Magnificent Istanbul

I’ve discovered I don’t really like Istanbul. Despite its fame, it’s grime, it’s subtle pink skies over the red rooftops and calm sable of the sea. The city is a mess to me.
Apart from my twelve visits to the Istanbul airport (which seems like a temporary transitional refugee camp of bedraggled, exhausted middle class warriors), my first introduction to Istanbul was driving to the endless, monotonous suburbs – intermittent concrete blocks of the most blasé kind, wild forest, and industrial holding sheds. An endless stretch of crowded humanity without center or community. (You always learn more about a city’s true character, it’s values and the values that flock people to its center, by starting at the edges).
My next encounter was Istanbul traffic.
Having taken the Ankara-Istanbul bus to Alibey Koy, where, I had been informed, there was a shuttle to Eminonu (location of my visiting mother’s hotel), I stepped out after a seven hour ride only to discover that there was no shuttle in that direction. The closest drop off was in Taksim, and it would leave in thirty minutes. So I flagged down the servos bus to Taksim, spent twenty minutes talking with the drivers as we lagged through traffic, and came to the conclusion that 1) Istanbul traffic is fully deserving of its wretched reputation and, 2) I should disembark at Kabatas and take the trolley to Sultan Ahmet, a mere four or five stops followed by a ten minute walk.
But Istanbul geography I don’t understand. We left the bus station facing a hill of tangled green, drove through lower-middle class suburbs of non-description low block buildings looking like a provincial town without the center, dove into a tunnel, and then emerged in the full rush of downtown. Parts of Istanbul are so crowded, the streets a congested flood of frustration and cars, and yet swathes of the land not so far from city center just open and almost bare.
Taking the tram was easy enough – once I made my way through the swarms of Arabic-speaking tourists around the waterfront palace. once in the doors and seated an older man plopped down next to me muttering [not quite] under his breath about the şerefsiz (honorless, rascally) Russian girlfriend and her Turkish man candy who had taken up two of the better seats and we’re currently completely engrossed in foundling the man’s recent gift purchase from Swatch. Fifteen minutes later the older man saw me looking at the map on my iPad and inquired, in the most polite tones and impeccable English, where I was going – one of three people to take the time out of their day just in case I needed help with directions (even though I was holding a map with completely functioning GPS). None of them were shop keepers, none of them had anything to gain by helping me out. But that’s Turkey.
So I disembarked the tram by the Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Camisi) and made my way through the small, ripple, tourist-crowded, tourist shop and over-priced restaurant-lined streets to my mother’s waterfront hotel. Except for the grand mosques and quaint old Ottoman buildings the neighborhood felt not unlike the similarly tourists wharfs of popular towns along the Mediterranean – just swap out the lobster-red Brits for families of Arab tourists, fake Gucci for fine carpets, and jack up the prices threefold. It’s not a place where people live, Eminonu. It no longer feels like the neighborhood belongs to the residents, or that many of the workers – the garçons and hotel keepers, the shop owners and ground sweepers – are from the neighborhood and still have a stake in its character. It feels like it exists for show, for the throngs of tourists – more English-speakers than I’ve seen in months.
I arrived at the hotel only second after my mother and her three stateside friends – remarkable timing considering the distances we had traveled. We hugged, unpacked, and headed out for dinner at one of a dozen restaurants proudly proclaiming their trip advisor status, with a bit of a discount for my suddenly astounding Turkish skills.
[a side note: traveling without the companionship of a native speaker is probably one of the best ways to practice a foreign language. With family or friends or E’s co-workers I practice, but there’s never any urgency or need for exactitude. I tend to listen, but speak little. As the only Turkish speaker in our group, or alone at the bus station, I now suddenly speak for all – and need to deliver quick, accurate responses. Which I find I’m perfectly competent in completing, particularly as travel language isn’t really that difficult – we’re looking for, can I, can you, do we have to, do you have, can we have the, excuse me, that’s three times the normal price, etc…] Several times I was asked if I was Turkish – with a confused smile, I think because so few foreigners here venture out of English.
After dinner we wandered down the cobblestone streets, stopped for shalgam (they didn’t like it!) and ice cream and carpet browsing and photos. And I realized that, like in Ankara, the city is flooded with Syrian refugees stuck in this Norman’s land of no belonging, a lone raft in a sea of western prosperity. As in Ankara, some are rude – the rights of refugees – and some are downright desperate. I’ve never liked giving money to people on the street – once the cash leaves your hands you have no idea where it will go (outside of the states, most likely *not* to the person you’re handing it to) or what it will procure (in the states that’s often alcohol, cigarettes or drugs). So if someone looks like they are actually in need, I prefer to give them a small something – fruit or a pair of socks from the sock stand or a loaf of bread – something I know they can use then and there, that won’t be taken from them, and that I would want my money to support. But the Syrian refugees are different – some of them are quite desperate and they are completely on their own. There is no beggar king backing them or parents who will swipe their beggar children’s collections for booze. They are alone.
We stopped on our way back by a family of five – bedraggled looking parents, a mother with kind, desperate eyes, and three small clean-kept children sitting exhausted behind a sign in English imploring help. I gave them the rest of a bag of figs and some packets of wet tissues and talked with them a bit in Turkish. The woman wanted to know if we could help them – and it wasn’t ad article in her eyes. It was desperation. She was lost, on the streets of Istanbul, almost invisible behind the legs of a thousand affluent tourists holding agendas, hotel keys, and a flight ticket home, and she had no idea where to go. What would come next, what they could do – nothing. As a thousand billboards across Turkey say – They’ve escaped the war, but not found refuge. And what could I do to help them? Living in Kyrgyzstan? What can Turkey, an entire country, do when faced with a half million refugees? (In terms of proportion, that would be the equivalent of three million Mexicans suddenly flooding into the U.S. Seeking shelter). Nobody leaves home unless it is no longer a haven. But where a half million people (more) will find final refuge, and who will take responsibility for their plight –

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