With classes on winter break, I’ve had a lot of time at home, time to spend with Ozge and Leo. The other day we decided to go to Ortakoy for a change of scene. We were tired of the usual places. With a blessed false spring in the air, the ferryride from the Asian side was pleasant, the morning energized by the sound of the motor churning out froths of white sea foam at the back of the boat.
Ortakoy is on the European side, up near the 15 July Bridge (named so to mark the day of the failed coup attempt in 2016). With its famous mosque looking out over the waterfront, in the shadow of the bridge, you can’t miss it.
“But what are we going to do with Leo in Ortakoy?” my wife asked, not unreasonably. Neither of us had been there in years, but were desperate for something different.
As we disembarked, we passed the mosque with its tall minarets silhouetted by the bright morning sun, and headed over to the nearby market stalls. Our eager eyes were greeted with the disheartening brightness of trinkets, jewelry, bling, bling, bling.
“It’s all so Arabic now,” Ozge observed. “Even the air smells like Arabic fragrances.”
I recalled, not long after my arrival in the city back in 2010, watching a CNN feature story on Elif Safak’s Istanbul. The celebrated Turkish author took viewers on a tour through the streets of this same neighborhood. “Ortakoy is one of my favorite neighborhoods,” she told the reporter. “It has always been home to many artists.”
Inspired by that story, I had spent a languid, rainy Saturday there, plunked down in a cushy chair at a cozy pub, sipping pints of Efes and enjoying the sulky, boheme vibe. I read a book that I’d bought at a second-hand bookseller down near the waterfront. Looking around now, all those things — the cushy chairs, the sulky boheme vibe, even the second-hand bookseller, appeared to be gone.
“All the artists live in Kadikoy now,” my wife remarked, after listening to my Elif Safak story. Indeed, sadly, Ortakoy — what we could see anyway — appeared to have become just another tourist trap for the tourists. “Well, I guess boheme doesn’t pay the bills, the Arabs do,” I said. We both thought about the ongoing economic woes, the inflation, that has gripped the country over the past months.
After passing more of the bling sellers, and a calvacade of kumpir booths, we pushed Leo (in the stroller, looking all about) out to the main road, under the bridge and on to the coastal road that winds north along the Bosphorus all the way up to the Black Sea. The whole area, green hillsides falling into the pleasant waters of the strait, is elegant and more posh the further north you go. Splendid 19th Century style houses, white and redwood-colored brown, stand proudly from the hills and look out onto the waterfront.
Fortunately, the weather was fine, and other people were out walking their dogs, or jogging, or just touristing like us. We stopped at a park and let Leo explore the big and little slides, the twisty ones and the straight, until he was tired and let us get him back in the stroller.
Further on, we passed high-end restaurants and hotels, including the Mandarin Oriental-Istanbul (is that like the Chinese version of the Hilton?), as well as the gold facade of the prestigious Galatasaray University, and later a yacht club that sported gleaming, colossal vessels the size of small buildings. With the winter season, most of the yachts sat parked, their bright colors shimmering in the waters, red, green, purple and gold.
The fishermen were out as always, casting their long poles out carefully to avoid the people passing along the broad sidewalks. No matter the weather, the economy or season, the fishermen could always been found at all the various points along the Bosphorus, their presence friendly and reassuring. Some of them wore Covid masks draped down around their necks as they fished, while others carried on maskless, a great air of busyness and robust, grizzled health about them. We felt good having the fishermen there; they kept our city close and recognizable.
Our son Leo took in all these and other things, like the great ships passing by north and south, the ducks swimming just offshore, the cars passing in the street. He leaned forward in the stroller, urging us forward as if in command of a dogsled (we parents being the dogs, of course).
We finally arrived at Bebek, an upscale neighborhood that is known for its beautiful houses and European atmosphere. It is comfortably chic, colorful but not ostentatious; the people obviously moneyed but not unapproachable. Bebek has the feeling of relaxed wealth, with some of the trees still appearing green even when stripped of their leaves from the winter, and the well-dressed, fashionable people sitting at the outdoor cafes sipping wine or tea or coffee behind tinted shades, speaking in soft, low voices.
We had stopped at another park earlier to let Leo make use of the slides, and to tire him out. It worked. By the time we arrived in Bebek, he was asleep in the stroller. My wife covered him in an old coat to keep the bright sun away from his face and the seaside chill at bay.
We passed many places, feeling a bit self-conscious (poor), before finally setting on a cafe that looked out at the street, but raised a bit so that you could get a good view of the seaside. Two men wearing dark suits nodded and gestured towards an available table. Nearby mostly women were sitting in twos and threes, looking chic over their glasses of red wine.
The menu was formidable to say the least. My wife settled on a glass of the least expensive white wine, while I, failing to see beer on the florid menu, worked up the nerve to ask the waiter if they had it.
“Yes, yes,” the waiter said, when I finally gave our order. “Heineken? Bomonti? Efes?” Only bottled beer was available, so I had him bring me the Bomonti, which he served with an ice cold glass. I let him keep the glass,and he obligingly popped open the bottle and set it on the glass table.
While Leo slept, Ozge and I had our drinks and just watched the people and cars pass, and looked out at the sea. It isn’t something we get to do so often anymore, between work and Leo, to just have a drink and sit outside somewhere like we used to, to look out at beautiful houses and places that we could never afford, but most of all to just be by ourselves for a while. In another week the new term will start at the university, and next month Ozge’s maternity leave will end which means back to work for her too. And Leo will start going to a pre-school at least for a few hours a day. So lots of things will change as they always seem to do, especially nowadays. I finished the Bomonti and asked Ozge if she wanted more wine but she was fine, checking her phone and on Leo from time to time. He was sleeping peacefully, worn out from all the sliding and climbing and seeing new things.
I knew how he felt. It is tiring to see new things, the senses take in so much at one time. But it was good for him.
“Well, we didn’t spend much time in Ortakoy, did we?” I asked, as the waiter set another beer down. My wife shook her head. “I told you there isn’t much to do there,” she said.
We both just sat and looked out at the people and at the Bosphorus.
James Tressler, a former Lost Coast resident, is a writer and teacher in Istanbul, or somewhere.