The Istanbul trip – originally published on 1 Nov 2005

When one boards an airplane in France, headed for Slovenia, connecting to flights toward Turkey, one hears a lot of languages… and sees a lot of men in suits drinking large beers. The flights were easily 75% male, which was an odd thing to notice. After changing time zones, we ended up arriving in Istanbul to greet my friend Helene at 2:50am. What better time to arrive in a new city? Seeing Helene at the airport was such a welcome sight – she took a cab all the way to and from the airport to meet us, and arranged hostel accommodations in Sultanahmet. The hostel was filled with Americans, many of them from New Jersey. There’s no escape!

The hostel wasn’t that great, but it served its purpose by being in a very central location. Soon after I fell asleep very late Thursday night/Friday morning, I was woken up briefly by the morning call to prayer coming from all the mosques.

Friday was our first full day in Istanbul, and we went in search of food around noon. Even though it came recommended, I hated Ayran, a yogurt “drink” made by whipping yogurt with water and salt to the consistency of a light cream. Ugh. I found a supermarket and bought fresh bread, a banana, and normal yogurt and enjoyed a Turkish coffee. I thought it was funny that even in Turkey, you order “Turkish Coffee.” Nescafe is very popular, and why, I’ll never know. Turkish coffee is strong, yes, but I got used to it quickly. I’m used to drinking espresso these days anyway, so Turkish coffee wasn’t that much of a leap. I also drank about ten zillion (small) glasses of tea every day, which kept me properly caffienated.

Helene introduced us to her friends at Arsah, one of the thousands of carpet stores in Sultanahmet. The guys that worked there were incredibly warm and extended every hospitality to us, simply because we were Helene’s friends. We were given endless amounts of tea and were able to witness some carpet sales going on in the store. The guys who worked there really knew their stuff, and allowed me to ask tons of questions without making me feel stupid at all. Teufik, a salesmen, took the 3 of us on a walk around the neighborhood and acted as an informal tour guide, telling us the history of the monuments and mosques in the area. We were lead to another carpet/dress shop, a beautiful secret little room in the attic behind a hotel. We lounged around on pillows and drank more tea. When Helene had to leave for work, Teufik decided to stay with us and bought us even more tea at one of his friends’ coffee shops. It was such an amazing first day, and when we were hungry for dinner, Teufik personally took us to a cheap non-touristy neighborhood and picked out a place for us. Before we sat down, he talked to the men working at the restaurant (in Turkish) and said what I assume was something like “these are my friends, don’t rip them off.” We were treated like VIPs and had an excellent meal.

Saturday in Istanbul is nuts, and we fought our way through the crowds to see the Grand Bazaar and Spice Bazaar. The Spice Bazaar smelled so good and I wanted everything I saw. We spent the entire day exploring the city, from the crowded areas around the Blue Mosque to tiny little not-at-all-touristy neighborhoods along the river. We crossed the bridges and watched the fishermen. By late in the afternoon, after walking all day, the crowds, pollution, and cars were starting to get to me. There are simply too many cars in Istanbul and absolutely no set traffic patterns. The sidewalks are under constant construction and crossing a busy street was sometimes impossible. Just as we were starting to get moody, our oasis appeared – a spotless little cafe selling fresh pastries, coffee, soda, and treats. The people behind the counter were young and spoke some English, and the bathroom was spotless. After that diversion, I felt totally rejuvenated and ready to face the city again. We walked around a beautiful old mosque as the sun set, and headed back to the hostel just as sundown became official and all the fasting Muslims crowded into sidewalk cafes and restaurants.

Helene met us back at the hostel that night, when she was done with work. All three of us were pretty worn out from our days, so we happily spent the night in the hostel bar, which was mostly empty. I drank raki and shared an excellent vegetarian stew & pizza with Helene.

On Sunday the 23rd of October, we spent the morning in the English-language school watching Helene teach. It was great to see her in action, and I sympathized with all the students struggling to learn the language. Helene is really, really good at what she does and I was impressed with how seriously she takes her job. We left the school around 4:00pm with a fellow English teacher and about 6 Turkish students and went to Buyucekmece (I’m not sure if I’m spelling that right), an amazing area outside the city. It was quiet and peaceful, something we were all craving. That night was one of the best in my life – we lounged about in a spectacular restaurant/cafe/tea room (I have no idea what to compare it to, something very Turkish that just doesn’t exist anywhere else I’ve been) on comfy couches and pillows and drank tea until sundown, since one of our new friends was a devout Muslim who was fasting. After the sun dipped below the horizon, we heard a loud noise (like a horn) indicating that whoever is in charge of this type of thing has decided that yes, it’s officially sundown, so go ahead and eat! We were given amazing service and my Turkish friends were able to order non-meat items for me without a problem. I loved the food, I loved sitting next to Helene who was all curled up with pillows and coats, and I loved the company. The students couldn’t speak great English, but they tried, and were incredibly nice. As the night went on, a musician came on to play quiet Turkish songs with an acoustic guitar. The place filled up with people and the smell of apple-scented tobacco. We drank copious amounts of tea and the atmosphere was so calm, so unhurried, and so relaxing.

On Sunday night, we slept in a real apartment! Victoria, another English teacher at Helene’s school, let us stay at her place. It was out of the way but totally worth it. Her and her fiancé made everyone a late-night dinner, gave us tons of warm blankets, and use of their nice, clean shower (which after 3 days in a hostel was a very welcome sight). We crashed close together on a couch and slept soundly until Monday morning. We spent Monday searching for body jewelry replacement in Taksim, the somewhat non-conservative area of Istanbul.  The carpet shop guys let us keep our stuff there while we wandered about the city. It was our last full day in Istanbul; a train to Bucharest, Romania was leaving at 10:00pm that night. Istanbul is pretty inexpensive for someone converting US dollars, and we discovered that an upgrade to a sleeper car on the train was an extra $15 USD or so, bringing the grand total for two train tickets to 165 Lyra, which I think is about $105 USD. The trip was 19 hours long, and getting a sleeper car was the best decision we ever made.

It blew my mind to walk around Istanbul and look at things from the 4th or 5th centuries. It’s an amazing city, but I think my favorite part about the trip was just being able to hang out with Helene and see what she does with her life. I loved meeting so many Turkish people, hanging out at the carpet shop, and sitting in the hostel bar for hours. The Turkish people we met were just so incredibly generous, without any kind of hidden agenda. This is a pattern that I saw more and more during my Eastern Europe travels.

There were some not-great aspects of the city as well. There was an overwhelming feeling of male domination that surprised me. I simply didn’t see nearly as many women. Being in a predominantly Muslim city had benefits – I enjoyed learning about Ramadan, I got used to hearing the call to prayer 5 times every day, and I loved seeing the Mosques as big cultural centers instead of just a place to go pray. But the culture of Istanbul isn’t as modern as I had hoped, and I didn’t enjoy seeing the way that women really just seemed like second-class citizens. It’s hard to describe one certain scene or event that I can give an example of, but when we arrived in Bucharest, we both instantly noticed – wow – there’s women everywhere! And they’re just walking around, not in large groups or with men. And they’re wearing skirts and heels and no one is commenting about it. Women in Istanbul range from those who fully cover themselves (which is actually illegal) to women who dress like me, but the harassment that those women face walking around by themselves makes me see why it’s just easier to be as conservative as possible, which is a shame. I also found the pollution, smoking, traffic, and the over-crowded streets to get on my nerves a few times, even though those things are a fact of life in any big city.

Anyway, all that being said, it was a wonderful four days, and I would certainly go back. We had perfect weather, the food was wonderful, and there’s so much I didn’t have time to do. I’d love to spend more time in the Spice Market, on a less busy day. I would love to go inside the Mosques with a Muslim, who could explain everything to me. I could walk across the bridges and stare and the skylines all day, and take pictures of the old men fishing. One day, I would love to have an entire room totally Turkish-themed, with dark carpets and thick pillows, an elaborate tea set and apple flavored tobacco for anyone who wants some.

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