As soon as our driver clears Istanbul airport, I start looking for her, the one who has haunted me ever since I saw her shimmering shape on a photograph of a Golden Horn evening. The Hagia Sophia, the pride of Constantinople, the giant mosque of the Ottoman Empire, turned museum by Atatürk in 1935.
Driving along by the water, we get glimpses of the city and, at one point, I am sure I spy her in the distance. The water is grey, she barely blushes and then she is gone again. Trust a Belgian, who just survived a horrendous Canadian winter, to land in a grey Istanbul. But I don’t mind. Instead, I sit back and get lost in massive fragments of the old Byzantine wall that still surrounds a good part of the city.
“There she is again,” I whisper.
“No,” says my attentive husband. He may not have seen all items offered on the movie menu of his monitor while on the plane but he knows this city.
The plane. I had to look away during landing because I got dizzy imagining its giant wings shaving off the delicate roofs of the buildings that cover the land below like a giant blanket. The memory of it almost makes me dizzy again so I look out and marvel at the many mosques aspiring to greatness, imitating the Hagia Sophia like younger sisters that leaner and prettier never quite manage to rival the beauty of their majestic, yet still playful older sister. All the way to my new home, I fancy she plays hide and go seek with me and, once there, I am no longer sure it was her I spotted that first time.
What I do know, though, is that from now on, as I sit and write these first words in my travelogue, I will never again mistake her. All I need is to look up and I see her through my window. Across the Golden Horn she rises from the trees, on one side the Sultan’s Palace and on the other her younger sister, the sleek Blue Mosque. Between us lies the silver ribbon of water where busy fishers cluster together in tiny boats, imitating the schools of fish they set out to capture, so that they will not be ignored by their bigger mates. Some of the many ships come from the Sea of Marmara that beckons ahead, or go there; others shuttle people back and forth in a never-ending dance that connects the European side of the city, where I will spend the coming months, and the Asia Minor side where the rest of Istanbul disappears into a world as unknown to me as the transparent fog that rises in the distance.
In the afternoon we go for a bit of shopping at the nearby supermarket. Such markets are called that not because of their size, for it is modest, but because of the fact that they offer everything a household needs to put food on the table, and keep the house, the clothes, and the person clean. We stop at a snack bar for a wonderfully light donair, followed by a tiny glass of sweetened tea flavoured with a hint of Bergamot. It occurs to me that there are only men in the street, men behind the counters; men around the tables. When I ask my wise husband where the women are, he says, "In the kitchen."
After we take the groceries home he proposes we go for a coffee, and a cigar for him. It will help, he assures me, with the much-needed siesta. We end up only a street away from the grocery store but the scene is very different here. It is trendy, with modest bistros and coffee houses, and women. A woman waits on us, women laugh as they sit together or with men around the many tables, women walk by in city clothes. Four women stroll by in jeans and leather jackets, looking like biker chicks. Gorgeous women with long dark hair. And good looking men. Even the older ones--there are no older women--whose greying hair, or balding pate, only accentuates their strong features. I fancy one of them to be Orhan Pamuk. After all, we are now practically neighbours. He only lives ten minutes away.
On the way back, a clear voice breaks out in song, its melody snaking its way through the narrow streets of Karakoÿ-Tophane. My skin tightens and my heart soars until I realize I am too tired to keep aloft.
With one last longing look at the Hagia Sophia, I lay myself down and wait for sleep to come in the middle of the day. Maybe I too should have had a cigar because next to me my husband lies, oblivious to the world.
As daylight wanes on my first day here, I am still sitting by my window. Every time I look up the Bosphorus is busy: busy with traffic, busy with moving water, busy with moving people and goods, busy with birds, busy with changing hues of grey.
When the lights come on all colour drains away.
Then dark settles and the important buildings that surround us light up. Across, on the Asia Minor side, fireworks go off. Behind us a voice calls the faithful to evening prayer.
I think I have just been welcomed officially.