Monday, 12 December 2016
Notes from Amsterdam, Brussels, and Istanbul
["Hasbrouck" is a French Huguenot name, presumably of Flemish etymology, meaning "Rabbit Marsh" or, as a Belgian customs man once told me, "Swamp of the Bunnies". It's spelled differently in France, South Africa, the USA, and the Netherlands. One evening on the way back to my hostel from a concert at the Orgelpark, I found myself on "Hasbrouck Street" (photo above) in Amsterdam, which I hadn't known existed.]
Travel for me is always a mix of business and pleasure. Here are some of the travel and other lessons from my latest trip: two and a half weeks in Amsterdam, Brussels, and Istanbul, representing the National Writers Union at international meetings.
Terrorism and travel bargains
[Billboards and banners with nationalist and anti-terrorist slogans -- seen here in Taksim Square, near the site of one of the bombings earlier this year -- are currently ubiquitous throughout Istanbul.]
Within the last year, there have been terrorist bombings in the check-in areas of both the Brussels (Zaventem/National) and Istanbul (Ataturk) airports, in downtown Brussels, and repeatedly in central Istanbul, as well as an unsuccessful attempted military coup in Turkey.
These events have scared off many foreign tourists, forcing down hotel prices and creating bargains for opportunistic visitors in both cities, especially Istanbul.
As with natural disasters or financial crises, it may seem ghoulish to seek out sites of terrorism for our subsequent vacations. But one of the tactics of terrorism is to scare off tourists as a way to inflict economic damage on the government, businesses, and the local population. In the wake of such an attack, local people are often more eager than ever to to show that they welcome visitors (and their spending) and don't share the terrorists' antipathy to foreigners. The welcome mat is out, prices are low, museums and monuments are less crowded, and often the government sponsors special promotions to woo back frightened tourists.
The effect in Brussels at present appears modest, but hotels and restaurants in Brussels were already significantly cheaper than those in most other Northern and Western European capitals. For years Brussels has been a relative bargain for visitors. And to someone with my my tastes, it's been grossly under-appreciated as a tourist destination. I wouldn't necessarily make Brussels your primary or sole destination (although I might make it mine), but it's an excellent gateway to continental Europe that's currently more affordable than usual.
At the European Parliament in Brussels on Election Day in the US, and in other meetings in Brussels in the days before and after, I got lots of questions about candidate and then President-elect Trump. Don't worry about having foreigners blame you for Trump's election, unless you openly endorse him. Neo-fascism and other forms of nationalist and nativist populism and "great-man" political power structures are on the rise across Europe and elsewhere, not just in the USA. After the election, I was greeted by European friends and colleagues with the sort of sympathy and condolences they would have extended had they learned of a death in my family or an outbreak of deadly plague in my home country.
Soldiers in battle dress with their fingers on the triggers of their automatic rifles are patrolling the airport, subway stations, and sidewalks (in African and Muslim neighborhoods) in Brussels. They stood especially careful guard over the passengers checking in for my flight to Istanbul. But neither the military presence nor the tension of soldiers or civilians seemed any greater than it was at Heathrow Airport or tube stations in London during the "Troubles" in Northern Ireland and the associated IRA bombings in England.
The most visible signs in Istanbul of the failed coup attempt were the omnipresent propaganda posters (see photo above). There were fewer soldiers or police on the streets than I would have expected just a few months after a coup attempt, and the vibe on the streets was remarkably relaxed. Perhaps the secret police only work at night? Since the coup attempt, tens of thousands of teachers, journalists, lawyers, and judges have been fired from their jobs, and many of them jailed.
Sadly, despite the crackdown on journalists and journalism, most Turks I talked to remain convinced that Turkey has a "free" press. There are still many newspapers and TV stations, even if they all parrot the government line (under threat of being shut down if they don't) that all of the people arrested have been "terrorists".
The anti-Muslim and anti-Turkish bias of the European press has been so extreme, for so long, that it has lost all credibility with most Turks. The massive post-coup round-up of the Turkish intelligentsia isn't reported in Turkish media. Reports from abroad, especially from Europe, are dismissed as typical anti-Turkish Western media lies (of which there is, unfortunately, a considerable history).
Is this what we are about to see in the USA? There are many similarities between the populism and pandering to religious fundamentalists (neither is actually a fundamentalist himself) of President-elect Trump and Turkey's President Erdogan. The predominant Turkish attitude toward Trump's election seemed to be, "Welcome to the club." As one Turk told me sympathetically, "Now you know what we have been going through for the last 14 years." But those Turks who were most critical of Erdogan were also most critical of the coup: "The way to get rid of fascist politicians and create democracy is through elections. A military coup won't make things better."
On the positive side, the heavy hand of Kemalist state repression of religious practice has eased noticeably in the last decade. A woman can wear a hijab, or a man can grow a beard, without being fired from a government job or subjected to other official discrimination.
[There's a specialized bazaar in Istanbul for almost anything you might want to buy. This is the passage through one of the book bazaars. Unfortunately, I found few books in English other than textbooks (stall at near right in photo above) and classic novels. Some women wear hijabs, some don't, even among the same party in a restaurant or social gathering.]
The downturn in tourism to Istanbul, especially from Europe and the USA, is much more extreme than in Brussels, as are the bargains for visitors. Prices at tourist hotels in Istanbul are about a third of what they were when I was there in 2008. Occupancy rates and prices are down even more at hotels catering to wealthier tourists and international business travellers.
Government-owned Turkish Airlines has been expanding, at great expense, to try to compete with the the likes of Emirates, Etihad, and Qatar Airways despite Turkey's lack of oil. Turkish Airlines now boasts of flights to more countries than any of these or any other airline in the world. With visas to visit Europe or the USA getting harder for Turkish citizens, and fewer foreign visitors coming to Turkey, the only way for Turkish Airlines to fill these flights has been to offer prices low enough to attract transit traffic via Istanbul between other countries.
For much of this year, Turkish Airlines has had the lowest fares between most of its nine US gateways and most cities it serves in Europe, even to parts of Europe as far out of the way as Scandinavia and the Iberian Peninsula. To make the long detour via Istanbul more attractive, Turkish Airlines has been offering free stopovers and two free checked bags. In the last few years, most trans-Atlantic airlines have reduced their free checked luggage allotment from two pieces per passenger to one. As for aircraft (new) and inflight service (much better than the norm for US-based airlines), Turkish Airlines may currently be cheap, but is in no way a "Third World" airline, by any definition. And for what it's worth, you can get frequent flyer mileage credits with United Airlines or other Star Alliance members for travel on Turkish Airlines.
Turkish Airlines also serves many secondary European cities where there aren't enough people (or enough rich people) to interest most other long-haul airlines, but where large numbers of ethnic Turkish laborers can reliably fill a direct flight to Istanbul. They have flights not just to Amsterdam, for example, but also to Rotterdam, which not many other airlines serve. They also fly to provincial cities such as Marseilles that you can't get to from the USA on any US-based airline, or even on Air France without an inconvenient change of airports in Paris. So you may be able to get closer than you expect to your final destination by connecting through Istanbul on Turkish Airlines than on other airlines.
[Until the construction of bridges and tunnels over and under the Bosphorus, the ferry terminal (smaller building in foreground) and train station (larger building at rear) at Haydarpasa were among the most important transfer points for travellers from Europe to Asia, rivalled only by the Kazan (Siberia, Russian Far East, Mongolia, China, North Korea) and Yaroslavl (Central Asia) train stations in Moscow.]
In 2008, I arrived in Turkey by taxi from Aleppo to Gaziantep, after a month in Syria, and got to Istanbul only after several more stops in Asian Turkey. Even before the war in Syria and its spillover, it was impossible to imagine Gaziantep as "European", and even Istanbul seemed very far form Europe. This time, arriving in Istanbul after a couple of weeks in Europe, I saw it in a very different perspective. Perhaps I'm coming to terms with the identity Istanbul shares with Moscow as a city that sees itself as European despite being in a country that's mostly in Asia.
I saw some scavengers and squatters and a few beggars in Istanbul who appeared to be Syrian rather than Turkish. On the whole, however, the war in Syria was much less apparent in central Istanbul than I had expected it would be. I've read that there are a third of a million Syrian refugees in greater Istnabul, and Turks complained to me (mildly and with some degree of sympathy) about their numbers. But Istanbul is a megalopolis, and unlike some other world cities, its shantytowns are mostly at some remove from the city center, not where tourists will see them or wander into them.
Syrians aren't the only refugees in Istanbul. Just as migrants from throughout Latin America and the Caribbean often get as far border towns in Mexico, but can't find a way across the US border, so people from all points east (Asia) and south (Africa) end up in Istanbul or Izmir if they can't find a way to continue on across the border of the European Union from Turkey into Greece or Bulgaria.
It's not just refugees who find that Istanbul is as close as they can get to Europe. Many rich people from the Middle East, Asia, and Africa would like to live in Europe or America, but can't get visas or find that they are discriminated against in "Western" countries despite their wealth. As in some other world cities including San Francisco and Vancouver, housing prices in Istanbul are being driven up by foreigners buying luxury condos and mansions.
For many citizens of the Gulf states or the Middle East, having a pied-à-terre in Istanbul is the "next best thing" to living in Europe or America, or better. And with most of the the European and American tourists scared off, most of the remaining tourists in Istanbul are from the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. The predictable result of the closing of the European frontier against the influx of refugees making their way through Turkey has been to turn Turkey away from Europe and toward the east and south -- despite the evident desire of most Turks, at least in Istanbul, for greater integration with, and acceptance by, Europe.
[Yacht harbor and soccer stadium -- home of one of Turkey's most famous clubs -- at Fenerbahce. Yesterday's bombings were outside a different Istanbul soccer stadium, which I had ridden past earlier, closer to downtown on the European side of the Bosphorus.]
If you've rented a bike for a day, don't fancy riding in downtown traffic, and would like to get out of the tourist center of Istanbul, take one of the ferries to Kadikoy and ride south along the Asian shore of the Bosphorus through Moda and Fenerbahce. You can bring your bike with you for free on any of the Istanbul ferries (or on any Metro or Marmaray train). The waterfront promenade goes past upscale sea-view residential districts past scenic rocky overlooks, beaches, tea gardens, and specialty fish restaurants. It's a popular weekend excursion for locals and expats on all manner of bikes, although mountain bikes with relatively wide gears and suspension forks are the most common commuter bikes on Istanbul's steep hills and rough pavement.
This was my first time taking a folding bicycle with me on a trip by plane and long-distance high-speed train. It worked out well, and I'd highly recommend it -- with the right bike. (The musician and artist David Byrne of the Talking Heads, who's been travelling with a folding bike for years, has an interesting low-key collection of essays about exploring different world cities by bicycle -- including a chapter on Istanbul -- in his book, Bicycle Diaries.)
[Birdy front end (first photo). The hinges on which the suspension flexes are the same hinges on which the bike folds, so the folding mechanism doesn't introduce any additional frame flex or weakness. The combination of small wheels and a full suspension is ideal for potholes and streets paved with "Belgium block" or cobblestones, as in Istanbul (second photo).]
The small wheels on most folding bicycles give a harsh ride and poor handling, especially on rough or uneven surfaces. The first time I test-rode a small-wheeled bicycle, I concluded that it cried out for a front suspension to be rideable for more than mile or two at a time. The first time I test-rode a friend's Birdy (thank you, Sam!) I knew that I had been right.
A Brompton folds quicker and smaller, and is easier to carry. But if you want to ride on less-then-perfect surfaces, get a Birdy. It's not so much about being able to ride further as about being much safer and much more comfortable. On a Birdy, a skilled rider can take wet hilly cobblestones and potholes at speed.
The Birdy is currently the only mass-production full-suspension folding bicycle. It's designed in Germany, made in Taiwan, and distributed mainly in Europe (where it's unusual but not unknown) and East Asia.
Birdy distributors in the USA seem to come and go, as does the range of available models. Different Birdy frames and components, varying hugely in prices, are offered in different markets at different times, for no obvious reason. Look for a discontinued, close-out, demo, or display Birdy from a dealer that has it gathering dust, or a second-hand Birdy. After months of monitoring Craigslist, my partner spotted this 15-year-old Birdy, worn and scratched but in good working order, for sale locally for about half the price of the cheapest new model.
[Stopping for a rest along the bike path through the woods from Schiphol Airport to downtown Amsterdam. The black case behind the seat mast holds the folded carrying bag for the bike. The small green block just below that is an elastomer cushion (surprisingly effective) for the rear suspension. I was able to carry everything I needed, including a suit and business clothes, on the bike.]
Bicycles are the standard year-round mode of local transport in Amsterdam. Whether you bring a bike with you or rent it locally, having a bike is more or less essential to experiencing the city the way locals do. I didn't have a bike, or rent one, on my first visit to Amsterdam a few years ago, and my impression of the city suffered as a result.
A bike makes it much easier to get out of the tourist ghetto. A generous reader, Amsterdam expat and blogger Martin Sutherland, spent a Sunday showing me around North Amsterdam by bike. Just a few minutes across the river from Amsterdam Centraal station on a free pedestrian and bicycle ferry, but feeling much further from the city center, this part of Amsterdam is an entirely untouristed mix of post-industrial redevelopment, economically diverse residential neighborhoods, and working farms. It's just the sort of area I love to explore, might not have found on my own, and wouldn't have been able to get to or get around easily without a bike.
[Backpack and bike (folded, in black bag) ready to board the train from Amsterdam to Brussels.]
Folding the front and rear wheels at the suspension pivot points, telescoping the seatpost, and folding the quick-release hinged steering column takes less than a minute and is sufficient to fit the Birdy into a bag that can be carried onto even high-speed trains with relatively small luggage racks.
[Birdy ready to go into its bag for air travel. I tie the bundle shown here together with a couple of old inner tubes before putting it in the bag, to keep the pieces from shifting and make the package easier to carry.]
To get the Birdy bag small enough to be checked as airline luggage without a surcharge for a bicycle or oversized item, the wheels (with fenders/mudguards, if any) and handlebars have to be removed. It's hard to see in the photo above, but with the wheels removed, the rear derailleur -- usually the part of a bike most vulnerable to damage in shipping -- folds into a well-protected position between the front fork blades. Packing the Birdy like this the first time took me about 25 minutes, and unpacking about the same.
Chip-and-PIN credit/debit/ATM cards
For years, banks in the USA continued to issue "sign-and-swipe" credit and debit cards with a magnetic stripe, while banks in the rest of the world (yes, including Canada) switched to "chip-and-PIN" cards with a small square array of metal contacts visible on the front. You swipe the edge of a mag-stripe card through the reader. You insert the end of a contact-chip card into the reader, and leave it inserted while the transaction is processed.
Some card readers can handle both types of cards, but many can't. Cashiers can (usually) find a way to process a transaction manually, but US-issued swipe cards often won't work in unattended kiosks and vending machines, such as ticket machines in train and subway stations, if they are designed for chip cards.
In the last year, most US banks have finally started issuing chip cards. Unfortunately, that doesn't mean the worries are over for travellers from the USA who want to use their cards abroad.
US-issued credit and debit cards -- even the new ones with chips that work in US chip-card payment terminals -- are still programmed to require a signature as well as the chip. Most cards and card readers in the rest of the world are set up to use a PIN (a 4-digit code, like the one used for ATM withdrawals) and not a signature.
As a result, many US-issued cards still won't work in most unattended kiosks abroad. And because of variations in programming and available authentication options, you can never be sure, until you try it, whether any particular card will work in any particular kiosk or vending machine.
You've probably noticed that chip card terminals are slower than the mag-stripe card readers they have replaced. For this and other reasons, conversion to chip cards in the USA is going much slower than banks had planned. Fixing problems that inconvenience travellers abroad is going to take a back seat to dealing with issues that affect shoppers and merchants using the new chip cards within the USA.
For the foreseeable future, your best bet is to carry two or three chip cards issued by different banks. Hope that at least one of them will work if you need to buy a ticket or make some other purchase from an unattended kiosk. Once you have tried to use them a few times, you'll figure out which of your cards is most likely to work in terminals that are programmed to expect chip-and-PIN cards. For essential purchases or tasks like picking up a prepaid ticket, don't count on being able to use an unattended kiosk. Allow time to find, and wait in line for, a human cashier.Link | Posted by Edward on Monday, 12 December 2016, 20:13 ( 8:13 PM) | TrackBack (0)