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.]