I don’t know why it has taken me so long to write about Istanbul. The city immediately energized me, and there is a lot here that is different from Western Europe, which I find refreshing.
The call to prayer five times a day has smitten me. There are many mosques around, of course, and I am fortunate to have had one right behind my hotel. I find it soothing and a reminder that it is sometimes a good idea to stop during the day and give thanks. As a poet, too, I’ve been consistently reminded, because of these prayers, of the beauty of language and rhythm.
One of the other things I have noticed about Istanbul is that it is very common and respected to simply drink cay (tea) during social outings. People sit for hours at cafes and shops and sip tea, which I have become addicted to. There seems to be little emphasis on the importance of drinking alcohol as a social activity, and what I’ve seen in Europe with tourist-packed bars isn’t really a focus here.
My first day in Istanbul, I wandered the fish market and other areas in Kadikoy, a neighbourhood on the Asian/Anatolian side of the city. I am told there are many less tourists here than on the European side, with Kadikoy appealing to locals, and, from all accounts, this seems to be true.
The Turkish language dominates Istanbul, of course, and there are few people who speak English, though it is always possible to find someone who knows a bit of English. This experience, like the experiences I have had in other countries recently, makes me aware of the importance of learning other languages. Always speaking what many recognize to be the language of global exchange—English—involves a certain kind of limitation and arrogance. Languages, like their cultures, operate according to their own sensibilities, and travelling, more than anything else, has made me want to think in as many different ways as possible. Quite simply, this can only come by acquiring and trying to speak different languages.
The first day, the fish market jumped out at me with the red gills of silver fish and the hustle of people and restaurants vying for their daily buys. The fish are like a grand painting, and the shops nearby which sell Turkish delights and the many fancy deserts found in Istanbul display colours and their arrangements as much as they do food itself. In terms of eating, what is most memorable are the fried anchovies and stuffed mussels, the latter a local delicacy sold outside the fish market, too, by venders on the sides of streets.
I avoided much of the touristy Istanbul, only going to the blue mosque, Hagia Sofia and Topkapi Palace during the last couple of days. After almost a month, I finally partook in the great historical sights of the city. I wanted to sit back, write, hunker into a daily routine and experience Istanbul as if I were living here. What this has meant is that I have written extensively in a number of cafes (there are numerous cafes and restaurants, of course) and have gotten to know local shopkeepers, hotel staff, and other people in my neighbourhood. I am impressed by the hospitality of this place. With no sense of direction at all, I have become hopelessly lost, and each time I have, someone has not only indicated where I should go but has also walked me to the exact location. Sometimes this has meant that someone has taken ten or fifteen minutes out of her or his day to simply help me. I have tried to indicate that the offer is much too generous and that I’ll find my way, but, each time, the person has escorted me to whatever it is I’m looking for.
Neighbourhoods are alive at night with friends and families. As a result of this, and because people are so gentle and kind, I have felt incredibly safe in this city. Safety and cleanliness of accommodation are the two top things on my list when I travel, and I have not had any disappointments in Istanbul. I feel much safer here than in the Caribbean and, also, some parts of Vancouver.
In Istanbul, I am consistently reminded, too, of my days growing up in British Columbia. The ferry which runs between the Asian and European side across the Bosphorus is a wonderful hiatus in a daily routine. I have avoided the dark underground of the metro while here (which I find depressing in any city) and, instead, have taken the boat—a twenty-minute ride—between the continents. The views, seagulls and method of transportation remind me of the many ferries that connect islands as well as islands and the mainland in B.C. Perhaps it is a form of transportation that many take for granted (I certainly began to take ferry travel for granted at a certain point in Western Canada), but the experience has renewed this sense of wonder and peace in the middle of a city which is at least twice the size of New York.
What I find refreshing, too, is that it is possible to spend money and circulate it into the local economy without supporting large chains and foreign businesses. Many, if not most, of the restaurants and food stores are privately owned (most often by families), and, as well, Turkish design and clothes can be found if one does a little looking. The quality of Turkish clothes and their designs are superior to those of mass chains that inundate almost every area to which I’ve travelled. It is possible, for example, to buy fine Turkish wool or leather (which I did), a local tailor (which I did) and to have clothes custom made. The price is the same or just a little bit more than buying a cheaply made outfit from a mass production outlet. With so much spending and money supporting indentured servitude these days, it’s a welcome thing to know people are being paid well for their service and that the dollars being spent will help support the country one is travelling in.
Above all, I cannot help mentioning the cats. I am obsessed with street animals and the manner in which they are treated because this says a lot about cultures and because I simply adore animals. Cats are kings here. There must be literally millions of them. They are everywhere I go—hanging out on streets, hanging out on patios, taking shelter from the rain inside shops, and perching with communal respect on whatever furniture exists in a public place. These cats are well fed and adored. People sitting at restaurants take time to cuddle them. People on the street stop to give a little loving before they move on. Shopkeepers allow them in their stores. Here, in Istanbul, one can almost have a pet without any responsibility. All you have to do is step outside, make friends with a cat, and, then, hang out for the day if that’s what you want. I have not yet seen anyone recoil from a cat that other cultures would consider feral. These cats are the royal street domestics, and they rule neighbourhoods and life here.
This is not a cheap city in terms of travel (I cannot comment on what it would be like to live here), but the prices are fair for what Istanbul offers. One can eat a fine meal in a fairly good restaurant for about $15 Canadian. One can eat at little restaurants which operate much like cafeterias and which have a wonderful selection of diverse pre-made food for $4 to $8 CAD. The prices are not unlike those of Toronto. Both cities have a large population and stiff competition.
I will miss a lot about this city but, most of all, the cats. To date, I was always a dog person, but, now, after Istanbul, I am not necessarily swayed to the competition but more respecting of it. One day I sat in Moda, a fairly upscale neighbourhood not far from Kadikoy, and bonded with a black and white kitten. It was looking for love and curled in my lap for a good half hour. When we parted, I didn’t worry about its future or whether it would survive. When it was time for me to go, it simply moved on to the next table and curled up with its newfound friend who welcomed it as much as I did.