If you could celebrate your birthday anywhere in the world, where would you choose? And if you could stay your whole birthday month, what city would it be in?
Perhaps romantic Paris comes to mind first, or cosmopolitan London? In October, my birth month, the fall foliage of Kyoto would be fabulous. The city that never sleeps – New York would be perfect for party animals.
Last year we celebrated Mirek’s birthday in Jerusalem and today I am celebrating mine in Istanbul. Even when we weren’t on permanent vacation as now, we had a tradition to plan a trip around a birthday. My 50th was spent with the gorillas in Uganda, but even more fun were the short surprise birthday trips that were planned by my husband, where I would only discover the destination when he handed me my boarding pass at the airport. After the first week of exploring this ancient city, I can say it was the perfect choice. Istanbul is most vibrant, fascinating, friendly, history rich, traditional and ultra modern. And making you feel right at home. It is surrounded by beautiful blue bodies of water and is one of a few big cities I don’t get hopelessly lost in. What is more, it is easy to get to and easily affordable. The crazy traffic can simply and effectively be circumvented by extensive, efficient, modern, clean, safe, and ridiculously cheap public transportation under and above ground. Not to talk about the network of ferries that go everywhere literally for cents per ride.
Of course the first thing you need if you will go somewhere for a month is a place to stay. Choosing the perfect place for your taste, shouldn’t be hard at all, there are so many hotels and apartments. Initially we thought we would get a place for a few days and then explore long term possibilities but when we came across this apartment on Airbn
and saw the long term stay discount offered, we jumped on it. On top of it being even nicer and more spacious than on the pictures, there are bonus features: the building is a beautiful restored historic building with lots of marble, yet chic new decor, we have a spacious terrace on the top overlooking the skyline of the Golden horn, we have a great receptionist that can answer any question and gives invaluable local advice, a cleaning lady, who does a quick clean everyday, including making our bed and a big clean every week. There’s air con, washer and dryer and the whole place is Green certified. And we have real closets where we can put our clothes, instead of living out of the suitcase. Can you believe our luck?
Just around the corner there are restaurants, coffee shops and boutiques galore, yet there are regular people walking down the streets all the time. I could just sit for hours at our breakfast nook table and watch the life bellow. There is a Church right next door, a small mosque and a few synagogues right around the corner. That means we get all sorts of sounds that you are protected from in double paned 20th story hotel windows. We hear the muezzins calling and the church bell tolling. In the morning the children laugh going to school and sing in their classes. At night lovers giggle and drunks yell and street cleaners roll their garbage cans. It is all part and parcel of living with the locals. Our new home is in the famous district of Galata, with tons of people coming to take a selfie or have their photo taken in front of Galata tower. I feel so cool and special walking past them in the evening with my groceries in the bag and a house key in my hand.
Not that we are cooking up a storm. We only make breakfast in the morning and even that not ever day. If we sleep in late, we simply go out for Turkish breakfast, because it is actually a lunch meal with dozens of small dishes of savory and sweet variations. I guess Turks like their breakfast too, because there is a whole street in Besiktas district called Breakfast Street. You can get a really cheap lunch or dinner meal (I could probably just live on burek and pudding) and you can get a great meal for cheap. You can of course easily find many, many high end 5 star restaurants, wine bars, cocktail roof tops etc.
Which makes me think, eating out every day, visiting mosques and exhibitions, going on ferry excursions – this is not really how locals live. We say I want to go somewhere and live like the locals. But it is not really true, right? Because the locals go to work every day and rush to grocery store and pick up their children from school, hep their parents or their daughter with the new baby. When I was home and living at the edge of San Francisco, I might have gone out to dinner once a week and maybe to an art exhibition or performance once every few months, I didn’t drive to Napa for wine tasting on a spur of a moment and I have never ever in all the years been to Alcatraz Island.
So while it is true that staying in Istanbul for a month we don’t really live the life of the locals, we can also afford to not be typical tourists rushing from one top 10 sight to another. Besides we have been to Istanbul before and have seen Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque and Topkapi, a few times even.
As a matter of fact my husband instituted a rule of Maximum one Mosque a Day. Occasionally I manage to slip in a church or a synagogue on top and he doesn’t complain too much. We can go look for the lesser known, uncrowned and sometimes entirely deserted sights. Some of the most memorable ones from the first week are:
-Theodosius cistern, a newly discovered 1600 years old water cistern, now a gallery and concert hall. -Mihrimah’s mosque, the light infused mosque of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent’s favorite daughter. -SALT or former Ottoman Bank building, now the most elegant marble library, exhibit space and restaurant. We never go on guided tours and we only use public transportation. The later is really easy, you simply buy Istanbul card, load it with some Turkish Liras and you can hop on any metro, tram, bus or ferry. Not only can you avoid famous Istanbul traffic jams, the card gives you extra transport discounts so your ride is mostly somewhere between 35-80 cents. Yes, American cents. Or Euro cents, the exchange is pretty close.
On my birthday we went for a day trip taking a ferry to Prince’s Islands an hour and a half each way and paid $1.80 round trip per person. There was even music playing on the way back.Living like a local means finding your favorite coffee shop, where the barista knows you. In the city mostly drinking strong sweet tea or equally strong and sweet Turkish coffee finding a really good cappuccino is not that easy. Buying freshly baked bread in the morning, and local produce at the open air market. I am gorging on black figs and black olives and eating soft heavenly kaymak cheese with honey for breakfast.
Surprisingly we even found plenty of pork salami options at the Kadiköy market on the Asian side of Bosporus. No problem buying all sorts of beer from local Efes to imported brands, too. Guess who’s in heaven?
We are starting to feel like locals because we don’t need to look at maps as much anymore. We know which station comes after the previous one and which street is a shortcut home. We are starting to recognize the resident cats that have adopted certain steps or stores. They are being abundantly fed and spoiled by the locals.
Staying awhile means being able to stay and chat with friendly people. I have always found Turks very pleasant and hospitable people. Merhaba (Hello) and Teshekur ederim (Thank you very much) goes a very long way and brings a big smile to their face. These days I would only avoid the tourist bazaars and mosques at prayer times, not to spoil this impression. But everywhere else Turks are genuinely sweet and helpful. Some speak excellent English and many none at all, but all are happy to engage in a conversation. One should not get annoyed at repeated shouts of “Where are you from?” for this I think is a simple phrase of introduction for them. We were riding a bus during rush hour in a local neighborhood far from the tourist track and a young man was desperate to talk to us. He ended up using Google translate just so he could exchange a few words with us. At the end he showed us the picture of his with his two little kids and ended up with:Welcome to Istanbul from Sinan.
He was delighted when we told him he had a famous name of a famous architect Sinan. I have just finished reading a book called the Architect’s Aprentice by Elif Shafak, so I knew about the architect that built hundreds of spectacular mosques, tombs, and other monuments all over İstanbul in 16th century.
Having time on our hands we have also stocked up on novels that are set in Istanbul and are happily reading through factionalized history, art, politics and spying. As I mentioned my birthday was celebrated with an excursion to Prince’s Islands. In the summer they are a huge magnet for the Istanbulites, and I presume they get a fair share of foreign tourists as well, but on this day we were the only foreigners. Still, the crowds were surprisingly thick on the ferry because the island of Büyükada was part of Istanbul Bienale and lots of ladies who lunch came over from the city to enjoy the arts. We were glad to pop our head in as well, especially since some of the hundreds of lovely Victorian houses were exhibition spaces and we could go and see these gorgeous buildings from the inside. It was surprisingly warm for October 2nd and we did bring our swimming suits with us. At the end we didn’t swim, just sat at the edge of the sea, enjoying the views and a quiet delicious birthday lunch.I plan to continue celebrating my birthday and life every single day in Istanbul. I don’t need presents or parties, just a chance to uncover many new things and secret corners. May I be abundantly protected from evil eye and other misfortunes on this noble mission!