The real Istanbul?

{The Blue Mosque}

Two days ago, I was reading through my Google Reader (the best – free – magazine ever!) and found, to my delight, a City Guide to Istanbul on Grace Bonney’s blog Design Sponge. The guide was written by Melinda Mahaffey who has been living in Istanbul for six months.

(Serendipity at work in the world once again!)

I read through the post and the comments section looking for juicy recommendations for our time in Istanbul. I was especially interested to find two references to a shop called Jennifer’s Hamam as we had met Jennifer, a fellow Canadian, a few days earlier. We (okay… I) had been admiring an extraordinary ceramic piece in her shop when another customer suddenly pointed at it and bought it; I was quite angry with myself for not having spoken up sooner and Jennifer did a great job of smoothing my ruffled feathers. She walked us down to her other shop, served us apple tea and talked with us about the local textile industry. Meanwhile, her Turkish colleague contacted the ceramic artist and, when we returned to the shop the next day, he showed us two gorgeous pieces similar to the one I had been admiring; we bought one of those as well as two smaller pieces. (My mom is wondering how we’ll get those home.)

In the comments section of the city guide, an exchange between a reader and Grace Bonney from Design Sponge captured my attention:

First, I was impressed that everyone managed to conduct themselves with respect, courtesy and restraint since this is becoming increasingly rare in the blogosphere. (What is it, exactly, that people are so angry about? Okay… that’s another post.) But I have found myself reflecting on this exchange over the last day because there is an important idea at the heart of this reader’s comments. If I understand correctly, Ebru Goktan is looking for a guide that reveals the “real Istanbul”, the Istanbul known, experienced and understood by people who have called the city home over a long period of time.

I tried to put myself in this reader’s position. Before I left Canada to work at international schools on four continents, I might have had similar concerns if a guide about my home city of Ottawa had been written by someone new to Bytown. My criticism would not have been motivated by xenophobia or Ottawa-snobbery (or maybe just a very little bit) but would have come, primarily, from a heartfelt desire that the city guide capture the essence of my beloved city. The real Ottawa. The problem is, I think, that there is no such thing as the real Ottawa or the real Istanbul. These are constructs that simply don’t exist.

In Istanbul, a city of 15 million people, there are 15 million different city guides waiting to be shared. (This makes me happy… and also poses something of an organizational conundrum.)

How one describes a city depends on many factors including the neighbourhood in which you live, your financial situation including your disposable income, your personal preferences and tastes regarding food, entertainment, art and design, your age, your ethnicity and religion, what you find appealing/beautiful and what you think of as a good time. (I take my fun seriously.) How long one had lived in the city would certainly be a variable but some people discover more about a city in a few months or years than others do in an entire lifetime lived primarily in one neigbourhood. Having lived in five countries, we have met a number of adventurous and open-minded expats who have experienced more of the city in which we lived than some of our local friends and colleagues. In most (but not all) of those cities, the locals would have been the first ones to admit it.

My two closest Ottawa friends would write quite different Ottawa city guides even though both women have lived in Ottawa for their entire adult lives. There would be some overlap, I’m sure; The Works in the Glebe might make it onto both lists – because who can argue with those amazing gourmet burgers – but one friend would probably focus more on Ottawa’s vibrant and varied music scene while the other’s city guide might reference figure skating and places of worship. My Ottawa guide might seem very touristy to some long-time Ottawans because many of the things I most enjoy about my city are quite mainstream and most of them are located in the downtown core. For example, I would want visitors to experience the Canada Day fireworks from Parliament Hill because the show is magical and always fills me with awe and hope. Although I have never articulated this before, I believe that each of us would seek to recommend Ottawa experiences and sights that have provoked, in us, a specific feeling – perhaps in a profound way. All three would be great city guides. Great but different.

This is one of the things I love about travel writing on the internet; everyone throws their own unique party and, as a reader, I am free to stay for as long as I’d like and sample whatever is appealing to me.

Let’s think of the comments section below as a collaborative endeavor. What would you like to share about your home city or, in the case of expats and international teachers, one of your home cities?

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