A Trip to Istanbul
By Jesse Mathison
In early January I departed for Europe with a small backpack, a thin jacket, and a vague idea as to where I was going and what, exactly, I was doing. I had quit my job two months prior to leaving and, as I didn’t see the immediate need to look for a new one, I moved out of my house a few days before departure to help cover the costs; it adds a nice does of reality, being jobless, homeless, and almost out of money. And besides, what good adventure begins with an excess of property, concrete plans, and wealth? Well, there are numerous examples, really, but that’s all beside the point.
So. Three planes and sixteen hours after leaving Nashville I arrive in Istanbul, one of the most interesting and beautiful cities I’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting. Of course it is the meeting point of East and West, both in terms of culture and geography, and the city possesses some of the most beautiful and astounding architecture in the world (Hagia Sofia, the Blue Mosque, etc…), but what captivates me most is something largely intangible; calls to prayer early in the morning, the sound of gulls flying over the bay, narrow and labyrinthine streets. I suppose it is the feel of the city. Here is this place that has existed, in one form or another, for over 2,500 years. The history is nearly palpable. And here you are, in the midst of 20 million people, another person passing through, all of us with our own dreams and narratives, our own ideas about everything.
A few days and many cups of Turkish coffee later, I have explored the European side of the city, spending hours backtracking and losing my way through the sometimes narrow corridors; Istanbul shifts from quiet and forlorn to vibrant and exquisite within a matter of blocks. You can feel alone and isolated as you walk through alleyways and cobbled roads, in the midst of something so foreign and humbling, without another person in sight. But then you turn a corner and abruptly find yourself in a large avenue, teeming with thousands or tens of thousands of people, with spice markets, cafes, and palm trees. Yet soon a mysterious and irresistible wanderlust overtakes me, and the desire to see what is around the next bend is overpowering. So after harrowing rides in taxis (where lanes are merely suggestions), drinks on hidden rooftop terraces with beautiful views of the city, and clumsy conversations in broken Turkish, I head north.
After the first few stops I am the only passenger left on the bus; it is past midnight and I find myself sitting up front with the driver as we nonchalantly make our way through snowy back roads. He offers me coffee and cigarettes, and we attempt to have a conversation, though as he doesn’t speak English and my Turkish is mediocre, if I am being generous, our repartee isn’t what you would call effervescent or lively. But the coffee was enough to maintain my coherency for a few hours more and eventually I stumble off the bus and into Sofia, Bulgaria at about three in the morning, without a map or an address, having only a few notes I had hastily scribbled down in Istanbul. It seems that I make this a habit, being unprepared. Anyways…
Bulgaria: grey and cold, then it snowed and was rather beautiful, but by the third day it was not only grey and cold, but damp and slushy as well. The people rarely smile, the trams are caked with layers of smoke or smog, and a two-liter beer costs about $1.25, which seems a positive until I wake up on a couch at two the next afternoon, surrounded by people speaking Dutch and generally not seeming to mind that I had passed out on their couch. Lesson learned: don’t drink a two-liter beer that costs $1.25.
Later that night as I am considering my options I run into Mischa, a sarcastic and somewhat pretentious Australian I had met in Istanbul, and after a brief talk we decide to head to Belgrade. If you have no plan and don’t prepare, it seems that opportunities always present themselves.
Part 2: On To Belgrade
Part 3: Berlin and Paris
Photos by Jesse Mathison.
Pictured: The Grand Bazaar, Hagia Sophia, and two street shots (all in Istanbul) and Rila Monastery in Bulgaria.