Sometimes when I travel I feel as if I’ve just lived an entirely different life. Of course, we travel for new experiences and to immerse ourselves in other cultures.
But I mean there are a few instances where I sink into the new place so deeply it feels as if it’s become my whole reality. An inexplicable feeling grabs hold; I’m full with the sense that some part of me belongs even as everything is also foreign and unknown.
On rare occasions – Paris was such a case – this feeling does presage a new life.
It’s been awhile, though, since I’ve felt thus transported.
Well, add Istanbul to the list. I can’t believe I was only there for a week; it felt like its own small lifetime. It helped, I’m sure, that 1) I was with my family so I truly was with people from my “real” life and 2) we had an extraordinary homebase that made us feel like we already had family there.
I don’t usually stay in hotels when I travel. I couchsurf, stay with friends, do apartment swaps – these feel like they put me in closer connection to the true city.
For our reunion, though, I wanted to join my family where they were comfortable and we chose a modest hotel in Sultanahmet in the Old City. We couldn’t have chosen better.
It’s no luxury experience. No. It’s a basic hotel but it has Ruhat at reception who by the end of the week was part of our clan. When I had to move for the final day, in fact (I stayed an extra day alone and the hotel was full), I still used Hotel Peninsula as my base and felt as welcomed as if I lived there. The man who served breakfast each morning literally told me I was family now. He looked as if he was going to give me a hug when I left.
We stayed mainly in our area, which, yes, is very touristy. We barely scratched the surface of the big, sprawling city. But when the Blue Mosque, Aya Sofya, Topkapi Palace, and the Grand Bazaar are all a stone’s throw from your hotel, it’s hard to get further out at first – so much to see on every corner!
None of those sites are what did it for me, though. (To tell the truth, I had to flee the Grand Bazaar and felt a bit let down by Topkapi). No, it was the vibe of Istanbul that drew me in. Laid-back, friendly, international, intriguing.
We hopped on a ferry to Asia one day in what has to be the easiest inter-continental commute in the world (and only 1.75 lira to boot). Cats roamed everywhere – over ancient ruins, rooftops, cobblestone streets. The Muslim call to prayer rang out 5 times daily, punctuating time with a strangely beautiful soundtrack.
Business, socializing, wooing were all conducted over tea – I can’t count the number of complimentary cups I was offered.
A grungy, cosy nightclub with a view played French, Spanish, American, Turkish, and gypsy music and a relaxed international crowd (no dress code) got down. Bustling crowds at Taksim Square bristled with energy. This might be the easiest way to say it then: Istanbul is alive.
These were things I knew on paper before going – a city on two continents, an East/West mix, the rich history – but I couldn’t have matched this knowledge to the actual feeling. It’s one of the reasons I try not to have any expectations when I travel. I discover what I discover.
I also know I really like a place even when the weather doesn’t smile on us and I still think it’s great. The last week in April, we had assumed we’d be taking full advantage of the many outdoor terraces and rooftops, sunning ourselves in warm temperatures. Instead, we were bundled up in winter coats for most of the week, though rain kept itself mainly to the hours we were sleeping.
When the sun did come out, though, it was glorious. The fact that I liked Istanbul even while wearing long johns under my jeans, though, is a high compliment indeed.
This trip feels like an experience to process and I’ve only just gotten back. So here are a few photos instead as sometimes a photo is worth a thousand words.
As we drove along the sea to go back to the airport, I had to put my sunglasses on. Yes, the sun had come out and it was lovely. Bright and warm. But it was because my eyes were filling with tears.
This, too, I feel on my most important of travels. If I feel I’ve lived a different life, it also means it’s one I’m not actually living. It’s like getting a small window into other possibilities, opening the door again to wonder. This is what I mean when I say bittersweet. Leaving a new home that is not my home. A touch of sadness, but oh, so much gratitude for the beauty.
Tesekkur ederim, Istanbul. Thank you.
Adliye Sokak no:6
34400 Sultanahmet, Istanbul
Istiklal Cadesi balo sokak no: 32
(I bought this book at the Topkapi Museum shop – lots of nice addresses of good local restaurants)