Istanbul, Turkey. The Night’s Mistress on the Golden Horn
The Spell of Twilight
Music: Nemo, Nightwish
Movie: The Promise (2016)
Book: The Bastard of Istanbul, Elif Shafak
There are those places in the world that are impossible to grasp in one sentence, see in one day, or ever forget. Istanbul is one of them.
Stretched on two continents, Europe and Asia, at the mouth of Bosporus Strait that connects The Black Sea to The Sea of Marmara, the city sits on layers of history layers. Istanbul is a tempting mistress that wraps you in her voluptuous mystery like an alluring siren’s song.
Wherever you turn your head, the skyline is bristled by hundreds of years old minarets. In an ingenious architectural twist, next to them found their place modern skyscrapers erected after the most recent earthquake.
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On the narrow streets in the historical centre, you will meet an older man pushing uphill his cart filled with cherries or sweets. You won’t resist his charming toothless smile, a lot of gesturing and Turkish that makes no sense to you that translates into an invitation to spend a few coins on his ware. And what a tasty one it is! You will congratulate yourself on purchasing it.
Students, businessmen and women flood the wide boulevards, walking about with purpose. Not to mention the ever-present, colourful and rowdy traffic, be it on roads or maritime.
Istanbul is one of the most eclectic cities in Europe. However, it is precisely the variety, the blend of ancient and modern, of meagre and wealthy, of crammed and wide-open spaces that makes it so attractive to tourists.
All the hours of the day are not enough for what this place has to offer. One moment you are haggling for some item you don’t even need in the Grand Bazaar. You will even lose your bearings in the medley of colour, scent and clamour and end up forgetting what you wanted to buy in the first place.
The next minute you find yourself in Topkapi, a sumptuous palace, learning about some potent sultan and the hundred concubines he kept in his royal harem. Or you might visit one of the numerous other palaces and castles scattered around the city.
You will discover a sense of belief even if you are not religious when you marvel at the engineering splendour of the Hagia Sophia.
You will get swallowed by the swarming hive Istanbul is in daylight, but most of all, you will love to surrender to the sensuousness of the nightlife in the city that knows no sleep.
I was not immune to any of it. And this is another memoir.
The Mistress On The Golden Horn
This summer, the cruise ship I work on docks in Istanbul for two nights precisely to give the passengers (and the crew) a chance to see as much as possible of the galore the city has to offer.
The tours we sell onboard would cover most of the main tourist attractions and sightseeing. Then, if you have any energy left, you are free to go out at night and witness something like a parallel dimension.
The energy conundrum solves itself the minute you find yourself past the security gate. All of a sudden, the tiredness of a long working day (in my case, spent chiefly on tours after an early morning dispatch) dissolves miraculously as if I just woke up after a resting nap instead of roaming the city in the heat of the summer for over twelve hours.
I swear this place has tremendous power to recharge your batteries once you step out on firm land.
One evening, as I was preparing to close the office, the phone rang.
“Don’t go to the staff mess for dinner. I’m taking you out tonight!”
It was the mellow voice of Jay, a young grandfather of forty-eight from Goa, the manager of a busy department on board.
My voice seeps with disbelief at his ability to find time to go out, not to mention restaurant reservations. I hear a soft chuckle before he hangs up.
I’ve known him for some time—an educated, attractive and charming man.
Some of our mutual friends say we’re perfect for each other; I don’t know. When you spend months on end in a relatively small environment, a crew of a thousand people become a tight-knit family away from home.
One gets to know almost everybody; friendships form quickly, as do relationships. Besides, as in any small community, everybody knows everybody else’s business and gossiping becomes a great entertainment source among the crew.
So, I agree with those who tell me we are perfect for each other, and that’s about it. What I am sure of is that I cannot force butterflies in my stomach. Couples chemistry is a funny thing sometimes.
I contemplate all this as I walk to the gangway, clad in a black dress and high heels.
Ever the gentleman, Jay is already waiting in the lobby, smartly dressed and charming the lady security officers on duty. His eyes were already set on me when I spotted him. His smile, equally charming, produces more giggling that doesn’t stop as I get closer.
A few passing by crew members wave at me; others show a hopeful thumb up. The Nepalese ladies of the Security team wish us a pleasant evening; their giggles linger even after we’re off the ship.
Jay offers me a hand to help manage the inclined gangway, not so practical for high heels.
Now that the colleagues who saw us seem happy that we are finally going out and the gossip machine is churning merrily, all that is needed is some universe intervention to get the said butterflies fluttering. With some luck, the city will work her magic.
Before I ask how far we have to walk, a taxi stops right at the terminal’s gate, and Jay opens the back door for me. The car joins the heavy traffic towards the quaint neighbourhood of Galata. It seems all of Istanbul is going out, and it is not even Friday.
The Golden Horn seems dreamlike in the flashing neon lights.
The restaurant Jay picked is on top of a skyscraper. He flashes his charming smile at the hostess who starts undulating her hips in a well-rehearsed walk down to a table for two on the terrace.
The view of Istanbul gleaming her myriad of lights at night renders me speechless.
Jay’s smile widens. Check! Or so he thinks.
“You are way too busy. Who did you pay to make this reservation for you?” I ask him.
He casually places the silk napkin on his lap, his smile never faltering. I have to admit that it is his most attractive feature, together with a sexy pair of dimples and penetrating brown eyes.
“Does it matter?”
“Not really. Well done, you!”
The waiter is a Portuguese girl, very professional and informative. As soon as we make our choices, a Turkish sommelier presents a wine menu. I prefer dry red, but we settle for white, given our meal selection.
Conversation with Jay flows smoothly. The atmosphere is electric, and I should have my eyes set on his gorgeous smile, but the city’s magnetism is hard to resist.
All too often, my eyes turn to caress the mysterious shadows strangely illuminated by the free-flowing fluorescent beams.
So does Jay, admitting that picking Istanbul for the momentous decision of asking me out (we both nearly choke with laughter!) was a no-brainer.
By midnight, we leave the elegant but cosy skyscraper terrace and walk to the first club that comes our way. Just before we hear the hubbub, we join some of our colleagues heading in the same direction. The feeling of meeting familiar faces in a place where you know nobody is so heartening!
Even the club security’s awkward occurrence asking one of the boys to show an ID becomes a hilarious moment. We all know he’s twenty-eight. Lucky bastard! The same security guard discarded me with half a look. It made me feel like seventy-two, not the other way around!
I’m adamant that age is just a number, and I say this to Jay, who bursts into hearty laughter. Other than some grey strands at his temples, the man does not show his years at all. He laughs because I’m about half his age and concerned about it, even if I state the opposite.
I keep teasing that he is the real reason the damn guard did not bother to ask me for ID. Jay pretends to like the banter.
The club is the exact opposite of the luxurious restaurant. The upbeat pop replaced the elegant classical music and a blinding strobe the dim lights.
The city’s multifaceted appeal is not lost on me. I love the ease with which one can find or lose an identity here. One minute you are seeping wine in a high-end restaurant; the next, you are drinking beer from a bottle while leaning onto the people next to you who lean on others farther away and so on.
The club is unbelievably crowded. If somebody threw a needle, it would fall on the floor hours later. Everybody holds a drink and sings out loud in unison to whatever song the DJ plays. The uproar is earsplitting; the dancing a conjoint rippling.
We give up and walk to a quieter cocktail bar, not far from the rowdy club, in less than an hour. Later in the week, we heard that other colleagues from the ship ended up paying four hundred dollars for a regular bottle of champagne at gunpoint in some crazy club in the city.
No drama ruined our night out. Just languid sensuousness and slightly intoxicated senses in the light breeze past the twilight hour and one cocktail bar after another until the first rays of dawn.
It is close to four in the morning as we walk along the Bosporus, back to the cruise ship. Surprisingly, we find an open tavern with a few tables placed right on the shore.
Breakfast on the Golden Horn’s promenade seems the wisest decision of the moment. After all, the staff mess does not come complete with waves crashing at our feet and covered by a divine canvas of dark purple and pink hues that slowly extinguish the stars’ flickering. It is indeed a much better alternative for breakfast and one last opportunity to extract one more drop of the city’s charm.
I did hope that the night would work its magic – and it did. I did fall! I did get butterflies galore. Alas, not for the man.
Istanbul, the alluring mistress, kept true to her reputation and worked her magic on me. I was forever ensnared under her spell.
Jay knows but has the grace not to show it.
Before the city that never sleeps pulls the gauzy veil that magically metamorphoses the darkness into light, we take a stroll back to the ship.
The quotidian life continues as if no magic interrupted it. It is back to business, back to responsibilities.
To me, it means some office work and dispatching Istanbul-day-two tours. Possibly jump on one of the buses and get lost in some museum galleries, if not disappear for a few hours to recheck the Bazaar. I will have to return in the afternoon to send more passengers on the excursions they bought.
Most likely, I will end day two in the city, accompanying an evening tour to a belly dancing show and dinner. One of my many guilty pleasures in Istanbul. Alongside getting lost in the Grand Bazaar.
The alluring mistress has uncanny ways to uphold her spell.
Tomorrow, the ship will set sail to Rhodes. Who knows what story awaits on the beautiful Greek island?