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Istanbul and I, that is love for life.
On the night bus from Vargas in Bulgaria, I feel a sudden jolt of fear. I must be out of my mind going to one of the largest cities in the world, all by myself, without even so much as a city map in my purse. I have no idea about Istanbul. I haven’t even read Orhan Pamuk! Slightly panicked, I still think that maybe a bit of awe will do me good. I get off the bus in Bayrampaşa and pair up with a young Swedish couple to find the way downtown. In the next few days, we will explore the city together on occasion.
There is water everywhere. Everything is blue and gold. Mosques oversee the city from the shores, proudly, powerfully. A Western orientalism is surfacing from inside of me, and I might romanticize the beauty of it all, but I cannot help myself: I’m enchanted. We go to have breakfast in the passageway below Galata bridge – the bridge of the Golden Horn, Haliç. The waiter speaks excellent German. He worked in Radolfzell at Lake Constance for five years. As a welcome gift, each of us gets one of the pretty colorful saucers from him. The Turkish yoghurt is dripping with a thick layer of honey and tastes like a summer vacation.
It is windy and fresh on the boat, the sun is beaming, and so are we. Every look to the shore offers a new, ever-different, ever-constant beautiful sight. I see all those things and I don’t know what they are called or what their function is, I cannot tell if they are palaces, government buildings or sacred places. I have no presuppositions toward Istanbul, I am completely naive and unprejudiced – maybe that is why every new outlook comes crashing not only to my eyes and my brain which is struggling hard to comprehend the beauty; no, all the things I see find their way directly into my heart. A feeling of freedom, of liberation comes upon me there on the green and blue waves of the Bosphorus. Europe and Asia, modernity and antiquity, I find myself at the core of a gigantic metropolis of opposites that tries to merge European lifestyle and middle-eastern joy of life into a unique and wonderful entity.
Through Gülhane-Park and along the mighty walls of Topkapı palace, we make our way to Ayasofia. The streets are full of life, tourists are recognized as such at once. Street vendors call after us, „hey lady! lady!“, they’re screaming, trying to sell us anything and everything – kebab, orange juice, jewellery, carpets. We can’t bypass the juice, it is squeezed right at the street stand and is so tasty, so fresh and sweet that I don’t ever want to drink juice from a carton again. We meet a sixty year old gold smith who is drinking his Çay next to us. He shares with us the wisdom of his age, the lessons life has taught him. Some I agree with, some I don’t.
I’m meeting Emre, my Couchsurfing host, in the evening at Taksim Meydanı. I’m early and give in to my darkest tourist cravings: Venti Iced latte at Starbucks. I haven’t seen a Starbucks on my trip so far anywhere, and God knows I haven’t missed it, but now that I do see one, an Iced Latte seems like heaven, and it is. Chaotic traffic, exclusively young people, an overdimensional Turkish flag, fancy hotels, Dürüm stands. Life in all its richest form at the roundabout around the metro station, fast and energetic, but I cannot find it in myself to feel stressed out by it. Emre and I walk over to his apartment on a cul-de-sac – and suddenly everything goes quiet. Dozens of homeless cats are playing games on the ridiculously steep and narrow street. The life of Taksim is raving just a few blocks away. It feels good being in this place right away. Good and right. Five days later, when I walk from there to my shuttle bus that will take me to Bayrampaşa, I will feel like I have lived here rather than just visited.
Fındıklı is the metro station that I get to when I keep walking down toward the water from Emre’s place. At the shore of the Bosphorus I have my breakfast every morning – Starbucks coffee and börek. Bosnia may have the Balkan’s most delicious burek, but Turkey is the mother country of börek. The view over the water – indescribable. A playground where kids are yelling right across from me is putting a smile on my face. I don’t lose that smile for the entirety of my stay in Istanbul.
Rosehouse park, as is the English name, at Topkapı Sarayı is an oasis of peace in this gigantic megalopolis. It is green and colorful and inviting. I’m sitting on one of the benches, behind me two guys are playing guitar. I’m moving to the lawn, waiting for them to play something I know. Here it comes: „Wonderwall“. I’m starting to sing along, they invite me over, we play music. They are from Lebanon. It is very easy to meet people here. All of a sudden it starts to rain. I’m seeking shelter underneath a tree. A baby kitten is hiding underneath my long skirt.
It’s loud and busy inside the Blue Mosque. Shoes must be taken off, but there is no need for a head scarf in the visitor’s area. Children run and play on the soft carpet. People are sitting cross-leggedly on the floor, tourists are reading out their guide books to each other, the camera clicking won’t stop. Inspite of this, it’s a deeply spiritual place. People are praying inmidst of life here, not in silent reclusion. I find mosques to be so much more inviting than Christian churches. I consider myself a believing Christian (although actually I believe in many things, but that’s for a different post), but churches are so often intimidating in their unsubtle demonstration of religious power and greatness. Mosques just wrap you in a huge hug when you enter them. I think of St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome, and I associate: big and impressive. I think of the Blue Mosque. I associate: warm and alive.
Taksim, oh, Taksim. I have lost my heart Taksim. Life is of higher density in this place than it is elsewhere. Emre and I are having dinner in a simple small restaurant. We pick the fish that they will grill for us ourselves in the window. With that comes a salad, and watermelon for desert. All of it is so intense, food has never tasted like this. A Canadian guy in Bulgaria said to me: “I didn’t know that cucumbers had a taste before I came here! I thought they were just water!” I feel like that with everything I eat in Istanbul. Emre and I are exploring the tiny cobblestone streets with their millions of street cafes and bars. We have a beer in a bar where there is never a song playing that I don’t love. I cannot even decide what I want to look at first, and everything is changing all the time, but it doesn’t go unstable or in any way uncomfortable, it is never disconcerting. Glistening colored lights on house walls. Cigarette smoke and the smell of Dürüm in the air. People meeting, on accident, greeting each other with a warmth that touches me, that touches places in my soul I didn’t know existed. The place is full of energy, infectiously so. Happiness is coming over me in waves.
From Beşkitaş we take the ferry to Kadıköy on the Asian side of Istanbul. At Haydarpaşa train station, the place that Muslims traditionally start their Hajj to Mekka, we’re slowly entering the port. We’re drinking Turkish coffee at the shores of Bosphorus and enjoying the chilled out atmosphere. It doesn’t feel very different on this new continent. It does a little though. I can’t describe why. The clouds above Europe are turning grey with a thunderstorm. A sky of such width as I have never seen is stretching from horizon to horizon. That this city can be so massive and that there is still always so much sky to see!
Ayasofia, the famous. A place on many Bucket Lists, from what I gather. A historical place. Beautiful. Unintelligible. To me, it makes me sad. Again I think of Rome, this time of the Sistine Chapel. My host mom said about it: „It was like a mall in there.“ Ayasofia is not a spiritual place anymore. It is now only a museum. Only? Maybe that is the one way to protect this incredible site from the claws of history, the ravages of time. It is difficult for me not to see Ayasofia as a holy place, but as a tourist object. I can’t feel it. It remains to me, inspite of its beauty, soulless.
I must have landed in the gardens of Alamut. Again I’m thinking that my Western perspective must be romanticizing the oriental style into fairytale magic. I wonder if a Turkish person sees Topkapı the way that I see the Prussian castles around Berlin, like Sanssouci in Potsdam. And if they do, then what would they find Sanssouci to be like? I lose myself in the different palace buildings and the countless gardens. In one room, a young man is singing from the Quran. I stand still for twenty minutes listening to him, tourists passing me by who don’t stop even for a second to turn their heads. Can’t they feel the power, the magic in this music?
„It has to be night,“ Emre says, when at 8 o’clock we are making our way to Ortaköy. We buy Kumpir and sit at the waterfront. Kumpir is a delicious dish that I know from a few small places in Germany in areas with a large Turkish minority. It is essentially a baked potato, but the flesh is mashed with cheese and filled with different veggies and salads – mine has couscous and olives and goat cheese and is beyond delicious. Boğaziçi Köprüsü, the first bridge of the Bosphorus, is lit up in all colors of the rainbow. A dark blue night sky is shimmering through a lose cover of clouds. Ortaköy Camii, the mosque, sits proudly and quietly behind us. Life is buzzing around us like in a beehive. The waters of the Bosphorus are making quiet, laughing littel waves, but they aren’t so unsteady as for the waters to go dull. Instead they are glistening like distorting mirrors. The shining lights are thrown back into the night air. The city offers everything, but it isn’t asking for it. Its greatest gift to its visitors is that in this place, they can just be. Whatever that means to every one of them.
Taksim is not losing any of its charms during the day. I buy a ring. I want to wear the city on my finger. The long precinct, İstiklâl Caddesi, is packed with street musicians. They play music of such different styles and sounds, the atmosphere changes on every meter with the music. Emre and I are smoking Nargile (shisha), eating Dürüm (kebabs), drinking Ayran (salty fluid yoghurt) and playing Tavla (Backgammon). We’re sitting in a back yard with many people who are having Çay or coffee and where old books are sold. We’re just people watching. I haven’t ever found it so easy to find peace in a big city.
The shuttle bus from Taksim to Bayrampaşa is going along the entire Southern shore of the Golden Horn. Once more I look over to Beyoğlu. On the horizon above Istanbul, a red moon is rising. I’m leaving this city ever so wistfully. I couldn’t stand it, if I didn’t know it with all my heart that I will come back – one day.