There are 20 million humans who live in greater Istanbul. The cobblestone streets are narrow, filled with cars and people hugging the edge of the gutter, everything going in both directions. Booking a room online with Airbnb, I chose the Taksim square area, hoping for more of a slice of Turkish life than in Sultanahmet with all the tourist hotels. The private room was in the apartment of a young tech guy who didn’t do his dishes, had the living and dining room as his office and began asking me several times a day to write a good review on Airbnb and added that 4.5 stars wouldn’t cut it.
In his favor I will say he did help me navigate bus schedules, taxis, lent me a sim card and allowed me to do a wash in his new Bosch washer dryer. My room was a little bigger than the bed and a little bigger than the bathroom. The price was too high but he did make me a good cup of coffee in the morning and he spoke fluent English( his mom was a Brit). The area of the flat is called Cihangir, artsy, charming with outdoor cafes packed together on the tiny streets, filled with trendy young Turks drinking espresso or cay(tea). But even in this neighborhood, barely anyone spoke anything but Turkish. My only acquaintance in town was a wonderful guy who had a cultural tourist agency with a friend of his. I had taken a walking tour with him in 2006 and played matchmaker, introducing him to a Turkish medical student I had met on the plane to Diyarbakir on that trip. They had an affair which eventually ended. We met at his work, a cultural travel company that also does private tours in Istanbul. The following day his partner was taking a small group of Jews to see 19 synogogues still functioning. After catching up on 9 years he took me to a restaurant hidden in one of those back alleys for a delicious meal. That night I took the overnight bus to Ayvalik on the Turkish coast. I was meeting a friend from Seattle on the island of Lesvos, Greece, a 1.5hour ferryboat ride from Ayvalik.
One of the most pleasant experiences in Turkey is traveling by a long distance bus. There is a driver and there is a waiter who serves cookies, water and tea….. for free. There is a movie screen on the back of the chair and a hook up to wi fi. The seven hour ride cost 15 euro. As I surveyed the bus passengers, I was searching for someone who looked like they spoke English. Over the years, I have become adept at this game. The young guy was a reporter for a small television station in Istanbul and had spent 6 months in Britain doing a crash course in English. He had left wing political views, we talked about world events and he refused to let me pay for breakfast the next morning. We arrived at 7 am on the outskirts of Ayvalik and were driven into town by a van. It was cold, and rainy, the wind was blowing, and the sea looked mean. The boat to Lesvos left at 6 pm. My friend said goodbye. I checked in at a cheap hotel, and slept for 3 hours.
The rest of the day I hung out in cafes drinking Turkish cay, eating rice pudding and hooking up to wifi. Some things do change but some don’t. The weather was not helping my first impressions of Ayvalik but not even a sunny day would improve the condition of the buildings, shops and forlorn residents. Since today was market day, the back streets were filled with buyers and sellers of fresh produce, horse saddles, jewelry, and clothes reminiscent of Eastern bloc fashion under communism. I wandered around and then went for another cay and rice pudding. On the bus to the boat, I had one woman explaining in Turkish, another in German and finally an old man in English ,where to get off.
As I entered the port building, pushed and shoved by a bunch of people who had obviously been shopping, I suddenly understood what everyone was saying.. They were speaking Greek. Today was market day in Ayvalik and the Greeks from Lesvos came shopping for better deals in Turkey.