Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Not Constantinople?

I regret my decision to decline a hotel driver to pick me up at the airport. After the exhausting jump from San Francisco to Istanbul it seems to me very worth the extra cost to not have to find a cabbie that was free and try and communicate our destination. My heart leaps when, despite my instructions, there is a man standing there holding a card with my name on it. After confirming the price of the drive, we begin the winding path toward the Goldenhorn Hotel while I try to take in as much as possible of the place I had only ever dreamt of seeing.

I absorb the rapid-fire images of modern mixed with ancient – a billboard selling electronics, a tower on the edge of the water hundreds of years old, a Chinese food restaurant, silhouettes of minarets, Annie Lennox playing on the radio. I glance at Wife and see she is already frantically snapping pictures. As we turn up cobblestone street I see a street vendor selling food next to a sign reading misir. I ask him what it is and he repeats the word over and over as if that it’s self-explanatory, “Misir! You know! Misir! It’s misir! In English it would be, you know, um, misir!” We chuckle and get out when soon after he stops the cab in front of the unassuming hotel.

Our next destination was an authentic Turkish bath. I had a couple candidates that I had researched ahead of time, but the hotel had a relationship with one named Suleymaniye to which they would provide drop off/pick up service and once again, simplicity wins the day. After convincing him that it is ok to leave his techno music blasting we ask him to teach us some Turkish words. “Ok, repeat after me,” he says, “ Tea. Sugar. Dream. That’s ‘thank you’! Easy!”

I quickly lose my bearings in the thin twisting streets. Almost all the storefronts are closed with thick metal bars or an entire sliding metal door. We stop in front of a dimly lit wooden door set in an ancient stone building. My wife shoots me a nervous look and we go in with our guard up. In movies, when the adventurer enters a room with vast treasure he will have a blank overwhelmed expression while the lighting on his face grows brighter and brighter. I suspect that if I had been filmed at that moment that is exactly what would have happened.

The interior was modest but comfortable and much larger than the nondescript entry would have you believe. We each buy a massage as well as entry to the hammam (€35 per person) and they give us clothes and explain to us that this is the only co-ed hammam in Istanbul so we would be able to stay together through the experience.

We change into a red plaid outfits that consist of shorts for me and shorts and a top for her. We balance precariously on wooden sandals as we are led through a series of small rooms leading to a massive domed marble room with a gigantic marble circular slab in the middle. Alcoves in each corner house some sort of sink and platform built into the wall. There is another couple lying on the central slab but there is room enough for twenty so we plop down, close our eyes, and listen to the sound of dripping water echoing off the walls.

After we have broken into a sweat two men enter and proceed to splash water on themselves in one of the alcoves. We recognize them as employees and soon they call us over to lie on the platforms set into the wall. They alternate sloshing us with hot and cold water separated by a brisk scrubbing with what I can only associate with a rough inflated pillowcase filled with bubbles. Their singing in Turkish while they work adds to the ambiance and I am hesitant to ask what the song is about in case the topic is completely discordant with the feeling of ancient place and time.

Our driver is waiting for us after we cool off, sip on some fresh squeezed pomegranate juice and change back into our clothes. We feel exhausted, excited, refreshed, content and overwhelmed. We feel reborn.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Bourbon & Branch

It’s still bright as we emerge from the BART tunnel, but the tall Financial District buildings dispel any hope of any view of the sun setting. Moving up Powell we are pressed solidly by people carry bags saying Gap or Nordstrom’s or a chrome Apple logo.

Snippets of German, Chinese, Japanese, and Spanish swirl around us as the press of people flow in all directions. The two girls in my group follow me as I turn left on O’Farrell trying to put some distance between us and the main vein of tourist excitement.

Block after block the scene slowly changes to a grittier feel with people milling about in front of a corner liquor store or a closed nail salon. One of the girls asks me “You aren’t going to take us to a massage parlor, are you?”

I see the sign for our destination which reads “Anti-Saloon League. San Francisco Branch. Est 1920.” There is a single door with a speaker and buzzer next to it. There is a man speaking to a woman at the door in hushed tones in the doorway, she motions him to come in, and shuts the door as we approach. After it becomes apparent that she’s not coming back, I press the buzzer and a young man in a pin-stripe suit opens the door and asks “Password?” I give him the password and we walk inside.

The transition from daylight to the dim interior is drastic and we struggle to watch our steps. We can barely make out the booths of people eating dinner talking to each other in whisper tones. The doorman leads us up to a bookshelf which, after he presses a button, swings open to reveal a passage to another room. He motions us through and closes the bookcase behind us.

Our eyes adjust and can take in the rows of bookshelves filled with ancient looking books from the hardwood floor up to the high ceiling. There are a few couples filling the scattered tables but it is obvious we have beaten the evening rush and proceed to the bar.

There are two bartenders in 20s style clothing trimming garnish and preparing for the rush sure to come later. We ask for a minute to peruse the chalkboard behind them for ideas on cocktails. I’ve already informed my group of some of the House Rules, one of which is “Don’t even think of ordering a Cosmopolitan.” The girls take their time drink shopping knowing that their order is going to be a reflection on their personality. I take a moment to pick a book of the bookshelf to determine if all of these books are cheap filler from a local used bookstore. I am pleasantly surprised to be holding Milton’s “Paradise Lost”.

I look up at the bartender and ask for an Anchor Steam ($4). One of the girls orders an Aviation ($8). Our last party member starts talking to the bartender about her inability to choose and he notes that there’s only one thing you can do, “Grin and bear it.”

She says, “I’ll have one of those.”

He says, “A what?”

“A Grin and Bear It. Surprise me.”

They are known for being Mixologists here and he seems to relish in the idea of experimenting. A flurry of bottles pass over a chilled martini glass followed by a flash of light as he lights the concoction on fire. He slides an orange rind around the rim, drops a cherry into it and passes it across the bar. She sips and as her expression changes to one of concentration and surprise she hands it to me to taste. I sip and immediately identify a syrupy orange flavor to be followed by a distinct bite of smoke and lemon. The bartender asks “Well?” We both nod in amazement and watch as he types in the name of the drink manually into the register – Grin And Bare It.

The girls turn to me and ask “How did you find this place? How did you know the password?” I look at them straight faced and keep my lips sealed. Explaining that you can find anything on the Internet if you look long enough would destroy the mystery – and mystery and secrets are what embodies where we are at : an old-fashioned Speakeasy.