Saturday, January 3, 2009

Streets in Turkey

So far, in Turkey, I have only really spent time in down-town parts of cities. They feel like Half Life 2 or The Bourne Identity, very gray and with tiny streets and tiny cars. Signs are everywhere in Latin script but written in words I don't generally recognize. The idea of "zoning" seems to be a loose concept here, so a bar might be on the third floor of an apartment building--friends who have lived here a while say to look up when wandering, because you never know what you'll find. In Kızılay, the Ankara city center, there is a coffee shop that you need to enter by going through a book store; this is perhaps the best sort of problem to have.

The sidewalks are brick or cobblestone; some of the streets in Istanbul were cobblestone, also, but I haven't seen many like that here in Ankara. The curbs here are very high; sometimes as much as a foot tall. Sometimes the sidewalk is at the same level as the curb, like I'm used to, but sometimes the sidewalk is at the level of the street, so you'll often see two people walking side-by-side, with one using the curb as a balance beam. Istanbul is an old city, so it's not very well-organized for driving--the roads twist and turn at odd angles. Ankara's roads seem to be more organized, because Ankara grew up more recently.

Simits are readily available; simitçi (çi means vendor--what an efficient language!) sell simits from cute uniform red carts that have umbrellas when the weather is bad. The simits are kept in glass compartments. Simits are halfway between bagels and pretzels, and are covered entirely with sesame seeds. They're a great snack, and cheap, too--1 lira. We're pretty sure the simitçi are under the rule of a simit cartel. They leave their carts overnight, and don't seem to be afraid that they'll be stolen.

Freshly roasted chestnuts are sold the same way, except they're sold by the gram. The vendor uses an old-timey balance to show you that he's giving you the amount you ask for. The vendors use tongs to put the chestnuts in a paper sack one at a time. It's worth getting 100 grams of chestnuts for the experience of it, but they're very expensive, 3 lira. They are delicious, though.

Taxis are all over the place; there are probably twice as many taxis as regular cars. Empty taxis driving past honk at pedestrians, which is convenient, so you know that you can get a ride. Taxis in America are so expensive that I've only ridden in them twice, to and from the San Antonio airport. Taxis here, though, are very cheap. Matthew and I paid 50 lira for the ride from the airport all the way across Istanbul, just about, after midnight, while giving the cab driver terrible directions (he rolled down his window and asked other cab drivers where Kemankeş is, several times, when stopped at red lights); this is about 33 dollars. That was the most we had ever had to pay. A 15 minute ride typically costs less than 10 lira, so it's actually very affordable for tourists to use taxis to get around; taxis are generally too expensive for the people who live here, though, because salaries are very low, 300-900 lira a month.

In Baltimore, pedestrians will cross a street, walking in front of oncoming cars. We don't even have to look both ways, we know that the car's going to slow down. Really mean pedestrians make eye contact with the driver of an oncoming vehicle, daring him to hit them.

Crossing the street here is terrifying. Traffic lights aren't always obeyed, and even when they are, drivers will expect you to run out of the way if you're not quick enough in crossing. Many of the roads, especially in Istanbul, are very narrow, and so one car will have to pull off onto a sidewalk to let the other car pass; this will happen even if pedestrians are already on the sidewalk.

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