Three weeks ago, in the middle one of those “I’m 25 and what is going on in my life, society, the world, wait, what, you just froze” Skype calls with one of my best friends, Julia the self-made trilingual, she had the brilliant idea of just, screw it, let’s go somewhere and go home fresh. Being that I’m currently living in Belgium and she’s in Jerusalem, we’re pretty far away from each other, and we certainly feel worlds apart. So thanks very much to Istanbul, Turkey for being more or less smack in the middle (or at least an affordable non-stop flight for the both of us).
Two weeks after that Skype call, we set off from our respective countries to meet for a quick weekend getaway in the city where East meets West. The major goal of this trip was not so much to binge sightsee, but to enjoy Istanbul in a relaxing manner while having a serious catch up session and life-related pep talk. This should last us another two or so years til the next time we’ll probably see each other in person again given my recent decision to say goodbye to Belgium again and head to the American West Coast (I’m like, hella stoked).
It was good that we didn’t have very ambitious plans, because Istanbul is a huge, intricate, ancient city with thousands of years of history, endless streets, alleyways, mosques, bazaars, pigeons, seagulls, rooftops, hookah, vendors, rugs, lamps…I could go on. It’s a never-ending city of perfume shops, silk scarves, apple tea, Turkish tea, chai tea, handbags, leather – basically, impossible to see or certainly grasp in the two-and-a-half days that we had. But it was a start!
Flying into different airports, we agreed hastily during a 4am WhatsApp voice messaging exchange to meet at “the MeDonalds” at Taksim Square on the European side. We figured it might be a bit embarrassing to go around asking for McDonalds as soon as we got to this beautiful, ancient city, but, I mean, you can almost always count (a) there being a McDonald’s and (b) that McDonalds having free WiFi! Well turns out you can’t – (a) There were multiple McDonald’s at Taksim Square, causing understandable confusion. And (b) Istanbul does not yet seem to be one of those free WiFi for everyone, it’s-your-god-given-right sort of places yet. But that’s okay! Because when WiFi at McDonald’s doesn’t work, you head for the nearest Starbucks and hope that your ex-pat friend has not lost her American intuition to do the same. Luckily, she hadn’t, and finally we found each other (sans cell phones!) at one of the Starbucks at Taksim Square.
We stayed at an Airbnb in Cihangir, with a very cool Turkish host named Yasemen. Around our age, she runs a website, Bashla, that helps freelance designers and artists sell their work across the world. All the way up a windy fifth floor walk up, when we arrived her friendly neighborhood seagull had come knocking his beak on the window to say hello! I think he’s got a thing for Yasemen 🙂
The first night we wandered back up to Taksim Square, and somehow found ourselves on the shopping street with the old fashioned tram. We got a donor, and then sat down on a busy street with restaurant after restaurant, smoking some hookah, petting the stray cat who had already dibbsed the seat next to us, and eating popcorn freshly popped by the popcorn vending men (cart + portable stove + pan + kernels. Genius). We need more of these guys. It was fun just watching people on a Friday night, the people seemed very lively, having loud, expressive conversations around tables on terraces, people dancing on the street to the music blasting from the bars and clubs, fish mongers yelling out prices, people bargaining for knick knacks.
Day two. We tried to find the free tour of the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque we had found on Google, but it was too good to be true. At least it got us up and at Sultanahmet (the neighborhood of these two sites) by 10:45am. Realizing there was no tour, I regaled Julia with all the facts from the guidebook in my best English accent (I have an English tour guide alter ego named Mildred Foster, makes learning on vacation feel a bit more sophisitiqué).
The Hagia Sophia was beautiful, but I was really taken with the Blue Mosque. Unlike the Vatican, it’s immense but not so tacky with all the gold and imagery (obviously). It’s almost understated on the inside. Even with all the tourists, it’s very peaceful. The lights are lovely, and you can’t even process the intricacy of the tiles.
The Blue Mosque also offered Islam 101 classes to the public twice a day, and had a staff member on site who was willing to answer any questions you might have about Islam. If we had come at the right time we definitely would have stayed for the class, I think it’s great that they are taking their position as a tourist attraction to help educate people about what Islam really stands for. While I am an atheist, I do understand that organized religion in 2015 is a fact and an incredibly complex part of our lives whether we want it to be or not. If religion is going to be around, I support educating people on what it is, where it comes from, and why it’s spiraled into all these different groups, factions, beliefs, ideas, and everything else. May god help us all.
Afterwards we made our way towards the Grand Bazar, which was a definite highlight of the trip. The first kiosk we ducked into was actually just to buy some shampoo, since we’d arrived in Turkey without. The woman behind the counter for some reason greeted us with “Bonjour!” and started talking to us in French, so I responded in French and told her what we were looking for. We started chatting, me translating between her and Julia, and she said she just happened to be a Francophile and tries her French on the tourists before English. I happened to mention that Julia lives in Israel and she looked surprised. All of the sudden she starts speaking Hebrew to Julia! Turns out she’s one of just 8,000 Turkish Jewish families living in Istanbul. She didn’t speak lots of Hebrew, but she pointed to a Jewish prayer that she had taped to the countertop. So pleased to have met a French-speaking American and a Hebrew-speaking American-Israeli-Jew, good feeling abounded and she gave us a little gift, some rosewater hand cream. It’s safe to say everyone was kvelling.
We wandered and wandered in the myriad of kiosks and stands, almost buying so many things, haggling, trying on fur hats, jewelry, slippers, scarves…All the vendors call out to you, “Hey, LADY! Come here!” I’m not very good in foreign market places, I get easily irked being called at all the time, even if they don’t really know that calling out, HEY LADY is a bit rude. But I did end up bargaining for a beautiful set of lamps like in the pictures below – I always end up buying little things, but I’m imagining them hanging in the kitchen my future California apartment on the beach and they look really nice 🙂
Another thing we loved about the Bazar (and Istanbul) was the tea culture. In the bazar and all over the city you see men running about with these silver trays, handing off small cups of tea to their coworkers, friends and fellow vendors. You can buy traditional Turkish tea or apple tea, which is like hot apple cider. No extra sugar needed!
Dinner that night was late, and in one of the restaurants underneath the Bosphorous Bridge. We were worried it would be really overpriced and touristy, but we seemed to be the only foreigners in the restaurant, so it seemed legit! Fried shrimp, fish plate, halva and fruit. Interesting fact – you can still smoke in the restaurants in Istanbul. Brought back memories of being a kid and my parents being asked, “Smoking or non-smoking?”. Although in Istanbul there are no smoking sections, just light up as you please. And oh yea, there was a Turkish band, but we seemed to be the only table not to get a serenade 😦
Sunday – Hammam day. After lots of research we settled on one of the historic hammams, Çemberlitaş. How it received even one or two bad reviews completely blows my mind- it was the best activity we did the whole trip. Oh. My. God. And hands down the best spa experience I’ve ever had (about 60 dollars for the whole shebang)). We threw down for oil massages after the traditional body scrub, and it was definitely worth it. The hammam was spotlessly clean and smelled nice. You change in a locker room, and they give you a towel and a pair of black underwear. Then you enter into this huge, beautiful domed steam room with heated stone floor and lie down.
After you get all hot and steamy, a Turkish lady comes over to you, pours soapy water all over you, and takes a cloth sponge and Scrubs. You. Down. Then you can just hang around dousing yourself in water and lying on the hot floor. The full body oil massage is the cherry on top. Afterwards you can go back in the steam room. When you walk out of the hammam you feel like you’re walking on clouds, and your skin looks radiant. From the street it looks like any old store front, but what lies inside is truly a sight to be seen!
Afterwards we walked back towards Taksim, meaning across the Bosphorus. The view is incredible! You can see all different parts of the city, seagulls, men fishing, mosques, people, vendors…
We wandered off track up the Yuksek Kaldirim Caddesi, a huge hill of shops, cafes, and kiosks. Julia had me try a wonderful drink called salep that they also drink in Israel, and man oh man was it tasty. It’s a “Turkish winter drink, is made from the dried powdered roots of a mountain orchid. The powder is then heated with milk, sugar and cinnamon to make a thick dairy beverage.” It was like eggnog, except not gross, and I wanted more.
Our last morning we went out for the best meal of our trip with our Airbnb host, breakfast at Kahve6. I ‘d seen on Spotted By Locals and was down to go when she suggested it over another popular breakfast place in the neighborhood. We chowed down on the breakfast Yasemen ordered for us – a sort of Turkish eggs hollandaise, cheddary-tasting melted cheese in a casserole (love whoever it was who was just like, “Melt it and serve it, boom!”), and a light goat cheese (tulum?) with blackberries – all in a backyard garden setting and over an interesting and stimulating chat about Turkey, thee States, politics, and life in general. I feel bad I can’t remember the names of the dishes but I learned less Turkish than I even learned Polish…
Afterwards we all parted ways, but that breakfast was the perfect ending to a quick introduction to Turkey and Istanbul. Overall I was very impressed with the city, more or less in constant awe of the sweeping views the city allows you from just peering down a side street. You can feel the ocean everywhere with the seagulls and birds flying around, and the views of the Bosphorus are breathtaking.
You can really feel that the city has been this collision of Eastern and Western cultures, and you can see the different religious layers to the society everywhere, especially in the way the women dress. Some are covered head to toe, others wear traditional looking clothing that look like they might be from a different part of Turkey, some just wear a hijab, and others wear Western clothing and have hardcore nose piercings. I felt like there were lots of men, many more men than women, everywhere we went. Men in groups drinking coffee, men in groups smoking cigarettes, men in groups walking, men in groups eating at a table…Something I’ve never really picked up on in other countries I’ve been to, but from a Google search it doesn’t seem like there’s significantly more men than women in Turkey, so I’m not able to draw any conclusions here. Just something I noticed. I’d love to see more of Istanbul, because on a map we really only saw two areas of the city. Much more to be discovered! So til next time 🙂