I needed to get dressed for that party the Philosopher had invited me to. And, of course, I had nothing to wear. Please do not smile my reader friend. That is always a delicate matter. The little black dress (Oh Tiffany! Oh, Givenchy!) is of course, always a possibility. But no. Too easy. I wondered why I’d paid 40 bucks a piece for two additional suitcases to find myself with nothing to wear. So I rummaged and rummaged and found an old Cheong Sam (your typical body-hugging Chinese dress) I’d bought once for a wedding and never wore again. It made me look like a Chinese waitress. Why had I packed it still is a mystery.
Yet here was the solution for this intellectual party the Philosopher was throwing. I took a pair of scissors and sewing kit. A girl should never travel without a pair of scissors. I cut the long, formal, dress short, added a pink belt, a straw hat with a matching green band cut and sewn from the discarded bottom of the dress and voilà. Ah! Doc Martens to match.
The DJ was very good. I danced and I danced and I danced. Not with the Philosopher. He claimed to have two left feet. I did not believe him. But after I dragged him on the dance floor for a few minutes, I realized he was telling the truth. I let him go. There were plenty of eager candidates anyway. 🙂
My Cropped Cheong sam or Qípaó 旗袍 was a huge success. A few girls asked me where I’d found it. When I said Penang, hurriedly adding Malaysia, (Where IS Penang?) I could see disappointment on many a face. Then I explained: find a Chinese shop somewhere. There is at least one in every corner of the earth, from here to Down Under and back. (I can count three on the Quai Saint-Michel, facing Notre-Dame). Buy a Cheong Sam dress. Sleeveless version is better. Hack it at the appropriate length, sew the hem, and that’s it. Now another issue surfaced. Some of the girls clearly did not know how to sew. Though they’d never admit it. Not even under torture. Sewing is an endangered custom. Close to extinction. Should be taken up by the WWF. So I said, “And if anyone can’t sew, ask your mother”. A few faces brightened up. Dr Lung, sewing shrink.
So I danced and I danced. As I said the DJ was very good. In his late thirties. Hair drawn back in a ponytail. Goes with the territory I guess. Arts. Music. Ponytails. I wonder whether men using ponytails keep losing their hair bands? I lose mine all the time. 🙂 Dark eyes, dark eyebrows. His. Mine too. Good hands. His. Another fashionable three-day stubble on a good chin. As I was looking at him, I caught his eye. I mouthed “SAL-SA”. He nodded, and put on Celia Cruz’ “La vida es un carnaval”, a good selection, though a bit off for the dancing crowd.
Some started to move more or less to the rhythm. I easily found a good salsa dancer. Turned out he was Colombian. Figures.
After half a dozen excruciating Salsa numbers, my newfound partner and I went straight to the Philosopher’s corner and collapsed on the couch. Jean-Louis clapped.
“Compliments to the both of you, he said. José-Antonio, do you know Stéphanie? Stéphanie, meet José-Antonio. He’s from Colombia. A good friend of mine. Stéphanie is from Malaysia.”
“And a very good dancer, José-Antonio said. Pardon my saying so, I never expected…”
“A Chinese girl to dance Salsa? I said with a big smile.”
“I was going to say, someone from your parts of the world. Salsa is very popular in Latin America, in the States, but it’s so Latino, I didn’t expect Salsa to reach so far East.”
“I also do Tango, I said with a grin. Not that well, but Salsa I love. I oncce had a Colombian… friend. He taught me Salsa and Cumbia. Both fantastic.”
The Philosopher was listening to our exchange with a slight smile. He asked me:
“Would you like something to drink, Stéphanie? After so much dancing. Raki, maybe?”
“Thank you Jean-Louis. I don’t drink. Except for Champagne at breakfast. And that is a very rare occasion. I’ll have a Diet Coke, please. But I’m sure José-Antonio might want some.”
“Yes, of course, the Philosopher said, it is a bit like your Aguardiente, right, Toño? The Philosopher raised a hand to lure the waiter who came running. He knew who was throwing the party. Took the order and came back running with the goods.
“Yes it does, Toño said. Raki is flavoured with Anise as our Aguardiente is. But Raki is a bit stronger. About ten or fifteen degrees.”
“I’m glad I don’t have to do a comparative tasting, I said. I get high just on the fumes. Cheers to all”, I said, lifting my glass. We all clanked.
“Ah! Here comes Roger, the Philosopher said. Roger, sit down, sit down, man. What a great mix you played.”
The DJ had left a tape playing. He sat down in front of me. The only available space or a convenient looking-in-the-eyes spot? He smiled. Jean-Louis made the introductions.
“Roger, You know Toño. This is Stéphanie. A very good friend (since when?) from Malaysia. Roger is quite a talented DJ. He’s also British, which as a Frog, I cannot excuse, but then nobody’s perfect, right?”
“Indeed, Jean-Louis, Roger said with a crooked smile, clapping the Philosopher on the shoulder, likewise I don’t blame you for being a Frog. How d’you do, Stéphanie. (He sounded absolutely posh. A posh DJ?)
“How d’you do, Roger.” I lifted my glass. All responded. Roger downed his Raki in a single gulp. I said 干杯[gānbēi] bottoms up. Roger made a hand-sign to the waiter for another. A fast drinker. Smiled at me and asked:
“And what brings you to Istanbul, Stéphanie? To what do we owe the pleasure?”
A fair enough question. I answered as briefly as I could. Been telling the same story over and over again since I’d arrived in Istanbul. He showed great interest. I was surprised. Or maybe that was his personal “line” of approach. One can always tell when men are on the hunt. That is: always! So I asked him:
“Why are you so interested in Art? And ancient art at that? That is a far cry from music.”
“Yes, it is. He laughed. I read Ancient History at Cambridge. Specializing in Antiquity. From 5,000 BC, to the 5th century AD. With a particular interest in the Middle East. After all, that’s where it all started. Civilization. (He pronounced it “civilayzation”) In our neck of the woods of course. You guys followed your own course on your side of the planet. I still find History fascinating, but I always loved music, and I make ten or a hundred times more money as a DJ than I would in any honest profession.”
The Philosopher’s phone rang. He got up to answer it. (“Excuse me”). Said a few words no one could hear. Frowned. A concerned expression fleeted on his face. He switched off his phone and turned around:
“Stéphanie, Roger, Toño, I’m awfully sorry. I have to leave. Urgent business to attend. Very sorry Stéphanie. I’ll call you to-morrow. I’m a bit concerned, I wish I could say I’m leaving you in good hands, but that is not the case. Not with Roger. (grin). Roger, behave yourself, “mate”. I saw her first.
I got my two “bises”, one on each cheek, and couldn’t resist saying:
“Hah! First sighting? Is that a hunting party or what?”
“No, no. Of course, my dear. But do beware of Roger. He looks harmless. He’s not.”
The two men hugged, no kissing, Frenchmen do, I guess the Brits don’t, and off went Jean-Louis. Very concerned. I wasn’t sure whether the source of his preoccupation was leaving me with Roger or the phone call. Roger and I went back to our conversation. Toño had gone dancing on the floor.
“So you’re a historian, and a specialist of the Middle East? I asked. Fascinating. I’m more focused on South-East Asia, of course.”
I told him about my regional museums project. He opened wide eyes.
“That is a brilliant project. Make Far and Middle East meet. Like it. Now, because of my training and many a field trip as a student, I know some people around here. I could introduce you. Pardon my asking, it always comes to that: how much budget do you have?”
I told him a rough figure. Better put things straight from the start. He whistled.
“With such a budget, I can introduce you to a few veeeery good people. Who can lay their hands on veeeery good Art. Legally of course.”
“Of course”, I said with a straight face. “What kind of articles?”
“I would suggest small items. As you may know, a lot of antique art is being… I don’t know if the right word is smuggled or salvaged from Syria and Iraq into Turkey, but those are sometimes very bulky. I would suggest smaller objects. Jewellery. An Assyrian winged ram statue like the ones that are being destroyed right now can weigh several tons. Now, a gold or ivory winged ram pendant is much smaller and has a definite beauty. Statue heads are also an option. Stuff relatively easy to transport. Not too much hustle at Customs. Though as for that, I have very good contacts at Customs. Getting the merchandise out is not a problem when you know the right people.”
“My father, rest his soul, always told me: ‘Stéphanie, it is not – just – what you know, but who you know’.”
“Quite right, Roger said. Stéphanie, I’m afraid I’m going to have to go back to my table. Let me make a few calls. And get back to you. What’s your number?”
I gave him my I-phone number. Not my Blackberry. But you know that already. 🙂 Before he returned to his mixing table, he said good-bye with a single kiss on my right cheek. Westerners’ kissing practices! I grabbed José-Antonio on the dance floor and we danced until dawn.
I was taking a quick by-myself lunch at the restaurant in Arnavutköy. Indulging in the ballet of seagulls, waters and ships. I can spend hours watching the sea. Never, never, is it the same. Not one single second. And even if there isn’t a gush of wind, even if all the seagulls and ships are grounded, the moves and plays of the light with the water are infinite. It is an artist’s nightmare to try and catch the light on the water. I skip that. Don’t touch/draw that. Just enjoy the view.
I was having zeytinyağlılar, a typical Turkish vegetable dish, meaning roughly “those with olive oil”. Turkey is a paradise for vegetarians. Many dishes, soups, appetizers are made with season vegetables. Cook or braise them in their own juice, add a generous dose of olive oil at the end and serve cold.
Mehmet the Hipster Waiter came to my table. Saw I was almost finished and asked:
“I hope you have enjoyed your dish Stéphanie Hanimefendi. May I suggest the perfect complement?”
“Not Turkish coffee again, please! Last one I had I couldn’t sleep for three days. I’m a night owl, but not that much!”
The Hipster Waiter laughed. He said:
“No, Hanimefendi, I propose Ayran, cold yogurt with salt.”
“Sounds nice. Let’s try that.”
Ayran is a Turkish favourite. Delicious. And unlike Lokum, not fattening! The Philosopher, who is part Lebanese, insists on saying Lukum, claims the Turks pronounce everything wrong. He generally gets a thrashing from Turks present. They say he has a French accent. Not Lebanese. French accent. He gets annoyed. 🙂 I finished my Ayran cup with delight and told Mehmet:
“Thank you Mehmet. Tesekür edderim. (Another way to say thank you) So when will you take me to the Bazaar as promised?”
Mehmet, when not a waiter, is not a would-be actor, but a PhD student in History at Istanbul University. In a previous occasion, I think it was a late breakfast/brunch/lunch, he’d asked me what I was doing in Istanbul. I told him. He’d been fascinated that we shared similar backgrounds. He offered to take me to the Bazaar, to the right places, that only a Turk would know, and he possibly could connect me with the right art merchants. He smiled (great teeth) and said:
“I’ve already made some arrangements. Today is Tuesday. Are you available on Thursday? That is the best day. Before Friday’s Great Prayer.”
“I am, Mehmet. What time? And please call me Stéphanie.”
“At 10:00 in the morning. East entrance, the jeweller’s gate. You know where that is, Stéphanie?”
“I do. See you then and there, Mehmet.”
The Philosopher and I were walking down Kemankes Caddesi, a fashionable street in Karaköy, the hottest spot in Istanbul, near the Golden horn. We had visited the Istanbul Modern Art Gallery nearby, then strolled in Karaköy, the ancient Galata. It is now a vibrant quarter. No. Strike “vibrant”. I sound like a tourist guide. Well. I do love this city. Keep vibrant. The area is full of shops, some with good antiques where the Philosopher seems to be well connected.
This part of Istanbul is… No I will not say “ossom”. Just nice, very. There are Hammams, remodelled. Galleries. Ellipsis, for instance, is the only photo gallery in Istanbul. Boutiques like Atölye 11. (It’s pronounced like the French Atelier despite the bizarre spelling). Lots of cafés and restaurants. We had a quick lunch in one. I had a dinner scheduled with Roger the DJ at 9:00. He’d texted me he’d made progress with some art dealers. He would tell me all about it at dinner. I was definitely in high demand! At lunch, the Philosopher had ordered Albanian smoked beef, I stuck to my vegetables and olive oil. Perfect.
So we were walking down Kemankes Caddesi, near the Fransız Pasajı, and talking about the Modern Art gallery; the shops where I’d seen some good stuff. The Philosopher told me that André Chénier, a French poet, guillotined during the revolution was born here, in Galata. A warm, sunny afternoon. A nice walk in Istanbul.
All of a sudden, I saw Stewart the seagull, screeching and flitting his wings to stay in mid-air a few feet away from a window on the second floor across the street. I saw a rifle muzzle sticking out the window. Pointing at us.
I knocked Jean-Louis down on the pavement a split second before the first bullet hit the wall where we were just standing. Then half a dozen other bullets made a bee line about a foot above us, on the wall and then on a garbage bin in the street.
Luckily, we were half hidden by a stationed car, which took another sequence of bullets. Jean-Louis was lying on his back. I covered him with my body. As best as I could. My left hand went down to my belt. I’m left-handed. But that was futile. No gun on my belt. Just stay low. And count. The bullets.
Then silence came. I counted two more minutes. Lifted my head a bit. I was still covering Jean-Louis body with mine. He looked up at me and smiled.
“Well, well. Was that for you or for me?”
“I don’t know, I said. Must have been for you. I see no reason for any bullet to be fired at me. I’m a peaceful art dealer.”
“I know, I know, Jean-Louis said. I ‘faced’ you.”
“You ‘faced’ me? Oh! Facebook! I hope I left no compromising photographs on my page.”
“No, lots of drawings, a few very lovely pictures of you and friends in Penang. Were you reaching for a gun by your belt a minute ago?”
“I don’t have a gun. Shouldn’t we get up?”
“Why? I feel very comfortable in that position.”
“Why don’t you shut up?”
And I kissed him. What was I thinking? Not thinking, probably. Many friends say I’m bonkers.
The bullet holes on the garbage bin on Kemankes Caddesi.
To be continued…
This post is dedicated to the victims of this week-end’s bombing in a peaceful demonstration in Turkey.
All characters, situations and events are entirely fictitious and but the product of the authors’ bonkers imagination.
All illustrations © Tiffany Choong.
Text © Brian Martin-Onraet spiced with quotes of Tiffany Choong.
Visit Tiffany’s site at: