One of the things you forget is how big and varied the city is. Getting out of the taxi on Rihtim Caddesi (Rhythm Street – nice, eh?), and crossing the busy intersection into Kadıköy’s backstreets, you almost feel like you are in a different city altogether – a different world even from our neighborhood in Üsküdar, just 15 minutes away.
Instead of mosques, covered women and staid, plain buildings, you’ve got bars, girls in shorts and sporting tattoos and shades, guys in grungy black t-shirts, waffle ice cream shops, bookshops with decent English collections (I picked up a copy of “Tender is the Night” for a slender 20 lira). You’ve got Umbrella Street.
In Üsküdar, everything seems old; in Kadıköy, it all goes young.
When I first moved to the city back in spring 2010, I lived in Kadıköy and for a long time after. Most of the teachers did. It’s on the Asian side of the city, kind of like Brooklyn to Beyoğlu ’s Manhattan (OK, that’s a non-comparison, James. One of the reasons you love Istanbul, and have stayed here, is that like New York, like all great cities, it need not be compared to anywhere or anything else. New York is New York. Istanbul is Istanbul.) Anyway, it’s leaner, sunnier, hipper and a bit cheaper too, at least it was then. “The most beautiful women live in Kadıköy,” observed the poet Nazim Hikmet, and looking around, one is not inclined to disagree.
Over the years, after I married Özge and settled down in Üsküdar , we always made a habit of visiting Kadıköy regularly, almost every weekend. We’d walk the streets, sometimes head out to the coastal strip of Moda, buy a few bottles of Efes beer and sit on the rocks and look out at the sea. Other times we’d opt for dinner at one of the kebab places and then hit the Nazim Hikmet (yeah, him again) café, where the tables were always full of people sitting under the trees and gazing around at the scene and sipping bottles of ice cold Bomonte.
After the pandemic, we didn’t or couldn’t go anywhere for a long time. A few months back, we ventured to Kadıköy one Saturday and it was awful. Everywhere was crowded, long queues outside the cafes and you needed a HES code to enter. Taxis were impossible to get. It seemed like the whole city had descended on Kadıköy that dreadful day. Shortly thereafter, following a spike in Covid cases, the lockdowns were brought back and we were consigned once more to our dreary existence at home.
So this past Friday it was quite a pleasant surprise when we arrived and found that the traffic was light, the streets peopled but not crowded. The cafes and restaurants were open but only for take away. The bars are still closed, but we heard they are set to re-open in June. Indeed, as we passed by some bars I noticed young guys washing the windows briskly, and making other preparations.
I felt a bit like a tourist, not having been there in so long. As always there were changes. We passed the Rexx Cinema, where a friend and I used to go and watch movies in the summer time, then grab a few drinks on Bar Street. Sadly, the cinema closed recently (I’d read about it), and as we passed I snapped a photo of the boarded up façade, the movie posters stripped away, leaving no trace of all the years of thrillers, fantasies, comedies … it’s like all those dreamed-away afternoons had expired, vanishing into the spring air.
Our son Leo is old enough to walk now. Özge took him out of the kangaroo and let him potter around. He peered with interest at his new surroundings. High above, a police helicopter roared and circled, probably scouting around for illegal parties, super-spreader events. “Why don’t they just walk around?” my wife asked, irritably, when the helicopter kept returning. You felt like Henry Hill in “Goodfellas,” with the helicopter following him around all morning.
We noticed other boarded up shops, with “For Rent” or “For Sale” signs in the window, no doubt victims of the pandemic restrictions. But there were plenty of other places open. We passed a coffee shop that had a new name, and probably a new owner. Why not? The old name, “Let’s Coffee!,” had never worked for me or anybody with a modicum of cool in their genes. The gallery where Özge and I used to go and see Devrim Erbil’s paintings is still there, with new artists on display in the windows. The fish markets and all the other sellers at the bazarr were bustling as always, all the goods looking fresh and slick and freshly watered down with hoses. Motorcycle delivery boys scooted past on the narrow streets, darting around the pedestrians. Özge was thirsty, so I stopped at a bakkal and bought a bottle of water for 1 lira. The proprietor, evidently thinking I was a tourist, was especially considerate, thanking me as I paid. As a matter of fact, I’d noticed that at the bookshop too.
“The shop owners are being very nice,” I remarked to Özge . “I think they miss the foreign tourists.”
We went to Umbrella Street so that Leo could look at the umbrellas seeming to float like in a Mary Poppins world, brightly colored umbrellas dancing in the breeze, and Leo pointed his little index finger at each one, his droopy brown eyes lighting up, as if aware that there was something amiss about umbrellas being up there, but liking it as one does.
All the bars and cafes were closed here too, and the umbrellas danced alone. Even a hanging plant nearby looked lonesome (“Hey, look at me! I’m a hanging plant!” it seemed to say, with green desperation).
“It’s good to be out,” I said. “Even if we really can’t go anywhere.”
Özge agreed without saying anything, as she picked up Leo, who wanted to stay and look at the umbrellas until the end of time. She wanted to go to Moda for coffee. “We can sit by the seaside,” she said, which was as good an idea as any. So we walked to Moda, entering its quiet green streets for the first time in (two?) years. The streets were lovely and familiar, and strangely new. I thought about the years I’d lived in Kadıköy, and all the people and the places. We bought coffee and walked down to the coastal park that looks out at the Sea of Marmara. Sailboats looked like paintings on the calm sea, beneath a gauzy sky, and in the distance you could see the big red tankers and container vessels, bound for the Dardenelles, the Med and perhaps North Africa, or else on their way to the Bosphorus and north to Russia and China.
In the park, young people were lounging in the grass, having picnics, taking off their masks and stretching out. Young couples ate ice cream; friends who hadn’t seen each other for a long time were embracing; others just sat wearing shades and looking out at the sea.
Özge let Leo walk around on the grass. He pointed at the boats, he turned and regarded the people in the park, staring at them, wanting to walk up to them, or else he stooped to pick up a cigarette butt or piece of plastic (“No, Leo! No!”). A big white dog napped in the grass next to us, and Leo wanted to go over and pull his fur, so we had to remind Leo that the dog was sleeping and not to disturb him. He seemed to understand, and let the dog get on with his nap.
Speaking of naps, Leo was long past his usual time. We could see he was getting tired, so we packed him into the kangaroo and set off for Kadıköy again. As we walked back, the streets were livelier than they had been earlier. It was afternoon now, and young people passed us on their way to Moda, and everywhere there was this feeling of anticipation. It was palpable and registered on the senses the way the gleaming windows in the bistros affected the eyes in the bright sun. Maybe it was just the spring, I thought, or the fact that you haven’t been to Kadıköy in so long. You’re just feeling stimulated. Maybe. But it occurred to me that perhaps (touch wood) that things were finally getting better, that we were turning a corner on this long, dreary episode in our lives.
“Is that our old burger place?” Özge asked, pointing across the street to a place, where as a couple we used to go. It was a student-run joint that served these tiny, cheap but very scrumptious cheeseburgers.
“Yep, that’s it,” I said. We were silently glad to see it was still there.
Özge was preoccupied with Leo, who was nearly asleep in her arms. She was tired from carrying him, and I was tired from all the walking and the sensory overload from seeing all the people and places. After all, we are not as young as we’d like to be (is anybody?).
We made it back to Rihtim Caddesi where we’d started. Almost on cue, a taxi pulled into the station in front of the Starbucks. He nodded at my signal, and I opened the door and held it for Özge and Leo. The traffic was still light, and as we drove back to Üsküdar , Leo slept soundly. Özge and I felt very good. It was like the old days, almost.
“See you Kadıköy,” I murmured, as we rounded the corner, passing an apartment building where I used to live. “See you soon, I hope.”
Yes, it’s always good to be back in Kadıköy.
James Tressler is a writer and teacher.