The Most Important American Holiday is in one week. Thanksgiving rocks because there's no phony (or real) religion or rampant consumerism -- only food and friends and family. This is likely to be the first of several posts dealing with the First Annual Baku Diaspora Istanbul Thanksgiving.
We held two gigantic Thanksgivings in Baku (see here and here for previous years' shopping experiences). This year, about 30 folks are leaving a huge carbon footprint, journeying from America, Honduras, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Baku and Ukraine to come to Istanbul. For this, we give thanks.
One thing they all have in common --in addition to an appreciation for ass fat -- is a prodigious appetite for alcohol. As many reside in Muslim countries, they need a pork fix too.
Because we aim to please, advance planning is critical. Not only is crap Turkish wine and beer overpriced and packed with headache-inducing preservatives, Turks tax the hell out of imported booze. Also? Muslims don't eat pork, so it's hard to find in Istanbul. What is Thanksgiving without pork products?
So, faced with these vexing circumstances, and having had a few drinks, we were susceptible to manipulation.
On flawed advice from a drunk guy in a bar (is there any other kind?), La and I decided that we would leave first thing Sunday morning for Bulgaria. Since Bulgaria is in Europe, there must be a giant Carrefour with lots of pork and cute wine shops just over the border, a two-hour drive from Istanbul. Instead of sending us on a fool's errand, that drunk guy might have instead pointed out that we have a Carrefour and cute wine shops within five minutes' walk from our front door in Istanbul. Drunk guy has been stricken from the Thanksgiving invite list.
Regional experts know that Bulgaria
produces not-awful wine (on the continuum of awful regional wine,
Georgian is the least awful but it's a long drive from Istanbul.
Bulgarian is the next least awful, followed by Moldovan. Then it's
toss-up between Ukrainian and Turkish as most awful. Azeri wine is so awful, it's got an awful continuum of its own). Plus, as Christians, Bulgarians
like the pig. What could possibly go wrong with this carefully thought out plan?
We left Istanbul's sprawl behind on a smooth, multi-lane, toll freeway, with modern green directional signs at a cool 85 mph, admiring small Turkish villages and neat fields along the way. After a stop in the charming and historic town of Edirne with its lovely mosques and Ottoman wood houses, we pressed on to Europe. Yay pork! Yay wine!
Can someone please tell me who concluded Bulgaria is European enough to join the EU? As soon as we passed border control, we found ourselves on a Soviet-era, two-lane, unlined asphalt path with no shoulders, clogged with trucks. The border town of Kapitan Andreevo was so ghetto, we might as well have arrived in Belarus or outer Ukraine. Darkness fell as we drove on -- dodging oncoming traffic to pass coughing Zhigulis and Ladas -- toward Svilengrad, 20 kms farther. We were sure that this city -- for which we had no map -- would have the Carrefours and cute wine stores we sought.
What Svilengrad had was no lights, decaying factories, rusting playgrounds and Soviet-era apartment blocks. Not only was there no Carrefour or cute wine stores, there was no evidence of any kind of commerce other than truckstop prostitutes and casinos. We dodged gypsies and stray dogs in the dark streets before finding a single shop selling fortified wine and some bloody pork chunks. The zombie behind the counter registered our presence, barely.
"OMG! This place is so not Europe! Someone tricked us into driving two hours to the former Soviet Union! Why would anyone ever come here? What the hell were we thinking? Get back to Turkey, stat!"
We jumped back in the car and drove back they way we came, toward the order and cornucopia of plenty that is....Turkey, also known as "not Europe."
Near the border, we stopped at some last-chance, fleabag roadhouses to see if there was any wine. They could have been in Warsaw, circa 1991, sharing the same smell of mildew, cement, cat pee and those fatty eastern European sausages cased in knobby brown wax and sold from plastic crates. Unwilling to take many risks on dusty bottles of unknown vintage, we grabbed just four bottles of dry "Melnik" red.
At the last border "duty free" shop, we found surprisingly cheap, high-quality Russian vodka and a cashier with no interest in looking at our documents. When we pulled out a credit card, however, she shook her head.
"Oh no, no credit cards here!"
"But it's Europe! What kind of duty free shop is this?" we whined. She looked straight at us without answering.
"Oh. That kind of duty free shop. Gotcha." We scampered back to the car.
You cannot imagine our relief when we crossed back into Turkey, which, as I've mentioned, is not Europe. Having learned a valuable lesson about Bulgaria, we'll be stocking up at The Greek Deli for our pork and probably, the cute wine shop five minutes' walk from my front door.
Next time, we'll go to Greece.