Within hours of arriving in Istanbul, I had crossed many of the things I wanted to do off my list. I’d been to a bazaar, and seen the spices and rugs and jewelry; I’d eaten delicious kebabs and drank apple tea; and I was sitting listening to traditional Turkish music and watching the swirling skirt of a whirling dervish.
I’d been looking forward to my visit to Turkey for months. I was attending the wedding of a dear friend who was marrying a lovely Turkish man in the seaside town of Fethiye, on the Turquoise coast. I’d seen photos of their life there, and it looked amazing, so when the invitation came, it was a no-brainer. Of course I would go.
Traveling alone internationally is something I hadn’t done in a while. I would be with the wedding party in Fethiye, but I was on my own in Istanbul. I had three nights alone in a foreign city where I didn’t speak the language and where I knew no one.
Like with most things, though, I didn’t think about it until it was upon me. And then I started to wonder: what would I do? My podcast is all about what the title of it says it is, “Talking to Strangers,” and I generally have no problem with that. But would people even speak English? It’s hard to talk when you don’t speak the same language.
The challenge of travel to new places is often not being able to imagine them exactly. But lately, I don’t even try. I bought no guide books and I glanced only cursorily at some articles that listed Things to Do in Istanbul. What I did do was to mention to people that I was going to Turkey in the hopes that they might have been there, or know someone there. In doing so, I scored, big.
A lovely artist I’d met in Brooklyn, introduced to me by a friend, had moved to Istanbul with her husband, who is Turkish. We arranged to meet for brunch and spend a few hours together.
Another woman whom I spoke with at a party, a friend of my sister-in-law’s, lit up when I mentioned my trip. She is a chef and food writer and had been to the area no fewer than six times. She had a dear friend she promised to connect me to and, suddenly, I had yet another plan with a lovely local.
This is what makes foreign places less foreign: knowing locals. Suddenly, the faraway place seems more real, less scary and strange.
On my first evening abroad, in my mind I was more like someone in town to visit friends, even though I wandered aimlessly around the Sultanamet/Old City area where my hotel was, looking for a cash machine that I never found. I shopped around, practicing my resolve as shopkeepers, open late, eagerly offered me great deals on rugs, and robes and spices. I did spend far too much on tea — my fault for not being specific on how much it was and how much I wanted before they bagged it and charged me.
But, in general, I was amazed by the low prices and the kind people who offered generously to give me a glass of apple or regular tea or even order me food when I told them I had yet to eat and had arrived from New York on the overnight plane just hours before.
I didn’t take any of the merchants up on their offer of food. Finally, I stopped wandering and found myself at the first restaurant I’d noted looked cool: the tented Mesale Restaurant near my hotel that offered live music and the whirling dervish I had hoped to see on my trip.
I was amazed at the convivial atmosphere as people ordered some sort of flaming platters and smoked fragrant Nargile, what I thought of as hookahs, blowing the smoke sexily out of their mouths and noses as the waiters scurried about keeping the water boiling with flaming coals that filled the silver pots they carried. People clapped along to the music, and cheered at points. Couples sat on comfortable benches and played backgammon.
I smiled, and ordered lentil soup and the Special Kebab, dipping the flat Lavash bread into the soup and wrapping it around the delicious ground meat ovals with fresh tomatoes and eggplant and yogurt. Yum!
The next 48 hours were a whirlwind of sightseeing like a tourist and wandering about with my local friends to their great neighborhoods — the art-filled Tophane, and the beautiful residential area just off the Kandilli pier on the Asian side of the Bosphorous Strait. I hit the beautiful Blue Mosque, wrapping my scarf around my head and taking off my shoes to walk the carpets of the beautiful 17th century mosque, and then across the way to the Hagia Sophia Museum, staring, amazed at the architectural monument to Byzantine and Ottoman empires that was built first as a Christian basilica in the sixth century.
I also ventured in through the gardens to Topkapi Palace, lured up to it high on the hill from seeing it on my morning walk along the water.
My feet are sore, but my mind and heart are filled with the beauty of this beautiful, friendly city and its energy. For a fearless New Yorker, Istanbul presents a terrific opportunity to unearth some amazing history and have a ‘foreign’ yet strangely familiar experience. After all, in so many ways, people seem to be so much the same wherever I go.
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