Made From Baklava

Sometimes doors open unexpectedly. Melody and I went to Balat yesterday to wander around, sketchbooks in tow. After a few twists and turns, we came to an old, crumbling Greek church. It's one of those timeworn buildings in Istanbul that stand nonchalantly in the midst of newer ones. It lost its original function long ago and has fallen into a state of disrepair, with time having outfitted its dome with a cover of grassy hair and busted out windows staring out like vacant eyes. Still, its old bricks and forms hum an ancient tune and let you feel its past life if you lean in close.

We walked around to the front and were surprised to see that the door was opened. I drive past this way on the bus every weekday and have never seen it opened. Gabby, Ozgur, and I had walked past it just the day before and wondered about it. And now was our chance to see what was inside! A large man blocked the door, staring out into the street. We asked him if we could go look inside to which he responded with a dismissive click of the tongue and the word "Yasak"... forbidden, and returned to his distant gaze. We stood in the doorway for a few minutes, looking up at the small slice of the dome we could see from the street. Finally, and unexpectedly, the man's austere, authoritative facade melted away into a friendly face and he waved us in.

The church had been turned into a work space, it seemed, with new wooden beams laid on the floor for future use. A cement loft had been built that took up the entire space, but it was unclear what it was being used for. We heard a rustling noise and looked to our right to see a partially covered cage with chickens inside. We looked up at the church's beautiful shell. Its domes now barren brick beehives, the sky visible from the central one's cycloptic eye. We lingered in the seldom viewed space a little while longer, to absorb its feel and details. Was it once covered in gold and mosaics like the Chora Church and Hagia Sophia? It is thrilling to try to envision it.

We thanked the man for letting us in and wished him "kolay gelsin" before continuing on our walk. We walked up a brick-paved street that branched off into other streets leading us higher and higher, until we turned a corner and got a stunning view of the old Greek school, or Özel Fener Rum Lisesi. 

We continued to wind our way closer and closer to the school. It really is quite an impressive building, rich with architectural details and a striking red. The labyrinthian streets in this neighborhood made our walk an exploratory journey with no direct beeline routes. From the first hill, I'd seen a church next to the Greek School that I was interested in getting a closer view of, but to get there, we meandered down the hill and looped back up, flanked by multicolored buildings, each donning individual architectural embellishments. 

At the top of the hill, we looked back to see of the Golden Horn, which the afternoon sun had transformed into a mirror. The houses around us had a different feel than the others, with ornate moulding, columns, and pediments, reflecting a prior Greek aesthetic. To our left, the Greek School beamed in full view. Along the ancient walls, a neighborhood football match was in full swing and further up, chickens roamed freely in an open lot next to a dumpster and an ancient wall forming what looked like used to be a church apse in its heyday. The chickens pecked the ground and huddled together, in defiance of the patrolling the neighborhood cats, strolling around in threatening circles.

Selim's house

One house in particular had caught our eye on our way up and we sat nearby to sketch. It was at the top of the hill and a warm, salmon pink. Melody started to draw it and I was sitting a little further up, sketching a church. Soon after we'd started, the owner of the house came down for a smoke and offered Melody a chair. It wasn't long before he also offered me one and I abandoned my first drawing to come closer to his house. He motioned for me to go through the gate to grab a chair from the porch. I sat close to Melody and after a few exchanges, where we found out his name was Selim, I asked if I could sketch him. He agreed and sat mostly still, occasionally breaking his pose to chat with passersby. It was clear that he was the kind of man who knew everyone in the neighborhood and made a point of chatting up anyone. He had large expressive eyebrows and shimmering, kind eyes that stared right through me as I drew, as if we'd known each other before. His momentous mustache was ink-black and curled up to a perfect point. I was a little nervous as I sketched, since I knew he would size it up later. He got up periodically from his chair to take a look at the sketch's progress and would grab by arm, squeezing it hard and repeating "Ah, cok tatlisin! Mashallah!" ("You are so sweet!"). My sketch seemed to get a nod of approval, and he went back to sit for a few more minutes while I continued adding details. Melody sketched the house, capturing the intricacies of the building's facade.  

Doorway to where? 

Strength in numbers

Street smart chicken staring down a cat

Selim's door

 After a bit longer outside, the light was growing dimmer, and Selim invited us in for cay. We were led inside his stately, old home and up to the living room, where pictures of Selim at various stages of his life were hanging, the impressive mustache a constant through the timeline. The living room had a small wood-burning stove (soba) in the center with a pipe climbing up and out through a side wall. His wife added wood to its blazing orange belly and the room filled with warmth. She brought us cay with two bowls spilling over with cookies and a circular tin box filled with a honey comb. Selim gave us a grand tour of the floor, showing us their spectacular view on the Golden Horn and the room with a mat pointing to Mecca, where he prayed. He started to pray as we were standing there and we were frozen momentarily not knowing if we should wait or politely step out, until his wife saw us standing awkwardly and beckoned us back into the living room. Selim came back and we all sat and watched music videos with music from Diyarbakir and its fast-paced pinky locking line dances with waving bandanas. They insisted that we eat more and more cookies and honey spooned straight from the comb, making us live up to Selim's earlier comments about how sweet we were. We made conversation with the little Turkish we have, kicking ourselves for not knowing more after having lived here for so long. He looked at us periodically, repeating "Cok tatlisin!" ("You are so sweet!) and "Baklavadan!" We asked our friend Ozgur what that meant and he said that it probably mean that we were so sweet, we were made from baklava (which incidentally would made a good pick up line: "Girl, is your father a Turkish baker?.... 'cause...).

Selim and Melody
Sketch of Selim... doesn't quite do him justice. 

Cok guzel
Several glasses of cay and cookies later, it was time to leave. We told our unexpected hosts that it was time for us to go meet up with friends and they insisted that we stay. Honestly, we were so comfortable in their living room that we could have easily sunk into the fabric of their family... for a little while. Before leading us out, they showed us a bedroom with ready-made beds and told us that we could sleep there... even live there! We basked in the unbelievable ease and grace of their hospitality and thanked them profusely for their offer, saying we had to go, but that we would return. We left feeling giddy from the experience, reflecting on the ease with which doors had been opened for us that day, first with the old church and now with Selim's family, and how readily people had welcomed us, strangers, into their house and showered us with kindness. It had truly been a wonderful day, a day carved from baklava.

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