My original travel journals were split across August Phoenix Hats and a few other websites. February 2021 marked the 12th anniversary of the beginning of my travels. To celebrate, I’m reissuing my journals as Director’s Cuts, with the complete text as well as larger and additional photos. My Crossroads Tour series details my travels to Florence, Genoa and Istanbul in May 2011.
A happy Wednesday morning in May, 2011
Today begins the second leg of my Crossroads Tour, as I depart Florence for the much anticipated city of Istanbul. It’s a calm morning as I grab a final cup of caffe from the Bianchi machine in hotel hallway, and call a taxi that is waiting for me by the time I get downstairs. I’ve gone from hotel shower to airport gate in 30 minutes, like clockwork perfected. It’s going to be a great day.
About 15 minutes before we are to board, the flight is cancelled due to technical difficulties. The American next to me sums it up best. “Stuff happens” although he says it in a slightly coarser term.
I am among the first to retrieve my luggage but the very last one in the queue to rebook my ticket. An hour into what would be a two hour wait, an East Indian woman next to me strikes up a conversation. She’s leaving Florence after a 3 month stint, a consulting assignment for GE Oil. We compare notes about Florence, the difficulties we both had with Italian food (not enough spice), and our wish lists of other places to visit (Rome and Sicily for her, Cordoba and Morocco for me). I finally get up to the ticket counter and get a ticket for the only flight departing for Istanbul that day, connecting in Munich. It boards in ten minutes…
I sprint to security to find a line. NO!!! Shoes off, watch off, netbook out of briefcase, I am slamming things into bins as fast as I can. I pass through the x-ray without setting it off this time, grab my belongings helter-skelter with hopes that I don’t leave anything behind, and run as fast as I can in my stocking feet to the gate. As I reach a flight of stairs I give thanks that I checked my suitcase, else wise I would have missed this flight entirely.
The airports here don’t have concourses from the gate to the plane, you are transported by a large bus, sort of like the tram cars in the subway loops at SeaTac Airport. Onboard the plane, my day continues badly as my bag in the overhead bin expels my netbook, narrowly missing the gentleman seated below, and crashes to the floor, bouncing apart from its battery. I collect everything and return to my seat as the food cart comes down the aisle. The meal service is a half sandwich of cheese on rye. Or perhaps it’s butter. Or maybe brie. Served with the usual 4 oz. of water. I am dying for more fluids, and perhaps some actual food.
After an otherwise uneventful trip, we land in Munich. I have a 6 hour layover which will put me into Istanbul at 11 PM. I am completely frustrated that a city that is 4 hours away on a normal flight, is taking me 14 hours to get to. I look for a WIFI connection so I can contact my hotel in Istanbul. Unsuccessful with that endeavor, I find a phone. My phone card doesn’t work and neither does my non-chip credit card. A second phone card, with 60 seconds of airtime, gets me through, but the person working the desk at the Han Hotel asked me to repeat every sentence, which takes longer than I had airtime for. I call back on my debit card and leave my name and tentative arrival time on their voicemail, and hope for the best.
The Munich airport is on a straight concourse that looks every bit like the SouthCenter Mall in Seattle — white, stark, and full of shops. I check the reader board again and find that my flight has been delayed by another hour and now departs at 7:30 PM.
I find a coin operated internet point and try to email my updated ETA to the Hotel Han. It’s the first European keyboard I’ve seen, and I use up a euro trying to figure out how to type the “@” symbol. I pop in another coin and call over a couple of teenagers who can’t figure it out either. But they mention it’s some sequence of three keys, and after watching them for a couple of minutes, I figure out the sequence and sign in to my hotmail account.
I’m hot and headachy, exhausted and frustrated. My Italian is non-existent, my German is failing and my English isn’t far behind. About halfway through this layover I wish I had rented one of the napcabs — a private pod offering internet access and a place to sleep. Hindsight being the clear vision that it is, I try to think in optimistic terms that waking up in Istanbul tomorrow will make for a better day…
Hours later …
I landed at Ataturk at 11 PM and get through visa processing fairly quickly. My luggage even showed up although I honestly didn’t expect it to. The luggage carousel was conveniently located near the Lost and Found Desk, where I turned in a Diners Club credit card that I found on the floor near the visa checkpoint. I took some comfort in the fact that someone’s day was worse than mine…
The concourse at Attaturk is just as straight and sterile as the one in Munich, but the “Camel Smoking Room” and this clothing shop bring a smile to my very tired face.
The hotel had arranged for a driver, who meets me near luggage claim. He ushers me into a van with six seats, facing each other in pairs. The radio is the first cultural exclamation point. Even in Germany the muzak was American rock. That would definitely not be the soundtrack here.
We drove along what I would later learn is Yedikule Zindanlar, an extensive fortification running along the Sea of Marmara. After about 45 minutes we enter the Sultanahmet, Istanbul’s Old Town. Imagine Venice, but with cars. I think I’m going to be even more lost here than I was during my last few days in Florence.
The Hotel Han is even more vibrant than the website indicated, with its hot pink neon sign and facade. This restored Ottoman home stands on top of the Basilica Cistern in the heart of the Sultanahmet, within walking distance of many of the sites I wanted to see.
I check in with the hotelier, an older gentleman who explains that breakfast is served between 8-11AM. It’s going to take awhile for my ears to adjust to his broken English and thick accent.
My room is two floors up a tight spiral staircase, and although I try to carry my own bag, the old hotelier won’t hear of it. I apologize all the way up the stairs because my suitcase is full of books.
He unlocks the door and ushers me in.
When the website lists this as a single room, they aren’t kidding! There’s a cozy bed tucked into an alcove, an ultra efficient private bath, and a mini fridge. The ceiling is lacquered tongue-and-groove wood, and the walls are stenciled with floral patterns that remind me of henna tattoos. The window is covered with beautiful embroidered curtains, edged with a sequined lace that would shimmer the next morning when the sun hit them. I can see a minaret from the lower corner of my window. There is no safe or TV, but there are more electrical outlets in this room than there were on the entire floor of the San Frediano Mansion in Florence. Full toiletries in the bathroom are a pleasant surprise.
“It Is Perfect!” — a phrase I would hear frequently this week.
I want to take a shower but it’s after 1 AM and I don’t want to wake the other guests. I fall into bed with expectations of being awakened at dawn by the imam’s call to prayer…