Monday, 16 February 2009

Keith Gray: Kebabs and the Bosphorus

To begin this week we welcome back our good friend Keith Gray, who is here to blog about his travels and how they are inspiring his work.

I was lucky enough to be invited to Istanbul by the Koç School, to take part in their book fair, and flew in late at night. A long taxi journey from Atatürk airport in the dark didn’t show me much of the city. I saw hints of history and palm trees.

I was also hungry. Did you know that Guinness tastes better in its birthplace of Dublin? Apparently so. I wondered if the same was true for kebabs. With the smattering of Turkish I’d learned on the plane I managed to get the taxi driver to recommend a small eatery close to my hotel. To my surprise he even came with me. We sat opposite each other at a rickety wooden table no bigger than a chessboard by the side of the street, still buzzing loud and lively this late at night. The plates and plates of skewered lamb and chicken and spicy meatballs piled up. We sniffed the glorious smells, grinned at each other, then stuffed our faces. It didn’t matter that we didn’t speak the same language, we were too busy gorging. And I’d argue that these kebabs were without doubt 100% better than the ones I’ve eaten on the way home from the pub back in Britain. But then this was the first time I’d eaten kebabs sober.

I got to see the city proper on my journey to the school the following morning. Istanbul is a great pushing, shoving sprawl. My morning drive to the Koç School took over an hour yet I never managed to leave the high-rises behind. The motorway flies through the city, seeming to rise above its seven hills. And the steep slopes below are jungled with tall apartment buildings. In the middle of these modern blocks, poking up here, there and everywhere, are minarets like snorkels, trying to suck down a breath of heavenly air.

Crossing the Bosphorus was magical. I’d woken in Europe, now I was stepping across into Asia. The bridge carries you so high, skimming you over the river from one continent to the next. And I wish I had the words to describe the view... No wonder the Phoenicians, the Greeks, the Romans have all wanted to live here. No wonder 17 million people live there now.

I wanted to talk to the students at the Koç School all about Istanbul, but of course they’d seen it all before. I wanted to talk about the breath-taking beauty of the Aya Sofia, the Blue Mosque - just how very incredible some of these sights are. But that must have felt like ancient talk to them too. Because they’d heard it all before, so many times. They wanted to talk about books.

Books?! Do people get time to read books when they live somewhere like Istanbul? Luckily, yes. Or I wouldn’t have been invited in the first place.

And now that I’ve been I can write about it too. I’m already working on an idea for an Istanbul adventure. Maybe my hero has to escape across the Bosphorus? At the end of a chapter they could be dangled off the bridge by the villain - real cliff-hanger stuff!

Although perhaps I need to do a bit more research first? Perhaps I should go back? Have another look around, do some more exploring? There’s so much more I want to see...

Writing’s not all about sitting at a desk.

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