Istanbul, 20 Years Later

I wear an amulet bracelet of nazar boncuğu, the Turkish blue eye, around my wrist and Xavier has one hanging in his room to ward off the evil eye. When he was born, we received a special note from Istanbul which said, "We are thrilled about the birth of our grandchild.  Congratulations from your Turkish Family."

Twenty years ago after graduating from high school in South Dakota, I stepped on a plane for Istanbul. It was the first time I'd traveled outside the country.  Rotary International sponsored my cultural exchange and I spent 10 months in Turkey living with three loving host families, breathing in a new world.

How did I end up in Turkey?  Rotary offered me a choice of the Philippines,  Argentina, Finland or Turkey.  Turkey sounded like the most exotic and farthest away from South Dakota, which was appealing.  I didn't know a single word of Turkish.  All of my siblings went on exchange as well:  my older brother went to Australia, my younger sister to Denmark and my little brother to Belgium.  My father told us later, "Your mother and I wanted you all to see the world, but we wanted you to come home."  None of us really ever came home.  We all went traveling and kept moving.  Looking back, I realize my time in Turkey set me on a course for studying history at university, my career in travel and my insatiable curiosity about people and places on this planet.  The more places I visit, the more places I discover I want to go.  Istanbul was my portal to the whole wide world. 
And now, twenty years later, I have returned to visit this richly-textured city with my husband and toddler son.  

Many things have changed:

My second first impression of the "City of the World's Desire" is that it has cleaned up quite a bit and seems sleeker and more modern. There was a serious smog problem in 1993 which appears in this crisp October to have improved. While I used to ride crammed buses often stuck in clogged traffic, now a modern tramline system makes it much easier and faster to get around.  

The Sultanahmet area has been closed to general traffic so it is easier to walk around the historical sites of Topkapi Palace, the Blue Mosque and Haiga Sophia. 

I remember lying down in the middle of the plush carpets inside the Blue Mosque to gaze at the innumerable blue Iznik tiles.  Now tourists are crammed behind a gate of only 1/5 of the floor space which can hold up to 10,000 men praying.  The guard motioned to Xavier "Gel, gel" (Come, come) and he was allowed behind the VIP cords to run around freely.

Having tea across from the Blue Mosque

In Haiga Sophia, half of the vast interior is now scaffolded, making it a little bit difficult to get the full scale.  I had remembered the general importance of this church-turned mosque-turned museum, but I had forgotten just how early it was built (537) and how dazzling and expressive the mosaics were with detailed facial lines, jewels and locks of hair.  

In Turkey, a Muslim country, the greatest arts have always been calligraphy, architecture, and tile work of geometric and floral motifs.  Painting and portraiture did not really get going until 1922 with the founding of the Republic of Turkey and Ataturk began sponsoring and promoting art. Twenty years there was more modern art happening by Turks abroad than at home, but now the city hosts a thriving arts scene with the recent opening of Istanbul Modern, the 13th Istanbul Bienale, and a lively gallery scene.

Istanbul Modern

Three very high-rise apartment complexes loom over one of my homes in the formerly quiet residential neighborhood of Levent, to the dismay of my host family, and the city has grown to a possible 14 million residents.

Currency reform in 2005 chopped off six zeros from the Turkish Lira, a redenomination that made something that had escalated out of control to 35,000,000 TL now 35 TL.  

When I was an exchange student, Tansu Ciller was Turkey's first and to-date only female President.  She was quite progressive and now Abdullah Gul is President and he is, well, not so progressive.

Sadly, I've lost most of the language I'd once learned.  While never fluent, I did become conversational in Turkish, partially thanks to the Turks expressive gesturing to help me understand the gist of things.  Now I'm told my pronunciation of a few dozen words and phrases is very good and when I say something, Turks respond in quick Turkish, which I don't understand.

In twenty years I've also grown up a bit. I remember sitting on the edge of my seat as my host mother Hulya read my coffee grounds to tell of a future husband and how happy we would be.  Now here I am with my husband Christian and young son, showing them my Istanbul.

And of course, some things haven't changed at all:

Ataturk, the beloved first president of Turkey, still looks down from the wall in every Turkish home, restaurant and business establishment.  Here is a portrait Hulya painted of him.

The ferries going back and forth across the Bosphorus are the same and possibly the best place to enjoy a cup of cay (tea) in the whole city. I used to take the ferry back and forth to school when I lived on Europe and attended high school at Uskudar Amerikan Lisesi on the Asian side.  A beautiful commute if there ever was one.

The pedestrian street of Istiklal Caddesi is still packed with people at all hours of the day and night en route to and from Taksim Square, shopping, dinner and lively nightlife.

Topkapi Palace will be forever timeless where Ottoman sultans lounged on low divans under its priceless tiles of green, blue, aquamarine and the now-lost red.  The Topkapi Dagger is still there and still impressive, as well as the Kisitas Diamond (also known as the Spoonmaker's Diamond).  I do remember visiting the vast  kitchen complex, which are now closed for renovations.

But most of all, what made me feel immediately at home again in Istanbul after twenty years is the warm and legendary Turkish Hospitality.  My host families spirited us around the city to see the views and took us out for delicious meals. Hulya cooked for us at home and her sigura borek, hot dolmas and Circassian Chicken tastes just as delicious as I remembered. Of course everyone fell in love with Xavier, and he them.  

                                            Xavier with my host father, Uran

Years fall away and it is wonderful to be back.  There is a saying in Turkish:  "Arkasindan su dokmek" which means "Pour water behind" to ensure a smooth departure and a smooth return. Someone must have thrown water behind me when I left after my Rotary exchange.

I can't think why it has taken me twenty years to return.

1 comment:

  1. Sigh. Thank-you for transporting me to Turkey Sarah Burns. It was such a nice getaway.