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Exploring the City

Monday, December 2, 2013


For a city with the size and diversity of Istanbul, one semester is really not long enough. Even if I spent all my time exploring the different alleys and hidden streets of the city, it would take me years, and I do mean many years, to be able to feel like I had adequately explored this place.


Even the locals, who have lived here all their lives tell me they have new places they want to go explore. Part of this is a result of the city's constant and rapid expansion and development stemming from the huge population growth Istanbul has seen in recent years.


So, given the inadequate length of our stay, my friends and I have sought to make the most of our time here in Istanbul. Essentially anytime we have free time, which is quite often, we explore new parts of town. We try to research online and get recommendations from local friends in advance so that we can have some sort of guide, but sometimes we just dive in and see what we can find. And in this city there is always something waiting to be found.


To illustrate my point, I will give you all the highlights of last week alone, so bear in mind that all of this happened in just five days:


It all started on Wednesday of last week. A friend and I set out to the Levent area in search of the Azeeri and Israeli embassies. I am traveling to Azerbaijan in two weeks to visit a friend, and Natalie, my friend, is spending next semester in Haifa, Israel so we both needed to file visa applications.


So we looked up the addresses online and set out. We got to where we thought we going, and couldn't find anything. So, we did what we always do when we are lost, ask someone. The delivery driver we asked gave us some directions, but the Turks are famous for their shaky navigational skills. So, we wandered lucklessly for another 15 minutes or so before stumbling onto the same driver. When we made it apparent that we still could not find where we were going, he motioned to get in and we loaded up. Honestly, the Turks are so hospitable that it didn't cross either of our minds that getting in a car with a stranger is the first thing we learn not to do when we are little.


He drove around a few corners and eventually came to a stop in front of what looked like the Azeeri embassy. He drove away and we went inside, only to discover that we had been hand delivered to the Sudanese embassy. Wrong continent. Further research led us to believe that the Azeeri embassy was not anywhere nearby and required a lengthy cab ride there.


Just another day in Turkey.


The next day was Thanksgiving. In one of the world's sickest ironies, it is nearly impossible to acquire a turkey to eat in the country of Turkey. Fortunately for us though, over the course of the semester we have befriended a family that owns and operates a cafe near where we live. As such, they were kind enough to keep the cafe open much past it's normal hours, and host our group for a Thanksgiving dinner. There wasn't Turkey or stuffing, but Tuba (the daughter) is an outstanding cook and she prepared some traditional Turkish dishes for us that were really good.


The group at dinner at the Ortakoy Cafe


The group in front of the cafe including our friends Tuba (far left, front row) and her brother Memet (far right, back row)

The next day, Conor and I set out to Balat, which is one of Istanbul's oldest neighborhoods. Balat was originally a part of the old city, but it was where the peasants generally stayed, and today it continues to be one of Istanbul's poorer areas.

The streets of Balat

A small sample of some of the areas famous colorful flat houses

In Istanbul, there are very strict regulations on remodeling and rebuilding homes. The city won't let the owners redevelop many buildings, so the owners are forced to stand by and wait for the structure to collapse "naturally" before they are able to rebuild it. Some landlords have been known to artificially hasten this decay with everything from baseball bats to arson. While it may seem unsightly, these buildings are part of what gives Istanbul it's charm. They are as much a part of the city as any of the pristine skyscrapers and ritzy apartment complexes, and they are most commonly found in Balat.


An example of a decaying building, waiting patiently for it's time to come.

Conor and I also stumbled onto an excellent surprise during our afternoon in Balat. Despite Turkey being 98% Muslim, Istanbul remains the seat of the Eastern Orthodox Church, and their central church (the equivalent to the Vatican in Catholicism) is actually in Balat, a hangover from the Byzantine times. We stumbled onto the enormous complex and poked our heads into the courtyard in front of the church. It turns out that we were there for the feast celebration of the founding saints day. In other words, of all the days for us to stumble onto the home of a religion, we picked the day it was founded.


All of the clergymen were out and about in their robes and caps, and we even got to meet the archbishop of America (the head of the church in America), although at the time we mistook him as being the Patriarch of the entire church. Whoops. We got a tour of the chapel before their service, although I didn't take pictures for fear of disrespect.


Whew, and we haven't even hit the weekend yet.


On Saturday, we slept in, but in the afternoon we visited the Besiktas Bazaar, which is where the locals go every week to buy all of their produce for the week. It's a total zoo, and we scored multiple kilos of fresh fruits and veggies for cheap. If I remember correct, I got 4 kilos of potatoes, 2 kilos of clementines, a big bunch of arugula, a package of mint, 500g of nuts, 2 kilos of eggplants, and 500g of olives for $18 TOTAL. It's the world's best discount farmer's market.


That night, we went out with Tuba to see a concert. Tuba took us to the place where there were actually multiple floors of performances going on. Rather than having opening acts, like in the states, this concert venue had the smaller acts play on lower floors and in smaller spaces, so you can steadily make your way upstairs to the headlining act. We didn't stop into any of the smaller shows, because Tuba knew the lead singer in the band, and we wanted to get good seats. 


The performer was named Aydogan Topal, and he is apparently a very popular performer from the Black Sea region of Turkey. He had 7 other instrumentalists on stage with him and they played nearly a 4 hour set. It was a blast.

My picture isn't very good, but Aydogan is in front, the flutist is to the right as is a back up singer. On the left is a man playing a Turkish bag pipe, and in the shadow you can sorta see the guy who played the fiddle. There is also a drummer, bassist, and electric guitarist behind them.

But the crown jewel of the weekend came on Sunday, when we discovered the Holy Grail of Istanbul. 


One thing I strongly recommend doing if you intend on studying abroad is following famous people from the city you are going to on various social media networks. For me, Facebook and Twitter are a little useless, since posts are all in Turkish, but one of the best things I ever did was follow some of Istanbul's professional photographers on Instagram. The photographers know all the best spots, and I have using them as a way of exposing myself to new places, because they are always posting great pictures from around the city.


But one spot in particular has captivated me for a couple weeks. On top of one of the city's many hills, I saw a picture of a beautiful view of the city from above. I did my best to figure out where it was taken, but couldn't turn anything up for a few days. Then some of the other pros started posting similar pics, and my frustration mounted. Finally, I showed it to a friend who sent me on a wild goose chase for Camlica Park on the Asian side of the city.


Well, on Sunday we found the park and it was every bit as glorious as expected.


A clear view of the city and bridge

We even had the added bonus of having a local walk her goats past us. In a city of 18 million, I guess there are only so many places to feed your livestock.

So, as much as we covered this week, there is still plenty left to see. I'll keep you all posted on what I come across next, because in this city it's not an "if" but a "when" something new and crazy will happen.


I hope everyone enjoyed their Thanksgivings!




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