T.O.wards Understanding Istanbul

People say time is money.  I prefer to think that money is time—each dollar I spend (at least at the $7.50 hourly wage I earned scooping ice cream this summer) is roughly equivalent to 8 minutes.  A bus trip costs me about 7 minutes; a chicken donner kebap from “Bufe Bu,” the café across from Bogazici’s south campus, costs me 16; a 10 gallon jug of water from the Superdorm’s basement market costs me about 20.  A cellphone from Turkcell would cost me about 800 minutes.  Over 13 hours.  An entire day up to my elbows in chocolate ice cream, wasted.  As a pidgin Turkish speaker like me would say: no tesekurlar.

But I needed some way to communicate with my friends.  Smoke signals would be obscured by the haze from exhaust, construction dust, and steam from donners (rotiserries); and broadcasting wailing messages through the minaret sound system would probably be non-PC, so a cell phone was the only alternative.  Fortunately, I had a decent Samsung phone from the US, which I thought would be a breeze to set up with a Turkcell SIM.  Wrong.  The Turkish government has—for lack of a better word—a racket set up that requires international-phone-users to pay a 100 TL (about $50) registration fee.  Still, 6.5 hours is better than 13, so I resolved to register rather than cave and buy a phone.

Little-Known-Fact: The Turkish government’s real penalty for bringing a foreign phone into the nation is not the fee, but the process of paying the fee, which is cloaked in secrecy and nigh-impossible for non-Turkish speakers.  But for your sake, I intend to pull some civil disobedience and describe, in clear English, the process for finding the Tax Office where a registration fee might be paid.  I’m breaking Article 74.3 of the Turkish government’s “obscure-registration-fee-paying-process” law, but hey, I’m a rebel:

At 1:30 pm I walked to the local Turkcell center.  It was blocked by a back-end loader busily tearing up the macadam to lay pipe—I dashed around the machine when it looks docile, and entered the shop.  I got a registration form and directions to take it to Turkcell high command in Etiler, a nearby neighborhood, where they would give me another form, which I would have to take to the Tax Office (henceforth T.O.).  The registration form was torn across the bottom, but I didn’t ask questions.  I should have.  When I arrived at Etiler and showed a Turkcell lieutenant my torn form, he asked me where the signature was.  I said that the form had been torn when I received it.  He gave me that knowing, kindly contemptuous look you give a 4th grader who’s done a bad job faking his mom’s signature on an absence slip, then told me that I needed to go to the T.O. before he could do anything to set up my phone.  Where is this T.O.? Sisli (sheesh-lee), he said.  Take the 59C (Istanbul buses are a bewildering mix of numbers and letters, with no particular order or logic. 59C might take you to Sisli, but then C59 might take you to Syria).

Sisli.  Istanbul has boroughs, like NYC, and Sisli is one of them.  Not a stop, not a street—an entire neighborhood, in which the T.O. was hidden like a needle in a crowded, noisy, non-English-speaking haystack.  But I blithely got on the bus and stepped off at Sisli square, expecting to see a giant building with “TAX OFFICE” in neon on the front.  No such luck.  Fortunately, Turkcell shops are nearly as plentiful as donner kebap (I counted 5 within a two-minute walk of Sisli square), so I went in one with my phone, my torn registration form, and an I-Don’t-Speak-Turkish-Please-Help-Me expression plastered on my face.

In the long and involved explanation I got, I understood 3 letters—PTT.  Holmes-like, I decided to construct a brilliant plan of action based on those three letters: I would wander aimlessly, muttering “PTT” and squinting at signs, until I saw a big “PTT.”  I was in luck: I came across a large yellow PTT sign on the first street I searched, and entered.  It looked too shabby to be a phone emporium (Turkcell shops, especially, are very slick) and too nice to be a government building.  Still, I showed my registration form to the desk with all the insecurity and uncertainty of Simon Pegg showing his fake badge to the Russian official in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol.  He pointed me toward the bowels of the building, I wandered in, and found a nice girl with an Amelie haircut who spoke passable English (in short, I fell in love instantly).  She knew abstractly where the T.O. was—next to some stadium—but she couldn’t give me any concrete directions.  I asked her to draw a map.  She said she didn’t have a map.  I would have pointed out that’s not what I asked, but I didn’t want to hurt Amelie’s feelings.  So I just listened as she told me to ask a taxi driver (which I immediately ruled out because of the speed, surliness, and crummy English skills of every taxi-driver I’ve encountered thus far).  Then I wandered back out into the (by now 3:00) sunlight, dazed, and walked into another Turkcell to ask yet again.

Strike 3 was cruising toward the plate, but at the last minute I bunted it: this Turkcell lieutenant introduced me to an English-speaking private (he lived shut off from the emporium at the bottom of a dim staircase) who could give me directions.  He said the T.O. was next to the Cevahir hotel, and even wrote on a slip of paper what sign I should look for (to my dismay, it was 5 words long, began with “Zincirli” [zen-cheer-lee], and looked like it belonged on a Turkish med-school final).  This is when my special Turkish-memory-tactic came in handy.  For me, French and Romanian words stick like slightly al dente pasta thrown at the ceiling, but Turkish sticks like a tennis ball thrown at a steel sheet.  Since I can’t rely on memory, I rely on pseudo-synesthesia.  Synesthesia is this disease (which I’d gladly have) where words or numbers or sounds automatically trigger other senses.  See a “4,” and you smell fried onions, etc.  To do math you have to mentally cook a meal.  Well, I connect Turkish words to similar-sounding English, French, or Romanian concepts.  “Cevahir” = chevalier = an image of a knight on a horse.  Zincirli—well zin = zen = Buddha under a lotus tree.  So whenever I was furiously searching for Zincirli, that “zen” trick both helped me remember and calmed me a little.  A very, very little.

The Turkcell private pointed vaguely in some direction and returned to his cell.  I walked back across Sisli and showed my precious piece of paper—the lifeline of my mission—to a friendly-looking Turk in a red polo.  He nodded vigorously and began speaking in Turkish, illustrating with hand signals, which helped about as much as an interpretive dance illustrating the true essence of “Tax Office” would have.  By now, a cheerful woman and her daughter had joined in and were bantering with red-polo (I kept hearing “tourist” [the only English word incorporated into Turkish, appropriately].).  They asked me if I could take a bus, I said no—it was personal between me and T.O. now, and I wasn’t usin’ no bus as a crutch.

All seemed lost, but then red-polo had a brainstorm and pantomimed drawing a map.  For one sickening moment, I thought I didn’t have a pen, but I found one in my very touristy-looking green drawstring backpack and gave it to him.  To my delight, he drew a simple, slightly curved “T” shaped intersection (I was at one end of the horizontal “T” line), and then a box at the far end of the vertical line to illustrate “Cevahir.”  Not content to stop there, he grabbed my arm and coaxed me into an underpass lined with shops—I thought this meant his fee for helping me was that I buy some knock-off crocs or stuffed animals, but in reality he was leading me through to the next road.  A real humanitarian.  He even crossed the road with me—Turk-style—waiting for a slight lull in the traffic and executing a frogger-style crossing at top speed.  He then turned to me, beamed, shook my hand warmly, and wished me godspeed (I think.  He might have quoted Confucius for all I know).

Well, red-polo had been taking lessons from van der Rohe, because his minimalist map didn’t mention the numerous side streets, turns of the road, or distance I had to travel.  Halfway down the long and winding road, I asked a couple seated on the steps of an apartment complex if I was on the right track.  They waved their arms further on.  Always further on.  Then I realized the great, ironic, mocking trick that the Turkish government had pulled on me.  Tax Office = T.O. = to, towards, always in the distance.  Maybe there was no tax office.  Maybe my quest—not the attainment of some destination—was all I needed to register my phone.  Maybe I needed food and water.

Sunstroke philosophizing healed by a gulp from my Nalgene, I carried on, and the steep downhill road leveled out in the parking lot of a mechanic.  A tricked-out black Skoda was sitting there with its guts exposed, and a couple guys who looked like slightly mellower Hell’s Angels were looking suspiciously from side to side in the threshold of the shop.  One had a pony-tail and ornate sideburns—the other was a nondescript stocky dude.  I was on the point of asking these guys directions, but afraid that I might end up the way Frodo would have if he had asked a passing orc directions to Mount Doom, I carried on.  I then found an old lady—the complete opposite of Hell’s Angels, and asked her.  She pointed me up the next ridge (you can describe parts of Istanbul like you describe the Alps), and I headed on.  At the top of the ridge was a shuttle stop—clearly an out-of-town shuttle, like the maxi taxis in Bucharest, my hometown.  No matter what country you’re in, you can tell a shuttle stop—hands too calloused for typing or scraping donner kebap, tanner faces, slightly shabbier clothes, and that weird mix of pride and insecurity that self-sufficient outsiders always seem to have during their rare visits to the big city.

I walked on.  Past the bus stop, on up the hill, for a quarter mile until I came to a fellow with Jesus-hair and a smile.  I just said Cevahir,and  he turned me around and pointed.  I looked up (a direction one doesn’t look when navigating the moving obstacle course of Turkish streets) and there was a massive, beautiful sign saying “Cevahir” on the summit of a huge apartment complex.  I thanked the Jesus-doppelganger and headed on.  Suddenly, I was in a cool, beautiful lobby—fountain tinkling, rock sculptures, metal detector to keep out explosive riff-raff, the whole nine yards.  Only one human in sight—a girl (no Amelie, but nice) sitting at reception.  I asked her if the Tax Office was nearby.  She looked quizzical.  I showed her my directions, and she looked amused, like I’d just shown her an origami crane I’d made.  Then I mentioned I spoke English (look, something I can do!), and she signed for me to wait and called her English-speaking colleague.  She handed me the phone, I wiped my sweaty ear with the bandana I always keep handy, and listened to the beautiful sounds of good-old 21st century Anglo-Saxon.  “How can I help you?”

“I’m looking for the tax office.  I was told it was next door to this hotel.”

“Well, I’m not sure, let me…beeeeep.”

Yes, the phone had cut out. It’s always like this.  At the worst possible moment—when Isildur was about to drop the Ring into the fire, when Dr. Who was about to tell Rose he loved her, when Menelaus was about to kill Paris and end the war—I got a dial tone.  400 HP lost from my confidence.

I walked out, dejected, and into a nearby gas station—one of my side-quests on this mission was to get a map of Istanbul—and asked the three loitering employees where I could find the tax office.  They pointed, I looked out the window, and saw those beautiful three syllables amid a morass of other Turkish words—ZINCIRLI!  Too elated to thank the gas-station-men, I ran off to the tax office, and stepped through the door, outside of which children were romping around, like children do, even when the fate of registration forms is hanging in the balance.  There was an old, white-haired but Ottoman-tough-looking security guard stationed at the entrance.  On a whim, I showed him my torn registration form (strangely, everyone seemed to recognize it, though no one could tell me what exactly to do with it.)  He pointed vaguely to his right.  Right of him was a room with frosted windows, which looked like the venue for either strip-searches or interrogations.  I hoped he was wrong, and just walked toward the most crowded part of the building.  There I found a knot of young, hip-looking employees, but my English-speaker turned out to be a balding, meek 40-year old.  He led me straight to one of those ticket/teller windows and I forked out 100 TL and my torn form and, in short, laid all my hopes and dreams at his feet.  He nodded, moved to the adjacent cubicle (a cute bit of beaurocratic rigmarole) and gave me my receipt.  I was registered.  I had conquered the system.  I could now hold my beautiful Samsung phone which causes who-knows-what  kind of cancer up to my ear and talk to people!

Now, don’t let this account give you the impression that Turkey is all surly cab-drivers, overpriced phones, confusing directions, and beaurocratic hassle.  I had beautiful moments—saw a woman driving in a colorful head-scarf delicately tap her horn to shoo some kids out of her way (a Romanian would probably have gotten as close as possible, then leaned on the horn at full blast).  Red-polo was one of the best people I’ve met, period. Even the fact that people don’t know English is comforting—if you’re under 25 and wear lots of black you probably know that great Rammstein song “We’re All Living in America.”  Well, Istanbul is as un-America as any place I’ve ever been, and that’s, as Dr. Who would say, fantastic.  Maybe at Walmart I could have gotten a phone in 5 minutes, and gotten an eye-checkup and bought my groceries while I waited, but in a world more plagued by homogenization than the Roman Empire—Big Macs in Paris, Coke in Beijing—I’m grateful for a bit of thoroughly un-American, uniquely Turkish, adventure.

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4 Responses to T.O.wards Understanding Istanbul

  1. Nannie and Papa says:

    Dear Jonathan,

    We felt like we were there and sweated through the whole thing with you. Thanks for sharing your adventure with us, and we look forward to hearing more of your highlights of your time in Turkey.

    Yesterday we took Pat and Frances to Highlands and celebrated our 60th anniversary at Wild Thyme with the gift certificate Stan’s family gave us. The sky was blue, and the breeze was soft. Wild Thyme was just in the middle of their third day on Main Street. We had their wonderful crab cake. Then we topped the dayoff by going to SweeTreats for dessert. We met Kylie (I’m guessing how that is spelled) and got told by all how much you and Joel are missed and to tell you hello from them. The ice cream was great, too. Love, Nannie and Papa

  2. Sandokan says:

    Bravo domnul Jonathan. Mi-a luat ceva timp să-ți citesc postarea, ceea ce înseamnă că tu te lungești la scris chiar mai mult decât mine (iar pe mine șefii și toată lumea mă cunosc ca pe un mare inflaționist în materie de cuvinte). Dar să știi că ești talentat și scrii comic.

    iar fotografia de pe pagina ta de blog e super.

    Succes!

  3. kwix says:

    A truly excellent, well-written, interesting and very funny essay. Thank you for sharing your experiences, Mr. Cox!

  4. Greg Cox says:

    Hey Jon,
    Nice work, both in finding your way around and the superb writing!! Bill Bryson better watch his back!!
    Enjoy Turkey!!

    Peace!
    Greg.

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