The sky darkened as evening turned to night.
I clutched a kebab, the smell of the dürüm-wrapped meat wafting deliciously around me. It had been a long day, and I was hungry, but it wasn’t time to eat. Not yet.
Like hundreds of others around me, I waited. It was the final day of Ramadan, and if millions of Muslims around the world could abstain for a month, waiting a few minutes for dinner seemed the least I could do.
A cannon shot rang out nearby. Muezzins called from minarets. Picnic hampers were flung open and with a collective sigh, the fast was broken. The nearby fountain erupted in coloured light as voices buzzed around the square. The sights and smells of this great city enveloped me in the warm breeze.
With a smile I turned to Lauren.
“This place is incredible.”
We had only arrived a few hours earlier from Bulgaria and were thrown headlong into the chaos of Istanbul’s main bus station, Büyük Otogar. A sprawling mass of horn blasts, shouted instructions and milling passengers, it made the nearby metro system seem like a blessed relief.
Our unwieldy backpacks failing to endear us to other passengers, half an hour later we struggled off the crowded tram at Sultanahment and into a postcard. Past the Hagia Sophia, down the Hippodrome and alongside the Blue Mosque we walked, iconic images of Istanbul unfolding around us.
Our hotel was five minutes away, yet a world apart. For such a tourist-heavy area, the streets were quiet. Small children sat in doorways while we sweated past, quietly observing us before returning to their games. Narrow streets obstructed heavy traffic, leaving only the taxis to slip and slide along the cobblestones honking at indifferent pedestrians.
Stray cats were everywhere – the city is famous for them. Seen as a communal responsibility by local restaurant staff, they yawned and stretched on roofs, walls, street corners – pretty much any flat space they could find. Well-fed and content, they were an inescapable part of the city.
The sweet smell of roasting corn filled the air, a smoky haze obscuring the street vendor responsible. Nothing could hide his sales pitch, however – a well-practiced patter in Turkish and English followed locals and tourists alike as they wandered past.
If one believes the stories, the city is full of con-men and carpet sellers lying in wait to part unsuspecting tourists from their money. Maybe my grungy backpacker odeur put them off, but I couldn’t see what the fuss was about. I’ve had more grief from touts in New York than I ever received in Istanbul, on that first night or any other.
The place charmed me instantly. A (literally) Byzantine warren of alleyways and back streets, snarled traffic and crowded footpaths, the city really shouldn’t work at all. Somehow it does, and I have no idea why. Depending on where you stop counting, up to twenty million people live within the city limits, from the luxurious enclaves around the Bosphorus to the immigrant neighbourhoods on the outskirts. While Istanbul unquestionably has issues – pollution, minority rights, population growth – as a visitor I was greeted with nothing but kindness and hospitality.
Even before I set foot inside a mosque, I knew.
Before I had my first taste of sour ayran or deliciously sweet salep, before I learned how to play okey in a shadowy cafe, before my first meal of freshly cooked flat bread and tangy olives, one thing was already clear.
I loved this city.
More than that, even.
I wanted to live here.
And one day soon, I will.