There is something to be said about the precarious feeling of returning to an old home base. The feeling of instant familiarity, but also of countless nuanced changes – so that you know you know it, but you also know that it is not the same place you’ve known before. For me a place like this is Istanbul.
Anyone who knows me well will know that I lost my heart in Istanbul working in my favourite museum in the world, The Museum of Innocence. If you heard me talk about Istanbul, you’d think we spent a year there, or more – but the reality is we spent just a few three months staying in the city. But it seemed remarkable how easily I fell in to the rhythm of this ancient place. I made new friends, I knew where all my favourite street cats stayed, I had my favourite place to buy onions, which was different from where I liked to get my honey and cheese, and still different from where I got my strawberry tea. The shopkeepers stopped showing me the prices on their calculators and started to speak to me in Turkish as I learnt, and the junk shop guy would give me bits and bobs for dirt cheap (and offer me tea afterwards) while I listened as he refused to name a reasonable price for the other tourists perusing his Aladdin’s Cave. The guys at the corner knew to make me a half chicken sandwich when I showed up at lunchtime (and to give me the receipt), and we were almost always treated with a free desert at Omers’s restaurant. Or given a rice pudding to go when we said we couldn’t possibly eat any more.
I am not under the bizarre impression that Istanbul is some sort of second home to me. I loved the corner we frequented, but I have little understanding of the complex net of socio-political topographies. I don’t speak Turkish, and have forgotten much of the little that I learnt. I can’t stay for as long as my heart desires (though the visa is free for South Africans). I can’t cook Turkish food, or do anything else valuable that would show any sort of lived comprehension of the culture and the roots. I didn’t even have a bank account. So I won’t call it a ‘homecoming’ – that’d be a bit insulting to Istanbul’s actual residents, people that are rooted, even trapped in its place and history. But I do feel a warm at-ease-ness every time I come back. I don’t need to check my phone for directions every time I walk somewhere; I can walk with a purpose of knowing what I’m after, and a purposelessness of someone who isn’t afraid she’ll get lost without one. I love stepping off in Istanbul without the pressure of doing and seeing stuff and being the tourist that I am, but instead just being content with taking pleasure of being there.
And we were fortunate to have two layovers in Istanbul during this long backpacking journey. We were welcomed into our friend Dilan’s palace, and we just revelled in being together and enjoying life’s luxuries like bomb breakfasts, streetcats that aren’t gross, being able to flush toilet paper (not in SE Asia, you don’t!), wine and cheese, and the simple luxury that is strolling along the Bosphorus (in one of Dilan’s favourite neighbourhoods that she told me about 3.5 years ago but hasn’t been able to show us until now!) . These were two days of eating, sleeping, eating, strolling, laughing, trying to convince Dilan to get a cat, and more eating. The first layover was the relief of a feeling like home and familiarity and the world’s best breakfast after mildly roughing it and backpacking in the Philippines (not strong on the breakfast scale), and by the time of the second layover Dilan nursed as back to health after a monumentally tiring Egyptian trip from Sharm el Sheikh to Cairo, and back again, the day before.
We’ve traveled a lot the last few years, and 2018 has been especially rough. It is a great adventure, but it can be tiring sometimes, and what we miss most is the constant of everyday rituals and a community – friends to love and be loved by (in person). So moments like these – strolling through Bebek with Dilan, picking up every third snuggly cat, and being given a bed and a couch and space to feel at home in, is what nourishes and repairs traveler like us. Like a den where we can rest from the chase, catch our breath a bit.
Mostly, though, we always just wished we stayed longer every time we get to hang out in Istanbul.
The best breakfast in Istanbul is at Beyaz Fırın in Beşiktaş. This is our official statement.