City of Things

I am finally unpacking the odds and ends of months away.

There are the phone numbers of the Georgian restaurant in the basement of a hair salon and the Palestinian writer from the Arab book fair, and of the Uzbek puppetmistress from the Bukhara modern art museum. A black and orange Bomonti coaster from a bar in Beşiktaş with the slogan düne-bugüne-yarına – to yesterday, to today, to tomorrow. Two-tone one-pound coins from Egypt. A tiny bottle of rakı from the 1960s with the spirits still inside. A cheap, grayish slip of paper stamped in blue from a black market moneychanger in Tashkent. An old Czech alarm clock with peeling blue paint. A 1970s primer on sex ed with a racy, hot pink cover from a book stall under the Sayyeda Zeinab metro.

Some of these objects I acquired on purpose, others carelessly. I don’t save every ticket stub or menu, so what I find when I open my suitcase at home is not a record of my trip. A whole week of sightseeing might be absent, but the Bomonti coaster preserves an unremarkable evening – perhaps a composite of evenings, I’m not even sure. Objects like this briefly conjure uncurated memories. Some I choose to keep, stowing the things away, and others flit across my consciousness this one last time before I toss them in trash.

For this reason, I take unpacking seriously. It’s the last stand of memories.

The first weekend after I arrived in Istanbul from Cairo, in a gushing thunderstorm, I went to Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence. I had mixed feelings about the book when I read it a few years ago, and wished something would have happened in the middle 200 pages, but I was captivated by the idea of a novel and a museum unfolding simultaneously around each other. The museum is a house in Çukurcuma, the very house in which much of the book’s plot unfolds. Pamuk purchased it for this purpose. He imagined his characters’ lives unfolding within it as he collected the things they might have had there.

The walls of each room are covered in wood-rimmed display boxes. In each box Pamuk has staged real objects that correlate with episodes in the book: oxidizing wristwatches, glasses of rakı, cigarette butts edged with magenta. There are old photographs, yellow patent leather shoes, newspaper clippings from a beauty pageant held in the mid-1970s, and what the author calls with bitter-sweetness “the toys of now grown-up children.” Nothing is accidental, of course. But much of what the visitor sees are incidental objects that, in being saved, collected, and displayed, assume meaning. They come to embody a time, a place, a feeling. We need not have known 1970s Istanbul ourselves to experience the nostalgia they intend for us.

Through the memories of imaginary residents, I had an intimate introduction to the city where I would spend the next two months.

As I unpacked in Cambridge, I again found nostalgia in objects, this time my own.

In the museum’s audio guide, Orhan Pamuk tells a famous photographer that he likes his photos.

“You only like my photos because they remind you of your childhood,” the photographer says. “I like them because they’re beautiful,” Pamuk replies. Then, turning back to the visitor, he asks: Are beauty and memory truly separate things?

Objects become beautiful because they are also memories, and the ephemera of travel are like those of childhood. When you leave, you know the place will have changed when next – if ever — you return. You will not sit with the same people in the same places and speak about the same things, or if you do, it will not mean the same thing to you then as it did now.

Because of the afternoon I spent in the museum, I was more attentive than usual to objects in the weeks that followed. One Friday, a new friend took me to a junk auction in Fener. A historically Greek neighborhood and the seat of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, its sleepy streets are now full of antique shops and quaint cafes. The auction was already well underway when we arrived. Potential buyers were crammed into folding chairs and spilled out into the street from the small shop whose windows were stuffed with costume fezzes, old typewriters, and record players that were not quite old enough to be cool. Someone passed around a tray of tea.

Satsat-saaaat….tim! The auctioneer cried out. Sold!

A Native American headdress affixed to a pair of elk horns hung on the wall behind him. The auctioneer brandished a fist-sized Ottoman pipe. Osmanlı, Osmanlı!, he intoned, coaxing the dealers sprawled out with piles of purchased junk in the front row. This was an old piece; it might have real value. The next item was a Polaroid camera, followed by a VHS tape of Fantasia and records of the mediocre ‘70s rock star Barış Manço. Then Islamic kitsch – a beaded square emblazoned with “mashallah” and hadith wall hangings, an Elton John collection, a copper pot, a plastic chandelier, a mirror made from a tennis racket.

It was a room of people charmed by the discarded objects of others, of traders in nostalgia. Why had the antler/headdress combo wound up a few meters from the Greek Orthodox Patriarch? Why does someone want the complete set of a faded Russian pop star’s cassette tapes?

In The Innocence of Objects, the companion to Pamuk’s novel and museum, the author includes a manifesto containing his thoughts on what the museums of the future should be like. “We don’t need more museums that try to construct the historical narratives of a society, community, team, nation, state, tribe, company, or species,” he writes. “We all know that the ordinary, everyday stories of individuals are richer, more humane, and more joyful.” He calls for museums on a “human scale.”

Finally, he writes, “the future of museums is inside our own homes.”

I am in my own home, my new home, unpacking my objects. Some of them I am throwing away. The garbage collector will pick them up on Wednesday morning. And some will find their way into my desk drawer or onto the shelf beside my bed, along with the things from other moments I have chosen to remember.

In the Museum of Innocence, there are many boxes that are not ready. Miniature curtains hang inside, waiting to be drawn. It is, several years after its opening and perhaps forever, an unfinished project. So is my little museum. The next time I unpack my suitcases, new memories will present themselves to me for review. Some will be chosen, and others will go out the next week, on Wednesday morning, with the garbage man.


2 thoughts on “City of Things

  1. As I read this post I thought of items here in my small apartment that make up a “mix” of my own “house museum”….made up of a random collection of keepsakes I still cling to since I was born in 1925….when you come to see me Thanksgiving I will have planned a miniature “guided tour” to take you on. Love, grandma.

    Liked by 1 person

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