Goodbye Istanbul

Goodbye Istanbul pic

After a wonderful, adventure filled year, I left Istanbul a few months ago to continue my global travels. But I leave this blog up as a tribute to a beautiful place; a city I will always remember, for many different reasons.

This is the last thing I wrote about Istanbul before I moved away from Turkey. I started writing it as a note on my iphone one day while travelling to work, but never finished it before leaving the city. It was originally intended to be a part of a larger piece called ‘Sounds of the City’, in which I would document and reflect on the magnificent plethora of uniquely weird and wonderful sounds Istanbul produces in a day. So, when discovering the notes today, I was moved to share it in the abstract format of a sort-of-poem, un-edited, as my final SOUP post:

~~~

The Call

I will always remember

Waking up at 5am to the chilling discord of that multi-chorus sound.

‘The Call To Prayer’

Echoing over the city;

Her medley of overlapping frenetic notes,

Clanging and colliding, whaling and whining

As she swells-up above the burnt-red rooftops of this epic city.

Her sweet, cold melody sends a chill down every spine

As it bounced off buildings, and,

Eventually finds its way into my quiet bedroom.

Through the cracks in the walls and the rotting window pane

She whispers.

The magic of those haunting notes penetrates something deep within me.

The babel of sounds continues to rush through my veins

Hours after the singer has set his microphone down.

I think of him. The lonely singer,

Who sits within his tall ivory tower, alone, always.

To this day, the almost demonic melody of ‘The Call’ has not left my body;

It continues to resonate through the fleshy fibre-optics of my being,

Growing in intensity each time I imagine those rumbling noted

Rising up over my Istanbul, once more.

My nerve-endings and muscles still remember

Each hypnotic vibration of that harrowing song,

As though it were permanently intermixed with the constant and familiar pounding of my own heart beat.

And so it was.

And so it will always be.

~~~

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Thank you for reading and following the SOUP blog and please feel free to take a look at the many archived posts to be found here on my year in Istanbul. Happy reading, goodbye and good travelling everyone! 🙂

Peace x

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Tripping in Tarlabaşı

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All photographs: Oliver Zimmermann

I lurch forward suddenly with the impact of another body hitting mine. To add injury to insult, I trip over a raised piece of concrete jutting out from the pavement, stubbing my big toe. Frazzled and overladen with shopping bags, I’m propelled onward amid the herd of people funnelling into the busy marketplace ahead.

Like so many increasingly popular locations in Istanbul, Tarlabaşı is changing rapidly. Over the past ten years many previously dilapidated, impoverished, and even dangerous areas of the city like Galata, Cihangir and Karaköy are now frequented by travellers, expats, artists, students and hipsters. As a result, Tarlabaşı’s weekend market is also benefiting from an increase in popularity and regular custom from foreigners and locals alike. In fact, the whole area is predicted to soon undergo the same kind of gentrification that has transformed Galata over the past decade.

If you take a trip down to the Sunday market in Tarlabaşı you will be engrossed by a sensory banquet of colourful chaos. Central Tarlabaşı is host to one of Istanbul’s many vibrant underbellies of street trade. The magnificent mishmash of stools has much to offer and is always packed with manic shoppers, falling over one another to grab a bargain as they binge-buy.

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One of the things that makes Tarlabaşı’s weekend market unique is its unpolished charm and, most importantly, its uncommonly low prices. It is not only notoriously cheap to shop here, it is also a cultural feast for the eyes and ears. You’ll be dazzled by streets brimming with mountainous piles of fruit and vegetables cascading from rickety wooden tables and lured in by the provocative cries of tradesmen advertising their wares left, right and centre.

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However, despite such positive predictions regarding the regeneration of Tarlabaşı, many here fear that an unavoidable consequence of development in the area will be the necessary sacrifice its currently rugged charm and unique atmosphere. The prospect of gentrification here also poses the problematic question of what will happen to the current lower income families living there, who will undoubtedly be pushed out as food and rent prices rise. While the rejuvenation of impoverished and neglected inner-city districts is perceived—on the whole—as a good thing, there are many potentially negative connotations for residence. The wealth predicted to flow into Tarlabaşı over the coming years will naturally exclude and further oppress poor and immigrant communities in the area, forcing them to move on to less desirable outskirts of the city, where their living standards will deteriorate further. A story too often told in tales of gentrification within numerous enterprising cities throughout history.

In a time when the average Istanbulian’s wages are grossly disproportionate to the cost of living, and when food and accomidation costs are consistently rising, the Tarlabaşı market is at once a refuge to low income citizens and a bargain-hunter’s dream come true. It is now one of the best places in Beyoğlu to stock up on the essentials for your weekly food shop. You can purchase all sorts here: from the practical and everyday, to the downright bizarre.

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You can buy luxury goods like spices, olives, dried-fruits and cheeses in bulk and for a much lower price than any supermarket. You can pick up other novelty items, such as miniature goldfish—sold at 5 tl a piece—in tiny glass takeaway bowls. You can also acquire a whole plethora of useful tat here: from cheap brassieres, track suits, kitchen gubbins and other brand knock-offs.

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Like the range of ladies underwear available, everything at Tarlabaşı’s outdoor market is oversized and underpriced. Despite being organic and homegrown by local farmers, even the cabbages here look like genetically engineered science experiments — weighing in at a hefty 7 kilos each!

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Today, Tarlabaşı is described by many as the “soon-to-be up-and-coming” place to live within the Beyoğlu district of Istanbul. The young genrtifiers of the city are now choosing to settle in Tarlabaşı, over other more trendy areas. The new community of outsiders moving into Tarlabaşı are drawn here by the low rent prices and spacious apartments available; these young Istanbulites do not see the sense in living in the grossly overpriced Cihangir or Galata when they can live comfortably in the charmingly rough-around-the-edges and characteristic, Tarlabaşı. The benefit of the local weekend market here also means that residents living on low monthly incomes can do their entire weekly food shop for under 100 tl. Therefore, like so many impoverished areas of the city, Tarlabaşı is also considered as the place to invest in property and redevelopment, before the imminent boom hits.

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But Tarlabaşı is not there yet. There are still many dangers associated with living here as a foreigner. Drug dealing among the derelict back-alleys is rife and there have been numerous reports of rape and muggings after dark in the more remote areas. The high crime rates, poor living standards and low home security, mean that newcomers to the district have to wise-up fast. I have many female expat friends who live in Tarlabaşı and who have to avoid walking alone at night and habitually carry pepper spray in their handbags.

In contrast, areas like Galata have been transformed over recent years into city hot-spots, boasting multiple trendy bars, cafes, pop-up shops and art galleries. However, many residents recall a time when local mafia ran the streets of Galata. In those days Galata was rife with crime and the roads were blocked-off at night, so that even the police could not enter after dark. Yet, ironically Galata is now one of the safest, most picturesque areas on the European side of Istanbul. Tarlabaşı, on the other hand, still looks and feels relatively crude by comparison.

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Today, the streets of Tarlabaşı remain murky and smell of coal-smoke. Currently undeveloped, rough-and-ready Tarlabaşı is made up of a ramshackle maze of timeworn buildings. Rubbish bins overflow onto jagged strips of pothole-riddled pavements and the roads are filled with rickety old cars. It serves as a kind of mirror of a former Galata or Cihangir, like a window into the not so distant past.

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Living here may be cheap but the area is still insecure. The buildings here quite literally crumbling at the corners – not somewhere that particularly inspires confidence in light of Istanbul’s imminent earthquake. The streets are made up of cramped, jagged structures surrounding the numerous claustrophobic labyrinth alleyways. As with most built-up inner-city areas of Istanbul, there are few rooms with a view beyond another wall of concrete.

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Yet, Tarlabaşı remains an increasingly desirable location to the new generation of expats and travellers in Istanbul. The streets have an alluring grittiness to them, a vibrant, yet mystifying energy. Despite a looming sense that you could have your wallet nicked at any moment, Tarlabaşı is a genuinely interesting and exciting place to explore — particularly on the weekend, when the market is in full bloom.

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I for one sincerely hope that Tarlabaşı retains its quirky and exhilarating charisma as it continue to develop and evolve.

All photographs Copyright of Oliver Zimmermann http://www.oliverzimmermann.com/ and all rights reserved

Istanbul: They Call it Chaos, We Call it Home

originally wrote this article for Thinking City – a fantastic, thought-provoking online magazine that discusses the urban experience – where it was published in January. 

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All photographs: Oliver Zimmermann

The cobbled pavements teem with a buzzing frenzy of people. Tourists, locals, street-sellers and punters create a steady stream of bodies, flowing consistently through the narrow streets of this heaving city.

Whether you love or hate it, Istanbul is without doubt a city that splits opinion. For some, it is an exotic metropolis—steeped in rich history and culture—pulsating with modern life. For others, the city environment is pure chaos. Many local people feel that Istanbul is over-crowded and over-developed; a suffocating and homogenised urban landscape, representative of the negative consequences of capitalist culture. The fact is, both the physical place and conceptual space of Istanbul remains at odds with the sheer quantities of people that inhabit the city; Istanbul is one of the most over-crowded cities in the world with a population of approximately 15 million. The city sprawls over 2,063 square miles, spanning the Bosphorus Strait that separates East and West, forming the largest urban agglomeration in Europe and the Middle East.

For me, this colossal city is the very definition of contradiction. Everything here happens in the extremes and changes rapidly. Around the corner from my flat in Galata, a small independent pop-up shop sells foreign coffee, fair-trade T-Shirts and illustrated posters that read: Istanbul. They call it chaos, we call it home. I buy one to remind myself why I like living amid the pandemonium of this urban space, in all its gloriously paradoxical charm.

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Istanbul is a patchwork of dazzlingly busy spaces that never seem to sleep and for this reason it can at times be an exhausting—even claustrophobic—place to inhabit. However, historically Istanbulians have always conducted their business in the open, always out on the street. There is an inherent sense here that outdoor space belongs to the public. The streets are occupied daily with tradesmen selling their wares, exchanging produce and sharing stories. The street is the people’s space. Unlike the common conception of public space in large cities in the Western world, the streets of Istanbul have traditionally been considered as an open playground, within which trade, performance art and food culture thrives.

Turks are not afraid of public displays of emotion, nor are they shy about public appearances. Couples argue passionately in the street, crying and yelling at each other; old men laugh and bellow together while playing backgammon and drinking çay on the roadside; street children sell tissues and chewing gum; food merchants sound their street calls, advertising their wares on every corner. However, despite the vibrancy of Istanbul’s street culture, the outdoor areas of the city remain intimidatingly hectic and over-crowded. The city consistently overflows with people, relentlessly vibrating with noise and energy, and as a result can sometimes feel oppressive.

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These days, there is also a strong police presence in central areas of Istanbul. Since the traumatic events of the Gezi Parki protests in Taksim, it has become clear that public spaces are controlled and shaped by anyone but the public. Street culture in Istanbul is being eroded by the threat of police violence and the controversial issue of public space is made more complex by the current government’s totalitarian approach to crowd control in Turkish cities. As a result, citizen’s civil rights—like the right to public assembly, peaceful protest and freedom of speech in the streets—are being slowly eradicated.

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Today most Turks rightly feel a sense fear and paranoia about the way the government controls public areas. I still cannot get used to walking amid the multitude of stern faced, uniformed officers, each of them armed with loaded machine-guns, batons and tear gas pistols. The de-humanising effect of over-developed, heavily moderated public spaces—particularly green spaces—under the AKP government has diminished its citizens’ ability to have their say about how public spaces are used and to have their voices heard. There are currently growing rumors that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will in fact go ahead with construction in Gezi Parki this year; various Turkish websites state that the government is preparing to push forward with building plans for the original shopping mall, which was the catalyst for the 2013 riots.

For Istanbulians, there is a growing sense of disempowerment within their frenetic urban environment. They have not forgotten the brutality of the Gezi movement, nor have they forgiven their government’s heavy-handed occupation of the streets that previously seemed to belong to the people. Many locals feel constricted by the sheer lack of free space in Istanbul. They say that they find the oppressive urban landscape increasingly depressing. My Turkish friends complain that there are not enough accessible green spaces within the inner-city districts in which to escape the stress of everyday modern city living. They feel there is too much traffic and too many people using public transport, too much noise and construction of shopping malls, not enough street art or open spaces — they say the city is utter chaos.

Yet, perhaps it is not too late for the authorities to reconsider how Istanbul’s public spaces function. Many Istanbulians believe that the government needs to start making ‘green’ choices. A possible solution could be to pedestrianize specific areas of the city and to limit government funding for the unnecessary construction of yet another shopping mall. I personally believe that in order to retain a democratic approach to public space, it must be the job of the government to moderate industry, to control construction and pollution.

Some pro-government supporters argue that the economic boom, made possible by the success of the construction industry, has enabled the city to become a thriving, cosmopolitan player on the world stage. But at what price? According to the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality, the green area ratio per person here is on average only 6.4 square meters. The standard living space here is made up of chockablock apartments without access to any gardens, or courtyards. Indeed, capitalist industry has meant that Istanbul has fallen victim to relentless, out-of-control development. Today, the metropolis is one of concrete with an ever-rising population. In some districts it is hard to spot a single tree, let alone a park.

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Although the international community may regard Istanbul as a great ‘cultural’ destination, the Turkish people who live here feel that their voices are being silenced. They remain deeply concerned about the issue of public space in their ever-growing city. While there are no simple solutions for the various dilemmas posed by living in such a sizeable city, there are also many positives. Istanbul is a multifaceted place, with much to offer us – not to mention the beauty and magnitude of its geographical formation.

If you walk down the hill from Galata, through Karaköy, away from the inner-city chaos and towards the coastline, you can watch sunlight dancing on the Bosphorus and glistening along the silhouettes of mosques scattered across the horizon. Here you can look out over the only truly open space left in Istanbul. Standing by the water’s edge with the commotion of the cityscape at your back, you feel the sea breeze on your skin as you look out over the open water. Here you can get perspective and take a well needed deep breath of fresh air.

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All photographs Copyright of Oliver Zimmermann http://www.oliverzimmermann.com/ and all rights reserved

A Soupelicious Subversion!

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Istanbul is the epicentre of food culture. It is also the best place on earth to source and consume a wide variety of my favourite food (and part-time obsession) — soup! Super tasty, heart-warming soup! During these winter months, this fantastically nutritious super-food has quite literally become my life’s blood! Being not only utterly delicious, but also essential to keeping warm, soup is the best way to eat cheaply and efficiently in Istanbul.

Soup is constantly available in Istanbul, from posh restaurants to takeaway food chains, trendy snack bars and pokey cafes to late night kabab houses. Unlike us Brits, instead of eating a greasy kabab or soggy bag of fish and chips, Turks go to ‘drink’ soup after a night on-the-town. All season round the streets of Taksim are busied with gaggles of drunken friends, stumbling out of bars in the early hours of the morning, gravitating like zombies towards the nearest soup place. In my opinion, the fantastic Turkish tradition of eating soup after a night out drinking is, quite frankly, genius. This healthy post-boozing habit rehydrates the body and helps towards undoing some of the alcohol poisoning incurred over the course of a fun-filled evening. Soup is so important to Turkish people that it was the main food that they shared during the Occupy Gezi movement; protestors cooked and shared soup everyday on the ground in the park, feeding each other, the poor and rich alike. My fellow soup fanatic Turkish friends told me that while Gezi was going on, soup was their food of choice because it was convenient. One of my friends who is a particularly dedicated activist in the Gezi movement explained to me that “Soup is the best riot cuisine because it’s quick and easy to prepare and, most importantly, it helps combat the toxins protestors ingest from all that tear gas”. Soup is important in Turkey for many reason. For me, soup is yet another reason why Turkey is the perfect place to have ended up living, as Turks seem to be the only people on the planet as obsessed with soup as I am.

Now, I am no cook. But, luckily for me, my very own ‘in-house’ chef—and lovely boyfriend—is! We regularly cook soup together and most recently created this little adaptation of the traditional Turkish soup, Mercimek Çorbası.

Mercimek Çorbası (adaptation) Recipe:

  • Prep: soak x2 large cups of chickpeas in water over night
  • Make Lamb stock: place lamb bone in water with x2 onions, x4 cloves of garlic, x4 carrots

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  • To cook: chop x1 white onion, x2 cloves of garlic and one inch of ginger and fry on a low heat
  • Put the chickpeas on to boil in a separate pot and simmer until plump and tender
  • Add some dried chilli and mint to the frying pan and stir until onions and garlic become translucent
  • Then, add a large soup-spoon of tomato puree, or red pepper paste
  • Add x1 large cup of red lentils and stir together
  • Add the lamb stock to the veg and stir on a low heat
  • Let the mix cook on a medium to low heat for 45 mins until the lentils are soft/disintegrated
  • Once the mix is thick and creamy, add the chickpeas and serve with a large squeeze of lemon and extra chilli sprinklings on top and—voilà!—the perfect cold-busting, high protein, delicious lentil soup is ready to gobble up!

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. . .

Traditional Turkish soup is largely inherited from Anatolian cuisine, fused over the years with the refinement of Middle Eastern, Central Asian and Mediterranean cuisine. However, in my humble (and potentially biassed opinion) Oli’s adaptation of Mercimek Çorbası is worth the subversion from the traditional method. The main difference between Oli’s Mercimek Çorbası and the traditional Turkish recipe is the added ginger and chick-pees, which do change the flavour slightly but also add extra nutrients. This is super easy to cook, wonderfully warming to eat and a great cold-beater.

If you love soup as much as I do, I think you’ll like this one. However, whether you find this recipe suits your taste-buds or not, one fact is undeniable — Oli and I make a mean ‘Naked Chef‘ team in the kitchen!

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‘Naked Head Chef’

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‘Naked Sous-chef’

*Simply Soupelicious!  🙂

Walking in a Winter Wonderland

As locals retreated into the warmth and safety of their homes, the snow began to fall more heavily with each passing hour. This was the perfect time to take a leisurely walk around Istanbul.

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Experiencing my first Christmas and New Years in Istanbul this year was great, for many reasons. But one of the best things about the festive period here, for me, was the arrival of the snow season. While sitting snow levels rarely reach above a few inches in the inner city, the amount that did settle this week had a refreshingly tranquil effect on the usually restless urban landscape. After months of sunshine, late December and early January saw Istanbul temporarily transformed into a stunning winter wonderland. Well, as wonderland as it gets in Istanbul.

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At this time, venturing outside unnecessarily is not advisable. Istanbul, like many other large cities, seems ill-equipped to cope with the chaos caused by the annual snow. Schools close, shops shut and people and street animals seem to all but vanish. The snow has a ghostly effect on the city’s appearance, which are usually bustling with life, each pavement and roadway consistently overflowing with busy traffic, noise and action.

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But this week, the rhythm of the city changed into quite the opposite to that which it is famous for. Those few pedestrians and vehicles braving the outdoors could be seen slipping and sliding all over the un-salted and ice-covered roads, which being often steep and cobbled had become treacherous ice-slides; and with temperatures of -5 degrees walking outdoors becomes not only dangerous, but rather painful.

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During this snowy period, Oli and I continued to venture into the icy streets to capture images of the beautiful and novel white city. As we walked through our neighbourhood of Galata one afternoon, shivering and skidding all the way, I began to regret my choice of socks and lack of ear-warmers. However, the glorious sunset views we discovered at the top of Galata Tower were certainly worth braving the freezing temperatures for.

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The city view from the 63 meter height of one of the oldest towers in the world is at once spectacular and terrifying. While balancing along the narrow edge of the tower in the fierce icy wind, I felt as though Oli and I could too easily be lifted off, like the gusts of snow sporadically blustering about our ears.

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As my fear grew, I seemed to suddenly take on Oli’s vertigo, having never been particularly bothered by heights before. Fortunately for me, it was far too cold to justify staying out on the ledge for any lengthy period of time. Due to the combination of altitude and Bosphorus wind currents at the top of the tower, the temperature that day was around -8/9 degrees. However, the views are equally stunning from the indoor restaurant at the top of the tower.

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Gazing down from Galata Tower onto the usually bustling city, Istanbul suddenly felt peaceful and eerily still under the muffling effect of the snow storm. All the reality of city- life here seemed to slip away into a kind of dreamy nothingness — a picture perfect image of an enchanted ancient metropolis.

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The snow-covered rooftops, cramped together, created a chalky patchwork blanket that made the vast city below feel smaller and somehow more intimate. Similarly, while walking in our newfound winter wonderland, time seemed to slow down; each satisfying crunch of the snow under foot, each careful movement, each breath seemed cushioned by the all-consuming, hypnotic whiteness of everything. 

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The dramatic way in which the snow changes the landscape in Istanbul is yet another reason why I love this city. Everywhere you glance there’s a picture worth taking — plus, the time off work is an added bonus. It gave me the time to appreciate the urban winterscape properly during this snowy period. If you know Istanbul, walking through the city in the snow will allow you to see the city in an entirely new way. The dirt and the noise fade away under the shower of white flakes that touch everything in their path. It is truly magical. And if you are lucky enough to encounter Istanbul for the first time during the snow season you will be enraptured by its snow coated wonderland charm.

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The snow has stopped falling now and life in Istanbul is slowly returning to normal. Locals are relieved to resume there business, but I for one hope that the snow returns to transform the city again, soon.

Simple Pleasures: Chicken Rice at Haciosman

In many respects, Istanbul-life is what happens while you’re making other plans. The subtle transition between the unknown and the familiar occurred in my daily experiences here without me even noticing. One day I was a wide-eyed yabanci (foreign) alien and the next, Istanbul had somehow become my normality. I now rarely catch myself noticing the more bizarre elements of life in Istanbul, of which there are many, and of which I was all too acutely aware of in my first few weeks here. I have now become accustomed to the pace of this great city; no longer a complete stranger, I now feel strangely at home amid its landscape, its people and its culture. Subtly, and without intrusion, the city seems to have woven itself into my subconscious, the relationship between us becoming more intimate as time passes. As I move through the city day after day, going about my routine, I feel myself becoming ever more intertwined in the city’s complex tapestry.

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I have now developed my own habits and rituals here. I am now known by my Galata neighbours, local coffee shops and takeaway services. As I travel back and forth across the city each day, I recognise the same familiar faces staring back at me on the metro and hold the same conversations with street sellers on my route home. One of the absolute highlights of my busy working day has become my evening ritual of stopping to eat pilaf tavuk (chicken rice) outside Haciosman metro station. Due to the amount of time I spend commuting across the city, this habitual evening snack is often the first chance I will have had to eat since breakfast. The mobile pilaf tavuk cart at Haciosman sums up why I love Istanbul — the food is fast, tasty, cheap and continuously available. For me, Istanbul is all about the thriving street food culture.

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In order to avoid what Adam Smith referred to as “The deadening effect of familiarity on curiosity” I try, when I can, to seek out new perspectives of the places I visit daily in Istanbul. On my commute to work, I reflect on the beauty of my surroundings. I take note of the facial expressions and mannerisms of people on the bus and metro, the swerves and turns of the furious traffic whizzing by, the colour of the skyline littered with buildings and the red flags rippling on the ocean breeze sweeping in off the Bosphorus.

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The main difference from when I first arrived is that, where these things once overwhelmed my sensory experiences, they now make me feel strangely at ease. I have grown increasingly accustomed to the texture and tone of Istanbul. The things that used to baffle, horrify and amaze me have become so normal to me now that I hardly notice them. I have come to find solace in the dirt and the smells, the constant noise and frenzy. Of course, from time to time I become deeply frustrated with how difficult everything seems to here — Istanbul is the very definition of juxtaposition — but I feel at home amid the chaos of this urban space, in all it’s glorious paradoxical charm.

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The mobile food cart at Haciosman metro station is owned and run by two friendly gentlemen, Mohamed and Gulnur, and the food they make and sell is simple but utterly delicious. My work colleagues and I are such regulars customers that Mohamed and Gulnur know exactly what time we will arrive each day and always great us with big smiles. Both men seem so delighted that a group of yabancis has become their most frequent group of customers. Every evening at 18:30 when we get of our school service bus at the entrance to Haciosman metro, Gulnur beckons us towards him, beaming with pride as he bellows “Hosgaldinez” (welcome). On approaching the cart, Mohamed flashes us a shy smile and nods politely as he extends a hand containing a small plastic bowl filled with boiled white rice and shredded roast chicken.

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At this point in the day, I finally relax. The food is homemade and heartwarming — real ‘food for the soul’ grub. At the back end of the cart there is an array of condiments available, including jars of Turkish green pickles, yellow peppers and chilies. I take my chicken rice scattered with as many spicy yellow chilies as I can pile on top and drenched in mayonnaise. It may sound and look disgusting but I think it is the bee’s-knees of simple, home-cooked, Turkish street food.

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The food is served in small half-ball shape portions and cost 3.50 tl per portion. The chicken is soft and flavorsome and the rice is creamy and buttery with boiled chickpeas mingled among it. Seeing as Turks don’t really believe in vegetarianism, if you ask for a portion without meat, Mohamed and Gulnur will simply scoop around the chicken piled up at one side of the rice pan and—voilà!—you have a veggie portion. Haci Osman Pilavcisi’s food is so popular with locals passing by during rush hour that Mohamed and Gulnur have even created a Facebook page for their mobile food stand, which boasts over 420 ‘likes’: https://www.facebook.com/HaciOsmanPilavcisi. The friendly atmosphere and high standard of service that Mohamed and Gulnur uphold has enabled them to create a culture uncommon of the average street food stand in Istanbul. Their customers are not only plentiful, they are also loyal and, like myself and my colleagues, can be counted on to keep coming back for more. Everyday, I glance about and see the same familiar group of commuters huddled around the cart, shovelling chicken rice into their mouths at speed. We are all there, everyday, no matter the weather, for the same reason – we are all really, really hungry after work.

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What I like most about eating at Mohamed and Gulnur’s food cart is the strong sense of community there. Everyone eats together and everyone is welcome, regardless of class, gender, age, or even species, for that matter. Even the street dogs are welcome at Haci Osman Pilavcisi and I routinely see people purchasing whole bowls of chicken rice to feed the hungry stray pups with. While street food sellers in central areas of Istanbul would chase off begging dogs, in the misty mountainous district of Sariyer, man and beast happily dine together.

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As I am sure Mohamed and Gulnur have realised, one of the things that makes Haci Osman Pilavcisi so successful is its location in the remote Northern district of Sariyer. While there are thousands of identical street food stands scattered all over Istanbul, not all of them have managed to cultivate such a great sense of community or highly loyal customer base as Mohamed and Gulnur have. This is because the pace of life is a bit slower up in Haciosman (which happens to be the last stop and farthest point of the city’s Northern metro line). People are not in such a mad rush up there. They know each other and they make time to stop and speak with each other on their way to and from the office. In fact, we all rely so heavily on Mohamed and Gulnur being there to meet us with warm bowls of chicken rice after work, that on the rare occasion that they are not, my colleagues and I literally don’t know what to do with ourselves. The only reason that Mohamed and Gulnur will not set up their stand is if the rain is too heavy during the winter season, yet we all still whine like spoiled little children if we are denied our beloved chicken rice.

My daily dining ritual with Mohamed and Gulnur is now so established that we have even managed to teach each other some basic language skills. While my Turkish is still appalling, neither Mohamed nor Gulnur speak a word of English. Everyday, after I have finished stuffing my face with chicken rice, Mohamed takes my empty bowl away and offers me a peçete (napkin). This routine is in fact how I learned to pronounce the word “Peçete” and how Mohamed learned to pronounce the word “Napkin”, which he very proudly demonstrates for me every evening. Bowing his head as he passes it to me, Mohamed proudly says “Nap-et-ken!”, to which I proudly respond “Pej-ita!”. Then he waves me “Iyi akşamlar” (good evening) with a broad-beaming smile. I respond “Iyi akşamlar” and we part ways, knowing we will do the same familiar dance again tomorrow.

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*A Turkish Delight 

Crossing Borders: A Quick Road Trip From Istanbul to Kavala

 “Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.”

― Jack KerouacOn the Road

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Recently, Oli and I had to start thinking about what to do with our faithful ‘Van of Dreams’, now that we have settled in Istanbul and no longer live on the road. At first, we thought we might be able to keep it parked up within the city, but the insurance and residency issues proved us wrong. We contemplated having the van scrapped, but it was too hard to say goodbye. Just when we had begun to lose hope of ever finding a financially viable solution, our Turkish friends came to the rescue. With their help, we planned to drive the van to Greece and to have a little holiday while we were at it. In homage to our long road trip from Bristol to Istanbul this summer, we would drive the van to the picturesque town of Kavala and leave her there for a long winter sleep.

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Last weekend, we set off along the highway around noon. We drove into the dull afternoon fog, passing through the outskirts of Istanbul with its dilapidated buildings, ancient malls and crumbling shopping complexes, so colossal they could rival any of those in the US. We passed numerous furniture stores, lamp shops, car dealerships, and other mass domestic outlet stores, the kind that tend to border every large metropolis. I peered upward at the half-built skeletons of skyscrapers, leaning upwards into the yellow mist, their turrets piercing the hazy heavens. I smiled at the bizarre sight of numerous street dogs sitting on grassy islands in the middle of the highway, watching the cars zoom by, like kings of their rather spurious castles. Everything is such an eccentric contradiction in terms in Istanbul. The city’s wonderfully mixed landscape results in an incongruous juxtaposition between glamour and lackluster, which has become characteristic of my personal Istanbul experience. In stark contrast to the bustling inner city, many of the outskirt areas look like industrial ghost towns and haunted theme parks, long abandoned by shoppers in some kind of apocalyptic frenzy. The terracotta and pale green high-rises are beyond ugly, with a hint of the communist style about their architecture and posture. The shimmering new-builds intermingled with old 70s structures clash spectacularly with the dirty scaffold-clad cottages and wooden shacks. Yet, there is a kind of harmony to be found within the discord between the urban chaos of Istanbul’s busy core and her bleak peripheries. Indeed, the visual contrast between the inner and outer city is one of the paradoxical factors that makes Istanbul such a fascinating place.

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While the affluent inner city zones of Istanbul have a distinctly European feel to them, the rural areas look more Eastern by comparison. Poverty in the outskirts is far more apparent. As we drove, I watched the rural scenery flash by my window; I saw weather-beaten men with sagging leathery faces sitting outside rickety wooden shacks with glassless windows, clay fields sprouting the odd pitiful crop, black pot-hole-riddled roads, colonies of ancient rusted satellite dishes scattered across every rooftop, horses and carts, twisted and leafless trees, children running back and forth in the dirt and shepherds herding sluggish sheep along the roadside.

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On the whole, the landscape looked more like an Asian countryside than one surrounding a hyper-developed, heaving metropolis. As we drove on towards the Aegean Sea, we approached a stunning skyline punctuated by curvaceous hillsides littered with small houses. The late afternoon sun provided a golden backdrop to the mosques, which towered majestically over the other buildings. Gulls soared low beneath the purple haze of fog, hovering just above the water’s surface. We stopped at a restaurant to eat köfte (traditional Turkish meatballs). We spoke to our waiter about how the meat is sourced and prepared. He told us about the company’s private farm and invited us to visit any time. After lunch, we drove along the waterfront with a clear view of the ocean, waves lapping up to the roadside on our left and flat wasteland to the right. Eventually, the buildings drifted away behind us and the landscape began to simplify. Approaching the Turkish-Greek boarder, we rolled through a patchwork of rich brown and green hillsides, sloping away from us against the foggy horizon.

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Suddenly, our peaceful drive was interrupted. Ahead of us, a huge lorry began jerking aggressively into our lane. Oli managed to overtake it and keep driving, however, while he was watching the lorry speeding behind us in his rear-view mirror, a stray dog wondered into the road in front of us. I yelped “Dog” abruptly and Oli swiftly wrenched the steering wheel to the left. We went swerving violently across the road with a jerk that sent everything in the van, including us, flying. The whole event must have happened over the course of one second, yet it felt like we were moving in slow motion, as though floating within a gravity-less capsule. For a moment I was convinced we were going to crash into the central reservation. But thankfully, after zig-zagging across the road, Oli managed to quickly steer the van back in line and still avoid hitting the dog. Cansue and Gokhan, who were driving ahead of us, witnessed our near death experience in their wing-mirror and immediately phoned to check that we were okay. Frazzled, but unharmed, we continued on our journey Northwest.

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The bronze mud fields surrounding us stretched as far as the eye could see on either side of the highway. The road narrowed as we slipped away from the city, into the country scene, with only the occasional mosque to remind us that we were in fact still in a Muslim country. This was the first time that I had managed to get away into nature since moving to Istanbul. It felt nostalgic and comforting; it reminded me of all those years I spent taking long country walks amid the greenery of Southwest England. Driving through the beauty and peace of hill-slopes, streams and trees made me realise how much I had been craving a getaway from city-life.

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By the time we crossed the Greek border the sun had begun to set. The sky was split into fragments of clotted creamed-like clouds, through which golden beams of light escaped. The Greek landscape is noticeably different from that of Turkey’s. Seemingly, the invisible line that separates cultural and ecological characteristics of the two countries is more visually distinct than one might initially imagine. Having passed through the flat Turkish planes surrounding Istanbul, we began to climb into the relatively mountainous Greek countryside, strewn with poplar and olive trees. Everything was drenched in the warm blue tones unique to Greece. Due to the twilight, sky and land alike were tinged with a beautiful indigo glow. The wavy silhouette of the hills surrounded us as we raced along the smooth European-style motorway.

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At a time when my own mother country is considering leaving the European Union all together, the noticeable difference between non-EU and current EU road systems is striking — for British travellers at least. Suddenly, after crossing the border, the potholes gave way to perfectly tarmacked, smooth roadways; metal barriers and tall, brightly lit street lamps lined every strip, like soldiers standing to attention.

After a long drive, we finally arrived in the gorgeous little coastal town of Kavala, a pretty, hillside settlement where orange trees line the cobbled streets. It was perfect — a welcome sight after growing so used to the hectic mishmash of Istanbul’s inner city network, chock-a-block with obtrusive buildings obscuring every vantage point. While November had been cold and wintery in Istanbul, Kavala’s climate was surprisingly warm for the time of year. The air felt soft around my face and ears like the breeze on a cool summer night. The atmosphere was one of distinct calm. I stepped out of the van and looked around at the glistening lights of the restaurants and hotels that line the coast.

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We checked into our hotel and set off for the Anatolia taverna. We went to meet a friend of Gokhan and Cansu’s called Stavros, who had very kindly offered to store our van at the taverna where he worked. We had dinner together while Stavros played guitar with his band on a small stage by our table. The log fire crackled comfortingly as we gorged ourselves on too much good food and red wine. After his performance, Stavros came to sit with us and we got to talking about Politics — with a capital P. Stavros comes from a small village about 15 kilometers away from Kavala and has lived in the region his whole life. He told us about how scared he feels every day living in Greece at the moment because of the country’s economic situation: “Every day, when you wake up, you never know what the day will bring here”. Stavros’s face was stern when he spoke, his thick eyebrows shadowing piercing dark eyes.

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Oli and I listened intensely as Stavros spoke on about the depressing financial state of Greece and as Gokhan and Cansu told us about how disillusioned Turks feel with their current political party. Of course the conversation naturally moved onto historical relations between the Greek and the Turkish states, which to this day remain anything but simple. Stavros reiterated that alternating periods of mutual hostility and reconciliation have marked the intertwined histories of these neighbouring countries. Ever since Greece won its independence from the Ottoman Empire, the two neighbours have faced each other in four major wars and continued to argue at length about who invented the yaprak sarma (stuffed vine leaves).

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The longstanding Turkish-Greek division has seen both countries suffer mass violence, corruption and prejudice, as well as the genocide of more than 3.5 million Ottoman Greeks, Armenians, and Assyrians, who were killed under the successive Turkish regimes of the Young Turks and Mustafa Kemal. Stavros, Cansu and Gokhan spoke for a long while, in perfect English, reflecting on the relationship between their respective mother countries. We all agreed that both sides have shed much blood, sweat and tears over issues far too complex to summarise or reconcile. However, both the conversation and the wine flowed on.

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Cansu, whose family have owned and run a hotel in Taksim for many years, told us a story about her recent meeting with an elderly Greek in Istanbul, who had “Contacted the hotel’s reservation manager and told him that he used to live in one of the apartments before it was a hotel in the 1960s”. She recalled how wonderfully bizarre it was that “The Greek man and his wife arrived and stayed in room 102, which used to be their living room.” It transpired that when the man had lived on the first floor of the then apartment building as a young teenager, he and Cansu’s great grandparents (who had owned the original apartment building before converting it into a hotel) had been neighbours.

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The old man told Cansu that he had very fond memories of her family. He recalled Cansu’s great-grandmother especially fondly, as during the 60s a law was put into place in Turkey decreeing a wealth tax, which required all non-Turkish citizens to hand over everything they owned to the state. At this time, Cansu’s great-grandmother had helped the Greek man and his family, who had fallen pray to this unjust immigrant tax. Cansu told us that every time the police came to collect the possessions of the Greek man’s family, her great-grandmother would receive a tip off and hide the valuables in her own apartment so that they would not be taken away. However, this way of life was not sustainable and, eventually, the Greek family left Turkey to return to Greece. Cansu told us how “After hearing this story, my mother showed the old Greek man a photograph of her grandparents in their old apartment and he started to weep, along with my mother.” Cansu added that “Still, to this day, the Greek man speaks fluent Turkish, even though he left Istanbul in 1964 with a distinctly Greek accent”. We were all moved by this incredible story of coincidence and remembrance.

At the end of the evening, after we had left the van safely secured at the restaurant with Stavros, we drove back along the coastal road lined with orange trees to our harbourside hotel in Kavala. We bought bottles of lager from a local bakkal (corner shop) and sat by the water and talked and laughed until gone 5am. There is something eerily magical about visiting a summer holiday destination outside of peak season – these tucked away places become the kind of scenic ghost towns of a quiet beauty that cannot be seen or heard when the eyes and ears of the masses are on them.

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The next day, we had the Greek equivalent to a British fry-up for breakfast, took a walk about town, took photos, played with a pack of jovial street dogs and finally headed back on the road to embark upon the six-hour drive home to Istanbul.

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As Oli and I are not yet legal residents in Turkey, we were rather concerned that Turkish border control may not let us back in. Despite us both having residency appointments booked in Istanbul in December, we expected to encounter resistance on attempting to re-enter the country. Luckily for Oli, being half German means that he is exempt from having to buy a tourist visa to enter Turkey. As a tourist from Germany or Switzerland, you can stay in Turkey for up to 90 days without a visa, so within a period of 180 days you may visit multiple times, provided that this 90-day limit is not exceeded. However, as a dirty Brit, I am required to purchase a 20-euro tourist visa before entering the country; my tourist visa expired weeks ago. When we pulled up at the Greek-Turkish border, we all held our breath as Gokhan handed our passports over. To make matters even more tense, we were also smuggling copious amounts of alcohol and tobacco into Istanbul from Greece, which due to Turkey’s alcohol importation tax laws is strictly prohibited. Unbelievably, the officer didn’t notice that my digital visa had expired. I showed him a photo I had taken of the PDF file containing my visa information and he simply stamped my passport and handed it back to me without so much as a raised eyebrow. We were extremely relieved to be allowed to go home and amused by the ridiculous and bureaucratic nature of Turkey’s immigration and border control procedures, which aptly reflect the often relaxed attitude towards upholding rules in Turkey.

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We sped away from the crossing point, excited by our victory. When we finally arrived in Istanbul it was gone 10pm and we all went to eat soup in a rather pricey, but adequately tempting, soup restaurant before heading home to Galata.

*A Random Relish 

Feline Fetish

The Turks really love their cats. In fact, having a strong attachment to feline friends seems to run deep in Turkish culture and in the collective subconscious of Turkish people. From what I’ve seen so far in Istanbul, the feline fetish ranges in each individual from mild adoration to passionate obsession.

Photo by Diane Von Furstenberg

Photos by Diane Von Furstenberg

One of the many things that makes Istanbul unique is that it is positively heaving with street animals of all kinds – stray cats being the dominant species, with numbers that far out reach those of dogs.

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Walking home with two new friends in Galata

Travellers visiting Istanbul will be amazed by the sheer quantity of cats, everywhere. Families of street cats spanning several generations and breads can be spotted navigating the cities urban landscape and wandering the streets day and night.

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Street cats congregating outside my house

Cats occupy every pavement, building, waterfront and treetop, being particularly prevalent in residential areas of the city. One cannot venture outside in Istanbul without encountering cats in harem like quantities; You’ll see them sunbathing on car bonnets, grooming themselves in cool alleyways, begging for scraps at cafe tables, rummaging through bins, play-fighting and taking themselves for leisurely walks amongst the busy Istanbul traffic.

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While it is well-observed that humans throughout history have long adored cats, Istanbul sets a new record for cat worshiping. Turkish men and women alike seem to adore their feline friends with extraordinary enthusiasm. The city’s undeniably cute kitties inspire strong emotions in people. Since moving here I’ve witnessed cat mania on a whole new level. I have seen tourists lying belly down in the dirt in order to capture the perfect cat-shot, macho Turkish men the size of trees practically reduced to tears by a joyful encounter with a fluffy street kitten, and grown women giggling like toddlers as they stop to fuss over a family of sociable alley cats.

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Galata cats at night

Animal life is widespread in Istanbul. As cities go, it really is a jungle out here. In some outskirt areas of the city, including where I work in the northernmost district of Sariyer, there are many cats, dogs, cows and horses that roam the streets unaccompanied, blocking the traffic as they amble about without a care in the world. However, what sets Istanbul’s stray cats apart from the average frail, underfed and flee infested street animals in Turkey is that they seem to retain a higher status. In ancient Egypt, cats were worshiped as representative of Gods; when you see how Istanbul’s street cats behave and are treated by people, it is easy to believe that the Egyptians were on to something. The majority of cats here look extremely well-fed with glossy, clean coats. Considering they are homeless, street cats in Istanbul live relatively luxurious life-styles, always being showered with affection, being given food and having their pictures taken by their human admirers.

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Of course, the presence of street animals in Cities is not unique to Turkey; unlike English cities, street animals thrive in undeveloped and Eastern countries the world over. When I was travelling in Vietnam a few years ago, I encountered many street cats and dogs. However, one of the things that sets Istanbul apart from other Asian cities, and what I like most of all about its urban landscape, is the constant companionship of street animals. To me, this city is the very definition of an ‘urban jungle’; I love the wonderfully bizarre mix of modern, cosmopolitan buildings and dusty dirt roads, potholes and street animals lounging on every corner. I like that in the evening I can be walked home by a pack of playful street dogs the size of wolves, who, after a brief petting will accompany me to my front door. I like that I can be sitting in a cafe and inevitably be surrounded by a swarm of lazy street cats, who brush their soft hair against my ankles as they bask in the afternoon sun.

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photo by Ismail, Istanbul

Unlike in other Eastern countries, most Turks are kind towards street animals in Istanbul, leaving food and water out for them daily and excepting them into their homes and workplaces. During the violent Gezi Park protests in Istanbul, Turks cared for the street animals as well as they did each other, treating them for injuries caused by the tear gas. However, it is distinctly their feline friends that most Turkish people feel a strong affinity with. The excitement (verging on hysteria) that cats evoke in Turkish people, particularly in Turkish woman, supersedes any other animal worship I’ve seen. At times, the Turks’ feline fetish even supersedes the British fascination with dogs. As an avid dog-lover myself, I fully empathise with the feline mania I’ve witnessed in Turkey, which undoubtedly stems from the same universal human desire that also motivates me to fuss over and nurture small, fluffy, cute things. But when I see busy, middle-class Turkish women going out of their way to cross the street and coo over a cute alley cat smothered in bin-juice, I can’t help but wonder whether the hysterical reaction cats evoke in women is entirely justified.

Lady petting cats on Bahariye

Lady petting cats on Bahariye

Don’t get me wrong, I like cats as much as the next animal lover, but are they really so fascinating? When I ask my female Turkish friends why they adore cats so much, some say it has to do with Turkish woman’s inherently maternal nature. They argue that Turkish women act on there instinctive desire to ‘mother’ everything and everybody, which is arguably reinforced by Turkey’s patriarchal culture. They believe that, as with most cultures in the world, Turkish women’s traditional role in the home further conditions them to be nurturing. In Turkish culture, women’s desire to nurture often seems to manifests itself through the act of feeding others. One of the first things most Turkish women will ask when you visit with them is “Did you eat something?”. Similarly, some of my friends think it is “Simply in the nature of woman” to be mothering towards small, helpless, cuddly creatures, like cats. There has been some research that suggests a strong link between women’s maternal instincts and their love of animals. However, cats in particular seem to evoke the strongest response in women. Perhaps cats receive more female attention than other animals because they know how to pull on those maternal heartstrings.

Cute street kitten begging at my feet as I ate my lunch

Cute street kitten begging at my feet as I ate my lunch

It is possible that I judge the Istanbul cat crusaders too harshly. Admittedly, I am definitely more of a ‘dog person’. I can certainly be just as fanatic about dogs as the feline fixated. Whenever I see a street dog I immediately run over to it, get down on my knees and indulge in a rather smelly, but thoroughly satisfying doggie cuddle. In fact, my own dog obsession means that I am constantly covered in all kinds of muck from the street. When I see a big-eyed, mangy wolf, with floppy ears and wagging tail approaching me, I feel a compulsion to throw my arms around it. My love of dogs of every size and description is such that I have to carry anti-bacterial hand-gel with me at all times, in order to avoid contracting any further bouts of food poisoning. Having already suffered severe food poisoning on four separate occasions since moving to Turkey (the second of which saw me briefly hospitalised), I am often berated by friends and colleagues for my frequent fondling of grubby street dogs.

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In spite my own dog mania, something about the way Turkish women in Istanbul react to cats often irritates me. Perhaps this is due to the fact that cat worshiping amongst Turkish women often seems to result in a series of whinny and high-pitched squealing noises: “Aaaa canim pisi pisi, çok güzel!” I just cannot understand the strong appeal of cats over ‘man’s best friend’. But most Turkish women would argue that, as ‘woman’s best friend’ cats are far superior. In some cases, this over-zealous appreciation of cats even affects the way in which women think about men. The other day, I saw a woman on the metro sporting a T-shirt that read: “Never trust a man who doesn’t like cats”. Whether this philosophy is to be taken literally or not, the statement seemed to me to say something more profound than just “cat obsessed and proud”. To me, the words somehow screamed something more complex about how Turks perceive gender roles and romance within their culture. Or, perhaps, Turkish women’s intense petting and admiring of cats reveals something about their intrinsic desire to love and care for something that they perceive to be child-like; or, perhaps Turkish women, like cats, are perceived by their society as also being delicate, domestic creatures that want to be loved, taken good care of, petted. For centuries, cats and women have been associated in artistic representations of femininity and maternity.

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The historical connection that exists between cats and negative female stereotypes, including the lonely spinster, the mad old lady and the evil witch, do not help the image of the contemporary cat-obsessed female. Indeed, single Turkish women often seem to live with multiple cats, as though it were some kind of prerequisite to marriage in Turkey. The ‘crazy cat lady’ has become a modern symbol that derives from a much darker history of the relationship between women and their feline friends. In medieval Europe, cats and women were believed to be in alliance with Satan and as a result the women deemed guilty of such impious conspiracy were burned at the stake and the cats, which were thought to have magical powers, were often also killed. In Paganism and English folklaw, cats were associated with the occult and black magic, and they continue to be associated with contemporary Halloween celebrations. Stories about witches and their feline accomplices are rife throughout history books and range from brutal to plain absurd, proving that society has long been overly suspicious towards women’s special relationship with cats. Just one of the many bizarre examples of this is the extraordinary tale Travesties and Transgressions in Tudor and Stuart England: Tales of Discord and Dissension, by David Cressy, in which he retells how a woman named Agnes Bowker was investigated by the Privy Council of Queen Elizabeth on suspicion on witchcraft after she supposedly gave birth to a cat. Equally the collective hysteria caused by the infamous Salem Witch Trials of 1692 in colonial Massachusetts saw many women and men accused of colluding with Satan — often through the agency of their feline familiars, or other animals helpers — for which they were hanged.

Agnes Bowker's  Cat.

Agnes Bowker’s Cat

1692 Salam Witch Trials

1692 Salam Witch Trials

There are also numerous references to cats throughout Muslim civilisation. In his Muslim Heritage online article Cem Nizamoglu explores the purpose of cats in Islamic culture, arguing that, Cats were very common among the Muslims… for example, Muslim scholars wrote odes for their cats because they protected their precious books from attack by animals such as mice”. Just as the Egyptians did, Muslims have also long regarded cats as spiritual companions. Nizamoglu point out that cats were:

Respected as members of the family and protectors of the houses against deadly insects and harmful animals such as scorpions. More importantly, they were not just companions or pets, they were also examples to Muslims, people who submit themselves to One God”   

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Islamic scholar teaching children

I can certainly believe that the cats of Istanbul submit to only One God — the God of Istanbul. Here stray cats are treated like royalty, compared to dogs, or any other animal. This city is their Kingdom. Despite their homeless status in Istanbul, the street cats here carry a sense of superiority and seem to live in great contentment. So much so, that they can become territorial, often acting as if they own the shop-fronts, stalls and café chairs they frequent daily, chasing off dogs and occupying every spare inch of space. The cat community in Istanbul has become so prolific over the years that filmmakers Charlie Wuppermann and Ceyda Torun are in the process of making a cat documentary called Nine Lives – Cats of Istanbul.

Of all the reasoning over the the significance of cats in society and the extensive exploration into the relationship between humans and cats throughout history, Terry Pratchett’s simple rationale is my favourite:

“In Ancient times cats were worshiped as gods. They have never forgotten this.”

This is certainly true of the Istanbul street cats, who know how ardently they are adored and are quite happy to indulge their human devotees for as long as they continue to worship.

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My breakfast companion last week

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… and lunch companion this week

Whether you are a cat or dog person, if you like animals, you will be in heaven amid the thriving animal kingdom in Istanbul, which somehow manages to flourish, undomesticated, within Istanbul’s massively built-up, over-crowded and harsh urban landscape. I certainly relish the continual presence of both cats and dogs everyday.

The famous Rainbow Steps of Istanbul

The famous Rainbow Steps of Istanbul

‘Ferris Bueller’s’ Day Off

In a city as vast as Istanbul, travelling to and from work each day can really take it out of you. So, last Friday I decided to stay in and get an early night. Little did I know that I would in fact be up until Saturday morning.

Around 9pm I set about the thrilling task of marking homework, preparing lessons and cleaning the house, with a plan to do some writing after. My boyfriend Oli, on the other hand, decided to go out drinking in Taksim with our two good friends Cansu and Gokhan. After a night’s shenanigans, he finally returned at 5am with a not so little surprise…

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In fairness, I was still up writing when I heard Oli’s keys in the front door. But the last thing I expected to see walk into my living room was a beautiful, hazel eyed, white-headed husky. To my utter amazement the huge dog walked towards me and stood — where my boyfriend should have been — and stared at me as if to say, “How do you do?”

I stared back at this great wolf-like creature, and for a split second contemplated the unlikely possibility that Oli had in fact turned into a dog whilst out on the town. As we stood gawking at each other in silence, I had the urge to pinch myself, just to check this was actually a waking-life experience. To my relief, Oli staggered through the door a moment later with a broad grin on his rosy face. The dog lay down and side-glanced at me for a bit, not quite sure what he had walked in to.

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After my initial shock had worn off, Oli explained that he had been walking through Sishane with Cansu and Gokhan when he had noticed the majestic animal. He approached to pet it and got talking to the man he assumed was the dog’s owner. The man was a German-Turkish tourist, who said that the dog had been following him around all day but did not belong to him. The man explained that he was in Istanbul on business and would be returning to Germany on Tuesday. He said that he wanted to give the dog to one of his business associates to take care of. After some debate about what would be in the dog’s best interest, Gokhan managed to convince the tourist to let Oli take the dog home with him. The animal had no collar, so Oli took off his belt and fashioned a lead for him. The two then happily walked side by side back to Galata.

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Oli and I then began debating what on earth to do with the dog, in the event we couldn’t find his owners, if indeed he had any. Entirely unperturbed by us, the happy pup proceeded to make himself at home in our apartment, running around and sniffing every corner and behind each peace of furniture. Contented he had scouted the area for rival animals, he slumped down in a great furry heap on the floor, as if had lived here with us for years. He was extremely affectionate, periodically collapsing at my feet and lifting his paws in hope of a stomach-rub.

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He was utterly adorable and of course, being fanatic dog lovers, both Oli and I immediately began to dote over him. We gave him a bowl of water, fed him soğuk fat left in the pan from our dinner the evening before and sat on the floor petting him for an hour or so. He was clearly no older that a year and very playful. Oli and him darted around the living room playing together like two puppies. Behaviourally speaking, this stray dog bore an uncanny resemblance to our beloved dog George, who sadly we had to leave with family in England when we moved here. George is also a mix-breed and displays many Husky features and characteristics. Both dogs shared the same quirky mannerisms and expressions. Having felt rather dog deprived since moving to Istanbul, it gave us both a happy nostalgia to spend time with a dog like this again.

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We decided that if this lost/stray dog was going to stay with us for the time being we had to give him a temporary name, as calling him “He/The Dog/It” felt far too impersonal. So, we decided to name him Ferris Bueller, after the title character from 80s cult classic Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, in which a charming and opportunistic teenager bunks off from school to go on an adventure through the streets of Chicago.

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Like the original character, Ferris the dog was clearly very intelligent — being a mixed-breed of Husky and German Shepherd. However, it quickly became clear that he did not speak a word of English. We tried our best at Turkish but we mainly communicated with Ferris through a series of “Shhht” and “Tuting” noises. We made him a bed from an old bath mat and placed it outside our room. Concerned that Ferris might not be house trained and may therefore use our living room floor as a toilet during the night, we moved all chewable objects and important possessions onto higher surfaces. We said goodnight and went to get some well needed sleep. In the morning, to our delight and surprise Ferris seemed to have stayed in his bed and resisted the urge to chew or poo.

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As Istanbul is teeming with stray dogs, we had assumed Ferris was one of them. But his behaviour made us all the more certain that he was in fact a ‘house dog’ and therefore had a human family that must be looking for him. So, we decided we had to try our hardest to reunite him with his owners.

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I said my goodbyes to lovely Ferris and set off for a music rehearsal in Şişli. Soon after, Oli and Ferris set off for Taksim to find Ferris’ misplaced family. Oli enlisted the help of our friend Bade and the three of them went from bakal (corner shop) to bakal, talking to people about Ferris in an effort to retrace his footsteps.

When I arrived home that evening, Ferris was gone. The house suddenly felt horribly empty. Oli enthusiastically explained what had happened: First, he recalled how bizarre it was for him to walk such a big dog down Istiklal Avenue (one of the longest and busiest streets in Istanbul). He said that everyone reacted in extremes to Ferris, some stopping to excitedly fuss over him, others frantically diving out of his way in fear. Oli went on to explain how he had wandered around Taksim for hours with Bade and Ferris, asking all the kestaneci, midyeci and simitci’s (street sellers) the same question: “Do you know this dog?” He told me how, just as he was about to give up, go buy Ferris a collar and head back home, a shop-owner exclaimed that he recognised the dog. As the man led Oli and Bade towards Cihangir, Ferris started pulling desperately towards a side street, clearly recognising where he was. The dog guided all three people up to the door of a basement flat, and so Oli apprehensively rang the bell. A man answered, poking his head out suspiciously. Oli described how it was immediately obvious from Ferris’ reaction that this was his home. He started pulling manically on his lead, straining to get inside the house. Although I felt sad that Ferris was no longer with us, I was glad that he had found his way home — with a little help from his friends, of course.

So, unbelievably, after hours of searching in a city of approximately 16 million people, Oli and Bade finally managed to find the owner of Ferris the dog (who it turns out is actually called Pasa). Relieved to have his pet back, Pasa’s owner explained how he often let him wander the streets alone, as do many dog-owners in Istanbul due to the lack of garden space. On his latest walk-about, Pasa had obviously ventured a little too far from his home near Taksim Square. Or, perhaps, he had every intention of bunking-off from his everyday routine and, like his namesake Ferris Bueller, had set out to have an adventure; to make new friends and spend forty eight ours with two random foreigners in Galata. Either way, having Ferris as our surprise late night guest was an absolute pleasure and we certainly hope that he gets lost with us again sometime.

*A Random Relish

The Ghost of Gezi

This Halloween I attended a friend’s party in Taksim dressed as the title character from V For Vendetta. It got me thinking about Gezi and how rapidly time washes away the context of things. While walking through Taksim Square, I asked myself whether the ground beneath me could really be the same pavement that thundered with thousands of protestor’s footsteps; could this peaceful square really be the same one in which such violence and brutality occurred just one year before? The thought made my stomach turn: all those lives lost – all those ghosts.

2013 #occupygezi protest, Taksim Gezi Parkı, Photo posted by Vildan Çetin

2013 #occupygezi protest, Taksim Gezi Parkı, Photo posted by Vildan Çetin

Don’t get me wrong, I love living in Istanbul, for many of the more obvious reasons: the great nightlife, beautiful scenery, rich history, fantastic cuisine, welcoming and hospitable culture etc. However, for me, Turkey is a place full of contradictions. It is a frustrating truth that, as a yabancı (outsider), nothing quite runs smoothly in Istanbul. Here the expat must face the frustrating reality of being reduced to an infantilised state when trying to set up a new life in an entirely unknown environment. For us, everything here seems skewiff somehow. So far, it’s been a bit like existing in a strange wonderland and it often feels like we are running on borrowed time. For a foreigner, everything from buying furniture, phone credit and Internet bundles to opening a bank account, getting health insurance, or arranging residency is difficult. It is also deeply frustrating to me that many Turkish people seem to be unhappy. They often seem downtrodden, frustrated and are incredibly self deprecating. When I complain about this, along with the infuriating extent of Turkish bureaucracy to my native friends, they simply say, “Welcome to Turkey” and seem surprised that I would expect any different.

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Three Monkeys, Image by MauMau

As a proud Bristolian — having lived in the South West practically my whole life and relished the peace and quiet of the city’s plethora of parks, playgrounds, city farms and nature reserves — my recent migration to a large metropolis like Istanbul may not seem the obvious choice. Being one of the largest cities in the world, by population within city limits, to me Istanbul is a shimmering jungle of metal and concrete that makes Bristol feel like a quaint little tea garden. On both the Asian and Europian sides, the City is a sensory banquet of vivid colours and shapes, her eternal chorus of noises overpowering the sound of silence. With a landmass of 5,343 km² and a whopping population of approximately 16 million, the overwhelmingly busy cityscape is at once repelling, enthralling and utterly intoxicating to me. Everywhere I look, as I walk from my house to the Metro everyday, a performance of one sort or another unfolds; with every new glance the eye is drawn to the beautiful, comic and often sobering details of this urban landscape. The simitci and midye dolmaci selling their wares in the street day and night; the dust-covered, mangy-haired street animals and gypsy kids playing on the pavement; the mountainous piles of domestic waste overflowing from open bins onto the roadside; the mounted red flags, winking a star and smiling a half moon as they wave in the autumn breeze.

Eminönü, Istanbul, 2014

Eminönü, Istanbul, 2014

As a new arrival, walking in the streets of a city divided by the gushing waters of the Bosphorus strait flowing through its heart feels almost surreal. Istanbul has a volcanic atmosphere of unpredictability. It feels like a place in which anything could happen. Perhaps the human psyche responds to the tangible electricity generated by living in an earthquake zone? Or perhaps it is electricity left over from the socio-political vibrations caused by the uprising at Gezi Parkı last year.

Taksim Square, 2013 Gezi Park protest, photo by Bulent Kilic

Taksim Square, 2013 Gezi Park protest, photo by Bulent Kilic

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2013 Gezi Park protesters

Oli and I were in Istanbul for a month’s holiday last summer and were caught up in the aftermath of the Gezi riots. When we told friends back home our plans to move to Turkey, they’d reply “Istanbul, really… Are you sure?” I’d smile and say, “Yes!” Because “Yes” is the only answer that really holds any meaning. Yes, Istanbul is the epicentre of an imminent and devastating earthquake that will test the strength of her precariously tall buildings, vast Bosphorus bridges and over 16 million inhabitants. An earthquake that, when it finally comes, could raze this entire city and her people to the ground. Yes, the 2013 Gezi Parkı Movement saw Istanbul rise up against the Islamic ruling of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s corrupt government. Yes, the city suffered riots that lead to months of violent clashes between a brutal Turkish police force and protesters, resulting in unjustified killing and perpetuating political dissent. Yes, Turkey still has an authoritarian government, who has previously tried to ban Twitter and Youtube, and who systematically undermines the freedom of its citizens. Yes, it is true that Istanbul is not a particularly ‘safe’ place for two wide-eyed Brits to shack-up in right now. But where is ‘safe’? Where should one want to be, when the entire world is rife with hardship of one kind or another? England? The Netherlands? On an exotic palm-lined beach somewhere, cocktail in hand? Not us. We wanted Istanbul, and still do, in spite of the various disadvantages of living here.

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2013 Gezi protester temporarily blinded by tear gas

2013 Gezi protester temporarily blinded by tear gas

Despite the media black-out, which forced Turks to resign themselves to the fact that ‘The Revolution [would] not be televised”, the rest the world saw the damage Erdoğan was doing to his people. Yet, today Istanbul seems an unrecognisable place to that which was plastered across Western news channels and papers in 2013. Unsurprisingly, the atmosphere of the city today is vastly different from that of Gezi. But if you stop to look, ghosts can still be seen, wandering through the early morning mist of Taksim Square. While my Turkish friends seem to hold a more cynical view of Istanbul, believing that the average citizen has relapsed into their former complaisance, others believe that the events of Gezi have changed people and irrevocably influence the future of Turkey. I believe that the events of Gezi Parkı created a shift in the attitudes of the Turkish people. At the time, the protest and subsequent riots suggested the emergence of an Istanbul that is evolving from a city divided by class, politics and general indifference to the social inequalities that riddle Turkey, into a place ruled by the people’s passionate resistance against political and religious oppression. I personally believe that the ghost of Gezi still whispers “Revolution” in the ears of those who were there a year before. But it can be difficult to see on a daily basis; the man in the street, the daily commuter, the shopkeeper, the street cleaner and the businessman all seem to carry a mysterious despair in their eyes.

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‘Before being attacked by the police’. Photo: Courtesy of T. Günersel

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The Infamous ‘Occupy Gezi penguin’ symbol, Istanbul street graffiti

On the whole, Turks remain deeply unhappy with their government and their country. The average Turk now carries a sense of the collective shame about his nation because of the barbaric way the AKP party responded to the Gezi movement. Nonetheless, in many positive ways, Istanbul today shares much in common with a Western city like Bristol — not to mention the parallel of both city’s respective protest cultures. The Stokes Croft- type hipster can be seen wondering the trendier areas of Istanbul, like Cihangir, Galata and Karaköy; liberal, artistic, student and expat communities are strong, particularly on the European side, which, paradoxically, is at once the touristic centre and the ‘ground zero’ of Gezi.

'Hipsters', Image courtesy of the Evening Standard

Bristol ‘Hipsters’, Image courtesy of the Evening Standard

The destructive events of the Gezi Parkı riots held the promise of change. At the time, more liberal citizens expressed a hope that Gezi would give rise to a generation of new Turks — revolutionaries, whose recent political and social awakening would define a new community of left-wing thinkers, previously unrepresented in Turkish society. In Istanbul now, whether you are for or against it, the very fact that an uprising against the AKP occurred prompted a shift in Turkey’s political culture. While this fresh chapter in Istanbul’s history has granted the voices of alternative thinkers new political volume and momentum, many of my Turkish friends say that nothing has changed. Most of them now feel so ashamed to call Erdoğan leader (who promoted himself from Prime Minister to President this year) that they can no longer see a future for themselves in Turkey. They fantasise about leaving, while mourning what they believe to be the loss of the secular state Atatürk promoted and the unjust rise of the AKP’s covertly islamic government.

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2013 Gezi Parkı protestor with Turkish flag

I hope that in spite of consistent attempts by the Turkish government to silence its people, Istanbul will continue to resist. I hope that Istanbulians continue to question the status quo in times ahead, as they did during the unrest at Gezi. I have been inspired by the bravery of the Turkish people over the past year. In fact, witnessing the culture of dissent that emerged in Turkey last year only made me want to move here more, to be part of something meaningful. For better or worse, Gezi illuminated Turkish politics, both under the scrutinizing microscope of the international stage and within her people’s consciousness. The riots were the catalyst for Turks to begin reevaluating what it means to be Turkish and what it means to live in a city like Istanbul. At the time, the many people I interviewed on the subject certainly felt that Gezi signified the beginning of a new era for Turkey, all of them repeating the same phrase: “We have finally woken up”. Despite my personal frustrations with negotiating the bureaucracy of living in Turkey today, my initial decision to move to this magnificent city was a spark of inspiration ignited by the same flames that burned in the streets during the riots; the same flames that I hope still burn in the hearts of those revolutionary few who are standing up to demand real change in Turkey.

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 #occupygezi