ISTANBUL – City of Dreams

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I had always wanted to visit Istanbul. I imagined it would be similar to Napoli, an ancient chaotic city of contrasts on the Mediterranean sea.  Arriving at Sabiha Gökçen airport on a humid Autumn day I joke to Murat, my partner, about not having the right visa to get into Turkey. At Passport control a young man checks every page of my passport and asks

‘Didn’t you get a visa?’


‘Please queue over there.’ I look back at where he is pointing and see hoards of confused tourists waiting to part with 10 British Pounds.

Finally, I’m through passport control and we meet with two of Murat’s smiling friends. I try to take in my surroundings while whizzing towards Europe. The traffic is chaotic, but then I expected that.  Sezen Aksu plays on the stereo.

Wow, I’m really crossing the Bosphorus!

I’m leaning forward in my seat with my nose pressed against the window like a child without realising. Gokhan smiles in the rearview mirror. We can’t communicate in spoken word yet, only in signs and smiles. 

Men with stacks of simit ( a round  sesame bread) and gypsy flower sellers meander through semi stationary cars trying to sell their goods. Skyscrapers and minarets dominate the skyline. Huge crescent moon flags and images of Ataturk adorn building facades but there will be no celebrations for National day this year in solidarity for the victims of the Van earthquake.  Then, we arrive at home in Güzeltepe in the district of Kağıthane, not too far from the city centre The future family-in-law, whom I haven’t actually met in person yet, come out to greet us with open arms – Murat’s mother, four out of his five adorable sisters and a beautiful niece and nephew are even more gorgeous than in the photos I’ve seen. There are tears as soon as we step out of the car and many words of catching up follow that afternoon; it has been two years since M has been back home. We are lead to a huge breakfast spread with different types of bread, cheese, honey, eggs, börek, sucuk (beef paprika sausage), olives, and my absolute favorite – hazelnut butter. All washed down with lots of tea. And then a strong, sweet Turkish coffee. Dilek, Murat’s oldest sister, reads our fortunes. What she says makes absolute perfect sense and again I find myself in tears. It’s all so overwhelming!

Murat’s mother brings out a huge basin of a meaty rice mixture and the family set about making stuffed vine leaves. We eat, more family come to visit, we eat again and I am made to feel at home.

A gravelly call to prayer wakes me at the crack of dawn when the sun is yet to wake the sleepy city and stray dogs howl along creating an otherworldly chorus.  When we’re finally awake, another huge breakfast spread is on the table. Famous Turkish hospitality and kahvaltı (breakfast) greet us every morning and I have to battle the sisters to do my part around the house. After breakfast the rag & bone man comes past babbling on a speaker.  Murat’s mother sorts through the cupboards and pulls out blankets to donate for a charity collection heading to Van.  When we leave the house we are bid farewell and when we later return hugs and kisses are never absent. Güzeltepe is inhabited mainly by Alevi families and Murat and his family are also Alevi. I have experienced Alevi festivals in London, I guess you could say the regular Alevi family is more spiritual than religious, with their main belief being Love. There are no divides in Alevism, Turk or Kurd it doesn’t matter. They intermarry easily, tolerate differences and have a whole culture of music, traditional songs I heard many times during our family sing-songs. (See Aynur Dogan and Mustafa Ozarslan for examples of Alevi music.)

In our first few days we have many visits to make to relatives, relatives of relatives, friends, friends of friends – all with a warm welcome and a laid table. Some friends offer musial entertainment with bağlama (traditional Turkish instrument rather like a Mandolin) and song.

Luckily I am understanding bits and pieces of the language. I can say the very basics, and M continues to translate anyway. I feared smiling and nodding wouldn’t be enough but I have two weeks of practise ahead of me and even surprise myself with the knowledge of the most random words. Sinek – Fly. Zor – Difficult.  çirkin – Ugly. Irenç – Disgusting. After a few days I start to repeat things without noticing

“Sekiz, dokuz.”

“What?” M is in fits of laughter. “Eight, nine. Eight nine what?”

Midway during our stay we accompanied one of Murat’s sisters who lives in Germany to Ataturk airport. Men shuffle along in towling about to embark on Hajj – pilgrimage to Mecca. Groups of family twenty people strong, wave them off proudly, twenty per passenger. Gaggles of exotically clad women sit on their mountains of luggage waiting to check in. Their costumes were unlike anything I’d ever seen before and their language not unlike Turkish.  I checked the counter; ‘Ashgabat.’

“Turkmenistan” Murat whispers, aware that my fascination had led me to stop and stare.

The fact was that I was fascinated by Istanbul and it’s people. They were a spicy mix of European and Asian all coinciding together.   Turkish, Kurdish, Iranian, Central Asians, Alevi, Sunni Muslims, Laz, Azeris, Jews, Pontians, Ex Yugolslavians, Arnauts, Gypsies… People from all reaches of the Ottoman empire and beyond. We visit a church or two as well as several Mosques.

After seeing documentary film Muezzin last year, hearing the voice of Halit Aslan calling  thecity to prayer was an experience I craved during my stay. Unfortunately we were never in the right place at the right time. Oh well – it’ll be an excuse to go back :)

Istanbul is a city of the senses. It was as if the most precious things I were to take away (aside from hazelnut butter!) were the memories of its’ sights, smells, sounds and flavours.  The Ezan (call to prayer) is ever more elaborate on a Friday especially during the lead up to Bayram, and it reminds you not only of the time of day but also that you’re on the edge of the Orient. I get goose pimples when I hear the ezan from the Ortakoy Mosque while I look over the slither of sea which separates two continents. Just beyond the silvery Bospherous is Asia.

There is food everywhere. Kiosks, bakeries, fish, kokoreç (spitroast offal), cheese and towering mountains of syrupy baklava provoke the palate.  Especially pleasing is what’s in the windows of Saray Muhallebicisi cafe, Taksim. I think we went here four times in our short stay. Try the Kazan, a caramelised milk pudding, it’s the best in the city apparently. I also tried Asure, a special dessert eaten around Bayram made from 15 ingredients including beans, wheat and dried fruits.  On the next visit we ate pistachio rolled baklava and a heavy syrupy cake with kaymak. (Kaymak is the cream which rises to the top during the yoghurt making process. It’s similar to Marscapone and often eaten with bread and honey for breakfast.)

The district of Beyoğlu is busy both day and night. We risk our lives to cross Taksim square and M is amused that I am squealing. I hadn’t even realised but it was certainly a rush risking life by dodging angry motorists! Shoppers and musicians line Istiklal Caddesi street by day and revellers and musicians line it by night. Istanbul is certainly a musical city, music is in the blood of the people for the city has many voices. From Taksim square and it’s simit / chestnut vendors stretching right down to Galata bridge, Istiklal Caddesi and it’s sidestreets is where I felt the modern beating heart of the city alongside it’s ancient core.  A vendor pokes at his Ice Cream with a long paddle and brings the gummy mass out of it’s pot in one piece.  He swings it to and fro until the mass starts to drop but he fails to misjudge it’s gummyness and misses the head of a passer-by by millimetres. Everyone laughs.   Venturing into side alleys we’re thankful for a chance to take refreshment on stools under vines, and it was in this maze of backstreets where I found my favorite restaurant Medi Sark Sofrasi. Decked out in typical Eastern decor, balloons of steaming bread and huge mixed grills became us on both visits. Y.U.M. We take a coffee in Kumbara Cafe, a second floor cafe in a backstreet building where artistic youth play backgammon, drink cappuccinos and socialise  (they also do a generous portion of Tiramisu too.)

Heading towards the Galata tower, we pass the Balık Pazarı (Fish Bazaar), a side street on the right lined with street food stalls – mainly fish (try Midiye – deep-fried mussel kebabs) and mezze.  Bars in these streets begin to heave with youth as evening closes in. Venues offer fasıl (live Turkish music) in the evenings. We had a few fasıl’s of our own during in our stay. One night Murat hired an entire floor of a restaurant and we make a fasıl of our own as his musical friends bring guitars and bağlamas. After we finish a few bottles of Rakı everyone is singing along, everyone that is, apart from me!

The bottom of Istiklal Caddesi where buildings begin to crumble and narrow doorways house a hive of activity, you start to feel the history of the city.  It’s not uncommon to stumble upon a jamming session in one of its many music shops; modern music, traditional music, rock, arabesque – all kinds of sounds from East to West.

We take a Pomegranate juice from one of the kiosks – beware the faint hearted!  If you’ve never had freshly squeezed Pomegranate juice it is incredibly sour and syrupy – not like the ‘juice drink’ you buy in the UK. In fact, I have noticed that all fruit is rather juicy. Lemons in Istanbul seem to produce endless amounts of liquid when squeezed!

The view from the Galata tower is stunning. You can see Agia Sofia and Sultanahmet Mosques. We went as the sun slunk low in the afternoon sky and paid 5 TL rather than 11 TL for being ‘Turkish’!

The Grand Bazaar is colourful and its many lanes confusing. Shop owners are pushy, tourists are eager and goods are hugely over priced. We hear the Ezan while eyeing the bazaar’s colours. I buy a pair of beautiful silver earrings after Murat manages to bring the price down. We head out of the Bazaar which is far too overwhelming with its abundance of absolutely everything and meander instead in the narrow streets outside.

The streets of Eminonu are a hub of hustle and bustle.  These markets feel like where the real residents of Istanbul haggle and barter.  Traders call you in to sample their dried fruits and nuts, stringy cheese catches the eye, as do clusters of dried peppers and aubergines hanging from canopys. Freshly ground coffee perfumes the air. There is a pet market too and once you get over the shock of barrels of leeches, you can see fresh pups and powdery kittens.

Then when you reach the end of the markets and are faced with the sea, elaborately decorated boats float on the water’s edge offering weary shoppers fresh fish in bread for 5TL (about £1.50!). Perch on a stool, buy a cup of pickles and take in the atmosphere. From there you have a great view of the Galata bridge, and just behind you are the iconic mosques which perforate the city’s skyline.

Ortakoy Mosque was under construction when we went to visit. But no matter – The real jewel there was watching people marvel at the Bosphorus bridge. Lovers embraced. Kids ran after cats and weren’t bothered by the view at all. There is a fab shop in the side streets which sells old photos of the city and it’s people. He’ll do a good deal if you multi buy.

We went to various big shopping centres housing top brand names to catch up with friends. The well-heeled of the city congregate for coffee in it’s cafes. Security is tight; every car/bag/person is thoroughly checked for weapons and explosives before allowed entry. At the top of City’s shopping centre in the affluent district of Nişantaşı we were surrounded by soap opera stars and wealthy residents of the area in Limonata restaurant. Two tables away Asena, one of Turkey’s revered belly dancers sipped coffee.  For me it was the view which took my interest for from Limonata’s terrace you could survey a stunning panorama of the city. The food was also great. We ate cornbread flavoured with dill and lamb on a bed of aubergine and potato puree – perhaps the two only near traditional dishes on a menu flavoured with European influences. Their lemonade is to die for. Their cake counter attractive and colourful.

How can you possibly capture the essence of a city like Istanbul? Well… you can’t. There are moments you wish you had your camera at hand, but times when it would have also been impossible while navigating the city’s impossible roads or trying to balance on uneven backstreet pavements;

Gypsy women bickered at the side of the road, their proud and defiant faces embellished with flashes of gold. Street kids gathered on traffic islands scoffing borek. Men with fantastically full moustaches carve giant kebabs in window kiosks. Cats scratch at rubbish bags thankful for meager pickings.  Pings of bağlama strings and clinks of teaspoons against delicate tea glasses are standard street sounds. Solitary men with dark expressions perch on tiny stools; they inhale cigarettes right down to the butt in a deep state of reflection. Houseproud women in Çağlayan sweep the front door step of their humble homes resting beside a mound of rubble and rubbish. Traffic chaos.  Boys who can’t be older than 10 lug huge bags of cardboard up steep hills. Street kids clinging onto the back of the Taksim Tunnel tram for dear life. A hopeful dog waits behind fishermen of all ages who line the water’s edge. A man salting fish jars them up for hard times. We stumble upon a party on a fishing boat – typical Black Sea style music blares from a stereo. One man jumps up and down with his arms outstretched whistling furiously, perhaps he has had more Rakı than the others. These are all images I remember fondly.

Smells of meat and bread fill the streets. We stop at Gulluoglu a few times for su böreği (a thick, substantial type of borek) and tea. M buys chestnut sweets covered with chocolate and on our last day we buy a kilo of them to take back home. On return I discover Gulluoglu has a franchise patisserie in North London – yay! Gulluoglu Patisserie London address here. For wholesale, here. They have franchises in New York & various sites in Germany too.

We spend some time with Dilek at her home in Çağlayan. It’s a colourful neighbourhood, people cram into blocks of flats and live on top of each other. Piles of rubble take place in between the new builds and the traditional style older buildings. I like the area because its raw. It has character.  Murat doesn’t feel the same – he hates driving in its narrow hilly streets.   We watch the soap opera Izzet and I find myself weeping at it’s storyline although I haven’t a clue what is really going on. Beyond the window behind the TV is Paşa, the family Kangal dog. He peers over a wall with hopeful eyes silently begging for someone to play with. He’s shedding puppyhood although on his hind legs his is taller than Murat who stands tall at 6 ft 2. A dusty light ray filters through the open window and cay glasses are filled by a scalding kettle which rests on top of a wood burning heater. Neighbours (who are also extended family) pop round with offerings of food. We are given spicy bulgur wheat patties and cake. These were the experiences which would stay with me and were far more precious than any other ceramic plate of evil eye bracelet.

Then our two weeks in the city are up and it’s time to leave. The night before we depart we have a family meal. There are more tears, some dancing and plenty of rakı. We bid each other farewell. How I love those warm faces. We managed to surpass all language barriers and found ways to communicate which even involved sound effects!

Driving back to the airport after some manic packing, Sezen Aksu’s new song comes onto the stereo. We are held in traffic gridlock and cut the engines just metres from the Bosphorus bridge. I take it all in for the last time.

Sure, Sezen Aksu’s music has always been  pleasant to the ear but I never actually got it. After my stay I get it. You can hear the sentiments of Istanbul in her voice; its joy, its pain and solitude. It’s a city of contrasts, a beautiful and dirty place, it can be a wonderful dream or a terrifying nightmare.                               I’ll miss piling into the car with the family. I’ll miss the gravelly voices of smokers singing and laughing.  Two weeks is simply not enough, I’ve barely scratche the surface. We buy two simit from a vendor happy at the chaos on the roads.

I’ll be back, city of dreams.

8 thoughts on “ISTANBUL – City of Dreams

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