It was Friday night, and I was staring at a restaurant menu along with three other Fulbrighters in shock. The prices listed were at best twice as expensive as anything I’d seen. Even more surprising, alcohol – several types of alcohol, to be exact – were listed alongside the food. Quickly, the restaurant that had only a few minutes before sat only us, began to fill up as more and more people came in from the street. I can’t believe this, I thought to myself, I’m going through culture shock. Where am I?
I was in Istanbul, and I had never felt further from Malatya.
This past weekend I decided that it was time I headed West to visit Istanbul. I had only been there once before for a whirlwind guided weekend tour of the famous sights – the Aya Sofia, the Blue Mosque, and a cruise along the Bosphoros; it was time that I explore the city on my own terms. A number of Fulbrighters also decided to visit the city the same weekend to take part in the Istanbul Marathon, so the weekend also gave an excuse for a mini-reunion. Finally, my friend Ilke from college had moved to Istanbul and I promised I’d visit her – this weekend was the perfect storm of Istanbul visiting.
Leaving Malatya at the painfully early hour of 7am, I arrived in Taksim Square in the heart of Istanbul a little before noon. Anxious to not waste a minute of time, I headed down Istiklal towards my hostel and, of course, I was promptly distracted. A block away from the hostel I saw a sign advertising the Mevlevi Lodge of the Beyoğlu district. I absolutely love Rumi, the founder of the Mevlevi Sufi order, so I could not pass up on visiting the Lodge – now a small museum. By far, the most interesting part of the lodge – aside from the overall sense of tranquility within the courtyard – was the graveyard, where a number of stones were fashioned to look like the Sufi buried beneath them.
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After the quick distraction, I spent the rest of my Friday wandering the streets of Galata, crossing the Galata Bridge over the Golden Horn into the Sultan Ahmet district, and becoming lost in the Grand Bazaar. When I finally arrived back at the hostel seven hours later, three of my Fulbright friends were in the cafe area discussing dinner, which leads us to the dinner that prompted the culture shock. After dinner we went out for drinks; on the way back to the hostel, we passed an Asian street musician playing the didgeridoo.
This can’t be real, I thought to myself. Then we passed by a Turkish gypsy punk band playing in the street: It must be real, I reckoned, I usually can’t imagine things I would love so much.
As mind-blowing as Friday was, Ilke managed to complete demolish any conceptions I had of Istanbul by giving me a tour of a few of her favorite spots in the city Saturday and Sunday. While I was previously overwhelmed just by the Sultan Ahmet and Beyoğlu districts of Istanbul, I became blown away by the quick and dirty tour she gave me. Going off the beaten path (for tourists), we spent Saturday eating Turkish style American junk food on a rooftop terrace, drinking coffee in French – now renamed Algeria, as joke – street, and eating waffles in a cafe on a Bosphorus under the bridge leading to the Asian side of the city. This was all capped off by a hike from Ortaköy, a bohemian cafe and art selling district, through Beşiktaş – a bar and market area – to Nişantaşı, Istanbul’s equivalent of the Champs Elysees. It was here that I saw my first ever Ferrai casually parked on the street.
Sunday we went further up the Bosphorus to the old Ottoman Rumeli Fortress, which marked the outer boundary of old Istanbul. Due to having to catch my flight, we only spent maybe fifteen minutes there running to one of the vantage points, although we easily could have spent hours wandering through it. Afterwards, we ambled down the Bosphorus watching men fish, before passing through the socialite neighborhood of Bebek. To cap off the whirlwind tour, we got lunch on the water at Arnavutköy, an old rich area of Istanbul with significant Greek and Albanian influence.
Although it sounds as if I saw a large portion of Istanbul, I know I saw – and much less experienced – almost nothing of the city. As Ilke put it to me, “There are people who have lived in Istanbul for thirty years and are still always discovering new things they love.” I can completely understand why; each neighborhood we passed through contained its own culture, architecture, scene and way of life. For as city as old, sprawling, and cosmopolitan as Istanbul, it as almost as if each neighborhood were a mini-city united only by chance. There is still so much more for me to see. Luckily, my girlfriend is coming to visit at the end of December and we will have plenty more to explore – such as the entire Asian side of the city.
On a side note, for those looking to travel cheap in the city I highly recommend staying at the World House Hostel. The staff are all kind and attentive, and they speak English. Also, as far as I could tell, everyone staying there was fantastic and were friendly – although, this is of course variable.
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