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The Istanbul Rollercoaster: ATM vigil to Hagia Sophia

Updated: Dec 13, 2023

Being an English speaking American woman traveling alone in Turkey is like riding a reverse roller coaster. The quick dives can feel horrific, like I want to throw up or throw a temper tantrum, or like I want to go home, right now. The highs, that can happen within minutes after the lows end, can be so tender, so breathtaking, so deeply moving, they can bring me to my heart-knees to the sublime.


Today, I had a romantic vision of sitting at a cafe, slowly sipping cappuccino, writing a blog, and doing laundry. Doing laundry was the first order of business. Sipping cappuccino and writing a blog was how I'd turn the ordinary into something relaxing, fun, worthwhile.


The fantasy was born from reality. The laundromat was around the corner from my room, directly next to the cafe. "This," I thought, "is the perfect plan." I gathered my dirty laundry and laundry detergent in one bag, and my computer, charger, phone, and phone charger in another bag. I was so organized, so pleased with my plan. It felt so right, so light and happy. With my two bags in hand, I walked out of my apartment building, around the corner, and down the stairs to the laundromat.


l learned then that this was a drop-off laundry service. I learned that this establishment accepted cash only. I did not have enough cash on me. I only had 5 Lyra in my wallet. Five Lyra is like 17 cents. The young woman typed into her translator app, "You can pay later." She did not know the dread of ATM machines I carried in the pit of my stomach. I gave her my bag of dirty laundry. I gave her my detergent. "I have no use of it," I wrote in my translator, and we both shrugged.


I learned that the ATMs around the corner did not offer an English operational system choice, and, even when I used my translator, the machines did not take my (American) ATM card. I asked a man nearby who I had talked with a couple of times before if he could recommend an ATM machine that had an English option. He typed something into my Google Maps app. I walked back to my apartment, up the stairs, unlocked my door, and dropped my other (computer) bag in my room. And then I walked, bag free, the 20-minutes uphill to find the ATM machine that had been plugged into my Google Maps app.


Walking uphill, I heard a new Seagull dialect. "Ow," the seagull said. "Ow. Ow. Ow." Maybe I should've turned around. In retrospect, the seagull's painful cry could have been the foreboding undertone or foreshadowing to the story to come. At the time I only heard a new Seagull dialect. "Huh," thought I, all innocent and simple-minded, "there's another Seagull dialect."

Right now it is 03:45 (almost 4 am, again). It is later than it will be shortly in this story. That is because I tried to go to sleep a while back, but could not sleep. I have a lot on my mind. I decided to get up and continue to write. Only, I started reading what I'd written, from the beginning, and here, I have been stopped. It is almost 4 in the morning and there is a lot of activity outside. Just now, there was Turkish music playing. It was a long and woeful sound. When it stopped, a dog started howling, also singing a long and woeful song. Then seagulls started crying "Ow," again. And then the round began again. And it continues to go round and round, again and again, this long and woeful song.


I had walked uphill, following my Google Maps app, to an ATM machine outside the QNB Finansbank. There were two machines on the stone wall, side-by-side. Both machines were being used. I stood waiting. It was only me waiting, as lots of other people walked by. A man appeared and stood behind me. Another man appeared and stood behind him. A line began to form. The ATM machine on the right opened up.


You know how song lyrics can be misunderstood? You remember Creedence Clearwater Revival's Bad Moon on the Rise? I included the link with the lyrics version of this song because I want you to know the lyrics really are saying: There's a bad moon on the rise. not right. It's not There's a bad moon on the right. Although in my case, there was a bad ATM machine on the right.


Because I was queued up to be next, I stepped up to use the now available ATM machine on the right. I put my Community Bank N.A. Visa ATM card into the card slot in the ATM machine.


Here, I must digress. again.


You may recall that I could not navigate the ATM machines on my own last Thursday. You may also recall that the next day, on Friday, I had asked 21-year-old Michel to help me, and he had. At that time, on Friday, Michel had advised me not to bother pushing buttons to start. He had said, "Just put your card in, and an option for English will show up on the screen." At that time, at that ATM machine, with Michel by my side, that is exactly what happened. I pushed my ATM card into the card slot of the ATM machine and - boom - a button appeared that said, "English." It was so easy. "They're all like that," said Michel. "It was not like this at the machines I tried yesterday," I said. Michel said nothing. I thought, "maybe it was me."


Back to today.


I put my ATM card into the card slot in the QNB ATM machine, and nothing happened. No English option button appeared. I saw only buttons with options in Turkish. So I stood, deer-in-headlights (again), looking at the screen. And, low and behold, doing nothing caused nothing to happen. I looked at all the Turkish options and had no idea what to push. Until I saw a red X. I pushed the red X. Nothing changed. Nothing happened. Then I saw a red button on the keypad below the screen. I pushed the red button on the keypad below the screen. Nothing changed, Nothing happened. I did this pushing of red choices, back and forth, a number of times. The machine screen did not respond. Nothing changed. Nothing happened. I looked at a man in line behind me. I shrugged as if to say, "My card is in the machine and I don't know how to get it back." He seemed to understand. He reached past me to the machine. He pressed the red X. Nothing happened. He pressed the red button on the keypad below the screen. Nothing happened. He looked at me, shrugged, and stepped back a bit, away from me, and got back in line.


I looked at the screen. Then, a message appeared that seemed a lot like "We have taken your card. You are done now." Then the ATM machine screen went back to what I can only imagine is the "Welcome" screen.


I looked at the machine. I looked around me. There was a line of men waiting. I am not stretching the truth. There was a line and in it were men, just men. Most likely Turkish men. Most likely Turkish men who spoke Turkish. There was a line behind me of Turkish-speaking men who spoke no English. Looking at me. I knew this because I asked, "English?" And no one said a word. Not even the man who had tried to help me. They just looked at me, blankly. Even the man who had tried to help me. And there I stood, looking at a line of non-English speaking men, who were either using or waiting to use the other ATM machine or waiting to use the ATM machine that I now felt attached to. I looked deer-in-headlights at them. They looked blankly at me.


Warning: the following was written earlier than when I wrote about the woeful round. It is not you who is confused, it is my timing that is confusing.


It is right now 23:37 (11:37 pm). I am tired and I am thirsty. I am also out of bottled water. So I am boiling water. I will make tea. Though I should probably make stress relief tea, I have used up my stress relief tea and have no stress relief teabags left. What I have left is gas relief tea. So, instead of relieving stress, I will relieve gas. Maybe that will help. My gas relief teabag tag says, "A garden is a delight to the eye and a solace for the soul." Yes. Yes, that is true. I don't know how that relates to gas relief but, ok, yes.


Finally, (back at the bank), I type into my translator, "I am not leaving this machine until I get my card back," and flash my phone app message to all the men in the line. The men look at my message and then at me, blankly. They continue to stand in line. Then, I believe dawn breaks on Marblehead (once again). I watch as a visible expression emerges on the faces of these men. An expression that seems to say, "Oh... one out of two ATM machines will not become available as long as this woman stands in front of one of them."


A couple of men call to a woman smoking a cigarette. She listens to them, comes over, looks at me, laughs lightly, and motions to me to come inside. I say, "No," and flash her my phone app message: "I am not leaving this machine until I get my card back." She laughs lightly and goes back to her cigarette. I stand vigil at the ATM machine and look at her. She seems to not care about my vigil. She's laughing, smiling, talking, smoking. She notices me looking at her a couple of times and finally, starts to look a bit nervous. She approaches me again, smiling, and again, like a sly minx, motions me to come in. I say "sly minx," because I am not trusting anyone at this point. The bank's machine has eaten my card. I believe she works for the bank that has stolen my ATM card. I do not trust her. She and the bank are in cahoots. Together, they have stolen my card and I will not leave the machine that has inside of it my card. I say "No" to her, and again, flash her my phone app message: "I am not leaving this machine until I get my card back."


She calls to another employee, one who speaks English. I tell him that the machine took my card. I tell him that I am not leaving the machine until it gives me back my card. He says, "I understand," and asks me to come into the bank. I repeat that I am not leaving. He tries. He really does. He explains that he cannot give me back my card. He explains that it's bank policy. He explains that I need to step away from the machine and go call the bank. I tell him that I am not leaving. I tell him that he needs to call the bank and get my card back. We go round and round. We are like a very civilized boxer and a very distraught, whiny boxer. We go at it for a few rounds and the bell rings. He calls over a security guard. The security guard motions for me to go in the bank. I repeat my mantra. I will not leave my post. I am guarding my ATM card that is behind the wall inside this ATM machine. I will not leave it.


The English-speaking employee asks for my passport. I do not have my passport on me. If I had my passport on me, I would not give it to him. Even though he seems very nice, he works for the bank that took my ATM card. As far as I'm concerned, their bank stole my card; what is stopping them from stealing my passport? "I don't have my passport on me," I say, truthfully. The English-speaking employee asks if I have some form of ID. I show him my license. He says, "Ami Ji Schmid?" I say, "Yes." He asks me to give him my license. I say, "No." He says he needs to make a copy of it. I say, "No." He asks me to come into the bank. I say, "No." He looks at me, turns around, and walks back into the bank.


The security guard comes over and asks for my passport. I say, "No." He asks to see my ID. I show him my license. He asks me to give my license to him. I say, "No." Then, I hear clanking in the wall behind the ATM machines. I watch as the Welcome-screen of the ATM-machine-on-the-right changes back to the screen with the buttons on it. I look at the machine on the wall, waiting... hoping... for my ATM card to pop out. It does not. The ATM buttons-screen turns back to the Welcome-screen. The security guard is gone; he has walked back into the bank. I continue to stand vigil. Men in the line are now trying to persuade me to leave my post and follow the bank employees into the bank. I literally turn toward the men-in-line, back against the machine-in-a-wall and spread-eagle block them from getting to the ATM machine behind me.


Finally, the English-speaking employee and the security guard come back out. "You have to come in," says the English-speaking man, "so that we can call the bank, so that you can get your card back." I leave my post and follow them into the bank.


Long story short, the English-speaking employee is sitting behind his desk, like a relaxed bank teller, I'm sitting in a chair on the other side of the bank teller's wall, like a bank client, and the security guard is hanging out by me, on my side of the bank wall, helping the bank teller email and call the powers that eventually give the English-speaking employee permission to reach into the drawer in front of him and pull out my ATM bank card that he has had in there since he took it out of the machine while I was standing vigil outside, listening to the clanking in the wall, watching the screen change.


At this point in the story, I have my ATM bank card in hand. Still, I have no Turkish Lyra to pay for my laundry. I ask the English-speaking employee and the security guard if they can help me find an ATM that has an English operating system so I can get Lyra. The English-speaking employee laughs and says, "Not at this bank."


Long story short, I do not get Lyra from an ATM. What I do is walk home. On the way home I stop in a grocery store to purchase ingredients to make dinner later. I tell you this not because it is a significant point in this story, but rather, because I don't want you to worry that I'm not eating. At home, I put away my groceries, use the toilet, drink the rest of the bottled water I have left, from last night's fiasco (oh, that is a whole other blog), and go back outside.


I walk around the corner to the cafe next to the laundry service establishment and ask the owner of the cafe if I can use my credit card to get Lyra. He writes the amount I need on a piece of paper and sends me to his brother's grocery store two doors down. His brother takes my card and charges it for the amount written on the piece of paper and sends me back to his brother, the cafe owner. I walk two doors up to the cafe and am paid the exact amount of Lyra I need to pay the laundry-service.


Since I'm at the cafe, I ask, "Do you have cappuccino?" I'm being pro-active, thinking that I can save my day... live my dream. "Do you have Wi-Fi," I ask, "and an outdoor plug?" "Yes, Wi-Fi," he says. I begin to brighten. "Only Turkish coffee," he says. At that moment, I still think, "I will not be defeated." "Do you have milk," I ask, almost pleading, "that I can add to the coffee?" "No," he says. "That would not be Turkish coffee," and he adds, "sugar." "And no plug," he says.


Ok, Ima interrupt my story again. Earlier, while writing the first round, I heard loud bangs, lots of them. And then honking horns. Also lots of them. I texted my apartment manager. (I'm calling him my apartment manager and not my Airbnb host because I paid him out-of-the-Airbnb-system, all illegal-like. So... I think that makes him my apartment manager). I texted him and asked, "Do you know what's going on in the neighborhood tonight? There are fireworks and honking...?" He wrote back, "I don't know what it is either, but it might be something like a henna party in the park next to our building." "A henna party?" I wrote back. "Yes, it could be, I don't know exactly. Maybe it could be a wedding in the park. There is a cafe in the park. Things like this can happen there sometimes." I feel a communication glitch. "Ah. A henna party is part of a wedding?" I ask. And then I remembered that my first thought, after wondering about gun violence, was "a wedding.." "Yes," he texted back, "Henna is a part of the wedding in Turkey," and he added a smiley face, like this :). "A few days before the wedding," he continued, "girls have fun. Likewise, boys can do this too, but girls usually do it more intensely." "So..." I texted back, "not henna, like decorating hands and feet like in India?" "Yes," he said, "henna is applied to the hands, although not as much as in India." "Ah. fun!" said I, "With all the gun violence in the world, I get freaked out by unexpected bangs and booms. A henna party is so much better!" And he wrote, "Calm down, nothing is wrong, our neighborhood is a safe place in this regard. No problem." And he added a thumbs up emoji. "Ok. Good to know," I said, "It's been a bit rough today." And thus began a long thread, during which time I cried, that ended with him writing, "Now a comfortable sleep will be good for you. Don't worry, everything will be fine." It's now 04:39 and the fireworks (that had started again) just stopped.


Back to today. Actually, yesterday.


The young woman at the laundry service establishment is now an older man. I pay him the 140 Lyra I owe him, retrieve my (clean and dry) laundry, and bring the new bag home. At this point I still have 5 Lyra in my wallet. I remind you of this little fact because it is significant in another story (also) for later.


I was back in my room, had clean laundry, and felt some sense of relief. So, I decided to brave the big world again. I went out of my apartment building and walked back up the hill. I walked until I saw life. Shops and lights and people and... my favorite bitter chocolate gelato place, that also had cappuccino. with milk. "This," I thought, "will set the whole day right" (in a right-way, right). As I was receiving my gelato, my WhatsApp app dinged. I looked down to see "Peter May." I could not not answer this, even though, as the ding came through, the Call to Prayer had begun.


I knew would not hear whatever Peter had to say, so I greeted him with: "Right now, this is happening." Between reverberating Turkish prayers, I heard Peter's laugh. When I sat at a little table, bittersweet chocolate gelato in hand, cappuccino being served, the prayer ended and Peter and I talked. It felt amazingly grounding and somewhat magical to hear the live voice of my English-speaking friend from Brattleboro, Vermont alive, in the phone-in-my-hand.


After our call, after I finished my gelato, after I sipped my cappuccino's last drop, I sat. Just sat, and noticed. It felt good to be present. I felt no Lyra needs, no need to stand vigil at an ATM machine, no frustration due to unfulfilled dreams. I just felt present, sitting, noticing life.


You may recall that my old neighborhood was called "Balat" and my new neighborhood "Küçük Ayasofya" or "little Sophia." This is because my new neighborhood is a short walk to Hagia Sophia (and the Blue Mosque).


As I walked home, the lights of Hagia Sophia were on. I walked through the park, through the policed gate, up the stairs, and stood inside Hagia Sophia. I walked out the other entrance, the one heading toward the Blue Mosque. A huge group of Muslim women walked by me. I don't know why this struck me as beautiful. It was as beautiful as Hagia Sophia lit up. I looked at the women and smiled, took out my camera, gave a questioning head movement, felt the answer was "Yes," and took a picture. I looked back at Hagia Sophia and took a picture. I stood there looking. Just looking and feeling. I felt stunned. It was stunning.


The Blue Mosque

Passing each other on the walkway between the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia







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