The intensity of life in Istanbul is very difficult to put into words. You must see its opaque pollution in order to take in its magnificently clear scenery. You must taste its rancid lies in order to appreciate the sweetness of its wholesome honesty. The loud honking of horns, screaming street vendors, the visual beauty of the Bosphorus combined with the smog of the polluted city air, the incredible mixture of smells from the spice bazaar, sweet, succulent, mouth-watering, mixed with the intense sourness of body odor, sweat, and cigarette smoke, the savory taste-bud explosion of sweets, meats, nuts and breads, pushing your way through the crowded streets, on buses packed shoulder to shoulder, feeling the cool breeze of wind tossing your hair on ferry-boats, all combine to create an amazing and complete sensory overload. Like a roller coaster ride that has just come to an end, each daily adventure leaves you wanting to do it all over again or run away and never look back. While Istanbul’s welcoming hospitality calls you to come in and stay awhile, if you are not careful, if you do not take the time to pause and be in the moment, it will eat you up.
Istanbul inspires and mystifies you with its tantalizing aromas and mouth watering treats, only to taunt you with its nauseatingly corrupt illusions. When you least expect it, it flips you over, turns you inside out, holds you upside down, and ruthlessly challenges all of your values and beliefs. At least it did for me. It forced me to reevaluate every single thing I thought I knew, to examine each and every pre programmed expectation and assumption in my mind and unlearn them, to discover, rediscover and uncover the potential of life by tasting each and every bite along the way to self-discovery. As Socrates said “the unexamined life is not worth living.” As such, the untasted dish is not worth scarfing down.
Think about all of the times we rush through our meals, our work days, our time with our families without taking a moment to stop, step back, immerse ourselves in the moment, pause, breathe, and reflect. In order to practice mindful eating you must put your fork down after taking each and every bite; actually taste and breathe in the flavor of each morsel on your tongue. Savor each individual flavor.
It took me a very long time, years in fact, to come to terms with the culture shock of life in Turkey. American culture is very individualistic as opposed to the collectivist nature of Turkish society. It is planned and orderly, compared to the chaotic, spontaneous, everything can change in a matter of minutes style of life in Turkey. It is impossible to be prepared ahead of time. For some this way of living life in the fast lane is a thrilling adventure, full of excitement. For me, the highly anxious, Type-A personality, it was torture. The life I was accustomed to in small town suburbia was plain, bland, predictable but very comfortable, with every mouthful comes the same taste bite after bite. In contrast, each spoonful taken from the same Istanbul dish can be spicy at first, then savory, addicting, salty, then nauseatingly sweet, leaving you with a feeling of confusion as to whether you absolutely loved it or passionately despised it.
One thing I knew for sure was that the uncertainty of day to day life in Turkey made my anxiety level peak. I realized quickly that my calculated, plan-ahead, be-prepared-for-everything way of living wasn’t going to cut it here. The highly intense, in your face, yet somehow passive-aggressive behavior of the people here simply did not taste right to me. I became very bitter, irritated, angry and shocked at what I perceived to be inconsiderate, insensitive human behavior in everyday encounters.
The minute encounters of day to day life consistently left me with a bad taste in my mouth. Then one day it suddenly became clear to me that living among the chaos of Istanbul’s instability was life’s way of giving me some sort of exposure therapy, comparable to someone with arachnophobia being thrown into a room full of spiders or someone with anorexia being forced to eat a plateful of terrible food and keep it down. Though it seemed torturous, I realized it was my path to inner freedom.
What better way to learn to break down our inner barriers than in a land where no structure exists and no rules are enforced? What better way to learn to tune out the sounds of the angry horn, than in a land where the honking never stops and is used to communicate such opposing things as “get out of my way” and “thank you, go ahead” or “be careful, I am passing you on the left”? The difference is subjectively up to you to decode. What better way to learn to tune out the voices of inconsiderate strangers than to be forced to hear their unsolicited advice and opinions day in and day out? You are left with no choice but to simply drone out the mind cluttering cacophony. After a while you actually do stop hearing it! The deafening sound of silence directly in the middle of ear-piercing judgmental shrills is simply magnificent.
I contemplated how Turkish culture, particularly in Istanbul, was like that of an adolescent trying to form an identity, confused, angry, in denial, scared, elated, unstable, rebellious and constantly in crises. Clashes of North vs. West, political unrest, religious dictatorship vs. secular rule, gender inequality, language confusion, nudity vs. burka, extreme separation between socioeconomic classes, intolerance of differences, all polar opposites forming mass confusion in individual minds and society as a whole.
The anger I had within myself for choosing to move to such a land left a foul taste on my tongue, as I struggled to fit into a culture that had not yet formed its own identity. Then I realized that I was no different than this city. Constantly at war within myself and the environment around me, I too was struggling between finding myself among two very opposing cultures. I too was in inner turmoil with my being, trying to discover my own identity. This city, with its struggle for peace of mind amidst a war zone of clashing opinions was symbolic of me. I had to learn to buffer out not only the closed-minded opinions of others, but the self destructive, critical voices in my own mind as well. The physical, political and personal clamor and commotion was desensitizing me in an effort to teach me to silence the screams and hear only the beat of my own stable drum. I had decided to take on the challenge and fight tooth and nail to learn the lessons that this incredible city was trying to pound into me. What better way to deplete anxiety than to face what you fear most? The words of the great mystic poet, Mevlana Celaleddin Rumi, inspired me to continue the fight, “If you are irritated by every rub, how will you be polished?”
In many ways I was at war with myself, constantly building barriers, like empire walls, then trying to knock them down, not sure exactly what it was that I wanted in the end. I wanted to fit in to the massive city, but the thought of fitting in terrified me. I contemplated moving back, believing that this is not where I was meant to be then suddenly realized that wherever I go, I will be there. It had nothing to do with where I was physically. What needed to change was me. I came to terms with the fact that there was no magic ingredient that would make Istanbul taste better to me. I am the ingredient. The perfection is in the mix. The beauty is in the combining of ingredients originating from all over the world that suddenly meet on the sofra of this city. Perhaps coincidence, perhaps destiny, or simply pure luck, something pulls us here. Each person is a unique spice, a sweet fruit or a savory nut with an amazing flavor to add to the main course of this fascinating land. The more people I met the more fascinating the city became. Empire upon empire this land has been inhabited by a mix of cultures, religions and flavors. I started to pick up the intoxicating aroma of this blended metropolis.
I learned that Istanbul is a tossed salad with more and more ingredients being thrown in and periodically stirred, shaken and mixed. At times the vinaigrette is an amazing blend of eastern spices served on a beautifully engraved copper ‘Sini.’ Other times, it is made up of the finest Aegean olive oils, white cheeses and fresh herbs, served on a Raki Sofra with Greek music playing the background, the smell of fish rising from the slow burning charcoal grill in the distance. Sometimes, the dressing is spicy, mixed with bulgur and served alongside a dish of mouth-watering kebabs. Other times it is a savory blend of fresh mozzarella, basil and tomatoes served alongside a homemade dish of Italian pasta. Each person, each ingredient brings a new and original zest to the meal.
I learned that Istanbul is a glass of Raki. Crystal clear alcoholic beverage upon entering the glass, the liquid turns opaque white, polluted only by the purity of water and a transparent piece of ice, giving it its flavor and diluting the poison. In much the same way innocent people enter the city pure of heart, transparent, only to become tainted selling their soul to the devil at the intoxicating scents of power and money. The city’s mirage devours them. Some come and drink the tantalizing concoction to celebrate moving to Istanbul and gaining prosperity in a booming economy. Some drink it in bereavement coming to Istanbul because they have no other place to go, soon the streets and alleys become their home as they beg each passerby for loose change. Istanbul’s first sips are bittersweet, the tangy licorice coolness slides over your tongue, burning your throat on the way down. After a while you feel the alcohol in your veins and it warms you up. ‘This is good’ you think, clink glasses and drink on. Istanbul’s slap in the face hits you when you least expect it as you begin to stand up after drinking the second round. You realize you drank it all too fast, inhaled it in just a few gulps. You look around and wonder how everyone else around the table can still be sitting, singing, eating, while you begin to see double. ‘You have to drink slowly’ they tell you. Enjoy each sip and be sure to keep eating throughout the course of the night. After every sip, put down your glass, take a bite of food and then put down your fork. Take it bite by bite, sip by sip. There is no rush. Be in the moment. Be aware, or the raki and the city will swallow you whole.
I learned that Istanbul is a hot, frothy, bitter cup of Turkish coffee served in an effort to sober you up after you have lost yourself for too long. The aroma of the freshly ground beans hit your nose awakening you from the illusion. You choke on the thickness of the coffee but continue sipping it because it has already begun to wake you up from your dream.
I learned that Istanbul is the soft, candied sweetness of a piece of Turkish Delight meant to replace the bitter taste of coffee on your tongue with mouth watering powdered sugar, as if stroking your hair after a long nightmare, whispering ‘everything is going to be ok.’ Istanbul is the coffee grounds left over in the beautifully decorated cup after you have turned it upside down and given it a shake hopeful of what your future will read. It is the misty smoke from a water pipe filling your nose with the sweet aroma of apples. Istanbul is the steaming hot, beet red tea served in a delicately shaped glass to be consumed together with fresh simit, savory and satisfying.
Istanbul is the societal norm that Turkish tea is the only beverage to be consumed with simit, the circular, sesame coated, bagel-like Turkish staple. Succumbing to peer pressure, I did as I was told and would always have simit with tea. Then one day I realized that is not what I crave. Instead I chose to have a hot cup of American filtered coffee with fresh simit on the side. Of course I had to purchase each from different vendors because the one that sells simit does not sell coffee and the one that sells coffee does not sell simit. Why would they? This simple switch took me out of my robotic, try-to fit in at all costs, way of thinking. That day I discovered this is the way I like it, a perfect blend of American and Turkish cravings all at the same time. Soon after, amazingly, an American franchise for soft pretzels opened in Istanbul, a food I crave in the same way Turkish expats crave simit. To my own surprise, I chose to have my pretzel with a hot glass of tea and smiled as I read the pretzel’s packaging which read “this simit is a different simit.” Istanbul taught me that I can have my simit and eat it, too.
Istanbul is the force that lulls you to break every social norm no matter how small. It gives you the spoon and dares you to stir the pot. Istanbul has taught me to break the mould, mix and match. Put things together that otherwise would not belong. Make it a point to try flavors never tried before. Do not follow a recipe, create it yourself and you will find the perfect blend for your life. Amongst chaos there is freedom! Where rules become obsolete, fears begin to fade and you truly begin to live. When things get dry, add some juice. When things get boring spice them up. Everything is at your fingertips as long as you savor each moment and continue the quest to find exactly which ingredient you are looking for. Most likely it was in your pantry all along. You are the chef in the world’s most abundant kitchen. The question is, can you take the heat or will you simply choose to leave? To me, Istanbul is life. Istanbul is death. It is heaven and it is hell. It is contradiction. Its flavor changes depending on what you ate before and what you will eat after. Istanbul is. I am. Just as it should be. I am by no means a polished gem, but I can definitely say that Istanbul’s rough edges have smoothed me down and at times I even shine a bit.
About the author:
Tanya Adman Akay is a 37 year old American born to Turkish-American immigrants from the Ayvalik, Turkey. She was born in Detroit, Michigan, earned her Bachelors of Science degree in Psychology from Oakland University and Masters in Social Work from The University of Michigan. She has been living with her husband in Turkey since 2006, first in Ankara, then 9 years in Istanbul. She is the mother of a 6.5 year old daughter. Currently, she is a preschool teacher in Istanbul. She enjoys reading, writing, poetry, practicing yoga and developing herself spiritually through meditation.