When I was younger, I had a white t-shirt that said, London, Rome, Paris, Istanbul. It started off as a pyjama shirt and became a favourite item to wear. Years later, once I returned from Europe, I wore that shirt with pride. After all, I had just been to Rome and Paris and London. But there was one city left.
It’s been five years since I met my friend Hakan. In those five years, I chose to visit Central American countries. I visited places in Canada and the United States. But I haven’t been back to Europe.
This summer, while doing my daily Google Flights exploration, I came across a flight. Ottawa to Istanbul (via Toronto) for $500.00. Add to cart. I didn’t even think twice. I was finally going to Istanbul. In fact, I often repeated to friends that it would have been financially irresponsible for me not to buy it.
I messaged my friend Hakan and asked him if it was ok for me to visit. He said yes. Two hours later, there was an attack at the airport I would by flying into a few months later. Friends sent me urgent messages. Did you see the attack? Are you still going? I wrestled with the idea of cancelling. But I didn’t.
A week later, I was in a bike accident. The scratches, bruises and road rash healed. There was an overwhelming sense of anxiety that followed me. If I could get hurt, cycling home, a ride I do everyday, what would happen to me in Istanbul? I worked hard to remember my love of travelling, my sense of wonder and my complete inability to stand still.
But then. A coup d’etat. Were the signs there for me? The travel blogging conference I wanted to attend cancelled without reason. The United States consulate sent its staff home. What do I do? Would I be safe?
I went. I saw. And fell in love.
Istanbul is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It’s got a chaotic energy that you can’t quite understand.
I brought a book with me, called Istanbul: Memories and the City. The book published in 2005. His experience felt so familiar:
“of the dim lights that you see of an evening on the boats crossing from Kadıköy to Karaköy; of the little children in the streets who try to sell the same packet of tissues to every passerby; of the clock towers no one ever notices; of the history books in which children read about the victories of the Ottoman Empire and of the beatings these same children receive at home; of the days when everyone has to stay home so the electoral roll can be compiled or the census can be taken; of the days when a sudden curfew is announced to facilitate the search for terrorists and everyone sits at home fearfully awaiting “the oϫcials”; of the readers’ letters, squeezed into a corner of the paper and read by no one, announcing that the dome of the neighborhood mosque, having stood for some 375 years, has begun to cave in and asking why the state has not done something; of the underpasses in the most crowded intersections; of the overpasses in which every step is broken in a diϱerent way; of the girls who read Big Sister Güzin’s column in Freedom, Turkey’s most popular newspaper…”
These pages described in words what I couldn’t paint in my own blog. About the energy of the city, of the emptiness and loneliness of some, of the needs of others. I saw refugee children chasing my taxi. They sat outside the bars, holding out their hands, selling tissues. It broke my heart. There were places in which I was the only person around. I saw mosques that were gorgeous, crumbling away. The rhetoric of terrorists is still relevant.
I tried to take in everything I could about the city, from the way it made me feel to the sights and smells. Everyday I would venture out and get lost. The winding cobblestone streets of the Old Town leading me to new and interesting venues. My new boots making paths in the thousand-year old sidewalks. When I moved to Taksim neighbourhood, I wandered around the square, down Istiklal Avenue, and made me way through bakeries and restaurants.
I went out clubbing one night and shocked at the sheer amount of people out. For a conservative country, these people knew how to drink. They knew how dance and how to crowd themselves into an open-terraced dance floor. I met a boy, who seemed sincere and thoughtful, but turned out to be none of those things.
If my post seems disjointed, you’re right. I felt lost in Istanbul.
Everyday, even though Google Maps would be ringing in my ear, I would look for things I couldn’t find. I explored various parts of the city with no idea where to go. I couldn’t find the restaurant I wanted to try. The store I swear I saw the day before was missing. But then, I would catch a glimpse of the Bosphorous through the crumbling homes or look at the city on the highest floor of a building and I would be overwhelmed by the view.
Istanbul felt like a European city on one side and a cosmopolitan hub on the other. The Asian side felt like any other major city I had been in. More modern. More people. Less tourists.
I sampled food that my friend Hakan ordered, desserts that were placed in front of me and drank copious amounts of coffee. On the day I went to get a traditional Turkish bath, I was only one at the luxurious Hamam I had chosen.
I was offered tea everywhere I went, and only partook some of the time.
My hotel sent me a fruit basket for my birthday and charged me twice for my room.
Istanbul was both dominating, and submissive, letting me explore areas on my own, but then harassing me whenever I walked in the Old Town. One night, Hakan led me to a crumbling basement, where we smoked hooka and I had a drink made with cream and cinnamon. The other night, a dessert place, where we stacked our plates high with Turkish treats. Each time, I felt a little closer to understanding Istanbul and its people. Life goes on here.
Life goes on in Istanbul.
It’s hard to imagine that only a few short months before my visit, the whole country was in upheaval. A military coup d’etat was in the streets and many people died protesting for their beliefs. It’s even stranger to think, that as I was wandering the streets, professionals were getting fired for their supposed involvement. And now, a few weeks removed, and a year later, that a bomb was set off near the soccer stadium. A soccer stadium that would fit into any other city. And that on New Year’s Eve, someone attacked a popular nightclub. A nightclub that could belong to any other city.
Some Turkish man took it upon himself to show me around. He brought me through the doors of Istanbul University. It was a stunning building that would excite me every time I had to go to school. He brought me to his favourite mosque, and told me to close my eyes before seeing the city view. It was breathtaking in ways I never knew possible. The wind and rain pounded hard as we made our way to the edge.
It wasn’t the trip I had intended to make. I had expectations and ideas of what I wanted to do, but in the end, it was the trip I needed. Funny how that happens sometimes.