After 30 years, this columnist finds much has changed in Istanbul; what remains unchanged is the pleasure of losing yourself in this city
After 30 years (and five months) I was in Istanbul again last week. The first time, I was a student in London and the University was offering special winter break fares but instead of visiting Paris or Berlin or Madrid, I came under the influence of the ‘South Asian’ Sirens at SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies) who said of Turkey’s historic metropolis the magic words: “You must go.” This time I was part of a wonky conference of old men trying to find answers to tricky eternal questions. Three decades ago, the days spent in Istanbul bookended a trip to Ankara and the sleepy Mediterranean coast; this time I spent two days inside a Socratic dialogue inside a hotel before I got around to walking up and down this pedestrian-friendly city. The visit was refreshing but also offered a Proustian moment to reflect on the passage of time.
The Bosphorus has been a silent witness as Istanbul has grown and changed over the decades. Pic/Getty Images
I found that my 30-year-old memory of Istanbul was actually upside-down. Back then, I did not stay in a corporate hotel for accidental tourists, but in a youth hostel; I was not armed with Google Maps but with a pocket-sized Berlitz Turkish phrase book. The youth hostel lay north of the Golden Horn, a waterway that penetrates the European side of Istanbul, and north of Taksim square. The corporate hotel is south of the Horn; from here you can see the Sea of Marmara, and walk to the historic peninsula where you have the Sultan Ahmet (Blue) Mosque, the Hagia Sophia (a church built when the city was Constantinople but was converted to a mosque when it became the seat of the Ottoman Empire), the Suleiman Mosque, and the Topkapi Palace. In my memory, the majestic mosques sit across the water, somehow north of the centre; perhaps memory turned the youth hostel into a default centre of the city, even though I might have intellectually known that the historic peninsula was in almost all regards — economic, cultural, historic, political — the centre of Turkey. The only constant over time was that across the wide expanse that is the Bosphorus, lay Asia.
Like other cities that have prospered in the past three decades, Istanbul is more modern than I remember. Back then there was no modern tramway, though the historic tram ran on Istiklal Caddesi (Independence Avenue), a famous street lined with buildings from the Ottomon era. I don’t recall any Metro either. In December 1985, I had to ferry across the Bosphorus to the Haydarpasa station, where the Orient Express had less than a decade back stopped arriving, in order to board a night train to Ankara. The waterfront was less developed, and I remember a meal there of Turkish buns with a fried heap of tiny fish; what remains the same in 2016 are the ubiquitous urban fishermen. Also withstanding time’s torrent is the Grand Bazaar, where the same nasal voice calls out to you, “my friend, my friend, let me show you a carpet.” Time’s only ravage at the Bazaar is the narrowing of wares on sale; it is now mostly jewellery and souvenir stalls.
I also found that in some respects, Oscar Wilde was wrong: youth is not wasted on the young. Back when I was a student, people of all ages were willing to talk: students, travelling businessmen, and once, on a ferry across the Sea of Marmara back to Istanbul, a sailor reeking of alcohol and aniseed who insisted I accompany him to a house of ill-repute. This time the only people opening up to me were youngsters who exuded cheery, guileless brotherhood. Men closer my age spoke sparingly and cynically. (Perhaps they were Erdogan-bhakts.) A teen at Taksim square tried to give me a high five or something and I had no idea how I should respond. I asked two fellas watching a street musician what instrument he was playing — it looked like a gigantic turtle’s shell — and they effusively told me that they did not know. A young Congolese wondered if I was from Uttam Nagar. Also, during my first four decades, it was given that young women would exchange glances with me; nowadays, I do not exist even for beautiful women my own age. Rats.
In travel, you can lose yourself. Thirty years ago, I joined a throng of young men streaming into an Ankara stadium where we watched a football match. No one spoke English, and I had no idea what teams played. It did not matter. I simply went with the flow, enjoying the fluid movement of players chasing the ball. Similarly, when this time I sat by the waterfront and watched the Istanbullar walk by, not knowing who they are or where they go, I simply went with the flow, my routine stresses and responsibilities momentarily suspended, watching humanity’s fluid movement forward.
Senior journalist Aditya Sinha is a contributor to the recently published anthology House Spirit: Drinking in India. He tweets @autumnshade. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org