A week in Istanbul
The small cabin of the truck barely accommodates its crew of 3 drivers (two friends and an 11-year-old) when they take us on board. We look at the rests of trekking dirt on our shoes as we climb up the high steps to the cleanest truck we have ever seen, and discretely change our smelly socks for something we consider to be better. After they wash each of the truck wheels as if carving their pattern anew, they move on to the windscreen that grows thinner and thinner under the bristles of their soapy big brush. Alas, their efforts prove sisific, as three flies find their end on the immaculate glass before we even get to leave the petrol station. The kid speaks some English – they say – he learns it in school. But the promising beginning of “what is your name” and “where are you from” rapidly turns into a river of incomprehensible Turkish words that pours on us over the following 3 hours to Istanbul, mixed with chocolate waffles and other sweets.
Having spent all this time breaking our drivers’ conceptions on anything they knew, unwillingly making them believe that Marta has 30 siblings and Boris has 24, we can still not believe how we manage to explain with pen and paper, that we have a friend in the city and that he knows we are coming one of these days, but miraculously they give him a call to make sure we will find a shelter in the night. We are dropped in the dark outskirts of Istanbul and mess around with the public transport until we finally ascend the colorful stairs of protest on our way to Taksim square, searching for Bathu with no phone and no gps, just like in the old times. Amazed and confused by the city lights, we move in swirls round and round the Republic monument to the rhythm of all the rest of night walkers in the square; Bathu looking for us, and we looking for him. As midnight approaches and the metro is about to close, our search extends to finding a suitable corner to rest our backpacks. We know this is not the best place to set a tent, and wonder how long it would take to be evicted from the green grass of Gezi Park. But fortunately, we won’t get to know the answer this time, as our friend and host appears from the crowd and guides us home to 4Levent.
What is 4 Levent? “The neighbourhood with the tallest sky-crappers”, mixed with improvised gardens in its back streets and an array of local supermarkets sprinkled with sweet displays of baklava, all of which we spend the first day investigating. Shelves lined up with pomegranate sauce, lemon juice, a hundred types of yogurt or funny bottles of cola Turka; summer fruits, the smell of fresh bread and sugary paradises delight the eyes and taste-buds of our imagination as we move in trance from shop to shop wondering what this country tastes of. We will have a few months to discover that.
In our second day we set out to meet Istanbul via Constantinople and so we head straight on to the city walls, ceremoniously crossing the first gate from the highway, at Ayvansaray. The wall guides us like a spinal cord from one quarter to the next, passing by derelict houses, rough playgrounds, everyday streets and on to new and empty design flats that stand on the place of what is no longer there. An architecture student on a short field trip tells us that she would like to “bring new life to the walls of Constantinople” and we wonder…what life is needed apart from the ones of those who live by its shadows?
Our neighbourhood walks reveal different cities in their own right. Streets and houses change, shops and cafes too, and we are not very sure but it seems that even faces shift as we slide from one quarter to the next. The city is a lion that is constantly roaring; an insomniac lion that does not seem to sleep – at least not earlier than us. And in the midst of this craziness Bathu says one finds his corner, a park with a view, a place with good food, a bar with your music. Besides air, this city offers everything you can think of. We swim in pomegranate juice and warm up with sweet coffee, we climb up and down, walk loads and feed Istanbul’s vanity with each sigh of admiration at is pretty facades. For another two or three days we walk in the shoes of tourists, and visit everything you already know about. The grandiosity of Hagia Sofia, the amazing interior of the Blue Mosque, the splendour of Topkapi gardens, the cistern, the mosques. We walk with tired feet the streets that curl around the tourist sites, and the noise of the Grand Bazaar buzzes in our ears as we walk away into the markets around it, where everyday vendors have been displaced to. Istanbul is a herbarium of history and its famous bazaars a free-admission museum, that look to us like a city of cardboard and colours, where there is always a souvenir to be bought, taken and stored.
And when tired and exhausted, with no money for the metro, and all our clothes hanging wet with the peculiar scent of mouldy autumn that we well know from the UK, we curse the rain that pays a visit to the city and postpones our departure south. But now, with a hintsight, we have to admit that the city gave us a travelling gift of serendipity, and opened our minds to the surreal character of chance, wrapped in the shape of Ahmet. Ahmet is an old friend from uni times in England, that we had not seen nor heard of, for over 3 years. With no facebook, skype, email or phone, contacting him in Istanbul was unlikely, specially because we faintly remembered that he lived in Ankara. Istanbul in Bayram, thousausands of visitors, probably 20+ million roam the same places, a crowded biennal that Boris would never think of visiting, and a random hour. Our meagre knowledge of mathematics impedes us from calculating what’s the chance of Ahmet recognizing Boris in the crowd. Please let us know if you reach a result. In any case, we forget to count, and laughing at the caprices of chance, enjoy the day with him and Gulay – a day that will lead to many others.
A day that is all about Turkish art and politics, and about the connection between both. We walk the rooms of Istanbul Modern and get a sense of what each step in their recent art history has been made of. While Marta jumps around with Gulay admiring the works on the walls, Boris and Ahmet focus on more serious matters and one single observation summarizes their day: a library installation where books hang from the ceiling and gravitate over visitors heads depicts, according Ahmet, “the only acceptable type of pressure we should be ready to accept”. In Istanbul Biennal the works spin around urban matters, and the shadow of Gezi Park protest (earlier in spring) has already made its way to the exhibition walls. This brings us back to our conversations with Bathu, reinforces the feeling of nostalgia that the protest already conveys and reminds us of our first impression of the event that has crystallized in the colorful steps you walk everywhere and the tangible police presence around Taksim square. Is the spirit of revolt alive in those who oppose the tyrannical tendencies of the current government? Maybe spring will let us know if the seed of 2013 can sprout again in any other way. In the meantime, we keep on talking politics in our encounters with people from all sides of the spectrum.
The next morning, with a light delay but with dry clothes and a re-found friendship, we cross the waters of Bosphorous to the south – which means east to us, as we step on to Asia for the first time in this trip. But in fact, we are simply back to Istanbul, on one side and the other, the city greedily stretches to occupy any free patches on land. And we wonder if a specific profession exists over here, the one of the worker who daily moves the city sign meter by meter further away.