-faced Stephen Malkmus amble around Paris and London for seemingly the first time.
And you know, if I could have one wish today it would be to have a chat with some of the ladies that inspired the character of Penny Lane.
Bebe Buell – otherwise known as Liv Tyler’s mom – is 67.
And Pennie “Lane” Trumbull – for whom the name of the character was taken – is 66.
And much like them, I’m not trying to live another 25 years only to look back with any regrets, so I’m trying to stay as wild as possible for as long as possible.
And I suppose, also like them, I swear like a goddamned sailor.
But all joking aside, if I had my way, I’d happily stack another 20 years on top of this one spent digging through this big-ass world, looking for all the little things that I always inevitably find along the way. And if I’m very, very lucky, I’ll never lose that sense of anxiety and wonder and fear and awe when I arrive somewhere I’ve never been and feel 19 all over again.
Zai’s been gone a week now. He’s catching up with his family in Amman and composing new things in his home studio. My birthday is next month, and if I had my perfect wish for what to do on it, it would be to join him in Jordan so we could go together to the Treasury in Petra. I remember seeing it in a Nat Geo when I was a kid, but back then, I thought only, like, archeologists and stuff could go.
But as it turns out, any scrappy soul with a plane ticket and a prayer is welcome.
As long as your passport isn’t worthless.
[up next: So WTF, Miao got chicaned on the train?!?!]
So I didn’t move last Tuesday, but I did move today, and it was not without its complications. I had “sworn off” Airbnb after they stole nearly $1000 from me while I was in Johannesburg (long story,) but, here in Istanbul, it’s effectively the only game in town.
So I found a cute, tiny flat down a cute, tiny alley in Beyoğlu. It had a terrace, which I imagined myself working on, so I booked it for a month.
Unbeknownst to me, the owner had actually lied about the terrace, so it was more like a cute, tiny prison cell with literally nowhere to set my laptop: just a box that barely enveloped a bed with a barely accessible window.
The hardwood floors were gorgeous, though.
So it turns out that this guy owns a hotel off İstiklal, and as Zai and I were already late to meet our friend Andreu before he left for the western coast, we agreed to take a room there instead instead of spending hours painstakingly rebooking our stay with Airbnb’s overworked customer service agents.
It…is a hotel room. There’s a bed. There’s three actually, though I’ll only use one and Zai will only be staying a night as he scored a flight back to Amman. It does have wifi. But that’s pretty much the end of the list of good attributes of this place.
Not only is nearly everything in the room broken in some way, but to complement the many rips and tears in the wallpaper, there’s a generous splattering of blood on the walls, like someone sacrificed an animal in here.
And it’s on this loud-as-fuck block with two other hotels and a bunch of ad-hoc plastic tables and chairs in front of the abandoned tenement across the street where all the Johns sip tea and wait for their favorite sex workers to retrieve them.
A lot of these dudes are terrible, and between them and the new host of neighborhood cats, I wonder who the real animals are: I literally saw one dude trying to negotiate one woman’s price down from what I am assured is already a criminally low wage compared to sex workers in other cities.
If you’re unaware about the stray cats in Istanbul, you should check out this goddamned charming documentary about them. It’s my new favorite thing in the world.
To explain briefly, the confluence of city life and the tenants of Islam create a scenario where street cats have proliferated into the thousands. They’re everywhere: sleeping on chairs at outdoor cafés and waiting outside the butcher for the scraps they’ll inevitably be thrown. They’re beloved and cherished by Istanbulites, and I am now among them.
I fall in love with nearly every one I see, and I’ve had to train myself to not stop to pet them all.
My friends will tell me not to touch them, that maybe they can carry disease (*cough* CORONA *cough*,) but I mean, come on: Istanbulites are totally cool with them. Plus, a squirrel got the plague in Colorado, and you still see white people on Instagram keeping them as pets, so I think it’s cool.
And who else is supposed to keep me company when Zai leaves?
Just kidding: Lovage, Emma, And Miao are still here.
And there’s always Animal Crossing. You think I’m joking, but I downloaded it back it Johannesburg to pass the time, and now I’ve been playing for so long that I’m playing to fucking win.
Am I religiously playing a game intended for literal children? Totally. And seriously, don’t @ me, but do come find me if you also play Pocket Camp. I’m on level 157 and I have two fucking pools, son. You can find me at 6905 0804 639.
But if you’re anything like me and your circle of friends is dwindling and you’re worried that even Animal crossing wont be able to placate you in coming weeks, you can make like the unofficial 2020 mascot and just start screaming into the void.
For real, if you know of a better nominee than this peacock in San Francisco that wont stop screaming then I’m open to hear about them. But until then, I say we just all bow in respect at our future King Peacock, because I honestly don’t even think that’s weird anymore.
But hey. That’s coming from someone who plays a game intended for ten year olds and lives in a room that I’m pretty sure was used to slaughter chickens.
So what do I know.
And do you fucking know what else? After all that, we actually missed Andreu anyway.
[up next: Zai is leaving tomorrow.]
I’m moving tomorrow, but I’ve spent two weeks staying in a hostel near Taksim square, which is, in many ways, the center of this surprisingly vast metropolis.
It’s been a long time since I’ve stayed somewhere quite like this–somewhere that long-time travelers flock to, that fosters such a specific type of camaraderie. And now, traveling during Covid-19, we’ve all gathered here like moths to a flame: Istanbul, the largest city in one of the few countries in the world with open borders.
And it’s in an interesting location–placed just so that it straddles the Bosphorus, joining Europe and Asia into one, huge, cosmopolitain megalopolis. It’s a bit Mediterranean, a bit Middle Eastern, and all together a perfect place for a bunch of scrappy nomads to convene from our far flung countries. And we cling to one another like we’ll never make a friend ever again.
You should meet them.
First, there’s Lovage. She’s a Chinese coder from Guangzhou. One day last year she quit her job and fled, and right before the lockdown she managed to get to Serbia, where she’s spent much of the pandemic until now.
There’s Andrei, a Romanian who hates Romania so much he rarely tells people that’s where he’s actually from. Right before he managed a flight to Istanbul, he deleted all of his social media, even his WhatsApp, got a new phone, and is now determined to stay gone after finding himself stuck in Bucharest for too many weeks.
And there’s Zia, a Jordanian composer who’s trapped here waiting for the border to his home country to open. Of us, he’s the only one actually trying to get home. He misses his family. The rest of us barely understand this concept, but we’re trying our best to empathize.
About a week ago, right around her birthday, Lovage bought a ticket to Kyiv. Her Turkish visa was set to expire today, and without a residency permit she’d be in danger of a ban or a fine. Compared to most places, it’s shockingly easy to get a residency permit in Istanbul, or any part of Turkey for that matter, but the industry surrounding it has become this odd, slightly corrupt system where too much money makes it into the hands of the wrong people.
Basically, this is how it goes.
Most landlords require some sort of residency permit to rent an apartment to you, but you need a rental contract in order to get a residency permit.
Enter: the “entrepreneurs.”
In order to get a residency permit, pretty much everyone literally just buys a rental contract for a place they will never live, and have no intention to. Hundreds of people a week apply for their residency permits from the same handful of addresses–but the location acts as merely a mailbox to use to get your papers that they will send outlining your next steps. Beyond that, as far as where you will live, you’re on your own.
I still have two and a half months on my visa here, so I’m not applying. At least not right now.
I’m still holding onto the idea that Georgia will open its borders soon, and I’ll find myself within the safe arms of Tbilisi where I can stay for up to a year.
And in the meantime, my new cohort and I will wrangle these mean-ass streets together, like I used to with so many other hostel crews I’ve assembled all over the world in my twenties and thirties: the crews I still talk to from Austin and Panama City and Bangkok and San José and Paris that have been my little, brief, rag-tag families in places I hadn’t yet ever been.
And you know–I’m not even sure I want to move. My whole plan since I arrived was to get here, stay at this hostel for a couple of weeks, and figure out exactly where I wanted to stay. But from my vantage, the one where I was trapped completely alone in Johannesburg for nearly five months, the idea of moving into my own apartment sounds a bit…scary.
Some new people arrived yesterday. The Guatemalan Edgardo and Quebecois Florence arrived fresh from the Philippines where Covid has kept them since March. They speak of being trapped–and I totally understand that part–but their stories involve greeting the morning with a swim in a sparkling blue ocean, and lounging about in hammocks in the afternoon reading.
After I met them, I made a note to myself: one about treating every country I go from now on like one I could be trapped in, and making my decisions about where to travel accordingly.
For me, lockdown was literally days in a row within four walls, my weekly trip to the grocery store being my only outing.
And that’s why I’m a bit wary to live alone again, especially when I’m far more lucky than most to have already assembled a crew so tight that I cannot imagine a future where I don’t know them.
But regardless of where I end up, none of the four of us are planning on leaving any time soon, and the four of us are connected in that way that nomads often are: by that place and time that sometimes, somehow, turns into those friendships that last beyond the borders that we’ll all someday cross.
Just as soon as they open.
[up next: Will I move? Who knows.]
I’m in Istanbul.
It was scary leaving South Africa; I was still so fearful right up until the last minute that I somehow wouldn’t be let on the plane that I didn’t even book a place to stay until my flight to Doha was getting ready to board.
But I made it, and not too worse for wear; I’ve checked into a little place in a very touristy part of the city, but it’s nice and they have free coffee all day, and now that I type it I want one now, even though it’s 6pm.
There is also alcohol. And cigarettes. But mostly I’ve been into the food.
And there’s fucking food everywhere: at the market and in bakeries and right out on the street.
This morning I went to a bakery down the road with one of my roommates for breakfast; I had a trio of this decadent thing called a pogaca – a sesame seed smothered bread filled with feta cheese – and a cup of tea so strong you’d swear I bought it in the commonwealth.
Before I got here I was so excited to try a real baklava, and real Turkish Delight: although I wasn’t one of the kids who was enamored with this food by C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, I read an incredible account of what several people thought of this treat as a child having never had it on Gastro Obscura. The author notes: “For kids who weren’t already familiar with it, though, “Turkish Delight” was likely to be meaningless—which meant we could project onto it whatever confection seemed most delicious.” I’m not a kid, but I had long assumed that the few I had come across in the states were merely inferior, but my taste tests so far have proved me wrong.
I went for the rose flavor, as I’m a sucker for the color pink. But alas, they are, to me, more beautiful than delicious. Though I will admit that I’ll almost certainly have it again.
I think the thing that I was projecting onto the moniker is something more akin to Botan Rice Candy – the vaguely orange-flavored, pink, chewy candy from Japan that you could find at corner stores in my home town of Seattle when I was growing up. While Now and Laters were frequently collected by color and traded at school, a box of Botan Ami would make us go fucking wild. A single piece could be enough to trade an entire lunch for.
I now regret not looking for it when I was in Japan just months ago.
It was winter when I left Johannesburg, and most weeks I would buy a small bag of apples or pears on my weekly trip to the grocery store, but here, all the storefronts have overflowing produce stands outside that are overflowing with multi-colored fruits. When I saw them, I felt like I had forgotten that they all exist, and I can’t help but buy a few pieces everyday.
The peaches here, though. They’re so big and so ripe I had been almost scared to buy one, as if I didn’t even deserve something so decadent.
But then I came across this beautiful comic that reminded me why I’m out here in the first place: to remind myself that I’m alive. That we can decide for ourselves what we deserve.
So I bought a single, soft, fuzzy peach. Its circumference was bigger than my palm, and it was so ripe and juicy that it easily yielded and leaked beneath my little knife. The juice ran down my arms as I ate it, my eyes rolled into the back of my head, and I felt like I had never eaten a peach before.
But my favorite thing here so far has been an absolutely delectable fucking mouthful called a midye dolma – like a dolma you might be familiar with, the kind you find exported all over the world from here or Greece that’s wrapped in a grape leaf, the filling is similar. But instead of a grape leaf, the wrapping is a whole Bosphorus mussel.
At night, when people are about in the square sipping beers and lounging about on patios, the midye dolmici come out with their huge round pans set into carts. For a Lira or so a piece, they’ll shuck a stuffed mussel right in front of you, douse it in lemon juice, and present it to you steaming ready to eat in one bite.
They’re rich and acidic all at the same time, and so delicious that it’s shocking.
After my first one my eyes widened, a little sound escaped me. I unconsciously brought my hand to my mouth to cover it while I was chewing as if I was doing something illicit.
They’re so good it’s a crime.
It’s nice having people around again; I was so chronically alone in Johannesburg that I was starting to go a little nuts. But the conversation seems to always be where we’re headed next, and I feel like the only one with no plan at all.
When I first started traveling, I was always so jealous of the people who travel long term with no clear goal at all, and now that I’m one of them, especially this year, I feel a bit left out. There’s no border that I’m waiting for to open, no city I have in mind to see next. I was so determined just to connive my way out of Africa that I forgot that I used to have dreams about where I wanted to go next.
I was watching the new episode of Hot Ones the other day, which, if you have not seen it, is fucking delightful. Each new episode has some celebrity or another that eats an increasingly spicy queue of hot wings, all while answering questions about their craft. Bless yourself with an episode or two if you never have, it’s the perfect quarantine binge.
But the last guest was Drew Barrymore, who, when asked about what types of movies she likes to watch, answered with the almost oddly prescient: “If it’s good, I don’t really care what it is, I just want to get lost in it.”
Maybe I don’t need to know what’s next right now, when there’s a giant city right here to get lost in.
[up next: I guess I have to find an apartment? Stay tuned.]
I’m at OR Tambo International Airport. I am past security, my bags are checked and already in the belly of a plane, and I can SEE THAT PLANE out the window, so I know that it’s real. I landed in Johannesburg December 29th, the night before AfroPunk started, and I was supposed to stay a month. Then three. but it turned out to be nearly eight.
I overstayed my visa by almost 5 months, but I ended up with a ban waiver. Over my exit stamp in my passport is printed the word ‘COVID’ in ballpoint pen, seemingly explaining that I didn’t have a choice. I was stuck here like so many people stuck in all kinds of places all over the world.
This is my third attempt at leaving. Fourth if you count the flight bound for Paris that I let take off without me in February. But this is the first one I’ve come anywhere near actually boarding, and fuck me, it feels like a weight off my shoulders.
This has been so fucking scary for me. I, with my American passport, have never had to feel insecure about boarding a flight or being accepted into a country, and I’m unaccustomed to the anxiety that this situation created for me.
And look, I know I haven’t been in fucking Beirut or something. I know that. But seriously: while we’re on the subject, if you somehow missed it, a giant explosion decimated the majority of Beirut’s port. The cause was negligence, surely, but as far as we know largely innocuous (meaning: not any kind of attack or terrorism) but the result has been devastating. Hundreds of people died, even more were injured. Many are still missing. And many who worked or lived in the area have been left without income or a home or both.
I get that that is true terror.
But poor, little, naive me, ME who brags about traveling like it’s a goddamned sport, ME who touts my experience like it’s valuable: Covid reduced me to a newbie.
Planes have been my favorite thing since I first rode one when I as sixteen. That day, I spent about an hour in the air, barely even rising off the ground in little more than a prop plane from Portland, OR to Seattle, WA.
But I was hooked.
And twenty years ago this year I went overseas for the first time: I flew from Seattle to Milan and rode the train around Italy for two weeks. I was brand new and scared a lot of the time, constantly afraid of getting mugged yet still drunk off Peroni and grappa, stumbling around Rome three sheets to the wind like I was fucking asking for it.
This was before the European Union, and I bought everything in Italian Lira. I still remember the exchange: 1000 Lira was about $0.50, so you could do the math in your had pretty easily. A shot of espresso was 1500 Lira. A beer was about 6000. I don’t remember how much anything else cost. I made it back to the states still hungover and completely broke, but absolutely fucking entranced, like I was under a spell.
I went back to Rome the next year, and I even made it to Switzerland and France. I went to Germany and Spain and Belgium. I had left my shitty life spent sitting in some classroom in Portland painting a pineapple for six hours twice a week and I was, instead, falling down a staircase drunk in Berlin at five in the morning. I was eating crepes on the streets of Paris. I was waiting in a hundred lines for a hundred museums with my Olympus 35mm camera slung across my body by the strap like a goddamned pro.
And then I went back to the West Coast where I got in a fight with someone. The details are fuzzy these days, but that was the beginning of the now carefully honed proclivity I harbor to simply fly away from shit I don’t like rather than stay and fight through it. So I bought a plane ticket, and on September 10, 2001, I flew to Miami.
My return flight was a week later.
And I tell you this story because That flight did not phase me one iota.
The entire country and a lot of the world was terrified to fly at the time, but I showed up at MIA as fresh as a daisy thinking, “fuck it: if I die, I die.”
Much like this airport I’m sitting in right now, MIA was a ghost town. Only a few days into a completely new era of air travel, we didn’t yet have the TSA or need to put our liquids into little plastic bags. But I remember being SHOCKED when an agent asked me to take off my shoes at the gate, slip them into a bin, and step through the open maw of a metal detector.
But now all that shit is common place, right? Our luggage is even designed around the rigamarole we must now endure when going through security: special pouches for our laptops and reusable clear bags for our toothpaste and shampoo. Now we just have to add to it our face masks, shields, and hand sanitizer.
Exactly a month ago when borders were first starting to close, I wrote a letter I never sent to my friend Ashley that sounded shockingly like my own eulogy.
“Today is Tuesday, March 17th,” I wrote exactly five months ago, “my visa expires in eleven days, and I will have to board a plane sometime before that [ed note: obvi I didn’t end up getting to leave. You can read about that scary-ass time if you want]. I’ll have to sit in a dirty seat in coach and with a shaky hand, rub an alcohol wipe over my tray table like a prayer to a god I don’t believe in. And then I’ll land in Dubai or Istanbul or Kigali or Bangkok or any city that will take me–because the only thing that I’m sure of right now is that I’m even more likely to die if I go back to the States.”
9/11 was scary. That day we wandered around The Beach (which is not the actual beach, but rather a short hand for everything south of about 24th street in Miami Beach) and ended up at Playwrights and the Deuce. But for some reason, after watching the towers fall a hundred times on repeat on bar TV’s all over SoBe, we were prepared for whatever came next.
Or maybe we were just naive.
But we got through that, and I think we’ll get through this, too. One thing I can be sure of is that I will probably never be this scared to catch a plane ever again in my life. What doesn’t kill you, as they say, tempers you against what’s to come.
And what’s to come for me is that my flight to Doha is boarding right now.
[up next: DOH –> IST, tomorrow morning.]