Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Watching the World Go By at Pierre Loti

A small lull in the pedestrian traffic as the tram goes by the cafe where I'm working.
So while our hotel's internet access has proven to be one of the great mysteries surrounding the city of Istanbul, I have finally found the alternative I have been looking for.  Tonight, I sit in a nearby cafe on the busiest street in Sultanamet.  As I type, tweet, post to Facebook, load and organize photos, and otherwise control my little digital empire, the whole world (or at least half of Istanbul) seems to go by.

After being here for about ten days, I feel like it is possible to be a bit more reflective about what I've seen and experienced.  This post may seem like a wide variety of disconnected ideas, but here are some observations from the last week and a half in Istanbul.

Ability to Navigate (and Function) within the City
Istanbul is a chaotic, busy, and frequently loud place.  Upon arrival last week, the sheer masses of people, as well as the constant barrage of hawkers promising terrific deals on carpets, souvenirs, or food, made one wonder if there was any peace to be found within the city.  It felt like you couldn't walk five feet without being literally asked in a good-natured way, "How can I rip you off today, sir?".

Fast forward to today...the geography of the city lends itself to incredible walk-ability provided one avoids the trams, cars, pedestrians, and other obstacles.  Distances across various parts of the city are not vast.  In addition, the great mosques, monuments, and the sea provide excellent landmarks to orient oneself.  As my mental map of the city has become increasingly refined, I've noticed that the hawkers pay less attention to me as I walk with far more of a purpose than earlier in the program.

Good Nature and Humor
I truly have encountered incredible hospitality throughout the city.  While many times outreach may be tied to the prospect of financial profit, I have found the assistance to be rather genuine.  A friend of mine in this program wanted to buy a public transit card, but didn't know where to purchase one.  She asked a young man, and he escorted our group to several small shops that were supposed to sell them.  Each one was sold out, but he persisted until we found the card she was looking for.  He stood to gain nothing in this venture, but just wanted to help.  I've seen museum security guards sneak into and "photobomb" pictures, smiling and laughing the entire time.  I've also seen these same museum guards invite small children to play and splash in small fountains.  Hoping to share in this spirit, I felt like I'd achieved pseudo-local status today when I helped a tourist find where he was at in the city.

Plain, Unsweetened Yogurt: The Perfect Compliment to Kebab!

Chicken kebab wrapped in bread with tomatoes, peppers, and yogurt

Throughout this trip, I've tried eat as wide a variety of dishes as possible.  It took over a week, but I've finally discovered the wonders of plain, unsweetened yogurt on seasoned lamb or chicken.  Think of it as a slightly more healthy (I hope!) sour cream covering everything.  Does it get any better?  The food has been fantastic, and I couldn't be more happy to have another week and a half of Turkish food.

Historical Revelations
Obviously, my time spent here in Istanbul is supposed to be about the role of this city as a crossroads of East and West.  To that end, I am thrilled at how much I've learned about the Romans, Byzantines, Ottomans, Venetians, Genoese, and others who impacted this city and course of world history.  This is a city with layers upon layers of history, and through the help of incredible teachers, readings, and site visits, we've begun to peel back the layers.  The beauty in trying to understand this world, including the past, present, and future, is when patterns and connections start to take shape.  Just looking out from the terrace of my hotel over breakfast, one can see a Byzantine Church (Hagia Sophia) turned mosque, turned museum, with the incredible Blue Mosque sitting beside it.  In front, is the Roman Hippodrome, and across the Golden Horn is the Genoese Galata Tower.  Seemingly everyone has left an imprint on this city.  Tracing these developments not only makes the past infinitely more comprehensible, but also helps make sense of current issues facing this city, country, and larger world.  Next week, we begin looking more at those modern Turkish issues, but even informal conversations has begun to shed light on the opportunities and challenges of the present.

The Journey Continues...


  1. Great narrative Kevin. I have really enjoyed reading your posts and am enjoying Istanbul vicariously through you. Keep them coming.

  2. Thanks for sharing this Kevin! Love the food picture--Yum.

  3. Thanks! Trying to share as much as possible. We're learning an incredible amount from some really gifted professors. It is also a pretty dynamic group of teachers, so lots to learn from everyone.