Everything is dripping. The baklava stands, the flower troughs, the chocolate fountains, the broken water tubes sticking out in the middle of billboards on the crumbling house walls. And when it is not dripping, it is shredded to strips. The floss halva, the cheese, the colourful shawl fringes. When nature can overwhelm you by making you inspect the insides of your mind, a city can do the same by making you inspect theirs.
From the dandy-approved city strolling to those innocent trips to the countryside or the careful wading through unknown rivers, wandering around in completely new places fills me with freedom so unreal and strong that I can cut its potency into invisible garments covering my skin for the rest of the season back home.
It would be easy to give your heart to Istanbul. Rest assured, it would be gone forever. Not all in one go, but piece by piece like the white cheese getting nibbled away by the dusty tom cats waiting under the chairs of guileless tourists. Or, that same heart would get sucked into street art, into the electric blue dervishes painted on back doors or the palm trees stencilled on alley walls on late evenings when the temperature is falling to a mere 34 C. In each case, you wouldn’t be able to ask for your heart back by just taking a long, reverse-stepped walk. No one would hear your calls.
Istanbul is loud. But since it is also exuberantly colourful, the loudness can go unnoticed for days. All our senses enhance each other, but they also hide sensations from us when the situation asks for it. And Istanbul is light. Even when the sunrise is still hours away, you can spot the clothes hanging from differently coloured lines above the narrow streets or notice paw fur variations on those kittens that are now crawling out from their hiding dens in hundreds. Speaking of paws – no other city I’ve walked in has had that many cat and dog pawprints (especially those!) pressed into the concrete. When the streets get rained upon or hosed down in the morning, the pavements become adorned with tiny pawprint lakes. (Pavement Pawprint Lakes will be the name of my indie band. It’s either that or the Defenceless Thistle.)
It reminded me of the upside-down seashells neatly laid out near the waterline on the Rockaway Beach some summers ago, all filled up to the brim with water from the sky. My notes from that day describe a row of frail bowls placed on the ground waiting for the children of sirens to stray. No such thoughts pop up in here. Although you can’t think of Istanbul without the water, its layers of streets and stairs and rooftops do not let the Bosphorus take too much control over the place. The everyday mythologies are balanced between the water and the land.
But yes, Istanbul is a city of sounds. From the one-stop funicular merrily pulling its squeaking weight up towards Taksim Square to the jingles shouted out by the water sellers on the pavements and on the bridges, the sounds get interwoven into a thick carpet of exotic notes wrapping the city into its folds. The understanding of this sound level’s actual strength hits you with a delay, either in the middle of the night when you can’t hear the fan in your room for all the outside ambience or upon leaving the city on a ferry, under a dozen white clouds trapped in the azure sky. It is interesting to note how clouds mean different things in different places. For example, the morning clouds of Istanbul would prophesy a longer rain in Lapland, a short shower in London and apparently nothing on the shores of the Golden Horn. An idea to return to.
In cities like this, life gets everywhere. The surfaces get drenched in stories. And you feel safe from the invisible in here. Although forests and metropolises are ravishingly similar on their deeper structural levels, the notion of safety sticks out as one of the differences.
You can feel “at home” in a forest but it’s a fact that you can never be completely safe from the invisible there. The forests are home to the invisible. They are the guardians with limitless memories, always waiting for you to enter and prove yourself worthy of your luck. This is why it is easier (and wiser) to wander without route-planning in cities. In here, all you need is time and perhaps some flair for decadence. When wandering away from civilisations in the same manner, you need the wanderlust gods, luck, stamina and calm knowledge all to accompany you on your way. This is a beautiful and encouraging thought, however. As long as you trust luck to show up you are never too far from the source of an adventure.
Other similarities and differences between city and nature walking that come to mind:
– The older a city, the more it resembles a wood. In places like these, you can be sure that there exist hundreds of shortcuts and desire lines, serving your every directional need. In both places, you can find your way around by just following the clues in the sound- or landscape.
– Cities approach you from the outside-in: they make you ponder all the things you haven’t done. Nature works from the inside-out: it makes you think of things you want to do. Almost the same concept, but inhabited by an opposite emotional range.
– In cities, you are able to make more intimate connections to objects and paths than in nature. It is easier to “make things yours”. In wilderness, everything is connected to so many things out of your reach that the concept of intimacy feels man-made and foreign. When crossing a moorland (or any other natural terrain), its invisible code of behaviour seems to say: everything you must love, you can love. Also – don’t drip. Walking in nature makes you more tolerant of all life’s possibilities; it is easier to accept not being in control.
Cities as public spaces have more to do with control and order. And when that order is made up of the remains of one of the greatest empires, your every thought easily collapses into poetry each time you take a turn after having climbed a hundred stairs. It seems that Istanbul is full of invisible guideposts that sneakily make you change your direction. Some of them direct you to East London, for example. You end up in (what look life) leftist bars with the cheapest raki in town, sitting under ironical pink neon signs saying “Deleuze this Deleuze that”, in Turkish. The irony is so clean that is is beautiful. No haughty embellishments needed. Other guideposts lead you to slums in the falling daylight. They direct you to ghettos that stand five minutes away from the tourist-filled restaurants and freshly painted houses. In here, the entire width of life is compressed into a street-wide stretch, a full readiness to grow decaying into a speckle at a great speed, reaching its destination long before departing. On these pavements, mothers wipe their children’s bottoms with dirty plastic bags soon picked up and carried away by an odd homeless dog. You know that the will to live is everywhere, burbling, unchanged and unbreakable, but in the midst of powdered life (and to a stranger’s eye), it looks stillborn. “Everything we can’t bear in this world, some day we find in one person, and love it all at once,” writes Djuna Barnes in Nightwood. That same idea could be perfectly adopted to cities.
What about the things out of nature, however? I exaggerate, yes, but there aren’t almost any tree shadows to be found in the centre of Istanbul. (Although people do tell stories about the greenness of the city.) It took me a while to get to the root of that specific “my neckline feels strangely exposed” feeling. During my six days of wandering, I managed to walk next to trees on three occasions only (in the park near the Topkapi Palace, at the entry to the Botanic Gardens (actually, those were the gardens) and near the Sultanahmet Mosque). Maybe it was because of September but there was also hardly any bird song in the air. However, you could hear dogs barking a lot, especially after dark. It has been said (by Flann O’Brien) that “when a dog barks late at night and then retires again to bed, he punctuates and gives majesty to the serial enigma of the dark, laying it more evenly and heavily upon the fabric of the mind.” These are the childhood sounds of the night, cleaning out the souks of your soul with great care.
Entering and leaving grand cities fills you with very particular sense of power. (As opposed to the deep woods that can sometimes meet or leave you at “This seemed like a good idea at the time.”) It is a borderline moment, and thus, filled with more strength than a regular passage in space. I guess you just tap into their endless reservoirs of chance and chaos. Of course, changes in the weather always help along. And outside of Istanbul, thunder sounds like someone dragging a massive suitcase over a cobbled sky.
I left the city and its pavement pawprints in order to say goodbye to the season and scatter my summer into the salt water. On my way out of this majestic town, I saw mountain bridges being built. The gigantic concrete walls reaching high above the ocean of trees and not supporting anything above their heads filled the space around them with thick, dormant strength. The sight was intensely time-sensitive: you could feel the place exhaling readiness for the things to come. The time stood ripe and heavy on the road. Encouraging, once more, but encouraging in a way a hunting dogs smiles in their sleep. With a mote of uncanniness hovering above their head.
Time plays a great part everywhere in Istanbul. The basements of the houses naturally hide things that would be glamorously exhibited at museums in other parts of the world. In turn, a certain museum in this town only holds completely made-up objects, making the narrative time from its partner novel softly clash and play with the official time of the streets.
In Beyoğlu (the district that National Geographic calls the Soho in the Heart of Istanbul), you can actually enter an antique shop where the salesman still writes with a quill and keeps one of the ancient console games of the world in the corner of his shop. I tried taking a picture of that piece, but the once a Grand Bazaar salesman told me off for taking out my phone. “Put that away. It disrupts the time in here.”
At the end, the gate to summer wilderness was waiting for us at the shores of the Black Sea. The heartbeat of the distant metropolis did not carry so far. It did not reach the waves nor the most relaxing forms of silences I have ever heard. And as it often happens when you can see something for what it really is only after having travelled the distance, I suddenly understood what the heart of Istanbul was all about. At least for me.
It was exquisite, sweet and deliciously presented. It was a baklava stand.