Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish best-selling writer and Nobel laureate, wrote the book sitting in my backpack on the flight to Istanbul. It was my so-called “spring break reading,” and despite the fact that I had tried to start reading it a number of times before the break, all the italicized words and places meant so little to me that it was hard to stay invested. I was dreading opening it again.
Anyway, fast-forward ten days. For the most part, I explored Istanbul alone. I was lucky enough to be staying with some incredible hosts (who took me to their country home for the first few days of my stay and who I could speak to about my adventures in the evening) but for the majority of the time I was by myself.
What surprised me most about traveling alone was the fact that it was hard to get lonely. Part of the reason for this is the sheer wonderful frenzy of the city. Often in between trudging up the winding, cobbled roads inclining what felt like perpendicularly (Istanbul is a hilly city), or figuring out where lunch was going to be, or desperately hoping that the dolmuş, or mini-bus, was going in the direction I needed it to (a mini-bus is a strange cross between a bus and a taxi which picks up around ten people going in the same general direction and drops them off… whenever they feel like getting off), I didn’t have the time or energy to feel lonely.
I interacted with people more than I thought as well, in small moments scattered throughout the week. At the Basilica Cisterns, I met an old Korean couple who proclaimed Istanbul the “best city in the world” and told me where the best place to get kimchi would be. On transit on a ferry back to the European side, a couple with a young nine-month old son asked me to hold their baby, who apparently would not stop fussing until I did.
Hectic as the city was, I also came across a few invaluable quiet moments. Istanbul is not in general a quiet city. Easy counterexample: there are lots of cars and the drivers tend to be very free with the horn. But taking the ferry to the Kadiköy neighborhood on my last day in Istanbul was one such moment to myself. Away from the Historic Peninsula, the tourists are few and far between, and that cloudy morning I was alone on top of the ferry, sipping çay (Turkish black tea) and listening to the call to prayer echo over the indigo Bosphorus.
I loved Kadiköy. One of the few places I went on the Asian side, the neighborhood felt deeply authentic with both an honest-to-goodness market (with actually cheap and good produce/dried goods/sweets unlike the more touristy markets) and cafes that were unabashedly cool. When the morning showers came, I hunkered in one of these cafes and finished the Mediations while sipping another cup of çay– one of my fondest memories in the city.
Undoubtedly just walking around the neighborhoods of Istanbul and taking in the atmosphere was a highlight of the trip. I averaged about 10 miles a day of walking, and finished the week with just over sixty miles under my belt. Besides Kadiköy, my favorite walks included the route from Galata Tower across Galata Bridge (and through Karaköy, another cool neighborhood) to get to Eminönü; the park and glitzy neighborhoods of Nişantaşı; and the beautiful neighborhood of Bebek. Bebek was one of the few places I went to in the city where I could walk by the Bosphorus (along a beautiful boardwalk) without feeling like I was in the way of cars on a major thoroughfare or trespassing in cafes hogging up all the waterfront.
Walking around, it’s impossible not to notice all the cats. I was confused at first about how such masses of stray cats could be so well-fed and groomed before my hosts informed me that the municipality vaccinates them and the locals in Istanbul all do their parts to take care of the cats, leaving cat food, opened cans of tuna, and little cardboard shelters on the side of the road for any passing cat to use. If you’ve ever seen the documentary Kedi… well, it’s exactly like that.
Without further ado, a slideshow of all my best kedi shots (there are plenty more than this on my phone; pruning through them is my gift to you).
If I had to sum up the trip, the glorious, long, lovely, hectic, amazing trip in one word, it would be this: lucky. I was lucky to have had the opportunity and resources to go, lucky that the weather was so good for most of the trip, lucky to have stumbled across the people, restaurants, cats, streets, etc. that I did. But most of all, lucky to have had the opportunity to stay with my fantastic hosts, to get a good sense of Istanbul as a city and not as a tourist destination. I really can’t thank them enough for their hospitality.
My last day in Istanbul was Easter Monday, and after shopping for traditional Greek Easter bread, bittersweet and aromatic from the mastic and mahleb herbs, we died eggs in vinegar and had a last dinner of meze.
On the plane ride back, I took out the Orhan Pamuk book again. I had been too busy (um… exploring) to give it much thought over break, but the seat in front of me had no monitor, and my backpack with laptop was stowed away in the overhead bin, so I had no choice but to try to start the book again. In the first two pages, I read: “… the rumble of a passing car, the clatter of an old bus, the rattle of the copper kettles that the salep maker shared with the pastry cook, the whistle of the parking attendant at the dolmuş stop…” Suddenly, it felt somewhat familiar.
I smiled, and kept reading.