“Do you like Istanbul,” the young man asks. There is hopeful expectation in his eyes as he awaits my reply.
I smile. “I love Istanbul.”
The grin lights up his face, as proud of his city as I am of my own.
Dear Istanbul. I love you, but . . .
From the moment I stepped off the plane and was escorted to my bus by a sweet brindle mutt, much to the amusement of my driver, I was intrigued by you. The old city wall that guided me from the airport to town only piqued my curiosity at your history and culture.
Like any new relationship, the first days were filled with nervous anticipation and the excitement of discovery. As I explored your narrow cobblestone streets and listened to your tales of sultans and harems, of murder and mayhem behind your palace walls, I fell in love.
I fell in love with your mosques, towering over the city skyline or nestled discretely on a narrow side street. The simple exterior belies the beauty of the Iznik tiles, stained glass windows and colourful frescoes hidden within. Open to all, they welcome the opportunity to dispel the myths and prejudices that so often shadow their faith.
I fell in love with the vibrant energy of Iştiklal Cadessi, always busy, the sea of pedestrians swelling with the setting sun as locals and tourists alike meet to shop, dine or share the hookah over a game of backgammon. American pop music from chain store speakers mixes with the traditional folk songs of the street musicians and the voices of the hundreds of pedestrians until there is only a steady hum electrifying the neighborhood.
I fell in love with the food. From your traditional mezes to the simit, the sesame covered pretzel sold from the street carts, to your fresh caught levrek (whitefish), you offer something to please even the pickiest gourmand. You enticed me with your deserts, displayed so provocatively in your shop windows. How could I not indulge in the tangy Turkish delights and sweet Beyoğlu chocolate?
I fell in love with your Spice Bazaar, hidden away behind steel panels, the historic building barely visible behind the walls meant to protect it from further decay. Each time I slipped into your narrow alleys, my senses were assaulted by the din of hundreds of merchants and buyers talking over tea or haggling over a price.
My nostrils filled with the nose-wrinkling odor of fish, the subtle milky scent of soft cheese, the bitter aroma of the best Turkish coffee in Istanbul and the overpowering blend of herbs, spices and teas so that no one is discernible from the other unless I bowed my head close, as if in prayer.
I fell in love with the eclectic blend of traditional and modern influences in your architecture, your culture and your music. So cosmopolitan, I was as likely to see a woman in a burka as one in heels and skinny jeans. I fell in love with the old men and their hand carts competing with the cars and crowds as they make their way through the side streets, calling for old scraps of wire and metal. I fell in love with the fishermen lining Galata Bridge regardless the weather, small wood stoves providing little respite from the winter chill.
Dear Istanbul, I love you but . . .you overwhelm me. Always in such a rush, you have no time for my tongue tripping over words as I try to speak your language, no interest in helping me learn. Like an insecure lover, your constant demands on my time and attention wear at me, leaving me longing for a slower pace and open spaces where I can look up and see the stars beyond your bright lights.
This isn’t goodbye. There is still much I want to see, to learn, to explore. I am still drawn to the mysteries of your shores, straddling two continents, two worlds. I will return but for now I need to see other cities. Dear Istanbul, it’s not you; it’s me. I hope you understand.