An obvious bonus of staying put in one place for a long time is discovering the “real” Istanbul and its neighborhoods where people live, work, and play.
The Lonely Planet guide book goes about as far as Taksim Square—the busy town center, so to speak, of Istanbul. It is here where the broad cobblestone-lined pedestrian drag, Istiklal Caddesi (Independence Street), begins, or ends, depending on which way you are walking. It is flanked on both sides by clothing shops, the ubiquitous Starbucks, kebab and kofte (yummy Turkish meatball) eateries, and bookstores. Beautiful French inspired early twentieth century buildings tower overhead and an old fashioned narrow trolley trundles up the hill for those not willing to do the popular stroll.
And just a ten minute walk down the hill behind Istiklal, toward the Bosphorus Strait, is my current neighborhood, Cihangir. It is a former Bohemian enclave currently full of expats and artists turned yuppies and hipsters. Nearly everything you need is right here. There is a small produce stand selling plump fresh cherries, apricots, and veggies on every corner. There are grocery stores, bars, cafes, a gym, and an odd plethora of pharmacies. Sounds permeate the air harkening back to an old European village:
“Hot Simit (a kind of Turkish sesame seed ‘bagel’)!! Fresh, hot Simit!!”
“Junkman!! I can take away all your nasty junk!!!”
“Waterman!! I will bring big bottles of spring water right to your apartment!!”
One of my favorite sounds is, strangely enough, the gas man. When I first heard the sweet tunes tinkling out of his truck as he drove around the ‘hood, I thought it had to be an ice cream truck: “Aygaz…get your sweet delicious Aygaz!”
The third floor apartment I’m staying in while I cat sit for “Oscar” and “Wilde,” aka “the OWs,” is ginormous (by the way, this stupid word has been recently added to the dictionary). It has three bedrooms, two bathrooms and a huge living room. The back has a balcony overlooking a beautiful stand of tall, leafy trees full of cackling seagulls and feral cats in heat.
The one problem? They don’t seem to believe in screens here in Istanbul, so I’d say I get more mosquito bites inside this apartment than I have on most of my trip. Unfortunately, because of the summer heat, I have to keep the windows open, especially at night while I sleep. Well, this was just an open invitation for all the stinging insects to come suck some of my blood. Just as I would drift off to a serene sleep, a high-pitched mosquito buzzing around my ear would jolt me into a total state of itchy awakeness. I’d often wake up with new bites on my hands, feet, and even face. The plug-in mosquito repellent devices Brigid had did not seem to be working all that much. Some nights I literally had to spray on some repellent just to get some sound sleep. There’s nothing like going to bed with the lovely smell of Off to give you that camping feeling.
I live on a side street right around the corner from several trendy cafes with tables spilling onto the sidewalks in classic European fashion where locals sip on drinks, tap away at their laptops (including me), and just about everyone puffs away on a cigarette. The most popular café is Leyla’s, an ultra trendy spot that could be in New York or London. Café Smyrna’s atmosphere seems a bit more relaxed, although two nights in a row, paparazzi were staked outside with three television cameras waiting for a shot of a few local celebs. I’m actually writing this from one of the cafes right now. Kahvedan is owned by a gal from San Francisco and is a breezy comfortable place to hang out and have a latte or nice bite of something off their international menu of samosas, pad thai, and ceviche—not the norms in the very homogenized Turkish food scene. I love a good doner (spinning roasted meat) sandwich every now and again, but Turkey isn’t the most ‘international’ as far as cuisine goes, although this is slowly changing.
Even though it is speeding along into the twenty-first century like the rest of the world, in many ways, Turkey is still proud of its strong roots and not entirely embracing the Western world. Although it is 99% Muslim, you would never really know this by looking, contrary to popular belief. What I mean by this is the US is about 80% Christian, but you also can’t see this just by looking. Here they are Muslim by name, but many are not religious or not practicing. There is a wrong assumption by many that Turkey is an Arabic country. In fact it is quite the opposite; Turks are fiercely defensive of their secular state which was founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, a general in the Turkish Army from World War I. His Turkish state is based on Western principles of government and is said to be, in theory at least, modern, democratic and provides a definite separation of church and state. Western Turkey, especially Istanbul, looks like any European city.
But what is different is how homogenously Turkish it is. And by that I mean it is not exactly the melting pot of Chicago, New York, or London. Maybe there are a few Bulgarians, Kurds, and expats sprinkled around, but by and large, Turkey is full of young Turks and they are very proud to be Turkish. Here there is little need for the English language or American products. Turkey has a huge manufacturing sector so they manufacture many of their own goods. In fact, many clothes we wear back in the states are made right here. There are no H&M, Gap, or Banana Republic stores here yet (they are coming next year), but a lot of their clothes are actually made here cheaply and exported to the states. There are still some ‘irregulars’ floating around outlets, markets, and the black market.
In every country I have a habit of checking out the grocery store. In Istanbul’s supermarkets my point is quite evident. Among aisles and aisles of mostly Turkish products the only American names I’ve come across are Pepperidge Farm Cookies, Tabasco, Miller Genuine Draft, and Budweiser. I think for some expats that may be all they need. But I have to admit I occasionally have a hankering for some nice comfy, all-chemical Kraft Mac and Cheese every now and again.
In this hip ‘hood sushi is just catching on. There are only a few sushi bars around and each savory raw morsel is priced like a rare gem. I desperately needed a sushi fix so I stopped into Tokyo, a slick, contemporary, minimalist Japanese restaurant like any you’d find on nearly every corner in Chicago except here simple maki costs fifteen dollars. That’s a little steep.
On the flip side, the drugs here are cheap… and easy to come by. No, not those drugs… prescription drugs. Many pills that we pop in the states can only be had after commandeering a prescription from our “primary care provider” or first getting a referral from our “primary doc” to then go see a specialist who then may give us the prescription we need. Here no prescription is necessary. Simply walk into any Eczane (drug store) and get what you need… and get it cheap. I can get a year supply of some pills I need for $8! At home this would cost me about $100. Hmmm, this gives me a business idea… but probably an illegal one.
Another cool area of Istanbul not really detailed in the guide book is what’s known as the Bosphorus villages. Along the water, several beautiful and quite affluent neighborhoods overlook the water from expensive apartments, white gleaming trendy cafes, and some glitzy nightclubs.
I met a guy from Spain who was living in my neighborhood and working here for Nortel. He invited me along to join him and his friends one night at the fancy schmancy Sortie Club. High along the edge of the Bosphorus in an area called Ortakoy are about a dozen swanky outdoor clubs, one after the other, that are pricey, slick and give off an air of elitism with their velvet ropes and beefy security guards blocking the entry. This is the place to see and be seen.
Here you can fork over about $100 a person for some ravioli and a few drinks. It was a bit phony and plastic and reminded me a bit of some of Chicago’s Gold Coast clubs, but there was no denying the gorgeously captivating moonlit views of the water. The setting was quite marvelous with white leather couches, dimmed paper lanterns, and the indisputable beauty of the mighty Bosphorus Bridge lit up like a Christmas tree with its own kind of light show, with all its, and the city’s, lights reflecting in the sparkling waters of the strait.
So if you take a trip to Istanbul, of course go see the touristy areas and old quarter—it is beautiful, but then be sure to check out some of these ‘off the beaten tourist trail’ spots and see where the real hip Turks are hanging out.