I went to Istanbul expecting to be steeped in its history, thinking on some level that I'd be dropped into the middle of Byzantium or onto a caravan heading for its final destination on the Silk Road. This is one of the reasons I write. Part of me believes that I really want to experience these things. In truth, I prefer modern plumbing and the Executive Lounge at the Hilton where I can drink and eat all I want. Istanbul is a crossroads between continents, people, and time. It's also a place where one can indulge one's imagination, as well as have all of one's practicalities met.
Here are a few things that struck me about Istanbul:
- Swarthy men, stocky and a little imposing, but who didn't hesitate to give up their seats for me on the tram. For them, it wasn't about being chauvinistic: it was about being polite.
- Veiled women, who covered their faces whenever their scarves slipped. I often wondered what they thought of naked-cheeked me and what their lives were like.
- Other veiled women, who talked in cafes, drank coffee, and smoked cigarettes as if foreigners, husbands, and time didn't exist.
- Gypsies on the sidewalks, selling Kleenex packets (while talking on their cell phones), or setting up balloon shooting galleries, or waiting uncomplainingly to shine someone's shoes. One dropped a brush as he walked past us. Mike returned the brush, which ended up with him getting his shoes cleaned, which made me wonder if the brush was a ploy, which didn't matter, because the gypsy's smile was so genuine.
- The gypsy boy who played a squeeze box on the tram for coin.
- The crazy traffic, with taxis making up every fourth car, and learning to jaywalk like a local.
- The Hagia Sophia, which, in spite her mosaics, made me sad. She felt old, tired, and desecrated.
- The Blue Mosque which was quite the opposite, full of spirit, and sweet with incense. I loved hearing the call to prayers sung five times a day.
- The Basilica Cistern, dark, ethereal, and hidden beneath the cobbles, where carp swim among the columns and have done so for centuries.
- Baklava, dusted with green pistachio, honey-steeped, and pomegranate drizzled. The ex-croupier/turned waiter who served us, with a story of his own which I never learned. He recognized our Canadian accents. Talk about your cultural savvy at a global crossroads.
- Feral cats, some friendly, some aloof - yowling in the rain, tip-toeing along fences, or snoozing on graveyard posts.
- Rivers of tulips - red, violet, yellow, rose, white, pink, orange - voluptuous, in waves, flowing along boulevards, running down hillsides, filling the parks. Pansies of every mix, spilling about them like foam.
- The Grand Bazaar, where, once the business is done, becomes apple tea hospitality served in a dainty glass.
- And ships on the Bosphorus, zigging between Asia and Europe as if it's no big thing, while hillside minarets rise golden in the sun.