Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Side Streets of Istanbul

In America, it’s Main Street versus Wall Street.  In Istanbul, it’s Main Street versus Side Street.

Don’t get me wrong. Main drags are really important. You have to use them to get wherever you meant to go.  E.g., how can you get to the Arc d’ Triomphe without using the Champs d’ Elysees?

In Istanbul, the same rule pretty much applies. Unfortunately for visitors, streets often change names every block or so. Fortunately, main streets are paved, while the less traveled streets are cobbled. Unfortunately, get a cab driver into an unfamiliar neighborhood, and he’s as lost as you are.  Inshallah.
Side Street in Sariyer Neighborhood

Fortunately, most of what visitors want to see is all pretty close. From the Hippodrome, you could almost throw a rock and hit the Blue Mosque, the Cisterns, Topkapi Palace and Hagia Sophia. The Grand Bazaar is only a couple of Metro stops away, just off—you guessed it—the main street.

But side streets dangle off the main road like Christmas ornaments. When I walk down the main streets of Istanbul, I linger at nearly every corner to gaze down the twisty, cobbled, side streets that snake away and disappear into some mysterious end. Cramped buildings with engaging shops and cafes rise into five or six stories of balconied apartments whose occupants could reach across the street and shake hands. Their sort of Four-square, sort of Craftsman, sort of Edwardian, sort of French, sort of Dutch Colonial, but totally Ottoman architecture are tales from some dusty book.
Side Street in Taksim Square

The guidebooks don’t say much about side streeets. Ask a Turk, and you’ll get a palms-up, Inshallah response, which is not so much religious as it is to say, “Who can know these things and if it matters, it’s lost on me and should be on you, because if it mattered it would be in your guidebook and I would know but I don’t.”

In my life, I have always gravitated to side streets. Most people keep to the main road, the Rue Principale, and why not? If you want to get someplace, that’s the way you go. Admittedly, side streets often don’t advertise much and staying too long on them could be a waste of time, especially when you have more to do and see than hours available.

What’s to gain? Most of us pretty much have what we want most—food and shelter, good friends, significant others. Stuff we love. Tolerable work. Time off.  Sure, there could be more. We might want a Mercedes, but a Toyota will do. Having that Mercedes won’t change us all that much, we seem to accept.
An Entrance to the Grand Bazaar--The Mother of All Side Streets

And having pretty much what you want is a big part of happiness. Stick to the main paths toward the goals you’re supposed to have set, stay determined and focused, and chances are that you will attain an acceptable level of happiness.

But the side streets? Linger there, and you suspect, if only for a moment, that maybe you want something you can’t have. That somewhere along the line, life has sold you something that maybe you didn’t want to buy, and maybe you don’t quite want to close the deal.

Which, I guess, is the inherent worth of side streets’ distraction: No matter where you are right now, no matter what you think, you have your imagination. What’s snuggled inside some dark alley, whatever mystery lies concealed behind some nameless door, is always out there.

For me, to steal from Frost: That has made all the difference.

The Passages in the Grand Bazaar are a spaghetti of Side Streets

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