Our day in Istanbul actually started at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, around 3 a.m. I woke up with a raging fever—not the Peggy Lee variety, but rather the kind that makes your hair hurt and your teeth chatter inside your skull. That morning, I could barely stand up long enough to pack, and I was ready to send my crew ahead to Turkey and die there in my hotel room in Jerusalem.
But Gordon Robertson, my boss and on-camera talent, simply wouldn’t allow it. “You’ll feel better once you get on the plane,” was his cheerfully unsympathetic reply. Way to poke a stick at an angry bear.
I was seething through my clenched, but still chattering teeth. Who feels better after they’ve been on a plane? Or after the two-hour security interrogation on the way out of the Israeli airport?
But he was right.
Somewhere in the air between Israel and Turkey, I did, inexplicably, start to feel better. Not just better, but really good. However, when my fever left, my voice went with it. I started out with a nice Lauren Bacall rasp, but by the end of the day, I could barely whisper, and, no doubt to the relief of my crew, my voice would stay that way for the entire trip.
We landed in Istanbul at 9 a.m. and met the non-English-speaking driver who would take us to our English-speaking guide later in the old city. I immediately called Guide to get directions to our first shooting location, the Adrianople Gate. This was the gate where Sultan Mehmet had entered the city after conquering it, and I had planned a standup for Gordon there. Guide, however, had never heard of it. He said he would “ask around and call me back.” Seriously? Kind of a big site in Istanbul’s history. A site I was paying him to know about.
While he “asked around,” we went instead to another location, the old city’s 1,500-year-old Theodosian walls. We managed to communicate that to Driver, and he answered, “Yes, walls. I take you walls.”
Soon we saw the walls everywhere: beautiful, pale-brick walls and fortresses with red-tiled tops, like something out of a medieval movie. I kept asking Driver to stop so we could shoot, but he just smiled and said, “Walls. I take you.”
He kept his promise. He not only took us to the walls, but up the walls. Before I could ask what he was doing, he parked, hopped out of the car and sprinted up the stairs on the side of a wall. We had no choice but to follow. My cameraman Lior ran after him quickly, a former IDF soldier unhindered by the backpack full of camera gear he was carrying, and the others followed with no problem.
I watched them from the street, saying a prayer and crossing myself. And by the way… I’m not Catholic.
To say that I have vertigo is an understatement. Sometimes I get dizzy just wearing high heels. I can’t skate, ski or climb a hill without falling down. But on this day, my ego trumped my inner ear issues, so up the stairs I went. I’m not prone to panic attacks, but as I tiptoed up that narrow staircase, a stone wall on one side and certain death on the other, my heart tried to beat itself out of my ribcage, and I was breathing like a pregnant woman in Lamaze class.
Of course, the view at the top was magnificent, Lior got some breathtaking shots of the city and Gordon delivered a great standup. Even the pigeons were listening to him, because right as he hit the part about panic sweeping the city, they obligingly flew up in a frenzy behind him. Every time we see that part of the story now, someone says, “Cue the pigeons.”
If I thought going up that wall was harrowing, the trip down was twice as bad. As I walked down, I focused on the crew below, determined not to give them any more material for their comedy routines by tripping.
Finally at the bottom, I phoned Guide again. Neither he nor the people whom he had “asked around” had heard of our next location, the Adrianople Gate. I hung up; not wanting to waste what was left of my voice on him.
That’s when eavesdropping, wall-climbing, non-English-speaking Driver came to my rescue, a knight in a gray minivan. He overheard my phone call and said with a smile, “Gate. Right here. Mehmet. I take you.”
We all got back in the van and drove… one block. Driver turned around with a smile and said, “Gate. Mehmet. There.”
So… the gate we had been searching for all morning had only been a block away. We got out and sure enough, there it was next to an idyllic park, with a giant plaque recounting the sultan’s victorious entry in 1453. Score. Two out of four standups were done, and it was barely 10:30 in the morning.
Next stop was the Hippodrome, an ancient racetrack for chariots and now a city park, where we finally met Guide. We immediately baffled him by not wanting the regular tour and politely requesting that he take us to our designated shooting spots and… be quiet while we shot. Still, he tried to sneak in his spiel now and then, until Gordon stumped him with intricate questions he couldn’t answer and debated him on Byzantine history. After that, subdued silence from Guide. Third standup: in the bag.
Our final stop was the Hagia Sophia, the magnificent Byzantine church I’d heard about since grade school. Rarely is the reality of a place as wonderful as your imagination of it, but in this case, it was even better. We did meet a major obstacle at the entrance, where security allowed us to take our camera inside, but confiscated our tripod; no amount of negotiating from Guide would change their minds. That meant Lior would have to do all of his shooting handheld. Once inside, he managed to shoot the interiors by propping the camera up on ledges or stairs to hold it steady.
Shooting Gordon’s standup, however, was a different story. Once he pinned a microphone to his lapel and stood in front of the camera, the security guards started watching us. When they had passed, I said, “All right, go!” Then Lior perched the camera on the shoulder of our human tripod, CBN security guard John, while Gordon stepped in front of the camera quickly and delivered the standup before the guard came back. Somehow it worked… and it only took three takes. Final standup: completed.
We ended the day around 3 p.m., 12 hours after we had started, at the Sultanahmet Fish House, a small nearby restaurant that Guide had recommended. The outside was unimpressive, but the inside was small and intimate, with bright red lanterns hanging everywhere and the music of Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett drifting through the dining room. It was the perfect place to relax, drowsy and happy and still feeling the electricity of everything we had seen and done that day. By that point, I had no voice at all and didn’t even care. The restaurant’s owner, a smiling, storytelling host, served us himself, first the starters: pita, hummus, tahini, olives, pickled vegetables and a variety of other Mediterranean appetizers. Then… the main course. Just before it arrived, Guide smiled and said mysteriously, “You will want to prepare your cameras.” And there it was: sea bass encrusted by a white mound of hardened salt, then set on fire at the table. Finally Guide had scored, and the affair of the gate was forgiven and forgotten.
It was an unforgettable ending to an extraordinary day. The day we ate flaming sea bass, shot a nine-minute story in just six hours, climbed a 1,500-year-old wall and wandered back in time a thousand years to spend a few hours in ancient Byzantium.