Sights, sounds, and smells. All for free. The rest you will have to barter for, my friend.
Napoleon Bonaparte said, “If the earth were a single state, Istanbul would be its capital.” It’s easy to see what he meant when you walk through the markets and shop lined streets. This is the center of everything that is commerce between Europe, Asia, and Africa. “Come in my friend. We make you good price.”
That Could Have Gone Better
As soon as the words were out of her mouth, I knew we were done for. We had almost escaped but now things had gotten worse. These guys were ruthless despite the outward appearance of being so friendly. Now, there was no going back. It wasn’t the ideal time or place to show any weakness, but I resigned myself to our fate. They had smelled blood in the water and they were going in for the kill. Rug sellers in Istanbul are among the best salesmen in the world. And now we were going to have to buy two of them.
Weird, But Effective
Living in Istanbul grew on us. It wasn’t that it made a bad first impression, in fact it was just the opposite. It was exactly the kind of city that we were ready to live in, just slightly out of our comfort zone. Istanbul was different. It sounded exotic. It seemed romantic and mysterious. All of this attracted us to Istanbul with one special added bonus, that we couldn’t wait to experience for ourselves. Turkey has world famous coffee and we were ready drink it until we shook like the earthquakes we left back in California.
The taxi ride from the airport was surprisingly beautiful with lots of carefully manicured lawns and flower beds decorating the long stretches of road. Every so often an impressive, historical looking structure would suddenly appear, leading me to wonder again where I packed the camera? The taxi driver stopped to ask directions nine times before he figured out the address of where we now lived. I say that without any judgment. After the literal maze of streets, we took to get here, we were now “home” and I was completely lost.
Our apartment was perfect. It had a modern industrial feel with a definitive artistic flair. The old brick walls felt historic to us and the location was ideal. The electricity, wifi, or water would shut off almost daily. Not for very long but just long enough to remind us that we were in Turkey. It was located deep in a local neighborhood and despite the fact that we stood out quite a bit, we blended right in to the neighborhood. People here have seen everything it seems, and generations of unshakable people have evolved into a tight knit community. Despite Istanbul being such a huge city, it still felt like everyone here knew each other. And that’s when the yelling started.
What’s All That Yelling?
There are a lot of reasons people in Istanbul yell a lot, and a vast majority of the time, it isn’t because they’re angry. It’s just the preferred method of communication. They have cell phones, I’ve seen them. They just don’t want to use up their minutes I guess. Kids will shout up to their friends or parents on the higher floors rather than walk up the stairs to talk, and everyone would yell right back down. Some of the yelling was from the many vendors that would patrol the streets hoping for a sale. There were produce trucks, milk sellers, and guys pushing bread carts. There was even an overstuffed van selling various small appliances, all calling out to people inside their homes that something is for sale. Buyers would yell out their interest and the haggling would begin. Loudly. When a price had been agreed upon, a Turkish woman would lower a bucket tied to a rope, down to the street. The vendor grabs the cash and fills the bucket with jars of milk, or vegetables, or bread, or whatever it is they’re selling. She pulls the bucket back up and everyone seems very happy about the arrangement. Our Airbnb place didn’t come equipped with a bucket on a rope, so I had to walk downstairs, but I have to say, it was still the most convenient shopping experience of my life. We still had to go shopping at markets for some things, but we never had to carry very much back. And because my grasp of the Turkish language is so poor, buying things inevitably improved my charades skills.
Uphill. Both Ways.
We enjoy zig zagging aimlessly through the streets of the new places we move to. Once we learned how to find our way back home, Istanbul was no exception and we started venturing out to see more of the city. We quickly discovered that almost everywhere you go in Istanbul is uphill. And if it’s not, it will be on the way back home. Steep hills. The “not any fun” kind of hills. (Unless you’re a mountain biker and into that sort of thing but I stand by my description) It’s the kind of geography that likes to continually point out exactly how out of shape you are. It was more than one occasion, after walking around all day, that we’d find ourselves paying the 5 lire to take the Tünel. (the second oldest underground train in the world) just to avoid the final stretch. Instead of climbing that last steep hill, The Tünel would bring us up to Istikal Street where we could walk two blocks back downhill to get home. It was the shortest train ride ever but there were times when it was so worth it.
Most of the big tourist spots that people flock to Istanbul to photograph themselves in front of are conveniently close together. A short twenty-minute walk from our apartment would put us right in the middle of Istanbul’s most famous attractions. At the risk of being narcissistic and saying “we” fifty times, I can at least comment on the things we were fortunate enough to do. We climbed nearby Galata Tower for its spectacular vantage point over the city and the Bosphorus River. We strolled along trendy Istiklal Street and bought a few things to wear in the quickly approaching winter months. We toured the famous Hagia Sophia and Sultan Ahmed Mosque (the Blue Mosque) and stared properly amazed at its stunning architecture. We took a Bosphorus River cruise that was surprisingly pleasant and yielded more surprises in architecture than we expected. We visited the Ayasofya Turkish Bath although on separate sides as is tradition. I was washed on the same spot as Suleiman the Magnificent (supposedly) and Mimi got a more meaningful local experience, making friends and seeing the camaraderie of Muslim women in a way she’d never experienced before. We wandered through the Grand Bazaar and the Egyptian Bazaar which almost blend together except for their different outward appearance. Ranging further out, we were honored to attend a Whirling Dervish ceremony inside the ancient walls where Istanbul first sprang up. We wandered through museums, saw countless mosques, and strolled through several parks. We walked around as far as we were able, but the city sprawls out farther the we could possibly see in ten years and we only had two months.
What Did We Just Buy?
In our neighborhood there were no big supermarket type grocery stores close by. There were lots and lots of tiny markets though so shopping sometimes involved multiple stops to find everything you were looking for. Now, coffee is a big deal to us and while in Turkey we tried to have Turkish coffee often. Some days are busier than others though so there were days when we’d find ourselves making coffee at home. So, after weeks of not being able to find brown sugar for our coffee, I was determined to find it. After searching through my fifth market I found a small bag of shiny granular crystals that I was sure had to be brown sugar. I couldn’t read the Turkish written label but one of the words started with an “S.” That had to be it, right? The young kid working behind the counter and I didn’t share a common language so my questions trying to confirm that this was indeed brown sugar were completely pointless. Not feeling confident about my ability to act out the word “sugar” in a charades like fashion, I just bought it and went home thinking about how great it was going to be to surprise Mimi with brown sugar for our coffee the next morning.
So, bright and early the next morning I start making our morning coffee. I boiled the water, ground the beans, and poured it all into the French press we bring with us to each new home. As I was waiting the four to five minutes I give it to strengthen, I decided to take a closer look at the brown sugar I had spooned into our coffee cups in eager anticipation. The texture didn’t look quite right so I decided to taste it. It was definitely not sugar. In fact, it was disgusting. It tasted like dirt that had been specially formulated to suck every bit of moisture and joy, right out of your mouth. Mimi was sitting nearby checking her email and heard me cursing and spitting from the next room. She ran into the kitchen, took one look at me, and started to laugh. It turned out to be semolina flour ground from duram wheat. It’s used in several Turkish deserts but is usually mixed with copious amounts of sugar, and whatever other ingredients, before it’s cooked to help make it all edible. I would not recommend it however, for your coffee.
It was not easy for us to find wine or alcohol unless we were at a restaurant. We had brought a couple of bottles into the country with us from Slovakia and Jerusalem, but they didn’t last long. Shopping for wine to take home simply didn’t exist there with the exception of one wine bar. Maybe there’s some huge wine emporium that exist somewhere in the city but not in our little neighborhood. Turkey is almost completely Muslim, and they’re not known for being drinkers.
Sensus was a wine bar and restaurant with pretty decent food but they also sold wine to take home. We got to know the staff and they recognized us as regulars, pretty quickly. They were the lifeline to the wine we enjoyed with dinners we cooked at home. I make a really good vegetarian spaghetti, all from fresh natural ingredients, and to enjoy it without wine seems wrong somehow.
The food in Istanbul is as varied as any large city in Europe. Everything you can image is available somewhere in the city. Turkish coffee is deservedly famous and a staple of course but tea is commonly sipped on throughout the day as well. Local food consists of a lot of mezze, falafel, and shawarma as you’d expect but it’s not so simple as that. Istanbul has been such a crossroads for so many civilizations for centuries and those influences have had their effect. Variety is everywhere and it’s delicious.
I’m Very Sorry Sir
I’m standing there wearing nothing, but a towel wrapped around my waist in the very spot that Suleiman the Magnificent used to get his hammam. (traditional bath) The guy that’s been scrubbing at me and pouring water over me for the last half an hour, suddenly stops chatting and starts apologizing to me. It’s a little disconcerting because I have no idea why and I’m starting to get a bit worried. “I’m very sorry sir. Very Sorry. But it’s tradition. I have to do it. I’m very sorry sir. Please don’t be mad.” A split second later, the towel is stretched away from my waistline and ice-cold water is dumped down the front of me. I’m in complete shock but I finally understand why he was apologizing. I laughed and assured him that I wasn’t mad. He visibly relaxed and we continued chatting. I had been initiated into the long-standing tradition of hammams in Turkey. The Turkish have a great sense of humor and pouring freezing water on someone’s junk is funny in any language.
Over the Hills and Through the Woods
Five days after we arrived in Istanbul, some political differences between the US and Turkey prompted both countries to suspend visas between the two countries. We had a trip to Cairo already booked from Istanbul and we were fairly concerned about being able to get back into Turkey after the trip. From everything we read, it didn’t apply to people who already had visas as we did, but the news articles making that claim seemed unsure if things would stay that way as relations weren’t improving. We decided to risk it anyway but had a whole back up plan in place if we needed to get our cats out of the country in the event we weren’t let back into Turkey. It was a scary few minutes coming back from Egypt watching the passport control officials decide our fate, but our luck held out and we re-entered Turkey without problem. We decided not to risk any more trips during our time there as a precaution, but it brought to mind the famous line. “Can’t we all just get along?”
Istanbul turned out to be such a beautiful place in ways we didn’t expect or notice when we first arrived. The bond shared by the locals is a special thing and it was wonderful to feel so welcomed and accepted by people so quickly. The two months we spent there was shorter than our normal stay and it felt disappointing to be leaving so quickly. We know it will only motivate us to return. There is still so much of Turkey for us to see besides Istanbul that we can’t wait to get back.