Istanbul, the meeting point of worlds far apart

“Çok yaşayan değil çok gezen bilir”
“Not he who lived long knows, but he who travelled much”
– Turkish proverb

Istanbul, 28 June-4 July 2014
In Istanbul, two Italians, a Greek, a Chilean, a Colombian and a Costa Rican all coming from Sweden and jumping in the same cab is definitely not an extraordinary or in any other way noteworthy fact. One might argue that in our mobile world we surely were not the first, nor will we be the last, or that it is not an uncommon thing to see elsewhere either. But different from many other cities, it feels like Istanbul has long ago given up taking stock of who walks her streets. Having embraced its millennia-old role as crossroads for thousands of people from everywhere in the known world, keeping track of what language they speak, where they are from, where they are headed and with whom, is just pointless.

 

Coming from Sweden, the impact with Istanbul is huge. Not that anyone of us was unaware of how vibrant a metropolis further south than Scandinavia can be. It’s the reference point that is really quick in shifting, and what was familiar up to just a handful of months earlier ends up coming a bit as a surprise. The half empty northern streets were somewhat suddenly replaced by a tremendous amount of vehicles streaming from all sides and directions, out of and into the arteries leading to and from the innermost depths of the vast city. No matter what vantage point you’d observe it from, it stretched out as far as the eye could see. Later that week, looking out across the Bosphorus, the Marmara Sea and the Golden Horn from on top of the Galata Tower, gave us all a somewhat dizzying feeling. The vast stretches of the Asian continent extended limitless before us, and just behind us the Balkan hills and beyond them the old mitteleuropäische countrysides. Bridging and keeping the two together, as if preventing them from drifting inexorably apart, Istanbul: an endless sprawl of buildings chasing each other in all directions all the way to the horizon. It felt as if the city had been as large as the Asian continent itself, reaching endlessly all the way to the farthest shore on the other side.

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Down below, in the city, people were coming and people were going; everywhere, at any time of the day and of the night. Everyone seemed to find excuses to turn every inch of it into a meeting point, as if out of a hard-to-die habit that had been passed on for countless generations. From the heart of Europe, from the Middle East and from across the Mediterranean, people had been meeting in this very same place for centuries. Coming and going, different languages, skin colours, religions, they all met here to trade their goods, do politics, to be on their way or to stay (and to quarrel, too, ofttimes). Layer upon layer, the roll of the centuries piled up traces of all those who remained here long enough to leave something behind. These sediments are now fused together in a city where dervishes end up whirling their skirts against the backdrop of the roman Basilica Cistern, and Islamic prayer is heard among the byzantine mosaics of Hagia Sofia.

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It was the height of Ramadan and of the Islamic year: a month of celebration and family gatherings. The festive atmosphere permeated everything. The lights decorating the streets with snowflakes and gift bags contrasted oddly with the warm weather and long summer days for anyone who spent their lives in predominantly Christian societies. During Ramadan, from daybreak to sunset, all activities become a pastime to bridge those hours remaining before the evening prayer and the Iftar, the fast-breaking meal. In Istanbul, that is the eagerly anticipated moment parcels and wrappings are dug out of lunchboxes, picnic baskets and paper bags by families and friends sitting together and sharing their food in parks and open public spaces. It was an incredibly pleasant moment: even not being Muslim, and having had dinner already, you could not avoid being pervaded by that feeling of comfort, tranquillity and partnership permeating the cool air of the evening. It was at dusk, in fact, that the charm of the streets was at its best.

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In full daylight, we spent the best part of our time indoors, escaping the heat in the shade of the covered marketplaces and in the hushed silence of the mosques.
Spices of different provenance and purpose have been traded for centuries by merchants roaming the Silk Route. They can still be found in the Mısır Çarşısı (the Spice Market) by the mouth of the Golden Horn, bought and sold in the very same fashion. Supermarkets all over the world nowadays sell cumin, clovers, saffron and cinnamon, but for centuries the low-lit markets of Istanbul have been the trading hubs for most of the spices reaching European kitchens. It was not difficult to imagine how the market itself would have looked like back then, having always been that very same melting-pot of different colours, perfumes, and languages it is today.

 

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The markets’ sounds and the chatter died out in the soft tranquillity of the mosques. And the heat of the streets, too. Within, their walls kept both out, creating a private space for the faithful to forget about the confusion of daily businesses. The colours alone remained as the only reminiscence of the world outside. The blues were the shades of the sky and the sea, the yellows were as bright as the Sun, the greens were those of the trees and the reds and ochres were those of the spices sold in the market’s narrow low-lit alleys. Different from the market, though, the violent sunlight did pour in from the outside, but filtered and diluted in the mosques’ quiet vastness, filling up its secluded spaces and its domes with an ivory brilliance.

 

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It was while thinking back at the time we all spent together in Sweden that this trip came to mind. Just like many have met in Istanbul over dozens of centuries, we’ve all come from different directions and met at our own crossroads. By now, most of us have left for good or will do so shortly. At any crossroads, most people leave soon after arriving and having taken a look around. And so did we, though our time together lasted five years. But crossroads are places where people often return, crossing each others’ path again, once or more. It needn’t be the same place. Any crossroads works. They have the quality of being both the same and different: meeting points of roads connecting places and people; some are remote, barely a lamp post in the countryside, others are as large as a metropolis, but they all serve the same purpose: bringing people together in a specific place and time, over and over again. Some crossroads will surely connect our distant worlds once more. What remains to figure out is where, and when.

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“Caballero, una moneda para ser un Hombre?”

Valencia, Spain, 3 October 2016.
An evening out having a low-quality beer in a place close to my hotel. On one side the beach, windy and rather empty on a regular Monday evening. On the other, a short alley and at the end of it an empty esplanade with trees and benches and whatever else is necessary to make the place the buzzing place-to-be in the high season. You can almost picture families from anywhere in northern Europe, kids with ice-cream all over their brand new clothes, teenage sons and daughters hanging out comfortably out of sight for fleeting romance or a rebellious smoke. But there’s really none of that. The few bars and restaurants, some claiming to be clubs even, collect only a few customers, all in their late 30s. If you come here on a Monday evening from downtown Valencia, you do it to stretch the summer a bit, to keep the memory of summertime partying close by. And you do it by car. You don’t walk here. A few mid-range vehicles in the esplanade, nothing fancy or reminiscent of the crowd (probably) populating the area in August. Continue reading “Caballero, una moneda para ser un Hombre?”

Ancient struggles

Athens, July 2016.IMG_9154

Walking North West from Monastiraki, past small squares and open air cafés, the Athenian landscape changes gradually but perceptibly. Streets and buildings gain a shabbier and unkempt character. The open places and green areas become fewer and loose their charm. Our hotel, in the heart of Evripidou, stands out like the last stronghold against the advancing decline. Yet, it seems as if dirt and neglect could be scraped off with the tip of a knife to reveal traces of happier and wealthier days. The atmosphere is that of a quiet and bewildered effort to adjust to a new and not yet fully understood disgrace.
The hardship the Greek people have experienced in the past couple of years are known to all, portrayed in newspapers, TV news and international negotiations. They are here fully visible. Tangible almost. Restaurants and fashion shops are replaced by oriental general hardware stores, the homeless haunt the archways and clusters of people around street corners reveal where dealers and addicts make their business. Buildings crumble away and the debris remains uncollected, forgotten. No one cleans the street because anyway what’s the use? No one seems to know what the way forward is, no one knows what and who to blame. Continue reading Ancient struggles

25 years of goodbyes, and I still don’t get it

The first thing I learned about goodbyes I learned as a child, and it’s that no matter how conscious and prepared you feel, you’re never truly ready

“Missing” is the feeling we get from the projection onto the future of something that was and no longer is, or will soon no longer be. Goodbyes do not concern the present, the exchange of farewells, but the perceived or anticipated absence that follows.

I was 7 years old at the time of my first goodbye. I remember that evening as if it had been just yesterday night. Thinking back, my parents must have been trying to figure out how to best break the news to me. Yet, its weight fell on my shoulders as if propelled downwards by some newborn form of gravity: suddenly, my body was glued to the pavement. My best friend Carlo and I were born a handful of hours apart, some Friday in February 1985. In the same hospital room; an older friendship cannot exist. Now, he’d be moving abroad.
A child’s world is extremely simple, and simple things matter. Those Saturdays spent in the garden, bike-riding, playing, hiding from the little brothers, building wooden toy-trains, marked a simple but steady rhythm that was as old as the Earth itself. It was sacred, immutable and part of life as much as sunrise and nightfall were. It was not in the last Saturday spent together; my first goodbye was in the moment that rhythm was broken.

My next goodbye came soon after. Tranquillity after a decade of turbulent Argentinian politics, allowed my grandfather to invite my mother and us children over. It wasn’t in the months of preparations, suitcase making, ticket purchases and transatlantic phone calls, in a child’s excitement for such a trip. It was in the airport security.
I remember swallowing tears while hugging my father before walking past controls, holding on tight in the waiting hall, and giving up at take off. I remember the hostess bringing orange juice and telling me in a Spanish ridden accent that my dad wouldn’t want me to cry, that he’d surely want me to be happy and enjoy my trip.
They followed in quick succession. We’ve been to Bahia Blanca three or four times at the same time of the year for years in a row. I can’t recall traveling once with dry eyes.

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The second thing I learned about goodbyes I learned as an adult, and it’s that it doesn’t become easier with time, nor with experience.

People come and go for a wealth of reasons; without much fuss or leaving a void which may or may not heal in time. Sometimes it is us leaving people, places, habits, lifestyles behind, permanently or temporarily. Goodbyes are not as simple as something that is missing. The psychological moment, the causes, the history of the ties that are being cut and how we perceive our future in their absence make each goodbye unique. Goodbyes are difficult to comprehend:  each can hardly prepare for the next.

Fast forward a handful of goodbyes to 2017. It started with a friends’ text, hey, she wrote, let’s meet on Tuesday afternoon! Sure thing.. But let’s make it not be sad, she added. She was leaving, for good, hubby and daughter and all. For good. Or not really, she’d be back at some point, but I would be gone for good by then, wife and daughter and all. Haven’t seen them since. Sure, we text and they check our mail. But they’re missing.
Thrice it’s been like that, I’m going for the summer, hubby and daughter and all, but we’ll be back once you’re already gone. Thrice without knowing whether it was me or them leaving. Hugging goodbye and fighting back a sense of suffocation because adults do that.
Then, I went myself. For good, wife and daughter and all. One last beer, one last wave of a hand. It wasn’t in the moving company taking my stuff abroad, in the bureaucracy, in handing the keys back, in packing up and cleaning and friends’ visits. It was in that last evening, when the goodbye visits are over but you’re still there, and would want to hug goodbye again. It was in those unexpected hugs right before catching the taxi.

Now I’m sitting here, writing a post about goodbyes in a city I don’t belong to. Having a child is like carving your heart out of your chest and fitting it in a puppet to pump your own blood in the wrong body. You need that heart beating next to you, because you realise you’re an empty shell now.
Knowledge that you’ll have to soon be far away for a short period that is far too long leave you thin and naked of your own skin. Every second is an anticipation of that one goodbye, over and over again each time your child is not with you. Each time someone takes her from you, they’re stealing your most precious instants.
Absence is a hole through which your soul leaked out the moment you turned around. Every second, every minute, a reminder of what you’re missing.
This goodbye was not in that last kiss before leaving, not in the hours spent holding her tight, and still I don’t know where it is.

Anthroposcapes

Men and women have since long been using and transforming the territory. Campfires turned into forest fires, rocks and bones reveal graveyards or rubbish dumpsters, cave paintings turn barren rock into early day cathedrals. Then, diverted rivers, carved out hillocks and filled up marshlands leave room to quarries and roads, factory yards and heavy machinery. Seeds were sown, and roofs were built, each leaving a trace to mark the passage of those men and women through the landscape.

This project collects traces both ancient and recent of men and women’s presence on the territory, and the contrast of modernity coexisting with traditional ways of life. I am not a professional photographer and I don’t pretend to be one. Most of the pictures here were captured “on the spot” with whatever equipment I had available.

 

 

 

About friendship, and about distance

It’s been a while since we moved abroad; or at least since we’ve been abroad on a stable basis. It won’t come as a surprise for anyone who has spent time in a different country to read that life changes radically once you take that step. No, I’m not talking about different languages, habits, culture, climate etc. that naturally come with moving. Rather, looking back over these past years it seems obvious how our lives with friends have acquired a more peculiar character. Again, I’m not talking about the different way we keep in touch with friends back in Italy (texts, social networks, etc). It’s more that the “texture” of our friendship-life has changed. How best can I describe it? Well..in some sense it’s a matter of connecting dots across a map. No trace of the continuity and reassuringly certain character of Wednesdays nights out. Nor that of large cooking gatherings over the weekends (my place?), or the stability of old faces going back for ages. All of that was a nice straight line from A to B to C to.. etc. Truth is that the past up to the present’s doorstep can no longer reveal anything about the future, even from one week to the next, so that what comes after C is uncertain. For instance, where that future will take place.. But especially, it reveals virtually nothing of who will be there. What you’d consider as sure takes unexpected turns and turns out to be very different from what expected. People that shouldn’t have been there in that particular place and time, are there for some reason. Those that should have, might not be. Or, you might find yourself in some place and time that you would have never imagined to find yourself in..with someone you wouldn’t have ever guessed. In the end, it happens that what was expected to be routine turns out not to be, ever so slightly deviating towards randomness. Taking a step back and going through pictures and memories truly is like connecting dots on the map of your life, with nothing of the linear, good old straight road ahead. Locations, faces, and pieces of that grand puzzle your life has turned into trying to fit into each other. Sometimes, some of the pieces are out of reach. Very well in sight, but out of reach. Sometimes, they are completely lost.

Friend

Roots

(to Carlo, Mancho, Kim and Miky – my roots and my perimeter)

Sure, stuff changes, and it changes a lot.. But there are things that apparently don’t. Call those roots.. Call them the keystones in the architecture you’ve been building since the day you were born. Call them “no fun dull stuff” as well, if you like. But they are there whether you like it or not. It’s sometimes annoying to think that in reality there’s not much that is truly original or unique in yourself. You are, like it or not, very much like your mother and father, and grandmothers and grandfathers. A lot like your brothers and sisters, and sometimes like your cousins and aunts and uncles too. There is a tiny bit of that friend of yours back in primary school, and of that twat bullying you around and calling you names in junior high. There’s a bit of all those people you called family as a kid when visiting on the other side of the planet.
Especially, there’s a lot of those friends who dreamed you up to make you the person you happen to be. They’re like the perimeter of everything you are, the bulwarks preventing you from going astray and loosing yourself. They all do their bit in keeping you there and making sure that you remain who they want you to be, the person they created: a bit of a tug on one side when you take off the wrong way, a bit of a push in the right direction once you get stuck and don’t know where to go. In the end, they all are there to show you the way back to the essence of yourself, to the important places of being “you” and the centre of things. Curiously, each time they nudge or hold you back, you are also pushing or pulling them a bit, in turn, in the opposite direction. So it happens that the centre towards which they bring you back each time ever so slightly shifts position in the meanwhile. You end up dragging those roots along, little by little, so that step by step you and those bulwarks end up moving in a slow and imperceptible journey across all of your lives, together.

Roots

Bridges

It’s hard to realise how “local” (in its strongest of meanings) we are when we stand still. Roots are strong: they tie us firmly to the centre of things and keep us from harm. All we need is around us, providing safety, but also blocking our view of what’s beyond. It’s hard to build up the will to move when you don’t feel the need of going anywhere, and you have no idea what lies just beyond reach, out of sight. It only takes just one step aside (or in any other direction) to open up new perspectives; to expand the horizon without a limit. Incredibly, that single step allows you to reach out much farther than it allows you to move, enabling you to form connections straight across the globe. Sometimes, it’s a bridge with you at one end and someone else at the other. Some other times, you are at the end of the bridge for two people with nothing else in common, suddenly building a bridge between each other. Watching those bridges take shape is the most beautiful thing that can happen!

 

Local

Andy F. M. Martinangeli