Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Outdoor dining is dead, long live outdoor dining

I'd been eyeing the roadside kebab shop for a while, as there seemed to be a steady stream of customers whenever I walked by after my physiotherapy sessions. Then, quite suddenly, all indoor *and* outdoor seating at restaurants and cafes was banned once again in Turkey as a coronavirus prevention measure. Takeaway, however, was still allowed. On this particular day, I was starving, having missed lunch; the weather was still mild, despite it being early December; and I figured I could furtively scarf down a dürüm in a couple of minutes while lingering on the street corner out front.

But I hadn't given Turkish ingenuity and hospitality enough credit.

No sooner had I approached the server standing outside the door and ordered my Adana dürüm (acılı, tabii ki, ama domatessiz lütfen) than he had swooped up a piece of cardboard and placed it just so on the edge of what used to be the shop's outdoor-dining area. (Can't sit on the cold ground, your reproductive organs might freeze.) 

As I sat on my cardboard-covered perch, eating my dürüm and sipping my ayran, situated at a safe distance away from other customers doing likewise, I noticed there were people sitting in the cars parked in front of the shop. They were eating their kebabs as the server dashed back and forth to their car windows to deliver post-meal tea and retrieve the empty glasses. It was almost like being at an American drive-in.

Restaurants, cafes, and bars are suffering heavily during these shutdowns, to be sure. But these examples of resourcefulness are cheering in their small way. A neighborhood bar is packaging up its cocktails to go and bottling its mixers for sale. The owners of a popular meyhane have opened a takeaway meze shop and even deliver locally by bicycle. One street in Karaköy is doing its best impression of a European Christmas market, the scent of cloves and cinnamon drawing passersby to long tables outside bar-restaurants that are selling cups of mulled wine and slices of cake to take in hand as you stroll. It's something I've not really seen in Istanbul before, but a new tradition I certainly wouldn't mind seeing endure after the pandemic is (inşallah) behind us next winter.

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Social solidarity amid COVID-19: Ways to help the people who need it most

Image via New Economy Coalition
I read a comment recently about the coronavirus pandemic that really resonated with me: We may all be in the same storm, but we're not all in the same boat.

Every day, it seems, I read (and sometimes write) about how this disease and its wide-ranging impacts are laying bare long-standing inequities in our societies, about the workers who can't afford to stay home, the refugees who don't have a home to stay in, the women for whom home in the most dangerous place, the 30 million people who have lost their jobs in the U.S. alone.

It's a stark reminder that as fear, loneliness, and insecurity batter us all, some of our vessels are definitely more seaworthy than others.

For those of us fortunate enough to be safe, employed, and in good health right now, I've compiled this very incomplete list of ways to help those who aren't. If you're an American who's received the $1,200 stimulus check and doesn't need that financial assistance, I humbly suggest joining me in donating all or part of that as a way to start.

And please do reach out to propose any recommended additions to this list.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Pide to the people

"Sıcak sıcak sıcaaaaak!!!!"

"Var mı, pide isteyen?!?!"

Since Turkey began weekend lockdowns in its large cities earlier this month – fully confining everyone except certain essential workers to their homes – normally raucous Istanbul has been eerily quiet on Saturdays and Sundays. No matter how late of a lie in I indulge myself with (because really, what's the point of getting out of bed when you can't leave the apartment?), the silence of the streets outside hangs heavily, as if the whole world had vanished while I slept.

Then it happens. The low thrum of a small van inching its way down the street, followed by the crackle of a portable speaker, or an unamplified, full-throated cry. "Geldi geldi geldi!!!!"

Sometimes it's just one voice, other times a competing cacophony. Either way, the sounds break the silence, and the spell that seems to have been cast on the neighborhood. When I pop my head out the window, faces up and down the street mirror my own. The old, infirm, or simply weary lift baskets over their windowsill or balcony railing, lower them on a rope, and wait. The rest stuff a few coins in pockets, slip on some shoes (what are those again?), and rush out the door, not wanting to miss the highlight (OK, the only event) of the day: bread delivery time.

For many Turks, a meal without bread is unthinkable. An estimated 20 million loaves are sold daily in Istanbul (population 16 million) alone. I've seen Turkish friends refuse to eat breakfast because there was no fresh bread, only the slices left over from the day before. A Turkish colleague told our WhatsApp group that even during the 1980 military coup, when tanks patrolled the city’s empty streets, bread was distributed in large trucks to each house or apartment.

So certainly a little thing like a global pandemic wasn't going to keep the halk from their ekmek. The Interior Ministry's curfew order included an exemption allowing people to leave their homes to walk to their nearest bakery. Politicians jostled to be the heroes providing bread to the cooped-up masses, posting videos on social media with soothing footage of loaves coming out of ovens and being brought to homes. And local bakeries took to the streets with their delivery vans.

I'll be honest – even as starved for activity and interaction as I am on weekends, the standard white loaves, more air than bread, weren't going to entice me to run after the bakery van. But this weekend, their siren call became very beguiling, with the addition to their offerings of the Ramazan pidesi. This pillowy flatbread is made during the holy month of Ramadan, when observant Muslims abstain from food and drink during daylight hours, then sit down to a fast-breaking meal called iftar at sunset.

Even for the non-religious, the sight of people coming together each evening, whether at huge tables set up by the municipality or on small stools set up around a newspaper-covered folding table, creates a sense of shared urban conviviality. Of course in 2020, coming together is tehlikeli ve yasaktır, as is jostling in front of the fırın to buy a fresh-out-of-the-oven pide in the last possible minutes before iftar so it's still piping-hot at fast-breaking time.

On weekends, then, buying pide from the bread van is about as close as we can come to a communal experience. So I wasn't going to miss out on that. And if a bread that's usually torn into pieces and shared has to be eaten by one person while it's still warm and at its tastiest, well, it's the kind of year in which sacrifices must be made. But only one pide a day, no matter how many times the vans cruise down my street. Even in a pandemic, you have to draw the line somewhere.