Photo by Oscar Mussons. Istanbul, Turkey. 2013
Dualities, how one person or object can be apart of two worlds has always intrigued me. I wrote my Amherst entrance essay about going to Trinity School and living in Brooklyn. I’m an astrology nut, I know that I’m a cusp (Gemini-Cancer) and hopelessly attracted to other cusps. Since I was a kid, I’ve studied maps, mesmerized by borders and it’s on my bucket list to do the Four Corners monument in the US, where Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado intersect at one point. When I decided to go to Istanbul in June of 2013 while I was visiting Milan & Bologna I had no idea what to expect, nor did I do much research. My friend Oscar, a Spaniard I met in Athens while studying in Milan lived there and as Oscar’s a pretty avid traveller, I knew he’d take great care of me. All I had to do was make it to Taksim Square.
What I did know: 1. It’s Istanbul not Constantinople and 2. Istanbul is simultaneously in Europe and Asia, and I’d never been to Asia so this was going to be great!
As I mentioned, I wasn’t really prepared for it, and Istanbul hit me! I’m a New Yorker, not stranger to chaos and confusion. The bus ride from the airport to Taksim was almost like a decompression chamber as the parks surrounding the route got steadily more populated as the drive went on, but getting off at Taksim square and arriving in the center of Istanbul… the sites, the chaos, the traffic, the smells and aromas, the crowd, the unrecognizable street signs, and vague street rules. It was a lot. I was on the European side, where there was a strange juxtaposition of gorgeously ornate mosques and crude 70s style block architecture burned out building. But there was the Bosphorus Strait — let’s start with the Bosphorus, a friend and I took the ferry from Eminönü to Emirgan and it was remarkably beautiful seeing everything from old Ottoman Palaces like the Beylerbeyi Palace or the UNESCO site, Topkapi, the straight seemed lined with them, to private homes, to club Reina (one of Bono’s favorites) along the way!
I was quite happy that I found a friend in Anna at dinner the first night as the guys were going to be working all of the next day. I desperately needed some girl time and it turned out we were birthday mates, same day, same year! We sipped Turkish coffee in a cafe. Got cheated and threatened by a cab driver, escaped onto a boat on the Bosphorus and toured the sites, all the while noticing we were at times, and in certain areas mostly the tawny suburbs, the only women out and about. Anna is quite petite like I am and an absolute force. As an art history teacher back home in Texas, she made it her business to attempt to see all of the museums in Istanbul and really learn the public transportation while her boyfriend was at the office during the day. My feelings of anxiety upon arriving to Istanbul pretty much disappeared with her. It was definitely interesting experiencing Istanbul as a Western woman in a Muslim country. We were both dressed very respectfully, given the heat; I’m sure Anna considered the culture and religious sites when getting dressed for the morning as I did. But we were American women, and that was very clear; we possessed a certain ability to move between spaces, unquestioned, if only out of sheer ignorance. At one point, we were sitting at a coffee shop in Emirgan after going to the Sabanci Museum (click through for images below! I highly recommend: the surrounding gardens are exceptional, the villa is beautiful and they always seem to have a fascinating exhibit), and noticed we were the only women in that coffee shop, as well as the one next door! We had just past a whole group of women but down the street. Sure, there was a nightlife culture where the sexes mixed, and even a dating scene, which I explored with Oscar on the Asian side at a few bars and restaurants, but it seemed that among certain groups, whether it was class or varying degrees of religiosity, the sexes did not casually and socially mix.
Now, the universal barrier breaker. Food.
It’s a shame I don’t have any of the pictures of the raki. It’s a typical Turkish alcohol (although not technically the national one, due to conservative political attitudes towards alcohol) made with grapes and aniseed. You are to add water and ice to it and when you do, raki changes to a milk color; it’s nickname is actually Lion’s Milk. The closest thing I could compare raki to is Greek ouzo or sambuca. Our first night we went for dinner at Vogue, an impossibly chic restaurant overlooking the Bosphorus. It wasn’t what I had in mind for traditional Turkish food as our table was filly with sushi and lamb shank, but everything was mouth-watering and the atmosphere is unrivaled. As I was craving typical Istanbul fare, one day we started with what I was told was a typical Turkish breakfast, fresh honey, meats, olives, cheeses, cucumbers, bread, egg, and then tea and coffee of course. It was going to be a day of sight-seeing so it was good I powered up. For lunch we had delicious Köfte, Turkish meatballs at Sultanahmet Köftecisi. There is a queue outside but don’t think this is a tourist place due to the line of tourists and it’s proximity to a lot of the big mosques. It’s been open since the 1920s and is as local as it gets. There’s not even a menu (and don’t expect to be pampered… it’s assumed you’ll be in and out in 30 minutes flat)!
Dinner was on the Asian side at my kind of place, all locals, lots of seafood fresh from the Bosphorus, they only spoke Turkish and I could never tell you how to get there as we took one winding street after the other.
Visiting the Blue Mosque was an awe-inspiring and humbling experience. The official name of the mosque is the Sultan Ahmet Mosque, getting it’s nickname from the beautiful blue tiles on it’s interior. A mix of Byzantine Christian with Islamic architecture, it was an absolute feasts for the eyes with six minarets rising from the distance like something from legend. It’s neighbor, the Hagia Sophia was no less beautiful, having been a Greek orthodox church, an imperial mosque and now a museum.
Another absolutely amazing thing I found about Istanbul was the calls to prayer that resounded from the Mosques daily, especially in the old city. It’s really beautiful and the feeling that kind of descends on the city, for even a moment is unlike anything else I’ve ever experience. Even living near a large Catholic church in Brooklyn, waking up to the sound of church bells, I’ve definitely tuned them out, however, thinking back to the call to prayer time in Istanbul makes me a little more conscious, a little more appreciative.
In contrast, the Grand Bazaar was beautiful chaos! I clutched Oscar’s hand as we waded through tightly packed walls of people, vendors, spices, trinkets, everything you could ever imagine but probably didn’t need. I need a break or a drink after, and unfortunately barely took out my camera. I got some trinkets there because I’m mad for evil eyes.
Looking back, I was in a strange mood while I was there possibly fueled by exhaustion from bouncing between Milan and Bologna, and I didn’t give Istanbul nearly enough of a chance; it’s a shame too as my friend Oscar was living there at the time. My last night, on the Asian side dining at neighborhood waterfront restaurants, I saw the relaxed serenity in Istanbul. Turns out I left about a week before the protests of that summer started. I can’t say there was a tension in the air, or that there was a strong feeling the city was about to erupt.
I definitely plan to be back on that side of the world soon though, with a trip to Cappadocia as well. I actually carry Istanbul with my every day. The necklace that I’ve worn almost everyday since I got in Istanbul: an evil eye with an Arabic prayer etched in gold. Definitely let me know any suggestions you might have for me to have an amazing and authentic Turkish experience in Istanbul!
**Tip: don’t relay too much on knowing street names, better to know that where you’re going is “near the hospital” or near this big hotel. To get to Oscar’s office, I used a hospital and then a pastry shop as my landmarks.
Vogue. Akaretler Spor Cad. No:92 BJK Plaza A Blok K:1 Beşiktaş, Istanbul. +90 212 227 4404
Reina. Muallim Naci Cad. No:44, Ortaköy/Istanbul. +90 212 259 5919
Meshur Sultanahmet Koftecisi. Divan Yolu Caddesi No:12, 34400 Fatih. +90 212 513 1438
Sabanci Museum. Sabancı Cad. No:42 Emirgan + 90 212 277 2200
Blue Mosque. Sultan Ahmet Mh., Torun Sk No:19, 34400 Istanbul. +90 212 458 4983
Hagia Sophia Museum. Ayasofya Meydanı, Sultanahmet Fatih. +90 212 522 1750
Grand Bazaar. Beyazit/İstanbul. +90 212 519 1248 (I’m curious as to who answers this phone.)