It was a sunny summer August morning at the prestigious Greek Baloukli hospital of Istanbul, a historic facility established in 1753 that still reflects the pride of the few remaining members of the Greek community of Constantinople.
“Balikli” means “a place with fish”. The story behind the name is derived from the holy Zoodohou Pigi fountain, meaning life-giving source.
Legend has it that during the Siege of Constantinople, Emperor Constantine Palaiologos rode out of the burning city to reconnoiter the outposts of the Turkish army.
Passing through the wood, he found an old priest seated by the side of this very spring while frying fish.
The emperor dismounted from his horse and asked if the old priest had heard anything of the movements of the Turkish forces.
“They have at this moment entered the city of Constantinople,” said the old priest.
“I would believe what you say,” replied the emperor clenching his fist tightly so that his imperial ring dug into his skin, “only if the fish which you are frying would jump off your gridiron and into the spring.”
At exactly that moment, the fish flipped from the pan, setting the unhappy emperor into a frenzy. He jumped onto his white stallion and rushed to save his city that was lost during the solar eclipse of 22 May, 1453. It was the day the Byzantium died. Prophecy has it that someday the fried fish will leap to life with the return of Christianity to Constantinople.
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Emperor Constantine, the Marble Prince, will awaken from his slumber to fulfill the legacy. Perhaps that is why many Greeks from the region, now scattered around the globe, like to name their sons Constantine in the hope that their Constantine will be the reincarnation of the lost emperor who will restore Greek supremacy to Constantinople once again.
Lesson Number 1: Legends can be as real as God if you truly believe in them.
It was at Baloukli hospital, just a few metres away from the holy fish-flipping waters of Zoodohou Pigi that, I, a chubby newborn, saw the first light of day.
The Greek church clock did not strike 8am.
Instead, tuneless muezzins and imams were chanting azans, heralding the spiritual start of another ordinary morning across the hundreds of mosque towers of Istanbul. My mother said she tried to protect me from the sounds of the muslim prayers and the touch of Islam by saying the Lord’s prayer and crossing me, symbolically; claiming me as a Christian seed planted in the turbulent soil of a city where earthquakes are still as regular as political dissent.
But I yawned, uninterested in my mother’s prejudices and still a slave to my primal instincts, not even aware of my predicament as a Greek born in Turkey – an infidel, a giaour. Too fresh to belong to a particular doctrine. Hardly even a person yet, but ready to learn life’s harsh lessons.
Lesson Number 2: Everyone needs a tribe.
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We left the city where I was born and my ancestors are buried just two and a half years later, with my parents selling their belongings for a song but managing to sew gold trinkets and coins into the lining of their toddler’s coat so as to smuggle these out in secret. I was an innocent child, unaware that I was complicit in the crime.
Lesson number 3: Don’t assume something belongs to you just because you own it.
In every version of the family story of leaving Istanbul, my parents said they worried that I jiggled too much, blissfully dancing to the music of the clanging sounds in my little red coat.
The smiling Turk at customs thought I was cute and wanted me to stop dancing so as to sit on his lap but my parents hushed me. I could speak Turkish back then and definitely knew how to say “coins in my coat”- it was the beginning of a language I’d never use again.
Lesson number 4: Be careful what you say as it can be held against you.
I wish I’d kept the language, now spoken in my homeland, as carefully preserved as the language of my heritage and the English language of my present.
I should have kept my useless Turkish words like the few family antiques I have bubble-wrapped in a storage shed downstairs.
My daughters ask me why I clench to my clutter when I obviously have as much use for forgotten antiques as the suitcase of yellowed intricately embroidered doilies I detest but would never dream of throwing out.
To them it’s clutter. To me it’s a symbolic connection to a place of belonging – as real as the flying fish of Balikli.
Lesson number 5: Clutter can be country too.