Sunday, May 24, 2009

Bear Among the Ruins

I feel sorry for Izmit - and I know that it must sound strange (feeling sorry for a city) but as far as much of the world is concerned, apart from the 1999 earthquake, Izmit doesn't really exist. But I know it exists but maybe that's because I am, by nature, a very compassionate bear (it's pretty much a prerequisite if you want to be a Freelance Goodwill Ambassador). And I'm also currently living in Izmit.

Today, I took the bipedals for a little outing to Izmit's Archaeological and Ethnography Museum which is down by the railway station. In fact, they've incorporated the grounds of the old train station into an open-air museum for most of the marble artefacts.
Of course, if you google the museum, you probably won't find anything, or if you do, it will actually be for the Archaeological Museum in Izmir not Izmit in the south of Turkey. Poor Izmit.

It's important to remember how important Izmit once was in the ancient world. I know I talked a bit about this in a previous post but it bears (!) repeating. Izmit was founded over 2720 years ago and was called Astacus or possible Olbia (how scholars confuse those two names is beyond me) and eventually was rebuilt and renamed Nicomedia. One of the most famous philosophers of the Roman period, Arrian, was born here. His writings on Alexander the Great (not born here) are still the most widely read account of the young warrior-god.

In 244, the Emperor Diocletian made Nicomedia the capital of his eastern Roman Empire. Although a reformer, he is probably best remembered for his savage persecution of Christians. He believed that his palace in Nicomedia had been set on fire by them (with the help of a few eunuchs) and although the ensuing investigation found no evidence of this, heads quickly started to roll. Literally. And bodies flayed and boiled alive over an open flame. Some 3,000 Christians were killed and many more tortured and imprisoned. And people think bears are dangerous!

ultimately, Diocletian was unsuccessful: within 21 years, the Emperor Constantine (who would later die just outside Nicomedia) made Christianity his religion of choice. Diocletian was the first Roman emperor to voluntarily abdicate and spent his retirement pottering about in his vegetable garden in modern-day Croatia. Not such a bad end, all in all.

Anyway, this is my long-winded way of saying that with so mu
ch Greek and Roman history - and I didn't even mention the Ottomans (the people not the foot stools) - there are lots of bits of statuary (some headless, some with other parts cut off!), mosaics (although nothing to rival Ravenna's tiles), columns & fountains (see above right) in Izmit. Or at least in Izmit's Archaeological & Ethnography Museum.

Of course, it was awfully nice of the guard not to charge us the
usual 3 lira ($2 Cdn) entrance fee and I suspect that he did so because he recognized me and not because - as my female bipedal attendant suggested - it's Sunday and perhaps museums are free. I mean really. She's just miffed because I caught her in a lie: she and my male bipedal attendant skipped off to Istanbul the other day and not only did they not take me but they told me they were going out to buy a carton of milk. For 12 hours? Do I look like I was born yesterday? - although, I admit that using a light moisturizer and sunblock takes years off my face.

I doubt this posting will put Izmit - or
Astacus/Olbia/Nicomedia and Kocaeli (rhymes with 'toe jelly') as it is also known - on the tourist map but even if it gets to outshine sunny Izmir for one minute, then my job is done. At least for today.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

A Bear & His Bong

On Thursday I finally gave in to my bipedal attendants' constant grumbling about the poor quality of the waterpipes in Izmit's tea shops and bought one for the house. Honestly, I hadn't heard this much whining since our days in Bratislava.

Anyway, I popped by a narghile shop in town and picked out one with a lovely blue jar - of course, my female bipedal wanted a green one but this particular blue one had a beautiful golden fish design on it and that reminded me of my two friends, Ken & Gerard the Goldfish, who died 3 years ago. Apparently those niceties were quite lost on her.

Now, the important thing about buying a waterpipe is selecting one wit
h a proper "body". The body is comprised of the long hollow tube with a gasket and grommets, through which the smoke from the burning tobacco is drawn from the clay bowl on top and then back out through the hose. Uninitiated narghile puffers often mistakenly buy a cheaper body - saving money is good, no? - but then quality is sacrificed. A less expensive body is made out of some tinny alloy that you can bend with your hands (of course, as a bear, I can crush almost anything in my paws) while its pricier counterpart is made out of brass. As a former international fashion model, I know that you get what you pay for - and let's face it, you want your narghile to last more than a week, right?

I confess that I wasn't very impressed with the narghile merchant's packing abilities (see photo, above left), especially considering that the box was custom designed to hold a narghile properly. He was a little
tape-happy. Maybe he was just anxious for us to leave his shop - my female bipedal was making a lot of noise about not getting a green waterpipe.

The same way that I'm known as GB or Grey Bear, the waterpipe goes by many different names too: in India it's a hookah, in Iran it's a
ghelyoon, in Egypt it's a shisha, while here in Turkey it's a narghile. They were probably invented thousands of years ago in a much simpler form - the Iranian word ghelyonn actually means "coconut" which is probably a clue to its original material - in either India or Persia. Some people even think they were invented in America - I mean, really! America? Anyway, our first honest-to-goodness reference to the waterpipe is from the royal court of the Mughal (Muslim/Persian) Emperor Akbar the Great, almost 500 years ago in India. In fact, it's because of the later British presence in India under the Raj that most of the English-speaking world knows the pipe as the hookah. India had a huge impact on the English language: the British also introduced the Hindi words bungalow, pyjamas, jungle and shampoo into English, but that's for another blog.

In some parts of the world, the water hose is covered with silk or cloth, but the narghiles here have what looks like a bit of Turkish carpet on it. You can see from the photo (below, right) our groovy blue, yellow & white "carpet" on the hose. Turkish narghiles also differ from others because the wooden part of the hose, which supports the mouthpiece, is actually quite big. I feel like I'm conducting an orchestra when I had a puff.

Speaking of puffing, the best shisha tobacco in the world - bears don't do drugs - is Egyptian ma'sal (honey-molasses tobacco) but I've been told that it's illegal in Turkey. I was able to find Egyptian apple tobacco in Istanbul which is pretty good - not as heady as ma'sal but better than the local stuff. I'm going to keep looking though because as anyone will tell you, anything is possible in Turkey.

I probably didn't need to buy a narghile - apart from putting an end to my bipedals' griping, of course - because I don't really need anything to help me relax. I admit that, as a Freelance Goodwill Ambassador, I do find myself in the middle of a lot of stressful situations. I'm actually here in Turkey trying to talk some sense into the Turks about their decades-long occupation of Northern Cyprus - and of course, to enjoy the baklava! In any case, we bears don't get all stressed-out the way you humans do: we meditate, practice yoga, hibernate and enjoy a nice glass of sherry from time to time.

That doesn't mean that I won't enjoy our narghile. But knowing my bipedals, I'm going to have to draw up some sort of timetable and make them stick to it. I don't want to name names, but some people just don't share very well. And as everyone knows (or should know), smoking a waterpipe is supposed to be a social experience.

I hope I don't regret this ...

Friday, May 1, 2009

GB Travels 1st Class

I haven't been doing too much lately - although the Istanbul Jazz Festival isn't far away - but I wanted to say something about the bus we take when we do go to Istanbul.

First of all, Efe Tur is our bus line of choice although it's possible that it's the only bus which connects Izmit and Istanbul. Honestly, I'm not really up on my buses but I do know what I like.

What I like about
Efe Tur is its attention to detail - but maybe that's just the former International Fashion Model in me speaking. But what separates a good bus ride from a great bus ride is the little things - just like a matching purse and the right shoes make a great ensemble.

Once an Efe Tour bus is on the road, our bus attendant brings us a bottle of toilet water and a towel with which we may refresh ourselves. On our most recent trip, the 'fragrance' was lemon and based on the expression on the gentleman in the seat in front of me - who had applied it quite liberally to his face - it was a few top notes short of Yves St. Laurent. I usually pass on communal cologne as I like to wear a nice musky scent designed for me exclusively by - well, I don't want to name drop. Naturally my female bipedal attendant made some usual snarky remark about it (although I had to agree with her) but at least my male bipedal attendant's sinuses cleared up.

Next, we are given a choice of coffee or tea. Because it is instant coffee with dehydrated creamer, I usually opt for the tea. What's the point in being in Turkey if you have to drink instant? The tea isn't Turkish either
- it's Lipton's - but I can live with that. I do wish they'd fill the cups up higher but I suppose that full cups of hot tea and coffee would be a safety hazard on a fast-moving vehicle.

After everyone has their hot beverage, the bus attendant brings us a platter with a selection of
packaged cookies (or bisküvi - just like the French pronunciation), crackers and muffins - which my female bipedal attendant lovingly refers to as chem-cakes, possibly in reference to the 317 ingredients which go into the making of one of these. I usually opt for a chocolate creme-filled bisküvi.

After all of this, we are offered a foil-covered plastic glass of water. Finally the attendant brings the driver his own cup of tea. Really, the only thing missing is an after-dinner mint, but I don't know if they eat those here.

Considering that Istanbul is - depending on the traffic - only an hour or so away, this is excellent service. At least in this bear's opinion. Especially when you bear (!) in mind that the cost for the trip is 10 lira - less than 5 euros. I mean, it's not like travelling on the Concorde, but I get recognized less on an Efe Tur bus than I ever did flying from London to New York. And sometimes you just want to enjoy the ride with a nice cup of tea and a chocolate cream-filled bisküvi without having to sign autographs and pose for photos.