Neighborhoods

Back when I lived at 94 Stelfox Street, when there was no Zip Code, when the phone number began CL5 and ended in W so the operator could distinguish us from CL5-1757R or CL5-1757S, when my Jets Little League team had no sponsor’s name splayed across our chests, when there was not a single traffic light in town, when Gene Schreiber would sell me cigarettes for my mother if I had a note and exact change, when Gene knew that all of us boys would gather round his cash register to distract him with small purchases so that the designated thief could make off with Three Muskateers bars for all, when there was no school bus, when I stopped at the post office every day to work the two dial combination and collect the mail that sometimes brought a decoder ring from Sugar Smacks, when the dank, mysterious, fading mansion on Anderson actually had an ice house and a cement pond to freeze the winter snows in, when all this was so I lived in a neighborhood. Mr. and Mrs. Hios lived next door. David H., who beat me up because I was small, and who went mad while I was off at college, lived across the street. Mr. Loman, the butcher, built a new house near the Methodist church at the end of the road. Billy Hines, mad at his homebuilder father for some boyhood reason, drove his dad’s earthmover through the kitchen wall.

That’s a neighborhood: childhood, school, neighbors, small shops, baseball, oddities, idiosyncrasies, an old man with a goiter down to his collar bone driving through Demarest in his ancient Lincoln Town Car, and a lifetime loyalty.

Later years, I lament, don’t hold up on such a scale: college, however divine, was a cloister; Senior Staff Housing in Hong Kong was an enclave; suburban Green Bay was an invitation to the mall; and even Philadelphia, which abounds with neighborhoods, never quite drew me into Fishtown’s bosom because I wasn’t born on Marlborough Street as the rest of my neighbors were.

I’ve been reading an entrancing and humbling book: Unsuitable for Ladies: An Anthology of Women Travelers, edited by Jane Robinson. Some of the intrepid ladies undertook their journeys as early as the 4th century. Most, in this book, set sail in the 18th or 19th century. Their tales fall into several categories ranging from the Noblesse Oblige school of Snootiness, ladies like the English doyen in a Forster’s Where Angels Fear to Tread who says, while on holiday in Italy, “Foreigners are a filthy nation.” But then there are the two Quaker ladies sailing for the Holy Land. Bad weather drives their ship to Malta where the Inquisition is on and, because they would not stoop to take communion and seal themselves to the love of the church, they were imprisoned for three years under the constant threat of torture and death. There is the lepidopterist who wades, chin-deep, for two hours through an uncharted African swamp. Back on dry land, she’s grateful that the porters had as much salt as they had for otherwise they’d never get all those leaches off from around their necks. Or the English lady, tired of being bounced around on a London double-decker, who gets the singular idea of riding across Canada on a bicycle instead. Or the photographer determined to get a shot of New Zealand cannibals feasting on human meat. Or the many, many who write of their yearlong journeys by sea and desert to reach Calcutta where their days are divided among Company soirees, weekly at-homes, native uprisings, the deaths of husbands and children. And that’s if they survived the sea voyage.

In short, I’m having a bit of trouble defining or identifying my life abroad. Having been in Istanbul almost two months, I know my way around and I no longer feel like a tourist. I can live a daily life; go to cafes I like; stay in all day if I choose; linger over breakfast in our Research Institute to talk with my colleagues here, most of whom are engaged in seriously arcane projects about Ottoman Empire issues.

And the neighborhood has begun to adopt me. The one commercial street in our semi-suburb village of Arnavutkoy must have 20 restaurants ranging from the quick-stop doner place to the magnificently overpriced fish emporium. There’s the grocer, the liquor store, the fruit and veggie market, the pharmacy. From this street, which runs parallel to the Bosporus, perpendicular streets dash up the steep hills where, naturally, the houses become more expensive as the elevation increases and the view out over the water to the Asian side becomes more expressive of human and natural ingenuity.  My favorite Italian restaurant is on such a side street, a stately dame where the valets don’t zoom off with your Jaguar, challenging the taxis cruising for fares to the Big City four miles downstream.

It was along this street that I walked out last night looking for dinner. When I passed the fruit market, the proprietor was replenishing his display of ripe peaches. He saw me coming, chose one because I always buy just one. I said I’d be back after dinner. Half a block later, I passed the kabap place were I often have lunch—the adana is especially fine, highly spiced minced lamb served on Turkish flat bread with grilled tomatoes and a whole hot green pepper—and my waiter, as tongue tied in English as I am in Turkish, pulled out a chair for me at the outside table. I waved him off because I wanted the roast sea bass at my favorite seafood restaurant where my usual waiter shook my hand and took me to what he calls ‘my table.’ The younger waiter, however, mistook my order and I got salmon shish instead. It looked lovely, so I made the switch. A moment later, the older waiter, who thought I was being most courteous, brought me an egg plant salad, his compensatory gift.

After dinner, I took a stroll and then decided I needed a cappuccino and maybe a spot of dessert, so I climbed the hill to the Italian restaurant. The hostess greeted me by name, which she remembered from my credit card two weeks ago, and was not at all perturbed when I said I wanted only desert and coffee, even though the house was rather full. I had an extravagant something: layers and layers of phylo interlaced with a flavored crème fraiche and fresh strawberries. Cappuccino and this confection: about $13. When I asked for my bill, the reply was, “Tonight, dessert is complimentary.”

I stopped for my neighborhood peach on the way home.

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