With the return of the ABC series “Pan Am” on Sunday, I recalled my visit to Istanbul in my stewardess days.
Istanbul was a city steeped in mystery. Historically it was known as Byzantium and Constantinople and had been the capital of the Roman, Byzantium, Latin and Ottoman Empires.
Visiting it with my mother on our way around the world from Hong Kong was going to be a real treat—especially to see the handsome faces of the men. The women had dark features and their own beauty, but it was a city and nation represented by virility. A testosterone capital.
Istanbul was located on the Bosphorus Strait and encompassed the natural harbor, the Golden Horn. It extended to European and Asian sides of the Bosphorus and was the only metropolis situated on two continents.
Mother and I stayed in the Hilton, which was a surprise as far as comfort, and not far from the Crazy Horse, a nightclub known for its exotic dancers. Here they were belly dancers. There were Crazy Horse Saloons in Beirut and the original was in Paris.
In 1954, Conrad Hilton chose Istanbul as the first city outside of the U.S. to build his hotel franchise. By 1966, the Istanbul Hilton was thriving. Close to Taksim Square and not far from the Golden Horn it was a good choice for a mother/daughter combo in need of assistance in navigating the intrigue of the Turkish culture. The Hilton was a Turkish delight.
After mother and I had flown through the night, at 9 a.m. we arrived, napped and then dressed.
“Let’s go to Taksim Square,” I said to her.
“What’s that?” she asked.
“We’ll find out,” I said as I laced my sneakers.
The concierge and staff were respectful to my mother and to me, unlike in Tokyo, where the employees of the Imperial Hotel smiled and were gracious to our faces, but when we walked away and I looked over my shoulder, I caught them ridiculing my mother who had been a farmer.
After strolling through the magnificent lobby, I realized why this hotel deserved its first five-star rating and was the first hotel in Istanbul to achieve this.
A storm was brewing and it was 4 p.m. We walked in the direction the concierge had indicated and were amazed at the chaos and traffic in the streets. Shops lined Istiklal Caddesi, the Avenue that led us to Taksim Square, and of course, there was a McDonald’s, as they were everywhere. It was crowded.
“Want a Big Mac?” I asked mother.
“Carole, I haven’t traveled half way around the world for a Big Mac. Let’s have something Turkish.”
“OK, “I said. “How’s this bistro?” We had come upon a charming restaurant.
“Looks interesting,” Mom said. She opened the door as a handsome Turkish man held it for her. His demeanor was friendly, but I cautioned mother after he asked if he could sit with us. Mother was gullible; I was less so. Still, he was charming and seemed innocent. After realizing this was an opportunity to find out about this city, I said, “Sure, if you don’t mind being quizzed about Istanbul.”
“What do you ladies want to know?”
“We have to leave tomorrow. Is there anything we could see tonight?”
“What time is it now?” He looked down at this watch. “5 p.m. You should go to the Galata Tower before prayer time. That’s 6 p.m. Hearing the evening call to prayer come at you from all sides while you’re overlooking the city and the Golden Horn is truly a beautiful moment. To see the sunset and all the lights of the city come on at night is amazing. You see the old part of Istanbul, the new part and the Bosphorus.”
“But we haven’t even ordered. I’m too hungry to hurry.”
“Carole, it does sound wonderful.”
“Mom, I’m really tired of rushing from one tourist site to the next. I just want to eat a nice meal and hear about Istanbul. I’m Carole, “I said to our handsome stranger as I extended my hand.
“Have you just finished working?”
“I’m a student. Architecture.”
“Where?” I asked taking in his jeans and loose navy T-shirt.
“Where else?” I said looking into his dark brown eyes. His brows were bushy and long as was his shoulder length hair. He spoke in a soft voice with a British accent. He was adorable.
“And what brings you both to Istanbul?”
“I’m a stewardess for Pan Am and I’ve invited my mother around the world. We’re on a date,” I said with a smile.
“My, what a good daughter you are,” he said, signaling the waiter to take our order.
We ordered mint tea and gazed at the many people in the square as the clouds grew darker. Ali suggested we try the shawarma--shaved lamb on pita served with tabouli, hummus and tahini. It was delicious and sure beat a Big Mac.
“You should visit the Topkapi Palace, the Grand Bazaar and the Blue Mosque, but this will take a full day or two. And you can’t leave Istanbul until you enjoy a Turkish bath.”
“I want to see a belly dancer,” I said, as Ali’s eyes grew wide.
“There’s a Crazy Horse Saloon in the city, and though it sounds risqué, it’s rather tame.”
“It’s near our hotel, I’ve been told.”
“You’re at the Hilton?”
“I could take you both tonight,” Ali said with a grin. “I’d be delighted.”
“But we don’t know you.”
“Why don’t I give you my number and you can call me if you feel up to it.”
“That’s a good idea,” Mom said, as she kicked me under the table.
While we were seated in the bistro, our table was partially on the sidewalk so that we had a good view of the people in Taksim Square. Drops of rain began to fall.
Ali quickly got the check. Thunder was heard in the distance.
“Here’s my number. What’s your last name, if I may ask? It might be more convenient if I could call you around nine.”
“I’m Mrs. Wagner,” mother said. Until now Ali had not asked her name.
“How do you do, Mrs. Wagner. I’ll call you both at nine.” And with that Ali hailed a taxi for us.
After he made sure we were safely inside, to the driver he said: “Take them to the Hilton.” Such chivalry mother and I had not experienced on our trip around the world, but when the phone rang at nine, Mom said, “Don’t answer it.”
I knew her puritanical Pennsylvania Deutsch caution was the right call. Exhausted, we were grateful to crawl under our clean sheets at the Hilton and dream of our next city on our trip around the world.
It would be Vienna. The next morning.