“If the Earth were a single state, Istanbul would be its capital.” – Napoleon Bonaparte
I love cities where old and new coincide (or maybe even collide?). One of the first things that grabbed me about Rome was the modern stores housed in ancient buildings: Gucci, Prada, Ferragamo and other designers I’ve never heard of display no more than 3 items (the more expensive the shop, the fewer the display items, right?) in windows fronting plazas where chariot races were held centuries ago.
I suppose I expected Istanbul to be a similar mix of old and new, so when we landed in Istanbul after dark, I was unprepared for the chic cosmopolitan skyline that greeted us. We took a shuttle from the city’s newest international airport, and even before we approached the heart of the downtown with its beautiful lit suspension bridges, palaces and mosques, we saw high rises along the freeway outlined with blue neon and shopping centers glowing with floodlights.
We rented an apartment on the far edge of Beyoglu, a trendy area for shopping and nightlife, and the jazz clubs with cocktails approaching $20 remind us that we are in a city rivaling Paris, New York or Sydney.
At Second Glance
And yet this contemporary city has plenty of old world charm. Walking along our neighborhood sidewalks, we step around men from 25 to 70 sitting on tiny plastic stools drinking tea. And although it’s tempting to compare older women in their traditional headscarves and long winter coats to brusque Russian babushkas, older Turks age gracefully and have a gleam in their eye and a ready smile.
A Turkish woman told me, “Istanbul isn’t Turkey,” and I believe her if for no other reason than I understand that New York isn’t America. She meant it in a deeper sense, though; as a teacher, she specifically mentioned parts of Turkey where girls still may not be educated.
Another man we met warned us to “give Istanbul a chance,” and upon our arrival I understood his meaning. I never adapted completely to the size of the city, at times finding it overwhelming and enjoying our weekend excursions to smaller towns.
But for a BIG city, KC and I enjoyed the energy of Istanbul; despite its size on par with Los Angeles, I often caught myself scurrying faster than the leisurely flow of pedestrian traffic. Turksih speech patterns are low and calm, unlike a certain country we just left! And it’s hard to feel even slightly disconcerted by a pack of teen boys noisily taking up the sidewalk when they’re singing or holding hands. (That’s not to say we didn’t see a few kids screwed up and huffing glue… as I said, it’s a BIG city.)
“Either I conquer Istanbul or Istanbul conquers me.” – Fatih Sultan Mehmet
Lest you think Istanbul is a tranquil, smooth-flowing city, have no doubt that it lives up to its riotous reputation, too. Need I say anything more than “Grand Bazaar”?
Other simple examples exist just outside of our apartment:
- KC has given up exercising in the park near our apartment because each time he tries to practice kung fu moves or use the situp machine, he’s instantly surrounded by boys from 8 to 28 wanting to race him or show off their kicks, asking his name and where he’s from the whole time. He’s quite the ambassador.
- Most restaurants house a wood-fired oven for baking bread and roasting anything/everything; the wooden paddle for pushing food all the way to the back of the oven is about 12 feet long, and if the restaurant isn’t 12 feet deep, you’re likely to get a wooden handle to the ribs if you walk by the front door at the wrong time.
- The other day I was walking by a tea house on our street (men only!) and a millisecond before I crossed the threshold of the open doorway, a handful of bottle caps hurtled under my nose and clattered into the street. Hmmmm?
- Traffic is mildly crazy with some serious traffic jams. And apparently Turks don’t think like American men in terms of asking for directions: as they drive along not sure where they’re going, they just roll down a window and tap their horn to get the attention of the next driver, who then rolls down his/her window, and an entire conversation ensues – usually at a stoplight, thankfully – about how to get where Driver #1 wants to go. I rather liked it and found it to be just one more example of a culture where stopping to visit and have a cup of tea together is a priority.
I hope you enjoyed my thoughts on this multi-faceted city. Sorry it’s a bit of a rambling post, but at least I didn’t subject you to another history lesson (and boy could I have if I’d wanted to!). Here, have a few more photos to take your mind off of it.
“If one had but a single glance to give the world, one should gaze on Istanbul.”- Alphonse de Lamartine