Travel

Kaleidoscopic Istanbul

The Sultanahmet Camii (Blue Mosque) in Winter 2008. Photo: Matthew Asprey.

Perhaps more than any other world city, Istanbul transforms with the seasons. In this kaleidoscopic city, thriving and chaotic, cosmopolitan with entrenched provincial colour, you sometimes feel like you’re at the centre of the world.

Forget pulling off a heist at the Topkapı Palace—here is the truly classic Istanbul swindle:

A Meandering Australian Tourist Type (Matt) finds himself trailing behind a shoe shiner in the Sultanahmet. The shoe shiner ‘unwittingly’ drops his brush and continues along the street.

“Sir!” cries Matt, “You dropped your brush!”

The shoe shiner turns in shock and retrieves his brush. “Thank you, my friend! Thank you!”

“No problem.” Matt smiles, moving on, his work here done.

“Wait!” The shoe shiner falls to his knees and seizes Matt’s right boot. “You have saved my livelihood! I must repay!”

“Oh, that’s really not—”

The shoe shiner already has Matt’s foot on his woodblock and has smeared white gunk onto his priceless brush. He raises his eyes to Matt as if praying to an angel. “My gift to you!” He starts to polish Matt’s boot.

A tall man in a baseball cap appears from nowhere to put his arm around Matt’s shoulder. “Lucky man! This is fifteen years number one shoe engineer in all Istanbul! Where you from?”

“Ah...Australia.”

“Kangaroo?”

“Ah-huh.”

“Aussie! Aussie! Aussie!”

Matt winces. “Actually that’s an idiotic nationalistic—”

“Oi! Oi! Oi!”

The shoe shiner is now scrubbing Matt’s left boot. “I have wife and four children,” he says. “My children need food...they starve.” He makes a pathetic eating gesture, hand to mouth, oh it’s hopeless, they are wasting away!

Matt sighs and pulls a couple of lira coins out of his pocket.

“No, no,” the shoe shiner says. “My children need paper money.”

The other man squeezes Matt’s shoulder, grins, and adds for clarity: “It’s not enough.”

The shoe shiner holds tight to Matt’s left foot.

Hopping on one leg, Matt withdraws his wallet. He has only a fifty lira bill—about US$25.

“Sorry, I have nothing smaller,” Matt says, showing the bill.

“No problem,” says the shoe shiner, “I give change.” He snatches the fifty from Matt’s hand. The other man hands reaches into his pocket and hands back fifteen lira.

“Too much!” Matt says.

“For my children!” the shoe shiner says, planting his wet lips and bristly moustache to the back of Matt’s hand. He releases Matt’s foot. “Thank you! Thank you!”

“Okay, okay!”

Matt hurries up the street.

“Wait!” The other man yells. “You need guide?”

Sure, I was a sucker that first time. But once you’re hip to the classic shoeshine con, Istanbul’s a breeze. I keep coming back. It’s one of my favourite cities. I guess Clare and I could have skipped it on our global prowl, this backpacking reconnaissance mission for affordable cities, because I already knew Istanbul to be a fine place for an expatriate writer. But Clare had never been to the city, and it would be a shame for any archeologist to miss out on the capital of the Byzantine and the Ottoman Empires. What’s more, it wasn't going to cost us much extra to make a week-long stop en route from Georgia to Greece.

I was lucky to have so many excuses to go back.

This made it my third visit in four years. I’ve seen the city in the bitter winter, in sultry summer, and now in florid spring. Perhaps more than any other world city, Istanbul transforms with the seasons. In any season you have trouble deciding whether the place is Eastern European, Middle Eastern, or Central Asian. This all makes for a kaleidoscopic city, thriving and chaotic, cosmopolitan with entrenched provincial colour, a place of contradictions. Sometimes you feel like you’re at the centre of the world.

Here are notes from my first three sojourns in this great city on the Bosphorus.

Winter 2008: In the Sultanahmet Without a Wedding Ring

At dawn the plane descended through an ice-slush of clouds. I stumbled through passport control at Atatürk International Airport. Beyond the gates Mehmet, a portly old man, held up a sign bearing my name. I followed him. The outside air was frosty and the sky a pale haze of industrial pollution. Mehmet led me to his white panel van. On the highway, cruising by decayed mass housing blocks, Mehmet leaned over to smack the dust off my jeans and pat my belly. He cheered when he saw I had no wedding ring.

“Not have wife?”

“No.”

“Girlfriend?”

“No.”

“Very, very good,” he said. “They nag, nag, nag,”

We had fog on our breaths all the way into the city.

Istanbul is split down the middle by the Bosphorus, which joins the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara. The strait divides not just the city, but Europe and Asia. On this visit I would stick to the European side, which gathers around the Golden Horn, an inlet of the Bosphorus. On the northern side of the Horn is the district of Beyoğlu on the way uphill to Taksim Square. On the southern side is the Sultanahmet, home to the Aya Sofya, Sultanahmet Camii (Blue Mosque) and Topkapı Palace.

Mehmet dropped me outside my hotel in the Sultanahmet and then drove back to the airport to pick up another traveller. I buzzed the hotel door. The manager, Suleyman, grudgingly climbed out of his cot behind the counter and led me upstairs to my room. Why so early? I dumped my backpack and took a hot shower and put on clean clothes. When I opened the bedside drawer where one usually expects to see a Gideon’s Bible—or maybe in this case a Gideon’s Qur’an—I found instead what was left of a packet of condoms and a blood-brown tampon. I went down to the lobby and complained to Suleyman the Not-So-Magnificent. He patted my belly and said, ‘Don’t worry—I fix.’

I put on a pair of gloves and went for an early morning walk. The Blue Mosque, seemingly transparent in the southwestern mist, directly faces the Aya Sofya, powder-pink that day before the blue northeastern sky. The area outside the Aya Sofya was deserted except for a man in a Gore-Tex jacket who sold me an international calling card. It started to rain. My stonecold feet led me to a diner on Divan Yolu Caddesi. I ate breakfast and read Anthony Burgess’s Little Wilson and Big God for a few hours.

That afternoon when the rain stopped I walked through Gülhane Park on the slopes below Topkapı Palace. At the edge of the park I found an open air café on a ridge overlooking the Bosphorus. There were no other customers. I shivered and drank hot coffee with cardamom from a gold-rimmed demitasse. A stray ginger cat jumped onto my table and pawed through the rain puddles. It was quiet except for foghorns and the clatter of a train below the ridge. Across the strait above Üsküdar floated a hot air balloon—a perfect sphere, off-white and unbranded, like something escaped from a Jules Verne story. It didn’t feel like the 21st century.

I walked downhill, inspected the ruins of Constantinople’s sea walls, and then walked beside the harbour. On the docks of Eminönü men sold simits (knots of sesame bread) and stuffed mussels. Women in warm shawls, laden with shopping, descended into a pedestrian underpass packed with stalls. The sun was behind the clouds and heavy winter smog, making a ghostly spectre of the Süleymaniye Mosque and of all the mosques on the hills of the city.

I saw the silhouettes of hundreds of men ranked across the Galata Bridge. Were they waiting for a ship to come into the Golden Horn? It was only when I began to cross the bridge that I saw the fishing rods and boxes of tackle and plastic buckets full of little fish writhing in icy water. The men were casting lines into the oily and rubbish-strewn harbour while trams and cars rolled across the bridge.

On the other side, in the harbourside neighbourhood of Karaköy, I discovered that commerce in the centre of Istanbul works on the traditional urban model. Need plumbing equipment? Go to the street where all the plumbing equipment is sold in an open market (Kemeraltı Caddesi). It sure beats the shopping mall.

I hadn’t yet memorised the Turkish for ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ but I did know ‘Etsiz yemekler var mı?’ (‘Is there something to eat that has no meat in it?’) I ordered dinner at an otherwise empty restaurant on the ground floor of a guesthouse in the Sultanahmet. The restaurant doubled as a gift shop. For sale were ceramics with Anatolian motifs, jewellery, and various dust-collecting knick knacks. In an adjoining room was a carpet emporium.

A beautiful and demure lady in an orange hijab brought out my stuffed tomatoes. She didn’t speak English. Her husband, a short man in a brown tie and grey cardigan, was the manager. He wore a peppery grey moustache over a friendly smile. He asked permission to sit with me and introduced himself as Aykut. He wanted to show me his rugs.

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In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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