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Oh My! The Minarets!


Why the hell am I going to Istanbul?!’- the only thought in my head as I boarded the plane. I mean, seriously! People don’t tend to go here and when they do, their only response to a “Would you recommend visiting it?” is a shrug and a dubious expression. I took this to be intriguing, rather than discouraging and my decision was made (influenced also, I admit, as a way of leaving England for a while).

I was armed with preconceptions as well as a frail determination. Except I wasn’t settling for the role of a wide-eyed tourist, I had accepted a teaching position and intended to live there- a concept when told to my family was greeted with a similar dubious expression followed by a monologue on women being whipped by moustachioed men while holding Turkish Delights and swaying their hips and veils.

Four hours and an administrative shuffle dance with my school later (You mean, you are a teacher?! You mean we are a school?! You mean this is Istanbul?! You mean, I am a necrophilic imbecile?!), I was in Istanbul. As I walked through my neighbourhood on my arrival, I was initially suspicious of this conservative area. I mean, who did these people think they were, sitting outside on their little stools drinking tea at 3pm in the afternoon, didn’t they have jobs? However upon buying my first phonecard and being praised by the benevolent shopkeeper for my limited Turkish (‘Hello’, ‘How much’, and ‘Where is the cow’), I calmly realised…they are friendly. And its true- Turkish citizens are friendly. Yes, being a foreign girl with a dozy expression helps, but even my male counterparts were never bereft of smiley pats on the back. (Having said that, Turkish policemen are NOT friendly. Avoid at all costs; they carry guns, drink tea, ride motorbikes, yell at people and grab their crotches, all at the same time).

One place the visitor of Istanbul can’t avoid is Sultanahmet- touristic centre and land of carpets, trinkets and all other objects we associate with the East (belly dancer statuettes included). It is the one place in Istanbul that feels the most and least like Istanbul should- it is chockfull of sights to see including the famous Blue Mosque, the Basilica Cistern and Hagia Sophia. Yet it is also the place where every single person not only speaks English fluently but uses this to convince you that you MUST purchase that gold-trimmed tea set with little men dancing around the saucers. I had particular trouble with the men that hang around preying on lost tourists who, with a friendly eye and chit-chat, ask you where you wish to go (‘Ah, you wish to go to Sultanahmet Mosque! I know the way, follow me…’ and low and behold, the path to the Sultanahmet Mosque invariably has fallen upon their carpet shop (‘…well while we are here, let’s just have a quick look at some carpets my friend…’). Unfortunately this happened to me quite a few times until I cottoned on to their game, sadly I had assumed that I looked like such a great person that everyone wanted to befriend me.

When it came to the night life, I consumed more alcohol in my 6 months in Istanbul than in my life (Including three heavy-drinking years more often known as ‘university’). Concentrated mainly in Taksim (Or maybe meaning I never managed to stumble anywhere beyond Taksim), the bars are plentiful and dark enough to make people look quite attractive. I passed many a great drunken night with fellow teachers, fortunately only a few of whom spent the evening trying to analyse the Turkish ‘condition’. (‘Is that the same as the English conditional??’ I would quip, in my failed attempt at a teaching grammar joke). Istanbul is also a haven for any western woman looking to get laid or to get a confidence boost at the minimum. No foreign girl, no matter how much of a lack of physical attributes would be short of offers here. However if you aren’t looking to score, then a well-recommended way to repel any of the local men is a simple ‘I am a feminist’. Works every time.

I, on the other hand, spurned the prospect of naked Turkish men for naked women instead (not in the Ellen DeGeneres way) – I went to the Turkish Baths or ‘Hamam’. The Turkish hamams are truly something to be experienced as the height of being pampered, and a soap massage made me feel like a glowing Halle Berry-type. This was only mildly hampered by my massage lady asking me if I was pregnant; but in my feel-good haze, I only took this to mean that I was a nubile goddess of fertility.

Above all, Istanbul is a visual rollercoaster. It has beautiful rising gold minarets and hazy skylines followed by stinking piles of garbage and shrieking mangy streetcats, all in one glimpse of the eye. But after a while I became used to the contradictions and chaos of this lively city and walked through it like I’d seen it all before. I knew that to anger a minibus driver was to risk a knife in your head, I knew that everytime I passed this house near my flat there would be the same smiley old man sitting at the window waving at passersby, and I knew that the £1 fish sandwiches available by the Bosphorus River were orgasmically better than any Time-Out rated seafood restaurant in London.

So why the hell did I go to Istanbul?! I still don’t know. Would I recommend visiting it? I loved it and I hated it, but at least, now, there is no dubious expression on my face.

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