Friday, March 4, 2011

Neither here nor there

One of the things that seems to fascinate people the most about İstanbul is the idea of it straddling 2 continents. Some of the spark for the interest is probably the whole 'East meets West' thing, a supposed dichotomy that I honestly don't understand (don't get me started on the cultural similarities for me of tea houses and pubs...) but which is rather nice sounding and does definitely help sell the place to visitors.

But the main factor has surely got to be the sheer geographical uniqueness of the place. This is famously the only city in the world that sprawls across 2 continents. (Having said that, there's got to be a lot of other places in the world where there's people living on the continental edge. I mean, where does continental Europe stop being Europe and turn into Asia? Dollars to doughnuts there's a russian town or several lurking about the divide.)

But anyhow here the feature does rather stick in the mind. Perhaps it's having water, a proper sea channel at that, as the dividing line - the fact that you actually have to leave one side and cross something to get across. Accordingly I have read multiple guidebooks, visitors accounts, and first-few-weeks-of-posting expat blogs where folk wax lyrical about the unique experience of popping over to asia on the ferry.

But there's a fair few misconceptions about all this too. First, that it's anything other than a geographical boundary - it ain't. I remember my mum asking S before I came out here if you had to show your passport when you cross. S found the question highly amusing, grinning out a 'no, why on earth would you?' reply. It didn't strike me as that stupid a question, but I'd probably react similarly now - it is purely a matter of soil and sea; Europe to Asia is administratively no different to crossing between Essex and Kent on the Dartford crossing. [It also by the way has the similarity of those funky car reading jobbies that mean it just bleeps and takes money off a card, rather than having to slow down, pay your pennies, and shout happy birthday* to the guy in the booth like you used to in the good old days. Except with the difference that the fact that you don't need to slow down to stopping speed is read by most traffic as not needing to slow down at all, which means bombing it through the car-plus-20cm-wriggle-room toll booth bit at about 80kmph. (Not to belabour the point about turkish driving, or anything...)

*I'm not sure anyone from my family reads this blog, so this doesn't make sense to anyone, so has failed as a small circulation blog in joke. So, basically, family (on the Y side) tradition was that we always shouted happy birthday in joyous unison to the poll booth guy, on the grounds that occasionally it would be. Cool, lame, only you can decide.]

The other thing that goes very quickly is the wonder factor. Yes, the first boat across, in summer tourism sunshine, with a fresh çay and amidst the screaming seagulls is indeed lovely. And the first road crossing via one of the Big Fucking Bridges (engineering horn) is pretty spectacular in the sight and the scope of the transit.

But joining one of the rammed commuter boats and not being able to get a seat on a grey day post work is nothing special; and joining a 40 minute tailback for the priviledge of travelling your first 1k of a 15k city circuit trip to get home last thing at night is also considerably less exciting.

Lastly there's the presumption that the 2 İstanbul sides are noticeably different. I suppose there is some truth in this one; in that of course different areas of a city differ and some are going to be on one side, some on the other. So the historic peninsula, the young and trendy party central west end equivalent, and some of the main business districts are on the European side. The other side doesn't have these areas, and as a result has a reputation for being a bit more conservative. And this sort of thing, with the sort of people it attracts as residents, does lend those areas some sort of coherent character.

But the main warp and weave of the city is the same wherever - the same cafes, buffets, minarets, high fashion glass fronted shops, knackered tea houses, food hawkers, traffic, markets, noise...same fish swimming through the same seas meeting in the middle.

Maybe its on a par with the North South divide in London. A distinction without much of a difference, but still strangely important to some.

Certainly for my occasional expat drinking buddies its a standing joke that the 'asian siders' (this itself is a misnomer - nobody talks about the asian side in turkish, it's the 'anatolian continent') leave the pub early whereas the europeans stay out drinking to all hours. This also is not entirely inaccurate - but likely more related to the fact most of the drinking goes on on the western half, and the aforementioned sheer hassle of getting back across.

Anyway. All this is pre-amble to my musings a couple of nights ago, on whether it's apt or not that I seem to have fallen between the two stools on this, living as I do on an island somewhere in the middle.

I was sat on the ferry, for my gazillionth hour of ploughing a course between one side and the other, and whilst staring out the window at the 2 sides with still only the start of an appreciation of what I was looking at, I realised I can't really say like any of it feels like mine.

Plenty of people wax lyrical about İstanbul, how they fall in love with the city as much as anything else about turkish life or culture or people. And, well, I'm *fond* - but I don't think I can say that I'm in love. It is a crush, maybe, borne out of a lot of staring from a distance, but with little in the way of actual contact. And, well, too much of that sort of thing gets a bit tired after a while.

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