Our visit to Istanbul opened my eyes to what I was missing in limiting myself to only visiting Western Europe. We took in traditional cultural activities, local food and toured the city looking at historical sites and modern neighborhoods. Yet, it was the little moments that we will remember long after.
Our first night in town, Brian, Anthony and I wandered into what looked like a basement turned tea house. We sat with two Turkish men who spoke no English. The stools were low to the ground and the place was dingy, decrepit and tiny but had just enough room for making tea. The owner poured us a cup of tea and flipped the channel on the TV from horse racing (gambling was most likely involved) to a country music concert. He pointed at the artist and asked, ‘Shakira?‘ We said no. Then they showed the crowd and it was Blake Shelton and a guy with slicked back long brown hair. He said, ‘Tom Cruise?‘ Ahhh, no. A few minutes later a commercial came on starring Grant Hill; he made a basketball shooting motion and said, ‘Kobe Bryant, Kobe Bryant.’ We just went along with this one.
We helped an old man push a wooden produce cart up a steep hill. He appeared to be struggling so we offered to help by using hand signals, got his cart to the top of the hill and he thanked us and we moved on.
After some debate and research, we decided to go to a Turkish bath tucked into a residential area of the city. It was cheap and not a place frequented by many tourists. The men spoke no English but were friendly and enjoyable company. Most people would be hesitant to partake in this experience but for me, it is essential to embrace local traditions and we ended up enjoying it so much we want back a second time.
We also learned a lot about the city in five days. One is to quickly hug a wall when a car came rolling up or down a hill on a tiny street we previously thought was reserved for pedestrians. Google maps is not always accurate; several times we got lost looking for a restaurant or the bath house. Stray cats, and to a lesser extent dogs, roam the streets acting like they own the place. We regularly saw cats climbing up awnings into second story open windows. The city is massive: 15 million people make it one of the largest in the world. Their truly is a market for everything. Our first day we walked down a street that was lined with shops selling power tools then took two turns to a street selling only carpets.
The hospitality was overly welcoming. A good amount of waiters, shopkeepers and store owners spoke English. Even if they did not, we were treated well at every single stop we made in five days. Maybe it was due to the fact that we spoke English and were assumed to have money to spend or perhaps they are just a nice people. Either way it made our short stay in their city a pleasure.
The food was cheap and delicious. Think of home style comfort food and add a little extra and sometimes foreign spice. Street food is prevalent it perfumes the narrow city streets. We never regretted impulsively stopping to buy a wet burger or a kebab or a bufe place for lunch loading up on some comfort food. Heck, I even tried a sheep’s intestines kebab. It was gristly and spicy and not necessarily delicious.
Tea is a way of life; Turkey consumes the most per capita in the world. Dingy basements like the one we sat in regularly deliver tea around the neighborhood. Kids, adults and older men walk down the street with serving trays of poured tea delivering them to restaurants who then serve it to customers or to the shop keepers and store owners.
Finally, the main attractions are stunning. Visiting the ancient Mosques of Istanbul gave us a sense of the contrast in the history of this ancient city. For a modern side of the city, Istiklal street was bustling every night of the week. It compares to Michigan Avenue in Chicago if you converted it a pedestrian street. People trekked wall to wall, up and down the street stopping at the shops, many of the same brands we have at our malls, or grabbing ice cream, a kebab or dessert. The street leads into Taksim Square, a large space that recently gained notoriety due to large scale political demonstrations. It was busy but peaceful while we were there.