»Why not Turkey?« I answered. »It's the cradle of old civilizations, where many historic milestones took place and where most important trade routes met. It's known for delicious food and nice people. And lastly, Istanbul is the only city in the world that stretches over two continents. It's the metropolis of art, music, film and party. It has the best of both worlds – east and west,« I kept saying.
Sitting by the window I was thinking about how to describe my four months in Istanbul, where I had the great opportunity to go on an Erasmus student exchange. How do I include everything in a short article? Despite the initial problems and unfortunate circumstances that came my way I still have a smile on my face - and I probably look even goofier.
The student exchange begun with a painful realisation that the staff at the university are not well aware of what being “a foreign exchange student” really means. They did not understand the basic needs of a student and did not offer any help. The initial shock was followed by two weeks of searching for a new place to stay, ideally somewhere in the bustling city centre, and surprisingly it was a successful quest, considering my lack of knowledge of the Turkish language. It was only after I have moved out of my first apartment from the decaying edge of the twenty million city and into a cute little flat in the city centre that my explorations have begun. Of all European cities I’ve visited, not one can be described with so much colours and feelings as Istanbul. The city is full of warm people and smiles, with western openness making it a lot different from the inland Turkey. It’s a city bursting with life. It is due to its cheekiness that it is a magnet for foreigners, who want to move in and make it their home. Most frequent reason for moving to the city is the undying energy and the opportunities this dynamic centre can offer.
Upon slowly discovering hidden streets and the amazing people I got this feeling of immense freedom – the feeling of a city that makes everything possible. Weather caught in a football hooligan mob that suddenly stormed the street or quietly sipping tea on a slope with a great view, Istanbul is a city friendly to travellers. It’s not difficult to find a place to spend the night here. If you’re looking for a hostel, I suggest the Taksim part of the city and the main street Istiklal. Naturally you have to visit the famous tourist spots such as the Sultanahmet with Haghia Sophia and the Blue mosque, Galata Tower, Basilica Cistern, Maiden Tower, the famous Bosphorus bridge and the main square Taksim with the Istiklal street. Upon exploring the city take your time for tea and haggling. Don’t hurry and rather spend more time to find out little details and stories the city carries.
If you have a bit more time for exploring you might visit the nearby Princess islands. With one of the ferries going there every half an hour from Kabatas and Besiktas it’s very easy to get there. In half an hour you’ll reach one of the unique islands. These are a great counterpart to the noise and the crowds of the city, mostly because there are no motorised vehicles allowed on the islands. Instead they are driving around in horse carriages and bicycles – yup, you’ve read it right! The island is the place where the Istanbulians come to get away from it all and recharge. The islands with wooden houses, restaurants and beaches are a true oasis of peace.
A special chapter of the city is also the Turkish cuisine. All the Erasmus students really talk about relentlessly is the amazing food. The all-too-well-known kebabs are just one of the endless variations on the plate or as we known them ready to go. Next there are many soups for colder days and sauces of different shapes and sizes. They’re known for fish and chickpeas and all kind of nuts. It’s interesting that despite popular belief they don’t use a lot of spices in Turkish food. Their fruit and vegetables are so full of flavour so there’s no need to add many spices. And lastly – who could forget the desserts such as the baklava, or the famous red tea being served in little tulip shaped glasses which you sip slowly the whole day long? Along with their famous hospitability, which usually takes you to their front door and often behind it, I also have to mention the sincere desire for socialising and their incredible warmth. The culture of simply enjoying a good conversation over some food and tea whether it’s friends and family or salesmen from the neighbouring shop. They know how to stop the time on a busy day and slow down. Maybe that’s the secret to a happy life.
Time runs much faster if you’re a hedonist in a country like Turkey. With a happy smile and a merry heart I say my farewell to the city I love. I promise I’ll return for some tea and interesting stories.