“Don’t you know about ‘Turkish time’? We are always twenty minutes late!” jokes Billur, my new friend and tour guide for the day. I had been waiting on my stoop, watching my neighbors sip tea while others walked their children to the bus stop. It was a lovely day in Istanbul, a little cloudy, but crisp and inviting.
Billur walks me through my neighborhood, pointing out the best produce, where to get milk pudding, which place has the best juice (fresh juices are all the rage apparently, I’ve been drinking my weight in pomegranate juice daily). She points out the best menemen place, a dish I would sample many times: a copper sauté pan filled with scrambled, baked eggs with tomato sauce, spicy peppers, za’atar herbs, and sometimes spinach, sausage, or a cured beef that Billur claims makes the eater smell funny for the rest of the day. I prefer the Turkish spicy sausage. This restaurant, Van Kahvalti Evi, is a Kurdish style outpost of food from Van, the Eastern Turkey city recently ravaged by earthquakes. We sample the borek too, a pastry filled with fragrant ground meat, potatoes, or cheese. I liken this dish to something more akin to a quesadilla than a puff pastry, but I hear other places use different, flakier dough. Billur orders me a kahve filtre, a filtered, American, coffee-maker coffee, which I know is a bad idea, and I drink the scalded brown water out of politeness. I order a tea afterward, because every single diner in this full restaurant is drinking the same tea. It was clear to me which was the customary beverage and which was there for tourists. We talk first about our neighborhood, the very hilly but cool Cihangir, then more generally about Istanbul as a whole, then about men. We are fast friends.
We leave Cihangir, and head down the type of hill that you will rue on your return, to the Karaköy neighborhood. I see my first mosque—my first mosque in a Muslim country, rather—and I follow her speechless toward the water. The Bosphorus looms ahead of us, busy with ferries, tankers and cruise ships. I’d learn later that this is one of the busiest waterways in the world. Wary not to trip on the uneven, crumbling and stepped roads, I look up at the architecture. Million dollar buildings sit beside the ruins of buildings taken in the last earthquake. Wooden yalis (old Ottoman style homes that once lined the Bosphorus coast), stone buildings, concrete slab apartments and everything in between line these streets. The streets themselves seem to cover a wide description of “street” too. There are four-lane thoroughfares, side streets, dark alleys and unlit paths that meander in every direction. Streets and sidewalks are handicap-unfriendly (at least in this neighborhood), to say the very least, and I’m initially daunted by how many dark alleys my map requires I walk down. I come to learn that these are the streets of Istanbul; dark, unmarked, full of stairs and one ways, crumbling and in constant need of repair. I can at once feel intimidated by the deserted streets and comforted in knowing that this is a valid part of the city; these are not back alleys, these are a quick and convenient network of paths to navigate this megacity through. There’s too much history and too many existing structures to create a Westernized grid, and why would you want to? This is why traveling teaches you so much, what is unfamiliar is not wrong, just different.
As we pop out of these labyrinthine streets we find the main port of Karaköy. Hiding in the shadows of docked cruise ships is the original Karaköy Güllüoğlu, the famed baklava heaven. Billur shows me around, getting samples and showing me her favorites, and I wonder if: 1) she is this accommodating to all of her AirBnB clients, and 2) she can tell that I’ve been made speechless by this town.
After seeing another apartment for vacation rental (she was advising an acquaintance, I was checking out the view), we walked home through the Galata Tower area. Peeking in the windows of new boutiques where local artisans are sewing, knitting and creating new fashions, we make our way to Istiklal Caddesi, the main shopping drag. Like so many other outdoor mall areas reserved for walkers and shoppers, I felt less inclined to shop there than at the small boutiques we’d just passed by. These were international brands and franchises, packed between Starbucks and Gloria Jean’s Coffee. The roasting chestnuts and piles of mussels with lemon being sold on the street, the narghile smoking clubs (narghile pipes are hookahs with crazy flavor options), and the recruiters in front of every club, bar and restaurant remind you where you are.
We meet a few hours later for dinner with other AirBnB clients. We head to Leb i-derya, a new, cool, top floor bar/restaurant with a view of the entire skyline. The vague sign at the entrance is the first clue that you’re going somewhere under the radar, the second, third and fourth clues are the set of stairs, the elevator ride to the top, and the other set of stairs that finally lead you to a welcome desk and coat check. Once inside though, it is worth the effort. The restaurant has sleek and modern furnishings, low lighting and is completely encased in glass. I felt as if we had walked in to an atrium or greenhouse, albeit one with incredibly loud house music. In our group we had a woman from Milwaukee pondering a move to Turkey, two work associates in the software field, one from Sweden, one from Libya, a personal friend of Billur’s, and a guest appearance from the Leb I-Derya dj, also known as the man that apparently owns my flat.
We eat fava bean puree, roasted eggplant, grilled goat cheese with thick, sweet balsamic, chicken with apricots and almonds, roasted lamb with tahini, salmon with lavender and hazelnuts, and slow roasted beef with cinnamon rice. With a crisp white wine, we chatted about our respective work, the political environment (my Libyan friend was there at the time of the revolution), and travel plans. Between trips to the terrace to view the bridges, palaces and mosques lit up at night, we were all settled in, comforted by the kinship found with other travelers, sated by the first bites of Turkish food, and thankful for the good fortune of being wholly welcomed into a foreign land.