Sunday, November 18, 2007

Istanbul was Constantinople...

The city of Istanbul has had more name changes than Elizabeth Taylor has had husbands. It’s been on the map for centuries and somehow manages to endure one empire after the next. And with each wave of reinvention, a new name…Byzantium, Augusta Antonina, New Rome, Constantinople, Stamboul, Islambol…just to name a few. It’s a rich brew of cultures, religions and customs. Any way you slice it, there’s a lot of history in Turkey.

I’d love to go back. But new lines are being drawn in the global sandbox and sometimes it’s hard to keep up with our friends and foes and the fuzzy in-between. Is it still safe to visit Turkey? I was there in the early 90’s but things are so different now. After all, Americans aren’t exactly beloved around the world these days. Travel advisories to Turkey seem to vary on the Internet. Some say okay, some say to visit with extreme caution. I suppose change is inevitable, but it’s heartbreaking to think there’s this beautiful part of the world that might suddenly be off limits to me simply because I’m an American.

But this is really just fodder for conversation because I have no immediate plans to travel to Turkey.

I do, however, have plans to travel for turkey. I am madly doing laundry and pulling out our warm clothes to spend Thanksgiving in Montana, where thankfully our somewhat simple and cozy traditions have not changed all that much through the years. Add a daughter, subtract a husband, substitute some family friends. All in all it’s still a low-key affair with a standard menu, roaring fires, college football and lots of movies.

For some reason I always curl up and watch The English Patient. I don’t know why it’s such a treat to watch out there. I have the same DVD here at home but never want to invest the time to sit still for the entire thing. But in Montana I can really sink into the whole long ride, without feeling guilty or rushed. One year I remember my father and I engaged in an enthusiastic, wine-soaked critique of the film, analyzing the characters, the era, the symbolism, the cinematography. In our minds we were brilliant although likely less articulate than we imagined ourselves to be at the time. We started with the obvious... how it’s ironic that Count d’Almasy is the German speaking ‘English’ patient who is actually from Hungary, but separates himself from any national identity. With loyalty to no country he is able to hover above the developing war without taking a side as new lines are drawn in the sand. Instead, d’Almasy and his team are part of the Internationalist movement, dedicated to exploring the dessert and making maps. This presents an added layer of irony because as a mapmaker he is simply drawing his own version of the dessert. Carving out definition to areas that were previously unchartered, laying claim to new regions by naming them. There’s power in the naming of things. D’Almasy has a love affair with Katharine and begins to refer to her as his ‘wife’. Does the word itself make it true?

One of my favorite scenes is when Count d’Almasy and Katharine first meet:

Katharine: I wanted to meet the man who could write a long paper with so few adjectives.

D’Almasy: Well, a thing is still a thing no matter what you place in front of it. Big car, slow car chauffeur-driven car--

Katharine: --Broken car?

D’Almasy: It's still a car.

Katharine: Not much use, though.

So do words and names change the essence of a person, place or thing? Shakespeare’s Juliet asked the same question…what’s in a name? Her answer…a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet. And perhaps it’s true. Whether you knew him as Muhammed Ali or Cassius Clay he could still float like a butterfly and sting like a bee. No matter if he’s Prince or The Artist Formerly Known as Prince he’s the same guy that brought us Purple Rain. Kentucky Fried Chicken and KFC are both finger lickin’ good. Sweet potato, mashed potato, it’s still just a potato.

Wait, wait! Hold on, that one doesn’t work. Sweet potatoes and mashed potatoes are most certainly not the same dish. As I learned in my first year of marriage there are two kinds of Americans in the world: those who were raised with sweet potatoes at Thanksgiving dinner and those who were raised with mashed potatoes. Imagine my shock when I learned I had married a Mashed Potato. How did this slip by in our premarital counseling?

So just as I switched my maiden name to my married name (which by the way, only required that I remove one letter, the letter ‘t’), we decided to sidestep the stalemate by serving both kinds of potato at our first Thanksgiving. It was a perfect solution for many years. And the truth is I really liked the mashed potatoes better. I only eat the melted marshmallows from the top of the sweet potatoes anyway. But sweet potatoes are simply part of the holiday. It’s a family tradition. Since my divorce my mother has quietly and unceremoniously dropped mashed potatoes from the menu. Meanwhile I have kept my ex-husband’s last name because I couldn’t bear to confuse the world by sliding the letter ‘t’ back in. So basically I’ve had my maiden name all along, just with a typo.

Apparently the pilgrims at the first Thanksgiving weren’t even called pilgrims back then. They were the Plymouth Colonists further categorized as either Saints (Separatists), Strangers or Crew Members. The term ‘pilgrim’ was only applied about 200 years later when someone resurrected a document from William Bradford, the first Governor of Plymouth. As he described those on the Mayflower he said, “they knew they were pilgrims” in reference to a Bible passage that reads, “…they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For they that say such things declare plainly that they seek a country.” Whether you call them separatists or pilgrims, these early Americans went through a hell of a lot in the name of freedom. After all, freedom was the name of the game for this new country they were putting on the map.

Of course a lot has changed since the first Thanksgiving with the pilgrims. A lot has changed since my first Thanksgiving with my ex-husband. New lines have been drawn. Friends and foes have swapped sides. Freedom has a whole new ring to it. But one thing that holds steady? Traditions. Traditions keep us from getting lost in all the name changes. Keep us from erasing our history as a new empire takes control.

So with that in mind I have to get back to my tradition of over-packing. Here’s hoping for a safe pilgrimage to Montana, a warm welcome when I get there, and extra marshmallows on the sweet potatoes.

Happy Thanksgiving.


Courtney White said...

I so look forward to your posts! What an amazing talent you are...please write a book!!! xoxo and happy thanksgiving to you and the fam - court

Ernie said...

Odd; I have a sudden craving for poultry and "They Might Be Giants".

Tim E. said...

Funny, I was thinking about 'They Might Be Giants' and wondering if I could get away with cooking a turkey dinner "just because".

Sasha said...

Oh yeah, i got this beautiful song of the Giants stucking in my head now...
and Istanbul is such a gorgeous city.. you all should get there once!

Christine said...

thanks for all the great comments!

sorry to get that song stuck in everybody's head. but at least you guys have the They Must Be Giants version going... sadly I have the goofy 1953 original by The Four Lads on my itunes. thought it appropriate to download for background music when writing the post

tim e -- it's always ok to have turkey dinner!!

sasha -- totally agree. instanbul (not constantinople) is a gorgeous city

thanks again yall...C

suchsimplepleasures said... i have that song by they might be giants...floating through my was con.stan.tin.ople. now is.tan.bul.was constantinople...oh, so not happy right now...

Getty72 said...

OMG! You have been to Istanbul? What a small! I have been about 6 or 7 times this year. Staying in Taksim Square, whilst on business trips with my work. It is such a truly magical city and the people are generally very friendly. Unfortunately, due to working through each day, I didn't get much opportunity to do much of the tourist trail, but loved the food (now, there's a!) and loved the atmosphere.