Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Istanbul OR the deminishing marginal utility of travel

Remembering the Orient Express Train, Paris to Constantinople

Istanbul reminded me of a class in my first undergrad microeconomics course explaining the law of deminishing marginal utility.It is that simple: when you eat your first Big Mac ever you are willing to sell your soul, when you do eat it you'd pay the real price for the second, and you go on eating but you wouldn't pay a penny for the fifth, and the sixth has to come with a happy meal gift for you to eat it (assuming you have the appetite for all that of course).

I recall that Freakonomics has applied the law or diminishing marginal utility to travel, I cannot recall if it was on the grounds that we can all sip the same coffee, buy the same shirt and watch the same movie anywhere in the world or its because the more you go places the less new things you see. The law cannot apply to some places, for I am still sure that Saint Basil's in Moscow and the Taj Mahal in Agra will take my breath away, and that the vibe of New York city will get to my head. Istanbul was a classical case for me.

Having seen parts of it before in:
Lisbon's Funiculars, its seven hills and the Rio Tejo...
Porto's sea side restaurants
Portugal's ex-empire nostalgia (with flags everywhere)...
Granada's Alhambra, THAT is breathtaking beauty...
Cairo's Beit El Suheimi...
Andalucia and the houses of God which have accomodated many a faith, minarets on churches' domes or plaster splattered on saints' icons, it's all the same...
Cairo's Khan El Khalili and its sticky bazaar owners...
Tetouan's beggars...
The castles and palaces' outline at dusk in Prague from the Karlov bridge or from a boat in the Vtlava river...
Dinner in Studio Misr, delicious Egyptian cuisine, with a view of Saladin's Citadel an Ottoman jewel (add to this that my country was under the Ottoman Empire)...
Sabeel Mohamed Aly near Khayameya, Cairo...
Mohamed Aly Pasha's palace in shubra el khima...
Spice bazaars in Tangier...
Sleazy men who think that "oriental charm" is irresistible and that you'll faint from one look they throw in your direction (and those can be found anywhere in the region but Turks are truly worse than Arabs)...
Middle Eastern food and Mediterranean food traditions (food carts on the street and terrace cafes and restaurants)...
A main street that wants to resemble European cities' with all the shops and brands...

However, I have to give the city its true credit, for it is like a collage of all the above, even if it does not feel as authentic as any of the above.
I also have to pay to Istanbul due respect, for it once was more than once the seat of great empires

It either clicks or it doesn't
It is quite confusing, I feel that Istanbul has got little authenticity which can be felt in a Middle Eastern or European city, yet t
he fact that all this could be brought together in one city is amusing. Also I confirm that it is this diversity and every corner a surprise which made Cairo and Madrid my favourite cities, even when I see more beautiful places. However I can say that I like authentic cities, I felt Istanbul was a very nice mix, a bit of the Middle East and Europe, a call to prayer and the clinking of wineglasses, but for some reasons I couldn't feel it. It is true that at first it seemed like a tempting place to live, the comfort of a quasi-European city filled with colorful Ramadans with people out till dawn (something I truly missed when I was not spending the holy month in Cairo).

I do believe that cities are like people, it either clicks or it doesn't, you cannot force the good vibes. With Istanbul it was like meeting a handsome guy and then realizing there's not much depth to him. I know some will hate me for this blog post and say: oh but the Turks are nice, it's just the language barrier, oh but it has got so much history. Just like you cannot fall in love with someone because they're nice, you cannot like a city because you have to be impressed like everyone else is.

However, I can say that it was a truly pleasant stay, a welcome change. For it is a truly picturesque city, the view from a boat in the Bosphorous at dusk, the view from a hill when night falls, the view from Galata tower, the outlines of mosques and palaces against a clear blue sky and their lights reflected on the surface of the water.

Sightseeing was ok, in a tick-it-off-your-list sort of way (just like the city was a cross-it-on-your-map visit). The one place which I truly bonded with was the Blue Mosque when we prayed Jum'a, it is just perfect in a way I cannot describe.

What made our stay enjoyable is the beautiful weather we have been blessed with, breeze and sunshine, just the right mix and an exquisite boutique hotel that felt like home, where we rested whenever Istanbul's traffic, its people or the long queues for historical sights wore us out.

My déformation professionelle:
-noticing that the European dream had made the city change its colors to appear more secular and modern, while tourism made the Turks over-exoticize their oriental side, and realizing that in both cases they somehow lost their identity in the process
-noticing that all Ex-Empires have flags everywhere and are a bit condescending and frustrated
-realizing that the tolerance of Istanbul that people were talking of was a tad over-rated, ok you see hijab clad girls and western clad girls, but do you see them walking or having lunch together? Go to down-town Cairo and you'll see those girls shopping together (ok we may need a few more bars and spots for music gigs in Cairo to equal that, I give you that)
-mapping the society, all the way from Bebek to Fatih and Mustafa Pasha, passing Taksim, I've seen everything from yachts and designer bags to developing nation kitsch on the car of the bride and groom, through middle class fashion and restaurants
-knowing that we should market Cairo better and wrecking my brain on how to do so

A few tips :
-don't buy lonely planet if it's written by Virginia Maxwell, it's outdated and raises your expectations and has a western reader in mind (Middle Easterns will know what I mean)
-ask the locals (those who can speak English or Arabic or who are nice enough, we were lucky to meet some but you won't find them at every corner)
-Blue Mosque
-Basilica Cistern, catch a concert there
-Train station museum, orient express memorabilia
-Galata tower
-Take a ferry in the Bosphorous
-stay at Lush Hotel, check the website and you'll know why
-don't eat at Sultan Ahmet
-fruits on the street in Taksim, amazing
Move around:
-traffic is suffocating, so again be patient
-use the ferries, you'll appreciate the city's beauty, and get tea from the wandering vendor to feel more like a local, that was one of the high points of my trip
Evening and night:
-Nero in Bebek, get a coffee in the 4th floor terrace
-Four Seasons in Ortakoy
-Mado's ice cream corner in Ortakoy, if you choose your ice cream and add-ons in less than half an hour, you win
-Ulus 29 lovely club where you get a bird's eye view of the whole city, dress up please!
-if you need to feel something Turkish, go to a Meyhane, those are nice and have live music (which you can overdose on), but whoever compared it to a Tappas Bar (my guidebook lady) is offending all Spaniards
-when you go to the Bazaars bargain and look at stuff from the corner of your eye, the shopkeepers are truly annoying
-walk the Spice Market (Egyptian Bazar) and taste all the Turkish Delights you can (then buy in Taksim)
-don't go in the tourists' season (we went a few weeks before that and had to face the queues)
Piece of advice:
-be patient with the Turks, those who are overfriendly because they want to sell you something and those who are frowning because they can't understand any language but their own (they will yell at you in Turkish expecting you to understand their widely spoken language)
If you haven't been to the Middle East, come to Cairo first, and to all Cairennes: Masr Om El Donia.

PS: this may seem overly nationalistic, but I considering I have Turkish blood I'm not anti-Ottoman or anything, I just didn't think Istanbul was "all that".