When I first moved to Galata, I knew I was home. I had already lived in Istanbul since 1998, moving from Buyuksehir to Sirinevler, Tarabya, and the Koc University campus beyond Sariyer. I had a car when I lived out at Koc, but I was always going into town and was tired of living in somewhat of a gated community, beautiful as it was. I went back to my job as director of English Time and my office was on Istiklal Caddesi, so I started to look at places in Galata.
Galata is a very old district. It is above Karakoy, where the sailors would go, and thus above the brothels. However, Galata traditionally was full of tavernas run by Greeks or Armenians. It was where the Muslims went out to play, the entertainment district of the time. However, when I lived in Galata, most of the non Turks had left and had been supplanted by many Black Sea families. A few artists had rented places there because it was so cheap, but of course once the bohemians discover a place, the cool people come in next. It becomes expensive and takes on airs. I much preferred the Galata neighbourhood to the tourist overrun area of interest. I am glad I moved there when I did, and these various homes covered a time of great change in the ‘hood.
First I looked at a few places with the muhtar, traditionally the village head, but in the city a minor bureaucrat. Most muhtars profit from their small positions, mostly in real estate. When my friend and I were outside his tiny office on Kuledibe Sokak, an old man nearby said in Turkish that Sayim Bey did not speak English. I told the man that we were speaking Turkish now and it would not be a problem. Kind of funny.
A friend of a friend from Koc knew someone who was renovating two places in Galata, so off I went to look. One was on Luleci Hendek, the very top floor, probably illegal, of an art deco era building. The ceilings were low and the climb was high. The next one was up the hill closer to the tower. That was my place. It was on the fifth floor with another add-on floor above it. There was access to the terrace on the main floor and on another bigger terrace on the top floor. The view was fabulous, from the Sulemaniye Cami to the first bridge. I could see the Princes Islands and sometimes even snow-topped Uludag. My bedroom took up the whole second floor, though there was a small bedroom I did not use. From my bed I could look up at the Galata Tower and then across the room the other way to Asia.
However, that place had the landlady from hell and we were in court about it for seven years. I rode that roller coaster as I learned a lot about the court system in Turkey. At least they moved from manual typewriters to computers over the many months that I attended court. Eventually I won a settlement from her, but of course it did not cover what I had spent. Anyway. One of my most poignant memories related to this is one day in August when things fell apart. The woman had ordered the renovation work to be stopped and it was rainy, so water dripped down the beautiful new stairs and into the new kitchen. I finally got pissed and had the work finished so I could use the space. In the meantime, she had the court evict me. One day I could not take it any more and started crying, strong Molly who rarely cries. My friend Cevdet was taken aback and patted me, assuring me it would be ok. I walked out onto the terrace and looked over at the Golden Horn, which was covered by cloud. Then hundreds of leylek, the storks, starting flying out of the cloud and up the Bosporus. They just kept coming and coming. Since they bring luck, I was heartened, though luck can be widely interpreted…
I was in court about that flat for several years. Funda, the landlady tried successfully to get me out, with case after case and counter-suit after counter-suit At the end, I won a small settlement, which is what I used to open my first cafe.
I lived in several different places around Galata. After the heaven and hell house, I moved to a recently renovated flat on Luleci Hendek. It was in a building that had been designed by a Greek architect and probably originally occupied by Greeks. It was the Papadapoulos Apartaman. I lived in a small flat at the front, so I could see across the Golden Horn to the old city. I could also look down into the courtyard of San Benwa (Saint Benoit), one of the several French schools in Istanbul.
The most memorable event from there was watching the men cut up a steer they had butchered in the courtyard for Kurban Bayram, the Feast of the Sacrifice. Since it was a holiday, I was cleaning my place and when I was flipping my carpets from the balcony, I looked down and saw that they had just ‘cut’ the animal. This is done by a man who has been designated for this task and it is done with a prayer and respect. Once it was done, the men opened the hide and it became sort of a tarp as they worked. They cut it all up and gave some away, as is the custom, and were all finished in about six hours. It was not as gory as I had expected and it was certainly interesting.
The flat had nice wood floors and the bathroom included a big jacuzzi, which did not work very well in the winter since the water heater was limited. The renovations had uncovered some frescos and it was generally a nice flat. However, I was not happy there, so when another flat came up, I gave my notice.
The next place was closer to the square and also near Sishane on a short side street. It was on the third floor of a building owned under suspicious circumstances by an old turkish lawyer. Apparently it had been owned by an old Maltese woman, Nellie. A friend of mine knew her and told me some of the details. The lawyer had her adopt him, promising to take care of her in her old age, which he did not do. Part of the ownership was still in her family, though it was not clear where they were. Someone from England came by one day but I was not home and the shop keeper could not speak English, so it remained a mystery. At any rate, the lawyer had not taken very good care of the place, which in a way preserved it. It had many art deco details in the door frames and the floors were still wood. There was no heat, so I got an electric heater for the bathroom and one soba (gas heater) for the living room There was also no hot water, so I got a heater for the shower, though it did not get as far as the little kitchen.
From the living room I could look down onto the street and see what was going on. When I rented the place there were some awful paintings of nudes in the living room and one back bedroom, but they were painted over.
Muellif Sokak is very short. It is maybe 100 meters long from the bigger street leading straight to the graceful municipal building, curving around to the V where it meets the downhill street. On the corner is a tiny park, maybe five meters across.
My house had a cumba (joomba), which is an alcove in the living room which overlooks the street. From there I could lean on the windowsill and see what was happening in this small neighbourhood. I think because it was so small, I paid more attention to some of the details, instead of passing them by as I would on a busy street.
In the summer I often came home to find the lighting shop owner sitting across the street at a little table playing tavlis, backgammon. He offered to teach me how to play, but I never took him up on the offer. He played with people who worked in other shops or offices around or with friends who stopped by.
This same shopkeeper and his sister took care of the street cats who lived in the neighbourhood. Other people gave them crunchies from time to time. At night I often threw down chunks of old cheese—manna from heaven for the cats. There was a flow of cats. There was one older black cat who had sired most of the young ones. The remaining mother at this time was a calico. Her offspring had kittens this spring but she died in the process. Various people took care of the kittens, but some did not make it and some were given away. A very sweet white cat, Pamuk (cotton) died around then, probably from something it ate. Its brother had had its foot run over, so the shopkeepers were taking care of him. Sometimes other cats came around and there was then a show of territoriality and sometimes the shopkeepers shooed them away. Most of the cats were friendly and are not scaredy cats like most street cats.
From my room there was a wonderful view of the Golden Horn, where I saw people sculling and some small airplane races. I could also look across to a parking garage and then over to the terrace of a building. In fact, one night I heard someone begging, ‘yeter abi, yeter’, enough, bro, enough. I did not make much of it and just turned over and went back to sleep. In the morning I was using my binoculars to look at the boat activity on the Horn and when I panned to the terrace across the way, I saw some plain clothes police holding up some bloody clothes. Someone had been murdered and I may have been sort of a witness. My friend told me to ignore it, as it was not a good idea to get mixed up with the police.
At the time we were making a learn English video, so I let the crew come to film one of the ‘dramas’ at my place. That was a mistake, as it left the place in chaos for a few days and caused a little damage. I had to struggle to get some money out of the studio for that.
The rent at that flat was fairly cheap and I lived there for a few years, in spite of the fact that once again I had to go to court, since the landlord said I had shorted his rent when I paid the sleazy tea man (his ‘nephew’). It was thrown out of court.
I had some very nice parties and some good visits from my daughter and my aunt, among several others.
However, all good things must pass, and the lawyer sold the building to a Cypriot who started to renovate it. I was disappointed, as the Cypriot was a photographer and I though he would respect the place more. He divided each flat into two, with the idea that it might be an apartotel, but apparently he had a disagreement with his partner and for a few years the place stayed empty.
From there I moved to a large flat on Camekan Sokak. I wrote a blog about this street (mollyscafeistanbul.wordpress.com/2010/08/06/mollys-cafe-camekan-sokak-a-short-history/ ). The landlord owned a small lighting shop a few streets over, so when I went to pay my rent I learned various things about the flat. His father had owned it for 35 years. At one point it had been rented out to 30 Syrians he called them, though it was not clear that they were from Syria. At any rate, all these men crammed into the flat, perhaps taking turns sleeping.
The rent for this flat was quite a bit more, but I rented out some of the bedrooms. I had sort of a a suite at the front, so I had my own salon and bedroom that were private. There was another salon at the other end of the flat. There wasn’t much of a view, but from my suite I could look down on the street. In fact, that sort of led to me opening the cafe, but that is another story.
I had some nice flatmates and some weird ones. The nice ones included Deniz, an American Turk that I knew from parties. There was also Mareike, a Dutch woman who was going to grad school. She came to look at it with her mother, who liked my textiles. My son lived with me there for a few months, trying to work as a fix-it man. Then there were a couple of weird ones. One girl was very depressive who became sort of friends with another weird girl, Hale. Hale had not been there for even three days when she brought home some strange guy who was there while she was working. He made us uncomfortable and I told her he had to go. In fact, eventually I told her she had to go. And then finally I told depression girl that she had to move because I was moving out.
There was a great terrace on that building. In fact there were two. The nicer one had been taken over by a German Turk who rented out flats in the building and he did not want us hoi polloi to use it. It had a great view of the Bosporus and the Asian side. The undeveloped terrace had a view of the old city. Traditionally terraces had washing rooms for the women to use and then they would hang their clothes out to dry up there. Terraces are usually for all the residents in the building. At any rate, we had a few nice parties up there.
In fact, the biggest house party I ever had was in that flat. There were a whole lot of people I did not know, which was a little distressing. One guy was a thin rat-faced man who worked in the basement of the building doing something, I don’t know what. At any rate, he showed up and got blasted and two different friends walked in to the bathroom to find him pissing in the shower. That was the last big house party I had there or anywhere else.
I took Deniz with me to a new flat around the corner. It was owned by a blonde Russian Kazakh woman who was married to an older Turkish man who had worked in Kazakhstan. The flat had been renovated by the person they bought from. Two bedrooms had been made into one, so one of the doors was a big window into the entrance room. The other bedroom had its own bathroom with a custom made long tub. The floors in the flat were original wood, as were the doors. The living room had a juliet balcony just big enough for a chair. It also had a raised dais for cushions, which was sort of a la turca. By then I had opened the cafe and I definitely did not have any parties there. Deniz told me she was moving into a flat her parents owned, so I decided to move too.
And a here a little cat story. By then I had taken on Oscar, a little white cat. I took him to the cafe every morning and carried him home at night. Soon I would just open the door and Oscar would raun down the stairs and out to the street. He would turn up at the cafe when he felt like it.
And a neighbour story. The guy across the hall was a slimeball. He and his brother had inherited the flat from their mother when she died. The brother was retarded and the slimeball was supposed to take care of him, but was not very good at it. This guy was a driver for prostitutes who were on call. One evening about 11 o’clock he knocked on my door with another slimeball in tow. The guy wanted to make a movied and wanted to look at my place. I told him I was not interested, epeciallly since I had my doubts about what kind of movie it would have been.
My last flat was on Tatar bey Sokak, which brought me full circle. It was not all that old, probably from the 80s. At one time the building had been a han where there were workshops of various kinds, but the owner had converted it into flats. I had a balcony and a large living room, as well as a small front bedroom and a windowless bedroom in the middle. Since at the point I had not planned on having flat mates, I had my bed in the living room From the balcony I could look down into the cami’s garden, which made it easy to imagine how at one time that hillside was all orchards. I could also look across to the old city, across the Bosporus, and the other way over to Cihangir. I lived there for a few years, along the way collecting the odd flat mate, one of whom took it over when I left.
Here is a story from that flat. I awoke one night to hear some slaps and thumps and a woman crying upstairs. I could not go back to sleep this time. Finally I went upstairs and pounded on the door. When it opened, a little guy poked his head out and said ‘I am here’ in English. I was fairly pissed by this time and was probably quie a sight, a middle-aged woman in her robe in the middle of the night. I told them that if they did not stop, I would call the police. This was all in English, since I was too mad to speak in Turkish. They understood ‘police’ very well. In amongst this the man who lived across the hall opened his door to see what was going on. I huffed off back to bed and that was the end of it.
My real last flat was when I returned to Istanbul for a year. It was quite bare because I had shipped my things to Canada and for that year they were in my nephew’s basement. This flat was across from my cafe, which was a mixed blessing. The landlady was a character. She fawned. She was probably a gypsy, as she was smoothly brown and had some gold teeth. The tea man up the street told me that she had been a whore, which did not surprise me. I saw her flirt and fawn with Cevdet– the Turkish equivalent of ‘oh, realllly? We had some issues with how I could pay my rent, as she cancelled her bank account, which meant she would come by the cafe to get her rent. Things became a little unpleasant, as I had little time to deal with this silly old woman. She wanted me to move out, which she couldn’t make me do, but I moved out anyway. I was not fond of that flat, as the whole street had weird vibes.
I also got to see a lot of flats in Galata because I would translate for my realtor friend Sait when he had foreign customers. It was interesting to go inside these buildings right on the square or on side streets. And of course when I was looking to rent or even buy, I saw many places. Some were offices that had been flats, some were awfully (read: village) furnished, some were dumps, some had already been renovated or restored. This was when Galata was starting to get cool. Again.
I loved living in Galata and enjoyed (mostly) my homes there.