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Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Making of a Moment [1]

Main | Part one | Part two | Part three

A writer's biggest challenge is to describe the indescribable. We aren't afraid of failure, for in the attempt sometimes we dig out things we never knew existed. It's like panning for gold and finding silver.

I am currently in Istanbul for Valentine's Day; I walk its streets trying to think up descriptions for it. I tried once in my book Little Miss, but it took second stage - almost willingly - to the main characters Hakan and Giselle.

But that's Istanbul; so massive, so in your face, and yet so willing to take a step back and disappear into the shadows, like the kindly godmother of fairy tales keeping an eye out for you or the evil wolf lurking in the dark waiting for you to take a wrong turn. It can change on any given day, for Istanbul is unpredictable, changeable and moody - very much like the passions of its people.

One day you can be taken aback by the generous hospitality of a stranger, the next you can be conned into parting with your hard earned money by a lecherous carpet seller in Sultanahmet.

But that's Istanbul all right; unapologetic and unrelenting. It doesn't welcome the uninitiated with open arms, rather we have to struggle and wriggle our way through her tightly crossed roads and to her breast to feel where her pulse beats the deepest.

However, once we are cocooned there, and she reluctantly croons to us from afar as we are held in her arms, there is no other feeling quite like it in the world.

In Love with Istanbul

Taksim by sunset by afganaf Kr @ TrekEarth

On Valentine's Day, even if we cannot spend it with someone we love, we can always spend it doing something we love, and in doing so love ourselves.

It's still a day or so to go until 14 February, but I am here, out in the streets of Istanbul's Taksim where I first fell in love with the city. A strange place to fall in love with, as it is probably the most seediest and dirtiest part of the city, and at once the most human, too. I can't explain it, apart from saying that maybe the place is a litmus paper test for whether you can love Istanbul at all - because if you can love Taksim, you can love any part of it.

And it was love at first sight. My breath was literally taken away as I weaved my way through the trash that had taken up manoeuvres in the cobble-stone street, littered with the homeless and the hopeful, begging or busking for your money.

What was there to love about that? Was it that Taksim's grime got lost in the city's vastness? To me, born on a small island and growing up in another albeit much larger one, it possibly made it all the more hypnotic. I felt like a gnat looking up at a trumpeting elephant, mesmerised by a grandiosity that nevertheless felt more befitting to the vastness of America, Russia or China.

Yet, here it was, a jewel stuck in the flesh of a dead empire's carcass, of which the limbs were cut off almost a century before; a city whose population outnumbers half the countries in Europe. And I had fallen hopelessly in love with it from the outset.

It was nearly a decade ago now. After my compulsory army service in Cyprus, I'd come to Istanbul for a short trip to see the city I'd so long been listening about in my favourite Turkish classical pieces.

I wanted to see if its majesty had merely been an intoxication. To see if its mystery had simply been heightened by hearing about the city through traditional songs whilst lost in a boyish drunken stupor among a camaraderie of friends - Turkish boys turning to drink in our rites of passage into men.

Yet, coming to the city after my military stint was not strictly my first time in Istanbul. I had passed through the city as a child with my parents, as we had driven across Europe from England to Cyprus for a few summers. But Istanbul isn't for children; it's for the ancient soul, for the aged body, for the scarred mind. I couldn't understand Istanbul as I did then. As I do now.

Istanbul is a haven for those who have lived despite it all, to tell the tale of their survival.

Wounds Old and New

Coming to Istanbul was done on an impulse.

During a chat with a friend in America about a month ago, she gave me a link to a Turkish food blog's post about "5 Things to Eat Before You Die". Top of the list was seafood and the traditional Turkish drink of rakı by the Bosphorus.

It reminded me of a good friend I had lost to cancer last year. This had been one of the things I had been promising to do with her, as friends so often do, believing there is all the time in the world to notch up a bucket list of one's own.

It's also something I had dreamt of doing as a Turkish boy, growing up and and out of drinking with his buddies, to be promoted into sharing the culture of rakı and Turkish music with a woman, seated by his side, drinking together until the sun comes up over the horizon of the ancient waterway.

With my wife on our honeymoon, maybe.

But as with Istanbul and Turkish classical music, this tradition of drinking is an acquired taste, too, and the quivering vibe, caught as a Bosphorus fish in an Istanbul fisherman's net, is not for every girl.

But it would have been perfect for her.

And suddenly, as I depart Taksim and start searching for some of the places the food blog mentioned by the city's shoreline, I realise that I have come here to lick wounds still healing, and to celebrate the life of a lost loved one this Valentine's Day.

Read part two

See also: Valentine's Day Specials

Read more: On Love | My Say >>

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