As I wondered the streets of Istanbul, I felt a calmness wave over me. This wasn’t my first time exploring this travel gem. The only European city that sits split across the Bosphorus River, uniquely dividing the city between Europe in the West and Asia in the East. It lures you in with its mystic.
The minute I arrived into the city, I felt it. That unique feeling this city brings into your life. Chaos, but a calm chaos. It is loud and busy, brash and bold, fast and vibrant. The day to day life grabs your attention and shakes you up. You are whizzed along into its world, trying to keep up with the Turkish way of life, constantly brought back into the present moment as the call to prayer rings out throughout the day. A nod towards the Muslim faith; a moment to pause and reflect, regardless of your faith.
At first I couldn’t work the tram ticket machine. Very quickly, various locals appeared on the tram scene to help. In the end an elderly Turkish man stood as my saviour and I waved him thank you as I jumped onto the tram to my hotel. I felt in my travel flow, manoeuvring obstacles. The first hurdle successfully manoeuvred.
This city is lively. Like a big warm hug. It feels familiar but differs greatly from my normal life. Massively family oriented, I feel safe here. I know as a solo female traveller I’m not expected to feel safe in a country with a prominent male oriented culture. But I do. It is true. You, at times, feel dominated by the groups of males roaming the streets, but in the main they walk past without a second glance. They all seem interested in each other. Chatting and sharing stories. They may glance at you quizzingly, but it doesn’t last long.
The following day I left the hotel to explore this majestic land. I arrived into the Balat district of Istanbul, an enjoyable one hour walk from my hotel. A walk where I strolled along the river until I arrived into this art infused district, forever grateful I am an explorer. The boy working the hotel reception suggested this area was too far and too tricky to get to. I explained politely I would walk. He shrugged. It was definitely worth the effort.
Formerly the Greek Orthodox and Armenian neighbourhood, this area is alive and oozes culture.
Full of colourful old houses, vintage shops and markets. A mix of locals milling around and the Instagram crew enjoying the colourful backdrop photoshoots. Think of an open air bohemian modern art museum. Ready to make you smile and mumble ‘wow’ as you turn each corner to find another art infused gem.
After using a lot of energy exploring this artistic wonderland, I needed a refuel. I’d spotted it before as I arrived into the neighbourhood. I always spot these places. As I walked towards my next stop I spotted a local man carrying a takeaway plate from my destination. The plate simply filled with Pancakes. We caught eyes and smiled, as he knew. He knew I wanted the pancake goodness. I proclaimed “they look yummy” and he shouted in a brash Turkish way “you need these now, go visit”.
The lady who owned the pancake place looked on. What a marketing stunt. Have a eager pancake loving local shout at the tourists to tempt them towards the pancakes. I loved this. It was so fresh and playful.
And yes, I soon sat with my plate of pancakes with all the yummy side treats – cream, chocolate spread, and maple syrup.
As I sat making happy food noises, filling my face with pancakes, something strange happened. A fashion photoshoot unfolded right in front of me. With a female modelling some high street fashion. As she posed and pouted, I ate. I felt like a fly on the wall. A pancake munching fly.
I kept sniggering to myself how awkward and forced it all felt. We only every see one side of a situation through a lens. The photo of the finished photoshoot. The polished and airbrushed outcome. But to get to that outcome, there are moments of model awkwardness as I sat munching away. After several outfit changes and lots of twirling, the model seemed tired and the photoshoot finished – it appeared a success. They were done, and so was I as I looked down at my empty plate.
As I left Balat, my soul infused with the quirkiest and most vibrant art I found myself perched on the edge of the river promenade. This time on the other side of the water. I took this moment to pause and reflect on a really lovely morning. Living life on my terms.
I was lost in my music playlist when I spotted some street art on a shop shutter. Thinking back, I remember I suddenly felt massively confused. As I stood taking a photo of the artwork, a local man popped his head out of the neighbouring shop pointing up towards his shop front with the biggest smile on his face.
From this point on, I’m giggling as I type this, things escalated and I suddenly felt like I was part of a cat infused comedy sketch. As the local man continued to point upwards, I continued to smile back. Not quite sure what was actually going on.
He beckoned me over and finally I spotted what he was pointing to. A cat poster. I thought he had lost his cat and was asking if I had seen it. As I shook my head, he looked sad. So I felt sad. I looked around like an eager cat helper. Then he pointed to another poster of him and the cat posing together. Again, I thought this was a missing cat poster and he had made lots of effort with his posters.
He spoke no English and I spoke no Turkish. I tried to express my ‘I’m sorry your cat is missing, I hope you find it soon’ expression. But he seemed to act like I didn’t understand.
Next he is shouting into his nephew to aid our communication as he spoke English. It soon all became clear, very clear. It turns out the man and the ‘poster’ cat were part of a documentary called Keri. An adorable and wise creative piece showcasing the street cats in Turkey. The man thought I was a super fan, who came to visit his shop to meet him after watching the documentary.
“Ehhh no”, I thought. We all know the real story – I had stopped next door to take a photo of the vibrant street art and somehow got cat nabbed.
The young local boy took out his smartphone and started to play the documentary so I could watch it, in the 30 degree heat – outside a hardware store. As I stood watching the introduction to the documentary the local man got a little teary eyed. He must miss his missing cat. As I explained to the young local that I hoped the cat would return, he shook his head and looked away.
And here is the heartbreaking part. The cat died just as the documentary was released. No, the cat wasn’t missing. He was gone forever.
At least the man had the memories captured on the documentary.
The local man now seemed to understand my ‘I’m sorry your cat died’ expression. He played up to the role of the grieving cat owner – he held his hand out towards the poster of the cat and shook his head.
The exchange lasted ten minutes, a mentally exhausting ten minutes as the story unfolded around me. Trying to figure out what was actually going on.
There was one final twist, the local man – wiping away a small tear for the lost (to cat heaven) cat – beckoned me over to sit next to him, on a makeshift bench, outside his hardware shop, and drink tea. Fresh Turkish tea.
I paused and gulped as I knew I did not want to be drinking tea with the local man. I looked towards the nephew and asked that he explain to the heartbroken man, now seizing an opportunity to drink tea with a young female traveller, that I had to dash. I had Istanbul to explore and unfortunately I didn’t have time for a cosy bench tea ceremony.
The old man once again looked heartbroken, now at me, and looked directly into my eye. One last attempt to coax me onto the bench to sip tea. I got the impression if I sat on that bench I would be forever trapped watching the cat documentary.
I seized the opportunity, waved goodbye and scurried away. Slightly chuckling to myself at how the man thought I was a super fan of his documentary. I didn’t want to break his heart and explain “I’m not sure anyone in the UK is aware of the cat documentary – Kedi”.
That is until now.
For the rest of the day, and beyond, I would smile at the local exchange. How you can be going about your day having your own travel experience, listening to music, enjoying the calm, and along comes a bit of chaos in the form of the cat man.
I truly love these experiences. They provide a connection back to the local community that can only be experienced by leaving your home, and couch, to explore.
That to me is travelling on my terms. To flow with life, experience the local community and embrace it all knowing there are local wonders and quirky antics waiting around every corner. With that in mind, I am off to explore my community!