Andrew and I are sitting on a ledge in the park connecting the Blue Mosque and Ayasofia, gorging on $15 worth of baclava and other Turkish delights. Not far from us, two young turks indulge in beer. The one who turns out to be the chattier of the two calls us over. We scoot closer and engage in friendly banter. After a while, conversation turn to politics. Bülent, the chatty one, who got his name in honor of the popular invasion of Cyprus conducted under the prime ministership of Bülent Ecevit, asks me who I voted for in the last election. He is pleased by my answer. He offers a warm handshake and a free carpet. He then asks which American president I think is the most popular in Tukey. Since we are sitting a stone's throw away from Kennedy Avenue, I venture JFK. No, he says with glee, it's Bill Clinton. Ali, the more reserved one, speaks his longest sentence of the night: We like Hillary too.
Our conversation meanders for a while from politics to Istanbul to America. It ends, unsurprisingly in this tourist district, with an offer to visit their carpet store, which is just around the corner. Wonderful carpets, they say, delivered for free to your doorstep, anywhere in the world.
To understand how much Istanbul has changed in the last couple of decades you need only consider that the Sultanahmet prison which was featured in the Midnight Express movie is now a Four Seasons hotel. Our budget insisted we stay in a guest house across the street. While much more modest, it affords the same views, both of Ayasofia and the Blue Mosque, and the sea of Marmara.
If you head out into the beehive that 14 million people make, you will find a thoroughly modern city. It has a European feel and an Otoman flavor, a great combination for my taste. Many locals I met bemoan modernization. Old buildings fall prey to glass and steel, and some of the ancient byzantine charm is lost every day. But there is hope, pride, and optimism in everyone's voice.
If you like food, you will like Istanbul. If you like street food, you will love it. We only had five or six meals each day because we wanted to leave some room for the nightly sweets indulgence.
We walked a lot in this city that rewards the pedestrian. We covered long distances, up hills, down alleys, new sounds, sites and smells at every corner. When tired, we took comfort in the cool oasis of mosques. It did not bring us closer to Islam, but it gave us a beautiful space to relax, refresh, and meditate.
Istanbul is also a city on the water. It stretches along the sea of Marmara, the Bosphorus strait, and the Golden Horn. There are many ferries and boats zigzagging from one side to the other, and if you visit make sure you spend some time looking at the city from the water. It allows you to grasp how big and charming the city really is. It also allows you to trade your tourist status for the more genuine experience of the neighborhoods where the locals live and play. You may encounter, just like we did, an incense-fueled orthodox service in an Armenian church, a local market which begs of you to eat another order of kokoreç, or that carpet that you can't live without (free delivery, remember?)