24 Hours In Istanbul

I’ve been to a great many cities, but seldom does one move me like Istanbul.

Date: March 21, 2017
Services: Travel
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I feel it as soon as I land. Grasping what it truly is that I’m feeling, though, is a very different story.

I arrive in the evening and go straight to my abode: Nabu Hotel, a modern bounty of design in the heart of Karaköy. My room is airy and spacious, the walls of a neutral palette contrasting only the brilliantly white bedspread. A curiously variegated abstract piece sits above my headboard. The desk is ample and solid. I feel at home.

My third-floor balcony overlooks the T-intersection below, and on this Friday night I bop along to the smooth techno wafting up from Chez Moi below. The wintry February air is no match for my compadres’ spirit; endless groups of Istanbulite hipsters stand under heat lamps drinking chilled Efes and steaming Turkish cay. Though I can’t decipher their words, their mentality is clear: the weekend is upon us, and that’s reason enough to celebrate.

Nabu Hotel Karaköy, Istanbul
Nabu Hotel Karakoy, Istanbul

A stroll across the Galata Bridge exposes a thousand gulls flying silently overhead, the city’s many upward-facing lights illuminating their underbellies. A fisherman has set up along my path, his twelve-foot rod resting gently against a ramshackle tripod. A shoe cleaner roguishly drops his brush as he passes by. Dolphins poke their dorsals above the slow-moving Bosphorus below; Turkish Airlines rumbles through the night’s sky above.

I wake softly. I’m jetlagged, yes, but content. I sit for breakfast at Van Kahvalti Evi in nearby Cihangir. Tiles patterned with the most wondrous white, brown and blue—arranged in precise squares of nine—lay elegantly underfoot. Soft ambient tunes ooze alongside the clinking of dishes and female laughter. Sun streams through the front window. I’m served a basket of fresh pide, ten olives, some beyaz peynir, a large spread of honey, a 1-oz. ramequin of Nutella and a dozen more dishes. The tea arrives almost before I do. A crafty portrait of a rabbit wearing a decorative oxford sits framed on the wall of the shop a few doors down.

The morning fog keeps the ferries at bay. When I do make it across the river to Kadıköy, crossing continents without need for a passport, a man wearing a mustard yellow three-piece suit peruses a stack of worn books both taller and older than he is. Trays of hot tea wind their way through crowded streets, stopping only to deliver a glass or retrieve one already drunk. “Are you not cold?” cries Cengiz, the restaurateur pointing to the shorts resting just above my knees. I can’t help but chuckle and say hello.

A man shoots a pellet gun at small metal targets held suspended in the necks of old beer bottles. I watch him hit all three in four successive shots. A dog with one ear erect and one flopped lays near to the crashing waves. An empty lot sits next to a crowded street. A gruff-looking fellow in a leather jacket carries a five o’clock shadow and a tower of cotton candy. We lock eyes, then continue on without a word.

Navigating Istanbul’s streets is a perpetual game of backgammon. The playing area and pieces are defined; the ambiguity comes in getting from A to B. A pedestrian traffic jam develops outside the Grand Bazaar. No one moves. Several layers of Turkish melodies can be distinguished from the gaping apartment windows above, yet there’s a certain calm in this air of commotion. I close my eyes and wait for the bedlam to sort itself out. It does, barely.

The carpet of the Blue Mosque, ruddy with floriated blues, runs softly under my naked feet. A chandelier suspended by a thousand chains hangs just slightly overhead. There is no grand stage here. There is no illustrious altar upon which to gaze.

Nabu Hotel Karakoy, Istanbul
Nabu Hotel Karakoy, Istanbul

A woman lowers a wicker basket tied to a long string—not a rope, but a string—from her fourth-floor Balat apartment to a group of three women and one man below. A passerby pushes a cart loaded with four floral occasional chairs in a dull cream. A cat sits atop one of them. Laundry hangs on makeshift lines over the street, deftly arranged by both color and size. Whites hang with whites, soft blues with soft blues, small socks dripping down upon one side of narrow alleys and larger shirts and faded denims upon the other. Abandoned homes are not uncommon, even in prime locales. Many have no walls, many have no roofs. All have no windows.

I return to Nabu, my legs tender from the day. Those things I’d not bothered to tidy this morning—a few books, my toiletries, some half-eaten Turkish delight—now sit neatly aligned in right angles. “What if nothing exists and we are all in somebody’s dream?” poses the scratchpad upon the desk, brazenly quoting Woody Allen.

Here, of all places, I wouldn’t be surprised. If a dream is a place where anything is possible, where beauty transcends reality, then I don’t see why not. I’ve been to a great many cities, but seldom does one move me like Istanbul.

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