Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Turkish odds (and gods) were against me

I didn't ganyan. I didn't ikili. And I certainly didn't gifte.

As far as I can tell, those are the words for win, quiniela and daily double at horse tracks in Turkey. And for three races at Istanbul's massive Veliefendi Racetrack, I didn't come close to picking even one horse that finished at the front of the pack.

I had an excuse, though. Everything was in Turkish – the program, the tote board, the racing form, the tout sheets. Everything except some of the horse's names, which was part of my downfall. I mean, how could I not bet on a filly named Bye Bye Baby when she was running against the likes of Gülipek, Sari Papatyam and De Nîgrîs? Who cares if she was 25-to-1?

Placing a bet was high comedy in itself. The tellers neither spoke nor understood English. So I would hand them exact change (usually 5 or 10 lira) and jab my finger at the program to indicate the horse I wanted to bet on. They all found this highly amusing. The thought of betting a perfecta or trifecta box was so daunting I never attempted it. For all I know, they don't even have perfectas and trifectas.

The odds were a challenge, too, and it took a few races to figure them out. They seemed to the calculated to the nickel, or the kuru, or whatever it's called. The odds on a horse would not be, say, 3 to 1. They would 2.85 to 1. I spent two or three races thinking it was 2 to 85 or something, which would be a longshot in any language. No wonder so many people were excited to have the winner.

Once I figured it out -- and after not picking a winner in my first three tries -- I decided to go with the chalk in the fourth race, which was aptly named Western Girl. As any horse coming out of the 16 gate should, she bided her time at the back of the pack and romped home at the finish, paying a paltry 1.85 to 1 on a five lira bet. I happily cashed my winning ticket, and after a couple more futile tries I called it a night and took a taxi back to Sultanahmet.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Sultan of the Sidewalk

Fikri has a tough job. He stands outside the Antique Turquoise restaurant on Akbiyik Caddesi in the Sultanahmet neighborhood of Istanbul, trying to persuade passers-by to stop for a meal or a drink or at least a cup of Turkish tea.

It gets chilly out there, especially in the evening, but he's friendly and charming, and more successful than I would have imagined.

My first afternoon in town, I sat enjoying the sunshine at one of the sidewalk tables at the Turquoise and watched him work. It's an art, and he's a master. He seemed to sense when to give up after the first rejection, and when to keep trying. Many people would get several strides past the restaurant before one last comment got them to turn around and at least take a look at the menu.

The restaurant was just around the corner from my hotel, and we talked every day I was there. He was curious about America, and Abu Dhabi, too. The entire staff was friendly, and they serve a great hummus. I didn't get to try the "salt meat" -- a huge serving of beef wrapped in leaves and coated in a hard layer of salt, which is then set on fire, tableside – but I did treat myself to a great steak on my last night in town, served sizzling on a marble platter.

Fikri joined me for a cup of tea after I finished dinner, and I asked him if he was the best "greeter" on the street. He dipped his head modestly, and said it would embarrass him to say so. But it was obvious that he was pleased, and that he took pride in his work. He's a chef by trade, he said, but he has been at the Turquoise for seven months, blowing on his hands and sipping tea to stay warm as he works his sidewalk magic.

Do I look Turkish to you?

The first guy approached me thirty seconds after I got out of the cab at Taksim Square, at the top of Istanbul's famed Istiklal Caddesi. He fell in stride beside me and said something in Turkish. When I replied, "I don't understand," he laughed and switched easily to English.

"Oh, I'm sorry, I thought you were Turkish. You look Turkish," he said happily.

Yeah, right.

If you look around on the internet for things to do in Istanbul, you're likely to come across warnings about scam artists. The word is out: They strike up a conversation, offer to show you around, then buy you a cup of tea or a drink. All this is a prelude to luring you to either a rug merchant's shop, where you get the hard sell, or worse, into a bar where the two of you end up buying drinks for lots of new "friends," after which the bartender presents you with an exhorbitant bill – we're talking $2000-$3000 – and demands payment.

Armed with this information, my scam radar was on full alert, and I quickly brushed the guy off. I continued walking down Istiklal Caddesi – an incredible three-kilomometre-long pedestrian avenue of shops and galleries and cafes and clubs, with hundreds more tucked away on the side streets -- wondering if I had been too hasty. I mean, what if I had just been rude to a friendly Turk?

Those concerns disappeared about two minutes later when another fellow appeared at my side, and also said something in Turkish. "I don't understand," I said again.

He had exactly the same gambit. "But you look Turkish," he insisted. "Isn't that funny! I thought you were Turkish, so that's why I addressed you that way." I let him get as far as the invitation for tea and a tour before convincing him that no, really, I would be OK on my own.

This happened twice more within the next 15 or 20 minutes, and each of them used the same lines. You'd think they would come up with something new, but maybe they've learned this is the most successful approach.

They certainly pick the right place to have the best chance of finding a mark. It's said that more than a million people a day stroll down this street on weekends, and based on my visit – one of the few times I ventured outside of Sultanahmet – that's easy to believe.

Everything's cool in Istanbul

Istanbul's cool.

It doesn't need my endorsement, of course. This place has been cool for several thousand years, long before it was called Istanbul. When your history dates to the Neolithic Age and you've been the capital city of so many empires it's hard to keep count, you get a reputation early on for being a pretty cool place. And after a quick visit over the weekend, I can vouch that its coolness is alive and thriving.

Different sources peg the population at anywhere from nine million to 15 million. Either way, it's a huge place. It spans two continents - the only city in the world to do so - spilling from Europe into Asia (or vice versa; I'm not sure anyone knows which side was settled first).

I stuck with my recent travel strategy of trying to get to know a small area really well rather than attempting to see everything in one visit. There's nothing like sitting at a sidewalk cafe in a faraway place, sipping a Turkish tea and enjoying the sunshine and having a guy from the restaurant up the street walk by and call out "Robert, how are you?" because he remembers you from the day before.

I spent most of my time in Sultanahmet, a historic district that includes the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia, the Grand Bazaar and a maze of winding cobblestone streets lined with funky boutique hotels and restaurants. It runs along the Bosphorus Strait, a stunning body of water that separates Europe from Asia and is packed with ships of all shapes and sizes, bound for ports unknown.

Sultanamhet is built on the hills that climb semi-steeply from the water's edge. There are no high-rises; nothing more than four or five stories, all very old and charming and quaint. Many of the buildings have rooftop terraces for restaurants, and because each street is a little higher above the coast than the one before it, they almost all have spectacular views of the Bosphorus and the Asian side of the city across the way.

The Blue Mosque is the main attraction. It reminded me a lot of the Sheikh Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi, just 400 years older. The Topkapi Palace is nearby, and the Grand Bazaar, and the whole place is bustling with a nice mix of tourists and locals from early morning until around midnight.

There are cats everywhere, even in places where Abu Dhabi doesn't have cats. I saw bar cats and cafe cats and palace cats and rocks-beside-the-sea cats. No ceiling cats, though – Abu Dhabi still has the corner on that market.

The restaurants and bars are an eclectic mix of styles that attract a lot of the backpackers and other young vacationers. I walked into one that was playing James Brown's "The Payback" at full volume, then switched to some intolerable techno junk for about 20 minutes before the "DJ" started taking requests. Just write down a song and hand it to the bartender, who uses a laptop to find a recording online, and it will get played. I managed to get the Old 97's and Lucinda Williams into the mix. Not sure how the crowd liked it, but Istanbul seems like a live and let live kind of place, no matter what they think of your taste in music.