After Asia, Europe seems like another civilization. OK, it is but still?¢‚Ç¨¬¶ something seems like a long lost friend here. I?¢‚Ç¨‚Ñ¢ve always pooh-poohed the European travel thing, having a strict bias towards Asia, beginning with my stay in Nepal many years ago and gathering steam in visiting other points east. Arriving in Istanbul from Penang, Malaysia (via Bangkok) I had a flash of familiarity, and it was from the comfort of things western. Not like McDonald?¢‚Ç¨‚Ñ¢s or Pizza Hut. Asia had those to little effect, but western style architecture, signage, words I could sound out and at least have a hope to understand. Also a somewhat less chaotic (to me anyway) style of urban living, no more horse carts, chickens, open butcher shops with sides of pork getting hacked up. Penang was full of these sites, as well as being hot, almost too hot to enjoy. An Asian city like Penang seems all a jumble, somehow just managing to sort itself out. A gloriously mad tussle, the teeming throng.
And then, after a long flight from Bangkok, through Dubai, we got to experience the sudden transition of being in the west. We came into Istanbul late and it was a dark taxi ride to the Sultanamet neighborhood. The darkness offered only glimpses of the huge mosques; Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, that with Topkapi Palace lend the characteristic profile to this city. Their palpable, timeless presence, almost hidden by the night were waiting for us as we emerged from our modest room in Ayasofya Hotel. We came out onto the cobblestone streets of old Istanbul into a clear-crisp late winter morning. A full strength revelation emerged as well; the realization that my prejudices regarding Europe (we were, after all, right on its edge) were proving false. The familiar-exotic axis still swung distinctly towards the exotic with the morning call to prayer coming from the many minarets and the multi-domed mosques looming overhead. But it was a glimpse of something familiar inside all of it that was comforting somehow, something that looked like me.
My bias away from Western Europe is that it seems to be pretty much the same as America. I always assumed that travel to London or Paris would be like travel to some new region of the States. Language differences aside, I?¢‚Ç¨‚Ñ¢d still see malls, lots of shiny new cars and all the same haggard parents chasing after similarly indulged children. That type of travel was poison for me; until now I practiced strict avoidance. This entry into Europe via Istanbul was then the perfect antidote. I was pleased to be discovering an exotic western city. The same?¢‚Ç¨¬¶ but different. something about the ?¢‚Ç¨?ìnot quite familiar?¢‚Ç¨¬ù is even more tantalizing and intriguing then the patently strange.
The vision of Istanbul that first morning was a craggy, weathered version of my own culture. Not a precise projection back, more like a distant relative from the old country. One with a different history, different language, even different behavior. But one who still has the familiar compliment of facial features that conveys relatedness.
The city carries the vintage of buildings from the post-war era; tattered now but full of character and personal scale. The sweet shops with their honey-soaked pastries, sandwich stands and compact general stores pocket the streets. The faces on the pedestrians are severe as people get about their business, but smiles appear too in small knots of conversation here and there.
All this ?¢‚Ç¨?ìpace of life?¢‚Ç¨¬ù stuff is common. The grand plaza, shouldered by the two great mosques, is singular. To stand in the middling space and turn first left, then right is to have two competing, yet complimentary, visions. The Blue Mosque is sedate; slate-blue grey and geometrically symmetrical. Precise. Harmonious. Resonating perfectly in the music of the spheres. Hagia Sophia is muscular; warm, orangey-red tones and massive. Brooding. Powerful. A much more earth-bound structure but sublime and full of enchantment and mystery as well. After visiting both it was fun to stand there between them and look first left, then right. The same. Different. Left. Then right. The guy selling those tasty sesame covered bread rings from his cart probably thought I had a tick. But I knew that I had only this moment to attach them to memory. And this city with its contradictions and continuities, with its tantalizing similarities, was giving me something.