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Cobblestone & Door

NOT ISTANBUL

Prompt :– A White Lie    Genre :- Sultry (?)     Word count :– 2500

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NOT ISTANBUL                      by Annalie Kleinloog

 

“Your turn, Ali.”

Dan’s light touch brings me back to reality with a jolt. I gasp. Good wine turns bad. I cough and splutter. Grateful for the excuse to fetch a glass of water and to gather myself and to remember what my turn is about?

“You OK?” he peeps around the kitchen door. Gorgeous, loving and besotted, Dan.

“Fine.” I smile and wave him back betwixt hoarse breaths.

I can hear the cheerful nattering continue outside. Our group of friends’ typical Sunday pastime – lunch on the open verandah, chilled wine especially with this balmy afternoon breeze, and a topic of interest that sometimes pushes boundaries.

Earlier talk around the table, inevitably steered towards travel and favourite places. Everyone has a story to tell. I leaned back in my chair and into Dan’s protective arm, absorbed in their stories. Laughing when necessary and drifting off dreamily. It must have been the balminess that reminded me so much of that time in Istanbul. Before I met Dan.

It was just before Jane was getting married and it was to be our last girly holiday together. As always, when we travelled, it was an explosion of senses. Cultural, historical and gastronomical. Jane and I didn’t miss a mosque or a museum or an authentic experience. Istanbul was so much more, but it was that humid afternoon in a typical steamy Hammam that interfered with my focus at present.

“The oldest and most reasonable hotel, in the old town,” Jane emphasised the last bit as I queried the weird name she gave to the Taxi driver.   “It’s near the Grand Bazaar and walking distance to the Topkapi Palace and Hagia Sophia” she added, but I knew she always did her research well. I smiled in appreciation. “Cobblestone streets around the shopping areas, good exercise”, she continued the animated itinerary, “then we can drop the bags off before heading to the Bospherous to just chill on a ferry”.

“What about a bit of authentic?” I curbed her fast-forward babbling. “I heard a Turkish Bath is quite different.”

“But we can bath in the hotel, Ali! And I am clean anyway, aren’t you?” She quipped, unenthusiastically. She also understood the secret of amiable traveling. So, we agreed on an authentic Turkish Bath experience by the time we arrived. The historical hotel’s ancient concierge obliged while the aged clerk sorted out the antique keys to our medieval chamber.

“Ahh Ma’am, the original Hammam of all time and in all of Turkey is just around the corner. And there is but one person that can arrange that for you. And that is ME.”

The white gloved, big-grinned concierge puffed his buttoned chest in response to our enquiry and then paused to create the necessary impact of his importance. With us now open-mouthed and big-eyed, he continued to explain: “Yes, this is the ONE Hammam that was used by Sultans. Persian rulers traveled months to see it. Tsars would risk storms, not to miss this.” He swallowed a smoky cough, folded his busy hands behind his back and peered at us from underneath bushy eyebrows.

A dramatic silence crept past. “And important people through the ages from ALL over the world came to have this ONE experience. You see? Ya, only important people like you can go there.”  He ended with a deep bow. We smiled in acceptance of the over-obvious compliment and nodded as was expected, but the look we shared was loaded with suppressed humour.

“I will make reservation now, yes?” Some serious phoning and negotiating accompanied by unfamiliar gesticulating finally resulted in The Bath being secured.  “Please meet here in foyer exactly five o’clock, Ma’am”.   Five o’clock brought us face-to- face with a visibly excited concierge and his on-the-other-side-of-the-phone-friend; the chauffeur of an ominous black car.

As it was late afternoon and a Sunday, there was an eerie stillness around the winding and obscure route we followed. “Like a kidnap scene in a thriller …” Jane mumbled. And glared at me. “You and the authentic thing!” I shrugged the accusation away with a sigh of anticipation. The car’s black polished nose pushed through a gap in an ancient wall. “Wall of Constantinople”, the uniformed and oily-haired driver said. We nodded and pretended to stare in awe. Then we were swallowed by a narrow street on the other side of the gap. Dark alleys combed off to both sides. The driver slowed down, partly to negotiate the uneven width of the road and partly because of visibility. At this snail’s pace I sensed Jane’s impatience and her irritation with my excitement.

“Nobody would know where to find us”, she whispered urgently. And I too noticed that buildings were closer and side streets fewer. In the last rays of the day I could make out a huge door, totally covered by ornate shields, weird patterns and ancient frescoes. Nowhere else to go, this door also indicated the end of the road.

“See where your exploring got us? In the heart of the mafia part of the city … you know these Turks can be cruel and…” Jane swallowed as she was interrupted by a commotion outside. Our doors opened and curious, but friendly faces helped us out. The wave of wigwagging hands and faces carried us through the ancient door. I could just make out Jane’s nervous giggle.

We were led into a cavernous space. Unexpected big and open, but filled with foreign, mesmerising music and chanting in the background. Filled with old smells mixed with clean ones; confusing our chemically conditioned olfactory pathways. Filled with dark spaces; blindingly interspersed with splashes of brightness.

The moment I stepped into the space my thought processes and analytical responses were numbed by the incense, or the dim light, or the strangeness, or all of it.  Different levels in the ancient marble floor made me stumble, my reactions were busy somewhere else.

Jane bumped into me and cursed softly.

Then we came to an abrupt halt in a dimly lit change room. Hushed, but hasty sign language indicated a suspiciously small bundle of clothing. Two bundles with two pieces for each of us. Our hosts disappeared for a moment. As we changed into the scant outfits; the purpose of which still escapes my logic as I was soon to discover that the ‘bath’ had no need for any kind of covering; I could hear the rolling of a foreign tongue giving instructions on the other side of our door. Followed by the friendly hands and faces reappearing to lead us into a different passage. Squeaky and warm wood under our bare feet now. Smooth marble under my naked palms as I tried to stabilise myself against the walls. Muted voices drowned by sounds of what…water? Pattering – feet or hands?

The clean smell of soap became more distinct. So did the sound of water; and then the pattering of, yes, hands. I glanced over my shoulder, caught a glimpse of Jane’s worried expression while passing an old-world wall torch, the only flickering sign of light, and felt a tingle of expectation down my spine.

“Jane,” I motioned and she eagerly caught up with me. “Imagine, to go where the ancients went – to experience what the gods invented. You do know that to explore is to live?” She managed a quivering smile and I giggled.

Steam bubbled from all available gaps as our chaperone opened a door quietly. I could make out the dull sound of a gong; indicating the end of the preceding session. From our side of the door I could just make out the glistening bodies moving to the opposite side of the room.

“Wait here” I translated from the gesture, and knew it wasn’t the steam when I heard Jane breathe hard behind me. Noiseless, our chaperone materialised again from the mist. He guided us into a round room with side passages. Following his wordless instructions, we stretched out on the central marble slab, surprised by its warmth. Jane curled up in protective stance, face-down and foetal. But I found myself in sacrificial position, face up, DaVinci-man, not to miss anything. My view filled with the marble dome adorned with ancient windows; most probably to let the sun in to warm up the slabs. I stretched and waited for the next step in this adventure.

More guests arrived. The round slab filled up with bodies. I realised then that it was Bath night for women. “See?” I said to Jane, “we are not alone.” Secure in the presence of others, she succumbed to the experience. I could tell by her sigh and then turning on her back. And we both observed the ritual starting to whirl around us. Lean, loin-clothed masseurs fell into a rhythmic movement – alternating between filling buckets from hidden taps on the far sides of the room and swooshing the contents over the central marble slab where we reclined.

Group chatter slowly drowned in the symphony created by the hissing of cotton soap-bags filled under ancient taps, accompanied by the pattering of hands. Swirling and twirling; the macabre dance between human, bag and foam was slow enough to be mesmerising, but fast enough to create a luscious lather. The dancers’ shared gestures and expressions indicated the onset of the ‘bath’.

Anticipation was rewarded with the masseur’s firm hands positioning me face-down on the communal slab. He took in his place next to me with his trophy of a foam factory tugged into a loincloth of sort. The only garment of sort on these young men. There was no time to muse over fashion. The first layer of foam was applied as part of a twirling dance movement. I felt the silky flow of the foam over ticklish places. Goosebumps crawled in all directions.

Alternating his foam-dance and lather-layering, the young, but experienced masseur morphed my body into anonymity with the rest of the foam covered group. After an eternity of foam packing, the foam-ritual came to an end.

The sudden stillness enhanced the general hypnotic state as I battled to lift my head, curious. Was the haziness from the group’s heavy breathing or the warm water and foam on cool marble? The calm before the stormy massage phase?

Before reason could take over, strong hands found my back through the layers of foam. Initial surprise caused me to gulp. The masseur took it as a sign of pleasure and proceeded with added vigour making sure not a single fibre of muscle was missed by his probing fingers.

Smooth, rhythmic movements relaxed tense bodies on hard tables. Weariness foamed down the marble slab, onto the marble floor, flowed away into marble canals to join troubles of others across the ages.

“We are unique in our sameness…” I heard Jane groan next to me.

Too soon, the wordless request to turn over was gestured. Barely aware of being human, I obliged. Stretched out, with eyes closed, legs slightly spread and arms floppy with palms facing up, I refused to take control of my senses. Brief irritation with the nervous giggles from around me was replaced by blissful surrender as the foam-dance continued to enchant, albeit from the more sensitive anterior perspective.

Some distant concern about my nakedness and my masseur’s maleness dissipated with the confident manner in his approach. Starting with my left foot and leg, with ever-widening circles he rippled across western restrictions. Anatomical definitions blurred into oblivion as I let myself spin, mesmerised and paralysed.

Slick movements of almost touch – too fast to be grasped – too obscure to be noticed – too subtle to differentiate – too confident to judge. From afar I listened to the heavy breathing and I felt the rhythmic power as he followed this ancient routine. All obtuseness cleared with the sudden conclusion of the ‘bath’. The rhythmic movement stopped abruptly and the atmosphere uncharged in seconds. There was a communal sigh. Everyone on the slab looked flushed. Seated, we received ancient carafes from our individual masseurs. It was filled with cool and clean water. Understanding their gestures, we poured the contents over our foam-covered bodies and stifled gasps as the cold unite us in reality again.

Shiny, clean and naked – several hands reached for stacked towels. Wrapped in dry security, we completed the cycle as we returned to our individual change rooms, to be met by our modern, recently shed attires. Numbed senses, but enhanced awareness. An experience banked in memory. Till today.

I clear my throat again and sip the last bit of water before returning to the pleasant hum around the table outside. Wiping my eyes as I sit down, I smile back at the sympathetic stares. It happens. Dan leans over and kisses my cheek.

“Your turn?” he says and all eyes now focus on me. My turn.

I smile, cough again and start my story about my favourite place.

“You all know that city-travel is not my thing. I prefer the wide open spaces with no interference from civilisation. Rather interaction with locals in rural areas than shopping in malls.” I see some rolling their eyes, they know me. “Give me the smells and sounds of earth in its rawest from.” Appreciative nods around the table.

“But there is ONE city that vibrates with a life of its own. And somehow hums with my vibe too.” Curious glances and knowing smiles. “ The only city I am capable of revisiting over and over again.” Now I see a few leaning forward for more. I smile. “That place where memories created by senses will always haunt me and find my; as if it happened yesterday.”

The daydream fresh in my mind, I once again whirl with the dervishes in concert on the cobbled streets. Where the ice cream sellers played their tricks on me with their bells and little trolleys. I remember the flavours of the food court vendor’s shawarma and his sizzling kebabs. Overflowing grand bazaar, colours, people and exotic items mingle with the constant supply of apple tea and I can feel the glow of the sunset on the waters of the Bospheros.

Suddenly Dan’s face comes into focus and I realise the glow must show. His eyes warm with his own memories. And I realise his anticipation. The reality hit me. I give a little cough, choking experience still an excuse, and continue.

“London” I hear my voice. Strong and convincing. I look at Dan. He beams.

“My favourite place is London.” I pause for effect and to squeeze Dan’s hand on my thigh. “Because that is where I met Dan.”

Whoops and jeers from around the table. And the gentle tuck on my arm, pulling me closer. A whisper in my ear. Enough excuse to make me blush truthfully. Yes, he is gorgeous. And I do love him so.

So what if I have to sacrifice Istanbul? Jane will understand.

Doesn’t Oxford Dictionary define a white lie as a harmless or trivial lie, especially one told to avoid hurting someone’s feelings?

 

THE END

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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It was long ago. Michele was blonde and I was mouse.

She still is blonde, but I am now silver. Her blondeness taught me then about social-cultural tolerance. Our South Africanness highlighted the worldwide ignorance regarding Africa and color, which I now appreciate in golden memories.

 

Umbria is a province in the middle of Italy, off the trodden track. But it was the unknown on the brochure that caught our attention and lured us into our first hike in Europe.

Footloose and carefree, it promised.

 

The train weaved down the peninsula from Florence towards the Appenine Mountains where Calvin, our English-speaking guide, met us at Foligno station. On the verandah of Beneditti he explained the unfamiliar term of slackpacking; apologized for the outdated war maps and exchanged phone numbers in case we got lost en route. No, there were no others on this excursion; we were too early for the European hiking season. Michele and I were the group.

 

Selfie in the Appenines with Poppies

Selfie in the Appenines with Poppies

 

Early the next morning a taxi waited to take us to Pettino. Calvin waved us a last “Read the instructions carefully”. We thanked the driver in the one-horse village, more a sheep-still-asleep one, shaded by oak forests. At the dusty crossroads, we consulted the copied notes: From Pettino find the way to Spina Vecchia. We took the only road in the opposite direction to the disappearing taxi. There was a reassuring rusted signpost with a barely visible cursive S.Vech.

 

The motionless air carried no sounds. The world slumbered. We breathed the musky truffle air from the oak forest till we met the sun where it peeped over open wheat fields. Speckles of red poppies in the gold and indigo patches on the cross-valley hills pulled our focus away from the maps. There was an indescribable sense of place. It was as if we were the only wanderers (which we seemed to be), ever to walk this piece of earth.

 

It took a while before the euphoria was replaced by a tinge of concern. We could not find the rusted wire gate or for that matter the old well with a hole in the bucket (dear Liza?). Instead there were fields with sheep, an old man herding them and a sleepy hollow to our left. Somewhere in our entranced state, I skipped a line on the instructions. We needed a phone to contact Calvin.

 

The herder followed us after his unsuccessful attempt to understand our map or us – instead he muttered something about ‘senoritas’ and ‘vino rosso or vino blanco’. At breakfast? I then realized the power of blonde; our illiterate countryside farmer had never seen a bunny like Michele, ever. The awe in his eyes was indescribable and his immediate infatuation overpowered all his logic. I giggled; Michele cringed.

 

A young mother was hanging nappies on a line as we approached her. She dried her hands on an apron and smiled at our expanded group. Mama Maria from Fonni came to our rescue. She understood sign language for telephone. ‘You want shortest route to Cerreto?’ The old Roman road was visible at the tip of her finger; at the bottom of the valley, a direct but challenging descent. This was fortunate, as it proved too difficult for our aged pursuer after he insisted on ‘showing us the way’.

Stone walls and rivers

Stone walls and rivers

 

 

Encouraged by Michele’s endless enthusiasm, I ignored the dull ache in my toes as we followed the off-the-map cobbled path. I let out a loud sigh when the village appeared further down the valley. Elated spirits soon succumbed to pain when we realized that the Panorama Hotel was exactly that. Panoramic. Our destined accommodation was perched on the top of the highest hill of the town. We were entering Cerreto at river level.

 

“You can take your boots off at the first pub we find, and we can have an ice cold beer. We deserve it,” said Michelle. After a day lost in the rural mountains I was too tired to argue, let alone debate the point that neither of us drank beer. The pub sign was visible even before we had a view of the street. Guessing by the blare from that direction, there was obviously a national soccer match on the go. The noise contradicted the emptiness of the main street winding up the hill.

 

Bopping ponytail and Roman paths

Bopping ponytail and Roman paths

 

Approaching the door for the promised resurrection, we both immediately understood the futility of the reward as all the men from the village were gathered around the TV. Our attempted casual, but quick stroll past the only pub didn’t go unnoticed. Judging by their exclamations, the few bystanders on the periphery of the soccer flock had just scored winning goals. The all-male crowd turned in unison towards the cause of the jubilations. My scowl was not noticed as the mass gawked at my fair friend, who suddenly had more haste in completing the final stretch.

 

The Hotel Panorama staff were relieved to welcome us; but were concerned about our late arrival and worried about the boots over my shoulder. The only way I could get up the last part of the hill was barefoot. After the abandoned beer stop, my blisters protested beyond reason. Yet strangely, the cobbles were kinder to my feet than the hard-toe hiking boots. And blonde ruled over blue – Michele’s bobbing ponytail accelerating the escape, but at the cost of my loosening toenails.

 

Slackpacking had benefits. Our real luggage was waiting in our rooms while our daypacks now soaked with the day’s fun (and sometimes run) lay in the sun. Then a hot healing shower, feet nursed, attired afresh and the best Italian cuisine – a trusted remedy for any traveler – followed by a soft sleep on crisp linen. The following day we were scheduled to enjoy a non-hiking day in Norcia, a neighboring small town. Blissful browsing and resting sore limbs and battle worn feet, this was the pattern of our trip for the next week. Early start and early arrival, browse around the town and a rest day before beginning again.

 

Criss-crossing valleys and rivers

Criss-crossing valleys and rivers

 

Crossing the Appenines of unknown Umbria in a group of two proved to be one of my most memorable travels. Often we walked through medieval town squares where we soon learned to cover our stringy topped shoulders and hiking-shorts knees during this passage; where elders (always men) judged us with watery glares.

 

We learned that siesta was a given along the Mediterranean so there were no open shops or shopkeepers to be seen during midday. That made us grateful for the ‘Mama’ at every overnight stop. She (all of them) packed a part-of-the-package picnic consisting of fresh bread, cheese, chorizo and a bottle of water and a touch of health (fruit) and the inevitable left over wine, (previous dinner’s unfinished extra large carafe of house wine). As we travelled we chose our lunch spots by view and proximity to destination. Where we would relax, secure in the knowledge that our next haven waited around the corner.

 

Idyllic, almost sacred days

Idyllic, almost sacred days

 

We crossed rivers (mostly Rio Nera), passed trout farms and bathed in drinking troughs. We sang, we danced and we explored. Chained and locked chapel doors did not stop us from taking pictures through broken windows so that we could see what it was they were hiding. The painted ceilings were intact, but the frescoes on the walls were disintegrating. Pictures of a harsh religion were recognizable, depicting punishment in paradoxical subtle colors.

 

Stone Arches

Stone Arches

 

Idyllic days followed nights of culinary wonder; consisting of herb and spice infusions with strange names, smells and tastes. Between towns we had the valleys and mountains to ourselves; infrequently a pair of cyclists would pass us. Unused railway tunnels became changing rooms and Roman aqueducts lined the horizon. Olive groves replaced fields of gold and we strolled through vineyards into rural villages with terracotta-lined balconies. The signposts and the maps started synchronizing and the days had their own rhythm. Our bodies followed.

 

 

It was during one of our peaceful lunches next to a district road that we discovered the general ignorance about South Africa. We heard the music before we saw the line of dust from the approaching truck packed with produce for the market. We watched the young farmers with amusement as they sped past and suddenly changed their minds. There was a whirlwind of confused dust particles as they reversed to stop at our picnic spot. Surprised at their forwardness we made ready to leave.

 

Their friendly open faces permitted for broken conversation loosely translated as: “Where are you from?” “We are from South Africa – Afrique du Sud? Mandela? Bafana Bafana?” Ah, the last reference hit the jackpot. They beamed with recognition. Then frowned with confusion. Impossible sounds the same in almost any language. Michele was the chosen. The older of the two prodded her arm with his earthy forefinger: “No noir? Blanco??” Well, those were the only words we could make out from the duet of objections. We were leaving; not prepared to have a political discussion and explain our heritage in two word sentences. Once safely surrounded by vines, we turned around to see we were being forgiven through a million kisses blown to heaven.

 

Walking through small towns, avoiding square with elders

Walking through small towns, avoiding square with elders

 

Our hiking trip ended and all too soon we were heading to Venice for a refined send off. Betwixt trains and platforms my occupation was watching people go by (sounds like a song?). Michele, in colorful contrast to most of the Mamas on the platform, unawares drew many admiring glances. The blondeness of our trip culminated in the blatant stare of a seemingly distinguished gentleman.

 

Obviously, I decided, he was on a boring business trip and he was looking for distraction – my mother superior alter ego echoed. But not with my friend – my protective loyalty gauge kicked in. Maybe all three emotions overlaid themselves across my expression or my stance, because the gentleman suddenly engaged in my glare. As he hastened towards me I prepared my reprimand – you cannot undress a woman in public, not even only with your eyes…

 

“Senora” – he bowed. I melted slightly. “I am obliged to apologize for my seemingly upsetting behavior.” I approved with a nod. “In my culture it is the finest compliment to savor the appearance of an elegant woman, especially in public. We are a passionate people and we love beauty.” How could I argue with a plea as fervent and honest as that? “I salute you and your friend. You have graced this dreary platform with your presence and….. ” I failed to register the rest of the sentence as he kissed my hand in farewell. I saw Michele gulp and giggle as she observed us from a bookstall.

 

Finally seated on the train to Venice, she would not believe me that I had been protecting her. I surrendered to the teasing. Soon she would forget about it when the Guggenheim and other museums filled her artistic senses.

 

Statues and Museums provided a different entertainment

Statues and Museums provided a different entertainment

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