The International Writers
the hell am I going to Istanbul was the only thought in my head
as I boarded the plane. I mean, seriously! People don't tend to
go here and when they do, their only response to a "Would
you recommend visiting it?" is a shrug and a dubious expression.
I took this to be intriguing, rather than discouraging and my
decision was made (influenced also, I admit, as a way of leaving
England for a while)
I was armed with preconceptions as well as a frail determination. Except
I wasn't settling for the role of a wide-eyed tourist, I had accepted
a teaching position and intended to live there- a concept when told to
my family was greeted with a similar dubious expression followed by a
monologue on women being whipped by moustachioed men while holding Turkish
Delights and swaying their hips and veils.
Four hours and an administrative shuffle dance with my school later (You
mean, you are a teacher? You mean we are a school? You mean this is Istanbul?
You mean, I am a imbecile?), I was in Istanbul. As I walked through my
neighbourhood on my arrival, I was initially suspicious of this conservative
area. I mean, who did these people think they were, sitting outside on
their little stools drinking tea at 3pm in the afternoon, didnt
they have jobs? However upon buying my first phonecard and being praised
by the benevolent shopkeeper for my limited Turkish ('Hello', 'How much',
and 'Where is the cow'), I calmly realised...they are friendly. And its
true Turkish citizens are friendly. Yes, being a foreign girl with a dozy
expression helps, but even my male counterparts were never bereft of smiley
pats on the back. (Having said that, Turkish policemen are NOT friendly.
Avoid at all costs; they carry guns, drink tea, ride motorbikes, yell
at people and grab their crotches, all at the same time).
place the visitors of Istanbul can't avoid is Sultanahmet - touristic
centre and land of carpets, trinkets and all other objects we associate
with the East (belly dancer statuettes included). It is the one
place in Istanbul that feels the most and least like Istanbul should-
it is chockfull of sights to see including the famous Blue Mosque,
the Basilica Cistern and Hagia Sophia.
happened to me quite a few times until I cottoned on to their game, sadly
I had assumed that I looked like such a great person that everyone wanted
to befriend me.
it is also the place where every single person not only speaks English
fluently but uses this to convince you that you MUST purchase that
gold-trimmed tea set with little men dancing around the saucers.
I had particular trouble with the men that hang around preying on
lost tourists who, with a friendly eye and chit-chat, ask you where
you wish to go ('Ah, you wish to go to Sultanahmet Mosque! I know
the way, follow me...' and low and behold, the path to the Sultanahmet
Mosque invariably has fallen upon their carpet shop (
while we are here, lets just have a quick look at some carpets
When it came to the night life, I consumed more alcohol in my six months
in Istanbul than in my life (Including my alcoholic years or 'university').
Concentrated mainly in Taksim (Or maybe meaning I never managed to stumble
anywhere beyond Taksim), the bars are plentiful and dark enough to make
people look quite attractive. I passed many a great drunken night with
fellow teachers, fortunately only a few of whom spent the evening trying
to analyse the Turkish 'condition'. ('Is that the same as the English
conditional??' I would quip, in my failed attempt at a teaching grammar
Istanbul is also a haven for any western woman looking to get laid or
to get a confidence boost at the minimum. No foreign girl, no matter how
much of a lack of physical attributes would be short of offers here. However
if you arent looking to score, then a well-recommended way to repel
any of the local men is a simple 'I am a feminist'. Works every time.
I, on the other hand, spurned the prospect of naked Turkish men for naked
women instead (not in the Ellen DeGeneres way) - I went to the Turkish
Baths or 'Hamam'. The Turkish hamams are truly something to be experienced
as the height of being pampered, and a soap massage made me feel like
a glowing Halle Berry-type. This was only mildly hampered by my massage
lady asking me if I was pregnant; but in my feel-good haze, I only took
this to mean that I was a nubile goddess of fertility.
Above all, Istanbul is a visual rollercoaster. It has beautiful rising
gold minarets and hazy skylines followed by stinking piles of garbage
and shrieking mangy streetcats, all in one glimpse of the eye. But after
a while I became used to the contradictions and chaos of this lively city
and walked through it like I'd seen it all before. I knew that to anger
a minibus driver was to risk a knife in your head, I knew that everytime
I passed this house near my flat there would be the same smiley old man
sitting at the window waving at passersby, and I knew that the £1
fish-sandwiches available by the Bosphorus River were orgasmically better
than any Time-Out rated seafood restaurant in London.
So why the hell did I go to Istanbul?! I still don't know. Would I recommend
visiting it? I loved it and I hated it, but at least there is no dubious
expression on my face.
© Toral Pattni April 2007
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