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Posts Tagged ‘istanbul’

Six Weeks in Istanbul

A view of the Istanbul skyline from the top of Galata Tower.

Having finally finished my posts about my Japan travels in summer 2018, I can now move on to talking about what I did with the rest of the summer. I know all of this makes it seem like I’m doing so much traveling, and I guess I have been; but since the summer it really has been mostly just buckling down and working. And a few conferences here and there.

Istanbul is a fantastic city, much like a dozen other places I would love to visit or try living in, from Dublin to Copenhagen to Brussels to Amsterdam to Berlin to half a dozen places scattered across the Balkans. It’s no Kyoto. I find myself much more comfortable, much more in my element in a certain sense in a place like Kyoto than Istanbul – not just because of logistical conveniences like the fact that I know the language and the culture better, but also because this is a culture which for the better part of the last 20 years has spoken to me. Walking along the Kamogawa, hearing shamisen music, seeing wooden machiya, makes me smile makes me happy in a way that the Istanbul equivalent does not. It’s just not my thing, in the same way as Japan doesn’t spark that similar excitement in my girlfriend, who studies Turkish music and who loves Istanbul.

But, all of that said, I loved living in Istanbul, and I miss in particular the experience of constantly learning new things. Living in a city I never expected to even visit, I learned a handful of words in Turkish, learned about foods and places and all kinds of things I never would have been exposed to otherwise. And now I can come back here to my life in the US, and bring back a certain bit of knowledge, experience, which I never had before.

I also love the feeling, or the idea, of having favorite restaurants in faraway cities. Living in the Cihangir neighborhood, we had several of the best breakfast places in the city right at our fingertips. Van Kahvalti Evi is probably the best, but we went a number of times to places like Kahve 6* and Cuppa Cafe as well, all within super close walking distance. Though I never really took full advantage of it, it would have been an excellent neighborhood, too, for just picking cafes to sit and do dissertation work in; I did that a couple of times at a cafe called Journey, one called Kronotrop, and also at a chain place called Espresso Lab once on Istiklal (one of the most main shopping boulevards in the city).

Breakfast at Cuppa Cafe, including menemen (eggs w/ tomato & pepper), fried eggs, vişne reçeli (sour cherry jam), nutella, acuka (a spicy pepper paste), bal kaymak (honey and clotted cream), several kinds of cheeses, cucumber, tomato, bread, pişi (fried dough), and of course çay (tea). Not pictured: tahin pekmez (tahini + grape molasses).

I guess before I go on I should talk about Turkish breakfast. I happened upon an article recently, long after coming back to the States from Turkey, which said something like “Turkey has the best breakfast in the world, hands down.” And I think it’s true. I mean, I thoroughly enjoyed a nice tea and crumpets on my last trip to London (to be discussed in an upcoming blog post); somehow despite living in London for a whole year (way back in my very early grad school days), I somehow never discovered the wonders of jam and clotted cream and a good cuppa. … And I’m plenty happy with the kind of breakfasts I scrounge together for myself when I’m in Japan – most often, steamed buns or egg salad sandwiches or something like that from the convenience store; really, more like lunch food I guess than “breakfast,” but so it goes. But in Turkey we were enjoying a real proper breakfast – basically, the experience of a nice Sunday brunch in San Francisco or Brooklyn, but affordable, and every day. Kahvaltı (lit. “before coffee”) just means “breakfast,” but kahvaltı tabağı (“breakfast platter”) means eggs, several kinds of cheeses, some nice cut-up tomatoes and cucumbers, at least one kind of jam (I think the vişne / sour cherry is my favorite), clotted cream + honey (bal kaymak), and a mixture of tahini and grape molasses (tahin pekmez), along with plenty of bread to eat it all with, and at many places, free refills of Turkish tea (çay). We also often ordered menemen, a dish made chiefly of eggs, tomatoes, and bell peppers. So damn good.

We also discovered a chain called Midpoint which had surprisingly excellent pasta – like, seriously, amazingly amazingly good, not to mention nice atmosphere and a cool menu. Midpoint is like one of those fancy restaurants you might want to go to at the shopping mall but never do because it’s too expensive.

Galata Tower. Built in 1348 by the Genoese, roughly a century before the Ottomans (Turks) took the city. And it’s still standing and looking beautiful.

I have to admit, I do think that a lot of the appeal of Istanbul for me came from the fact that it was so affordable. Because of basic purchasing power parity (it’s a poorer country, and so things are cheaper there overall; the US dollar, or Euro, or British pound, goes a long way) and all the more so because the Turkish lira tanked while we were there, going from roughly 4.5 lira to the dollar to closer to 7 more or less overnight, we could live so much more comfortably than we ever could here in the States. Living in a nice apartment, going out to nice cafes and restaurants all the time, and not having to worry too much about how much we were spending… It wasn’t pennies a day by any means, and it’s not like we were absolutely living like kings, but to be honest, just sort of living the nice sort of “young people in the city” sort of life that so many TV shows and movies have taught us should be within reach (look at, for example, the kind of apartments people live in on Friends or New Girl, or in movies like Julie & Julia). Clothes were suddenly what I would consider a normal reasonable price – closer to $15-20 per shirt or pair of pants, for example, instead of $60-100. And it just means getting to spend time in the nicer parts of town, like Beşiktas and Nişantaşı, and, again, trying out nice cafes like Yeşil no 11, and buying new (knock-off) Birkenstocks without having to spend hundreds of dollars on them. It also means that little nice features of life, like getting your clothes tailored or your shoes or luggage repaired, suddenly becomes affordable enough (more than affordable! actually, really quite inexpensive indeed) that you can do those things. And order a drink, appetizer, salad, and/or dessert with dinner without constantly constantly feeling like you need to hold back and watch your spending like I do at home.

But, I feel bad for thinking that that alone should be the reason I should love Istanbul. I mean, it’s a great thing for living a decent cosmopolitan life to be affordable. But I don’t want to think that I didn’t or don’t love the city for its own distinctive culture and history as well… But, while I sort of waver and worry on that point, I think overall I’m safe. I’ve been to Morocco and Jakarta (Indonesia) as well in the last couple of years, and while things may be more affordable there, I really can’t imagine enjoying living there for any real length of time, unlike in Istanbul.

The view from our apartment in Cihangir. Photo courtesy of my partner.

I’ve been thinking about it lately, and I am not really sure what kind of experience I might have had if I had gone to Istanbul by myself. I’m not sure what kind of experience I would have if I went back there again by myself. So much of what I enjoyed about the city was because I was with my girlfriend, who had been in the city for about two months already by the time I got there, was studying Turkish, and is super into and knowledgeable about Turkish music and a whole lot else; I don’t think I would have ventured into nearly as many bookstores, CD stores, music venues, without her. More to the point, I just don’t think I would have had any idea where to look to go, where to try to go. If I had for some reason found myself in Istanbul without ever having gone with her – like, if I had never met her but then ended up going to a conference in Istanbul, for example, I don’t know that I would have ventured much past the most standard tourist sites. I certainly never would have experienced the city as fully as I have now, after living there for six weeks. I wonder what it would be like if I were to go back again on my own – certainly I have a stronger sense for myself now of a lot more of the neighborhoods and such, beyond just the touristy parts, and I have some sense of which shops and which brands to look for, which foods I like, and so forth; how to get around by subway, bus, and ferry boat; and a very few key words of Turkish (which, who knows how long I’ll still remember…). But even so, traveling alone is so different than having someone to go shopping with, to go to breakfast and dinner with, and so forth. To go on errands, as it were, seeking out a tailor, or the best cheapest produce, or other things… A certain way of exploring and experiencing a city that’s quite different from being there as a tourist. And so much of the book, CD, and clothes shopping was for her – though some was definitely for me. I wonder, if I were to go back, would I be able to feel I was getting anything out of going into some of these shops, or would it just feel empty?



*Kahve 6, or Coffee Six, kahve altı in Turkish, being something of a wordplay, since it sounds so close to kahvaltı, meaning “breakfast.”

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The Istanbul skyline, with the 15th c. Galata Tower in the center.

I decided to do just a little traveling before returning to the US from Japan. This was my first time in Turkey, and wrote a first draft of the following:

For these whole five or six days in Istanbul, I’ve been mulling over what my impressions of the city are. Is Istanbul a European city? Or an Asian/Middle Eastern city? A secular city, or a fairly orthodox/religious theocratic city where I need to be concerned about accidentally offending? A relatively free and safe city, or should I be worried about the recent coup, protests, and creeping authoritarianism? Further, thinking historically, should I be looking around and thinking about the medieval/early modern Ottoman city? the Byzantine Eastern Roman one? late 19th or early 20th century Ottoman modernity? There are certainly plenty of buildings and monuments from across history to remind us of each of these periods, each of these aesthetics.

Sadly, there was some sort of conservation work going on in the Hagia Sophia when we visited, and half of it was off-limits.

The Roman and Eastern Roman is seen everywhere, well, at least in the historical/tourist center of the city, the Sultanahmet area. The Hagia Sophia was of course originally built by the Romans, and is full of Eastern Roman mosaics and so forth. The area immediately outside the Hagia Sophia was, in fact, a Roman hippodrome, an area for racing horses, and it contains several Egyptian obelisks erected there by the Romans.

Then there is the Ottoman side of things, with tons of mosques, and all sorts of other elements and aspects. All over the city, we saw shops that date back to Ottoman times, and bits and pieces here and there of historical sites or markers or other things suggesting the history of the Ottomans as one of the world’s great empires, engaged in diplomatic interactions with the Great Powers of the rest of the world. A fountain associated with Kaiser Wilhelm, located in that former hippodrome, is just one of many such sites. I’m told there’s some Japanese building somewhere in the city as well, though I haven’t come across it.

The Kılıç Ali Pasha mosque, designed/built in the 1580s by Mimar Sinan, who also designed the Suleiman Mosque and hundreds of other famous structures across Turkey and beyond.

The Ottoman aspect of the city also connects in to the maritime, Mediterranean, aspect. A major mosque we keep passing (as it’s right by one of the main tram stations) is named after Kilic Ali Pasha, a 16th century admiral of the Ottoman navy who was originally from Italy and converted to Islam. The Galata Tower, one of the most iconic sights in the city, was built by the Genoese and while I’m not truly expert at architectural history, it did indeed strike me as Italian from the very beginning. I don’t know all that much, actually, about the history of the Ottoman navy, and its involvement in Renaissance/Early Modern history, but I do know that it’s a very defining feature of the Ottoman faction in the board game Here I Stand, which takes place in the Reformation era.

We see, too, numerous restaurants and other elements and aspects here and there throughout the city relating to the immediate post-revolution period, in the 1920s. Again, I’m no expert at Turkish history, and I wish I knew better, but just on the surface, this very “modern,” European (yet distinctly Turkish) aesthetic, with the fezes, mustaches, fancy formal dress, and salon-like decor, has a real appeal. One night, we went to a “tavern,” or meyhane, where live music was playing, and while this place wasn’t explicitly marked or marketed as being 1920s style, there were some old photographs on the walls, and there was a certain something to the decor. Other restaurants we went to, or simply passed by, were explicitly labeled as Istanbul 1923, or Istanbul 1924, and one restaurant in Istiklal Street (one of the main shopping/tourist areas of the city) is explicitly marketed as being designed to recreate that 1924 atmosphere.

Baylan, a nearly 100-year-old café/bakery on the Asian side (near Kadıköy), long owned by Greeks, and located in a neighborhood where there had once been a strong Armenian community.

Finally, there is the contemporary situation. We didn’t see or sense any major political problems or tensions while we were here, thankfully. No protests, no riots, no crackdowns. Despite what you might hear about Turkey in the news – and believe me, I am sorely sad and worried about that country, and Ergodan’s ever-increasingly dictatorial and theocratic regime – we did have a fantastic time, and I never felt especially unsafe, nor even all that worried about the authorities. That said, we stayed fairly close to Taksim Square – where major protests took place just a few years ago – and both there and elsewhere we saw some fairly intimidating police or military presences.

I also enjoyed learning a little about – and meeting some members of – the lively Jewish community there. Jews have lived happily and peacefully in Turkey (for the most part, or, to some extent) since the 1490s or so, when Ferdinand & Isabella expelled the Jews of Spain, and the Ottoman Sultan reportedly was happy to take them in. While many Turkish Jews have moved to Israel, the US, or elsewhere in recent years, those we spoke to say they are quite happy, and feel safe; they tried to disavow us of the notion that Turkey was a particularly dangerous or anti-Semitic place to be at all.

The Neve Shalom synagogue in Istanbul.

I was glad to hear this. Still, there were notable protests outside of one of the city’s main synagogues just a couple months ago, which included the throwing of rocks, and violent threats against Jews trying to get into the building. This synagogue, Neve Shalom (“Oasis of Peace”), was attacked in 1986 by the founder of Fatah, who murdered 22 people who had gone there to pray. The synagogue was attacked again in 1992, by Hezbollah, and again in 2003, when simultaneous car bombs went off outside Neve Shalom and another synagogue in the city, killing some 23 people. I’ve seen pretty serious security precautions taken at synagogues in London and Tokyo as well. But, still, there is enough of a Jewish community that there remain quite a few active synagogues in the city, which in photos online look gorgeous (we didn’t get a chance to visit any, since they require prior reservation, and some sort of screening process – I’ve been told that even Ashkenazi Jews like myself are not so trusted, not let in as easily as Sephardim). The city is also home to several Jewish music groups, two Jewish newspapers, and so on and so forth. And, they’re not entirely unknown – regular people here seem to have some sense about Turkish Jewry: one, in terms of people saying we look Jewish, and either based solely on our looks or on that we said we speak a little Spanish, they then assume we’re Jewish. One small music group at a small “live house” café even burst into a Turkish fasil-style rendition of Hava Nagila for us! Plus, when we went to the Grand Bazaar, we found lots of tchotchkes, necklaces, etc. being sold with Stars of David, Hebrew writing, or other Jewish elements.


One of the fasil live music bars we went to: Abbas, on Nevizade Sk.

The Armenian history is of course another thing, too. Everywhere around there are Armenian churches, or other churches formerly used by the Armenians – and some of these have some serious security precautions like the synagogues. There are of course no historical plaques or anything put up by the city or the state talking about the Armenian Genocide (though we did see a plaque talking about it at an Armenian church in Jaffa), but if you know even the tiniest bit about it, you can imagine, fill in the gaps. My girlfriend also told me about certain events, massacres, in certain neighborhoods in the 1890s, as we walked through those neighborhoods. I don’t know anything about the current contemporary situation in terms of attitudes towards Armenians, or how well they get by in society, but, it’s definitely a history that’s hidden, yet very much present, if you have it in mind.

Some lovely fresh produce for sale in Nevizade Sk.

For all it’s problems – and we all know the US and Japan have their problems too – Istanbul is a very modern, cosmopolitan, urban, in some ways very European city – really feels cosmopolitan, feels like a “world city” (like New York, London, or Tokyo) with just so much going on – but then of course it’s also non-Western in many ways, first and foremost I suppose because of its Muslim and not Catholic or Protestant religious character – to a certain extent, Istanbul was the very city (or, the Ottoman Empire the very country) against which “the West” or “Westernness” was constructed and defined, even going all the way back to the Eastern Roman Empire, and the Eastern Orthodox Church, which were considered “byzantine” and “Oriental”, and were not considered part of the “true” or “main” or “catholic” Roman or Christian heritage.

The music was wonderful, and the food as well. I never understood my girlfriend’s obsession with borek until I came here. I could eat borek every day. And I so wish that we had this more regularly in the States.

In the food and music, as well as in the architecture and history, we see too the many cultural influences that come together in Istanbul. Turkish, Arab, Jewish, Balkan, Circassian (Black Sea/Russian) cultures… all these different cultures, different cultural influences, that for all our talk about “diversity,” we just don’t see/hear/learn that much about in the US.

Omg, borek. So yum. Above: Su böregi (water börek) with cheese and spinach. Below: Chopping up börek in a shop. (Photos from Instanbul Free Walking Tour.com and Panning the Globe blogs.)

All photos (except the börek) my own.

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