A musician usually has to have the stature of a Johnny Cash or a criminal in order to be able to play guitar and sing in a prison. Thanks to Vanessa and her guidebooks, I found myself with the opportunity to confront our Western preconceptions about Istanbul face on while performing some of my favorite songs in a prison in the country of Midnight Express.
While I was out at the race track working yesterday, Vanessa made her way around town with the help of a couple of guide books and the advice of the many people she met on the way. One of these people was a salesperson who recommended to her a restaurant in the Galatasary Tower area.
The restaurant, Vanessa was told, was not to be missed. Run by a Georgian couple, it was called Galata House, and it specialized in Georgian food. The couple consisted of Mete Goktug, an architect, and his wife Nadire, who we would discover not long after entering the restaurant, was a musician who played piano and sang. Throughout the first part of the meal we had as background music, her CD of popular and traditional music, with her on piano and singing. She often plays the piano live at the restaurant, but has been suffering a little tennis elbow of late and so did not play live last night.
We were warmly greeted at the front door of the building, and directed in to find an unusual series of rooms, the details of which I will get to in a moment. First, I would like to jump ahead to the food to say that it was indeed a fabulous experience, as we ordered the unique meal of Georgian and Tatar dishes. For the appetizer we took a mixed dish consisting of samples of several of the appetizers – chicken in yoghurt sauce, beans in another sauce, beets in another sauce, rice wrapped in leaves and marinated, and a slightly spicey walnut spread.
Vanessa took a veal stew with stewed potatoes and rice, while I was tempted for the first time in a while to not go with an entirely meat dish, and I ordered a pasta dish – although there was meat in the pasta. The woman said that it was her mother’s recipe, and that it was Tatar. Vanessa tasted one of my pieces of ravioli pasta – which looked like tortellini – and remarked accurately that it did not taste like Italian past.
“For once a pasta that does not taste like Italian pasta,” she said.
I agreed and said it tasted more like dumplings. It had some kind of light cream sauce in the middle of it that I chose not to mix up with the pasta but to dip the pieces into the cream.
We ate the whole with a Georgian wine that was not bad at all, and was the first time I have had Georgian wine.
For desert I had the biggest discovery of all: A chocolate cake with a meringue top to it. In fact, three quarters of the top of the cake was made of this fluffy white meringue with a little chocolate sauce on top of it. The chocolate part of the cake was also light and fluffy. All my life I have eaten Lemon meringue tarts primarily in order to have the meringue. But I love chocolate more than any other sweet, and this combination of fluffy white meringue with the light and rich chocolate cake was absolutely stupendous!
At the beginning of the meal, even before we began eating, Mete had asked us about our music. He was intrigued by Vanessa’s Portuguese roots and invited us to sing if we wanted to. We were both feeling a little shy about that, since there were not many people in the restaurant and it was not an open mic or jam situation, so it would mean that playing and singing would assume a certain amount of pretension to quality.
But throughout the meal as I listened to the music of Nadire, and later some classical music, I was bubbling and boiling and hot to sing in this restaurant. And that takes us back to the interesting physical aspect of the building that I mentioned. We had entered the front door and glanced to the left and thought at first that the restaurant was in the room to the left, which looked like someone’s living room, and indeed, I think it was the owners’ living room.
That we found boring, but we had looked beyond and down the hall to an exterior courtyard with a table, and we had wanted to eat there. But Nadire had told us we could eat outside on the terrace on the first floor. So we went up the stairs to find two more interior rooms, one in the front of the building overlooking the street, and the other in the back and with a piano, the stereo and photos of Nadire as a child and young woman sitting at the piano. The whole thing was very homey, but classy and restaurant-like as well.
Then we looked out in the back to see the horse-shoe shaped terrace that overlooked the courtyard. It had four or five tables on a narrow walkway around the courtyard, and the whole was surrounded by either dark brown brick walls or the wall of the building itself.
The windows everywhere on the building, I noticed, were covered with iron bars. I soon learned from Vanessa and the menu that the building, in fact, was built as a British prison, and served as such from 1904 to 1919. The Goktugs had bought it in 1999, at which time they made the restaurant out of it.
So it was that we ate our meal overlooking the building and the courtyard, where I could see and imagine the prisoners out for their daily exercise. The whole thing was frightfully small when you think about the amount of time prisoners must have had to spend living there, and there were some very strong feelings of the ghosts of the past.
Overlooking the courtyard I imagined myself playing my guitar and singing, either on the terrace into the courtyard and to the other table of guests, or down in the courtyard itself.
We finished the meal and began to leave, paying the bill and talking a little at the end to Nadire and Mete. Nadire said, “Maybe next time you come you can play your music.”
That was it, my queue. I could not let drop an opportunity to do a concert in a prison in Istanbul. I was shy, all right, and Vanessa said she did not want to join me singing. But the opportunity was just too great for me to miss. So I swallowed my fear, and said, “I could do a song right now. Would that be okay?”
So we went into the courtyard – where I saw that the cook was in a kitchen in a back room – and I pulled my guitar out of its bag and tuned it by ear, not wanting to waste time with the tuner. Mete offered me a chair, but I said I could stand. My feeling was that I would be most comfortable singing “Crazy Love,” and singing it to Vanessa with her in mind.
So I started with that. I received some compliments from Mete, and I began to put the guitar down. But I still had one regret, and that was that I had not recorded me singing the song in the prison. So as we spoke, and Mete told me they had had concerts in the restaurant and had done a lot to create festivals in Istanbul to help make it more culturally popular and vibrant – which worked, as I pointed out that Bob Dylan was playing the day I left, that Eric Clapton was playing the following month, that John McLaughlin had played in Nardi’s jazz club around the corner from the prison a few weeks earlier – and all the while I thought about how I should perhaps force another song on them and get Vanessa to record it. So this, eventually, is what I did.
We had spoken about “Just Like A Woman” over dinner, as we both agreed that some people might associate the women with the prison. So that is what I decided to do. Part of the song I sang in front of the barred windows of the main building, another part in front of what looked like a prison cell door. Occasionally you can hear Vanessa singing, as she held the camera and filmed, and occasionally you can also hear the classical music playing in the background. A true Istanbul mélange. And a great Istanbul experience in both food, environment and music – like none I’ve had before.