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Globetrotters November Travel Writing Prompt

The Grey Calm Before the Storm in Istanbul

The downpour was in the distance.

Istanbul, 2008 / image by author

(This article is based on a writing prompt in Globetrotters)

In April 2008, going through a divorce. I just didn’t know it yet. And there I was, by myself in Istanbul.

I had just finished a week on a school trip in France and after saying goodbye to everyone at CDG in Paris, I boarded another flight and headed the other way three hours to the largest city in Turkey.

I like to remember it as a snap decision, but it was all arranged ahead of time and though I had done some traveling in the years leading up to this moment, this city was about as exotic as things had gotten for me at that point.

What wasn’t arranged ahead of time is that I would be there by myself. The events that caused that circumstance are for another article (that I’ll likely never write).

The long and the short of it was that I would have six days and nights there by myself. It was just before the days before that we started carrying computers in our pockets, on a constant search for wifi. Internet cafes were still booming then. It almost feels quaint to say that.

If you were away, you could still be away.

It rained a lot but I walked for miles and miles. I did all the things that tourists do in that city: the Aya Sofya and Blue Mosque in Sultanahmet, Topkapi Palace, the Grand Bazaar, the Spice Market. The walk over the bridge to Karaköy, the grilled sardines at a restaurant underneath it. Up the hill to Galata Tower, the Tünel Funicular to Beyoglu.

The Blue Mosque / Sultanahmet Istanbul, 2008 / image by author

All of it. I had nothing but time on my hands.

The ferry ride across the Bosporus to Üsküdar; my first time in Asia. Attempting to walk over the massive 15 Temmuz Şehitler Bridge but then coming to my senses and hopping on a bus that dropped me in Besiktas and wandering around the stadium of the football club and its surrounding neighbourhoods.

The underground cisterns from Byzantine times. The walk up Istiklal Caddesi to Taksim Square. Photographs of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and his magnetic eyes bearing down on everyone from everywhere.

I drank a lot of tea. It came in little glasses and was heavy on the sugar. It was mostly men sitting on the little chairs that the outdoor cafes provided. There wer a lot of people to be watched, but none of them were watching me. When you are traveling by yourself, in a lot of ways, you can be invisible.

I’d been to a Muslim country only once before — Morocco — which, religion aside and the morning adhan by the local muezzin, could not be more different.

But one similar thing is that I sought out hammams (bathhouses) in both places, followed by a straight razor shave where they go to work on your nose hair with some sort of paste that is left to dry and ripped out at great velocity and then take a match to the offenders in your ears.

There are hammams and then there are hammams. The high end hotels in Istanbul all offer very plush, fluffy and luxurious options. Maybe those have their place, but I prefer to find them in neighbourhoods that are better described as working class.

I found the one I wanted at the Gedikpasa Hammam. A quick googlemaps search today indicates that things have been touristified in the intervening years, but I like to tell myself that I got the real thing.

A few years later, when I was in Istanbul again, I went back and the experience was even more intense.

I would say that the best part of the whole routine was after. Soaped, lathered, scrubbed, rinsed, slapped and stretched, followed by a hot tub, a cold shower, and a glass of tea on a divan while wrapped in a large towel, I emerged back into the afternoon light, with pink skin, squinty eyes and senses wide open.

I wanted to just sit down, to be left alone and to record it in words and in film. Yes, film. I mentioned earlier that I didn’t have a smartphone. As a result, though everything looked like an image waiting to be photographed, I had to be judicious. Every passing person I saw had a story to be told, but I had to be judicious with them too.

The photo at the beginning of this article was taken at a tea house on Yeniçeriler Caddesi in Çemberlitaş. It captured a moment, ein Augenblick as it would be more accurately called in German (an eyeblink), that captured my mood on my last afternoon on the Golden Horn before going home to face the music.

A man, doing what he could to protect himself from the coming downpour.

Thanks to the team at Globetrotters for coming up with another great monthly writing prompt. I wonder if they know how many people look forward to it?!? Anne Bonfert, Michele Maize, JoAnn Ryan, Adrienne Beaumont, and Jillian Amatt - Artistic Voyages

If you want some more uplifting grey while traveling in your reading today, check out these two great articles:

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