I’ve now been in Istanbul for 48 hours.
It’s scary to say because it seems like it has been a month. I suppose it helps to add the 18 or so hours of travelling along with it. Big shout-out to Turkish Airlines for being incredible. Very comfortable plane with lots of leg room, really good service, and large tablet-like TV that I never used, though it included a USB charger which helped save my phone battery through the following day. I’ve also never seen alcohol given out for free on a flight before. While I did not partake, looking back it may have helped me sleep more than three hours.
We made it through customs in one piece and found our driver and guide for the following week, Burak, who led us to the van for the trip to the hotel. The traffic hits you immediately- the sheer amount of cars on the road is unbelievable, and we had a taste of that in the pickup zone. Watching large buses and taxis maneuver and fight for the smallest possible spaces was a sight I haven’t seen before and a good indicator for the trip.
There are only two East-West highways in Istanbul. The E80 is in the northern part of the city. We took the E5, which runs straight through it. For someone who has been to NYC once and avoids Boston as much as possible, the size of the city is overwhelming. Buildings are practically on top of one another and empty space is nonexistent. The airport is miles away from the old district and yet, there are high rises and skyscrapers everywhere. The city has doubled in size in 15 years. It’s an astounding fact for any city, but when you’re talking nine million additional people, it’s a wonder anything in the city is operational. The E5 exemplifies that feeling. It’s stop-and-go, every vehicle for itself all hours of the day. I don’t normally get motion sickness, but I was feeling it throughout the hour-long journey.
We are staying on the Asian (Anatolian) side of the city for the next week, in the neighborhood of Kadikoy. It’s a 500,000 resident, old-meets-new district, with a modern transportation network and a massive cobblestone-lined agora selling everything from antique books to fish. The Bella Otel is two blocks away from both. In between orientation sessions, we’ve spent hours wandering the market area and watching ferries go in and out of the terminal. Kadikoy is well connected to the rest of the city- ferries can take you to any of the other neighborhoods along the water, while buses and taxis will get you to the rest. The Germans built a large train station to connect the city to Iraq (presumably for the oil) and another is under construction to get you to Europe. It’s chaotic but works, especially for the 1.5 million people who use it to get to the European side every day.
I’ve never been good at sleeping abroad so I brought some ear plugs this time around, and I can already tell it’s going to be the best move I made. They call New York the city that never sleeps back in the US, but clearly whoever coined that has never been here. One building blocks our window from a major intersection and the ferry terminal, and between the taxis and the ferry, the horns never stop.
One of the highlights of this experience is going to be the food. I don’t think I was prepared for the diet change. I knew it was going to be different, but it feels completely opposite what the average American eats. Cheese, olives, tomatoes, and fruit for breakfast. Lunch can be anything and everything, but usually involves some form of bread. As for dinner, the traditional meal involves meat, fish, or both, as well as Raki, a licorice-flavored alcohol that’s mixed with water and ice. I will be sticking to water this semester, and perhaps Aryan, a liquefied version of salty yoghurt.
I think many people back in the US wonder about security here, especially after the bombing two weeks ago. I don’t think I’ve been here enough to gain a clear understanding of everything, but given the size of this city and the number of people, no one should use the incident to generalize Istanbul. It was a relatively small event in the center of the tourist district, which feels a world away from the fruit stands of Kadikoy. Still, security is tight. Airports and major shopping areas are all guarded by a TSA-like system of metal detectors, and we’ve been strongly urged to stay away from Taksim at night, a “fun” district that’s attracted many refugees and people looking for trouble.
Final note: It snows here more than it does in Syracuse. It just doesn't stick.