The first time I’ve been tear-gassed … but worse than that, a smelly man with wayward elbows

I am flying high over north-left Turkey.

We took off about half-an-hour ago and we’re still over land, I’d expected to be over the sea by now. Countries are rarely the size you expect them to be, they’re almost always much bigger.

Istanbul was bigger than I’d expected too.

View of Beyoglu across the Golden Horn
View of Beyoglu across the Golden Horn

Hang on, the pilot has just spelt out the route: Turkey, Bulgaria, Serbia, Slovenia, Italy, France, then Spain.

No self-respecting crow would fly such a circuitous route, but then routes on flat maps always look absurdly circular until you map them to a globe.

This is why ships from Southampton to New York bump into icebergs. On the flat page of an atlas, you’d expect them to be much further south, but the great circle from northern Europe has ships (and now planes) approaching the Big Apple from the north – down the Newfoundland coast. I once flew into New York from behind, we flew down the Hudson with Manhattan on the left. I longed to see a map to understand how this could be, but I was stuck on a plane and not even I am so geeky as to travel with a globe.

I don’t know where I am now, the cloud cover is too thick. I am also sitting over the wing again. I’m not suggesting that the wings be removed to improve my view, I can see that there would be more cons than pros in such a solution, but I do think they should sit us dreamy types, the kind who like to sit and stare out of windows, in that part of the plane with the best view.

On the way over I was sitting in the emergency exit row.

This is a false positive. You think you get more room because the gap is greater to the seat in front, but these seats are more popular and so there is a much greater likelihood of the seat next to you being filled.

The seat next to me was filled.

The man in the seat filled both it (the seat) and the space adjacent to it too (my seat).

He over-spilled out to the sides, more in wayward knees and elbows rather than with sheer bulk, but it was irritating nonetheless. He also extended his presence beyond the physical space he occupied through the medium of odour. I had to keep covering my nose and turning away, staring at the wing out the window.

He couldn’t work the TV control either. His wife kept leaning in and helping him as he huffed and puffed incompetently. He kept plugging his headphones into my socket – I didn’t mind, I wasn’t using it, but he wasn’t going to be able to hear very much. I told him so in Slow English. He understood and smiled. A few minutes later he was back; headphones in my socket. I pretended not to notice, keeping my nose in my book. I knew I would have struggled to have remained on the right side of sarcastic had I had to instruct him again, so I was glad when his wife rode to the rescue*.

She laughed a lot, and slapped and squeezed his leg. She was either hysterically excited or she loved him dearly. That was nice, I thought, perhaps he wasn’t such a bad person after all.

That was no reason to be seated at my side, of course, but maybe I’d try to be nice if the situation grew more social.

Thankfully it didn’t.

We landed without a word.

Turkish Airlines might be Europe’s number one airline (I can believe it)†, but Istanbul Airport is not Europe’s number one airport.

It was like they were startled by the sudden arrival of plane-loads of passengers – like no-one had war-gamed the scenario whereby some people get off the planes and try to claim their baggage.

OK, I should have known I needed a visa, a tad more research would have also revealed that I could have bought it online beforehand‡, but to stand in a slow half-hour queue to pay €15 for a sticker before standing in a second slow half-hour queue to have my passport checked and get the pricey little sticker stamped, is not a welcoming gateway to a great city.

Long slow passport queue at Istanbul airport
Long slow passport queue at Istanbul airport

And it is a great city.

My hotel was is Taksim, in a little enclave of hotels near the square.

The square, one of the few green spaces in all of central Istanbul, was being developed into a shopping centre, and hence was the focus of protests.

After the conference, a fellow speaker and I got a taxi down to the old town, having to skirt the closed off roads to get there. The traffic was terrible, and it wasn’t just my neighbour on the plane that knew how to operate a pair of elbows, the taxi too seemed pretty useful at elbowing its way in and out of traffic.

We didn’t spend long in the centre. We nosed around the Blue Mosque and had a look at the palace but really I wanted to see the Bosphorus and the Sea of Mamara. I love history, and can appreciate beauty, but I’m not always as patient with looking at old buildings as I might be. It was beautiful, but I get a rush of excitement when I see geography, and the vision of that little stretch of water separating Europe and Asia made my blood rush. I couldn’t believe I was standing right next to the Sultan’s palace, staring at Asia over the Bosphorus. This crossroads had been such a part of history, and this waterway such an important route – I stared and thought of all the people who had sailed this way.

The Bosphorus
The Bosphorus

We walked for miles. It was hot. I should have taken water and brought a hat, I was wilting.

We crossed the bridge over the Golden Horn into Beyoglu and got something to drink.

Too pooped to keep going, we tried to get a cab back but the taxi driver wouldn’t go into Taksim with the riots. Another, much braver, shrugged his shoulders and said for 20 TL he’d take us.

We agreed and gratefully climbed in.

We got caught in the traffic and then in the haphazard knot of tiny streets, going forward a bit then reversing, probing, trying different routes to try to get through. We could hear chanting and saw protesters running, with gas masks on their face. I inhaled a lungful of pepper from the tear gas, and sneezed. We quickly rolled the windows up and suffered in the stuffy heat as my eyes itched and my nose burned. Not for the first time on this trip I had to cover my nose.

Eventually our intrepid cabby got out of the narrow streets and up into the wider main roads that led up to Taksim.

We could see clouds and clouds of tear gas, and could hear the thud as the police shot yet more canisters off – we couldn’t see what or who they were shooting at. There was no one there – a couple of people scuttling past – an old lady nearly falling in the gutter … none of whom were part of the hardcore rioting team. I’m no police strategician, but the air was thick with gas, and the only people around was me, my colleague and our brave determined cabby. Did they really need to fire more off?

He pushed on. Right through the middle of it – we couldn’t see anything for the clouds of white gas. Then we saw people running, police charging, water canons firing, and more and more clouds billowing up – even with the windows closed we could smell it and I had to breathe through my hanky.

We got to the hotel and gave a 50% tip – he’d deserved it. Yes, he had a thick moustache that made me dislike him at first, but he’d bravely delivered and I happily revised my view of him.

We walked down to get some food at Sehzade§. We ordered Turkish beer¶ and sat by the window, listening to the roar of protest and tear gas.

Here was the view:

The edge of the riots in Istanbul
The edge of the riots in Istanbul

We had to close the windows when the tear gas got closer, I could smell it and taste it in my mouth, but obviously I didn’t stop eating.

The next morning our car turned up two hours early.

BBC News had shown protesters already crossing the bridge into Besiktas and the Police were hard at it with their gas and water crowd-control solutions, trying to persuade them to turn back. Our cab got through easily, the roads were strewn with rubble, including right outside the Sehzade restaurant where we’d eaten the night before, but there was no trouble. We got to the airport four hours early and now here I am, just hitting turbulence somewhere high above what I guess is Italy, three seats to myself in row 19 on a 737.

I’m going to read my book now.



* Once he’d plugged the headphones into the right socket, he kept shouting out, unaware that you don’t have to holler above the din with headphones (that’s the whole point of headphones). His wife kept shushing him.

† I was impressed with Turkish Airlines. It was comfortable and there was free food and drink, including a free cube of Turkish Delight (although just one drinks service on a four-hour flight?). I have spent so long flying low-cost and seriously low-quality carriers (mentioning no names) that I’d forgotten about proper airlines.

‡ Always read the FCO’s Travel Advice before travelling. As a former member of the British Consular team, I perhaps should have known this.

§ I’d intended to go in Sehzade restaurant the night before – it looked nice and had a great range of Turkish fayre. It was only as I was going in that I saw a sign saying “Girls” and decided to back out. Not my style. I’m not into that kind of gentleman’s entertainment. I went for a pizza instead. Later my colleague kindly pointed out that it said “Giris” which is Turkish for entrance, so we gave it a shot. I’d felt silly travelling to Istanbul and then having a pizza so this was good. Unfortunately I’d had meat for lunch at the conference and didn’t fancy anything heavy, so in the end I had pasta. You’ve got to hand it to the Italians, what they lack in public administration skills they make up for in the kitchen.

¶ The Turkish beer turned out be lukewarm Millers, brewed in Milwaukee, Wisconsis, USA. We drank it anyway, first fishing out the lemon slice\\. For the second round, I pointed out the non-Turkish nature of the American lager and he brought two glasses of chilled Efes instead.

\\ The USA has a poor reputation for beer, but this is unfair – although understandable considering their most famous international brands. When I lived in the US I would make light work of a few bottles of Buzzards Bay of a weekend and I can recommend exploring the many smaller brands and micro-breweries if you’re ever there.



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