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Istanbul (my destination for last week). I have been back a couple of days and am mulling over how to describe it, how I truly felt about this sprawling, ancient city. And I still don't know. So you will have to excuse me if I ramble a little in this post.
Having read numerous guide books before I went (Rick Steves' Istanbul; Time Out travel guide: Istanbul; Lonely Planet: Istanbul; Style Guide: Istanbul; A Hedonist's Guide to Istanbul; Eyewitness Guide to Istanbul) along with blogs, and travel articles I had squirreled away from magazines over the last few months, I thought I was well prepared for Istanbul and all it had to offer (Okay, okay, so maybe I went a teensy bit overboard in the research department but I wanted to be prepared rather than just winging it). Hmmm how wrong I was. I, naively perhaps, expected to fall in love immediately. To have a longing to return again and again to the "World's Hippest City" (not my words*) where tradition, culture and ancient architectural marvels collide with the cosmopolitan, the modern, and the fabulous. Instead, I feel confused. And I wonder if this is because Istanbul is itself confused. Is it that Istanbul is still trying to find its identity following the fall of the Ottoman Empire, is it still trying to reinvent itself in its desire for entry into the EU, is it the effect of gentrification? Or is it simply that I, who came expecting the exotic (fuelled, in part, no doubt by those copious glossy magazine articles), had preconceived notions of what Istanbul should be like, rather than what it actually is like in the modern day? I'm not sure and after only 5 days in Istanbul, I am (obviously) in no position to provide the answer. However, while I was there I did read the beautifully written account of Istanbul by Orhan Pamuk "Istanbul Memories and the City" (which I would highly recommend to anyone, whether you are intending to travel to Istanbul or not) and on a grey, wet day in the very back streets of the Old City, I felt I understood what Orhan meant when he talks about a communal melancholy ("Huzun" in Turkish) which seeps through the city and fills its occupants.
What I did fall in love with almost immediately was the people of Istanbul. Generous, kind, friendly, open. They were, in a word, wonderful. If I was fortunate to go back to Istanbul, it would be the people who I would seek out, spend time talking to, photographing, taking tea with. A number of times, after thanking a local for directions when we were hopelessly lost, I almost burst into tears of happiness when a Turkish man would smile, dip his head and pat his heart - such an endearing, delightful gesture. For me, to be invited into the home of an Turkish family would be an honour. For I strongly suspect that the heart of Istanbul, its true identity, lies behind the locked doors in the back streets of the Old Town and steep, cobbled streets of the New District.
Precious memories: hearing my first call to prayer (ever) while standing in the courtyard of the Blue Mosque. It was an incredible moment: spine tingling and something I will never forget; being "warned off" by a pack of street-wise dogs while off wandering on my own (the Dog Whisperer would not have been impressed by my actions- I squealed and ran! Probably the most foolish thing to do in the circumstances); sitting, drinking Turkish coffee and eating cheese toasties while inhaling the heady, sweet smoke from the narghiles being smoked by a cafe full of locals; crossing the Bosphorus in a private launch from Rumeli Hisarı to Kanlica; drinking sweet, fresh orange and pomegranate juice every morning (and afternoon!); strolling along the waterfront in Bebek (European shore) and Kadikoy (Asian shore); drinking Boza in the exquisite 1930's Vefa Bozacisi cafe (more on this in another post); watching the sun go down while chatting with some local fisherman near-ish the Galata Bridge; witnessing the kindness bestowed on the thousands of meows which inhabit the city (I have never seen so many well fed cats!); eating dinner late on Saturday night in a restaurant crowded with happy Turkish families; scoffing the freshest, most delicious kebabs at a teeny place called Aynen Durum just outside the Grand Bazaar while listening to the boisterous men bellowing frantically down their mobiles at the informal money exchange market; watching grown men take childish delight in throwing pieces of simit (the delicious, chewy, sesame coated bread sold by street vendors everywhere in Istanbul) to the eagle-eyed seagulls following the early morning ferry; getting icing sugar up my nose, all down my clothes and camera bag while trying to eat yogurt in Kanlica (messy Messy!); nibbling freshly made, flaky börek ....
This is one of my favourite photographs from Istanbul (yeah, I know I blew the highlights out of the sky on his hands but I still like it!). He was jeweller who had a gorgeous store near Tomtom Kaptan Sokak: