Painting a portrait of Istanbul is impossible — laughable, even.
The city is like its architecture — made up of intricate mosaics pieced together by small tiles that make up a big picture.
But since this big picture is made up of many small parts, the terrifyingly overwhelming experience of walking down the streets of Istanbul makes it a messy piece of art.
I was raised in a small apartment in Ataşehir, a district in the part of Istanbul that lies in Asia. I remember very little from that time. Snippets of stapling my fingers to the bed sheets, regularly boarding one of those ‘ascending room’ elevators, using my dad’s old cassette player.
I only lived in this ornate city for around six years before moving to Baku, Azerbaijan, my mother’s home. We still visit Ataşehir often, it is where I was acquainted with the liveness of people. There’s very little that remains the same when I’m back in Istanbul. Perhaps the only constants in Istanbul lie on its streets — cigarette butts layered across the cement, the red lights, loud honking and angered voices raised in hopes of offending the evening traffic jams.
Istanbul has is infamous for terrible traffic — especially during the hour-long ride across the Bassin Express Highway, which connects the airport, one of two, to the city. This is an indicator that you’ve found yourself in the beating heart of the Anatolia region.
This messy, largely confusing state of living that is steeped into the very streets of Istanbul is a familiarity, however.
Past the bridge that ends in another continent, it’s a slight hike up the small alley that leads to my father’s aunt’s home, where we stay when we visit.
Visiting — that’s what we do in Istanbul, my hometown.
My aunt feeds around twelve street cats with more consistency than she does taking her prescription pills. The cats always find a way to crowd around the bottom of the carry-on I have to pull up the cobbled streets, making me worry that I’ll accidentally run them over in impatience, the wheels disturbed by the inconsistency of the surface.
My dad always offers to go out for dinner the first night I’m back. It’s difficult to refuse. A few blocks down, it’s easy to find a çay bahçe, a tea garden. They line the streets as if essential businesses. The manager usually stands outside, propping up the door kindly, but not at all quietly, yelling brother, come have tea! over the noise of the honking.
“Delikanlı, üç çay getirsene!”
The phrase that my dad uses to refer to the man is a direct contradiction of gentleman — what one would use in the West when asking to be waited. Delikanlı feels like a substitute for gentleman, in the context of asking one to do something, yet the term is broken down to something far from the English gentleman.
Made up of two separate words, deli and kanlı, it is the usual phrase when referring to a man who sells you baklava on the street or helps you bring down your cat from the tree. Delikanlı translates over to ‘crazy blood(ed),’ despite the positive connotation you’d find yourself using it in.
The waiter would bring us the tea we’d ordered, leaving to feed the cats waiting behind the plastic glass of the door shortly after. We have lots of cats — a fact about my hometown that I often remark with a self-congratulatory attitude — and they are treated obscenely well, with the dynamic between people paling in comparison to how owners of brunch corner stores treat the street cats. People love the cats.
Not that people are antisocial, of course. Quite the opposite, actually.
On the second or third day of one of these annual trips, once my jet lag of arriving from Vancouver wears off, my mom asks if I’d like to visit some bazaar with her. She says the prices are better here, a gentle yet cruel reminder that my parents don’t live in my hometown anymore.
The bazaars are well decorated, certainly appealing to whatever exotic fantasies tourists would envision seeing: bags of spices lining the floor, dried vegetables hanging from the ceiling and colourful lamps stacked in such a haphazardous way that I developed a fear of watching them all topple over.
Come, come, take a look, only 14 for the socks!
Organic tahini! Try some, kid!
Bell pepper! Take it in bulk!
In the few years I’d lived in Istanbul, and through the multiple visits I’d made, I had gotten well acquainted with bazaar etiquette. It’s moderated chaos — there’s a motorcycle revving its engine in the middle of the walkway and people accidentally rolling their patterned trolley dollies over your foot. Some sellers crouch on the floor, drinking tea on their break from selling assorted walnut jams and boxes of nougat, offering a discount.
My mom will convince me to take some spices back. She’ll buy several bags of assorted powders and textures and tell me to not eat bland food just because I live in Canada now.
The railway of a tram lies directly where we walk. There’s a large clearing a little further, a promenade where I remember feeding pigeons, chasing more cats around and chewing on sunflower seeds.
This is perhaps the most nauseating aspect of Istanbul — the fact I can only recall these bits and pieces when something random on the street brings back a memory.
A piece of me can be found at the corner of every street, under all the pots and plants and in the large bag of crushed pepper you’ve found yourself staring at. So really, if you ask me for an image, a rundown, a portrait of Istanbul, I wouldn’t be able to give you one.
Istanbul is still the overwhelmingly decorated, busy and lovingly messy city that it always was — made of small colorful tiles, of old commemorative memories.