In the spirit of awesome global cities, here are a few photos from a week spent in Istanbul this spring.
As my neighbor on the flight there said: Paris is a beautiful city. Istanbul is an ugly city with beautiful places.
I might have to agree, to a point: Istanbul still feels like a developing country, even in Taksim (a lively neighborhood near where we stayed)–but the beauty of the mosques on every other corner and the ability to cross over to another continent [Asia] on a 30-minute ferry more than make up for it.
There’s so much I can say about Istanbul and my time there–equal parts getting ripped off and finding many warm, hospitable people; eating great kebabs and shaking my head in disbelief at how popular fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice is in Istanbul (in case you’ve never tried it, it’s the most sour taste I’ve ever encountered); the mix of secular European and religious Middle Eastern influences, possibly skewed by the many Saudi tourists with their women in full head-to-toe burqas and hijabs [some with no eye openings]… I could go on for days.
Following a weekend in cold, cloudy Edinburgh, I spent the next weekend in Milan and Genoa (Genova in Italian). Expecting cold stone buildings reminiscent of Paris in another “world capital of fashion,” Milan instead surprised me with its color, warmth, and friendly people, and a distinctly more relaxed charm than Paris. I still associate it with walking by the business district and seeing a 50-60 year old man, well-groomed, in a well-fitting black suit and crisp white shirt–and a neon orange silk tie.
Some people fall in love with Indonesia for its orangutans, others with France for its food–and I, with a country that most would name “unexotic” at best. I’ve wanted to go to Scotland since I was about 10 years old; I had neither Scottish ancestors nor living relatives to relate to, but rather, only an inexplicable fascination with its early history of conquests, tribesmen, and magical stories.
Well… maybe being exotic isn’t everything. After visiting Edinburgh for [sadly] only 3 days, I could see why so many writers were inspired while living in Edinburgh… the views from Carlton Hill are breathtaking, and the moody skies are straight out of a gothic novel. I had to wear fleece gloves to sleep at night and three sweaters to explore during the day [and this was in May] but the people of Edinburgh couldn’t have been warmer and more hospitable.
Having lived in France (where “socialism” is a positive buzzword) and in the US (where it isn’t), I had mixed emotions about state-sponsored healthcare, education, construction, etc., especially after witnessing firsthand the many ways in which it failed in the former Soviet Union. But if a positive, purer example of socialism were to exist, Scotland might be a great starting point. (To clarify, by positive I mean that the population doesn’t abuse the system and overwhelm the economy). I encountered a fair share of immigrant families and the elderly, but virtually nobody who was either very rich or very poor. Despite the brisk wind, frequent rain, and decades-long economic downturn, people were content.
There were many charity shops benefiting Goodwill- and UNICEF-like organizations, but there were also plenty of small businesses and private ventures, many with names borne of a distinctly Scottish humor; all in all, I got the impression that the Scots were both extremely proud of their origins and history, at the same time that they were wise enough to open their borders and communities to new influences. (Of course, this was not always so: Scotland also saw “witches” burned at the stake, different tribes turning against each other, and more recent incidents of ethnic violence, often targeted at South Asian immigrants.)
Aside from the scandalous bits I picked up about Scottish culture (like how a “real man” wouldn’t wear any underwear beneath a kilt), I also got a better sense for why, perhaps, Edinburgh worked. Because the city center is fairly compact, there’s a sense of community among the pubs and coffee shops, a sort of beckoning that leaves even foreigners feeling welcome. The eroding, darkened stone buildings hint at the city’s age, but the greenery throughout the city is so lush that you don’t want to stay indoors. It’s a great balance between the brown–historical buildings and business parks–and the green–the many urban parks and open spaces. It finally made me realize that a city girl doesn’t always need to escape to a forest to be inspired by old trees.
This post (and my visit) has been a long time coming, but I hope to post again soon–next time about Italy.