The chaotic combination of yellow taxis, tourist buses and bustling passengers was a far cry from the horse and cart I was expecting, complete with mosques, crumbling buildings and sand dunes. As I stepped out of Istanbul’s airport, anticipation of the unexpected was fluttering in the pit of my stomach like a trapped butterfly. Considering my knowledge of Turkey was based on horror news articles (only the very worse make it international) and old movies involving trains and daughters, the possibility of confronting a conservative culture lurked at the back of my mind.
Istanbul’s drab suburban life quickly replaced the fading sparkle of the airport as I sped away; monotonous, concrete apartment blocks relieved only by an eclectic mix of local stores and dated office buildings. Grime and poverty’s fingerprints dirtied every surface. As one scene replaced another, the first signs of Istanbul’s thousands year-old history loomed over congested traffic; the old, stone city walls marking the outskirts of the historical centres of both the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. The butterfly escaped as my feet itched with new excitement.
Then came the powerful punch of minarets, palaces, churches, crooked wooden houses and cobbled streets, the call to prayer reverberating high over the city as each imam starts a second later than the last; I am completely mesmerised. And while some of the symbolic sights match my preconceptions, its compilation resembles none.
As Istanbul slowly reveals her secrets to me, I discover an entirely new identity. And I fall in love with my new friend, who has mastered the confidence of maturity while struggling with the awkwardness of youth. She is one who has been caught in the growth spurt of transformation from old to new; judging by the haphazard combination of the two, these growing pains will last for some time.
The final act is a favourite of many, the Bosphorus; the jewel of Istanbul, and its saviour, for without it, Istanbul would be one long stretch of urban sprawl. With its changing moods and colours, the Bosphorus etches deep into the memory and features in all reminiscences. Large cargo ships powerfully, slowly stream down the strait, indiscriminately dwarfing humble fishing boats and swanky yachts in their wake; from shore, they barely seem to scrape under the bridges spanning across the two continents. Ship watching has quickly become my favourite past time.
After discovering the city, the country, the people, the culture, for each have their own identity that are interlocked and unique at the same time, I smile at my original preconceptions; mostly in humour at their naivety. But with my new found knowledge that one can only acquire with time, I feel like I’ve been let in on the biggest secret of Europe.