took Leo out for his usual afternoon walk. The skies looked ominous
but they got on our side as we ventured down the hill of the
neighborhood, and by the time we landed on the busy streets at the
bottom the sun was shining.
The government announced a partial lift of the lockdowns that have been in effect all winter. For months, you’d walk past the cafes and restaurants and they were all closed, the sidewalks empty where the tables filled with customers usually sat looking out at the street.
We were curious to see which places were open. With Leo in his stroller, staring out in a curious trance, we walked past the busy supermarket to a slender side street where we always used to go for coffee. The traditional Ottoman restaurant was open, and we saw there were people inside having lunch. Here and there, some men sat beneath the awnings of shops having tea – they were workers and looked rugged but cheerful – and then at the end of the street we arrived at Bal 12, the place we like.
“It’s open,” I announced, noticing that some tables were back, with their ashtrays and sugar packets placed atop the illustrated tablecloths.
“We can stay for a coffee if you want,” my wife said.
“It’s up to you,” I said.
Ozge guided the stroller to a place beside one of the tables. There were only a few customers: a young couple, the girl very pretty and flashing dark and sitting cozy with her beau, and near us sat a man smoking a cigarette. The other tables were empty, and in the street people passed by still wearing their masks.
The waitress, a soft-spoken covered girl, recognized us and immediately came over.
“Hos geldiniz!” she cheerfully exclaimed. “Nasil siniz?” She made a small polite fuss over Leo, how much he had grown since she had seen him last. Indeed, he had.
“He wasn’t walking last time,” I said, in my rudimentary Turkish.
“He’s walking – whoa!” the girl said.
She knew what we always ordered – a French press sade for me, Turk kahvesi with milk for Ozge.
While the waitress went to get our order, Ozge took Leo out of the stroller and let him waddle gingerly on the brick pavements. He stared with wonder at a motorcycle that had just pulled up. It was one of the delivery guys who probably had just returned from dropping off somebody’s lunch. Seeing Leo looking up at him, the man just smiled and said, “Merhaba!”
Leo wandered up and down the slender side street, with his mother following closely, looking at the three street cats posted idly nearby, the people passing to and fro, the great Mihrimah Sultan mosque in the background and the sea birds flickering in the now-sunny sky.
The girl brought the coffee. I poured some of the French press into the cup, took a sip and watched Ozge and Leo for awhile. It felt good to be in the café, to be in a social atmosphere, to see that our coffee shop had made it through the lockdown. It felt good to see that the waitress was still working there. I was tempted to shoot the breeze, to ask how things had gone during the lockdown, but the girl was busy tending to the handful of customers and I really didn’t feel like talking much anyway. It was better to just sit back, drink coffee and watch the goings on in the street.
Ozge came back and handed me Leo. I put him in my lap and let him look out at the street while Ozge had some of her Turkish coffee. It is served in the classic style, with the heavy dark coffee in a small brass pot that you pour into a tiny cup, and a piece of chocolate on the side.
After awhile, I got up, handed Leo to Ozge and went in to pay the bill. One of the male proprietors, who also knew us, said the total was 13 lira. As I handed him a 20, I noticed on the screen that the total was actually 24 lira. He’d looked at the wrong table.
The man tried to cover his mistake by waving me off.
“Tamam, tamam,” he said. “It’s OK, OK.”
I insisted, but he wouldn’t hear it. We were old, loyal customers. He liked our son. Twenty lira was enough.
I reached in my wallet, found a 5-lira note and pushed it past him onto the counter.
The man relented, and thanked me.
“For the economy,” I said, shrugging.
Understanding, he nodded and laughed.
I was glad I did that. Normally, I would have accepted his gesture. But they had managed to survive a long, cold winter, as had many. They had remembered us, so it was only fair to pay what was owed, mistake or not.
“What shall we do?” Ozge asked. She had put Leo back in the stroller, his face nearly invisible beneath his woolen cap.
“Let’s go to the iskele,” I said. “We haven’t been there for awhile. Leo can look at the boats and the sea birds.”
So we did. Along the waterfront, it was windy, and despite the sun it was still cold. Lots of people were out though, many of them sitting or standing looking out at the Bosphorus. A giant red tanker ship was passing, nearly swallowing up the view, and over at the ferry boat stations many people were getting on and off, still wearing masks and bundled up in winter coats, hats and scarves.
Leo practiced walking – he’s getting much better at it – and his face lit up as he circled and circled on the wide concrete shoreline plaza, blinking in the sunlight, and waddling over to where a large flock of pigeons were pecking at a mound of breadcrumbs. Later we took him over to a nearby park where there’s a playground and let him try out climbing the steps to the slide, and touch all the brightly colored things. A few other children were there, slightly older, and they climbed the jungle gyms while their mothers watched.
It felt good to be outside, and to take Leo to other places besides the same streets in the neighborhood, streets that have bored us for months, and to have a decent cup of coffee for a change – outside, the way it’s supposed to be. I looked forward to the spring, and the good warm weather, when we can take Leo to Kadikoy and we can sit outside at Nazim Hikmet or Bahane, and have ice cold beer, maybe even with friends. Leo should be walking like a pro by then. It felt good to have things to look forward to – the old life, and the new life too.
The next day, Thursday, I finished the online lessons and was done for the week. Outside it was sunny so we decided to head to Kuzguncuk.
In Kuzcuncuk, people were out enjoying the fine weather. They looked pale owing to the long winter and the lockdowns, but nevertheless you could tell they felt fine. The tables outside the cafes and bakeries and restaurants were nearly full. Outside Metet, the popular kebab restaurant, the lines had even returned. A lot of things had returned.
We walked up the street to the park, after I first stopped and grabbed two Americanos. It was pleasant to walk, the bright sunlight falling through the still-bare trees and splashing onto the tables and onto the faces of the people, the good and kind and attractive people who always come to Kuzguncuk, the ones we had missed. Above all the shops and cafes the apartments are charmingly retro, painted in pale golds, turquoise, light red and brown – the kind of places you wished you lived in when you walked by and looked up at them from the street.
We took Leo to the park and let him walk around for an hour or so, keeping him away from the dogs lounging in the sun, even though they seemed to be friendly. The other children were all mostly a bit older, running and zig-zagging around in their intrigues and games, while Leo tried to waddle after them and we had to keep him from falling in the places where there are stones or mud. The other parents sat chatting together, keeping an eye on each others’ kids and they smiled and made a polite fuss over Leo whenever he approached them, holding out a blade of grass he had picked as a kind of offering.
Later, we stopped at the grocer and picked up some fresh spinach that my wife likes, and headed back to the main street. The golden lunch hour was over, and many of the tables were empty again, but there were still people out, walking, masked but feeling good about themselves and the sunny afternoon.
“Look, it’s still closed,” Ozge said, pointing out Corvino’s, the Italian restaurant that stood on one of the corners. “I wonder if they are bankrupt,” she added.
I thought about how the few times we had gone there, the place had seemed overpriced, the product underwhelming at best.
“Well, maybe that’s not such a bad thing,” I ventured. “After all, there are plenty of restaurants in Istanbul.”
Even in the best of times, restaurants were always opening and shutting down, new ones springing up in their place over night. The same with the shops, the cafes, the bars, and all the other places. After all, it is a remarkably resilient city, I thought. It’s had thousands of years of practice – survived empires, conquests, World Wars and the usual lot. I thought about how people in general are resilient, and how the bad times come and go and the good times return, and the good and the bad get mixed up so often, but life always seems, in one shape or another, to return, inshallah.
James Tressler, a former Lost Coast resident, is a writer and teacher in Istanbul.