My days in Istanbul were often divided between many pressing priorities. These included classes, fresh cream cake shops, historical discoveries and trips to the islands in temperate autumn weather. If you were lucky you might catch sight of a dolphin or two out on the strait. Beers in the evening at Ali Baba’s in Taksim were usually followed by giant midye dolma (stuffed mussels) from the mussel seller on the corner.
And this is what I miss the most since leaving Istanbul; the freedom to create my own days. Moving through the streets from place to place with no particular aim. This is probably the best way to experience the city. It’s a matter of opening your senses to the smells of the spices at the Egyptian Bazaar (Mısır Çarşısı), the sight of the endless hubbub and the waves out on the Bosphorus, the sounds of the seagulls crying overhead. Catching sight of two elderly Anatolian gentlemen in knitted grey cardigans listening to Turkish folk music on a transistor radio, nodding and grinning like schoolboys.
Sipping fortifying tea from tulip glasses in Gülhane Park whilst looking out over the stunning vista and gossiping wildly with a friend.
Seeing the red sign for sahlep in the window of a café on a frosty day.
I miss the food. Of course, the food. Sharing food. During Ramadan, invites would escalate for iftar, the symbolic evening meal that marks an end to the day’s fasting. I miss spending meals like this eating soup then fish at the restaurants of the cobbled streets of Kumkapı and having my money refused when the bill came. (In the end I didn’t dare offer.) An excitement precedes this meal, and a feeling of unity. Also during the feast of Ramadan, the many bakers of Istanbul are full of Ramazan pidesi (Ramadan bread). This is a soft bread baked as giant discs, ideal for tearing and sharing, and around this time rows and rows of it glow in the windows like giant gold coins. All through the day, the sweet smell is carried on Bosphorus breezes. On Ramadan days when I didn’t have an iftar invite, I would head with friends to the Hippodrome. Here we would walk around the stalls, eat the purplish sausage kebabs, pierce freshly sizzling, syrup-soaked dough balls (lokma) while a marching band passed and clowns walk by on stilts.
I miss the fat, wet mantı (Turkish ravioli) served as a speciality in Fıccın Restaurant below my apartment in Kallavi. The restaurant is owned by Circassians who serve, hands down, the best mantı in town. Always eaten with plenty of sarımsaklı sos (garlic sauce) and kırmızı biber (red pepper).
I miss the gentle intones of the Blue Mosque müezzin. Or sitting under the mosque in Beşiktaş when its flood lights make it glow mint-green, and eating kumpir (a quick dish made from jacket potato). Then drinking endless tankers of beer by the water while fireworks go off at Reina.
Mixing my rakı with lemon juice and the waiter bringing pink watermelon and goat’s cheese. The spontaneity of the people. Their warmth. It doesn’t matter what our subject is, it’s more important that we enjoy each other’s company.
I miss sauntering down to Karaköy from Galata, past the shining Istanbul cymbals in the music shops of Galipdede Street. Onwards to the bottom of the hill where row upon row of fishing rods, piercing the sky across Galata bridge, and the floating kebab huts, pitching on the tide, come into view. Here the Bosphorus stretches away from the neon of Galata and the Golden Horn towards the Black Sea. I walk down to Karaköy jetty and watch transparent jellyfish munch on crips packets. Running for a ferry, watching the body language of the jetty workers. They beckon to me, run, run, you can make it ... rushing over the gang plank just before they pull it up and away she goes! Watching the silhouettes of the minarets and the famous domes of the historical peninsula from the back of the ferry. Leaving European Istanbul, and heading towards Asia to watch a derby football match in one of the great little bars in Kadıköy. Realising too late that you’re the only Galatasaray supporter.
I miss the lokanta tucked away at the bottom of a side street near Hüseyin Ağa Mosque on İstiklal Street. The crowded canteen room and the glass cabinet with the “sulu” dishes. Orange mercimek (lentil) soup with a slice of lemon and fresh bread in boxes on the table for dipping. The lightening efficiency of the servers. Winding on from here down to Çukurcuma where conquering Sultan Süleyman offered up his first Friday prayer; where can be found quaint little cobbled streets with trellises tumbling in front of the antique shops. Stopping to eat at the famous köftecesi (meatball seller) with the painted wooden chairs.
I miss standing at the top of İstiklal Street and seeing a constant sea of people. Walking down it in the early morning when it’s empty except for the delivery vans and the cleaning cars.
The “ding-ding!” of the bright red nostalgic tram ferrying this tired teacher from the metro station to her apartment.
Walking through the streets of Istanbul, I would smile to myself because I lived in a place that people wanted to visit, explore and photograph. And friends from back home would ask to come and visit because they knew I was living somewhere awesome. I miss being their tour guide and seeing them marvel at the same things I do.
“It’s just one room with a kitchen and a bathroom,” one such visiting friend remarked upon seeing my apartment. “You don’t have a living room.”
“Yes,” I said. “Istanbul is my living room.”