by James Villers Jr.
An apartment provides the window for making the city his own.
For one bittersweet year, I lived in an apartment with a balcony overlooking what my friends described as the best view in all of Istanbul. It was maybe the only view that could irrefutably prove I was not dreaming, that I was, in actual fact, living in old Constantinople. From my balcony, I could see the peninsula of Sultanahmet thrusting into where the waters of the Bosporus and the Golden Horn converge and flow into the Sea of Marmara, the lesser-known cousin of the Aegean and Mediterranean.Though I paid more than a handful of visits to the peninsula’s famous monuments, I was more often content to sit and watch the spires and walls of Topkapi Palace and the domes and minarets of the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia change color and hue with the passing of the sun and the seasons. The sun rose from the left and set to the right, rolling along the sky, arcing above the shining waters. In the summer, fireworks lifted from the waterfront below Topkapi, flowering the night. The sky and water embraced me or smacked me across the face, depending on my mood, my company, or the number of drinks I’d had. The call to prayer drifted on the breeze with the seagulls. It was quite a show. Ever changing, never familiar, no matter how many times I looked at it.

Every single person who visited me in this apartment would tell me that I, as temporary owner of this view, was perhaps the luckiest person he or she knew. I would hear them say this, and I knew they were right. I knew the view was beautiful, knew that it was a once-in-a-lifetime view for me. But I still couldn’t shake the feeling that something wasn’t sitting right. That, in spite of the eternal play of light and air currents, in spite of the undeniable panorama of history there for the gazing, the view really didn’t belong to me. Or maybe I felt that I didn’t belong to it.

In large part, I feel the same way about the city itself. I never felt completely at ease in Istanbul. Maybe that’s just because of our conflicting temperaments. Istanbul is one of the world’s oldest and most storied metropolises, full of smoke and flowers, shadow and light. Me? As much as I sometimes wish I weren’t, I’m a California suburbanite, born and bred, and had never before lived in a big city. But that handicap certainly didn’t stop me from getting around; nor did it stop me from finding aspects of the place that do, as it turns out, belong to me. And included in those aspects is an internal view of my own, one of memory, that I’d put up against my old apartment’s view any day.

Istanbul is made up of numerous neighborhoods, each with a distinctive feel, as if dozens of separate villages were plopped down willy-nilly along both shores of the Bosporus. Cihangir (Jee-han-geer), where I lived, is a chaotic maze, home to a large part of the foreign community. Two members of my rugby team, both French, lived four doors down from me, and none of us knew it for close to three months. According to a Turkish acquaintance of mine, foreigners somehow lend an upper-class feel to a neighborhood known, in the past, for its drug dealers and prostitutes. I wasn’t astute enough to sense any such aftertaste, but I loved the mishmash of nationalities, the contrast of wealth and squalor. From the booming and humming downtown of Taksim Square and Beyoglu (New City), Cihangir trundles down sloping streets and crumbling stairs to the scimitar cut of the Golden Horn, across which Sultanahmet shines in silent glory, somehow untouched by the blasting of cruise ship horns and the buzzing of fishermen’s boats.

I visited the shadow-dappled neighborhood of Sultanahmet more than once during my stay, but my first visit was in the company of a small and particular tourist group, little brother to the massive groups that consistently descend on this historic neighborhood. We—myself and the other newly arrived teachers of our school—were led around the area by John Freely, history professor at Bosporus University, writer of several acclaimed books on Turkey’s past, and the father of our primary school principal. He knew everything, it seemed, the significance of each rock we walked past in Gülhane Park, the date every tree was planted and by which sultan. I wished that I could see the bygone days of horse races around the Hippodrome.

We walked from the bright sunshine of outdoors into the coolness of Hagia Sophia, shoulder to shoulder with tourists whom I pitied, because they were just passing through while I was staying for at least two years. John Freely knew people in the museum, and we were allowed to peer at as-of-yet unveiled mosaic restorations. From Sophia, we walked across the street and went underground, visitors to the ancient cisterns. The pillars stood tall and many, roughly ankle deep in the water (if pillars had ankles), and they made me wish I was a boy giant with this place as my playground, so that I could splash among the pillars, playing hide-and-seek in the shadows.

The Grand Bazaar, a short tram ride away from the history-packed Sultanahmet, almost feels as if it’s subterranean as well. Housed within a huge and ancient building, the bazaar is corridor after corridor of shop after shop, filled with all kinds of goods, from fine leather to silk rugs to hand-painted pottery to gold jewelry, as well as the skilled craftsmen who make the goods and the touts and salesmen who rope you in. In a strange and inviting way, the bazaar feels like a small city. My friend Marissa, a teacher at another school who also spoke Turkish, showed me around. She had already done what I wanted to do: the Christmas visit back to family in California, arms laden with little bits of Turkey, charms against the evil eye, decorated wooden boxes, tiny pots and saucers painted in vibrant blues and greens.

Back across the Golden Horn, and shining with a much younger and more hectic light than Sultanahmet, Taksim is ringed with hotels and office skyscrapers of glass and steel, screaming with life. “Today, today, today!” it shrieks, threaded with the din of countless yellow taxis, native Turks, and hungry tourists. Women in headscarves and raincoats walk near those with cropped tops and bellybutton rings. And two other extremes, neither of which I’m ever likely to know: black and shiny Mercedes crawling past dirty street boys in men’s blazers and hard-soled loafers, rags soaked in glue clenched in fists held to their noses. Once, walking a rarely deserted downtown street—5 A.M., and I was headed to the airport—I passed two such boys huddled in a doorway; the glue aroma was so strong, so pungent, even from three feet away, that I almost vomited.

Istiklal Caddesi, or Independence Avenue, stretches from the sandwich vendors of Taksim through Beyoglu to Tünel, another of the quirky neighborhoods, home of music shops beyond counting. Istiklal is a pedestrian thoroughfare, the length of which old trolleys run. The glue boys fearlessly jump aboard the backs of these trolleys, while the inside overflows with all other manner of folks—tourists, both delighted and agape; covered women from the provinces, seasoned enough to eschew the long walk down Istiklal’s crowded cobblestones; dark-browed men clicking prayer beads in what looks like absent-minded communion with Allah.

Sometimes you can hear the trolley bells, and sometimes you can’t: Istiklal is the main shopping avenue of Istanbul, and music is a popular item of merchandise. The latest and hottest pop musician—be it Madonna or Tarkan—thumps or whines, jangles or pounds out of these stores’ loudspeakers. At times, it seemed that the avenue was little more than an eccentric shopping mall. At others, just a walk down its chaotic length was the equivalent of a joyful outdoor festival, to which people from all corners of the earth had been invited.

When I was happy with my life as a temporary urban dweller, my favorite thing about the city were its bars and restaurants; they run the spectrum of cost and cuisine. Most of my preferred places, though, I didn’t discover right away; Istanbul streets can be so narrow, crammed full of cars and pedestrians, and doorways can appear so uninviting that, until friends showed me what I was missing, I usually raced down the streets, never stopping until I reached wherever it was that I was going.

So many of these dark and unassuming doorways, however, hide eye-candy interiors, warm and well-lit, excellent to hang out in. And the best part is the open-air courtyards, with tables and chairs placed among lush greenery, the sky above, and often an unexpected view of the water. Once I’d discovered a place like this, it was tough to stay away; I always felt like going there and sitting, ordering beer after cold beer, staring at the ancient waterside and the beautiful women, to hell with any work I had to complete.

When work did ease, Istiklal was normally the place my friends and I would head, wandering the side streets until we’d found a place with the music and ambiance we wanted. And we invariably found what we’d been searching for. Downtown is always jumping, and it jumps to the beat of any taste—unbelievable dinners at a tasty place called Changa that my friend Anthony introduced me to, where they serve stuffed nasturtium appetizers, and where I heard (after the fact, or I’d have run down for a spontaneous drink) that Cameron Diaz visited; tiny beer halls, where a cold one cost next to nothing, and where men stand or sit, shoulder to shoulder, quietly sipping; Hayal Kahvesi, glowing darkly just off Istiklal, packed with the more cosmopolitan, more approachable of Istanbul’s women, who you could see but not hear because of the volume of the usually excellent cover band. Traditional restaurants abound, too, complete with belly dance shows, though I never did get around to seeing one.

The playgrounds of the rich—Etiler, Bebek, Ortaköy, and the like—lie north of Taksim, up the coast road that meanders along the Bosporus, a short distance but a long ride away, due to the perpetually horrendous traffic (the city is not at all planned to house the millions who live there already, nor the thousands more who arrive each day). Dirty buses, taxis, anddolmus jockey for position against gleaming Mercedes and BMWs. I was one of the bus riders, packed in with other mere mortals; but I was never that bitter, because I couldn’t help noticing that a crawling pace serves as a great leveler. Ancient homes, some from the times of the sultans, line the shores. The smell of money permeates everything in this area, despite the poor children diving into the Bosporus, their fathers and uncles and grandfathers with lines cast out nearby for the incredibly small fish that swim the filthy water. Istanbul’s more privileged youths hang out in the tree-shaded park near the Etiler McDonald’s in the daytime, then dance away the night in posh clubs on the waterfront, the music pumping and the lights flashing on the dancers, and on the underside of one of the great suspension bridges that connect Europe to Asia.

Twice, when spring rolled over and threw off winter, my good friends Alan and Joanna invited me on a cruise up the Bosporus to the mouth of the Black Sea. The waters are cleaner there, and we felt safe enough to swim. We set out from Etiler in the late morning sunshine, the boat laden with food and drink, guitars and African drums, and glided along the storied waterway, admiring the stately wooden villas along the shore, waving at fisherman and other pleasure cruisers, eating and drinking too much, singing along with Alan’s strumming. Late afternoon, the sun softening as it set, we headed back to the city, to finish the day floating lazily past the mosque and outdoor cafés of Ortaköy, still full of people enjoying the newly arrived warm weather. If we’d cruised just a short bit further, we’d have been able to pick out my apartment building among the many that ascend the hillside. We’d have been tiny water bugs skating across the vision of anyone standing on my balcony.

Home now, in California, the view from my living room is of an apartment courtyard. It’s pathetic, really, even with the little pool. I miss the view I had in Istanbul, which is strange, because I rarely miss the noisy city itself. Fortunately, though, I have an answer for such unexpected nostalgia, and that is to fling open a different sort of window. One that exists in my memory.

When I open that window, these moments are some of the things wafting in: the friends I made in Istanbul, the sights and sounds and smells of its crowded streets, of its many waterfronts. These sensations comprise the new view I’ve discovered, the one that, finally and undeniably, belongs to me. And the view from my old apartment, the one in Cihangir, now has stiff competition for the title of “best view of Istanbul.”



James Villers Jr. is the editor of this book.About More Sample Chapters from the TT Series:

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