A man’s voice crackles over a loud speaker, rising to a high pitched crescendo from the minaret of the local mosque. I jump. However no one else seems to notice in the Turkish cay (tea) house in which I am sitting to capture by pen, a snapshot of Istanbul, Turkey. Fast-paced conversations in Turkish continue around me without so much as a pause as the Call to Prayer continues to get louder. My hair sticks to my head in the balmy evening heat as I look out over the Bosphorus sea. This is Istanbul, a city unlike any other. East meets west here in this city of 17 million that straddles both the continent of Europe and Asia. Veiled women walk alongside transgender prostitutes down Istiklal Caddesi. Suited professors stride purposefully to take university lectures on literature, engineering and architecture. Religious ‘amcas’ (uncles) emerge from the local mosque and slowly shuffle down to the local fish market. The distinct smell reaches me long before I arrive, assaulting my nostrils. As I draw nearer, fishy water spray hits my bare legs as vendors make an attempt at keeping their silver, scaly wares cool by throwing buckets of water over them. It would be refreshing but for its salty stagnant nature. Grilled over charcoal and served in fresh ekmek (bread) with salad, plenty of fresh parsley and a squeeze of lemon, a quick fish sandwich satisfies the growling in my stomach- hunger I didn’t notice was there until I stopped.
This summarises Istanbul well. Many cities are known as the cities that don’t stop. Or sleep. Istanbul does stop. But not for long. Time is precious here and time for loved ones and rest is rare, most working a 6 day week. Turks rise early and work hard. They break for lunch around noon and whether a housewife, office worker or vendor, the lokanta is a popular option – huge canteens where smiley-eyed chefs serve up ladles of hot fresh food from the kitchen. Trays of delicious cold mezze are laid out like a healthier vegetarian version of pick and mix. Rows of salads and cheeses, humous and dips adorn the counters. ‘Dolma’ means ‘stuffed’ and here you can find hearty hot dishes of dolma of many kinds. Aubergine, pepper, spinach or vine leaves, stuffed with spicy rice and meat. After lunch the city continues bustling. People usually finish work around 6, returning home for more cooking and family time; children staying up late to join in the fun. I can rarely keep the pace of late nights and early starts whilst in Istanbul and as soon as the sun rises on another hot day in the city, I wash away the dark circles under my eyes with 2 or more cups of sugary cay. However much I try, I cannot master the art of drinking the dark milkless tea here in Istanbul without sugar. So I do as the Turks do – keep drinking cay -after stirring a sugar cube vigorously into it.
Cay here is the essence of conversation. As the cay flows so does chat. Empty cay glasses are immediately replenished. It is a sign that you are welcomed, that your conversation is edifying. I try my best to make heart connection with my broken Turkish – which I am slowly learning. Language differences are but a small barrier to heart connections. A smile, a gesture and a whole lot of wild gesticulating makes for a winsome combination. Turks patiently and kindly welcome me into their world. From students in cafes who want to practice their English to kind teyzes (aunties) on park benches chatting up my baby whilst nibbling sunflower seeds, Istanbul and I continue to get to know one another.
This concrete jungle welcomes me and is so inclusive of families. My toddler and baby are constantly accommodated and worshipped as the little sultans I’m sure they sometimes imagine they are! Safe conversation topics are family, food, and health. Very quickly this city is getting under my skin. It has taken a long time to love it but now I do there is no letting it go. My friends here love hard and time is the most precious gift they offer me and my family. Those with a sweet tooth will do well here – just wander through the Spice bazaar and taste the different Turkish delight on offer – my personal favourite being the classic rose flavour. Pastry delights such as baklava give me a jarring afternoon kick alongside a devastatingly strong Turkish coffee – eat your java heart out triple-shot Americanos, you ain’t got nothing on the Turkish kahve. You can have a teyze even read the coffee dregs to tell your future if you so desire. For me, I don’t know the future but I hope the future is bright for Istanbul.
Coffee can be your fuel for the wonderful shopping found here. From the glitzy Grand Bazaar, an undercover maze of vendors of jewellery and antiques, to the enormous designer malls easily accessible by the excellent Metro system Istanbul is a shopping heaven. My personal favourite are the small shops that line the ‘kitchen streets’ of each district, they sell absolutely everything- things you need and things you absolutely do not – plastic bottomed rugs for family picnics, toy mop and buckets that will occupy my toddler for hours sloshing water around the balcony and beautiful red glass pomegranate ornaments.
And now I will put down my pen. My cay glass is replenished as I nod my thanks. I still stick out like a sore thumb here as the foreigner that I am but I think this partially why Istanbul loves me. And I love you too, Istanbul.