Not Constantinople

Hello from Turkey, where there is apparently no such thing as too much aftershave.

I got up on Saturday morning, without having yet packed, or even having done my laundry. I had enough money for laundry, and for a bus to the airport, but not for a taxi, so I had to be time-efficient. Of course this meant that I stayed in bed for an extra hour reading before I got up and put on my laundry. And so I didn’t really have enough time to dry my clothes properly and I boarded the bus, with a bag full of clothes varying in degrees of dryness from moist to soaked.

I got to the airport and was greeted by one of my PhD-friends, who was flying with me and who had agreed to lend me 100 euros to help me survive the four days in Istanbul. The flight was uneventful, other than 10 minutes or so of turbulence when the plane wobbled and jolted all over the sky above the Netherlands. I was the hero of the hour and stopped my friend from talking about his fears of the plane crashing and made him talk about penises instead, which calmed us both down.

I should totally be a trauma counsellor.

At Istanbul airport, we changed all our (his) euros into Turkish Lira and decided to get a taxi to the city centre. We showed the driver our respective addresses, my friend of his four-star hotel and mine of my €9-a-night hostel. He said he would drive us to both.

However, once he started driving, it was clear that he didn’t know the way to either. He rang a friend, while driving along the motorway, and managed to find out the location of my friend’s hotel, but my place was apparently a complete mystery to him. After a few mutually-incomprehensible muttered exchanges in Turkish and English, he tried speaking French. My travelling companion grew up in Monaco, and so his French is perfect.

They talked about the area where my hostel is located. The driver told my friend that I shouldn’t really stay there, as the area is dangerous at night. My friend translated for me, somewhat gleefully.

He asked for a more precise address for my hostel. I handed over my printout from my booking. The driver couldn’t find the address on the page and started speaking in French again. My friend leaned forward and they were both pointing at and reading the page and speaking in French as we sped along the motorway. This was not how I wished to die.

Eventually, the driver seemed satisfied that he knew where both of us were staying and he chatted animatedly to my friend. He was an Albanian, with a Bulgarian mother and a Bosnian wife, and before living in Istanbul, he had lived in Belgium. So he spoke Albanian, Bulgarian, Bosnian, Turkish, French and German, but not English.

While they spoke together I looked around me. Istanbul seemed impressively big and impressively old. And every street had rows of Turkish flags hanging from lines criss-crossing over our heads. I later found out that these were part of the city’s Olympic bid, but it looked for all the world as if a government order had gone out for everyone to wash their red clothes and the whole city had hung them all out to dry at once.

My friend is not a born negotiator. The taxi driver said that the journey would cost 80. My friend said that he had been told that a taxi to the city centre should only cost about €25-30. The driver said that we were in two different parts of the city and he would charge us €20 each. When I reminded my friend that we didn’t have euros, he asked the driver what we would pay in liras. The driver, after a moment’s confusion, said we should pay 100 liras. This isn’t much more than €40. However, he’d opened by saying he would charge 80, so my friend had, in fact, negotiated the price up.

When my friend got out of the taxi, it was about midnight. He wished me luck and said goodbye.

It wasn’t really honest of the driver to say he didn’t speak English. He knows the word “like”, the words “you” and “I” and an impressive list of nouns. In the half an hour I spent alone in the taxi with him, he didn’t stop talking. The conversation was mainly about our likes and dislikes.

Driver: “You like Audi car?” [A shiny new black Audi was doing a u-turn in front of us.]
Connor: “Eh, yes.”
Driver: “I no like. Rich man Audi car. You like Istanbul?”
Connor: “Yes! You?”
Driver: “Yes. Like Istanbul. You like Egypt people?” [We were driving through an area full of Arabic tourists.]
Connor: “Yes.”
Driver: “Rich. Egypt people rich.”
Connor: “Mm.”
Driver: “You like Kurd?”
Connor: “Yes.”
Driver: “I no like Kurd. Kurd no Turk. No Kurd.”
Connor: “Mm.” [Should I have got out of the car in protest at his racism? Told him off?]
Driver: “You like beer?”
Connor: “Yes. You?”
Driver: “No alcohol.”
Connor: “OK.”
Driver: “You like prostitute?”
Connor: “No.”
Driver: “Prostitute. One hundred lira. One night. One hundred euro prostitute.”
Connor: “Eh, no, thanks.”
Driver: “You like music?”

And that was only three minutes. It was truly a bizarre conversation.

After about 30 minutes, we got stuck in a traffic jam. The taxi driver told me to get out. He pointed at two streets.

“You hotel or here or here.”

And with that, I was alone in Istanbul. It was 12:30 on a Saturday night.

There are some places I will always remember my first experience of: I will never forget New York, stepping out onto the street, nearly being run over by a yellow cab, the driver stopping and shouting at me, all while surrounded by sky-high buildings with noisy road-works all around. I was thrilled. The movies had told the truth. New York was just like the telly!

I will never forget my first time in Gdansk. It was an autumn evening and the weather was beginning to get chilly. I walked down Mariacka street, loads of little stalls selling the most beautiful things carved out of amber, gargoyles poking out from every building, beautiful houses, autumn leaves blowing around on the ground and the frost twinkling in the starlight on the ground.

I will never forget my first time walking through Newark, New Jersey, having been warned that this was a dangerous place to be, even during the day, and there’s me, at 10:00 at night, with my big sunburned Irish head on me walking through the mean streets of Newark trying not to look lost or Caucasian. When I remember it now, I hear gunshots, but I may have added them to the memory after the fact.

I will never forget my first time in Venice, with the beautiful little streets, bridges and piazzas and the gorgeously turquoise water, a colour that looked like it should only exist in films that starred Audrey Hepburn, and actual gondolas with actual gondoliers, like a Cornetto ad come to life, only better.

And I will never forget my first impression of Istanbul.

After getting out of the taxi, I found myself in what was quite obviously the party district of Istanbul. There were people everywhere. I have experienced Saturday nights in Madrid and Barcelona. And it’s like that, only with an extra 10 million people. Istanbul is a genuinely massive city (over 13 million inhabitants) and you can feel it.

It was 12.30 at night, and people streamed around me, children, teenagers, adults and the elderly. Every shop was still open. And this was the party zone. Music blared out of every club, everything from Rihanna to more traditional Turkish music that you could charm snakes to. There were sex shops and tattoo parlours still plying their trade. I saw elderly men getting their hair cut at 1:00 in the morning. Whole families sitting outside cafes. Men smoking hookah pipes. Plumbers working on the drains. Everywhere you looked, people were selling something on the street. There was all the usual stuff, fake branded watches and t-shirts, fruit, leather goods, posters, but as well as that, there were stands selling mussels, men with a single rail of shirts, an old man with a table of hard-boiled eggs, chestnuts roasting on every street corner, lots and lots of corn-on-the-cob vendors. And everywhere you looked, there was noise and people.

And the police. So many policemen. Every little side street had at least ten policemen, in body armour, with riot shields. Huge police vans drove up and down the streets. Some of the vans had a large metal scooper thing at the front, clearly aimed at shoving a crowd around. My walk brought me across Taksim Square and past Gezi Park, where violent protests at the start of the summer led to 8 deaths and almost 5000 arrests. The square has a weird atmosphere about it and there are ridiculous numbers of policemen, carrying rifles and looking absolutely terrifying.

I got totally lost, but I loved it. I soaked up Istanbul. What a place! Scary, but so exciting. I asked a few people about directions to the hostel and they were able to tell that I was in the right area, but the street name meant nothing to them. Eventually, I had no choice, I turned on data roaming on my phone and used google maps. It didn’t take that long to find the hostel, but before I’d even got there, I had received a text from the phone company warning me that I’d spent over €20 on roaming already. Destitution, here I come!

The hostel is down a dark alley leading off a dark alley, behind some clapped out cars. It’s exactly the kind of place I imagine being brutally murdered in a drug deal gone wrong.

It has the word “Lounge” optimistically written over the front door. I got in. The staff, who live at the hostel, had been expecting me since midnight. It was 2:00 am. After some bargaining, I got a bottom bunk and I slunk into my dormitory with seven other people, too excited by Istanbul to sleep.

I’ll update soon with news of daytime Istanbul, my descent further into poverty and the conference that I came here to speak at.

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