The view is spectacular at breakfast but not unusual; many hotels in the Sultanahmet area have restaurants at the top floor. Breakfast is nearly always included and typically offers cheese, hardboiled eggs, olives, tomatoes, fresh bread, and honey, as well as juices and Nescafe. At Mina Hotel, the seating gets crowded around 8:30 a.m. and guests try to rush those window seats. I had already chosen a spot and when several groups came in, I was quick to set a cup of coffee to mark my territory. A group of Russians grumbled when they came to the table and I assumed they had had the same idea. It was cafeteria-style so they crowded me into my seat and sat with what I imagined to be the heavy mood of the Russian morning. I felt awkward and I believed their own silence reflected the same. The Germans sat on the other side of the Russian contingent and behind me I heard the cheery ‘good mornings’ of the bright-and-early British. I tried to take in the view of the mosque, the sun coming across the rooftops, and an amusing size comparison out on the water: one massive ship, a medium vessel, a dozen tiny fishing boats flocking like chicks, and then a cloud of seagulls, closer still. But the gravity of my tablemates was distracting. Behind me the Italians were making friendly with the British. “Oh, where are you from?” “Yes, Venice is lovely, isn’t it?” I wondered to myself why the Russians were even still in the world power news any more than, I don’t know, say the Greeks? Why did we hear about Putin’s naysaying all the time? Were they even still an economic force so long after the failure of the USSR? Then I remembered: nuclear missiles. What a sad determinant of power and leadership. The world is run by the biggest of the thugs, and that included my own country’s threatening bullying.
I rose to get another cup of powder-mix coffee (another offense of the current state of the world) and forced chairs to be shuffled, bumped a table leg and induced more grim faces. When I came back, the young boy of the group was standing at my seat taking a photo of the two older women. They apologized and I smiled said No worries and waited while he snapped a couple more. They laughed at the picture on the camera display and the Cold Table War was over. I asked them where they were from. The blond woman was from Russia, her sister from Georgia. Why were they in Istanbul? Because relations between the former fellow republics were now terrible and sisters could not travel to see one another in their own countries. And I could not go east to visit the amazing historical places in Iran or Iraq. And the Turks serving us had trouble crossing the border into Greece. These were the real people (the ones who could afford to travel at least); all the Putins and Bushes and Erdogans of the world were about as distant and artificial as movie characters, but unfortunately determined where everyone was going to sit at breakfasts they would never have anything to do with. But the meals of the traveler are often where the best political gains could be made, and a bit of shared bad coffee could work so well against the us vs. them syndrome… unless someone grabs the window seat maybe.
(* The Bophrous is the narrow stretch of water between Asia and Europe and the two sides of Istanbul. It connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmar and on to the Aegean and Mediterranean)