I’ve never experienced a city quite like İstanbul, a city so alive. It has a spirit of its own; a life beyond merely its people; a heart that beats in rhythm with the trains weaving through narrow cobblestone roads and the cerulean waves of the Bosphorus. Up, down, up, down.
I was in the city for only two short days — a mere thirty hours — but it was time enough for the realization that İstanbul is also totally and unequivocally, a “she”. Arrogant, temperamental, and frighteningly beautiful in the way only a woman can truly be.
She is loud and brash, with her unmoving cars blaring their horns in frustration and impatience. She has an intimidating beauty about her, with the slender minarets of her many camiis towering over the city like soldiers posed for battle. She is young and new, with university students crowding her bars and cafes, expensive stores and boutiques lining the fashionable districts of her Asian half. She is timeless, with a wisdom beyond the ages buried deep beneath the foundations of stone mosques and crumbling towers, centuries of brilliant minds strolling through her ornate doors, leaving behind a legacy that has yet to fade.
Above all, she makes you feel small and insignificant.
My trip to İstanbul was a whirlwind of excitement in every way imaginable. I am…still recovering, to be quite honest. Çisil was my much-needed guide, weaving us hastily through ticket lines at the ferry ports, making sure we boarded the right trains at the right stations, ensuring that I did not sleep a wink (though I stole quick naps on long bus rides and couches when I could).
We left stupidly early on Saturday morning (without breakfast!), taking a metro and bus to the ferry port along the Sea of Marmara, hopping on the boat for a two-hour glide along the water to the city. By the time we got our bearings — by which I mean Çisil took my arm and bodily led me to the right train from the port — we found ourselves in the historic district of the European side, nestled between the Sultan Ahmet Camii and the Ayasofya, and ravenous beyond belief. An unnamed tourist trap of a market sits in between the two, so naturally we made our way toward it in the hopes of finding some lunch.
Our venture was wildly unsuccessful — though delicious, baklava and dondurma (ice cream) are not my breakfasts of choice — but we watched some paper marbling and shoe cobbling while there. In the end, simit (a rich, yeasty twisted bread reminiscent of a bagel) and Ayran (a lassi-like yoghurt drink, tangy and slightly salty) from street carts along the road were sufficient.
Our first real stop in the city was the Ayasofya, which I was quite excited to visit in person, seeing as how my only exposure to it until then had been as a parkour-doing hooded assassin in a video game. My expectations were high. I was fighting an insatiable urge to scale the walls with my bare hands as we approached, but I managed to keep it together, somehow.
Once we walked through its towering gates, though, I faltered. I stumbled, and I felt rooted to the stone floor beneath me. The last time I was left quite so speechless was my visit to the Sistine Chapel years ago, eyes fixed on Michelangelo’s masterpieces above, shoulders packed in line with the thousands beside me.
But the Ayasofya was different. It was full of admirers, of sounds of appreciation and amazement and camera flashes lighting up the interior, but it felt empty. It was as though I were the only one there, that I could get lost among its towering archways without notice, that no one would care if I did.
I felt tinier than I’d felt in a very long time.
We strolled through the building for some time, losing ourselves in Arabic script painting stories across its mile-high ceilings. Time felt halted as we made our way up the dark, narrow hallway to the upper floor, fingers trailing the winding walls as we climbed. Once there, we peered down to the floor below, almost as if looking into a different place, clutching the solid balcony as though we’d disappear without it.
After some time — I couldn’t say how long — we made our way back down and out into the blinding sunshine. It took me a moment to realize that we were still in İstanbul, having felt as though I’d come out of a distant and sad dream.
We purchased some overpriced bottled water from a street vender nearby and made our way to the Blue Mosque, with its bright spires visible through the trees ahead. The Mosque had just reopened for tourists after the afternoon prayer, so we squeezed our way through the throng of visitors for a decent view, scarves hung loosely about our heads.
I can safely say that the interior lives up to the name. It is a stunning piece of art; hues of blues, reds, and golds reflecting off its walls and into its ornate carpet; Arabic winding across every surface; a sense of purpose proudly erect.
We didn’t linger for too long, not wanting to disturb those who were praying and wanting very much to escape the heat and BO radiating off of those around us.
Once outside, we settled ourselves on the shaded, high steps lining the courtyard, basking in the cool breezes blowing through its open doors. I watched the visitors for a while, making note of close couples and young children clutching plastic bags holding their shoes as they scurried into the mosque. It was the first time I really thought about how different İstanbul is from Bursa. Bursa, with its lush trees and sparse roads, houses and duplexes scattered along the hills of the surrounding mountains, Turkish drifting from every cafe window without a trace of pretension. İstanbul, on the other hand, a mix of English, German, Chinese, Arabic, of people rushing from site to site in the hopes of checking landmarks off a list.
In Bursa, I merely feel illiterate. In İstanbul, I felt like a tourist. It was unsettling.
I felt Çisil stir beside me, shaking me out of my musings to file away for insomnia-driven nights. We picked ourselves up and headed off for Topkapı Sarayı, our last historical visit of the afternoon.
We had been in the city for almost two hours at this point, weaving through street vendors and aggressively avoiding brochure-waving Turks selling overpriced tickets for Bosphorus cruises. We trudged through the summer heat to Topkapı, shirts sweat-sticking to our backs and minds still overwhelmed from our visits to the Ayasofya and Blue Mosque. I was starting to get tired.
Topkapı, though, was incredibly pleasant, lush courtyards a welcome change from tourist-packed buildings and alleyways. We strolled without rush through the tall trees, falling into an easy rhythm with the slow pace of the palace. I imagined myself living there centuries earlier, never tiring of the gardens and ornate architecture along the gates, spending hours reading beneath the trees, meeting important guests and attending lavish dinners.
I made a mental note to restart Assassin’s Creed once I’m back in the States.
As we made our way through the divans and harems, we were met with a stunning view of the Marmara Sea, copper-red rooftops of İstanbul’s Asian side visible across the water.
We stayed in the palace for a short while longer, waiting on a good, English-speaking friend of Çisil’s to meet us at the Imperial Gate. He had come up with his brother,
and I have never been more thankful for the Turkish cheek-kiss greeting and the two of them drove us to a favorite nargile cafe to smoke copious amounts of hookah.
A few hours and a devastating tavla defeat later, my clothes smelled of apple and mint and I had sipped my bodyweight in banana tea and çay. It was certainly not as intellectually motivated as our visits to the historical sites, but I could think of no better way to spend my first evening in İstanbul than a monumental dive into future respiratory problems. (A raging success, I believe.)
The guys drove us back into the city around 8, when Çisil and I hopped on a ferry to the Asian side of the city. There, we met up with her step-mum, Asuma Anne, and step-mum’s daughter, Gizem, for dinner. They welcomed me warmly, all smiles and rapid Turkish, causing me to dredge up poorly delivered, oft-practiced lines of basic conversation. Lucky for me, they thought my attempt alone was a marvel, and I could feel my linguistic ego inflating in a most undeserved manner as they showered me with undeserved praise.
I reveled in it.
Asuma Anne drove the four of us to a small, unassuming cafe right along the Bosphorus. It was a gorgeous place; small boats docked against the stone port in a flurry of color, sun setting behind the sea against a backdrop of orange and pink. We ate kebap and pickled veggies (quickly becoming a favorite staple with every meal) as I stumbled my way through conversation, telling them about my studies in Bursa and plans for the fall, hearing stories about their lives in İstanbul in exchange. The breeze from the sea cooled the air, and I pulled my scarf tighter about my shoulders. Asuma Anne noticed, of course, and somehow procured a blanket from a waiter — stamped with the Efes Pilsen logo, no less — which she then used to wrap me up like a dolma.
I felt like family, then.
After dinner, we parked near Cadde Bostan — a bustling street reminiscent of Fifth Avenue, lined with expensive boutiques and restaurants — strolling along the shops as night crept over us. Gizem had turned 24 a few days before our visit, and Çisil and I planned to purchase a cake in secret as a belated celebration. I kept her occupied with questions as Çisil and Asuma Anne slipped into a bakery, questions about her studies, about her recent marriage, about politics, about falling in love with Turkey.
“It’s very crazy here in İstanbul these days,” she told me as we passed a cart of fresh-cut flowers, “and sometimes it is overwhelming. But when I am not happy, I go to the sea, and then I never want to leave.”
I thought back to my first sight of the Bosphorus then, dividing the city in two, the bridge between two magnificent worlds. Even more than the Blue Mosque or the Ayasofya, I think I love the sea. During comfortable silences over dinner, I had gazed out over its sapphire surface at the sunset, listened to the sounds of the waves hitting the stones, briny scent of the water caught on the breeze. I felt a profound humility, then, as if İstanbul were sharing a secret that few were meant to know, and a sense of calm I hadn’t felt in a long, long while. I decided that if, at the end of my life, I feel the same sense of peace as I did then, I will be ready to go.
I felt a text from Çisil and turned us back around to a cafe a few blocks away. We made ourselves comfortable in lush chairs, steam wafting from hot çay as we indulged in rich chocolate cream cake and shared laughs and birthday wishes.
It was nearing midnight, and I expected we’d head for home shortly. Next to me, Çisil had quite another idea in mind, making plans to spend the entire night out partying until our eyeballs glazed over.
“The last ferry for the European side leaves at 1 am. We can catch it if we leave now!”
Cue five hours at Reina, where I was painfully underdressed and lost track of time after the third techno remix of terrible Western pop music. Around 5:30 we hopped into a taxi, clutching onto each other’s arms in an effort not to knock over every well-dressed patron still dancing away (and I thought the Spaniards partied hard) and somehow ended up at one of Çisil’s friends’ apartments. I fell asleep before my head hit the armrest of the couch.
Two hours later, I woke up. It was 8 am. I felt like something had crawled in my mouth and died, and my hair looked as though birds had been nesting in it for months.
Nevertheless, Çisil and I threw on our shoes and hopped in a cab, driven to the port to meet Çisil’s father — Can Baba — and catch the bus back to the Asian side. I desperately wished I had been more presentable for my first meeting with Can Baba, but he was either partially blind with absolutely no sense of smell, or was incredibly polite about my utterly disheveled state of being. He hugged me warmly and the three of us sat in a cafe along the sea, drinking çay (I must have been on my fifteenth cup by then) and munching on simit and tost with peynir (the most transcendent version of a grilled cheese I have ever eaten) as we exchanged introductions and waited for the boat.
(Çisil’s disposition, I noticed, must have been inherited from her father, whose crows feet and laugh lines graced his features as he spoke in fluent English, telling me stories of his travels around the world, from business meetings in Pakistan — “I love the country, but their politics were shit even in the 80s” — to 32-day roadtrips across Europe. I’m sure he has as many stories to tell as İstanbul herself.)
Once across, we had to take a 45-minute bus ride up to the house. Çisil and her father spent the trip catching up in rapid Turkish that left my head spinning, so I turned my attention out the window, watching the İstanbul morning pass us by in blurs of rust hues and dust. At the house, I reveled in the chance at a shower and scrubbed off 24 hours’ worth of grime and a few layers of skin, almost falling asleep against the tiled wall in the bath. Afterward, I passed out in the spare room they had set out for me, falling into a dreamless sleep for two hours.
I greeted Asuma Anne in the living room once I woke — Çisil and Can Baba were still asleep — and we chatted in hushed voices over çay and Türk kahvaltı (Turkish breakfast), flipping through her high school yearbook and giggling over old photos of her and Can. Though she’s his wife from his fourth marriage, they’d known each other since childhood, and were still courting one another as teenagers in love. “That’s life,” Can Baba had said to me as we were crossing the sea earlier that morning, “sometimes you meet each other again.”
Once he and Çisil joined us an hour later, we measured the afternoon in games of tavla and cups of tea, sharing stories and getting to know one another — “today I have a new daughter,” Can Baba smiled, and I felt a pleasant sort of heartache at his kindness — sunshine and breeze wafting through the open window until it was time for Çisil and I to head back to the port for a ferry home.
The ride turned out much more exciting than anticipated when the bus came to a standstill at the outskirts of a massive demonstration right along the Bosphorus. I had no intention of participating in the demonstration in any way whatsoever, but Çisil and I found ourselves caught in a wave of Turks carrying red flags, silhouettes of Atatürk hanging from high balconies and car windows. The entire ordeal was incredible, really: flautists and musicians gathered in groups along the sea, men grilling fresh fish over open fires for friends and strangers, songs born out of passion and feeling.
Incidentally, we missed the ferry. Stuck waiting 3 hours for the night boat, Çisil and I made our way to the European side of the city for dinner. Time passed quickly enough, as it does with such ease whenever I’m with her. We were happy to be heading home, though, and ready for a burst of uninterrupted sleep.
I’m back in Bursa, now. Back to the bustle of morning Turkish lessons and battling humid train rides, back to the familiarity of its easy roads and uncomplicated schedule. I loved İstanbul, to be sure, but… I hardly know her. Two days — and what feels like a lifetime — spent wandering her streets, and I’ve barely touched the surface of her story. The night before, Gizem told me that after 24 years of living and breathing İstanbul, she wasn’t sure she could ever see it all.
Maybe that’s why people keep coming back, in the hopes that they can.
And really? I’m not sure she will ever be my city, in the same way that Cville is and Bursa is slowly beginning to be. But I think I’m okay with that. I’ll enjoy her company when I’m around, and let her go when it’s time to go home. For now, it’s enough to know that she’ll always be there.
Will write again soon, my dear reader. Keep smiling until then. XX