I think I’m going to like Turkey. Istanbul is an extremely weird and old and beautiful city, and it’s easy to feel like you’ve been here for centuries rather than just a few hours. I got into Ataturk airport this morning and disembarked into the international arrivals terminal, where we were met by a line of four police officer verifying that everyone had a passport before we could proceed to immigration. This seemed like a redundant step because we had all just gotten off an international flight, and unless someone’s citizenship had been revoked in mid-air we all still had valid passports. The officers were all in plainclothes, which meant that one of them wore a Galatasaray jersey, a woman wore Uggs and sweatpants, and another man wore a down jacket suited to polar exploration. I had to pick up my checked bags to leave them in consignment during my two days in the city, and was happy to find one of them already orbiting the conveyor belt when I got there. I waited for the other one for twenty minutes until a baggage handler beckoned me down the concourse and showed me that my other bag was circling a carousel for luggage that had come from a flight from Azerbaijan. I lugged them to the bag check and caught the bus into town.
I didn’t know what to expect from Istanbul, and it’s a great mix of old and new. The city seems a bit like Paris, a bit like Aladdin, and a bit like San Francisco, all hills and cobblestones and sloping views to the beautiful bay. People sit outside coffee shops and smoke four foot tall hookahs, men walk through the streets preceded by impressive bellies and trailed by gusts of aromatic smoke, all men over 30 have awesome moustaches, there are really fat cats draped over sunny surfaces like Salvador Dali clocks, and the call to prayer booms out of mosques everywhere. I thought it would be seedier and more touristy, but I’m pleasantly surprised by how little attention I get. Anyone who looks carefully could tell that I’m an American and thus a prime target for hustlers. I have a strategy, however: I bamboozle them by wearing a scarf so that by the time they’ve made up their mind if I’m European or not, I’ve already made my escape.
One of my favorite sights of the days was walking on the bridge over the Bosphorus and seeing men, women and kids all fishing over the bridge in the black waters below. Trams squealed behind them and Hagia Sofia loomed in the background under wheeling flocks of seagulls, and all of the fishermen focused on their lines with great concentration. I went into the Hagia Sofia mosque and was blown away by how BIG it is. I appreciate a well-engineered dome as much as the next guy, but this mosque is something else. The floors are made of great slabs of black and white marble that are illuminated by chandeliers that dangle hundreds of feet from the ceiling to float 10 feet above ground level. There was scaffolding blocking off a good chunk of the apse, which I thought was annoying until I realized how splendid it was that the building is still a work in progress and always being maintained and improved. Before it was a mosque it was a byzantine cathedral, it is the tomb of imams and sultans, it has annexes that have been used for baptisms and fuel oil storage, and it’s all just so old. There are dozey cats in there too.