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Travel Stories: Istanbul

Posted by in Travel Journals


(I traveled to Istanbul, Turkey in the Winter of 2013, this is what I saw.)

7:23 PM MCO 12/13

I feel overdressed. This isn’t as difficult as it may seem when you’re flying out of Orlando where the temperature, even in the middle of December, is hovering around 80 degrees. Overdressed, yes, but not for long. I’m on my way to Istanbul via Frankfurt, Germany where the temperature promises to be 50 degrees cooler.

The big difference this go around is that I find myself on the wrong side of the red eye. It’s 8PM rather than 8AM so instead of barely conscious corporate zombies praying for a complimentary upgrade for their rent-a-ride, I’m faced with the manic energy of nascent vacationers faced with what is most likely the first leg of a journey that will, depending on the vagueries of time zones, take them into the middle of tomorrow afternoon.

As I settle in, my first order of business is explaining the difference between a Samsung tablet and a Samsung phone to a pleasant woman of indeterminate mid-Asian origin, and my next is a race against time to collect as many Turkish language podcasts as I can until I’m rendered WiFi-less for the next 8 hours. Meanwhile some small part of my brain is trying in vain to parse the idea of going to Istanbul. The thought smells of cinnamon, and feels like the breeze of the Mediterranean.

8:11 PM Runway 12/13

The star of Luftansa’s safety briefing looks a lot like a slightly younger, substantially more computer generated Martin Sheen. One of the many pleasant surprises so far on this flight so far, alongside free blanket, pillow, headphones and legroom (I’m looking at you U.S. Airways).

3:21 AM 30,000 Ft 12/14

Metal utensils for dinner, plastic utensils for breakfast. The vagueries of inflight economics never cease to fill me with wonder.

Luftansa is one of the few airlines I’ve been on in recent history that hasn’t seemed to subscribe to the theory that it’s passengers were just mildly annoying and misshaped cargo containers that it was economically viable for them to carry.

10:30 AM (Subjective) FRA 12/14

Touchdown Frankfurt, it’s grey and rainy and time travel is working against me. My brain keeps thinking it’s 4:30 AM, mostly because it’s 4:30 AM, Germany just seems unable to believe this.

10:57 AM (Subjective) FRA 12/14

The bathrooms in FRA are broom closets, no, I’ve been in broom closets before and they were quite a bit more accommodating. It does provide an amusing distraction from the half-mile walk to my gate as I watch a half dozen people try to squeeze themselves and their baggage into a room that they quickly discover was designed for two.

Otherwise FRA has a sort of sterile, industrial beauty that perfectly compliments the iron grey sky…

5:23 PM (Subjective) Turkey Airport 12/14

Traded war stories with a traveler from Oklahoma. She told me about Argentina, I told her about Budapest. She told me about cattle, I told her about Fencing. Both of our siblings are lawyers, and we both agree that Florida is best described through the lens of Dexter. Now I’m waiting in line for a Visa, cash only — where cash is Lira, Euros or Dollars. Istanbul is dark, smells of sweet tobacco and I am tired.

6:16 PM (Subjective) Turkey Airport 12/14

WiFi can save your life, or get you a car service. In this case I need it for the latter. Since most of my short term memory is stored in the cloud these days, the lack of wireless Internet left me relying on modestly informed conjecture when the car company asked me about my return flight (to arrange a pickup). I imagine this little embellishment will eventually come back to bite me in the tuckus, but for now I have a ride to my hotel which is more than I could save for about 20 minutes ago.

Fun fact – According to a nearby sign now that I have landed in Turkey, Sbarro is the only thing that can complete my journey. I respectfully disagree.

6:46 PM (Subjective) Istanbul 12/14

All modern cities have the same roads. All western-ish democracies have at least one radio station that plays nothing but American music from the mid-90s. The Mediterranean is a beautiful sight even at night. A small child on a bicycle almost gets hit as he flies out in front of our shuttle. One of these things is not like the other.

7:20 PM (Subjective) Ambassador Hotel 12/14

Rule One, don’t drink the water. Rule Two, like most major cities if you happen to have a pre-existing heart condition avoid the shuttle and taxi drivers. Rule Three, tip. Rule Four, tip. Rule Five, Turkish hospitality is intense.

9:04 PM (Subjective) Adonin 12/14

Istanbul, at least the tiny snippet of the place I’ve seen from the vantage of this little jewel of a cafe is a lovely and eclectic mix of old and new. The only analog I’ve been able to come up with is Rome, which is apt considering the cities parallel histories. While Palaces and Mosques have replaced Colosseums and Churches the spaces between are still dotted with the same trendy restaurants and up market shops that you might expect from a thoroughly modern city.

This does alter the way that I explore though. I rarely shop and I only eat a rather standard number of daily meals, so much of why I move about a city is to take in the differences. In Istanbul, those differences are of degree rather than form. Like London or Paris, and unlike cities like Toyko or Cusco what you’re exploring is the culture and the people rather than the highways and the byways.

12:00 AM (Subjective) Istanbul 12/14

30 seconds out the door and a guy who claims to be from Kajikstan asks me to follow him to a bar (a common tourist scam, which ends in me paying hundreds or thousands of Lira I didn’t want to on drinks). He asked where I was from, I said Canada. He kept talking. I claimed to only speak Italian. He continued. I said in pigeon English that I was meeting my Canadian friends a half mile away. He nodded and walked away. I’m too tired for this.

7:40 AM ( Subjective) Ambassador 8/15

Sitting on the roof of the Ambassador hotel, watching the sunrise over the Hagia Sophia, Istanbul is a different city. The question that cuts through my sleep addled brain is whether this scene of soft light and squawking gulls the “true” Istanbul, or is it the crush of crowds below? Neither I suspect and both. When you stay in the tourist quarters you live by the distortion that such placement imposes. You are seeing a city with its best dress on, both more real, more distinctive and more full of artifice. You’re seeing the glories of history played out as theatre. There is truth here if you know what to look for but to understand it you have to see it interpreted through lens.

Today I sail the Bospherous and get a chance to widen my focus point ever so slightly.

8:11 AM (Subjective) Road to Takim 8/15

A row of people fishing off the Galata Bridge, skyscrapers and graffiti and the Italian tourists sitting behind me on the bus. If I’m right I’ve just crossed from Europe into Asia. I’m very likely wrong.

8:55 Asian Side

I was, in fact, wrong. What my guide has taught me so far. Turkish people like Soccer, and cheating at Soccer. The best team is on the Asian side. You can’t cross the bridge into the Asian side by foot, too many people jumped. You work in Istanbul and live on the Asian side. Apparently the Bospherous is dangerous for boats and likely for people but that’s just me.

Turkish Soccer Weekend: Beer, Match, Throwing Things, Fight, Police, Sleep. Repeat. Your odds of being arrested are directly proportional to your team.

9:42 AM (Subjective) Camlica Hill 12/14

Geography is a fascinating thing. I’m standing on Camlica, the highest hill in Istanbul . In front of me Europe, at my tail Asia, separated by a few hundred meters of steel and concrete bridge, pretty impressive stuff yet from here it’s all the same melange of browns and greens and blues, parks and houses and cigar-shaped boats. Two continents in one extended moment.

Geography does have one very concrete consequence, real estate prices. If you found yourself so disposed you could own a house at the edge of the Bospherous for between 5 and 100 million dollars.

The Malaysian woman asked Ali our tour guide why there are so few women wandering the streets of Istanbul. After a brief pause to contemplate, Ali’s response was that they are at home making (and taking care of) babies. His more considered response was that about 50% of Turkish families are “traditional” with the men working and the women rearing children. It colors the city as much as any architectural flourish.

11:49 AM (Subjective) Road to Spice Market 12/14

Palaces teach us how spectacularly modern life has become. Even the nicest rooms in the nicest palace is an order of magnitude less comfortable than a cheap side apartment. Less gold though.

I’m also starting to learn that the joke to speech ratio of the average Turk is somewhat higher than average, laughter and truth ride in the same carriage.

2:04 PM (Subjective) Spice Market 12/4

The spice market is an auction house, where the first lesson is that not all Turkish Delight is created equal, and the second is that everyone is your best friend when they want your Lira.

One day I will learn conversational Estonian and finally be immune to street peddlers.

3:33 PM (Subjective) Bospherous

Istanbul is an Ottomon city. It’s architecture is Ottomon, it’s history is Ottomon and you understand it best when you consider it first from that perspective. As I float across the Bospherous I wonder what it might have been like to sit at the heart of an empire that stretched across three continents. It certainly would increase the number of forts I had to maintain.

Our tour guide let me in on a secret that I’d begun to suss out earlier after my hotel manager was kind enough to inform me of the Jacuzzi in my room that didn’t actually exist. What is it? That truth in Turkey is an airy and complex thing. This theory holds for taxi cab drivers who forget where you live, restaurant staff who may forget what you ordered, and tour guides like Ali who take great joy in informing some of his clients of his secret lives as professional speech writer and heirs to great fortunes.

5:12 PM (Subjective) Ambassador Hotel 12/15

I’m convinced travelers are, as a species, the nicest people in the world. Today I ran into an Egyptian Professor, an Italian family on holiday, a Malaysian PHD student working on Aircraft Surveillance and oddly enough a couple from Jacksonville. All of them lovely. All of them adding proof to my theory that broadening your perspective is a psychologically ennobling experience without compare.

7:23 AM (Subjective) Ambassador Hotel 12/16

7AM never changes, regardless of whether it is actually an indeterminate time in the morning and/or afternoon on the east coast where my brain still wrongly believes that it is. While sunrise over Istanbul remains beautiful, I’ll be happy to miss it tomorrow in order to get a few more hours of sleep.

Note – I will never be able to hear the word “beautiful” again without thinking of the American woman at the Kebab House last night who referred to every, last scrap of scenery she set her eyes upon as “beautiful”. The appetizers were beautiful, the meal was beautiful, the restaurant was beautiful, hell the pita bread was beautiful (though this was actually quite true, it comes steaming hot and puffed up in a wondrous mound of starchy goodness), I couldn’t quite figure out whether she had simply forgotten other adjectives existed or whether beautiful just seemed, in all cases, to be the only descriptor that could fully capture the majesty of the scene.

Second Note – In Turkey Kebab means something very different than it does in America, there are dozens of different kinds and they are all delicious.

Final Note – The best sign I’ve seen so far was a small shop advertising it’s “Giant ‘Chritmas’ Sale” spelling error aside, for a country that is purportedly 99% Muslim and does not, from what I’ve seen, have even a Christmas light to speak of, this is and endlessly fascinating selling point for a store to hang its hat on.

11:52 AM (Subjective) Grand Bazaar 12/16

“Viagra Tea”. Yea. Welcome to the Grand Bazaar, a brilliantly designed system for extracting Lira from tourists in exchange for generic kitsch and fake rugs.

You learn to be rude. If you stop moving someone will sell you something. The trick is to hunt like an apex predator, find what you want and what you’ll pay for it. Zero in on it and press forward. Ignore distractions, ignore everything but the prize. Capture your prey, pay your Lira, move on. If they don’t give you your price, move on. You can get the same product 500 meters further on. There are 5000 shops after all, all selling the same 200 things. The odds are in your favor.

Confusion, distraction, indecision, weakness, all of these can be expensive mistakes. That being said, if you stop for the right pitch, you’ll probably get some pretty decent Apple tea (which is more like Apple juice than tea) out of it.

Headphones help, especially if you’re like me and you make a little too much casual eye contact.

Pro-Tip – if you want to tell whether a Turkish rug is handmade, check to see how it reflects light. Hand stitched rugs have a bias so that they will always look dark from one end and light from the other. Machine stitched rugs have no bias and so will reflect light identically no matter how you look at it. The affect is obvious and dramatic (especially when dealing with expensive, silk rugs) and understanding this will save you some heartache. This fun fact comes curtesy of Matis, a pleasant little rug shop in the outside section of the Grand Bazaar.

Second Note – Ceramic tile glows in the dark if you mix in some moonstone. They knew this in the 17th century, I imagine it was a pretty wicked affect. Still is.

1:20 PM (Subjective) (Typical) Turkish Restaurant 12/16

Met a fantastic Indonesian couple, in Istanbul on a stop over from
Hanover where they were taking part into a novel treatment program for Diabetes. The husband is an accountant, used to work for Arthur Anderson, so there’s that.

I take tours for the same reason I play Blackjack, you run into some great people at the table.

Note – The food at the typical Turkish restaurant is neither typical not necessarily Turkish. Then again, I couldn’t say as I have yet to get someone to give me a straight answer as to what “typical” Turkish food is.

4:03 PM (Subjective) Topaki Palace 12/16

I’ll never get used to guards with automatic weapons. Also, Topaki Palace would be the first place raided in a Global Holy war. It has the sword of the prophet David, Moses Staff and pieces of the Prophet Mohammad’s beard. This isn’t even mentioning the gold, jewels and giant diamond.

8:37 PM (Subjective) Mozaik 12/16

Should I consider it strange that every restaurant I’ve been to has a 4 1/2 star Trip Advisor rating with an identical plaque letting you know all about it? Nah, gotta be a coincidence.

11:29 AM (Subjective) Outside the Sophia 12/17

It’s sunny out. A far cry from the grey and rain of the previous two days. The city glows.

The economics of scam “tours” at the entrance to Hagia Sophia is complex. Rule of thumb 1 Euro = 2 Dollars = 4 Lira (as of writing). So your 30 Euro “tour” is 120 Lira, about five times the price of a ticket and the same price you’d pay for a professional tour including lunch.

Rule of thumb, don’t buy tours at the entrance to museums.

That being said, the Hagia Sophia is magnificent.

12:30 PM (Subjective) The Tile Museum 12/17

If you walk around the Old City, your first lesson should be that you are little more than a pile of Lira, your job is to keep as many of them in your pocket as you can while dancing around every species of vendor, peddler, swindler that has ever existed.

I’ve taken to pretending that I have an uncertain grasp of Turkish and English and French and well every western language that is thrown my way. It shortens conversations substantially.

5:33 PM (Subjective) Kayikci 12/17

So I was planning to eat at Adonin, when I saw the Italian hostess that I’d run into a few nights ago standing at the restaurant next door. I was a bit confused, so I went over to check that I wasn’t at the wrong restaurant. As it turns out, I wasn’t, she was.

This, along with the Trip Advisor sign that adorns the wall, and the delicious but identical pile of pita bread, leads to a theory I’ve been working out about restaurants at the core of the Old City. I think they are all run from the same (or very similar menus) with the only difference being a few flourishes, the interior decoration, and the prices. I’m no food critic but everything I’ve had here as been universally lovely but functionally identical.

6:05 AM (Subjective) Airport Shuttle 12/18

Empty streets, American lounge music, a shuttle I’ve confirmed three times is, in fact, the one I ordered from Expedia — that can only mean that I’m leaving Istanbul.

I’ll miss it, mostly. Istanbul is an oddly contradictory city. A place of history, hospitality and mercantile excess where you can find some of the loveliest people in the world many of who just happen to be equally interested in extracting every last Lira they can separate you from. True, you could say the same for any country, but in Istanbul’s Old City you can feel this tension as strongly as I ever have.

Biggest lesson? I’m glad I took tours, Istanbul is best experienced with someone who knows how to navigate its contradictions.

8:10 AM Istanbul Runway 12/18

Turkish airlines has the world’s best safety video, including instructions on loosening your tie, unbottoning your collar and removing your heels (as appropriate) as a method of preparing yourself for fiery death. Afterwards, Turkish models teach you how to inflate your life vest, a life vest illuminated by gloriously CGI’d lens flares. It’s practically perfect.

11:34 AM Dusseldorf Airport 12/18

When traveling through Dusseldorf be sure to set aside an extra 30 minutes to participate in their traditional document checking ritual. You’ll have the pleasure of having your passport looked at once when you leave the plane, once before they check your bags, once as you step into your connecting gate and once as you’re about to step onto your next flight. They are as interested in knowing who you are and where you’re going as Bogota Airport is in determining whether you just got back from muling 15 kilos of high quality cocaine. The extra time will also come in handy as they have the strangest gate directions I think I’ve ever seen, a quarter mile of green lines on the floor with the odd tendency to branch and dead-end at random intervals. It’s like a poorly designed video game. All that being said, it’s one of the friendliest airports I’ve ever been to. Seriously. They are frighteningly friendly, even the people at the money changing kiosk who, use to dealing with all manner of horrifying human specimens, typically stare at tourists with the cold, dead eyes of mildly predatory zombies.

6:35 PM (Subjective) 36,000Ft 12/18

Yup, Luftansa is pretty much the best airline ever.

3:15 PM EWR 12/18

Newark currently has a startling creepy pseudo hologram greeting people at the International terminal, welcome home!

10:09 PM Road to Gainesville 12/18

Every single time I said “Mediterranean” earlier in the trip, it should have been either the Golden Horn or the Bospherous. Feel free to mentally find and replace my idiot geography. This is why we travel, I suppose, to get fractionally less contemptible perspectives on the world. Which reminds me of the most interesting thing I heard on the trip, it came from the Indonesian gentlemen I had lunch with. He traveled to the U.S. often and said the only person he met who knew anything about Indonesia, who could even point to it on a map was a shoe shiner at the airport. I don’t know whether that says something very good about shoe shiners or very bad about the rest of us. In either case it’s worth more than a momentary thought.