istanbul street smarts

September 1, 2010

my entire istanbul experience was about as traditional as a pork chop in a mosque. i barely glimpsed the hagia sofia, spent about an hour in the grand bazaar, and turned down a boatride on the golden horn. istanbul is one of those cities where you can just walk and walk for hours without even entering a building and you still learn so much about the city, its history, people, and culture. i have so many stories to tell, but i figured we could start with a few basic observations:

the street economy was alive and well in istanbul. various goods and services were available in carts, baskets, out of windows, from hands young and old. you name it, they’ve got it and it’s definitely for sale. get something weighed by the guy on the sidewalk sitting next to a scale; fruits and veggies by the kilo (obvi!); pocket tissues from grandmas sitting on crates in doorways; don’t miss the guy with the cactus garden cart; kids selling spirograph sets complete with neon demos (got some!); dudes weaving through traffic with bouquets of roses, ice cream, newspapers. bubble machines. tea. corn on the cob. bouncy balls. chestnuts. oysters. umbrellas, if it’s raining or not! enormous flower arrangements. watermelons branded with the vendor’s phone number (in case you need to call!). round, seed-coated simit bread….

the way people moved in the city was also like nothing i’d ever seen before. traffic is a daily nuisance (and nice contributor to the appalling pollution!) and pedestrians are required to dodge vehicles constantly. people dart across train tracks, wait on freeway banks for buses, and cram into street and subway cars. bicycles are rarities, especially due to the hills that rival even the steepest in san francisco. the whole city is jame-packed!!! i’ve never been on a more crowded street in my life than on istiklal, the permanently populated promenade on the european side. being around so many people makes you constantly aware of your space, or lack there-of. but at the same time you feel almost empowered by your ability to walk anywhere, crossing streets youd never imagine crossing in places you never thought you could be, avoiding your rational fears of speeding cars and adapting to the pace of the city.

despite the 13 million (according to wikipedia) people and probably 12 million cats (OMG! soooo many cats!) the city was remarkably clean and functioning. it was chaotic and stressful to be in, but somehow quite organized. unlike athens, which seemed about to tip over at any moment, istanbul was a well-oiled machine- a bit complicated at moments, but certain in its past and future. the constant building and construction throughout the city, including giant sky-scrapers, is a sign of the continued push for modernity despite the anchors in religion and deep-rooted tradition……

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