In July of 2021, a few girlfriends and I decided to stop trying to out wait the pandemic, and just embrace the Covid testing protocols, face masks, and travel regulations and GO SOMEWHERE. *I mean embrace from 6 feet apart. Duh.
And somewhere turned out to be Turkey.
On our way to Chicago to catch a flight to Istanbul, a severe thunderstorm caused us to make an unanticipated pit stop in Rockford Illinois (home of the sock monkey) and miss our connection to Turkey. So we spent the night in Chicago, along with the other 745,986 passengers who also missed their connections. While waiting for our airport shuttle in the still dripping rain, I thought I was going to witness something akin to a scene from the Flight Club if the near ferrel father of a crying toddler did not make it onto the hotel shuttle after missing the last five. I watched him grab his squalling toddler still strapped in a rolling car seat, and use his son like a sonic boom weapon to help pave his way through the crowd and on board the airport shuttle. It was 11:00 pm on Saturday night. So of course, I fought alongside him.
The next day my friend Shannon and I got a very late check out from the Doubletree hotel, which almost made up for the fact that there were NO hot and fresh cookies upon arrival. #nowwhosferel and did some exploring. A lot of things were still closed due to covid, so we wandered around the streets of Chicago, discovered some sweet parking garage street art, hung out in an open air mall, AND found and savored the Sugar Factory before we had to return to the airport.
We were catching a flight on Turkish Air and the agents who were working the flights were all from Turkey, so sometimes information got lost in translation. Especially when compounded by the mask mandate masking translations; making it masklation. There were several gate changes as we prepared to board our flight, and we kept being directed to different gate, only to get to that gate and be told it was a different gate. We moved in a great mass, like a school of anxious sardines across the crowded hallways of ORD. The panic was real as the 200 plus passengers on the plane worried out loud that they would miss their flight.
Luckily there was a nice Turkish Air agent who kept popping up in the crowd, her platinum blond dyed hair bobbing, that would reassure the passengers who kept anxiously asking “Is THIS the flight to Turkey?!!” By patting their hands and telling them in stilted English, “Don’t worry, it might be, it might not be? Who knows? But we will know before take off. I will ask the man in the back.”
The same agent had also referred to the man in the back when we were checking in at the ticket counter. “Do we get our seats at the gate?” I had asked. “Maybe yes. Maybe no. I will ask the man in the back.” She had said, smiling brightly.
I imagined the man in the back as some slick haired, Turkish Airline Mafia boss.
“Yes, you can give them the seat 1A.” “But NO! They may NOT have the fish for dinner! Now! Leave me!”
After finally finding out the flight we were boarding was in fact going to Turkey we settled in for the journey. We arrived in Istanbul about 5 pm on Monday July 29, and met up with our friend Sanja who was flying in from her home in Macedonia, (not to be confused with Madagascar. Which is NOT her home, even through I kept calling it her home). The Istanbul airport (IST) is a HUGE airport, serving over 37 million passengers in 2021, making it the busiest airport in Europe, and second busiest in the world in terms of international passenger traffic. It’s enormous, and would take senior citizen mall walking to a whole new level. #passingonyourright
We took the bus from the airport to Taskim Square, where we got off, the bus and pulled our luggage across coble stone roads. We wandered past red and white striped food carts selling roasted corn on the cob and chestnuts, weaving our way through some of the roughly 18 million people who live in Istanbul and a few of the 15 million cats lounging lazy in the shade of park cars, to find our hotel.
Needless to say, I had the They Might Be Giants song about Istanbul playing through my head 24/7. Google it!
The majority of the main sights are in Sultanahmet or the Old City. But we stayed just off Taskim Square at Hotel La Piano for the 41 hours we were in Turkey. Luckily, it only took us 31 hours to register our negative covid tests, show our immunization records, health firms passports and e-visas and attach our health records to our metro passes so we could use the public transportation, leaving us plenty of time to sight see! On the upside, the long check in process allowed me to have a lovely stilted conversation with the incredibly warm and hospitable mother and son duo who were trying to keep their hotel running during the pandemic and after loosing their husband/father in February 2021 from Covid-19. While we talked, their pet cat rubbed up against the back of my legs begging to be petted.
There are a lot of cats in Istanbul, like someone needs a pied piper to lead them away lot of cats. They lay lazily in the sun on cracked sidewalks, the couches of hotel lobbies and in front of mosques. Tourists and locals alike bend to scratch their yawning heads, and bowls of cat food and water crowd the edges of apartment buildings and businesses.
Let’s talk Turkey! It feels like I never know anything about a country until I leave, then my appetite for information is insatiable. A few thing I recently learned about Turkey: Emperor Constantine made the city the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, and decided to build it just like Rome, on seven hills. The city also took its name after the emperor Constantinople, it was then renamed Istanbul in 1930 but many still call it Constantinople. Actually, to ensure the usage of the new name back then, the Turkish post office didn’t deliver any mail addressed to Constantinople.
Istanbul is an expansive metropolis with an astonishing cultural and architectural heritage. It is this bubbling melting pot fondue of Eastern and Western history spanning some 2,000 years. Istanbul is the only pan-continental city in the world situated on two continents, Europe and Asia. The historic center is based on the European side of the city and the Bosphorus divides the city and is the link between the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara
The old walled city of Istanbul stands on a triangular peninsula between Europe and Asia. Sometimes as a bridge, sometimes as a barrier, (possibly depending on what time. of the month it is). Istanbul is always stuck in the middle. For more than 2,500 years this city has been tugged and pulled between conflicting surges of religion, culture and imperial power like a mother stuck in the middle of a centuries old game of referring who called shot gun first. I hear you Istanbul.
Under the Ottoman Empire, Istanbul was on the cutting edge of technology! They were well-known for having more than 1,400 public toilets before any other countries did. Although I sure couldn’t find one when I needed one. But I guess it’s not the Ottoman EMpire any more. Damn progress!!
Istanbul is home of The Grand Bazaar, which is the biggest old covered bazaar in the world. With over 3,000 shops of all kinds offering everything from Turkish tea sets, to leather shoes, to handbags, to hopa pipes; this place is a shopping Mecca and every husband’s nightmare! Also this is a very easy place to get lost. It’s good to have a meeting place in case you do get lost, like possibly the shop with the turkish delight. Except maybe you should designate WHICH shop with turkish delight since I think there were maybe 321. #thatsalotofdelight
I think with tourism down some much because of Covid 19, the bazaar salesmen were particularly hungry. They practically paced outside their shops waiting hungry tigers for their prey to approach. Then, like piranhas theyd latch onto you, sink their jaws into your pasty flesh. When they smiled at us, I swear I could see the barbed edges of the serrated teeth!
Istanbul also has the most mosques in Turkey. It has around 3,113 mosques, including the historical Sultanahmet Mosque and the Süleymaniye Mosque. Say that three times fast!
Istanbul is like an unmixed dough, as you walk through the cobblestone streets, you realized there are pockets of barely stirred Eastern mysticism that hasn’t quite blended with the modernity of the West. I felt like a time traveler, that kept getting pulled into black holes, popping in and out between the past and the future. Istanbul not only joins continents but it joins cultures, history waiting every time you turn the corner. There is so much. to take in, that I finally gave up trying to absorb it all. Istanbul is a never ending whirlwind of stimulation. A juxtaposition of new pasted on old, a city with ADHD. Needless to say, even though this was my first time in Turkey, I couldn’t help but feel like I’d been there before! #icanrelate
We started our second day in Eminonu, a very busy, slightly chaotic spot in Istanbul. This harbor area sits on the Golden Horn, a famous waterway that runs through the city. From here, we took the metro across the Galata Bridge, we watched fishermen cast their lines into the sea from the crowded edges of the bridge.
The bridge spans the Golden Horn, joining the older sections of Istanbul with the more modern neighborhoods.
We walked across Sultanahmet Square to the Blue Mosque while street vendors sang out like songbirds. Mask covered songbirds. Built in 1616, the Blue Mosque is famous for the intricate blue tile work that covers the interior of the building. It would’ve been very nice to see the tiles but sadly the only thing we saw inside the blue mosque was mock cardboard cutout pictures of how the mosque used to be while it was being renovated.
After we left the mosques, we followed signs to the “beach” that led us through winding neighborhoods stacked with bright crumbling buildings, laundry hanging from the balconies like drooping smiles.
The beach turned out to be a bunch of elderly men in proudly sunbathing in speedos, or fishing on the giant boulders that lined the Bosphorus Strait; the body of water that forms part of the boundary between Europe and Asia.
We walked past the giant walls of Constantinople, which were built in the 5th century. They stretch for 3.5 miles from the Sea of Marmara to the Golden Horn. Designed to keep invaders out of Constantinople, these walls were only breached twice: first in the Fourth Crusade in 1204 and later by the Ottoman invasion in 1453. It was hot, and we were sweating beneath the unforgiving sun, as we walked I’d wished the walls would have lent us a little shade. Or that we had a little more water. Or that we could find one of the famous 1400 bathrooms from the ottoman empire era.
That evening we watched the sunset on a cruise along the Bosphorus River. I stood at the foot of the ship, walked to the triangle edge of the railing, thinking about the scen from Tanic, the salty spray splashing against the ship, as it cut through the water. We glided by buildings, and people walkign along side the river, the soft glow of dusk, the wind in my hair the unexpected calm settling over me like warm hug. After walking all day, I felt content to sit still, watch Istanbul glide by.
I mean, my sitting still and your sitting still may not look the same; but I was still-ish. I mean I had to take a few pictures. Duh.
Istanbul is a place not to be missed; a firecracker going off in the midst of a moonless night. It’s vibrant and sparking with bursts of bright light, the gold of excitement; and I am not the same, now that I’ve seen the pattern of light dancing in the dark; hanging like a ghost in the sky.
“The past lives within the present, and our ancestors breathe through our children.” -Elif Shafak