Waking up on Monday morning, you realize you are back in the city. The Roman holiday is over. Fleeting visions stay with you … the little pension, with the two beds we pulled together, the window with the view of the courtyard, and the street outside leading up to the Piazza Santa Maria Maggiore; the roar of the motorcycles amidst the falling leaves. We felt almost at home there.
But in the room now in Istanbul, you are really home. Ginger, the cat, is waiting at the edge of the bed, posted like a sentry, waiting for her breakfast. Özge, on her day off from the palace, is still asleep. You get up and let the cat out onto the balcony, then feed her in the kitchen. Outside, the sounds of traffic, of autumn urgency, fall into place. It’s raining.
Özge gets up and you have coffee in the kitchen. She’s going to stay home today, perhaps clean. The place needs dusting up after the holiday. “Have you got many classes today?” she asks. No, not really, just a couple of evening classes. But if the holiday is indeed over, then you’d rather take your reality pill sooner rather than later. Better to go into the school and do some work, get back into the rhythm.
Out in the street, you get a minibus into Kadikoy. It’s already mid-morning, and very busy. In Rome, you didn’t need to be anywhere. You hardly knew where you were going half the time. And you were always together. Now, it’s back to the land of schedules, classes and please-try-to-be-on-time, hadi hadi! You walk up Rihtim Caddesi, with people filling the sidewalks, many of them crossing over to the ferry stations. The buses are all crowded.
At work, the class registers need to be updated, and you have to plan lessons.
“How was Rome?” everyone asks, colleagues and students alike.
“Wonderful!” you say, without missing a beat. “Am-azing.”
“Yes,” they say. “I was there in –“ or, “We’re hoping to go – “ Everyone, it appears, has either been to Rome, or else is planning to go. You never knew that until you’d actually been there.
It’s easiest just to say one or two things, especially about the food, then get back to the business of teaching English. After all, like it or not, it’s the teaching that – at least for now – pays for such splendid trips. Your books aren’t exactly flying off the shelves, and as far as we know, there have been no movie offers. (Listen: The sound of the world’s smallest violin – for such a small violin, it sure gets lots of requests!)
Being back in Istanbul also means being back to the news. In Italy, we didn’t look at the news for a whole week. We had absolutely no idea of what was going on in the world, and we didn’t care to know. The world could have ended, and we would have been safe in our vinai, sipping on glasses of a fine house red. (At our risk: I think of one critic’s stern admonishment to F. Scott following the publication of Tender is the Night. “Mr. Fitzgerald, you can’t hide from a hurricane under a beach umbrella.” Fair enough, Mr. Critic. We’d settle for our vinai. The cellar was wind-proof and fully stocked.)
Anyway, back in our city … There was the latest news about Erdogan’s new presidential palace. It was said now to have 1,150 rooms, as opposed to merely 1,000. Bigger than the White House or the Kremlin. Some things never take a rest, including the Turkish president’s ego, and his desire – symbolized by the grand palace – to not only show that Turkey is a global player, but to restore something of Ottoman Empire glory.
Ottoman language classes should be required in the high schools, the president says, “no matter what they say.”
Syrian refugees continue to pour into the country, in some cases taking over entire neighborhoods, at least according to reports. There is still no agreement between Turkey and the U.S., and Europe over a long-term strategy for the ISIL threat.
Back in America, nobody could breathe … Riots and protests against police brutality at home, while the long arm of liberty fought for peace abroad …
I got through the first week, and it wasn’t all that bad. Actually, I found the holiday had refreshed me, and I went about my work with energy – a lot more than I’d had in some time. Over the weekend, Özge and I cooked up steaks and some of the pasta we’d brought from Rome (the cat, Ginger, perhaps taking revenge for our absence, attacked one of the packages we’d intended as a gift, so we had no choice but to cook it up ourselves).
We broke open a package of the dry, strong-tasting cheese as well, and a bottle of red wine. “How are we ever going to eat Italian again?” we said. There was one apparently decent place in our Istanbul neighborhood, but it was really expensive and you needed reservations. How could we settle for such conditions, when we’d had lasagna in our room in Rome for 5 euros, along with cheese, olives, salami and excellent wine purchased at the neighborhood shop for a pittance? We’re not snobs, understand, but still –
We watched Fellini’s La Dolce Vita while we ate, setting up a comfortable camp on the sofa, with the cat dozing at our feet. I’d seen the film years before, as a student, and had liked it without really understanding it. Now, with our fresh Roman holiday in hand, we could follow Marcello Mastroianni as he pursued Anita Ekberg to the Trevi Fountain. Our only lament was that while we were there, the fountain was closed for renovations. Like Marcello, who came within inches of kissing the beautiful Ekberg before the sudden arrival of dawn broke the spell, we felt we’d also just missed something. We watched as other scenes in the film unfolded, reminding us of our holiday.
But it’s one of those tricks about experience, and getting older, that invariably something doesn’t quite match. I realize now that had I gone to Rome before, as a student, I would have been seduced much like the Marcello character in the story, drawn to The Sweet Life without knowing really anything about myself, without knowing anything about Life itself. I would have spent the entire time emptying my pockets, in pursuit of some Mad Orgy; I would have fruitlessly chased shadows and glimmers, and probably came out away feeling empty and cheated, if nonetheless still glad to have gone.
So perhaps it was thanks to fate that Özge and I made the trip together. It was a journey that we spent nearly a year preparing for, saving for, breathlessly anticipating. Meanwhile, our relationship also went through a series of ups and downs, so that we arrived in Rome, we were ready. Living in Istanbul, itself a grand, historical city, we were gratified to see, but were not overwhelmed, by the many splendours of Rome. We could take it in stride – doing as the Romans do, but adding a few personal touches of our own.
Best of all, when our Roman holiday was over, we’d had our fill. We’d added at least an inch to our waistlines, thanks to all the rich pasta and wine. Our legs were sore from the endless walking, our senses exhausted from all the sights. There was no real lingering sadness or regret, the feeling of returning to a more mundane existence. After all, Istanbul can be described many ways, but mundane? Never.
Rome may be eternal, sitting on seven hills. But Istanbul is equally eternal, and has seven hills of its own. Why do you think those ancients set up the second imperial capital here? Yes, and we have our own life together, which, surely, is the sweetest life of all.
James Tressler is a writer and teacher whose books, including “Conversations in Prague,” “Lost Coast D.A.,” and “Letters from Istanbul, Vol. 1,” are available at Lulu.com. He lives in Istanbul.