Istanbul was my layover on the way to Rome. The Istanbul airport is clean and aesthetic, with a few idiosyncrasies: elderly women in hijabs running around in little carriages, airport workers swinging off the back. And as I exited the airport I saw a skinny man with wild yellow hair being carried out by guards. He shook his fist at me and screamed at everyone else. The Istanbulians didn’t seem to notice. They don’t strike at me as a people easily impressed.
The area outside the airport was drab and unappealing. I decided to use public transport to challenge myself, which I stuck to for the most part. Just once I got hopelessly lost, which I guess was inevitable. No one giving me directions spoke any English. Or understood any. Even those who did kept directing me to the bathroom.
On a bridge, trying to figure out I was, I came across a black dog spread out in the middle. For a minute I thought he might be dead; people passed on either side without looking at him. His eyes were open and red. He had a green round pin through his ear. His legs were twitching, and every time he swallowed a shiver ran down his neck. When I got off the bridge I understood why people hadn’t looked at him. There were sick and dying dogs all over the place.
My first stop was Istanbul’s acclaimed aquarium. It was gorgeously arranged, winding through a maze of interesting reproductions and historical or mythical figures. There was even, randomly, a mock Amazon forest where water kept dripping on my phone. The only thing missing in this aquarium were the fish.
The most interesting live creatures were the penguins, who looked exactly as they’re usually depicted: they walk slightly hunched over, like old men, and they waddle. Their heads bob from side to side. They can be very still, and when I first saw them I thought they were another display. I’d never seen live penguins before.
The aquarium was filled with Muslim families enjoying a day out, not tourists. The Istanbulians I saw looked relaxed and happy. And they seem healthy: in the food bar, much of the menu was comprised of fresh vegetables. They’re a good-looking people; they have glowing skin and white teeth, and the general appearance of good health.
After that I walked around the Sultanahmet district for a while. Unfortunately I was too tired to take full advantage of the beautiful history-laden area: Santa Sophia, Topkapi Palace, and the Blue Mosque. The Blue Mosque was swamped with white dogs, as though the city was checkered with a black-and-white dog theme. One of them scrambled up when the call for prayers started. Every time the prayer summons called, the dog barked. It was funny and sweet, but the dog looked really sick.
The Turks were darlings. When I asked for something they were glad to help, not overeager, but warm and well-mannered. The men didn’t leer and nobody pushed me for patronage or tips. I asked a cabbie for directions and he gave them to me in detail. Only after 10 confused minutes did he suggest with a shrug that I could just take a taxi.
And the phonetics of the Turkish language are so appealing! I discovered that the Turkish alphabet is Latin, not Arabic. Neither are theTurks Arabs. In any case, I left Turkey with a wish to learn Turkish. Istanbul was a wonderful experience.