I actually knew very little about the city, apart from the odd conversation with a Turkish colleague back in Australia. I'm kinda glad i didn't have any preconceptions, because it made the discovery that much more special. The first thing i noticed as we took the tram into the city was all the cats stalking around the place. Turns out there are wild cats and wild dogs all over the city. I've never been so happy to see animals in town. People bringing their coiffured pets downtown always piss me off - i resent having to put up with other people's filthy and loud pets in a public space. But seeing dogs roaming the alleys and cats climbing buildings or lounging on furniture... That's the way animals should exist - integrated but free, and without owners receiving special privileges or acting like entitled little bitches as they do in the west.
That sense of wild-west freedom flowed everywhere. People cross the street wherever and whenever - lights be damned (assuming they're even there). There aren't any guilt-trip signs telling you to get up for old ladies on the tram - people just do it because it's the right thing to do. Some shops close at 10, some close at midnight, and in the tourist areas hawkers and scam-artists tout their shit as long as people are awake. It's no Shangri-La, and no doubt the residents have their grievances, but to me it felt like the most laid-back place i've visited. Dad said it reminded him of the Europe in the 70s, which is kinda how i felt when i visited Monterrey - like what i imagine an American city would have been like before the baby-proofing and Disneyfication of the 80s and 90s. I don't think i would want to end up on the wrong end of the police rifles in Turkey - or down the wrong alley in the middle of the night - but for a tourist wandering the streets of the middle-class districts, what a fucking revelation. This is the way cities should be.
And boy, is it a city. One day we took a ferry out to one of the islands, sailing literally one and a half hours past countless medium- and high-rises stretching east of the Bosphorus. The place dwarfs New York. Flying out to the west i noticed the suburban sprawl doesn't happen quite the same way as in Australia or North America - the apartments go on and on and then just stop. A few years ago i read a sci-fi novel set in Istanbul and traveling there i can see what kindled the author's imagination - the place has a palpable cyberpunk density. And then dotted amongst the new world tenements you see an old mosque or crumbling tower surrounded by razor wire and inhabited by those ubiquitous wild cats. I've never been to a city quite so vibrant and inspiring. My visa is for three months, and if i don't find a job by Christmas i'm awfully tempted to get an apartment down there and bum around for a few weeks. The food is cheap. Public transport is good. Outside of the religious areas the women walk alone and without headscarves. The Bosphorus is a perfect blue and the sunsets are to die for.
My only frustration was not speaking the language. This is the first place i've visited where i don't even know the most basic stuff - no hello, goodbye, please, thank you... Although all the shopkeepers can speak enough English to handle purchases, i felt like a complete tool being that annoying tourist who talks slowly in their own language and mimes everything in the hope something will make sense. I know people travel all over the world doing that, but i felt a huge barrier, even more so than i did in Mexico where my Spanish was barely good enough to order a meal. I had a guide to basic phrases on my phone, but it was worthless because i couldn't even guess at the stresses or pronunciation like i can with west European languages. That will have to change if i visit again - i at least want to be able to order a meal outside the tourist areas without pointing and shrugging.
The other shitty thing was somewhat self-inflicted. Knowing it's a Muslim country, i went to a store in Vienna and bought a couple of longsleeves before going. Anyone who knows me knows i hate wearing anything that covers my shoulders - i feel awkward, hot, constricted - but i respect the culture and wanted to make an effort. As it turned out, outside of the religious areas most women wear the same things we do in the west, with the exception that their tight and/or see-through tops do cover the shoulder (just). But being a tall, tattooed trannie i attract stares at the best of times so remained modest everywhere. At one point i did take my top off and some douchebag Arab looked me dead in the eye shaking his head and tut-tutting all the way past. That annoyed me more than any local's stare, seeing as he was almost certainly a tourist too. I was covered up and sweating the majority of my time in the inner city, so i had no qualms stripping down to a tank and jeans for a 15km bike ride round a carless island. Oh well.
But the language barrier and uncomfortable clothing were easily outweighed by the intense energy and color of the city. Much like my time in Monterrey, it was so much more than i could have imagined, and i can't wait to visit again. This weekend we are taking a road-trip to Croatia. I've heard great things from a Croatian colleague and i'm really looking forward to it, but it's going to have to be fucking mind-blowing to top Istanbul. God, i live for this. The world is an amazing place.