Welcome to Istanbul

2014-04-02 17.50.46I am walking up a hill. (Almost everything ever written or said about Istanbul should start with that sentence). But I don’t know that yet. It’s about one hour after my arrival in Istanbul and it’s the third hill I’ve had to climb. It does not seem to end. Ever.

We are lost.

So, I am walking up a hill and looking at each eave and shingle and sign in the desperate hopes that one of them reads: The Hotel Nobel. Thus far, my hopes have been thwarted. All of the signs are in a language I not only don’t understand, but can’t begin to decipher. For all I know, these signs are hanging above a clothing store, a nunnery, or a clothing store for nuns. All I know is that we are walking up, straight up, and the Hotel Nobel does not seem to exist.

We turn the corner. Another hill.

Aw hell.

It’s amazing to think that four hours earlier I was in Prague. Prague. My quiet little town. This morning I took a silent tram on a sleepy ride through the center. The only sounds were the tram’s bell, the alarm for the door, and the mechanized lady’s voice informing us of the stop. I then took a metro and a bus to the airport, where I went through ticketing and security in about fifteen minutes. Then I walked around the mellow terminals and worried.

I have always loved a good comfort zone. I make them, I burrow into them, and I set up a stove and a Wi-Fi port. And even before I arrived in Istanbul, I knew it was way, way out of my comfort zone. But my colleague and I were accepted on a teaching exchange program and we are in Istanbul to guest lecture at a university with such a great reputation that it is known as the Turkish MIT. To not take advantage would have been lunacy, especially after you consider all the paperwork, bureaucracy, preparation, and organization.

Also, I wanted a kebab.

Stepping off of the airplane in Ataturk Airport was not simply stepping away from my comfort zone, it was stepping into the parking lot at a thrash metal concert. There was the echoing din of distant mayhem and the imminent specter of wildness. This was confirmed at passport control which had all of the order and organization of an Italian motorcycle race. When we finally passed through we were already tired and then we had to take a metro into the city.

The metro was clean and airy, not a lot of seats. Eventually, it was packed to the windows with standing Turks. Before this morning I had probably met fifty Turkish people in my entire life, and now I was sharing a metro with 5,000 of them. I was sharing a metro car with 500 of them, my personal bubble housed 50 of them. And I am fairly certain that 5 of them moved into my colon and opened a kebab stand.

If getting off the plane was like the parking lot of the thrash metal concert, coming out of the metro station was stepping into the mosh pit. We came out on a strip of sidewalk between a highway and a 1500 year old palace wall. There were people everywhere. The traffic was shrieking loud and eternal. The people pounded the pavement towards and against us, brushed past us from all directions and tried to defy physics by walking through us. The palace walls said a whole lot, but very quietly.

We looked at a map, turned it around a few times, squinted into the sun, and began our walk. Up. Up. Sometimes I think that I travel the world to find hills steeper than the one I live atop. In this case, mission accomplished.

Up. Everything is up.

Up. Everything is up.

Now, at the top of the hill is a square and the place is abuzz. Seemingly every car on Earth is pushing into the tiny street. People are everywhere. Men push carts covered in assorted nuts and others push carts covered in shirts and aprons. Women sit in the shade of doorways and smile at us as we go by. Most of the men are smoking and talking at aggressive volumes with each other, tempered by the wide smiles they all wear on their faces.

I take the map and the name of the hotel and enter a launderette (I think). I hand it to the man who looks at it and then directs me to the tram way up another hill. We make our way there and buy two tokens. The tram is packed and we are sweating and I am muttering. I become aware of it when my colleague asks me what I was saying. I shrug it off. To speak would be to expend energy and I need it for the next hill.

The Hotel Nobel sits at the top of the next hill. It’s on a tiny street and we head inside. The man behind the counter smiles and welcomes us. He offers us tea and checks us in. The adventure has begun, there’s no way out now. And somewhere in this building there is a bed and a sink for me. He gives us the Wi-Fi code and I feel a tiny bit of comfort creep up my neck.

He points. “You must walk up the stairs. The lift is out.”

Up. Up again. I mutter again.

“What’s that?” my colleague asks.

“I said, there are not this many hills in my comfort zone.”


Thursday: Istanbul Part II (and I promise there will be less bitching about hills)

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