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Istanbul I – arrival

The first glimpse of a new country; various impressions, at once vivid and superficial, everything mined for significance. And of *this* country, a great culture between Persia, Arabia and Balkan Europe, a new vantage point from which to view history.

The suburbs of a megapolis beneath us, coming ever closer. Blocks of flats, mostly low;lots of greenery between them. Concrete freeways and low hills of deep green. Mosques everywhere, dozens of Sinan-out-of-Aya-Sophia domed thin rectangles of concrete, all of them quite new looking, presumably part of development of these areas.

The airport is big and new but without the self-conscious attention-seeking of, say, Beijing or T5; it’s just an airport, we’ve been modern for years. In the queue for passport control I notice two ‘types’. The middle-aged and elderly: big square women in headscarves with long, buttoned-up overcoats, men with I’m a Man moustaches or Hajji beards, leather jackets, dark trousers. The young, even from within the samefamily, dressed as variedly and self-expressively as their contemporaries in (the rest of) Europe.

Europe? We’re not in Europe. The Marmara sea stretched beneath us as we descended. We have crossed the Bosphorous. We are in Asia, near the western extreme of the France-sized peninsula between the Black Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean – we are in Asia Minor, Anatolia, Byzantium.

The queue is long, but it keeps moving. In spite of that, two families try a particularly brazen kind of queue jumping, simply moving through us, pushing through us, with a dogged kind of entitlement. Both are of the square-women-and-men-with-beards variety. Then, after customs, we are greeted and whisked to a minibus, which we wait to fill up; and as one courteous, smiling man with no English passes us to another I get flashbacks to Ottoman stereotypes: a black-and-white film, mid-reel; smiling men of enormous courtesy and larger moustaches; unsuspecting foreigners, pawn in some Byzantine game, passed from pillar to post; bureaucrats and officials – or are they – talking to each other in impenetrable Finno-Ugric; everyone gracious and malign. Thankfully we are not knifed on a steam ferry and dumped in the Golden Horn, mistaken for agents of the British; but deposited at a hotel were friendly, attractive young people show us our rooms.

More Istanbul on the way in, the suburbs and traffic gradually thickening. Coloured neon on concrete. Shops crowded on ground floors. New mosques on ridges. Ever-smaller outbreaks of a thick and unfamiliar greenery. Enormous Turkish flags frequently seen. The great and endless maw to cross the Bosphorous, unbridged before 1973; glimpse of that astonishing landform, Europe and Asia playing a kind of slow footsie as their shallow bays and peninsulas disappear into a boat-heavy evening haze. My book speculates that both words have their origin in some primitive, early Indo-European tongue, and that Asia is the land of sunrise, Europe the land of darkness.

A yellow sign reads ‘Welcome to Europe’: the eastern extreme of my continent. Things are tighter; crowds disgorge busses and climb home out of car-friendly canyons; it seems only moments before the Theodesian walls stand banded and crumbling, amost kissing the car-weighted overpass, and suddenly the buildings are more varied, tighter, the streetplan more medieval; packed things that look like they should fall down tomorrow cheek by jowl with new things of modest ostentation; sudden blocks of Byzantine entablatures, Ottoman domes: real age. Flats, curtains undrawn with wall-sized televisions flickering; a monoethnic crowd of black haired, brown-eyed people dressed in sober colours, less striking contrast between generations than we saw on the plane, relatively few women around compared to the western end of this same Europe; but few headscarves.

And here we are, in a concrete block in the old city, lulled to sleep and awakened by a constellation of crackling mezzuin, buildings low and streets lined with old ones, each with an upper floor bay window where originally the women would have spent their lives. Trains and playgrounds tight-packed. The heart of tourist Istanbul this; in our search for a late-night (for this part of town) place to eat men come out in a rush to hassle us in, a determined charm that can swing two ways: the first place gets quite rude when we say no, we’ll come back, giving the slightly showy courtesy an edge of menace; but the men in the second place, in spite of seeing tourists all day everyday, are friendly and inquisitive, swapping ages of family members, happy to take Sterling but equally careful to do so using the official rate. We’re here.

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