The winter returned this past week. It’s a measure of the size of the city that some parts reported snow, while others, including our neighborhood on the Asian side, did not. Still, it was miserable. After weeks of sunshine and warmth, and the long walks we were able to take with Leo, the return of the cold weather was rather hard to take, especially since like everybody we already spend too much time indoors.
The return of winter got me thinking about other winters. I thought about my first winter in Prague. It was called “the Russian winter” by the Czechs that year, with Siberian winds blasting the whole of central and eastern Europe. It was so cold that he penguins at the Prague Zoo were brought inside to keep them warm, which I thought rather strange. They were penguins, after all.
“Well, they are not real penguins, they’re Czech penguins,” a student remarked. Ah, Czech humor.
On a more serious note, the city also set up Army tents in Letna Park for the homeless, as temperatures dropped well into the minus. It was not a good time for anybody to be outside.
The winter was long, the snow lasting until late April or early May. Having come from California, where on the coast we mostly saw just rain most winters, it was a particularly long winter for me. I was living in Roztoky, a village just outside Prague. Every morning I’d get up, dress in the few warm clothes I had and, since the buses only ran once every hour, walk the lonely road into the city to catch the metro at Device to the center for my first lesson of the day. It was about a thirty-minute walk, still dark out, the road to the city silent except for the occasional car, the woods on each side of the road heavy and damp with packed snow. I’d walk in the cold, silent dawn feeling very far away from California.
Once in town, I’d rush to the metro station, down the steps to where it was heated, and hurry down the escalator to catch the first metro to Strasnice, a district on the other side of town, for my morning class. The class was at a Swedish cosmetics firm. I’d stand outside the company shivering until my students, Jitka and Marketa arrived. After we went inside, they’d go and get me a hot cup of coffee before the start of the lesson. After the lesson, I’d take the tram to the city center, and walk over to Bohemia Bagel for a good American breakfast of eggs, bacon, hashbrowns and toast. I’d eat breakfast, drink bottomless cups of coffee, then sit and read or write for a couple of hours, stopping now and again to see if it was snowing outside or not. I’d wait for it to clear before heading out.
Walking carefully over the cobblestones, which were slippery and treacherous. I’d teach in the afternoons and sometimes the early evenings as well, where depended on which day of the week. There were lessons at Maersk, the Holland-based shipping company, which had offices in Prague and in Melnik, a town about an hour north of Prague. I taught at both offices, and took a bus to Melnik on Wednesdays.
After work, I’d catch the bus at Dejvice back out to the village. There was a small neighborhood pub called Aj Movka that I usually went in the evening. They served good local beer for 15 crowns (less than a dollar) and the manager cooked a decent goulash served with rohliky, the Czech rolls. Towards the end of each month, when I was low on money, I’d buy canned goulash from the potraviny and rohliky for 1 crown apiece, and spend the evening in my room reading books, the worlds of Kundera, Remarque, Hemingway, Dostoevsky, et al, helping warm the room and make the winter seem faraway.
I always found the writing went well in the winter, when you were more isolated and there was little else to do. In the spring, the great Prague springs that always came, you wanted to be outside, at the beer gardens at Riegrove sady and Letna, sitting at picnic tables under the pleasant trees and sipping pints of cold beer. I remember surviving that long Russian winter, and feeling quite proud of the fact that I’d managed to make it through on my own in a faraway land, and knowing that I could in one way or another, scrape by in the city after that.
The best part of that year was, when the spring finally came, I’d found a room share in Nusle, a neighborhood in the city. I was back in Prague, just in time for spring. All along the Vltava River, the trees were in blossom, the people had returned. Later, in the summer the beer gardens were full every night as everyone gathered to watch the World Cup on big screens. It was a hot, languid summer and the long Russian winter became a thing of the past. I stayed four more years, and fortunately the winters after that first one were very mild.
The first full winter I spent in Istanbul was also not too bad. That was around the time of the global financial crisis, so maybe the fact that I was working, with a steady income and roof over my head, made all other things relative. There were a few snow days, but the climate was more Mediterranean, not unlike Northern Cal. I was used to that kind of winter. Or so I thought. The main thing was that while Turkey is near the Med, and gets some of its mild winters, it is also near the Black Sea, to the north. So it also gets its share of Russian winds from time to time, as I found out later, especially the winter of 2011-12.
But that first winter was not so bad. I was living in Cicekci, a neighborhood on a hilltop overlooking the Bosphorus on the Asian side of the city. There was not much to do in Cicekci, since it is mostly residential, but it’s equadistant between Kadikoy and Uskudar. Some weekends I went to Kadikoy and others I ventured down the hill to Uskudar, depending on the traffic and my mood.
Talk about a tale of two neighborhoods. Kadikoy was colorful, cosmopolitan, with lots of young people, many of them foreign, lots of bars and cool cafes; in contrast, Uskudar was traditional, conservative, with most women wearing headscarves, and there were coffee shops in the shadows of the great mosques.
On cold, rainy Saturday mornings, if I’d chosen Kadikoy, I’d head along busy waterfront over to the Arem Café, nestled on a backstreet near the fish market. They served a modest omelette, and generous cups of hot Turkish tea. Best of all, nobody went there in the mornings, so I had the back section, which was a kind of enclosed terrace, all to myself. I’d bring along a book and notepad, read and write for a while, until the garcon brought the omelette and refreshed the tea. There were always cats who came in from the street and lounged in one of the empty seats, or else sauntered up to the fireplace for a nap. Next to the fireplace stacks of freshly cut wood were arranged neatly, ready for use. For some reason, the sight of the firewood was always reassuring, even more so than the softly crackling fire itself.
Later I’d stick the book I was reading and the notepad into my bag, pay the bill, then go up to Barlar Sokak, or Bar Street, which was only a few minutes’ away. Usually I went to Hera, a bar located in what used to be a large Greek-style summer house. Most of those old places have long-since been sold and broken up into shops, bars and apartments, as Kadikoy was absorbed into the ever-growing city. All the new yalis along the Bosphorus are very expensive and much more extravagant. At Hera, the interior is spacious, also with a fireplace in winter, with the same reassuring stack of firewood. You wonder which room of the house it was when the house itself existed. Maybe it was a bedroom, or perhaps a sitting room, or study. The terrace has comfortable booths and a view of the street. I’d order a few drafts of Tuborg, read and look out at the rain and the people passing in the wet streets.
On other Saturdays, I chose to go to Uskudar. There was only one place that served alcohol, a seedy bar hidden on a narrow street off the main thoroughfare. It was kept of the way from respectable folk, I suppose. I’d found it by accident while wandering the back streets one day. The bar was full of old locals, men who liked to read newspapers and watch the horse racing on a TV that was placed on a wall opposite the bar.
I was the only yabanci who ever went there, and the other patrons ignored me, while the garcon, young local guys, brought small glasses of beer and placed them on the table with scarcely a word, other than “Boyrun,” (here you are). The beer was cheap, and the atmosphere was quiet, so it also was a good place to write because you felt far away, and the odd familiarity of the bar was comforting. You could be left alone, and yet stimulated at the same time.
Later on, in other winters, I found new places to go, and other places to write. After I married and settle down, it was not so easy to just get away like that, disappear for whole mornings and afternoons, and coming home smelling of beer. If one is happily married, and wishes to remain so, one learns that time must be spent together. One time, shortly after we met, I took my wife Ozge to the old seedy place in Uskudar, just to sort of share the places I’d been. We didn’t stay long. “You used to hang out here?” she asked, and as she looked around warily I couldn’t help notice how forlorn, borderline disreputable, the placed was. I’d never really noticed before. But it was hard to explain that in my early Istanbul days, the old bar had been a strange, curious but comforting place to while away a solitary Saturday afternoon, and that it had even given me some good stories. But then again, it is important to change your venue from time to time, and after that I never went to the old bar anymore, figuring it had probably given me what was to be given. The same went for the Arem Café. One day, my wife and I were walking past, and I noticed the café had been demolished. Eventually a bar was built in its place, and I figured, well, that’s it for the Arem too. Then a few months later, my wife and I recognized the owner of the Arem at another location a few blocks away. He saw me too and smiled brightly. “Hos geldiniz!” he said, remembering me. But we just nodded, congratulated him on his new place and walked on.
The return of the winter this past week got me thinking about the other winters, those first ones in Prague and Istanbul, how the winters seemed colder then because I was adapting to a new city, a new culture, a new way of living, and finding my way. This winter, which marked the one-year anniversary of the coronavirus entering our lives, has been quite different. We have a one-year-old son, Leo, and with the restrictions and precautions, there are no weekend sojourns through backstreets, no long days in the bars and cafes. Of course, as my wife would say, “If only you had worse things to worry about!” in her usual wise way.
We took Leo to the park on Thursday. It was the first time the sun had been out for several days. We let Leo use the swing and the slide in the park, while the older kids brushed him aside easily, showing him how it’s really done. Afterward, we let him walk on his own, with Ozge monitoring carefully, down the street to the farmers’ market. The farmers are all decent, modest, hard-working fellows. They know us and when they saw Leo walking on his own, all bundled up, they greeted him kindly and encouragingly. One of the farmers, an older man with a weathered face and white moustache, gave us a cucumber for free, to give to Leo to help him grow. We thanked him, and he put the rest of our produce into the bags. I carried all the shopping we’d done and pushed the stroller down the street, the Bosphorus in the distance, while my wife watched as Leo, his eyes full of pride and wonder, waddled down the street, gazing out at the winter world. He saw me further ahead and pointed, smiling and feeling pretty impressed with himself, while Ozge stood ready behind him should he suddenly fall. We were a family heading home, the sun still shining but more cold weather on the way. The good news is that it’s supposed to warm up a bit at the weekend. We can perhaps go to Kuzguncuk and let Leo walk around in the park. There are always new places to go, and things to write about, no matter the season, no matter the city, no matter the weather.
James Tressler, a former Lost Coast resident, is a writer and teacher.