The best and most memorable events in my life have a weird habit – they tend to happen by chance. By pure chance I once had a free weekend, it was a totally random decision to spend it at my parents’, the only place where I watch television, and of course no one could foresee that I would watch news and see a report about Princess Elena, a cruise ship that takes idle vacationers from Giurgiuleşti, a brand-new international sea port, to Istanbul and back. And these random causes resulted in a rather concrete effect. I felt a strong desire to see Istanbul – the first of the places I’ve never been to. So, I talked my friend into this adventure, bought the tickets, and on one fine noon we were already boarding the Princess that was standing in its slightly battered splendor at the berth – the only one berth for now – in the newborn port. Thus, I have both confirmed my reputation of a woman of action and had a vacation to remember.
Savage Seljuk Turks were keeping their harems
There was one more reason that made me pick up the phone, dial a number and order tickets to a two-bed cabin on deck B. After reading a fair bit of romance novels, I learned that when someone hurts your heart, you have to leave the place where all the drama actually happened. And trust my expertise and me – if you have blond hair, a fair complexion, and a voluptuous figure, you should go due east. Our blonde sisters were highly appreciated there as early as in those ancient times when the Paleologos were ruling Constantinople, and the savage Seljuk Turks were keeping their harems in tents in the Anatolia prairies. The harems have long ceased to exist, the plural marriages were banned in the 1930’s (although I don’t think the hot Turkish guys were very happy about this idea of Atatürk – after all, it’s hard to debate the fact that polygamy has a certain fun in it). Today Turkey is more European than Europe itself, but the fame of the red-haired Haseki Hürrem, i.e. Roxelana, is alive and well. It is odd that such an ambiguous historic figure is so much loved by the Istanbul people – there is the Haseki district, the Haseki street, and her burial vault stands proudly near the mausoleum of her hubby, Suleiman I The Magnificent. It’s just weird that such a patriarchal people treat with so much respect the feminine essence embodied in one woman. Our guide Ibrahim mentioned Roxelana about fifty times in the very least. Well, she was beautiful, so… I can’t say the same about myself, but the Turks probably had a different opinion. In two and a half days there was so much balm poured on my wounds that I could have opened a balm shop. We women don’t need notches on the bedpost in order to feel good. A look, a compliment, a click of the tongue, a gaping mouth is sufficient for us. But this is my usual rhetoric blooming on guilt, fat like black earth. And this is not supposed to be a story about me; it is a story about the beautiful city of Istanbul.
I believe in almighty fate
As for the heart, if not broken, then pretty much chipped, the Turks have a notion, publicised to the max – kismet, which means “destiny, fate”. If I were purely Russian, I would probably drain a shot of vodka, say “It’s not meant to be”, and stay home. But I don’t really like vodka, and I do believe in the almighty fate, but not blindly. I’m an adept of the theory of forging your own happiness, but… there are times when the fire in the forge dies out, the hammer becomes too heavy to lift, and it’s too hard to blow the bellows… And still, despite all the difficulties, despite the pain, despite the cynicism that gets stronger and denser with the years, like cognac in an oak barrel, I waited in a small line to the Wish Column in Hagia Sophia (or the Sweating Column – it regularly gets covered in water drops of unknown origin), and completed the wish-making ritual in strict compliance with the rules. Our guide Ibrahim told us how to do it. “Put your thumb in the hole, and turn your palm to 360 degrees. At that, don’t move your legs and torso, or else the wish won’t come true.” An amazing naïveté for a guide, but it had just added color to this rather surrealistic scene.
Hagia Sophia, a man-made miracle
It is quite easy to turn your palm when keeping your thumb in the hole in the column. If you get the chance to go to Istanbul, visit Hagia Sophia and try. After all, there was a time when this temple-slash-mosque-slash-museum hosted real miracles. I’m not going to retell the travel guide here, let me just say this: Hagia Sophia is a great man-made miracle per se. When you get inside, you feel like a small insignificant little bug, literally nil, in front of the power of the time and of the human genius. Of course, some day this majestic building will turn into dust, too, but it will take a long, long time. And now… Imagine a Christian temple with a round dome (duly surrounded by minarets – Mohammed Fatih’s horse hoofed the marble floor in the greatest sanctuary of Constantine’s city for good reason, a big and Muslim reason). The temple rises to the height of a fifteen-story building, and somewhere in the middle it is surrounded by a mezzanine where tourists and ghosts mingle at leisure. And there are no words to describe the icons made in golden and colored mosaic. I stood in front of an icon depicting Christ for about half an hour, forgetting about the group, the guide, the crowds around, forgetting about my own self… I had the feeling that He posed for the artist Himself. Let the genetic engineers and hot news lovers say whatever they want, about Jesus being a typical Semite, dark-haired, with a thick nose and a bushy beard. For me personally He will always look like the man on the Hagia Sophia icon – fair, handsome, sad, with the kindness and the wisdom of the entire universe in His eyes.
The goddess of love was a real bitch
After making a mental sacrifice to the Wish Column, I walked round the mezzanine, following the jean-clad back of our guide, thinking already about Confucius and his warning: “Beware the wishes, they sometimes come true”. And I was thinking: do I really need the wished one? Actually, I’m ready to take a risk, provided that the column fulfills its part of the deal. After all, disappointment in men is a kind of sport, too, a blood sport when you come to think of it. In fact, the ancient Greeks already knew that the goddess of love was a real bitch, and her sidekick with bow and arrow wasn’t a better person. And what is more, now they use the new technologies in their doings. Really, the polygamy had a grain of common sense in it. The Prophet Mohammed himself had several wives, although back then the Shari’ah didn’t exist even as a project yet. I saw the relics of this very prophet in the relic museum at the Topkapı Sultan Palace. He was probably turning in his shrine at the sight of Northern girls, bare-shouldered because of the heat. And the Turkish women wearing black scarves, dark pants and long-sleeved blouses were probably jealous of us wearing tank tops and mini skirts. In fact, there are very few women on the streets in Istanbul, except for the tourists. They are probably at home, in the women’s wing, putting pearl necklaces on their necks, painting their nails red, taking care of children and ordering the maids around, as it becomes a normal Turkish wife. And this probably makes the great reformer Mustafa Kemal Atatürk twist in his grave in his turn.
All things are in perfect harmony
The heat and the sun, the colors and the noise of Istanbul streets seemed to be a different world after the solemn silence of Hagia Sophia, a silence heavy with the burden of centuries – those enormous spaces and stone walls were absorbing even the usual tourist buzzing, although they were maybe silent, subdued by the grandeur of the temple. Those who say that Istanbul is a city of contrasts are wrong. All the things there are in perfect harmony. If you walk on a cobblestone street, you will see high buildings dominating the narrow walk, battered shops and signboards, the smell of dust, spices and cats. If you walk into a mosque, you will hear the muezzin, punctual like a cuckoo in a grandfather clock, you will see colored tiles, soft carpets and will feel a strong smell of socks. If you pass by a square, you will see clean pavement, an obscure obelisk, pigeons, tourists, stands where you can buy fried corn or bagels, and thousands of flowers. The flowers of Istanbul deserve do be described in a separate essay, but to give them justice a thick volume would be the ticket. I never knew there were tulips of such colors and petals of such forms. And the wild, almost acid violet of the pansies couldn’t have been reproduced by the most skillful Photoshop handlers in their sweetest dreams. Moreover, the flowers are not planted at random along the streets. No, the sequence of colors, the forms of flowerbeds and the sorts of flowers are marked by such perfect harmony, such incredible and fine sense of taste, aesthetics, and botany to give the feeling of indescribable happiness similar to that generated by endorphins. And if you get to think about it, this happiness is caused by realising that when the nature and the man are working together, the result of their work is something so entrancing and perfect that the writer is at loss what to write and the artist is at loss how to paint… And the main thing is that neither the nature nor the man, working separately, would have come to create something on a par. I, the clumsiest photographer ever, have never regretted so much about not having a camera at hand, even the poorest one, even the cell phone that was getting bored alone in my cabin. Then I would be able to show pictures, say “cool flowers”, and get it over with, without sweating in the search of metaphors and comparisons. Actually, pictures of Istanbul parks can be found on the Internet, and they are probably made by much better photographers than me, a Quasimodo of photography, and my – ha, ha! – priceless prose is a much scarcer commodity, which is actually no reason to be happy about. Well, guys, what else can I say – the flowers in Istanbul are mega. Even the rainbow in the sky would be so jealous that it would twist into a spiral at the sight of them. And all this beauty is confined by the flowerbeds along the streets, but we have also seen parks where this splendor is arranged with a truly Oriental magnificence. First, there are literally millions of flowers; second, they are complete with trees in pink bloom, sycamores and cypresses, fountains and wooden benches where mommies, bungled in to their noses, rest with their babies in trolleys. This is some sort of meditation, I thought. You contemplate, and your head is totally empty of thoughts. Color – that’s all there is.
God showing his face to humans
In the Ahmedie Mosque, or the Blue Mosque, as the tourists dubbed it, I didn’t pay much attention to our guide Ibrahim’s story, as a) I was mingling in the tourists crowd, trying to escape the smell of socks, and b) it seemed much more interesting to me to look at the tiles close up, to catch fragments of talks in languages known and half-known to me, and to make eyes at a group of cute Italian guys. The only thing I remembered about the mosque is that it had six minarets, whereas the regular number was four or less, that a tile was sold at the Sotheby’s for about 30 thousand dollars, and the mosque boasted a huge number of tiles, and that it was dubbed “Blue” because the tiles were blue. Of course, it’s beautiful, it’s spacious, but a bit boring – carpets, tiles, and Arabic writing on the walls, and nothing else. Or maybe I wasn’t so much into it because Islam is not my religion, and even though I know some facts about it, and even tried to read the Koran, my heart wasn’t in awe. Making my way with difficulty among groups of variegated tourists, rocking the bag with my sandals, I was just feeling happy. Feeling happy because I just had my pedicure done and my feet were a decent sight, because the Italian guys were making eyes back at me, because the day was warm and lovely, and because I had a great chance to practice my listening comprehension skills in Spanish, in addition to other ten-odd languages that I recognised. If my nose didn’t suffer so much because of the international summit of sock smells, I’m sure my pleasure would be greater. Except for that, I was enjoying it immensely. Blue is my favorite color, and because of the white-and-blue tiles the very air seemed blue. Blue light, blue dream, and God showing his face to humans not from austere icons but in minuscule particles dancing in a ray of light that also has blue hues in it.
Smooth silk, rugged velvet & buttery softness of cashmere
After that, we were left to our own devices, and the bazaar was revealed to us. The very Oriental bazaar, for the description of which, as Soloviov said, “one would need two or even three big books.” As for me, description is a trifle, but for the coverage of all of its goods one would need two or three big moneybags. And the pleasure was both visual and tactile. The smooth silk, the soft rugged velvet, the buttery softness of cashmere, the weight of golden bracelets on the wrist, the feet indulging in the warm depths of pointed slippers, teasing spiky sequins on handmade lace scarves… And you can take home all of these for a moderate price, and, after the trip, at home, at some boring party, you can close your eyes, wrap the silk scarf around your shoulders, feel the embroidered flowers under your fingers, and wallow in memories about the city… It was not a city of angels… It was an ancient city, ancient but so young, a hot city smelling of cardamom coffee, a dreamy city falling asleep to the sounds of Bosporus waves, a rich and welcoming city, a city so beautiful that it makes you cry, a city of steep hills curving like the hip of a young odalisque, hills that are very difficult to climb, but when you make it to the top, even if your tongue is lolling out, you steady your breath, you take in the lovely view, drink strong sweet tea sitting near a fountain on an ornate rug, and the foreign words are like sounds of music to you… The old watch tower, the Galata Tower, is rising to the skies behind your back; beside you, on a bench, an antique grandpa with a beard to make the Prophet jealous, smokes a non-filter cigarette and his brown eye mischievously darts in the tourist girls’ cleavages. You can learn new Turkish words from the telephone cards seller as he doesn’t speak English, right next to the telecom shop a brawny guy, burly in an agricultural sort of way, is selling cucumbers, oranges, and pineapples, peeled and literally put into your mouth for extra payment. People are just walking, not running, even though they obviously got stuff to do, and there is no wild convulsive rush that is so typical of megalopolises. The sea air is clean and fresh, and even in the port where fishermen sell their catch, there is no usual fish stink; actually, it is there but it doesn’t make you want to go somewhere a couple thousand miles away from the sea and never come back. And you lounge in the sun like a cat full of cream, and order more tea, and engage in lazy conversations, if you have someone to talk to, but in fact you mostly sit in silence, watching the city from the top of the hill, and you feel that it was and will always be like this – beauty and serenity.
Applye tee, vyery goode!
There certainly are angels, too. But it’s hard to hear the rustle of their wings when on the Spice Street a bagel seller yells right into your ear, “Hot bagels, just one lira!”, he’s awfully loud, but not loud enough to block the Sufi music from the national musical instruments shop next door, and other marketing yells like, “Yesse, please, applye tee, vyery goode!” You can only hope that your personal angel won’t let you get run over by a high-tech tram, catch a cold under the swift sea rain, fall from the bridge over the Golden Horn, while you rush for new impressions and pleasures. And then there is the ship again, your cabin that feels like home already, and the usual mess in it, and dreamless sleep in the waiting for tomorrow…
Heaven on earth does exist
Tomorrow brings the trip to the Sultan Palace, the Topkapı, the relics museum and the Sultans’ treasuries where a bowl full of fist-sized emeralds, amazingly beautiful aigrettes, 80-carat diamonds, and 49-kilograms solid gold candlesticks are most ordinary things. There was another hall where the Sultan rags were displayed. Huge caftans made in red-and-gold brocade looked impressive, especially in contrast with my friend’s grandpa’s words who said when seeing her in a mini skirt, “Why, you couldn’t afford enough fabric for the skirt?” After that, we went to a bazaar, a foods one, where we walked the Spice Street, and saw such spices and such sweets that any sweet-tooth, after seeing and trying those (and you can try everything there), would realise that heaven on earth does exist. I also have to mention the dinner and Oriental show at the Orient House restaurant, with ethnic music and the inevitable belly dancing, quite predictable but still, I have to say, it was quite captivating. But the number I liked most were the Dervish dances. Two guys in white caftans were simply turning on the spot… on one foot… with eyes closed… for twenty minutes! And the music was matching the dances – real Dervish music. Well, there were many things in the show, as they say, “baloney for tourists”, but the night was wonderful nevertheless. So was the lamb steak.
Istanbul crowd raving downtown…
I could tell as well about our walks in the Karaköy port district, the story of May 1 demonstrations and the congregation of policemen – this year was the first year when the authorities allowed the left-wingers to make a demonstration instead of the usual riots, and we were strongly recommended not to go to the European part of the city but to stay in the port area. So, at 10 AM we were having breakfast in a street café – my friend was having toasts, and I opted for lamb pilaf with veggies and a huge dose of red pepper – and we were watching the TV set above the counter displaying the spirited Istanbul crowd raving in the downtown. Unfortunately, I could not understand what the reporter was talking about, and what the requirements of the protesters were. I know four words in Turkish, and two of them are swear words. Actually, in two days I’ve learned a couple of new ones, like kız güzel, which means “beautiful girl”. But I am sure these words were said not to me, but to a Ferrari rushing down the street or a new Sony Ericsson model displayed in a showcase.
…with heat in the heart
Of course, I didn’t relate the events in strict chronological order, but it doesn’t matter. Actually, the thing that matters can be summed up by one phrase. Istanbul is a festive city, it is never humdrum, it is never ordinary, and it is certainly never cold, evil, depressive and aggressive like the northern cities, even when rain pours over it. It is hot not because of the warm climate, but because it has heat in the heart, and is generously sharing the heat with us, random guests, who, as usual, are shown only the best things. If I notice some things of the sort that are not shown to the guests, I will surely tell you about them next time when I go there, because I intend to come back to Istanbul. After all, this is love at first trip, and love, while it’s alive, requires closeness.