A dear friend decided he wanted to spend his 65th birthday with 24 of his closest friends. We’re not talking ice cream cake and candles here: we celebrated in Istanbul.
I understand now why they call those Sufi mystics Whirling Dervishes. My head was whirling after just one week in Turkey — that mad, exotic, magical collage of a country. It is certainly the only country I have ever visited that straddles two continents. I will have to leave the Asia side for my next visit, and no doubt about it, I will return to Istanbul.
I enjoyed more unique experiences in just one week than I have ever had. I did so with two dozen people, mostly strangers, all of us brought together by one remarkable man: our friend Monroe. He invited a patchwork of his friends to Istanbul to celebrate his birthday. From 11 months to well, I can only guess, 70-something. We were as varied as Monroe is eclectic.
There was a fine arts photographer and her wife, a college provost. An Israeli artist cum party planner, as beautiful and peacockian as you would imagine that title would connote. A portrait photographer, her percussionist boyfriend, and a woman who studies disappearing languages in Alaska. A museum curator and two sisters who defy description but were as elegant and fascinating as two 70-somethings could be. A New England shop owner, an art insurer, a puppet mistress. A Park Avenue couple I was so taken with, I realize I never got to the mundane task of asking “what do you do.” The little ones were the children of a branding expert and his lovely stylist wife. We called them simply “the family.” We had three pairs of sisters, two mother-daughter pairs. Gay and straight. White and black. Our own little American mosaic.
I haven’t even gotten to the Turks yet!! Architect, restaurant conceptualist, artist whose medium is the very Turkish art of felting.
From Christmas Day to New Years, we explored Istanbul together. The mosques, an underground Roman cistern, a Christian church turned mosque turned museum, restaurants from high-end elegant to simple Turkish rice and beans. A boat trip up and down the Bosphorous with a Turkish palace expert whose after-lunch soliloquy was fueled by this wild Turkish drink called ‘raki’ – an intoxicating anise-flavored liqueur that turns cloudy when water is added.
The food! The group teased me about constantly saying “I have never eaten anything like this in my life.” On our first night. we ate at a kebab restaurant designed by the aforementioned architect. Lots of little dishes for which I am grateful we had a menu. We could only guess sometimes what they were: 14 starters, warm and cold, and lamb cooked three ways. The appetizers – like tapas – are called meze. They were mostly vegetable based, often with walnuts. eggplant, and/or yogurt. My favorite appetizer was boiled bulghur stuffed with minced meat. And, this was just our first Turkish meal! Most of us hadn’t even been in the country for 12 hours.
With the help of his Turkish friends, our host arranged a whirlwind tour through the sites of Istanbul. On a luxury bus with a delightful young guide who explained what we were seeing in a way the tourist books never could. We saw the “center of the universe” – at least when Istanbul was Byzantium. A cobble-stoned “race track” — a Hippodrome inspired by the Circus Maximus, created by Septimus Severus and redone by Constantine the Great. You see, those Romans wanted to make this part of the world the seat of their empire.
On our first full day, we set upon the Grand Bazaar, although more aptly, it set upon us. A 500-year-old shopping mall: eye candy and opportunity to work your hondling muscles. I am not one to negotiate. My friends laugh at me all the time because I am such a retail shopper – I don’t know how to look for bargains, I have no idea how to hondle prices, but I realized that was as much part of the experience as the actual goods themselves. That day, I just practiced while purchasing the cutest damn felt hat – with its minaret top.
This part of our tour was to include a visit to the Turkish baths. But, the combo of getting lost in the market, getting hung up with the hat hondling, and a bandaged fractured toe kept me from this chance to walk around naked with a bunch of women I didn’t know, having the top layer of my skin loofahed off. That will definitely be one for the next visit.
From the Divine to the divinely entertaining. Whirling dervishes to belly dancing. This was one of the best trips I have ever made in my life.
I am a solitary traveller. I like the complete independence. I do only what I want. I sleep/eat/walk where I want. I recall my first “big” trip after college. I travelled across the country on a Greyhound bus: it was called the “Ameripass”. Thirty days for, gee, I think it was something like $75. At that time, it was the best way to see America. I didn’t have the guts to hitchhike, although I certainly had done so many times along the West coast.
I could be alone when I wanted. If I wanted company, I had no choice but to strike up a chat with the person sitting next to me. Or, with the locals in whatever city I happened to visit. That first real voyage set the tone for my subsequent travel. Even if I was not solo in my “real” life, I chose to be so in my “travel” life.
Shoot me rather than put me on one of those tours with strangers.
Istanbul changed that!
I had the absolute, unequivocal joy of being with 24 others, most of whom I had never met before. Did I love every one of them? Of course not. But, I found each one of them fascinating to talk to. Lives unlike mine, experiences completely different than my own. Each person had his/her own reason to be on that trip. We had one thing in common: Monroe, the birthday boy who had the grand plan and generosity to produce this unforgettable experience. I never feared who I was sitting next to. Every conversation brought something to my life.
Yes, this solitary traveller may be changing her ways, thanks to this Christmastime trip to Istanbul with strangers.