My first night in Istanbul I went up to my hotel’s rooftop in Sultanahmet to celebrate having just completed a two-week hike in southern Turkey. It was sunset, and the city was wrapped in soft cashmere blue and rose light. The Suleymaniye Mosque glowed to my right, and in the distance other minarets and domes had a similarly enchanting light. Something tightened in my chest, my lip quivered and my eyes welled up with tears. An ancient yet familiar longing passed through me, a breeze in my ribcage that was over before I could give it a name.
I had planned to stay in Istanbul just ten days, but nearly a month later my feet remained firmly planted on the city’s narrow sidewalks. In just some weeks a room I rented began to feel like home and the young doctor who was my host had become a friend. In the mornings, I would make us coffee before Hatira walked to work. At night she would make chai and we would talk over glasses of chai. I knew all the cats on our street. The old man at the vegetable stand gave me a silent nod when I walked past him. I had intimate dinner parties to go to on Friday nights. I left notes for a friend in a coffee shop in Galata where they knew both of us by name .I celebrated a new friend’s birthday with a glass of raki and a plate of grilled bonito in a tiny café with an unremarkable entrance and a spectacular view. I had my favorite rooftop restaurant where I could grab a sunset glass of wine and a platter of local cheeses. I even befriended a Turkish Airlines pilot and spent an evening with her and her husband watching their wedding video. In short, without planning to, I found myself with a vibrant and complete life in a city I was only ever meant to pass through. When it was finally time to go, soaring above the city on a flight to India, I looked down at the lights of Istanbul and felt a now familiar knot in my chest. That I would return, and soon felt undeniable.
Just over a year later, I am writing this from my own apartment on that same quiet street where my friend the doctor and I used to drink chai late in the evenings. We still do, except now we take turns playing hostess. We’ve each adopted one of the cats that laze on our streets. Just a couple of weeks ago my new kitten and I shared our first sighting of snow in Istanbul on our way to the vet’s office in Cihangir. The white flakes delighting both of us in equal measure. My friends have grown in number and diversity. They are lawyers, poets, photographers and art curators; French, Turkish, Syrian, American and Italian. My life is filled to the brim and still Istanbul unravels and reveals more and more threads to follow to new experiences – Hüsnü Şenlendirici is the only clarinet player I’ve ever seen treated like a rock star, an outdoor photography exhibit in cargo containers haunts me months later with its honesty. The city has me hooked. Why Istanbul? Why not any of the dozens of cities I’ve traveled to before?
Every morning I wake up and the city asks me, “Who are you today?” It doesn’t care who I’ve been, it finds it tedious and boring to listen to me talk about who I want to be, or even who I should be. My answer is always different. Some days I am a spiritual being, wrapped up in Rumi verses, watching the dervishes spin their divinity at the Galata Mevlevihanesi. On Thursday, I might be a purveyor of art wandering the rooms of Istanbul Modern. Every day I am a foodie, reveling in frothy ayran from a copper cup, a bowl of red lentils with a squeeze of lemon, and oily sardines at the height of the winter fish season. On Fridays, I put on my red dress with a billowy skirt and dance to the beat of a drum and the burst of a saxophone in a smoky club. When friends come to visit, I become a time-traveler, absorbing the energy of centuries on warm marble in a hammam, tracing my fingers along the walls of the Hagia Sophia, getting entranced by the weight of history, trying to imagine, no, remember what it was like. Because that is the magic of Istanbul, a collision of what has been, what is, and the hint of what still might come to pass, a shared memory contained in a city just big enough to hold it all. That, I think, is what I began to sense as I looked out over the city the very first night. Being in Istanbul doesn’t feel so much like discovering a never before seen place, rather it feels like the rediscovery of a long-forgotten self, the way it feels to return to a place you haven’t seen since childhood, after both of you have changed. There is a dreamlike quality to the city, familiar yet different, like the local seagulls that caught in the moonlight look like falling stars.
Soon the air will start to smell like spring. The tulips will bloom in the gardens of the Süleymaniye Mosque, outdoor swing dancing will resume along the water in Kadikoy and the markets will fill up with sour plums and fresh garlic. The balcony in my apartment, now just empty iron lattice, will be filled with gardenias, a lemon tree and rooted herbs from the plant market next to the Spice Bazaar. I will wake up and open up my windows, letting in the call of prayer from the neighbourhood mosque, the low hum of traffic a few streets away and the street peddler’s reverberating offers of fresh-baked simit. And then Istanbul will ask, as it always does, “Who are you today?”
by MASHA VAPNITCHNAIA