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New Europe

Day Forty: Istanbul

Michael Palin - New EuropeI'm in for another surprise in the evening as we visit one of Istanbul's old taverns, known as meyhanes. They are unpretentious neighbourhood places serving an uncomplicated fare of meze, raki and live music. The oldest meyhani in town is the Madame Despina Meyhanesi, which has been in business for 160 years. Its big bear of an owner welcomes us to what he says is 'the oldest entertainment culture in Turkey', beloved of artists, intellectuals and craftsmen. I read somewhere that they were all-male establishments, but that doesn't seem to be the case tonight, and I fall into conversation with a voluble Turkish woman who warns me against jumping to easy conclusions about her country. Istanbul is not all of Turkey, she says, and what Istanbul thinks is not the same as what the sixty million in the rest of the country think.

As far as membership of a wider Europe goes, she believes the question is not how much the EU needs Turkey, but how much Turkey needs the EU. Her agricultural system would almost certainly not survive the European competition.

She urges me to go east and see what people think there.

I'm halfway through a plateful of kidney beans, ratatouille, red peppers, beetroot and a glass of the aniseed-flavoured raki when an attractive woman with long earrings and dark hair pulled back introduces herself and sits down beside me. My hopes rise briefly, only to be dashed by the arrival of the house band, a daunting quartet of violin, drums, screechy oboe and a magnificent multi-stringed zither, which clusters around her as she serenades me with a heartstring-tugging number.

She's called Sevval, she sings in ten languages, and has an English boyfriend called Rupert whom she met on a beach. Her songs are part of an old tradition of classical Turkish music peculiar to the meyhani.

'Turkish people really love to be sad, you know. The songs make an imitation sadness.' The name meyhani is, says Sevval, a combination of two Turkish words, mey meaning drink and hani meaning house.

'And you start to drink raki and listen to this kind of music and you start to open your heart and cure your soul.'

'Rather than wine or beer?'

'Oh yes,' she assures me, 'because with this drink, you are going to wake up better tomorrow.'

With this Holy Grail of all drinkers in mind, I have my glass filled and wait to have my heart unlocked, and my soul cured.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Forty: Istanbul
  • Country/sea: Turkey
  • Place: Istanbul
  • Book page no: 102

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