Scattered Reflections of Istanbul: A Five Day Odyssey

Day 1: Spend time in Sultanahmet (named after Sultan Ahmet). View Hagia Sophia & the Blue Mosque – among other sites that we weren’t even aware were under our feet (Topkapi Palace, Basilica Cistern) – enjoy first Turkish Breakfast with coffee & tea. Attacked by bees, followed by a short walk around the neighborhood. Houses are stacked, city is very Mediterranean – like Italy…stacks of houses on slopes of mountains cause for what looks like a cascade of homes falling into the shore.

Day is broken up by a 5/day religious call – loudspeakers over the city cause you to be completely shaken out of reality and dropped off in some eerily soul-squeezing religious moment. Even a non-observer can’t help but respond gutturally to this eerie call/response. Many people are taken aback by my 6 foot white frame and stare. Many women are covered, but not all. There are mosques EVERYWHERE and praying happens frequently throughout the day. Snacks (roasted corn, mussels with rice, Turkish bagels, chestnuts, lollipops made on the spot, popcorn and pomegranate juice stands line the city streets.

The metro station uses a small keychain-type of pass called an Akbil. These allow you to use all forms of transportation – metro (mostly above ground), bus (which will come to a slow roll/halt if they see you pursuing them, unlike in the States where you instead wait for the next one), and ferry (which is used to go to the Asian side & back, along with a slew of other destinations as Istanbul has a river that runs right through the center). Traffic in this city is obscenely dangerous. The road infrastructure contains random splits – usually containing metro stations – sharp corners, and not enough cross walks, making it quite risky to attempt to get to the metro station. Drivers are insanely fast, and when traffic is deep, you can sit there for hours.

The odor of the city is a mix of unwashed dirty bodies marinating in sweat and cigarette smoke. Smoking is very popular here, as are European hair styles which are unattractive by any standard yet speaks volumes about the idealization and fascination with Western culture (or more advanced European cultures). Soccer is extremely popular – and apparently one famous player dons a mullet with side swiped Cameron Diaz bangs. A very bizarre look. Designed jeans are very popular – moreso for men. Males link arms, which is not considered homosexual at all, even though the population appears to be very misogynistic and homophobic. It’s odd to see how masculinity is cultivated and expressed. Linking arms with other males = totally acceptable, being gay = totally unacceptable, covered women = totally acceptable, equality among genders = totally unacceptable.

Rituals are strong here. You must take your shoes off before entering a mosque or someone’s home.  Gyms & working out are not very popular here. Smoking, again, is all the rage. Drinking exists in metropolis but as it is not tolerated in Islamic culture, you see a large concentration on Nargile (hookah) here instead as a leisure night time activity.

We return to Besitas (besheetaj) where we stay with an American couple (who have been here for 3 years). Besitas is considered the Williamsburg/hip area of Istanbul and boasts outdoor cafes, lots of rooftop restaurant seating areas (very common). We visit some pubs and indulge in Turkish baklava and delights.

Side note: So unkosher – dairy + meat everywhere, breads in every variety, lokum (sugar cornstarch delight), aryan (cottage cheese drink), cheese & bread as appetizer, doner kebabs, lamb, sahlep, pomegranates, muscles with brown rice, raki, turkish breakfasts, cay (tea), nagile, turkish coffee, waffles cones, loaded potatoes, etc, fried cheese, balkava – all dishes composed with honey, butter, sugar, dairy. Fish sandwiches, bitter pickled turnip drinks

Day 2: Rooftop breakfast – menemen

Cab through Ortakoy (Fancy area) – mosque, waffles, potato, jewelry, ferry ride

Walk to Istanbul Modern Museum

Great pub & return to apt

Day 3: We hit the road and head to Sultahnahmet (get breakfast at nice place by metro)

Walk around the Blue Mosque, Aya Sofia and then past Topkapi Palace, where you read a small bit about the excavations they are doing and how many artifacts are still being collected from the sites, which is crazy.

We are told to visit the Basilica Cistern, which is one of my favorite parts of the entire trip. Medusa’s head is below. Eerie canals – must learn more.

Dinner at some street food place. See my husband, who is with his parents.

Whirling Dervish ceremony. 20 minutes of twirling that is so fluid and uninterrupted by feet movement, that you do feel as if you’re a part of a  total religious experience. More dessert.

Metro to Isticall and who should be on our metro car exactly, my husband, but I have a hysterical breakdown of course because everything is at the height of overwhelming and I can’t pull it together. Isticall (Ali, Eli, Joe, etc) is like every busy center of every city – bustling with nightlife and youth. We have some beers in hidden side streets, dance to American rock music, head to RITIM which is a dance place. Everyone stays until we shut the place down. We are chatting at 4:30am and I finally call time to head back.

Day 4: Late start robs us of breakfast experience, but we have a doner wrap which is better than Turkish breakfast. We head to Uskadar which is the boat that takes you to the Asian side. We have fried dough covered in honey (which is essentially a donut) and experience the bazaar in that country. There is such an abundance of vegetables that it is almost laughable that the only things you are served around the entire country is meat, cheese, sugar and bread. No vegetables.

Another interesting observation: they do not have domesticated pets – they abhor cats, which are regarded in the same vein as we view pigeons.

Dolimici Palace – we take the metro to the Dolimici palace and see how this (one of many) palace has nearly bankrupted the entire country. Extensively decorated and detailed, it seems as if it is miles long. It sits on the water, has pristine lawns with trees that were imported from all around the world, places with many different climates (how do they survive?). The inside of the palace has a total ruby-Ottoman feel, with ornate patterns of hardwood floors, dissected mirrors, crystal-ladended staircases, chandeliers the size of boats made completely of crystal and paintings that rival the most beloved ceiling art in the world. Tons of gold leafs were imported. Elaborate rooms upon rooms upon rooms with different seating styles. The most gorgeous patterns, rubies, gold, crystal, identical rugs…

We purchased tickets to the Besitas soccer game (they were slated to play another team.. teams come from certain neighborhoods) – We went to dinner beforehand and ordered Turkish tapas – fish (we were by the fish market), spicy pepper mash, eggplant, and yogurt with dill – and loads of bread. And raki – with water poured into it which makes it turn white. While eating outdoors, we were part of the spirit of Besitas soccer spirit in the hometown. The entire population of the city was out and about – and sections would break out into cheers – lyrics translated into Kartal Gol Gol Gol (Eagles, goal, goal, goal) – (opposing team name here, suck it suck it suck it) and songs of the like. One section would begin and then entire population would break out into song.

We drink beers on the way to the stadium because it’s totally legal. We begin on the top tier but finagle our way down to the bottom tier. The soccer team relies on the crowd for energy, enthusiasm and support. The game tied – 90 minutes of panic and excitement and being encased in that stadium holds you hostage to the same fervor and intensity.

After the game we head to Isticall and wing up at the Sugarcube cafe and were introduced us to hazelnut vodka, which tasted like amazing fun serum and once again we shut the whole club down. We headed home after the club and ended up consuming 2 wet burgers, which actually were rightly named honey sticky burgers by my traveling companion – it seems like someone stacked burgers and then poured on the top layer butter, oil, and honey and waited until that liquid mess seeped through each layer of burgers until it hit the bottom.

Day 5:

Late lunch/snail episode

Spice Bazaar

Turkish Bathhouse

Nargile

Many people selling potato peelers and rabbits in a row that tell your fortune

Written by Annie Gaudet

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