1319, 1998 Istanbul, Turkey
Thus far, Istanbul takes the award
for the biggest small town that I have ever stepped a dusty foot into. The citys
borders bulge with almost 15 million residents, making Istanbul the fourth largest city in
the world (twice the size of New York City).
Unlike some of the cities we've visited in Europe and Scandinavia,
it is almost impossible to take a leisurely stroll from one end of the city to the other.
This undertaking would instead take the better part of a an entire day, as the proper city
of Istanbul sprawls for 100 square miles and stretches over two continents both
Europe and Asia.
In 330 A.D. Constantine the Great declared the city the capital of
the Roman Empire and named the city after himself. For the next 900 years of the Roman
Empire, Constantinople was the capital. In the mid 15th century, a new era
began as the city took the new name Istanbul as it became the capital of the great Ottoman
Empire. For the next few hundred years, Istanbul regained its status as one of the
strongest, largest, and most prosperous cities, and was the worlds envy.
These days, Istanbul is pure chaos. It is hustle. It is bustle. It
is constant with activity. The sounds that fill the air are constant and nancesant honking
(the Turkish LOVE their horns), a constant roar of conversation, the background buzz of
engines and other mechanical things humming away, and of course, the five times a day
muezzin calls (calls for prayer) over the loudspeakers from the minaret that seems to be
right next to you (there are hundreds of mosques in the city).
Yet despite its all of
its craziness and immense size, we have found Istanbul to be as warm, open, and friendly
as the rest of Turkey. There is no doubt, that what truly makes this city special, really
special, is its people. The Turks are quite compassionate, and at times even openly
affectionate towards one another.
And, given the
chance, they simply follow their nature and treat their guests in much the same way. In
fact, as I write this, I notice someone standing over my shoulder. I turn to find it is
one of the waiters who is curious about my miniature laptop. I tell him that I am writing
about Istanbul, and show him some of the other city pages I have put together. Although he
seems to understand English much better than he speaks it (which is not very well), he
nods and smiles, and nods and smiles.
I then tell him, the best I can with more motions than words, that
Laura and I very much like the city and have decided to stay an extra few days. This,
Im sure he understands because he puts his arm around my shoulders and pats my arm
with his hand while smiling and saying "thank you, thank you, thank you".
Instantly, I feel like one of the family.
In Istanbul, like any
other large city, there is commerce. Lots of it. Everywhere you look in the old city there
is someone selling something, anything to somebody. Imagine a giant, winding maze of old
walls with every nook, every cranny, indeed, every open space with enough traffic, on foot
or in cars, busses, or vans, there is someone, selling something, to someone else. The
largest concentration of these little camps of capitalism is the Grand Bazaar.
With over 6,000 shops, it has got to be the largest shopping mall in
the world. It is literally a maze of covered streets lined with tiny two story shops. With
nearly all their wares displayed outside, the tradesman are hawking everything from fake
Levis, counterfeit Hilfinger and Izod, hats, watches, belly dancers outfits,
underwear, roasted chestnuts, postcards, and pomegranates.
A shopper here is constantly barraged with "excuse me
please", or "this way please", or better yet, the ever popular "where
are you from?", or "are you American?" as they stroll by. Anything to grab
the attention of the passerby and start a conversation that could possibly lead to a
purchase. I was even told on numerous occasions that I "walk like an American, but
look like a Turk" (my beard). Very amusing. With this said, the visitor to Turkey
shouldnt be offended by the constant badgering, but rather understand that these
peoples livelihood depends on their ability to grab your attention through this
sensory overload, lure you into their shops, and hopefully convince you to buy something.
I decided to have a little fun with a few of these folks. To their
question of "Are you American?", I some times reply, and continue until they
give up, with a diatribe in Pig Latin or just plain gibberish that sounds a little like
French. "byea sombeeya coltrae myav ortayavee" Its great fun. Other times,
when they ask "Are you lost?". (this is a tried and true conversation opener
with directions to their rug shop usually forthcoming). I reply with "No, were
in Izmir, right?"
They look at me with a very puzzled look and tell us that we
arent in Izmir, but in Istanbul. At this point I begin thanking them profusely for
helping us, explaining to them that we are no longer lost. At this point, they usually
tilt their head slightly to the side as their face breaks into a huge smile. A big slap on
the back is their way of telling me that they appreciate that I am on to their game and am
having a little fun at their expense.
Everyone gets into the
act. From small boys selling post cards, Turkish tops, and shoe shines, to
greeters outside of restaurants and rug shops (everyone in the city has at
least one uncle who owns a rug shop) who are often paid a percentage of the nights
receipts for getting people in the door. One that note, a travelers tip you most
likely wont find in any guidebook: a trip to the sidewalk fish restaurants of
Kumkapi is a MUST.
To avoid being hounded while choosing a restaurant, chew on a
toothpick as you stroll down the street. Tell each of the greeters as they approach you
(there will be many) that you have already eaten. If you toss a few questions back their
way and tease them a little bit, more than likely youll be asked to take a load off
at one of their tables. In exchange for sitting there appearing to patronize their
restaurant as to impress other passers-by, tea or coffee is on the house. This means free
caffeine all night, the Turkish way, one restaurant at a time.
The Turkish days are filled with sun, and when possible surf. Our
last day in town was a Sunday. We joined the locals at the shore to soak in the sun.
Half of the town must have been out fishing that day as rows of long, shiny poles
reflected flashes from the sun as they danced back and forth with the amateur fisherman's
casts. I looked up into the sun as it warmed my face and thought to myself, life is
good. It seems I should learn to say that in Turkish. Maybe I'll find a
volunteer to teach me before we leave tomorrow.