For two weeks every semester, my school takes its students to various international locales to study in different regions. Sometimes these Travels have a theme, other times they are mere sojourns to another place to soak up the culture.
This semester I departed with about two dozen other students to Istanbul, Turkey. We flew from Milan to Istanbul on Turkish Airlines- no doubt one of the most optimistically decorated airlines ever! Robin egg blue interiors whisked us away, and we landed in one of the largest metropolises on the planet.
Istanbul is a large city on two continents in Turkey, but not only that; it’s population is staggering. There are between 14 and 16 million people in Istanbul. The numbers aren’t exactly sure, as there are simply too many people coming and going to keep track of them accurately. That’s how enormous and mixed up Istanbul is. It was a window into one of the most bizarre and fascinating places I’ve ever been.
We were taken to a tourist district in Istanbul, being soft and street-stupid outsiders who needed to stay in a cozy hotel complete with Turkish bath and swearing lobby parrot. Our tour bus dropped us off and we met our fantastic guide, Burku. She was tiny, perhaps a little over 5′ tall, and wore an enormous coat with a tiger on the back. She gave us the run down.
‘Don’t make eye contact. Don’t pause. Watch you things. Also, ladies, do not ever attempt to go out on your own.”
Burcu described to us the territorial Turkish men, the general chaos of Istanbul, and the basic public transportation and how to get back to the hotel. We were all handed maps, given room keys, and told to be downstairs tomorrow morning at 9 am. However, our professor decided that it was high time to visit the old Turkish palace, the Topkapi Palace. It was complete with mosques, beautiful circumcision rooms (a main event for a Turkish boy’s life, as he wasn’t circumcised until he was around 5 or so…some parents even waited until 12) and lots of symmetry, gold gilding, and beautiful tiles all displaying Arabic calligraphy.
At the end of our long day, my roommate and I decided to go take a steam in the basement Turkish baths. Heidi is a blonde Austrian Coloradoan with sass and brilliance, as well as a fluency in French that is lovely. We knew each other after I became a partial squatter in her dorm first semester at school, and sharing our geographic locations of places cold and remote, we bonded. Along with the fact that Heidi is hilarious, of course. We covered our suited bodies with towels and got to the elevator, and had to go about 7 floors down. It stopped on the 3rd floor to a flustered Arab business man who immediately decided that he had to be elsewhere and didn’t want to share the elevator with two chatty, swim suit clad Americans (hey, we had towels over our suits! And they were one pieces!)
This became a nightly ritual. After consuming large amounts of Turkish food we would wander in the midst of our food comas to the hotel basement to steam and swim until we were exhausted. The elevator always procured interesting elevator friends; one middle aged man complimented us excessively with his wife next to him, and as he exited she lightly slapped him, and on several more occasions people refused to ride with us in the enormous elevator simply because of our skimpy (read: perfectly decent) attire.
But enough of the spa. Back to the bizarre place.
During this trip we fell in love with parts of Istanbul. Taxim Square, full of capitalism and Starbucks, welcomed us with TopShops and shopping centers. Gothic Turkish teens roamed in large groups, and in little shabby shops people sold Turkish delight and sarep, a thick ice cream made from crushed orchids. We wandered in groups with our arms linked so as not to be jostled so easily. Trams sporadically snaked through the city on tracks and several times we didn’t notice their silent creeping on various streets and almost became victims of public transit.
Burcu led us everywhere with a sharp tongue and a sass that we came to appreciate immensely. If anybody tried to cheat us because we couldn’t speak Turkish, Burcu would whip forward out of nowhere and save the day. She took us to excellent restaurants, led us through mosques and showing us how to be respectful, teaching us Turkish, and also gave us an earful of her liberal and feminist views of Turkey.
She was a tour guide for part of the year and the rest she was a yogi; her firm limbs and energy radiated this truth throughout the trip. She got us onto ferries with ceilings covered in asbestos and led us through the Grand Bazaar, giving us plenty of time to spend the Turkish lira that we had exchanged our Euros for. I bought leather journals and scarves, teas and coffee, and lots of baked sweet breads, using my basic Turkish (Bin lokma, lutfen. Teşekkür ederim!” One lokma, please. Thank you! (Lokma is a sweet bread dipped in extremely sweet syrup served warm. They’re addicting and delicious).
If I were to go through our day by day events in Istanbul eventually you would tire. Our group itself became exhausted by the sheer size and energy of the city. The language was easy to pronounce but impossible to decipher, the women had to bat away marriage proposals (I got three) and cat calls on the public transit, and we all moved like a school of fish, constantly deciphering each other’s signals and ideas about what to do, where to go, how the f*** to get back to that one square…
Istanbul was so full of energy. It’s a city full of hope, and the people are embracing every part of the cultures that come into the city. It’s a place with a rough side and a bright side. The hope was palatable and the new money that is coming in could be seen. People were friendly, guarded but open, and every part of Istanbul reflected the thousands of years of history this ancient metropolis has seen. If you are ready to have an adventure, you’re not afraid of looking like a fool, and you’re ready to be lost, confused but more excited than you have ever been Istanbul is a great place to explore.