When you love something, you understand its good side and its bad side are two sides of the same coin. Whether your love is for a person, a place, or a thing, you have no choice but to accept that person, place, or thing in its entirety. You have to take the bad with the good. You don’t get to cherry pick the parts you want in your life.
As we grow old, we want someone next to us who knows our history as a human being, someone who understands our actions today against the backdrop of our past. When the wrinkles are spreading across our faces and our stomachs are sagging and our butts are heading south, and east, and west, we want someone next to us who will see the youthful exuberance we had so long ago. In order to have that in life, you need to come to understand that love is a nuanced thing, that you can’t be with someone unless you learn to accept the bad along with the good.
Just like you can love a person, you can also love a place or a thing. I am not a city person. In fact, in my more extreme moments I will thump my chest and loudly proclaim that the truest beauty in all the world can only be found when no man is present, and that cities are nothing but cesspools of human filth. The more subtle truth, though, is that I love cities in general and Istanbul in particular. Despite the scuffles over parking and the cops who don’t care and the cats who fight in the bushes and the exhaust fumes that belch forth from buses and the warbling screeches that come out of the loudspeakers, Istanbul is one of the most beautiful places on earth. It is where natural beauty and man-made beauty come together to build on each other.
Istanbul is the Beyaz Firin bakery and the beautiful buttery crispness of its pastries. It is the tall glasses of fresh-squeezed orange juice so fresh they don’t even cut the oranges until you order it. It is the blond, creamy grain of the bakery’s wood block tables. It is the professional and courteous, but not obsequious, deft hand of the counter help who load up your tray and ring up your sale. It is the tiny bubbles that rise from the sugar cubes you drop into your tea, sugar cubes so fresh they begin breaking up before they even land on the bottom of your glass.
Istanbul is a cool summer night when the square just north of the Ortakoy mosque is filled with people young and old, milling about, chatting easily with each other, enjoying the clear skies and the brilliant full moon as it rises over the hills across the Bosphorus. It is sitting in the square’s tea garden, mere inches from the currents of the Bosphorus, using a toothpick to munch on a late night plate of french fries while a massive tanker from the Black Sea sails silently down the Bosphorus, so silently that you only know it’s there because its silhouette blacks out the twinkling lights on the other side of the river as the ship glides smoothly towards the open sea.
Istanbul is knowing that on Sundays between eight in the morning and noon, you can hop in the car and see the city before the masses awake and return it to its crowded chaos. It is knowing that during this time you only have to drive 20 minutes in order to stumble upon a peaceful, sparsely-populated pocket of the city, a place where goats still graze and vegetables still grow, and chances are you will have to slow down for a cow standing in the middle of the road, refusing to budge and looking back at you like he’s challenging you: “What are you going to do now, huh?”
When you are crowded onto a standing-room-only bus and a soccer game just got out and traffic isn’t moving an inch and you are watching old people with walkers speed past you on the sidewalk, you think of the expression on that cow’s face. You think of the juice so fresh you can still feel the orange essence dancing on top of the liquid as you lift the glass to your nose. You think of Fatih Sultan Mehmed, someone who lusted after the city so much he was willing to pull his ships overland in the wee hours of the morning just to have it for himself.
When the city tries your patience, when it makes you fight just to be there, these are the things you think of, and that is how you love it.
[This is an excerpt from the chapter “Ode to Istanbul” in A Tight Wide-open Space.]