Intolerants Rant: It’s Istanbul (Not Constantinople)

I have a love/hate relationship with Cairo. I go through periods where I’m on a high for several months because the stars have aligned and all things work and social come together. During these times I view the pulsating, vibrant and revolutionary Cairo through rose coloured glasses and marvel at the size, magnitude and presence of this place. Cairo is a city with a history. It’s a city with culture and class(es). It has vast stores of untapped potential (should someone start addressing the garbage situation and issue of traffic). It’s a metropolis that is home to a mash-up of cultures and people, along with a burgeoning arts scene and glorious architecture that would tell breathtaking stories of love, loss, joy and grief to you.

If only the walls could speak.

Yet, as with all things – people and places – Cairo has a dark side. It has an underbelly so enigmatic and doleful it borders on being overwhelming…savage even. I’ve had my share of experiences and heard enough things I’d rather not know about. Stuff that makes me want to shove my head in a hole in the sand and keep it there for a fortnight. Cairo is the type of place that picks you up and lifts you to an apex so high your head is in the clouds; and it’s while you’re enjoying such dizzying new heights that you’re completely blindsided when (and if) she tosses you to the curb. You’re left battered and bruised in a heaping mess to tend to your wounds as you wait for the tide to turn and contemplate how to deal with the “I need to get out of this place” fallout you’ve just encountered.

This happens because to ride the roller coaster of Cairo you have to pay the price. In order to try and sidestep these slumps before they get the best of me I aim to get out of Cairo (Egypt even) every 2-3 months. Grateful to have such opportunities, I get lost in the desert, drift down the Nile, get a helping of Vitamin D by the sea, visit other countries in the region and/or re-visit cities I’ve developed mad and obsessive crushes on (Beirut anyone?).

She’s the Queen: on foot from Nişantaşi through Taksim and onto Cihangir.

It was on one such, slump-avoiding, visit earlier this year that I found myself in a city that blew me away: Istanbul. I’d heard a lot about it. I’d read a lot about it. I was told how “amazing” and “exciting” and “progressive” and “fabulous” it was over and over again, but for the longest time I chose to stay closer to Egypt and frequented Jordan, Lebanon, (South) Sudan and even traipsed over to South Asia instead. I finally gave into all the fanfare surrounding the Queen of Cities and touched down in the famed Turkish seductress that bridges Europe and Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East.

Let’s cut to the chase: it was so good, I’m desperate to go back.

By the sea.

Mustafa Atatürk: gone, but never forgotten.

I wasn’t thorough in my research the first time around when it came to places to try and things to see, which is why I already have my list of Intolerant hot-spots to hit up for food, yoga, museums and shopping (the fashion and art scene is just as formidable as the places to eat). It’s just a matter of finding making the time to return and aligning my visit with the fits and stops of the roller coaster ride I’m on.

Urban graffiti/street art is everywhere and it’s brilliant.

To be a tenant in one of these flats. The view alone…

Escaping the rain in the Istanbul Modern.

So until that day comes I’ll wax poetic about the cleanliness of the streets and the vast expanses of green. Those large parks and wide boulevards teeming with with vegetation that’s meticulously cared for and set against a backdrop of rolling concrete hills that rock back and forth connecting district to district; bringing neighbourhoods together.

Spring is in full bloom. No dogs allowed.

There’s the rollicking sea that houses an abundance of catch for the soup of the day and has a habit of carrying biting winds from Europe’s East and depositing them into Istanbul’s blossoming spring air. There’s the citizens of the Queen, who responded to brisk April mornings and temperate afternoons by sporting tightly wrapped shawls with summer suits and leather jackets over threadbare cotton tanks. Hemlines rose, heels were jacked up and the colour palate shifted from black to all shades of white and beige and sand and grey.

Lighten up. The emergence of colour.

Then there was the preferred mode of transport to see the sights (taxis, metro and buses aside). A rather old school method that allowed for extensive discovery was used: my two feet. I walked. Everyone walked. We walked together. I walked until my heels hurt and my lower back ached. I walked until I bore a hole into a pair of shoes and had to throw them out. I sauntered up and down streets with 30% inclines, pounded kilometers of pavement in the sunshine and the rain because there were sidewalks that were clean and void of cars. Because there were zebra crossings where pedestrians had the right of way. Because I wanted to.

Because I could.

Say cheese.

The Sartorialist would approve.

Then there was the fashion: haute couture, emerging talent, avant-garde collections and well-established labels; Turkish designers who hold their own on the international stage. There’s art and design, literature and there’s food. Oh god the food. Plenty of organic. Plenty of locally sourced items. Plenty of sweet and plenty of spice. I subsisted on salads, soups, fish and eggs for the week – bar a vegan dessert here and there for good measure – and had wine so good my stained lips tasted of meticulously crushed grape long afterwards.

Eggs ‘menemen’. Drool worthy.

Mood lighting + funky decor: check. Let’s drink.

It was a deluge of goodness that left me feeling as pleased as punch. Thrilled in fact. A feeling that grows stronger as I reminisce about it now. *Sigh* I’d go back for the food alone, but because there’s so much more that lies under the surface I’m doing my homework now.

The roller coaster is in motion remember. I’ll have to get off soon enough to avoid ruining the ride.

7 comments

  1. When I was living in Ankara, every other month, I’d take the sleeper train up to Istanbul for a weekend jaunt. You can spend weeks there and literally never get bored, the food, the history, everything about the city is fascinating.

    1. From only 5 days there I can agree! I loved it so much I’d contemplate a move there, though I’m told the language is a big sticking point since many people are not English-savvy and I don’t know if I have enough will and patience to learn Turkish… :-S

  2. I used to feel that way in Gabon – it always felt like just when I felt comfortable and happy with everything that something would come out of left field and we’d come crashing down to reality again. We were lucky enough to space trips out every 3 months as well to give us a bit of a refresher which was always much needed by the time the trip approached.

    1. Isn’t it funny? I identify strongly with your sentiments and think it’s perfectly ok to feel the way we do about the places we live. Mind you, I acknowledge how fortunate I am to be able to take a “time out” and regroup when needed and give the Universe a fist bump every day as thanks. Without these breaks I think I’d go mad.

  3. Tom @ Waegook Tom · · Reply

    I love your writing here! Nice job. Also, Istanbul is one of my favourite cities in the whole wide world. I spent 6 days there in summer 2010 (7 if you count a night in the Ataturk Airport hotel) and completely fell in love with the city. Which neighbourhoods were your favourite? I loved Kadikoy and Uskudar on the Asian site, and of course exploring the big sites – the Grand Bazaar, Blue Mosque, and the Aya Sofya. Fried mussel sandwiches, great ice cream, just chilling out on a big slab of stone by the river at sunset. Istanbul! ❤

    1. Thanks very much Tom. Great to find another Istanbul lover! I was there for only 5 days, but I’m going back early in the New Year (thanks to a Turkish Airways mishap). I just loved how I could walk around freely, wear what I wanted and fresh air thanks to the city being on the sea. I also enjoyed the mix of East meeting West and the ability of a country to embrace its history, religion and culture and still be secular politically (note: keep in mind where I currently live).

      In terms of neighbourhoods I enjoyed Kadikoy as well, but had fun wandering around Bosphorous, Cihangir and Nişantaşi and getting caught up in the simplicity of daily life and enjoying the mixture of hip and upcoming cafes, lounges and shops with the old, established places. Oh, and the street art/graffiti was fantastic!

  4. […] I’m on the move, heading to the lively and multi-cultural mosaic of Istanbul where I’ll attempt to squeeze multiple museums, mosques, restaurants and boutiques into as […]

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