Author’s Note: I’ve decided to make my travels in Istanbul a series, since I experience so much in my six days there. Thus, this read will be a little longer than usual, for you faithful blog readers accustomed to my 1,000 word essays. Thanks for following along!!
The idea of traveling alone can be overwhelming, especially to a foreign country. From the flight to the accommodations to the process of ordering at a restaurant, everything just seems easier with a partner in tourism. There’s no silent battle waged over the armrest, no terror over booking an Airbnb, no intense inner turmoil and self-loathing over having made the wrong choice with the mousakas. It all just feels better shared, particularly when prone to anxiety attacks. Which is probably why I’d never taken a solo trip until Istanbul.
I hadn’t planned on visiting Turkey by myself this summer. When I’d booked my flight to Hungary, I’d allotted an additional six days to hit another country, but I’d assumed I would meet up with friends somewhere. There was Sophie in Tel Aviv, Sam in Ibiza, Danielle in San Sebastian. I had plenty of options.
But I chose Istanbul. Why? Well, for one my parents had been in the fall and raved about it. “In my top five cities, right up there with Bangkok and Paris,” my mom gushed. For another, it was a cheap, quick flight from Budapest, and how often did I find myself on that side of the European continent? And finally, I longed for a strong dose of culture. Not that beautiful beaches with beautiful people doesn’t constitute a culture of a certain type, it just wasn’t what I was after (especially since I’m dating the love of my life and not interested in a hot summer fling.) I booked my trip.
“It’s going to be amazing,” Daniel reassured me before I left. I was starting to get nervous.
“I wish you were coming with me,” I said, knowing full well he couldn’t take the time off work.
“Australia, love. Anyway, you need to have this experience.” He kissed me deeply, only strengthening my desire for his travel companionship. But he was right. I did need to have this experience. Because after 29 years of globetrotting with family and friends, it was time to achieve travel independence. And learn that I’m never actually alone.*
In fact, before I even got to Istanbul I discovered I would have someone to ooh and aah over the Hagia Sophia with: Amanda. One of Ally’s friends in Budapest, she had recently booked a quick trip to Turkey, arriving the day after me and leaving the day before. We exchanged information immediately, and rejoiced over being able to stay out after dark. (One of the promises I made to my parents – I would not explore nightlife by my lonesome.)
I flew in on a Wednesday afternoon. I was quite ill, battling some Hungarian malady, but excitement still coursed its way through my achy, overheated body. I took the train into town, because A) I love public transportation in other cities and B) it cost only $2. As we passed through the outskirts, kebap shops and local mosques whirring by, I felt a sense of rightness. I’m meant to be here. This city is incredible. This adventure is mine.
Following the emailed instructions from my hotel, I exited at Cemberlitas. I opened up Google Maps to where I’d marked the hotel, then made the mistake of clicking the locate button. It sent me back to Hungary and spiraling into self-doubt. Why didn’t I print out instructions? Haven’t I learned anything from my mom and Rick Steves? I can’t believe I’m here alone dependent on my iPhone! I took a deep breath, and reminded myself there was such a thing as wifi. It took all of three minutes to find a café and jump on their network. Crisis averted. I relaxed – this wouldn’t be so hard.
Google maps reliably directed me to the Blue Istanbul Hotel, a short five minute walk from the train stop. I paused in front of my new home for the next six days. It wasn’t exactly what I expected, with its kitschy old patio furniture, chipped paint, and rather ominous blue lighting, but it had a certain charm to it. Like the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, I thought hopefully, entering.
“You must be Emmy,” the concierge smiled, pronouncing my name the same way the Turkish waiters at my first ever restaurant job did.
“That’s me,” I confirmed. I must’ve been their only single American female customer.
“You didn’t want to be picked up from the airport?” he asked, surprised.
I shook my head and grinned. “Nah, I like people-watching.” He nodded, his eyes meeting mine, twinkling with understanding. I liked him. He took my passport and started checking me in.
“Would you like a coffee or tea?”
“Sure, that’d be great,” I replied.
He sent one of the young staff to grab the welcome drink, and he returned a couple of minutes later. I sniffled slightly as I reached for the cup.
“Oh, you’re sick!” the concierge intuited. “You must have mint tea! One minute.” And he sent the boy off again. “Please, sit, relax. And you must also have some soup. We will get you soup.”
I drank the tea in the lobby, then was directed to the dining room to wait for the soup. I wondered if they treated all the guests this way, or if I was receiving extra care because of my solo status. Either way, I felt warmed by the gesture, literally and figuratively. The flavorful golden soup tasted amazing going down, nevermind I had no idea what it was.
I finished my soup, thanked the concierge, and was shown to my room on the fifth floor. The space was painfully cramped (no morning yoga here!), but had a beautiful view onto the Sea of Marmara. I wheeled my suitcase in, careful to avoid knocking over the tiny table, and placed it in the armoir. I pulled back the gauze curtain, opened the doors onto the one foot “balcony,” and stepped out into the warm evening air. To the left minarets emerged from Little Hagia Sofia, out in front dozens of shipping boats peppered the water, and to the right the sun began its descent. Perfection.
I enjoyed the stillness for a few minutes before heading back out. Even though I felt wretched, I was determined to at least see something around the neighborhood before nightfall. The concierge was of course eager to help, providing me with a map and a list of destinations.
“You’ve been so helpful,” I said gratefully, pocketing the materials. “What’s your name?”
“Bahattin,” he replied. “It’s my pleasure.” Any imperfections in the décor were quickly erased in the presence of that smile.
I left in search of the Hagia Sofia, less than a mile walk from my house. It was closed to visitors, but I figured I could at least see the outside. I stumbled first upon the Arasta Bazaar, the shops closing for the evening. I browsed freely with no pressure from salesmen. Lanterns, carpets, scarves, spices.
From the bazaar I found myself around the back side of Sultanhamet, also called the Blue Mosque. There was no one in sight. Am I allowed in? I wondered, creeping up the stairs to the large entrance. Two woman in shawls meandered in my direction. I guess so.
I made my way into the outer arcade and found other visitors and worshippers weaving in and out of its walls. Stairs led up to the enclosed courtyard. I felt underdressed, in my jeans and tee-shirt, but I followed the other tourists and ascended the steps anyway. Only Muslims were allowed into the covered prayer hall at this time of day, but I was quite content to simply stand in the middle of the open courtyard and admire the crescent moon hanging delicately above the domed walls.
I don’t know if it was God, or the history of the city permeating the air, or just the fact of being alone in a foreign land, but I felt transcendent in that moment. I’m doing this every night, I thought, caught somewhere between tears and laughter. I lingered a few minutes longer, then headed back to the hotel, careful to keep my promise to my parents. I walked in my room just in time to hear the nightly prayers echo across my balcony. What a life, I smiled, what a world.
*Unless I decided to pull a Christopher McCandless. Or got stuck up in space like Sandra Bullock in Gravity. But that’s not happening anytime soon. Or ever.
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