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Thursday, 25 August 2011

Stuck in Istanbul


Istanbul 06Istanbul is a big market.  Yes, they sell everything: from roasted chestnuts to whirling dervishes. They sell with heart and sticky obtrusiveness: if you stop even for a second, you’ll get stuck for a half of a lifetime.


 "Why did I come to Istanbul? A thousand times I regretted it. Time has passed, and there is no escape,"- says an old Turkish song. The longer you stay in Istanbul, the clearer you see author’s point. This city sucks out time, money, and energy, but it seems you don’t have the strength to push away another cherished glass. How many of these stories: one came for a week - stayed for a month, another came for a month –stayed for 10 years. Well, at least there are many of us, the stuck ones. Not to mention 12 million locals. Plus roughly 2 million tourists a year, but to be honest, these seem rather happy.


Why not, really? Istanbul is always having fun, always working. Not to have fun is a shame. After all, in wine is truth. Not to work is a shame, too. A good Turk must stay on job overtime. Otherwise, you might think he doesn’t like to work. So if a Turk is working, it really shows: yes, he’s busy. A waiter will circle around you, like annoying fly, whether you need it or not, taking away from the table anything that is out of joint. Yep, he’s busy. 


However, on Saturday night we will surely see all those workaholics "in Taksim." So they call the fun-artery of the city: Independence Avenue (Istiklal Caddesi) and nearby streets not far from Taksim Square. A trip to Taksim on Saturday night is the best way to feel exhausted even before starting "having fun". Long driving through the hilly streets in multiple traffic jams, followed by a boring search for parking - and here is the reward: the splendor and misery of Istiklal.


Istanbul 20Istanbul 20Christian churches and mosques huddle next to thousands of restaurants (lokantas), snack bars, clubs, shops, and stalls. Swarms of crowds rush non-stop back and forth, virtually day and night. Why do they rush? Just to rush. The most typical pastime is drinking and buzzing in one establishment and then running with a small company to another. And yet to another and another. As if you cannot get high (or catch keif, as Turks say) only in one place.


I come out of a bar, enter a thick human stream of Istiklal and stroll at random - to observe life. To my surprise, it is in this living river you feel the loneliest. Vanity fair, pardon, vanity market, narcissistic fops, dressed in expensive clothes and make-up,  Turkish beauties in the guise of piety, demonstrators, pilgrims in yashmaks, transvestites, beggars, meticulous tourists, street performers, and small traders thrusting their goods toward you 24/7... And all this is one big mess, above which hovers a sickening smell of kokorech - haslets in bread.


If you turn off the crowded Istiklal to the neighboring streets, then gradually, you are immersed into another world: the gypsy quarters of Tarlabashi. Dirty children stare at intruders with interest and suspicion. Washed clothes are hanging across the streets like garlands. Clusters of ragged cats, favorite animal creatures of Mohammed, scatter in trash. And for a dessert – thieving, estimating looks from all around...


In the colorful quarters of Tarlabashi, reminiscent of poor past of the city, I recall Brodsky, who had been in that old Istanbul in the 80s and was inflamed with wondrous hatred. "Delirium and horror of the East. Dusty catastrophe of Asia... the black-eyed part of the world, by the evening overgrowing with three-day-old bristle," snorted the classic. Then, he was convinced that Istanbul is a forever dusty, poor, and useless city, devoid of any future.


Istanbul 01I wonder if he would be surprised to see the modern, rising Istanbul. With good roads, new houses, decent salaries, polite service, and stylish young people, among which every other is fluent in English. In fact, in Istanbul universities some disciplines are taught in English. As if continuing the good governmental tradition: to Europeanize the Turks under duress. As once Ataturk introduced fines for untidy clothes and spitting on the street.


If you believe Orhan Pamuk, a writer who won the Nobel Prize and a life-time Istanbul resident, the Turks have long languished for Europe. And it seems, not only in words. Even the numbers on their cars are suspiciously blue, as if the owners are just waiting to happily draw the white stars of the EU.


I had enough time to notice that in more than three-hour traffic jam. The reason was: thousands of Turks, and we together with them, were rushing to a new stadium for a U2 show. Three hours on the road. And in fact, we were driving only through the European side of the city. Perhaps if we had to get from the Asian coast, we would waste five hours.



Istanbul 10Oh yes, bridges across the Bosporus are the curse of any resident of Istanbul who needs to get from one part of the city to another. 12 million people and, sadly enough, only 2 bridges: during election time, they become a good way to manipulate people’s minds. To avoid the congestion, people prefer to sail on ferries for 1.5 lira (the standard ticket fee on any public mean of transportation); sometimes together with their cars – this ticket costs 16 liras.


We’re sailing to Eminonu, and from there, on foot to the Sultan Ahmed square, the magnet for tourists and pilgrims. Well, yes, 2.5 thousand years of history – there was enough time to store up values. Here are Hagia Sophia, Hippodrome square, Basilica Cistern, Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, the old hammams. As well as my passion: the Archaeological Museum with a sarcophagus of Alexander the Great and marble head of Sappho.

Istanbul 17



After long and lonely roaming about the city, you really want to have a word with someone. In Istanbul, sometimes unfortunately, sometimes fortunately, it is simply not a problem. On the Hippodrome square, a 30-year Istanbul resident, a student in psychology, is trying to sell me a book-guide. Stopping only to say “Thank you, no”, I get stuck for several hours. My new companion has in store a great deal of life stories, which he tirelessly transmits into the world with Nasreddin-like self-irony.


“Once I’ve made a stupid thing: I’ve left my new shoes before the doorstep of my apartment. And they were stolen. I thought it over, and decided to pop into the nearest secondhand. There, I said nothing about the theft, but colorfully explained that kind of shoes I had been long dreaming to buy. Shop assistant left and after a while brought the same shoes which had been stolen from me”.


“I can’t believe you bought them!”


“But of course!”


“I hope this time it was cheaper”.


“Yes, this time only 30 liras. Originally, they cost 120. But I was bargaining. After all, somebody wore those couple of times...”


As I mentioned, Istanbul is like a big market. And yes, they sell everything: from roasted chestnuts to stolen shoes. And sometimes even yours.

Istanbul 24

© Antonina Okinina



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