Dodging tourists in Istanbul

In September last year, on a five-day vacation in Istanbul, my wife and I stumbled upon the Hagia Sofia. The irony here did not escape us, but what mattered more was that we had failed to escape the Hagia Sofia, despite our resolve to stay away from tourists. We were staying away from tourists to avoid the classification: we were travellers. It is a fashionable distinction these days, tourists vs travellers, and on the surface the two appear similar. They aren’t.

Tourists move around in droves, families or groups with a leader, while travellers often are solitary animals. When a tourist is lost, she looks lost, and helpless; to a traveller, being lost marks the beginning of adventure: he relishes it. While the tourist is busy framing postcard snapshots of a monument, the traveller clicks away at a vendor next to its entrance, a bearded old man who palms roasted chestnuts to baffled passersby. The traveller, then, has an eye for the not-so-obvious, an instinct that leads him to interesting corners; the tourist goes where the guidebook takes him, ticking off five more of the 1000-must-see-places-before-you-die. You’ll never spot a traveller on a camel or an elephant (unless this is the lost traveller in the wild); the tourist, especially a mutant common in our networked society, posts a selfie with the camel on Facebook, and every minute of the ride she checks for likes. (Other tourists on her friends-list oblige.) And in Istanbul, the forgotten great city that straddles East and West but belongs to neither, you can find tourists sipping tea on the Bosphorus cruise, haggling for a carpet at the Grand Bazaar, or gazing at murals in the Hagia Sofia, while the traveller finds refuge in the warren of lanes below Galata tower watching the play of commerce that hasn’t changed much in a hundred years, or counting boats crossing the Golden Horn into the Sea or Marmara, or watching a company of middle-aged men taunt a puppy at a shady street corner: pointless things, and the only memories worth returning home with.

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Istanbul’s Hauptstrasse


Living in Germany we’ve grown used to the concept of a pedestrian shopping street at the center of a city or a town. Cities here have an altstadt, with buildings a few centuries old, and the altstadt has a main pedestrian thoroughfare, often the Hauptstrasse, with shops lining both sides. Towns and villages with no distinguishable older sections are also organized (this is Germany) around a Hauptstrasse. The Hauptstrasse in Wiesloch, the provincial town I live in, is a kilometer long traffic-free cobblestoned stretch that features cafes, restaurants, bakeries, beauty salons, pharmacies (one of which claims to be the world’s first fuel station), a bank, a post office, and a variety of large and small shops. This is the town center. Locals come here to socialize, to buy the daily newspaper or brotchens, to chat with shopkeepers. On Thursdays a vegetable market springs up in a nearby square. During summer festivals spread their stalls in and around the Hauptstrasse. Nothing much happens elsewhere in Wiesloch. In Heidelberg, where the Hauptstrasse runs parallel to the Neckar for a couple of kilometers, the scene is metropolitan. Tourists and locals walk in droves all year, shopping, eating, sightseeing. In Mannheim, another city nearby, the pedestrian shopping street is called Planken, and it features a tram line.

This familiarity with the pedestrian shopping street leads us to seek similar avenues in the cities we visit. In Europe this is easy, but in the U.S., where the historical core (the “downtown”) of most cities is now a business district with high-rise buildings, there is no Hauptstrasse. (Moreover, the only pedestrian streets in the U.S. are all in Disneyland.) Indian cities feature commercial districts or famous roads (like the Marine Drive, or the ubiquitous M.G.Road), but I know of no main pedestrian shopping street through a historical center. What about Istanbul?

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Istanbul scenes – 4



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Our hotel was in a run-down neighbourhood in Beyoglu, not far from the touristy Istiklal Caddesi. The four storey building had been renovated, inside and outside, and it stood like a white swan (the hotel’s name) amid colourless starving ducks. Fifty meters away began an area with gutted buildings and crumbling facades. Opposite this partially demolished stretch was a thriving community: kids playing soccer on the streets, clotheslines across balconies facing each other (an image from Venice, with clotheslines across canals), groceries and vegetable shops with half the wares displayed outside, cars and vans winding through narrow lanes. This could have been a scene in old Delhi.

I later learned that this area, Tarlabaşı, was designated for “urban renewal”: eviction of the residents, demolition of old buildings, construction of new area that would, in the words of Beyoglu’s mayor, “rival the Champs-Élysées in Paris.” At stake here was the preservation of a vibrant culture of migrant workers from eastern Turkey (who moved into the area after the original settlers, Greek, Jewish and Armenian craftsmen, were driven out by riots against non-muslims in 1955), and “210 historic Ottoman era buildings.” A familiar conflict between the commercial interests of the elites and the survival of the marginalised, with a mix of history and politics thrown in.

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Istanbul scenes – 2

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On Wednesday morning, our fourth in Istanbul, P. and I found ourselves sitting on the floor in a ballet class with teenage boys and girls. The instructor, a short, wiry woman in her forties, demonstrated each step and spoke a few words in Turkish (of which we understood nothing), switched on the music — a piece of Chopin or Tchaikovsky or another modern classical composition — and said “Hazir”. The students, six boys and eight girls, stood on three sides of the rectangular studio holding with one hand the horizontal bar. While they performed, some with more precision and elan than others, the instructor gave verbal cues for the steps to follow. This pattern recurred several times, each with a different sequence, before a break was announced. But this was no real break: the students began stretching exercises, arching and bending their impossibly flexible young bodies.

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Istanbul ahead



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We returned last Sunday after a week in Istanbul. The visit wasn’t planned much in advance. A business trip to the city appeared in my wife’s calendar at short notice, and I decided to take a few days off to travel with her.

We traveled light – two half-empty suitcases – but in our minds we carried a ton of images, impressions of Turkey accumulated over a decade of living in Germany (where Turks are the largest immigrant community, a working class engaged largely in manual labour), impressions gleaned from Turkey dispatches in The Economist, from the movies and photographs of Nuri Bilge Ceylan, and the books of a Nobel laureate I shall try not to mention in the forthcoming posts about the city. Some of these impressions were challenged soon after we landed at Ataturk International airport. This was not a conservative muslim country full of women in headscarves. (About ten percent of the women we saw through the week wore them.) This was not a city full of chaotic traffic and streets choked with peddlers, vendors, and customers. (Such scenes existed, yes, and they were charming, but alongside them were areas more modern than parts of affluent Germany.) And the people! Why did we not expect the warmth and curiosity we were met with through the week? Living in Germany and traveling through Europe had plastered our minds with a set of behaviours we expected from locals; Istanbulites surprised us, delighted us, from our first day to the last. So did the cats in the city: never before had I seen so many cats in a week.

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