Dear Istanbul

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Dear Istanbul,

Though we only spent a few short days together, I hope you don’t think it too bold of me to declare my undying love for you. From the moment we met, you enticed every one of my senses with your colors and perfumes and pungent spices, and you romanced me with your complex history and enigmatic, vibrant spirit.

No, you don’t think it too bold of me; in fact, you are quite accustomed to strangers falling hopelessly under your spell. I was warned about your wily ways: aromatic spices, thousand and one varieties of baklava and Turkish delight, Turkish coffee, a cup of tea at every doorway accompanied by an easy smile. I prepared myself for these seductions. I could resist your grand bazaars, those dens of iniquity, the roasting chestnuts and corn at every street corner, drippingly moist doner, every kilim more impressive than the next, and even the grandeur and solemnity of the Aya Sophia.

Yes, your public face was impressive and alluring, but expected. What I was not prepared for was what I discovered in your backstreets, underneath the surface. And that, dear Istanbul, left me utterly defenseless. A sumptuous dessert made of chicken? Boza, cag doner, kokoreç, ayran, pit-roasted lamb as tender as filet mignon? I shall not even speak of the cheeses and kaymak – just thinking of them sets my heart aflutter.

I speak of food first because that is where my predilections lie. But that is not to diminish the strolls through the old city, visiting fifth-generation soap makers, tailors, metal workers, watching children play ball on the bones of a 6th-century aqueduct, marveling at the work of Mimar Sinan, whose “apprentice” mosques are even almost too beautiful to behold, sailing down the Bosphorus with Europe on one side and Asia on the other, the dramatic lights of the city at night as we sailed back to our port, venturing down into your underbelly to explore the Basilica Cistern, being stopped in my tracks by the mesmerizing and eerily beautiful call to prayer. The vastness of your history was such a weight on my shoulders as I tried in vain to absorb it all; it is something only to be understood layer by layer, as you are a city defined by a deeply rich patina of history.

And no one told me of your love of animals. Street cats and dogs (which in my country would be called homeless or strays) roamed the city as freely as humans, friendly and ready to be fed, but never pestering or begging. You take care to vaccinate your dogs but would never neuter or spay, believing it to be cruel. So your streets belong equally to the cats, dogs, black and grey crows, red pigeons, and us humans, perhaps even in that order. Sometimes, as in the case of our concert last Monday, cats decide to take up residence inside. One in particular wanted to comment during Heart and Breath, heckling me with his increasingly urgent meowing as I played quieter and quieter. I can say with certainty that this has never happened to me before and probably will never happen again, unless I come back to see you.

And I do hope to see you again, though when I cannot say. Until then, Istanbul, I hope you keep me in your thoughts even a fraction of the time you will be occupying mine.



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