My first few hours in Istanbul were entirely unimpressive. The weather, which Google advised me would be a comfortable 22 degrees Celsius, turned out to be an all-together chillier 7 plus wind. The sky was dark, the streets empty, and waves crashed six feet high into the pavement alongside the Bosphorus, which made everything seem far more suited to a horror movie than a Tuesday morning.
Still, I loved it. I stepped out of the taxi from the airport, happy that there were no attempts made to extort more out of me than the meter allowed. My AirBnB studio was perfect – the reality of the apartment overlapping unexpectedly (from experience) with the likeness on the website. After penning a thorough list of all the locations my friends had recommended, I ventured out into the streets of Istanbul.
“Excuse me,” I said to the cigarette vendor below my studio. “Do you know how I can get to the Old City?”
The man behind the counter had clearly been there for a very long time. A small, ancient TV hung from the corner of the booth, and the cramped space was filled with an assortment of empty juice boxes, crumpled newspapers, and the rest of his cigarette stock, all neatly stacked and doubling as a footstool. The man himself, in his late 60s, wore a colored wool sweater, boots and held a lit cigarette in his hand. He peered at me from above his massive moustache, which twitched in what I assumed to be annoyance.
I tried again. “Old… City? Hagia Sophia?”
He huffed. “You want cigarette?” he said, unmoving.
“Uh, no. I want bus.”
“So. No cigarette?”
I squinted at the man. I was well acquainted with his sort. Eye for an eye, as my father would say. Directions in exchange for the purchase of cigarettes. I needed to assert myself. If I didn’t appear confident and collected, I would walk away defeated. Seven years in the Middle East had trained me well for this moment.
Ten minutes later, I was back in the street, still lost, with two packs of Kent cigarette in my pocket. I rubbed my frozen hands together and dismissed the idea of asking anyone else for directions. “Walk until you find something interesting” seemed to work in most of my travels, so it would have to do in Istanbul as well. After aimlessly walking around Simit stands, shisha cafes and an unusual number of photocopy shops, I took refuge from the cold in a small restaurant with a “FREE WIFI” sign in the window and the smell of grilled meat wafting over from its open doors.
I quickly discovered that something was different about this place. It was self-serve, cafeteria style. I was handed a plastic tray as soon as I walked into door, and a buffet of plated dishes waited for me. There were no prices, only a bearded man behind the counter wearing a hair net. I looked down at the food, which seemed to be an assortment of homemade meals, all meat-based.
“What’s this?” I asked the man, pointing at a random plate.
I hesitated. “Is everything turkey?”
I ended up paying a reasonable $10 for a plate of orzo, some kind of yoghurt and spinach sauce, and a whole turkey leg. I made my way to the tables, which I quickly realized were only for singles. That is, for a single individual to sit, facing a wall. Each little square table had only one chair, and it became apparent that this single’s turkey bar in Turkey was for people with very little time to eat – and even less time to converse – before returning to their daily lives. I sat, pulled out my laptop, and caught the manager shooting me irritated looks from behind the counter. Before I could find appropriately apologetic look to place on my face for taking up a valuable seat at rush hour, a band of chanting protestors passing down the street drowned out the sound of clinking forks and boiling turkey stew from the restaurant. I couldn’t make out the Turkish from their banners, but the crowd looked angry enough to catch my interest.
I can’t say I’m familiar with much about Turkish history. It’s not something the American academic system typically covers, and living amongst thousands of Armenians in Beirut makes any talk of Turkey a touchy subject.
I know its sprawling capital is split in two. The European side and the Asian side. Most of what tourists think of as Istanbul is on the European side, leaving the Asian side as the more residential, unexciting version of its European counterpart. The division is marked by the Bosphorus Strait – which cleanly cuts the city in two with water and ferries – connecting the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara. But more than these geographic separations, it appeared very quickly that the people in Turkey are also divided. In my brief two day stay in Istanbul, I ran into over 10 protests in and around Taksim Square and Istiklal Street, the main arenas of public expression in the capital today.
At first, I was excited. “I came on the right day!” I said to friends over dinner on my last night. They laughed, in the way that I laugh when I see a tourist get excited over a mankousheh stand or an Army checkpoint in Beirut.
“It would be strange to not have a protest,” they said. “You’re not used to that in Beirut?”
“No, in Beirut, we usually attack before we protest.” We all shared an uneasy chuckle, and I started wondering if all Mediterranean countries shared the same sort of grim resilience about life. Bomb? No problem, let’s go to the mall instead of the Corniche. Protest? Just some agitators dissatisfied with the inevitably hopeless government.
My train of thought was interrupted by the waiter coming with our first course. The restaurant was celebrating the 100th anniversary of something I didn’t quite understand, but from what I could gather, the night’s theme was “Constantinople.”
Every dish seemed vaguely familiar. We’re all a bit the same in the neighborhood I guess, but I couldn’t figure out what to call the familiarity in which I found myself. I didn’t question it too much. I was just happy that maybe I’ve been to enough places by now to say “I get it” a couple of days into a trip to a new city. I felt I got the place, it had no surprises for me.
One of the friends supposed to meet us at dinner hadn’t showed up yet. “He’ll be a little late,” his girlfriend explained. “He’s on the Asian side, interviewing actors who are in a Turkish TV drama about the American involvement in the creation of ISIS.”
In that moment, thought to myself, “Actually I don’t get it at all” and I preferred it that way.