Saturday, 16 November 2013

Stand-by stories

Probably because we'd made it through security and reached the gate where the plane was visible outside being readied for our flight, we felt it unlikely that we'd spending the night in a Turkish jail** or even on Turkish soil. Chances were that the journalist who didn't get his flight had been on a stand-by ticket and the flight was full. So naturally, people swapped stand-by stories. This is mine.

It was in the 1990s before widespread use of mobile phones, internet or even credit cards. I was an invited speaker at a conference in Thessaloniki. The organisers sent me my tickets which were via Amsterdam and Athens. My return journey was on a Sunday.

The taxi driver who took me from one airport to the other across Athens was horrified to know I had only this short journey to see the sights. He said he would take me the scenic route and wouldn't charge much more. And to be fair, he didn't. The commentary degenerated though as he told me with rising indignation about his American ex-wife and the sheer effrontery of Aristotle Onassis in marrying Jackie Kennedy. I never got the link. In amongst the 'She said to me ... I said to her ... my lawyer told her lawyer...' would be an occasional, 'That's the Coliseum,' but it was an interesting ride and gave me a more positive memory of Athens than what was to come.

Tired, hungry, overdue for a visit to a washroom I finally plonked my case down at the check-in desk and awaited my paperwork. No online check-in in those days, either.

'This is a stand-by ticket,' the woman said. 'And the flight's full.'

I can't quite remember which emotion surfaced first. It might have been anger at the conference organisers who had invited me out and landed me with a cheap ticket at the height of the holiday season, but mainly I think it was HELP! What do I do now?

'When's the next flight?' I asked.

'Same time tomorrow.'

All manner of practical issues rose in the wave of panic on that one. I had almost no Greek money, no credit card that would work in Greece, couldn't access the safe bit of the airport, just this huge hanger like space that was open to the street in what didn't seem to me to be a very salubrious part of the city. The woman might have been used to this sort of thing because she allowed all this to go through my head and once I had room for the next bit, added, 'But that's full, too.'

''When can I get a seat?' Probably more of a squeak than a straight ask by this time.

She checked her paperwork. 'In a fortnight.'

There followed a frenetic couple of hours. I found a phone and rang home to explain the problem, not that they could do anything from there. Then I went round every airline in the place - there were a lot. At first I was after any flight to Amsterdam. No luck. It was the holiday season, they were all booked solid for at least two weeks. OK, anywhere in England? At least my credit card would work there. But no, not a thing.

In the end, I was reduced to asking for any flight to anywhere where my credit card would work i.e. Western Europe. Same answer. Nothing for a fortnight. One woman said she could sell me a flight from London to Humberside, but I pointed out that was no good unless she could also sell me a flight to London. Nothing for a fortnight.

Come to think about it, that London-Humberside flight sounds dodgy to me. But maybe there was such a thing back then.

I waited with diminishing hope in the ticket hall as my flight clicked its way to the top of the board as its take-off time approached. Then take-off time arrived, it disappeared from the board and I decided to go and find that washroom while I thought out my next move.

Just going through the door when I became aware of a voice on the tannoy, calling... not exactly my name, but the name by which they'd been calling me throughout. The conference organisers had booked my tickets in a slight variation of my actual name which had caused some sideways glances through customs. The voice now calling my pseudonym implored me to '...go to the ticket hall.'

I raced back. The woman behind the counter leapt out as she saw me. 'There you are! Follow me.'

She sprinted through the airport. I struggled behind with suitcase and hand luggage. She took me through check points and gates, up and down stairs and eventually threw me at an aeroplane where I was bundled up the steps, my case rammed in a corner, and shoved into the only spare seat.

It was the plane for which I had the stand-by ticket. I never found out what happened, but I always assumed that it must have been late because they'd had to delay take-off to throw out an unruly passenger and at the last minute they gave me his seat. I don't know why I assume the unruly passenger to have been a man but that's how I picture it. Belated thanks to him and I hope he didn't have too uncomfortable a night in Athens.

**unlike many writers who clock up weeks, months and years behind bars, uncharged, and unaware what charge, if any, will eventually be brought. 

(Istanbul blog 9 of 9) << previous: –: first>>


Friday, 15 November 2013

Gala dinner amongst cars, cats and planes

The gala dinner was held in a museum housed in something like an aircraft hanger at the side of the river. Cars were the main feature and they surrounded us at dinner...






On the way in we came past elderly (but polished to within an inch of their lives) railway carriages and the like. Later exploration found a room full of old computers and a display of those old diving suits that make you wonder why divers didn't spend the whole time on their heads. If you look carefully at the following badly crafted photo you can see a whole plane with its wing out above the diners.




Boats too, with a walkway so you could wander on high and see the decks and equipment polished to a level probably not seen when they went to sea.




When I went to explore, it was after the dinner and no-one else was in this part of the vast space so I was on my own, but kept being startled to come across figures bent to tasks such as sorting fishing nets, which wouldn't have been so surprising if the boats had clearly not been destined to set sail. But the figures didn't move and turned out to be models, part of the display.




Wandering further afield took me to the edge of the river where boats bobbed about on the tide and where I got my only mozzie bite of the trip.




On the way back towards the dining room, taking a different route past more shiny old cars, I was aware of being followed. A marmalade cat stalked from car to car, leaping ahead and onto a blue bonnet. As I approached it leapt down again but came to say hello and sniffed my hand. I patted the car bonnet and it sprang up again, consenting to be stroked until I ran my hand along its back. Far too familiar a move for such a brief acquaintance. It fired talons and teeth, but I'm used to cats so it missed. I said, 'Yah,' and it dived back beneath the cars, following me as I made my way back.




I returned from my adventure to find I'd missed the bus. I wasn’t inclined to stay for the late bus with the who-needs-sleep revellers (how do they do it!) so got a taxi which found its way to the hotel no trouble at all, which reinforces the belief that when in foreign climes one should take care who to allow into taxis. Some people just jinx things. M, you know who you are! 

(Istanbul blog 8 of 9) << previous: –: next >>


Thursday, 14 November 2013

Separating the keys

Having weathered many different near-disasters related to business travel over the past twenty years, but having had a pretty smooth ride for the past six, I’m now alarmed to find myself suddenly struck with attacks of absent-mindedness that come close to unshipping otherwise meticulously planned outings.





A couple of weeks ago I forgot my tickets – a first in 12 years of regularly travelling to and from London. At the time I saw it as an annoyance, but also a useful nudge to take extra care on my forthcoming trip to Istanbul. No tickets, no trip!









So instead of forgetting something vital, I did the reverse and took with me something it was vital I left behind. The car keys. Both sets plus one door key.

First thought: I must be sure and keep these safe, mustn’t lose them in Turkey. Well, no, that’s not quite accurate. First thought ‘Aaaaagh!’ but next thought was all about keeping them safe.

Second thought: I can’t take these with me. G will be a week without a car and it’s not as though we live in striking distance of any shops.

Third...: I’ll leave them at the Airport Info desk and ring home. There won’t be anyone up but I’ll leave a message saying what I’ve done and what I plan to do when the Info desk place opens. Did that.

Then I thought about the airport taxi firm that had brought me here. What if they had a fare heading our way? If they went back to town they could take the keys to within 30 mins of home. My reasoning at this point was that Son was there with his car and heading off to a different airport later in the day. He could easily pick up the keys from somewhere in town or, less easily, take a detour to my airport. Thus leaving G without a car for only a long as it took him to make the round trip.

Went to the taxi office, failed to recognise the driver I’d been chatting with for an hour on the journey in as he’d put on a pair of specs. He listened to the tale, took the keys, and promised to phone G or Son as soon as he knew if he had a fare ‘back across the bridge’ which would be after the 10 am flight.

Left messages to this effect on mobile phones by voicemail, email and text. Ended up feeling very annoyed with myself but satisfied that I’d done enough to retrieve the situation.

Not so. What I hadn’t remembered was that the car I had the keys for was blocking Son's car and there was no way to leapfrog the one over the other, thus no way to get to the other airport never mind do a round trip to collect the keys. Son reached the point of researching hot-wiring on the internet thinking in terms of damage amounting to one smashed window if he could find a way to start the car. Given the layout of drive/lane, it wouldn’t even have been possible to have pushed it out of the way because of the steering lock.

Anyway, he rang the taxi firm and got them to take the keys all the way back; just in time for the second flight not to be missed. I got to Istanbul despite an incoming storm and learnt the differences between a taxi and a taksi.  

The longer reaching consequences are that the keys are now kept separately, and I am subject to airport-style security when I leave the house.





(Istanbul blog 7 of 9) << previous : –: next >>


Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Istanbul – Agatha hotel

First night in Istanbul we took a stroll down from Taksim Square to find a hotel that had had a nice olde worlde look to two colleagues who'd arrived the day before and already been exploring.


And it did have an air of old-fashioned elegance. We were the only diners in the upstairs restaurant but it was a hotel and we reasoned that they probably did a brisk trade with their guests. We hoped so because if this were the norm, we were eating in a place avoided by the general populace, locals and tourists alike, and heaven alone knew how long the 'slow-cooked' beef might have been cooking. I got to know too because I ordered it. It was wonderful. All the food was wonderful, the place was spectacularly grand, the service was exceptional as we were the only diners.


It wasn't until the end of the evening we realised we were in the Agatha restaurant of the Pera Palace Hotel - the place Agatha Christie wrote or plotted or first thought of Murder on the Orient Express. We should have visited the station, too, but didn't.


Ataturk had stayed there, also, and the hotel now includes an Ataturk museum in the room where he stayed. An inadvertently appropriate choice for dinner at the start of the IFRRO conference.





The place was just in sight of the lights of a huge football stadium, where a huge match was in progress. Some in our party suggested opening the windows to see if we could hear it. Apparently it was significant in the football calendar. I understand someone won (or not).

A peaceful start to the trip and just the ticket after being battered by storms on the long journey in. 


Later in the week we tried a kebab house - all squashed in on the tiny third floor with 60 other people. The lower floors were already packed when we arrived, but we'd booked in via a recommendation. Another wonderful meal. And our final evening was in one of the many restaurants that crowd the numerous alleyways of Istanbul and where the proprietor allowed me to have the candle holder to add to my pointless box collection





(Istanbul blog 6 of 9) << previous : –: next >>


Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Escaping the storm

The journey began at Humberside airport where I arrived to catch the first of its six daily flights* out. The storm then raging in the south of England was generating cancellations. In fact, few short-haul flights were going out of Amsterdam so passengers were advised to stay put. Minor debate over whether Turkey constituted short or long haul, but in storm terms it turned out to be long haul so I was allowed on my way.





Coming into Amsterdam was like being back at Hull Fair but on a more adventurous ride than any I’d dared at the time. There were a few whoops at the more stomach-lurching drops and swings. People for the most part were grinning and enjoying the ride, which is the only sensible thing to do.

Planes were landing and taking off OK, but our flight out was delayed for an hour because they decided it was too dangerous to get the plane prepped. And watching it buffeted by the wind outside the gate, I thought they had a point. They could have lost someone through the gap as the plane bounced away from its umbilical tunnel.




And it was all good practice for driving through Istanbul and made the contrast all the more between the storms and the mild weather in which we strolled through Istanbul’s spice markets.

*conventional aeroplane flights. Its other destinations (Neptune etc) require a different type of craft altogether. 

(Istanbul blog 5 of 9) << previous : –: next >>


Monday, 11 November 2013

The trip to the spice market and the pointless box

The spice market was a must-visit destination, even though no spices could realistically be bought. Just imagine the state of the suitcase after being tossed about in the holds of two planes and the attendant baggage trolleys and belts.




The aroma of the place was wonderfully exotic. In fact, the whole of Istanbul smelt good - spicy cooking smells, raw spices, sea air. Given all the cats it could have been different, but then given all the cats there probably weren't any rodents.





I couldn't buy spices but I could buy a pointless box. 




In fact, I bought some small glass bowls, key rings, fridge magnets as well as the pointless box. They all survived the trip home and were dispersed to relevant family members.





(Istanbul blog 4 of 9) << previous : –: next >>


Sunday, 10 November 2013

Istanbul – Military museum with cats

A reception at a military museum in Istanbul. Instead of hitching a ride on the buses provided to convey delegates to the venue, we walked. Other than a handful of hair-raising road crossings we arrived in good time, but at the back of the building.





An armed guard directed us round to the other side, which turned out to be quite a trek. The city is fascinating for all sorts of reasons, the cats only one small part of the general fascination. There are cats all over Istanbul in the way that some cities sport dogs. But not scrawny fearful streaks of fur glimpsed diving for cover, these are sleek shiny well-fed beasts that look like family pets, except that there are so many of them.

A grass verge followed the path of the metal bars keeping us out of the museum site as we made our way round the perimeter, the grass sometimes spilling across to the civilian side. And there in a corner sat a tray of dry cat food, a dozen or so felines strolling around it, casting narrow-eyed glances at each other but showing no concern about the tramp of pedestrians within inches of their noses or the racing traffic. I even saw one of them cross the road, with far more aplomb than I'd managed.



In the growing dusk pools of fur dotted the grassy expanse. Cats asleep, catching up on their 18 hours. No wailing and spitting, just an occasional raised hackle. I was to find out at a later event that these cats are as friendly as any family pet and tolerate no liberties.

Given the unpredictability of Istanbul's traffic, the buses had allowed an hour but made it in half that time, leaving stacks of thirsty delegates waiting for the bar to open. We arrived bang on time and were offered drinks as we stepped over the threshold.

The venue was chosen so we had a grandstand view of the city's firework display which was spectacular. The lights were dimmed so we could get the full effect. Alas my camera isn't up to nighttime photography, but the blurry splashes of light hide an incredible show.



(Istanbul blog 3 of 9) << previous : –: next >>


Saturday, 9 November 2013

The Istanbul Taksi

...probably a far more logical spelling than our Taxi... The Istanbul taksi is a resilient and fast-moving beast. You know how it is when you're on a 2-lane highway that's jammed with traffic and you wish you could just surge forward and carve out a third lane all for yourself? Well, the Istanbul taksi can do just that.

And you know that thing where you've had the seats down in the back to make the boot bigger and you stand them up again and the seat belts get lost behind them so the car appears to have no seat belts at all. Well, that, too. Being magical beasts, the Taksi needs no seat belts. Certainly no one wears them.



And you know The Knowledge that London taxi drivers do? Well, not that. Istanbul is HUGE with thousands of taksis and they say 'Yeah, no problem' when you give them an address or show them a map, but after they've driven a few miles very fast and carved out a few of their own traffic lanes, they wind down their windows and discuss destinations with other taksi drivers. They sometimes show each other the tourist map that you gave them in the first place, but that's for entertainment between them, because the tourist map is, as one colleague put it, 'spectacularly useless, more of an artist's impression than a map.'



As you can see, I fell into the trap of assuming the taksi to have magic properties - all that carving out of lanes where none exist, of flying from one end of this vast city to the other, always getting there, never landing in a heap to be shovelled up by the emergency services... so I felt supremely safe and confident even in the taksi where he stopped in the sinister (4-lane, busy) underpass and briefly opened the passenger door as though about to throw someone out. We assumed it would be M landing on the tarmac. M had been misdirecting the taksi round and round this underground maze asking to be thrown out really. Taksi drivers should be left to discuss directions amongst themselves.

But then we took a taksi back to the airport. We raced along the motorway. Three lanes all full of traffic. Saw a taksi ahead take a dive at the hard shoulder and then pull back into line with the other cars as though it were an ordinary vehicle and not a magic transport machine. Then we saw the magic breaker. Big van labelled Trafic Polis, understandable in any language. They had their grappling hooks into another taksi. And sure enough, the magic dissipated. We passed any number of cars - taksis and ordinary ones with their sides stoven in, just as one would imagine the sides of cars would routinely become concave if a swarm of yellow vehicles raced about at speed carving out their own traffic lanes.

Maybe magic doesn’t work on motorways. Maybe we were just lucky.

(Istanbul blog 2 of 9) << previous : –: next;


Friday, 8 November 2013

Locked up for being a writer

In Istanbul we were asked if we would represent the International Authors’ Forum at a press conference at which Ola Wallin (Chair of the International Publishers Association Freedom to Publish Committee) read a statement in support of writers in Turkey, calling specifically for the release of translator Deniz Zarakolu who has been held in prison for over two years without charge, and calling also for dropping of charges against publisher Ragip Zarakolu.






Writers in Turkey under the current regime can be imprisoned for months or years without any charges being laid. 'Evidence' against them can come from anonymous sources and be too woolly to counter: someone claims to have heard an unspecified something at an unspecified date/place that is claimed as 'proof' of an unspecified offence. Punishment by way of jail ‘awaiting charge/trial’ follows.





The official press release is below. On behalf of the International Authors Forum we gave it our support.

In an unfortunate coincidence of a footnote, a journalist who had been at the press conference was prevented from boarding a plane out of Turkey later that day. It turned out to be nothing more than an overbooked plane but Turkish writers are routinely jailed for far lesser 'offences' than attending press conferences and giving interviews. The incident provided further pause for thought for those of us who attended and were vocal in our support.


It is great that we can take our own freedoms for granted, but must guard against becoming so blasé that we lose them.









(Istanbul blog 1 of 9)  Next >>