(I sincerely apologize in advance for the lack of pictures and spelling mistakes but unfortunately I am having to write this via iPad due to the worst day of my life experiences that will be covered in another post... good foreshadowing there, eh?)
SO. Istanbul. Where to begin? You may know I previously ventured to Istanbul last semester, with friends and with little expectations other than Greek-style food. However, this time returning I knew exactly what I was getting into and I really couldn't wait to jump into the madness all over again! Sketchy Chaos should be Istanbul's city motto.... perhaps, the whole of Turkey's motto actually.
A class trip that has been discussed for month finally came to fruition last week when we climbed aboard a four hour, bumpy flight to Istanbul with six classmates and a professor. After delays, Turkish visa madness, lack of Turkish money, and a hidden hotel, we finally snuggled into bed around 3am Thursday night.
Friday was the 'highlights' day, so we awoke early for the hotel's free breakfast - gotta loooove free breakfast - and headed out under Charlotte's (our professor) guidance. We hit the Hagia Sofia (aka Aya Sofya) first thing and again, I was struck by its massive size and unbelievable mosaics of both Islamic and Christian images and figures. We then headed across the gardens and fountains to the Blue Mosque, a sight I had missed on my last trip so I was thrilled to be able to visit. The line wrapped around the courtyard to the beautiful building but we eventually were escorted inside after removing our shoes and covering our heads with scarves. Inside, the smell of feet and the unreal amounts of people tempted one to ignore the beauty of the place but luckily I found a somewhat quiet spot to observe and take pictures. The walls, doors, ceiling and floors were breathtaking. Blues, reds and whites were used to make incredible designs throughout and there was not one aspect of the mosque that was not decorated. It was truly magnificent.... but then again, one can only take the smell of sweaty feet for so long before passing out, so we left.
We stopped for lunch on the street - Vegan wraps with spicy peppers (yummmm) and then went down into the Basilica Cistern. This is basically a big pool under water that the Romans built for their water supply. Seriously shocking how those crazy Romans did all this massive building/planning/etc without computers.... or a ruler... or a calculator... or like cell phones to call the guy to tell him he bought the wrong size column. Okay, sort of kidding but really, give it a think... Underground water supply? Geniuses. Maybe we'd all be that smart if we only wore togas.
After stopping at a restaurant for a drink and some well-deserved downtime, we shuffled off to find a taxi to drive us to the other side of town for a gallery tour and contemporary artist talk. (Seems simple enough, right?) After hailing 6 taxis, riding 2 blocks in one before getting kicked out and no one speaking English enough to understand our broken Turkish or even read the handwritten address, we walked about half a mile, sucked it up and rode the slammed packed tram, then walked another half a mile to find the gallery. My dear friend Kate (who lives now in Turkey) always says, "Nothing is easy in Turkey!" and truly is it not. Just makes me even more grateful for London black cabbies who are the lifeblood of my city.
After finding the fairly mysterious gallery, sweating/tired/dehydrated and oh, did I mention? Only half of our group... (the others somehow left before us in a cab only to arrive 30 minutes after us)... we had a lovely chat with the manager and an artist who both work in the Turkish art scene. They enlightened us on a few of the similarities and differences of Turkey's contemporary art world. The art was very interesting and I loved learning that all of Turkish art is privately funded. No government funding at all... compared to over 50% in the UK and somewhere around 20-30% in the USA. So artists, museums, galleries, any art function must support itself with generous donors and contributors. Perhaps we should take a page from their book and reach a little deeper in our pockets to support the arts in our own communities.. oh, what do I know.. just a silly grad student after all!
Dinner and Turkish ice cream (chewy and so delicious, imagine a thick milkshake that doesn't melt) followed the gallery visit and then we crashed into bed before we could even consider a night out.
Saturday was the most beautiful day, sunshine and 65 degrees! A Bosphorus boat tour was in store for us and I loved being on the water and staring out onto the Asian side of the city. I can't express how uniquely gorgeous Istanbul is, it really is like no where else I've been. You are confronted with perfectly massive mansions with pools for a few minutes as you pass and then suddenly, a fortress that has stood for hundreds - if not thousands - of years looms over you from a hill. The juxtaposition between old and new is what makes the city so approachable but also so respectable.
After the boat, lunch and drinks prepared us for the madness that is the Spice Markets and the Grand Bazaar. Small roles lined with beautiful cloth, glassware, pottery, pistachios, Turkish delights, teas, spices, and Turkish men calling you "Kitty" or "Beautiful" the whole walk down.. hey, I couldn't complain! I ended up stimulating the Turkish economy quite a bit but man, it is just so easy to do when everything is so cheap! Or at least it feels cheap as I'm bad at math and couldn't really master the whole conversion rate thing. Whoops.
I loved talking to the men and sometimes boys working because they were all so curious about us and why we were in Istanbul. Most of them were smoking Winston cigarettes (awesome) so that was a pretty easy way to make a start to a conversation. One guy running his own stall chatted with me quite a bit while the other girls were shopping about and I quickly learned he was not a Turk but instead, from Syria. He was about my age (asked me to come home with him and met his mother so we could get married but unfortunately, she doesn't speak English so I told him it would probably not work out). Long story short and a bit lost in translation, I gathered that he had to flee from Syria just ten months ago. His whole family was scattered across Turkey, other parts of Europe and even Australia. They owed 18 shops in Syria and every shop had been completely destroyed. His words were, "Burnt to the ground". He now has started completely new in Istanbul with one shop by himself because most of his male family members moved somewhere else. I know what you might be thinking: wow, he was really just pulling on my heartstrings.. but 1. I didn't buy anything at his store, we just talked and 2. I could tell he was completely serious. The way he told the story of how he got here and was trying to sustain himself completely shook me.
I'm not sure if I'll make any social commentary on any of this but more just notice my own ignorance. I know Syria has some massive issues at the moment, I know the USA and the UK have strong opinions about it but I'm really just wondering if anyone is thinking about the individual people. The families, kids, young adults, old people, etc who are being displaced and ripped from their homes. In global conflicts, it is easy to compartmentalize and just think of the 'masses' but chatting with my shop friend really reminded me to think of the small picture, not just the big picture by playing the "numbers game."
I'll finish here for now but up next, the best and worst days of my life consecutively! Turkey ain't over yet, my friends.
Cheers (thank you) and Tekkashuradem (thank you), Lis