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Moving Freely

Strolling Through Istanbul
by John Freely (1926–2017)
Tauris Parke

In 1960 Maureen Freely’s family packed up all they possessed, waved goodbye to Princeton, New Jersey, and stepped out into the unknown. She had no idea why. Their destination was to her merely a name on a map: Istanbul. It was to become the place she still thinks of as home. Her father, John Freely, would write the classic guidebook ‘Strolling Through Istanbul’. More than forty years later, Maureen looks back on a golden childhood of parties, laughter and, above all, adventure

My family moved to Istanbul just a few weeks after I turned eight, in September 1960. I had no idea why. When I asked my father, he said, “Because it’s there.” By the time we left, I could locate Istanbul on the globe, but all I knew about Turkey was that it was half a world away from Princeton, New Jersey, and coloured purple.

It took us eighteen hours to cover that distance in a prop plane. It was a Near East Colleges Association charter, carrying faculty and their families to Robert College, Robert Academy and the American College for Girls. Many of our fellow travellers went on to become my friends and teachers, but that first day they hardly saw us. They were too busy having a wild party at the back of the plane while my family sat in the nose, facing a blank wall.

I filled the empty hours with questions from Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe and all the other books my father had read my sister and me to inspire an interest in the great beyond. What was the true purpose of our journey? What secrets did the future hold? I couldn’t even guess, nor did I want to. We were on an adventure. That meant never knowing what would happen next.

But first we had to get there. The sun was low in the sky and I was running out of hope when my father leaned across the aisle to announce that we had entered Turkish airspace. I looked down, expecting an oriental landscape in all its purple splendour, but all I saw were brown and empty hills. Yeşilköy Airport was no better, a mustard-yellow building surrounded by more brown hills. We were soon on a bus that took us through Edirne Kapı, across the Galata Bridge and down the Bosphorus Road to Rumeli Hisar. There were so many surprises coming at me now that I had no time to notice the scenery. I was too worried about the cars careering towards us on the wrong side of the road, and the donkey carts they almost crashed into, the stench of the tanning factories, the gypsies camped along the walls, and the hordes of men wearing identical brown caps.

And what did Yapi ve Kredi Bankasi mean, and why did every sign in the city and every bench along the shore carry those words? Before I could ask, our bus veered off the Bosphorus road to climb a steep hill that took us past a cemetery and a castle. We went through a gate and all of a sudden we were back in Princeton. Except it wasn’t Princeton. It was Robert College, on the other side of the globe. That night, and the night after, and the night after that, I cried myself to sleep.

After that I cried only on Friday nights. That was because I knew we would be getting up early the next morning to go on an all-day prowl of the old city. I’m told we took the ferry, but that’s not what I remember. What I remember are the hundreds of honking cars bearing down on us as we crossed over from the Eminönü ferry station to the Yeni Cami mosque. My parents were just as shaken by this weekly ordeal, but they were in no doubt it was worth risking death for the prizes waiting on the other side. Years later, when I had to memorise On First Reading Chapman’s Homer, I had no trouble imagining how stout Cortéz and his men must have looked as they stood silent on a peak in Darien. I knew they wore the same rapt expressions as my mother and my father when they set eyes on Ayasofya or Kariye Camii or Topkapı or Sultanahmet. “Can you believe it?” they would say. “We’ve made it. We’re actually here.”

They were surprised and disappointed when my sister and I didn’t feel the same way. They were even disappointed, I think, in our baby brother. But we couldn’t see things the way they did. We had not spent half our lives reading and dreaming about these places. We had not had to scheme and plot and drive our families to distraction to get here. As far as we were concerned, the less we knew, the better. If we fell in love with the marble lions of Side and the caves of Göreme and the crusader castle of Bodrum, it was because they were there.

Wherever we went, the question we asked was “Are they going to let us play here?” And for the most part, they did. In the years that followed, we got to play in churches, mosques, museums, fountains and ancient temples, not just in Istanbul and Anatolia, but in Greece, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Cyprus, Italy and Spain.

So I can tell you with authority that the best place for hide-and-seek is the Valley of the Kings. The best floors for running and sliding are in the Prado. And the Acropolis is the breeziest place to play house on a hot afternoon if you are stuck in Athens waiting for money. We were always running out of money in Athens, then waiting weeks for the slow-moving First National Bank of Princeton to wire new supplies to what we called the American Depress.

But even when we were rolling in money, we always stayed in seedy hotels and travelled third class, often in buses with failing brakes and on ships that listed forty-five degrees. This sent my grandparents into a panic when they got word of it and even shocked the wild party people from that charter flight who had gone on to become my parents’ dearest friends. What they didn’t see was how much fun it was to travel deck class on a ship where no one spoke your language, because when you found out how to sneak into first class and they caught you, you couldn’t understand a thing they said. They could not imagine the thrill of playing with new found friends in the platia (main square) of a Greek village, even though your only words in Greek were “green light, red light”. They could not know how much fun it was to play in a defective hotel lift while your parents thought you were in your room sleeping. We would have hated it if they’d done the done thing and left us at home with the maid. We loved having our parents’ almost full attention day and night. We loved it that they found our company exciting, preferable to anyone else’s. We loved eating meals at midnight. Most of all, we loved never knowing what was going to happen next.

Even now, my idea of bliss is to arrive in a place about which I know next to nothing and to find my way around it by first getting lost. Or to return to a place where I got lost as a child and lose myself in it again. But I almost never can. The more adult responsibilities I accumulate, the harder it is to go anywhere without a huge amount of plotting and scheming. It’s hard even to get back to Istanbul, despite being able to disguise this pleasure as a “family visit”. So I’m more impressed than ever about the great leap my parents made in 1960. But how had they done it? Why had they done it? Last summer, when I was having a drink with my father in my parents’ house in Rumeli Hisar, I decided to ask.

What possessed them to leave behind everything and everyone they knew to move to a city about which they knew nothing? It was, I knew, a question they had been asked many times by their own families. My father’s parents were Irish. Travel for them was something you undertook to see relatives or find work. No one in the family had ever considered university. They wanted my father to become a fireman. They were appalled when, after returning to Brooklyn from the war, he decided to become a physicist.

My mother’s family, who also lived in Brooklyn, never actually told her what to become. But they were hoping she would marry a nice man and settle down in a nice house within walking distance of their own. They couldn’t understand why she wanted to ruin her eyes reading Proust and Herodotus, or why she was so obsessed with opera. They were apoplectic when they found out she’d been stopping off on her way home from her Manhattan secretarial job to train with Mabel Horsey to be a blues singer.

When my mother met my father at The Welcome Inn in Ridgeway, the first thing she did was to make him promise to take her round the world. They later drew up a contract on parchment and signed it in blood. My father had already been round the world during his two years in the navy, and he couldn’t wait to get back. But first he had to finish his education. Then I was born, and then my sister and my brother. My parents ended up spending the first nine years of their marriage in New Jersey.

My father’s first job as a physicist was with the signal corps at Fort Monmouth. After that he moved to a laboratory at Princeton University. Three nights a week he commuted to NYU to do his doctorate. As soon as he got his doctorate, Princeton offered him a tenured research position, and he must have been tempted. My mother had a nice life, too. By this time she had joined hundreds of book clubs and tennis clubs and had thousands of friends. They were all set up, as people say. But that, apparently, was the problem.

They had arrived at a point when they could read the future like a map. “I was doing really exciting work on how to control thermonuclear fusion,” my father told me. “I was publishing papers, so intellectually it was very stimulating. But I could see what the future would bring. We knew we had to get out before it was too late.”

Why Istanbul? “Oh, we were looking into all sorts of possibilities. Australia was appealing, and so was the Fen Country. But then one day I was admiring a flowering cherry tree on the Princeton campus. I was with my dear friend Ed Meservey. He said, ‘Those flowering cherry trees are nothing compared with the judas trees on the Bosphorus.’ I said, ‘Tell me more’, and he said, ‘Let the Garwoods tell you.’” The Garwoods, who had been teaching at Robert College for years, were in Princeton on sabbatical. They invited my parents to supper.

By then my father had read an article in National Geographic that had pictures of Robert College. From these he could see it was a “place that was terribly different from anywhere we had been. But there was enough about it that was the same. I thought, here I can actually teach and do research and learn about history and also travel and write.” There was only one worry.

The faculty in the pictures seemed so very earnest. The Garwoods were quick to dispel his fears with stories of legendary parties.

My parents went on to give many legendary parties of their own during our first years in Istanbul. People still tell stories about them, but these rarely capture what they were really like. What I remember best is the rollercoaster laughter. It was as if they had just been released from tiny boxes and still couldn’t quite believe they could put one foot in front of the other without bumping into a wall. Everyone was welcome at my parents’ parties so long as they were “fun”. You could never predict the mix. Most were “people like us”, but there were also students and ex-students, expatriates-without-jobs and “un-expatriates” from the consulates, and artists and writers and actors, both Turkish and foreign. There was always music and singing, and usually an indoor bicycle race. After midnight there was feverish Greek dancing. Once it was so feverish that the floor fell through.

No matter how late the parties lasted, and even when they ended with a swim in the Bosphorus, my father was always up before me the next morning. I’d hear him sitting at his desk, clearing his throat in that precise, contented way that meant he was about to throw away a page with one mistake on it, to write it all out again, this time perfectly. No matter where he was in the house, he always had his writing pad with him, and a daunting pile of books.

He began his own book on Istanbul in 1966. Not long after he finished it, he happened to run into Bill Edmonds of Redhouse Press. He suggested my father combine forces with Hillary Sumner-Boyd, who had also been writing a book on the antiquities of the city for many years. They did, and the result was Strolling Through Istanbul. By the time it came out, though, the Istanbul of our original strolls was disappearing. Many close friends had died of heart attacks and cancer. Politics had arrived on campus. Most of my father’s colleagues decided that the party was over and left. I left, too, although I never stopped thinking of Istanbul as home.

My parents stayed on until 1976, but then they moved away, too. They went on to make a nice new life for themselves in a nice house in a nice suburb of Boston. They had lots of friends, many of them from the old days in Istanbul. They had interesting jobs and my father was still writing more books than I could count. But then one day my mother came home with an elegant new coat. My father complimented her on it and she began to cry. “I asked her why. And she said, ‘Because I’ll never be able to wear it in a great capital.’” My father made her another promise, and they began to pack.

That was in 1987. Their first stop was London, then they returned to Istanbul to teach at the Koç Lycée. In 1991 my father retired and they moved to Venice – not because they knew anyone there, but because it was “so beautiful”. Seven years ago, the chairman of the physics department at Boğaziçi University, as Robert College has become, asked my father if he would join them again. And so he did. The house in which he and my mother now live is only a few paces away from where the bus dropped us off on our very first day.

My father turned seventy-five last June. He has just finished his thirty-ninth book, but he cannot bear to use the word retire, unless it is preceded by the word “never”. “It’s still so wonderful here. I’m surrounded by interesting people and there are always more coming through. There are so many places still to see. Two years ago we finally got to Albania. Last year we got back to China. This year we’re going to Rome and, if we can manage it, St Petersburg, Kraków and Prague. Next year? Maybe South America. We’ll have to see…”

“In the old days,” he said, “I always loved the company of older people. On our early trips, on those wonderful sea voyages, I met some really great older people who were really doing it, not just travelling but scribbling and painting and going to Florence to study the history of art. When I saw them I thought, well, there’s no end to it … There is an end, but we…”

He didn’t finish his sentence. Instead he looked out of the window for a long time, then turned to give me a wary look, as if he feared I was about to launch into one of my lectures about pensions and health insurance and the Importance of Planning Ahead. I’m sure these lectures are made all the grimmer by the fact that I don’t really believe them.

How could I? I’m my father’s daughter. I was brought up to trust in the chance encounter and happy accident, and the importance of never knowing what will happen next. I know I shouldn’t say it, but no, I don’t want them to suddenly get sensible. I want them to keep on travelling – and returning to the place where it all began.

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