Escaping the Swine Flu, Nearly—Holed Up in Istanbul

by Angela Smith Kirkman
Somewhere between being robbed at gunpoint in Brazil (country number two) and getting run out of the Great Mosque of Uqba in Tunisia (country number three), I began to ask myself what harebrained notion possessed us to schlep three kids, five backpacks, a guitar, a camera, and a garlic press around the world. But, not until now have I wondered in earnest whether the five of us will make it home intact. We’re bound and determined to get out of Bulgaria (country number six) without catching the swine flu.

In the past few days, all the schools in our village of Veliko Tarnovo have closed their doors, one by one, as entire student bodies surrender to the virus. My husband, Jason, is a teacher by profession, and throughout our travels he’s been homeschooling our children, Cyrus, Bella, and Cruz. He’s on the verge of panic as our parting date nears, terrified that one of the kids will come down with the illness and delay our exodus to Turkey. We’ve instituted a strict quarantine and are employing all of the preventive tonics our Bulgarian friends have recommended—hot tea made with fresh mint and rosewater for the kids and, for Jason and me, a shot of warm rakia brandy mixed with a spoonful of local honey every morning and evening. (And sometimes another in between, because you can never be too safe.)

On the day of our departure, Jason and I congratulate ourselves; we’ve successfully dodged the disease! I’ve just delivered the translation project that’s had me busy for the past few weeks—the work that’s funding this expedition—and I now have five train tickets in hand. In a few short hours, we’ll be boarding the Orient Express from Bucharest. The train is scheduled to pass through Veliko Tarnovo just before midnight and will stop for a grand total of sixty seconds before continuing overnight to our final destination: Istanbul!

Turkey wasn’t originally part of the itinerary, but we just can’t bear to skip it. It’s so close! Jason did a little research and found that it’s actually cheaper to fly to India, which is the next country on our route, from Istanbul than it is to fly out of Sofia, so adding Turkey to the travel plan is a no-brainer. The money we save on the plane tickets should pay for our stay.

We arrive at the station twenty minutes early and position all of our luggage—straps facing up—just behind the yellow line. Jason buys a can of Pringles with which to bribe the kids into helping with the effort. While we’re waiting for the train, he opens the can and passes it around. As I savor my first salty bite, I think maybe I feel a faint scratchiness in the back of my throat. Possibly a little soreness.

Nah, can’t be. I stifle the thought, attributing the itch to the Pringles, and shove another into my mouth.

When the train pulls into the station at midnight, we’re ready. I guess I should have known what to expect based on how cheap our tickets were, but even so, I’m surprised and slightly disappointed by the rickety train that’s now barreling toward us. It’s nothing like the image my mind had painted of the posh, Agatha Christie-style sleeper car from the Belle Époque. Actually, come to think of it, I guess it very well could be that same train, just a century older, stripped of any hint of luxury during the communist years, and given the minimal amount of maintenance to keep it on the tracks. The train comes to a stop in front of us.

“Ready! Set! Go!”

The doors creak open setting the five of us in motion. We work in a frantic assembly line, shuttling five overstuffed backpacks, day bags, my guitar, and an empty can of Pringles on board. Forty-five seconds flat! We file into the first unoccupied sleeper car, slide the door shut, and collapse into our bunks.  Fist bumps all around—we have succeeded in escaping the swine flu!

By the time we arrive at Istanbul’s Sirkeci station the next morning, Cyrus is puking into the empty Pringles can.

Great. Here’s the part where we win a place in history, à la Typhoid Mary, as the negligent parents who bring the swine flu from one continent to another.

Outside the train station it begins to sprinkle; the pavement turns a darker shade of gray, drop by drop. As Jason and I pore over our street map trying to find the nearest metro station, the drizzle turns to a downpour. Cyrus doubles over on the curb and resumes his efforts to fill the Pringles can.

Jason snorts, shoves the map back into his coat pocket, and flags down a taxi. “Today we endure; tomorrow we tackle public transportation.” He hands the driver a scrap of paper on which he’s scribbled our new address in the Beyoğlu district, which neither of us can pronounce. The driver nods, and we pile in.

We ride without speaking, initially in fear that any noise might send Cyrus into another episode. As the rain lets up and the clouds begin to lift, our silence persists as we’re rendered speechless by the grandeur of the cityscape unfolding about us. Istanbul is more fantastical than I could ever have imagined. Enormous dome-topped mosques appear unexpectedly upon hilltops that, just moments before, were shrouded in mist. On either side of each mosque, slender minarets reach majestically skyward.

As we cross over the Galata Bridge, which spans the Golden Horn, I look back on the city and understand why during Byzantine times Istanbul became known as the City on the Seven Hills. Back then, the city was called Constantinople and, following the model of Rome, was built on seven peaks. Much like Rome, each hill was capped with a monumental church, and this tradition continued during the Ottoman Age, except that the churches were given makeovers and re-designated as the imperial mosques that now encircle us.

I suddenly morph back into a small-town Kansas girl: after a year on the Yellow Brick Road, Dorothy finds herself at the gates of the Emerald City. Istanbul’s skyline is overwhelming and enchanting and magical and so different from my beloved Midwestern homeland where the flat horizon is interrupted only occasionally by strip malls and valdemarts1. Istanbul, I decide, is the most breathtaking city I’ve ever set eyes upon.

As we near our neighborhood the streets grow narrower. Women in headscarves rock strollers back and forth as they inspect produce outside a grocer’s shop. I’m relieved to see that there are also plenty of women without headscarves and that they’re dressed in clothing similar to that of their European counterparts—smart, urban, black. Chefs in white jackets tend döner kebab stands, carving grilled lamb from rotisserie spits onto flat bread. Vendors roast chestnuts and cobs of corn atop red push carts. Men play backgammon at street-side tables as they drink tea from tulip-shaped glasses. Several women, too, sip tea at these tabletops, I notice.

By the time we pile out in front of our flat in Beyoğlu, Bella, Cruz, and Cyrus are alternating use of the Pringles can. Jason apologizes sheepishly to our driver and shoves extra bills into his palm, while I steer our miserable mob up the staircase to the second floor of our new building. I locate apartment number three and jiggle the skeleton key until the heavy wooden door swings open.

Sunlight pours into the two-bedroom flat that will be our home for the next two weeks. Azure kilim rugs run the length of hardwood floors. On a small table in the entryway, a ceramic bowl is filled with apricots, pomegranates, and figs—a welcome gift from our landlady, I’m guessing. Tall windows are fringed with lace curtains behind which unfolds a gorgeous view of our new little corner of the world.  

I shoot my hands into the air triumphantly. “Yes! We’re finally in Istanbul!” When I turn around to share my excitement with the children, I find that they’ve already stumbled to the nearest bedroom and are fast asleep under the covers. Jason, likewise, has melted into the armchair beside them. He shoots me a dreadful glance as he clutches his stomach.

“Oh, no. You too?” I tuck Jason into the second bedroom with a kiss on the forehead.

When it becomes clear that I have the afternoon to myself, I decide to venture outside and explore our neighborhood. First stop is the corner market across the street where I’m greeted by the grocer, a man with a long grey beard and wool cap.

“Iyi günler” “Good afternoon,” he says.

“Iyi günler,” I respond. Thus far I know precisely twelve words of Turkish—as much as I was able to memorize on the train—and the grocer has already used up two of them. A few seconds later, when the other ten words have been exhausted, I switch to charades and am able to convey that I’m hoping to gather sustenance that might be easy on the stomach. The grocer nods and begins to lead me around his tiny shop. Together, we gather olives, almonds, ingredients for chicken soup, beyaz peynir, which seems to be a soft white cheese made from sheep’s milk, a bottle of ayran, a traditional yogurt drink, and—his treat—a box of linden blossom tea which he holds up smiling and rubbing his tummy.

That evening, as Jason and the kids alternate between snoring and moaning, I busy myself making soup, drawing warm baths, doling out hot tea, and downloading podcasts of Turkish language lessons. Then I begin the all-too-familiar process of unpacking, doing my best to turn our new apartment into a home. I prop the kitchen window open in a vain attempt to vent pathogens outdoors. In clear defiance of the illness, I tape a colorful poster to the windowpane. Jason and Cruz designed it in Bulgaria last week. Bold paint strokes illustrate the itinerary of sites we most want to visit in Istanbul: Topkapı Palace, the Hagia Sophia, Taksim Square, Prince Island, the Blue Mosque.

By the next morning the swine flu has me, too, in its clutches.

I lie in bed for two days, shivering, sweating, throbbing, unable to move except to run to the bathroom. Damn pigs. On day three, when my energy level finally allows me to break from the trail I’ve blazed between the bed and the toilet, I venture toward the kitchen. I light a flame under the teapot with a match, sit down at the table, and scowl back at the cheery poster taunting me from the window.

By day five the swine flu begins to release us from its grasp. Spontaneous gatherings around the tea kettle become more frequent. To pass the time we practice our Turkish until, eventually, even little Cruz has memorized every vocabulary word in our new podcasts. I download a new batch of lessons.

Peering down from our kitchen window to the street below, the kids watch with interest as men run to and from the neighboring mosque, which blares the call to prayer through our window five times a day. For hours at a time, the five of us sit around the kitchen table, bleary-eyed, sipping linden blossom tea, entranced by the slender vista from our window. Just beyond the minarets, we can see a narrow sliver of the mighty Bosphorus. We track slices of barges and, in our fevered imagination, follow them through the city: up the strait, under the towering suspension bridges, and all the way to the choppy expanse of the Black Sea. We try to guess what cargo they might be transporting. Silk? Kilims? Spices? Cough syrup?

The Bosphorus Strait connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara and divides Istanbul in two—the European side and the Asian side. Our apartment is located on the European side, but during our first feverish days in Istanbul, we set our sights—if not our feet—upon the opposite banks, on Asia, for the very first time. There before us lies a whole new continent shrouded in mystery and magic, where only Allah knows what adventures await. Our minds stray across the river, and we envision a day when our bodies, too, might be able to venture out. Until then, we will rest patiently, slurping chicken soup and waiting for our strength to return.


references:
1 “Valdemart” is a term the kids coined recently, after reading the Harry Potter series, and is how we now refer to the monstrosity of big box stores littering the American landscape. (Harry’s evil nemesis, Voldemort, meets another loathsome supervillain, Walmart.)
Angela Smith Kirkman recently returned to Santa Fe, New Mexico from a two-year journey around the world with her husband and three young children. During the adventure, dubbed The Big Field Trip, her family hiked the Inca Trail, snuck into the dilapidated communist headquarters in Bulgaria, rode camelback through the Sahara, caught the swine flu in Istanbul, rode a dragon boat up the Perfume River, was chased out of the Great Mosque of Uqba in Tunisia, lived on a vineyard in Portugal, was robbed at gunpoint in Bahía, taught at a tribal school in Rajasthan, biked through floating markets near Bangkok, and communed with snow monkeys in the hot springs of Japan. Stories from The Big Field Trip have been published in International Living Magazine, Asia Literary Review, Eventus Magazine, YourLifeIsATrip.com, and World Press Review. Kirkman blogs at www.thebigfieldtrip.com. Her photographs have been selected as favorites by National Geographic Travel’s Director of Photography and published in the Santa Fe New Mexican, which ran a front-page story featuring The Big Field Trip in March 2015. Kirkman currently lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she’s busy growing leeks and conjuring up the next voyage.

© 2015, Angela Smith Kirkman