Book Extracts
  • Hotel Bosphorus by Esmahan Aykol
  • Esmahan Aykol |  Hotel Bosphorus
Hotel Bosphorus by Esmahan Aykol


I keep driving around, but there’s nowhere to park near the shop. This thirty-minute search for a parking space every morning drives me crazy. It’s intolerable. If I threw a wobbly here, what would happen? Would that shopkeeper on the corner come out to help me? Would the çaycı drop his tea tray and come running? And if they did, what then? I have to get a grip on myself. 

Just as I’m calming down, some moron opens his car door in front of me. Thank you God. They say, things have to get worse before they get better. 

The trouble is, Juan Antonio, my dear sweet Fofo, has been madly in love for two weeks and he’s been acting like a real idiot. They supposedly met when Fofo spent a weekend in Şile on the Black Sea coast. Actually, it’s quite difficult to believe they hadn’t met before that, and if it wasn’t Istanbul where they met, it almost certainly wasn’t Şile. Anyway, they met and they fell in love. Alfonso teaches at the Spanish Cultural Centre. And Fofo? Fofo is meant to be helping me at the shop. Don’t get me wrong, he really did help until two weeks ago. But now he’s on another planet. We see each other at home of course, but only when he comes back for a change of clothes. Over the last two weeks, we’ve exchanged twenty words, if that.  


I’ve been opening up the shop myself each day since Fofo turned into a lovesick butterfly. That means getting up early every morning and collapsing exhausted on the bed every night. In short, I no longer have a social life, and I never see my friends. I haven’t even been able to talk to Lale properly. 

Still, I love my work. But I preferred it when I wasn’t tied to the shop ten hours a day. 

“What could be more natural than for someone who loves reading thrillers to enjoy selling them?” Fofo would say. Actually, I thought the same thing when I first opened the shop. We often think alike. 

Because of my beloved shop, I know all the crimefiction readers living in Istanbul, or at least those who frequent Kuledibi. When I opened the shop three years ago, one of my first customers was Mick Jagger. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Naturally, I didn’t actually ask for an autograph or anything. But I found it very hard to resist asking for a photo of us together. I didn’t even let on that I recognized him. Lale teased me a lot, saying my German inhibitions had got the better of me. I don’t think it was anything to do with being German, I was just being stupid. I was afraid my credibility as a serious woman might be damaged if I let it be known that I recognized Mick Jagger… When I first opened the shop, I thought I was some sort of superwoman like Güler Sabancı. But that feeling didn’t last long. If you slave away for ten hours a day, you soon feel like any other ordinary shop girl. 

Still, compared with how things used to be, I’m OK. I’ve learnt to do the job well and I no longer have financial worries. I think I’ll tell Fofo that if his stupid lovesickness continues and he doesn’t come back, I’ll find someone to replace him. Our Fofo has a mind like a middle-class housewife. I say this to his face. You know, the type who drops everything the moment she finds a man to support her… And then wonders what on earth she is going to do when she suddenly finds herself divorced. 

This isn’t the first time it’s happened to Fofo. When we first met, a couple of years ago, he’d fallen in love with a Turk in Granada and followed him to Istanbul. He just dropped everything, packed a rucksack and jumped on a plane. His lover, Ali, was a lawyer, a lawyer who wore a cravat. It makes me shudder just thinking about him. How long could a person like that sustain a relationship with the Fofo we know? They were together for about a year, which I still say wasn’t bad. Ali didn’t tell his friends that he and Fofo were lovers. He didn’t even introduce Fofo to them. For some reason, Fofo desperately wanted to meet Ali’s cravat-wearing friends. He started turning up unexpectedly at the man’s office, not because he thought Ali was cheating on him, but just because he hoped to meet his friends. Lale and I were at our wits’ end. The last days of that relationship were particularly disastrous. Fofo spent his entire time sitting at home watching Turkish TV, which actually wasn’t a bad thing because he learnt some Turkish and can now speak in TV Turkish. He comes out with inane phrases like, “Hi guys, I’m good to go”, or “You take care now”. But so what, at least he can be understood by anyone who watches television. 

After we recovered from the Ali disaster, our lives took on some sort of order. Fofo moved into my house and started working at the shop. Dear Fofo, he’s like a small child in an adult’s world. I wonder what will happen to him with this new man. It’s really been bugging me for the last two weeks. 

I haven’t met his lover yet. I’ve interrogated Fofo during our brief meetings, but he’s a young lad in love and I can’t trust a thing he says. 

Lale tries not to show it, but she’s worried too. She says to me, “You’ve become a real Turk, you’re acting just like any Turkish mother with a son.” I don’t think she knows what she’s talking about. She seems to think she’s different. In fact, we’re both worried because we know Fofo so well, and we know how he gets carried away. But quite apart from those worries, my nerves are frayed at the moment anyway and I find it intolerable when I can’t find a parking space. 

What’s meant to happen is that you open up the shop, give it an airing, have a couple of coffees and then start the day, yes? But no, not today. The moment the key is in the door, the telephone starts ringing. I hate rushing, but I have to rush to open the door and then fly over to the telephone. A bubbly woman’s voice is speaking in German. So early. It’s really too much. A cheerful woman at this time of day is not on. 

“I got your phone number from your mother. And I found your mother’s number in the Berlin phone book…” she says. 

“Fine,” I say. “But who are you?” 

But of course! It’s Petra. A friend from my university days. We haven’t seen each other for ages, at least fifteen or sixteen years. Actually, I’d kept track of Petra through the press and media because she is also my most famous friend. She’s a star of the German cinema. It may not be world cinema, but have the Germans ever produced a world-class film star apart from Marlene Dietrich? And Marlene was more American than German. 

Anyway, what was I saying? 

Petra was in the drama department at college. After graduation, I packed my bags and set off for new horizons and we lost touch. Nothing unusual about that. 

Petra had started to appear on television before I left Berlin. She even had a part in an episode of Tatort, which is still the best programme on German television. We didn’t see each other for ten years or so while I was in Germany, but I didn’t miss a single one of her films. I even went to see a German film at the Istanbul Film Festival just because she was in it. 

I followed her films and read every word of her magazine interviews. But you know how it is if you have well-known friends: you develop feelings of inferiority and start thinking, “If we met in the street, she wouldn’t know me,” or, “If I phoned, her secretary would never put me through.” I often felt that way about Petra. There was actually no reason for me to have these feelings, because we never met in the street and I never phoned her. I had no idea whether her fame had gone to her head. But now, I had Petra on the line, just as if we were in a novel. Clearly, since she was calling me, either she had not become big-headed, or she was no longer famous. Perhaps she had lost her celebrity status and become one of those unfortunates who live on the famous German state handouts. Maybe she’d been put through the all too common process of getting shoved around and spat out by Social Services before being handed the state pittance. Maybe she was seeking a way out of this social security nightmare and calling to ask me for a loan or a job. I had a bit of money, so I could give her a loan. In that respect, my friends generally find me more amenable than the German government. If she wanted a job, I could speak to Fofo straight away. Whatever the situation, she had picked the right person. 

“I lost track of you,” she was saying. “I tried so hard to get hold of you. Whenever I see someone from the old days, I always ask about you. I bumped into Alex at a film gala yesterday. He’s living in Berlin and working as a cameraman. He said he saw you a few years ago in Berlin and that you were staying at your mother’s place then. That’s when I thought of calling your mother. How stupid of me not to think of that before. Anyway, why didn’t you ever call me?” I was lost for words, dumbfounded. I couldn’t say, “I didn’t call you because you’re famous.” In any case, we weren’t really the kind of buddies who were going to keep track of each other, but that’s another matter. 

“Are you coming to Germany?” she asked.  

At that moment, I had no intention of going there, but I said, “I don’t know.” That’s because I just might have gone, if it was to see Petra. I liked the fact that she didn’t seem too aloof, even though she was still famous. It would be worth going to Germany just to see her again. 

I put the telephone down and stared at it for at least ten minutes. It lay there like a black-tailed snake on the table, but I wasn’t marvelling at its wonders. I was just dumbstruck. Petra was coming. She was to play the starring role in a joint Turkish-German film to be set in Istanbul, and would be staying for over a month. She didn’t want a loan or a job. She didn’t even want to stay at my place during filming, but just wanted to see me again to chat like two old friends. She would give me tips on the best face cream for getting rid of bags under the eyes, or maybe teach me her special trick for getting limescale off the kitchen sink without damaging the enamel. She just wanted to do what two ordinary women might do, and behave as if she wasn’t famous. 

I collected myself and decided to start the day by making coffee, even if it was late. There’s a corner of the shop that we use as a kitchen, where Fofo and I make gallons of tea and coffee. If we used Recai, the local çaycı, all the time, we’d spend a fortune. By the time we’d made our kitchen habitable, he’d have earned enough from us to replace his shack with a skyscraper, which would inevitably be razed to the ground in the first 5.8 Richter-scale earthquake. 

Actually, I adore çaycıs. You simply can’t compare them to those soulless vending machines… A çaycı will always know your name, and if you take sugar in your coffee. He knows when you want tea and when you want coffee. If your çaycı is anything like our Recai, he knows if you’ve left your lover, if you’ve made up, how late you stay out at night or if you spend an evening in front of the television. In short, he knows more than he should, but you have nothing to fear from a çaycı unless you’re mixed up in illegal activities. Everybody knows everything about you anyway; the gossip network in Istanbul is so strong that one more makes no difference at all. 

Of course, it isn’t easy to keep up to date with every item of gossip in a city as huge as Istanbul. That’s why Turks are forever talking on their mobiles, whether it’s in the street, when they’re out for dinner with their sweethearts, or even in theatres and cinemas. I think Alexander Graham Bell must have had Turkish genes. If not, how come Turks are so infatuated with this contraption? 

Once again, I arrived home in the evening feeling completely wrung out. I hate days like that. Dealing with customers, the constant ringing of the telephone, people coming, people going… It was bedlam. I’d barely had the strength to turn the key when it came to locking up the shop. I also paid the price for having gone to work by car. In Istanbul a car is nothing but trouble; it doesn’t make life easier at all. It’s an ancient city where the roads are very narrow, especially where my shop is in Kuledibi, an area that dates back to Genoese times. 

Sometimes I think that everyone must spend their whole time out in the streets and that none of the city’s ten million or so people ever goes home, day or night. The streets are constantly teeming with people and cars. Ten million people – it’s easy to say, but it’s the size of a nation. 

In the end, parking difficulties and traffic congestion in Istanbul play havoc with your nerves. But I’m lazy. It takes thirty minutes to get from home to the shop, on foot or by car. I go by car. 

Work was so busy that day that I didn’t have time to revel in the fact that Petra had called. But the moment I got home, I went straight to the telephone like any normal Istanbul citizen, or İstanbullu as we say, and called Lale. She knew about Petra; we had been to the film festival together to see her film and I’d offered to translate some of Petra’s magazine interviews, but Lale wasn’t interested. She can be irritating like that. Still, what can I do? She’s my best friend. 

After Lale, I wanted to phone Fofo, but I couldn’t because I didn’t know his number. I sat and smoked three cigarettes in fifteen minutes, then called Lale again. Her phone was engaged. I went for a shower to pass the time and tried again. Still engaged. I considered jumping into the car and going to her house, but couldn’t be bothered. I pressed the redial button; it was still busy. As consolation, I called my ex, whom I keep dangling and mostly ignore. You might as well know that. Yes, that telephone was engaged too. I cried myself to sleep from nervous exhaustion. I dreamed I was trying to crush Alexander Graham Bell’s head with the telephone handset, and Madame Curie was shouting, “Murder! Murder!” I woke up in a sweat. 

The next day was Saturday, the best day of the week, followed by the second best day, Sunday. Many seriousminded or acquisitive citizens sit at their desks on the first of these happy days. I am definitely not in either of those categories. On Saturdays, the closed sign hangs firmly on the door of the shop, unless Fofo is depressed and decides to do some cleaning. 

On Saturdays, I join my neighbour and dear friend Yılmaz at the local café, where we lie in wait to pounce on passers-by. Yılmaz is in his fifties; he’s a short, fat, bald man who works in advertising. A real stereotype. He knows everyone; he tells me all the gossip and then tells everyone all about me… However, I decided long ago that I didn’t care, and I count Yılmaz as one of my buddies. 

So, on Saturday mornings, Yılmaz and I buy our pastries from the bakery, our newspapers from the corner shop, and settle ourselves in the café. This happens at about ten o’clock. All Cihangir society walks past us. Some we entice to our table, while those who know better merely wave and walk on. When we tire of gossiping, Yılmaz and I go to the cinema together if there is a good film, or if not we go home… 

We have a mutual understanding that Yılmaz buys the newspapers and I buy the goodies from the bakery. Actually, I don’t read newspapers during the week, so this is something different for me on Saturdays. And change is good, isn’t it? 

It’s become a habit. Yılmaz always arrives before me, exactly on time. He never passes up an opportunity to berate me for my lack of punctuality, especially as I’m German. I retaliate by saying that Turks always assume Germans are punctual, hard-working cold fish, and then insult Yılmaz by saying he’s no exception. As you might guess, the worst insult for Yılmaz is to be told that he’s just like everybody else. 

I can’t let this pass without mentioning some strange prejudices that Turks have about Germans. For instance, Turks are amazed to see a smiling, cheerful German. They love it when I laugh, because they think I’ve become really integrated into the community. I haven’t yet convinced anyone that I used to laugh when I lived in Germany, even if only occasionally, and that it didn’t mean I was excommunicated from society. I even know people who think the reason I came to live in Istanbul was that I couldn’t remain in Germany because I was too cheerful. 

The fact that my name is Kati seems to suggest to Turks that I’m a different kind of German. You might not believe this, but I’ve actually met Turks who think there are only two German names: Hans for males, and Helga for females. Why? I have no idea. 

I had been in the café for fifteen minutes and Yılmaz still hadn’t made any jibes about punctuality and being German. He was probably too preoccupied with his work. The advertising company where Yılmaz worked was in the midst of a financial crisis, like many companies in Turkey. People were apparently going to be laid off. I suggested that if this happened to him, he could take the job that Fofo was probably going to give up. He looked at me as if I was joking. So what? Was I supposed to feel bad if I couldn’t pay him a monthly salary of ten thousand dollars?  

Petra had said she would call me again when her dates were confirmed, that is to say when the Turkish Cultural Ministry and the producers had completed their paperwork. Two weeks passed while I waited for Petra to let me know when she was coming. Naturally, I wasn’t idle during that time. I found Fofo and told him in no uncertain terms that I would replace him if he didn’t come back to the shop. I had no intention of working myself into the ground. Actually, there aren’t that many people who want to work in a crime-fiction bookshop, but I expected to find someone eventually. 

Fofo dithered and couldn’t give me a straight answer. He was starting to get on my nerves so I interrupted, “In that case, I’ll take on a temp for three months. You can use that time to decide what you want to do. Are you going to spend your whole life going after some boy or other, or are you going to learn to stand on your own two feet?!”
  • Esmahan AykolHotel Bosphorus