There’s a concept I sometimes hear from my software engineer chums: abstraction, or the process of removing all sorts of attributes – be them physical, spatial, temporal – to get to the root of something (usually a system, since we’re talking software), to the basic elements that what really interest them.
I’m not an engineer so I don’t know if abstraction requires a vehicle. In case it does, I’ve found mine. For a cheap fare, the swipe of a pre-paid magnetic card, I can forego all those attributes – bundable under a generic, non-numeric scatological term – that do not add value to my life and concentrate on what I really want to focus on in the here and now. The vehicle can come in two forms: it can be green, white and yellow when operated by Sehir Hattari or, if it’s a Turyol, white and blue. An Istanbul ferry. A vapur.
There’s something, in this city, that keeps on pulling me in. It might be the history, the fact of having a XIV century home built by the Genoans as your neighbour; it might be the people, in all their fascinating contradictions. All I know is that a key element to explain why, every now and then, I end up here is the feeling of taking a vapur.
Karaköy Pier has been renovated and is a rather modernist affair, now. I swipe and find myself, by accident rather than by design, on the Turyol end of the building. Eyup it is, then.
The trip up the Golden Horn is a refresh of a history I have never lived. An hourglass of çay by my side, a train of squeaking seagulls in our wake and a crow perched on top the canvas cover is all we need for the trip. The vapur parades past Fener, Balat, St Mary of the Mongols: places where the Greeks made their last stand in 1453 and where their imprinting is still visible, ever so faintly. We chug on and I wonder about what happened to those I’d met there last time.
Eyup arrives all of a sudden, almost announced. The hill of the graves is there, grim in the grey weather. We’re almost out of water, the Golden Horn has become land and homes and streets and a cable-car. Somebody, down below, yells something that I take to mean to get off.
I disembark with a posse of cougars voluptuously trailed by a cloud of perfume and decide that, no, I don’t want to stay in Eyup. I turn and run back into the pier, Turkish Sarah Jessica Parker watching in disbelief, and abscond in the warm embrace of the lower deck, admiring the spectacle of those commuting to Eminönü. The tea seller, seeing me again, asks if I’d found his mother-in-law waiting at the pier.
Sunday. My Istanbul layover has come to an end just as a lovely sun is warming up the Bosporus. A flight beckons at Atatürk but I still have time for another ride. Eminönü pier is just to the left of Galata bridge and, berthed, is one of those beautifully démodé Sehir ferries, those with the razor-sharp prow, rounded stern, wooden viewing decks and pictures of Atatürk hanging from the panelled bulkhead.
I board as my phone purrs into life and begins downloading emails, buzzing as it does. After a Friday travelling I opted for not opening the laptop and, instead, drank beers watching TV. This is payback. But as soon as the mooring lines are off, and this intercontinental journey of 10 minutes starts, it’s all forgotten.
Out there in the narrow channel there’s no office, work or pressing problems. It’s just the sun painting Sultanahmet gold, the bridges, the light mist hanging above the water and the cargo ships going about their business. Sat aft on this beautiful ferry I daydream about the feasibility of reconfiguring one of these marvels into a private yacht with which to hop around the Med – Beirut, Alexandria, Palermo, Naples, Oran, Marseille – and beyond, to Tangiers and the Caribbean, perhaps flying the flag of one of those countries that register the container ships moored at Haydarpaşa.
A voice in Turkish drags me out of my shipbuilding dreams. A young man, meticulously shaven and coiffured, is asking something. All he’s missing to pass for a Mormon is a plastic badge, but I doubt he’s putting up a spiel on Jesus. A second well-groomed guy is summoned as soon as it dawns on them that I might look Turkish but, in fact, I ain’t.
There’s five of them, all soldiers. Squaddies on a free day, wanting a photo taken. Here they are in Kadiköy harbour, happy and proud as they should be, with only 70 days to go before the end of conscription. Sixty-nine days and a wake-up, as they said in Platoon.
On the deck below a man runs a tespih in his hands as we float near Ayasofya. We dock and I take the tram back towards Yusufpaşa. It’s only when I’m in the bowels of Atatürk, sitting in front of a 0.75 l glass of Efes, that I realise that I haven’t thought about work at all since I boarded the vapur.