Greetings from Incredible Istanbul!
Or as the Turks say, "İstanbul'dan Merhaba!"
Greetings from Istanbul, Turkey!
It took us one PCR Covid test, three flights, and 20 hours of flying to get here, but we made it. And so far, we’re liking Istanbul a lot.
It’s a huge city, with a population of fifteen million — the largest city in Europe and the fifteenth largest in Asia. (It straddles the Bosporus Strait, which is how it manages that neat trick.)
We were a little worried a city that large would be loud, dirty, and congested.
So far, the answers are: no, no, and hoo boy, that depends on where you go and when!
For instance, because of Covid-related weekend lockdowns, the city was positively deserted on Sunday. Tourists were allowed out but no one else, so it genuinely felt post-apocalyptic.
Then we went out on Monday, and it looked completely different.
We’d also been told we should be worried about how crazy aggressive Turkish vendors can be, and about anti-American sentiments.
Yeah, the vendors can be a bit aggressive, but they’re fairly polite about it. They often ask if you need help or where you’re from. If you respond in any way, they then ask, “Can I show you my store?”
It’s more annoying than anything, because if you’re out all day, you can hear that dozens of times.
As for any anti-American bias, we’re often mistaken for Russians and Germans, which make up the bulk of tourists to Turkey. Those who do peg us for Americans usually just want us to eat in their restaurant or buy a rug.
But we haven’t sensed any hostility. In fact, quite the opposite. One local man, upon learning we’re American, said, “To hell with the politicians, let’s just all be friends.”
I like this sentiment a lot, even if it might be a little self-serving. In the tourist areas, which is where we’ve spent most of our time so far, people just want to make a buck.
Or, rather, a Turkish lira. The Istanbullu, especially the merchants, have much more pressing concerns than Turkish-American relations.
By the way, “Istanbullu” is what you call a person from Istanbul. How’s that for today’s fun fact?
What’s Up Pussycat?
Istanbul is overflowing with cats. Seriously, there are more cats here per capita than anywhere else in the world. Okay, I made that up but it sure as heck feels true.
And since Brent is actually a crazy cat lady at heart, he’s been trying to make friends with every single one of them.
Fortunately, I love taking pictures of him and the cats, so it all works out in the end.
SO. MUCH. HISTORY!
We’re currently staying in the Fatih district, which is the historical heart of the city and dates back to 660 BCE when Greek settlers established Byzantium.
Legend has it that the city was founded by a man named Byzas, guided by the words from the Oracle at Delphi, that he should seek “the land opposite the city of the blind.”
When Byzas arrived at the location of present-day Istanbul, he discovered a colony on the Asia side of the narrow Bosporus Straight, but no one on the European side. The city was “blind,” Byzas decided, not to see the potential on the other side of the water.
And, in fact, it was an extremely advantageous location for a city, giving it control of the access point between two different seas: the Black Sea to the north and, beyond the Sea of Marmara to the southwest, the Aegean Sea.
Despite the fact that Istanbul is the largest city in Europe, it doesn’t feel overwhelming. It’s partly all the hills, which create natural neighborhoods. And like many European cities, it’s built on a very human-sized scale, with walkable streets and plazas, and a great transportation system.
However, it can be a little confusing. Exactly how did people maneuver these endless, meandering streets before smartphones? How did tourists do it fifty years ago?
But it’s a good city for getting lost in, because the history is simply astonishing. I was a history buff even before I started writing historical fiction, and so far, I’ve been in heaven.
Within a ten-minute walk from our hotel are any number of world-famous attractions: Hagia Sophia, built in 537 CE and the world’s largest cathedral for nearly a thousand years; the Blue Mosque; the Grand Bazaar, the world’s first shopping mall (!); Topkapi Palace; and Basilica Cistern, which you might have seen in the Tom Hank’s movie Inferno.
I’ll have more to say about these locations in future newsletters.
And because of Covid, there are still very few tourists here, so we have no queuing up for anything.
In fact, the other morning, I woke up early and went to Hagia Sophia, which I had almost entirely to myself for an hour. I got to take all of the pictures I wanted, and I also got to spend time simply sitting in the massive space appreciating it’s grandeur. That doesn’t happen often in a place visited by five million tourists a year.
Okay, I wasn’t entirely alone. Check out the photo below for my one companion:
One of the things we do before arriving at any new location is learn at least a few words of the local language. No one expects you to be fluent but knowing how to say, “Hello,” “Thank you,” and “I need a bathroom NOW PLEASE!” goes a long way in showing you respect the local culture.
In fact, here’s a big travel secret: If you’re in a country with a different language, especially a less-frequently-spoken one, say one word in the other person’s language, and you’ll get a big smile and a willingness to help you figure out whatever it is you’re trying to figure out.
Unfortunately, after three and a half years as a digital nomad, I’ve discovered one problem with learning a little bit of each language where we live. I call it Language Vapor Lock.
LVL is what happens when I can’t immediately remember the new foreign word I want to say, causing my brain to frantically sort through all of the words I do remember, then seizing on one at random. LVL most frequently strikes when I first arrive in a new destination, and my brain hasn’t fully grasped that I’m in a new destination.
Here is a typical interaction I’ve had this week in Istanbul.
ME: Buenos dias. Crap, that isn’t right. Gamorjoba! Argh, that’s Georgian! Xin chào! Fromage! Sawadee ka! Mercato!
TURKISH PERSON: Can I help you, crazy American?
ME <blushing>: Si, gracias. Donde esta el baño por favor?
TURKISH PERSON <pointing east>: Um, Spain is about 2500 km that way. You do know you’re in Istanbul, right?
Making it even more challenging, Turkish isn’t exactly an easy language to learn. The pronunciation can be fairly difficult.
“Merhaba,” which is hello, is fairly simple. It’s pronounced mare-a-buh. But the word for thank you is “teşekkür ederim,” and the best I can manage is what a local taught me. He said to “tea sugar dream” really fast, and most Turks would understand me.
So far, it’s worked. Or at least Turks are too polite to laugh in my face.
No doubt just about the time we leave Istanbul, I’ll finally be using at least a few of the right Turkish words.
Got any thoughts or questions? Leave in the comments and I’ll address them next week!
Goodbye until our next hello!
Michael (and Brent)