Sunday, April 28, 2013

Istanbul Police

We met the tourist cops today, and enjoyed their Turkish hospitality. We didn’t really want to meet them, and I’m sure they didn’t really want to meet us, but they made the experience amazingly pleasant.

It all started with my phone. I put it into a cargo pocket in my pants, imagining that it would be safe there under its Velcro flap. I noticed the phone in my pocket when I got my wallet from a lower part of the same cargo pocket as we bought our entry tickets to a big underground cistern. From then on, I lost myself in the sights and sounds of a huge chamber made long, long ago from recycled columns and stones. In ancient times, people collected water in such cisterns for use of city residents. This one held plenty of water then, but now it’s nearly empty and tourists wait in long lines to get inside.

Crowds down there bumped and jostled each other as we toured on catwalks above the water. And when we stopped to take photos, other would-be photographers pressed in from behind waiting to get their turns at the railing.

I next touched my pocket as we waited in another line, at the Galata Tower. I had no phone. While I may have lost it on the tramway, we guessed that the cistern might have presented the best opportunity since I got pretty distracted when I queued up to take photos. I went back to the hotel and started changing passwords and doing some damage control while the hotel receptionist tried to call my phone. No luck on calling my phone: The SIM card had already been removed, probably as a precaution against the phone-finder software I had installed.

Once I finished my damage control, Alla suggested that we tell the tourist police about the incident just so they’ll have another data point when they think about the security of various sites. I expected them to fill out some sort of a form and send me away with a vague promise to call me if by some incredible miracle they recover my phone. In fact, they spent a lot of time with us, took us back into the cistern to see where I stopped to take pictures, and practically promised to find the phone. I don’t know how they’ll do that, but I enjoyed their sunny optimism, which peaked when a local family brought somebody else's Samsung phone into the police station. The police got pretty excited that the case had solved itself, but it wasn't my phone.

When we went back into the cavern to talk about where we'd stopped, I met several of the undercover cops working the area. Not wanting to give away any secrets, I won’t say where they hung out. Let me just say that I saw at least one of them earlier and imagined him to be just another hustler ingratiating himself to tourists for personal gain. A second looked like a tourist with an audioguide. Security is tighter than I imagined, and I actually enjoyed my interaction with the cops.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Adventures in travel

We’ve been enjoying ourselves here in Istanbul, except for a problem with our first hotel. Today unrolled quite differently from our plans, but we had a great time.

It all started at the Blue Mosque. We got there just before closing yesterday and Alla wanted to go back before it got crowded. The guard told us that they’d be open again at 8:30 in the morning, so we decided to go to the mosque before breakfast and then come back to eat without rushing. We got to the mosque right on schedule, but discovered that they don’t open to the public on Friday morning because that’s when they do their weekly cleaning. We decided, then, to go over to the Hagia Sophia, a rather unique cross between a church and a mosque. They would open at 9 a.m. and we stood fourth and fifth in line. This proved to be highly strategic, because we could enjoy the building almost completely empty. We’ll hit another important site at opening time tomorrow!

Anyway, we made it back to the hotel before breakfast closed and then we went out to find the Yildiz Palace. We discovered at the pier that Istanbul has commuter boats and we could cross the Bosphorus for the price of a trolley ticket. We had wanted a boat ride and did not expect such a bargain. It got us good views along the way and left us at the base of a huge and very pretty park. The locals advised us to take a taxi to the palace, but we opted to walk because we wanted to see the park. Indeed we saw the park, since we had a really hard time finding the palace. Nobody seemed to know quite where it was, and we ended up walking to a couple of other former palaces in the park instead. Finally we gave up and had lunch at one of them with a view over the Bosphorous.

Properly fed and enthusiastic, we set out again to find the palace. We got really good at explaining to people what we wanted to find, because they’d generally assume we wanted to go to one of the restaurants or to a chalet at the top of the park. We, in fact, wanted to go to a museum featured as a benefit of our Istanbul Museum cards. I guess it took us about three hours to find it, and when we got there the museum’s card reader claimed that our cards had expired. The cards still had about 36 hours left on them, and we persisted until the guard relented and let us in to see her museum. The museum didn’t impress us any more than it impressed the authors of my Turkey guidebook, but he had a great time getting there and enjoyed another delightful boat trip coming back home.

We just hope our museum passes work normally again next time. We have other museums in mind for tomorrow.

Sleepless night

We only stayed a couple of nights at our first hotel because the second night’s events drove us to a better place. It all started when I noticed a couple of sketchy-looking people come in while I was down in the lobby using the internet. I didn’t worry much about it because I figured somebody would always be at the front desk, but I thought more about it later.

At around 3 a.m. we woke up to the sounds of a party in the next room. Our neighbors had clearly gotten themselves quite drunk, and had gone from jolly to smashed. I knocked on the wall to let them know that they’d awakened their neighbors. They pounded back, yelled obscenities in English and began pounding the wall with some sort of instrument. Fortunately, the wall did not break, but we decided it would be prudent to barricade our flimsy door with its pathetic lock. Our barricade didn’t look all that secure, and our neighbors continued to rant. Wanting backup, I dialed “O” on the hotel phone.

Immediately, the voices turned quieter in the next room. I asked the guy who answered whether he spoke English, and he said yes so I explained that I did not feel safe because of the situation in the next room. He suddenly did not understand, so he left the room, which we heard through the wall and in the hall, and knocked on the door across the hall. We heard that too. He gave the phone to somebody else and I told my story again, adding that I wanted to know the name of the night manager who had brought him the phone. The translator didn’t want to expose his friend, so he said “It’s just some bastard.”

“Bastard!” the night manager yelled, and made other noises I did not understand but which suggested that he was threatening the translator. The translator calmed him down, much to my relief, and promised me that things would get better. While indeed things got quieter, we did not sleep much. We thought about the fact that we don’t know how to call the police in Turkey, and about the fact that we did not want to spend another night in that hotel.

The night manager was on duty when we came down in the morning, looking somewhat the worse for wear. He somehow did not have the authority to break our booking, and he stalled us until his boss would arrive at noon. Meanwhile we struggled with the fact that we couldn’t find a hotel with vacancy over the weekend, and we had to visit quite a few places to find one in old-city neighborhood. The big boss already knew about the previous night’s events and tried really hard to assure us that we should feel perfectly fine about staying. He told us assuredly, “You’re not checking out.” In fact, however, we did check out. We had to stay three nights in one hotel and then three nights in another, but we’re quite happy about it. The first of the two alternatives has been absolutely delightful, and we expect the same of the other. And we’re sleeping really well.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Arriving in Istanbul

We came to Istanbul by way of Vienna. We didn’t plan on Vienna, but Lufthansa’s workers threw a one-day strike and we managed to catch a flight from Minsk to Vienna, connecting after a few hours to Istanbul. We took a train from the airport and explored downtown Vienna early in the morning and then explored a little bit of Istanbul in the evening. The cities are very different.

In Vienna folks seemed very stern. Maybe it’s because they hadn’t had their morning coffee, but they seemed much more abrupt than the people we’re around in Minsk. We had a nice tour anyway, but Istanbul came as a very pleasant change. Sometimes we felt a little bit unwelcome in Vienna, but the people of Istanbul have been warm, generous and accommodating. Well, we did find one exception to the Turkish hospitality. Strangely enough, our sourpuss was at the Visitor Information Bureau. I finally had to ask the guy if he even liked his city, and he said that it's complicated, but he’ll like it better after work and especially after retirement. Unfortunately, he’s still five years from retirement.

Never having been inside of any kind of mosque, we decided to find a small one for our first visit. We arrived at a quiet time of the morning, and the caretaker welcomed Alla into the downstairs area normally reserved for men. We sat quietly on the thick carpet, enjoying the reverent stillness as a single worshipper read the Koran silently at the front of the room. Later we arrived at Lalei Cami near the time of prayer and watched as people washed themselves and settled inside. Alla and I went inside too, and Alla separated herself into the women’s gallery. She didn’t like being hidden away behind a screen.

We spent rather more time today than we expected at the Grand Bazaar, and probably saw only 10% of it even in passing. It’s a wonderfully crazy place, and we’re altogether enjoying our time in Istanbul.

From 2013-04 Istanbul

Monday, April 22, 2013


I missed another subbotnik, or voluntary work day. They're held in the spring, in honor of Lenin's birthday. Alla told me about this tradition when we were complaining to each other about the messy condition of some streets in our Boston neighborhood. If we h had a subbotnik, everybody would show up ant the neighborhood would look great. I heard a countervailing opinion in Belarus. Some call the subbotnik an involuntary day of unpaid labor. Still, I was told that missing one is a bad idea.

I generally don't read the municipal notices posted at our building's front door, often at my peril. If I remembered to look, I would know in advance about the times things like hot water would be shut off for maintenance. And I would certainly have known my duty to help clean things up on Saturday. All I knew was that it looked like an excellent day to take a bike ride.

I did have a great ride, but I felt pretty sheepish about picking my way through throngs of volunteers with rakes spreading out along the bike path. They weren't all dressed for dirty work, and I suppose that people who live in the city and don't have country gardens (dachas) may not need even to own that sort of clothes. The student groups looked more or less resigned to their tasks, but many others seemed genuinely enthusiastic.

On my way home, after the volunteers had gotten spread out along the path, I stopped to talk to a couple of well-dressed women working near a line of parked buses. I asked if they'd been brought in in one of them, and they replied with bright smiles that they'd arrived on their own, by Metro (subway). They made me feel extra guilty about the way I'd spent my morning because they seemed honestly to be enjoying themselves and their day of public service.

Chagrined, I promised to clean up our yard when I got home. They didn't seem convinced that I'd really gotten the spirit, and it turns out that they were right. When I got home, the bits of trash which had accumulated under the snow had already gotten cleaned up by other volunteers.

The city transformed itself over the course of a day. Folks painted the handrails at the Metro stations and the street lamps in Victory Square. The bike path is spotless. Trash disappeared. It looks great, and I think it's an honorable tradition, and I'd better look for the announcement next April.

Friday, April 12, 2013

I saw a foreigner

Our friend Irina called today to tell about a conversation she had at a children’s birthday party. One of the moms commented that she noticed a foreigner in Victory Square. It was obvious to her, even from her car, that the guy was foreign because he wore a rucksack and had a big smile on his face. Irina asked for more details about this foreigner’s size and hair color and yes, she’d seen me. Not only do I not blend in, it turns out I’m a topic of conversation.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Minsk Lindy Exchange

I changed dancing styles this year, focusing on Lindy hop instead of salsa. Years ago I thought I was reasonably competent at swing, when my first wife and I took lessons for a year or two at a studio called Joy of Movement. Then one day at the beginning of a new semester, just after receiving everybody’s tuition, Joy of Movement went bankrupt.

We apparently didn’t even know as much as we thought we knew in the first place. Looking to continue, we took a free introductory lesson at the local Arthur Murray Dance Studio. The instructor there found a huge array of flaws and shortcomings in our technique, and suggested frankly that we shouldn’t start with any group classes because we needed lots of individual attention in order to break bad habits. We could see his point, and we understood in general what he wanted us to improve, but we couldn’t afford his private classes even at the special rate for buying many hours in advance. We figured we were having plenty of fun anyway so we kept our money and continued to dance when the opportunity presented itself, forgetting more and more as the years went by.

I caught the fever again last fall, when I saw a YouTube video called I Charleston Minsk. It featured a lot of people I knew by face, apparently having a really good time. Since I love swing music anyway, I decided to take it up once again.

My very talented teachers struggle with me since I don’t always follow their directions, occasionally tear off onto something (I think) I already know, and still have some bad habits. I struggle the most with timing on triple steps. I tend to divide the steps evenly over two beats, as in cha-cha-cha. That’s not the way it works in Lindy. The first element of the triplet should get a full beat and the remaining two share the second beat. When I think too hard about it, I can no longer dance. My teacher wants me to spend more time dancing with a doorknob, but I haven’t found a doorknob that looks me in the eye so I get bored and quit too soon.

I got a big boost (and had a really good time) over the weekend at the Minsk Lindy Exchange. The program encompassed three parties and two days of dance classes, from Friday evening to Sunday evening. I met dancers from Lithuania, Poland and all parts of Russia and Belarus. As you might guess, people willing to travel long distances in order to dance tend to be good at it. Generally, in fact, very good. My classmates and I learned lots not just from our lessons but from watching and dancing with people with more experience.

While I wanted to dance with the experienced dancers, they didn’t necessarily want to dance with me. And whether or not they’d seen me already on the dance floor, they could tell my low status by my green armband. Anybody with a green armband would be happy to dance with me. Folks with blue armbands would usually say yes too. I don’t know what the other colors meant, but learned soon enough that most of them weren’t so happy about dancing with me.

Anyway, I had a blast. I learned lots, came to respect the fact that I have a heck of a lot yet to learn, met a lot of really nice people, bought a fabulous red-white-and-blue handmade bow tie, heard plenty of excellent live music, enjoyed the company of people I already knew, and even piqued Alla’s interest just a little bit. I’m sorry I’ll be out of the country in May because there’s a similar event in Vilnius and I would have gone if it didn’t involve flying to get there.

More pictures at

Friday, April 5, 2013

Finding Dima

My subscription to the local exercise facility expires on Monday so I went over to the new Presidential Hotel for some comparison shopping. When Hotel Minsk sold their fitness room to those Turkish investors, the staff disappeared. My friend Katya asked around and learned that they'd gone to work at the Presidential, which would be opening really soon.

"Really soon" didn't happen. I went down there in February and the guard told me that while they expected to open a month ago, it looked to him like they'd need at least another month. That's why I joined at the hockey club, which I like fine except that they don't open until 9 a.m., later than I'd prefer.

Today the Hotel Presidential looked pretty lively until I got to the door. Numerous vehicles lined the driveway, a multinational array of flags fluttered in the breeze above, and people walked to and fro. Only as I approached the door did I notice the darkness in the lobby. Still, I found an unlocked door and walked in, greeted by a couple of guys looking attentively at the lobby decor. I asked them if they knew when the hotel would open; and while they didn't have an answer, they seemed open to discussion so I asked if the fitness room were already open. They pointed down the hall and suggested that I might go have a look upstairs.

Unsure if I'd really be allowed to roam the building like that, I went over to the official-looking guy wearing a suit and carrying a walkie-talkie. He told me how to find the director of the fitness room and sent me off. Before I went, I asked if the director's name were Dima. Yes! Good news. Dima's a nice guy and he already knows me.

I walked down a wide marble corridor with incredibly-high ceilings, past a very fancy-looking restaurant and a second registration area. Finding my staircase, I went up four flights to reach the level above that high ceiling, where I found a maid on her way down. She took me to see the glassed-in fitness room with large windows on the street side facing a little park. A beautiful suite of new weight and cardio machines lined the walls. I could definitely imagine working out here. I asked the maid if Dima were around, and she promised to go find him.

Presently Dima arrived, dressed in work clothes and carrying an electric drill. We had a joyous reunion and exchanged phone numbers. Dima assured me that the facility would be open to the public, though he didn't know the price yet. He imagines it will be more than I was paying at Hotel Minsk but that I won't be shocked. I hope he's right, because it looks very nice.