I spend about half of September in Istanbul and the rest exploring remote regions of Turkey (with a couple excursions to Germany as well). I have never experienced a city like this before — 14 million people, terrible traffic, poor infrastructure and water that the locals refuse to drink. I had a blast. I came to admire and enjoy these charms as well as so many more – Turkish delights, nargile (aka “hookah” or shisha — smoked water vapor in a variety of fruit flavors), tea in place of alcohol in many social circumstances, the friendly, curious locals, the endless corners and neighborhoods to explore in this sprawling, cluttered, chaotic city.
Istanbul is marketed to its tourists as a dichotomy of eastern and western influences – the only city spanning two continents, it is split by the Bosporus into a European side and an Asian side. I never made it to the Asian side — and I didn’t come close to seeing half of everything the European side has to offer — Istanbul is that large. But it doesn’t really seem large as much as busy. In most contexts your view beyond the neighborhood you are in is obstructed by buildings or narrow, winding streets giving a compartmentalized feel to every niche. Store fronts abound, but sidewalk space is at a premium – nowhere I found in the city could two people walk side-by-side – the roads are nearly all one-way and often cars will overload bi-directionally, forcing another to revert in order to pass. To me however, Istanbul felt neither European nor Asiatic. It felt like a rest stop between the two where foreigners from both places ran out of gas and decided to live.
One disappointment was food – while certainly around, not altogether accessible without some effort in first deciding upon a location. In other cities where good food can be tripped over, even finding a good kebab was hard to do (though finding a bad kebab was easy). And really I suppose this shouldn’t have surprised me — how do you keep 14 million people well fed if you can’t even keep them well-watered? Still it’s funny little gripes like this from a tourist that make a monthly visit to a city like Istanbul charming — thus the life of a nomad is simpler than that of a local.
Another privilege afforded to a tourist such as myself is hosting my mother and stepfather for a weekend. I introduced them to nargile, Turkish delights and visited some archaeological museums; among them I was happy to find two of my favorite characters from Roman antiquity – Marcus Aurelius and Agrippina the elder (mother of Caligula) — photos of their busts are appended, below. The real treat though came in watching my mother get “tricked” by the local ice cream man. An Istanbul tradition involves vendors playing “keep away” with your ice cream as you attempt to retrieve it from the out-stretched pole they deliver it to you on. Over the course of a minute every attempted snatch is met with a feign, parry or prestidigitation to keep it from you — accompanied by much hooping and hollering, and amused chuckles from bystanders around you. Classic.
Thanks Istanbul – I will visit you again someday.