I am missing the good days of Istanbul.
Actually, it isn’t mine, but I am a regular there. There is no other tea garden like it, for it is at the base of the 12th century Galata Tower. I have been going there for more than eight years, since I started looking for and finding several places in the neighbourhood. Now I am part of the neighbourhood and often sit in the tea garden to watch the locals and the tourists.
The tea garden has been there for more than 50 years. For many of those years it was a place for men to drink tea and play tavla (backgammon), okey (a game with tiles), or cards on green felt covered tables. This is still a neighbourhood, so the men still do that. However, more often than not, they are joined by newer regulars and tourists. Sometimes in winter, I am the only woman in there, but they pretty much ignore me. They know who I am. Unfortunately, a few years ago, they took out the wood stove and put in natural gas heating, so the inside lost some of its character, though now even people in the corners will be warm.
Most of the year, however, the outside tea garden is where people sit. The wooden tables and chairs (they used to be plastic, but were replaced a few years ago) are under a grape arbour and we can watch the greening, flowering, and fruiting of the vine. Even the lights look like bunches of grapes, which would probably be tacky anywhere else. There is a walled garden along one side, with an old marble sink on the ground for the cats to drink water from. The rest of the tea garden opens up to Galata Meydan, a bricked and tiled open square (actually it’s sort of lopsided round). There are lots of places to sit, on the benches or on the seated planters. I sit in the tea garden and look at the people in the square. The tourists are obvious, with their open books or maps and the bewildered or determined look on their faces. I try to guess where they are from. The Arabs are obvious, as the women are usually wearing at least a black headscarf. For the others, I have to hear the language to guess their origin.
There are other newish local regulars besides me. Ismet and Nuri are artists and have their studios in Galata, though neither of them live there. John is a respected poet and travel writer. Mel is a professor and a writer. There are several other artists, writers, photographers, and architects now in the area.
The tea garden itself is open to the flow of people that come through the square. The garson has mastered tea garden basics in several languages and exchanges at least pleasantries with the Turks. He greets me by name whenever I come, though I forgot his and am embarrassed to ask again. Other cayci (ch-eye-ji) have come and gone, but he has been there for several years. It requires a lot of running and a lot of tea to make money there.
In fact, at the tea garden, you can’t get much to eat. There is tea, nescafe, Turkish coffee, soda (bubbly water), or maybe fruit juice. A few years ago they added tost (grilled cheese sandwiches) and hamburgers. They sell a lot of tea and coffee, so even though they are not expensive, the volume during the season is certainly high.
On nice Sundays, the square is full of people and the tea garden is busy. Some people buy borek, a savoury pastry, or sweet pastries elsewhere and eat them with their tea. They read the paper and probably smoke. Others, like me, drink tea and smoke and watch the people. Still others sit in pairs and groups, intent on their conversations. On spring and fall days some places are in the sun and in the summer tea drinkers can take shade under the bower.
It is amazing to sit and know that the tower that I am just a few meters away from has been solidly standing there for centuries, since 1348. It used to be a fire observation tower, among other things. Some years ago I met an old man who had been a firefighter and knew the tower well. Supposedly in 1632 Hezarfen Ahmet Celebi flew from the Galata Tower to Uskudar, 6 kilometers away on the Asian side. I found the inside of the tower disappointing, actually. You walk up the marble stairs through the door, and find yourself in an elevator lobby that is also a gift shop. You have to take the elevator up, as people are not allowed to use the stairs. Upstairs there is a sort of tacky entertainment restaurant that probably looks better in dimmed lights at night and full of tourists. Upstairs from that is an uninteresting café. However, then it is up to the outside walkway. From there you have a fabulous view of the old city, including Aya Sofia and the Blue Mosque, and across to the Asian side and the Princes Islands. It is well worth going up there for that, but I have to say that I particularly like to look down at my neighbourhood. Then it is back to the tea garden.