Travel

Kaleidoscopic Istanbul

The Sultanahmet Camii (Blue Mosque) in Winter 2008. Photo: Matthew Asprey.

Perhaps more than any other world city, Istanbul transforms with the seasons. In this kaleidoscopic city, thriving and chaotic, cosmopolitan with entrenched provincial colour, you sometimes feel like you’re at the centre of the world.

Forget pulling off a heist at the Topkapı Palace—here is the truly classic Istanbul swindle:

A Meandering Australian Tourist Type (Matt) finds himself trailing behind a shoe shiner in the Sultanahmet. The shoe shiner ‘unwittingly’ drops his brush and continues along the street.

“Sir!” cries Matt, “You dropped your brush!”

The shoe shiner turns in shock and retrieves his brush. “Thank you, my friend! Thank you!”

“No problem.” Matt smiles, moving on, his work here done.

“Wait!” The shoe shiner falls to his knees and seizes Matt’s right boot. “You have saved my livelihood! I must repay!”

“Oh, that’s really not—”

The shoe shiner already has Matt’s foot on his woodblock and has smeared white gunk onto his priceless brush. He raises his eyes to Matt as if praying to an angel. “My gift to you!” He starts to polish Matt’s boot.

A tall man in a baseball cap appears from nowhere to put his arm around Matt’s shoulder. “Lucky man! This is fifteen years number one shoe engineer in all Istanbul! Where you from?”

“Ah...Australia.”

“Kangaroo?”

“Ah-huh.”

“Aussie! Aussie! Aussie!”

Matt winces. “Actually that’s an idiotic nationalistic—”

“Oi! Oi! Oi!”

The shoe shiner is now scrubbing Matt’s left boot. “I have wife and four children,” he says. “My children need food...they starve.” He makes a pathetic eating gesture, hand to mouth, oh it’s hopeless, they are wasting away!

Matt sighs and pulls a couple of lira coins out of his pocket.

“No, no,” the shoe shiner says. “My children need paper money.”

The other man squeezes Matt’s shoulder, grins, and adds for clarity: “It’s not enough.”

The shoe shiner holds tight to Matt’s left foot.

Hopping on one leg, Matt withdraws his wallet. He has only a fifty lira bill—about US$25.

“Sorry, I have nothing smaller,” Matt says, showing the bill.

“No problem,” says the shoe shiner, “I give change.” He snatches the fifty from Matt’s hand. The other man hands reaches into his pocket and hands back fifteen lira.

“Too much!” Matt says.

“For my children!” the shoe shiner says, planting his wet lips and bristly moustache to the back of Matt’s hand. He releases Matt’s foot. “Thank you! Thank you!”

“Okay, okay!”

Matt hurries up the street.

“Wait!” The other man yells. “You need guide?”

Sure, I was a sucker that first time. But once you’re hip to the classic shoeshine con, Istanbul’s a breeze. I keep coming back. It’s one of my favourite cities. I guess Clare and I could have skipped it on our global prowl, this backpacking reconnaissance mission for affordable cities, because I already knew Istanbul to be a fine place for an expatriate writer. But Clare had never been to the city, and it would be a shame for any archeologist to miss out on the capital of the Byzantine and the Ottoman Empires. What’s more, it wasn't going to cost us much extra to make a week-long stop en route from Georgia to Greece.

I was lucky to have so many excuses to go back.

This made it my third visit in four years. I’ve seen the city in the bitter winter, in sultry summer, and now in florid spring. Perhaps more than any other world city, Istanbul transforms with the seasons. In any season you have trouble deciding whether the place is Eastern European, Middle Eastern, or Central Asian. This all makes for a kaleidoscopic city, thriving and chaotic, cosmopolitan with entrenched provincial colour, a place of contradictions. Sometimes you feel like you’re at the centre of the world.

Here are notes from my first three sojourns in this great city on the Bosphorus.

Winter 2008: In the Sultanahmet Without a Wedding Ring

At dawn the plane descended through an ice-slush of clouds. I stumbled through passport control at Atatürk International Airport. Beyond the gates Mehmet, a portly old man, held up a sign bearing my name. I followed him. The outside air was frosty and the sky a pale haze of industrial pollution. Mehmet led me to his white panel van. On the highway, cruising by decayed mass housing blocks, Mehmet leaned over to smack the dust off my jeans and pat my belly. He cheered when he saw I had no wedding ring.

“Not have wife?”

“No.”

“Girlfriend?”

“No.”

“Very, very good,” he said. “They nag, nag, nag,”

We had fog on our breaths all the way into the city.

Istanbul is split down the middle by the Bosphorus, which joins the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara. The strait divides not just the city, but Europe and Asia. On this visit I would stick to the European side, which gathers around the Golden Horn, an inlet of the Bosphorus. On the northern side of the Horn is the district of Beyoğlu on the way uphill to Taksim Square. On the southern side is the Sultanahmet, home to the Aya Sofya, Sultanahmet Camii (Blue Mosque) and Topkapı Palace.

Mehmet dropped me outside my hotel in the Sultanahmet and then drove back to the airport to pick up another traveller. I buzzed the hotel door. The manager, Suleyman, grudgingly climbed out of his cot behind the counter and led me upstairs to my room. Why so early? I dumped my backpack and took a hot shower and put on clean clothes. When I opened the bedside drawer where one usually expects to see a Gideon’s Bible—or maybe in this case a Gideon’s Qur’an—I found instead what was left of a packet of condoms and a blood-brown tampon. I went down to the lobby and complained to Suleyman the Not-So-Magnificent. He patted my belly and said, ‘Don’t worry—I fix.’

I put on a pair of gloves and went for an early morning walk. The Blue Mosque, seemingly transparent in the southwestern mist, directly faces the Aya Sofya, powder-pink that day before the blue northeastern sky. The area outside the Aya Sofya was deserted except for a man in a Gore-Tex jacket who sold me an international calling card. It started to rain. My stonecold feet led me to a diner on Divan Yolu Caddesi. I ate breakfast and read Anthony Burgess’s Little Wilson and Big God for a few hours.

That afternoon when the rain stopped I walked through Gülhane Park on the slopes below Topkapı Palace. At the edge of the park I found an open air café on a ridge overlooking the Bosphorus. There were no other customers. I shivered and drank hot coffee with cardamom from a gold-rimmed demitasse. A stray ginger cat jumped onto my table and pawed through the rain puddles. It was quiet except for foghorns and the clatter of a train below the ridge. Across the strait above Üsküdar floated a hot air balloon—a perfect sphere, off-white and unbranded, like something escaped from a Jules Verne story. It didn’t feel like the 21st century.

I walked downhill, inspected the ruins of Constantinople’s sea walls, and then walked beside the harbour. On the docks of Eminönü men sold simits (knots of sesame bread) and stuffed mussels. Women in warm shawls, laden with shopping, descended into a pedestrian underpass packed with stalls. The sun was behind the clouds and heavy winter smog, making a ghostly spectre of the Süleymaniye Mosque and of all the mosques on the hills of the city.

I saw the silhouettes of hundreds of men ranked across the Galata Bridge. Were they waiting for a ship to come into the Golden Horn? It was only when I began to cross the bridge that I saw the fishing rods and boxes of tackle and plastic buckets full of little fish writhing in icy water. The men were casting lines into the oily and rubbish-strewn harbour while trams and cars rolled across the bridge.

On the other side, in the harbourside neighbourhood of Karaköy, I discovered that commerce in the centre of Istanbul works on the traditional urban model. Need plumbing equipment? Go to the street where all the plumbing equipment is sold in an open market (Kemeraltı Caddesi). It sure beats the shopping mall.

I hadn’t yet memorised the Turkish for ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ but I did know ‘Etsiz yemekler var mı?’ (‘Is there something to eat that has no meat in it?’) I ordered dinner at an otherwise empty restaurant on the ground floor of a guesthouse in the Sultanahmet. The restaurant doubled as a gift shop. For sale were ceramics with Anatolian motifs, jewellery, and various dust-collecting knick knacks. In an adjoining room was a carpet emporium.

A beautiful and demure lady in an orange hijab brought out my stuffed tomatoes. She didn’t speak English. Her husband, a short man in a brown tie and grey cardigan, was the manager. He wore a peppery grey moustache over a friendly smile. He asked permission to sit with me and introduced himself as Aykut. He wanted to show me his rugs.

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