Thursday, March 13, 2014

letter to Istanbul

I know this blog is supposed to be about Athens… but my recent trip to Istanbul inspired some thoughts…


attic treasures

I have a few old boxes in my mother’s attic. Whenever I am back home in the US, in the house where I spent most of my childhood, I inevitably go upstairs to the attic in search of something or other (a piece of luggage for a weekend trip, an old alarm clock for my nightstand)… and I always get distracted by the dusty boxes in the corner.

Last time I was up there, from the window, a ray of light fell on a trophy from high school. I moved an old trunk to reach the box, dust particles swirling in the warm glow, and took the trophy in my hand. A slice of memory from 1988, the excitement of that small victory flashed through me again as I held the trophy to the light. I was transported to that day, that moment.

I couldn’t ignore the other objects in the boxes and without realizing it, an hour had passed as I sifted through old memories. I found my lunchbox from kindergarten, my grade school textbooks from Greek lessons, my Snoopy pencil box with the bright green eraser still inside. Just looking at these items made me feel like I was sitting in the classroom again…

For some reason, I have not been able to throw these items away, and year after year, I keep them tucked into cardboard boxes in the corner of my mother’s attic.


a living story

I never really thought about the power of everyday objects and their ability to instantly transport us back in time, and allow us to re-live, re-experience feelings, thoughts, emotions.

But when I walked into Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence, in Istanbul, and saw all of the objects on display, I felt I was living the story of his book (also named The Museum of Innocence). Through the novel’s two main characters, Kemal (a wealthy, educated man belonging to Istanbul’s elite class) and the young woman he’s in love with, Füsun (a distant relative of a poorer class) the history of Istanbul from the 1970’s to the mid-80’s is revealed. Their secretive relationship is filled with longing, and Kemal takes comfort in collecting objects that remind him of Füsun – the cigarette butts that once touched her lips, an earring she ‘lost’ during their first encounter together, a glass soda bottle she drank from, the yellow shoes she wore…

The museum contains 83 cabinets with glass fronts, which correspond to the novel’s 83 chapters. The museum houses Kemal’s collection which not only chronicles his relationship with Füsun, but also serves as a narration of that era in Istanbul’s history. Listening to the audio tour while viewing each cabinet is like stepping into the novel itself, reliving the story – not as a reader, but an active participant. Seeing all the objects displayed together in this way – it’s as if the objects themselves are speaking and telling you their story.

Never again will I look at ‘plain’ or ‘everyday’ objects in the same way. I began to think about my own objects, the childhood trinkets that I’ve kept in my mother’s attic half a world away… and the objects that I keep in my own home and what they say about me, about my past, my own history.

And I wondered, if I had to select the objects that detail my own life and story, which objects would I display? Which items are so dear to me that I couldn’t bear to part with them?


your life in a suitcase

With the thoughts of items and possessions swirling in my head, I stood on the creaky wooden floorboards of a former tobacco warehouse, staring at the suitcases… The old warehouse has been converted into an alternative cultural center called DEPO, which focuses on exhibits, talks & workshops that serve as an exchange of ideas, cross-cultural discussions and regional collaborations.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the forced deportation of Istanbul Greeks on March 16, 1964. DEPO commemorates the occasion with an exhibition called 20 dollars 20 kilos. Upon entering the space, the first thing I saw, gathered in the middle of the room, was the old suitcases. Those forced to leave, had to leave everything behind – their homes, businesses, money, belongings. They were only allowed to take 20 kilos of their possessions and the equivalent of 20 dollars. How can you fit your life into a 20-kilo suitcase? I brought that much with me for a 5-day trip to Istanbul, I thought as I stood among the old suitcases and stared at the photos of people fleeing on that day.

It is estimated that 50,000 people were affected by this forced exile. I looked at all the objects on display – newspaper clippings of the time, photos… and watched an interview of the deportees… Although conducted in Turkish (without any subtitles) I did not have to understand their words, as the pain of exile was clear - in their eyes, the tone of their voices, in their gestures.

As I wandered the streets around DEPO, in the neighborhood of Tophane – the very area where many of the Istanbul Greeks lived before they were forced to flee – I wondered what became of their belongings, their everyday items. Did the new occupants who moved into their abandoned homes listen to the stories that their forgotten objects begged to tell?


Istanbul momentos

As I type this, I am back at home in Athens…  my suitcase is still on the floor, its contents telling a short story of my brief journey -

-Turkish tea
-boxes of baklava and lokum

-a book of women’s short stories by Turkish authors

-a copy of the literary magazine The Istanbul Review
-a bookmark from the delightful Kirmizikedi book shop (for my bookmark collection)

-ticket stubs from Istanbul Modern & The Museum of Innocence
-programs from the 20 dollars 20 kilos exhibit

-and my little black notebook (filled with my scribbles on new places I discovered, including the address of an amazing chocolate shop I found…)

These are the objects I collected on my trip and will put away and save. And someday, when I open my desk drawer, absent-mindedly looking for a pen or a scrap of paper, I will come across the museum ticket stubs, the exhibit program and remember… I will feel the creaking floorboards beneath my feet; recall the forlorn suitcases gathered together, ready to tell their tale of exile; I will be reminded of Füsun’s yellow shoes, the trace of her red lipstick on her crumpled cigarette butts - and feel the sting of Kemal’s longing and loss.


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