The heat of the Turkish air hits us as we exit the plane, a scent, new yet familiar, a mixture of Nargilie pipe tobacco, pollution, sweat, humidity…I don’t know but we inhale it like a drug, newness, untold stories and sights unseen await us as we speed through the night under centuries old aqueducts and crumbling ramparts, into the city of Istanbul.
Like the true ‘Gypset’ we are – me in swirling-skirt and Ben in little waist-coat – allow a bow-tied porter to deposit our now slightly-scuffed but luscious luggage in the foyer of the the old dame that is the ‘Grand Hotel de Londres 1892’. Gilt edged ceilings, ornate golden framed photos of old Constantenople, coloured glass chandeliers twinkling above and talking parrots in massive wire cages greet us as we enter. Surveying the lush raspberry-carpeted stairway, we sip chilled martinis and the small tribulations of our last two days fade away in the face of this boho luxe we now find ourselves in. After jumping on the bed in excitement a few times, we rush out to explore the night.
A city that never sleeps, Istanbul is en-par with New York or London for it’s nightlife… the area we are staying in is filled with narrow winding alleys flanked by towering beautiful apartment blocks of yesteryear. We walk for ages, past hundreds of little ‘hole in the wall’ bars and their packed pavements overflowing with jovial youth, the elderly and tourists alike all eating, drinking and making merry to electric lute bands and singers in every corner. Restaurateurs vie for our patronage as the Turks are famous for, ‘Sir, Madam, this way… you like?’ and eventually, we find a gorgeous corner bar with painted ceiling, chandeliers and fresh fish. Our pedantic need to find the ‘best’ place to dine, often leads us to some interesting places and always by the time we have our meal in front of us it is well deserved. This ‘Rambalas’ reminiscent of the boulevard of the same name in Barcelona, is about 10 meters wide. Day and night it is a huge moving ocean of humanity. There are approximately 2 million tourists in Turkey at any one time, this is the entire population of Macedonia wandering the streets and seeing the sights daily. It’s a game I love to play, the darting through a heavy crowd, Ben following calling out for me to be careful with Paloma clinging like a koala to my front. But having worked in big cities for the past ten years, crowd navigation and survival is my forte. The party atmosphere just keeps turning itself up by notches until we retire to the rooftop terrace of our Hotel Londres where Earnst Hemingway used to stay and watch the view glisten in the reflection of the mighty Bosphorous below.
The city sprawls languidly over vast hillsides. Take a turn and you are standing on a precipice like street, which runs almost parallel down the hillside, while still above you crumbling apartments stand with washing zig-zagging overhead prettily. Having taken our turn off the well-trodden path of tourism, which is rife in Istanbul, we are surprised to find the ‘real life’ or ‘back-stage’ as Ben desribes it, are not too hard to find. Ladies have a lounge room sized carpet out on the street, with their head scarves pushed back and the hijab soaked at the hem, they scrub it with wooden brooms and hose it down to the joy of the neighbourhood kids, jumping through the water like we did as children too. A little girl turns and gives me her best grey toothed grin as she pays the fairy floss man and pulls a bag from the stick he carries laden with this deadly sweet treat. Old men stoop in doorways chatting and wave as we pass. Paloma is growing daily, and getting heavier I should say, testament to her healthy appetite, but carrying her everywhere I have developed some nasty hip pains and the obligatory Turkish tea rest stops have increased in frequency. Back in The Galata the tower is the focus of the area sparrow’s fly overhead and where we find delicious kebabs and fresh salad for lunch. Dotted on every corner in Istanbul are juice bars with bags of oranges awaiting a knife, hung up in colourful net bags.
Breastfeeding in public in a Muslim land is made easier with the pretty shawl my sister gave me on our departure. Paloma unfortunately doesn’t think so and swats it out of the way, constantly exposing me. Turkey is a secular culture dominated by mosque spires and even though people don’t seem to disapprove at all I always try and respect the customs of the place we travel in. Most mothers are surprised to see me breastfeeding her, as even from a young age babies seem to be fed with the bottle here, formula or breast milk I don’t know, but that surprises me more.
Street side we are sitting, smoking the Nargilie water pipe we so love, Paloma desperate to have a toke, sipping sweet apple tea. A gorgeous Turkish couple pass, the hubby looking like a young Antonio Banderas, the woman turns back in a flash showering Paloma with ‘M’ashallah!!! M’ashallah!!!’ seconds later she has ripped my child from Ben’s arms and is kissing her everywhere – on the cheeks, head, even lips… EVERYWHERE!!!! What can one do? I really want to write a sign in Turkish language reading ‘DO NOT KISS ON LIPS, CHILD MAY BITE’ but I never get around to it. ‘Do you have children of your own?’ I enquire ‘NO! In’sallah, we will soon!’ she exclaims with a flash of anger directed at her lothario, squeezing Paloma till her eyes bulge. I politely wrench my child back before she disappears. Anyone else traveling to these parts with a too-cute baby should be well warned that your baby becomes public property and unless you can give a little, you ain’t gonna have fun. It’s great we can inspire people, if only they would ask first!