The Kindness of Strangers in Istanbul
It was around 5:30 a.m. when we lazily made our way down to the hotel lobby.
Slouched shoulders and blood red eyes accompanied us as we strode past a grandiose fountain and headed towards the concierge. My girlfriend Dasha and I both checked our bags into storage before heading outside where a column of taxis sat idling.
The cold was brisk.
Like a dagger, a humid western wind sliced through my drowsiness, rendering me uncomfortably astute and alert. It was the first time I’d seen my breath in over a year. After spending most of December in the southern hemisphere, I was not at all prepared to deal with the cold — Dasha, even less so. I donned a pair of sweats and a light hoodie. She wore a cardigan, a scarf, and a pair of tights — tights that were gifted to her by a good friend the previous night.
We piled into the back of the cab and with an uncertainty in my voice, I asked the driver to take us to, “Sultanahmet.” My pronunciation wasn’t perfect, but he got the idea. We were headed to the heart of Istanbul and the edge of modern Europe — where an entire continent lies just across the Bosphorus River.
After a 15-minute ride, we arrived in Sultanahmet, where we stopped to withdraw some cash out of an ATM before we headed to Gülhane Park. As my eyes attempted to scan the narrow street and old-world stone buildings that lined it, I felt as though I was in a typical European city. Nothing struck me as out of the ordinary — that is until we rounded a tight corner and caught our first glimpse of the Blue Mosque.
The domed behemoth loomed over the rest of the city, asserting its power and its majesty. Its six spiked minarets rose sharply towards the heavens as a low-morning fog began to dissipate. As the wonder became more visible, I noticed a flock of gulls circling the dome just as the days first call to prayer rang out. Flowing from the massive loud speakers that lined each minaret, the reverent hymn reverberated throughout the city, bouncing off stone and steel and out towards the dark waters of the Marmara Sea.
It was just before 6 a.m. when our cab driver dropped us off at the edge of the Golden Horn. It was still pitch dark and impossible for us to visualize the waterway to our north. A friend had advised us to have breakfast in Gülhane Park, so we headed away from the shore and up a hill to the entrance.
The dimly lit park was practically empty. There was the occasional passer bye, most likely cutting through the park on his or her morning commute. But the cold seemed to have kept any would-be sunrise watchers firmly indoors on that day.
As we strolled past the humming street lamps, the daunting silhouette of Topkapi Palace began to take form. It’s siege walls and fortifications were a quick reminder of the abundance of historic events that took place on this relatively small plot of land. The streets and dwellings of old Constantinople — and even older, Byzantium — played host to some of the world’s greatest empires. The Romans, Byzantines and Ottoman Turks all called this former Hellenic colony their capital. And with the rise and fall of each great empire, slivers of legacy and culture remained deeply entrenched under the skin of the modern metropolis.
As Dasha and I neared the exit of Gülhane Park, it became clear that we weren’t going to find a place to eat before sunrise. None of the cafés we passed were open and the cold was beginning to go beyond the realm of discomfort. We approached a tiny security officer’s hut in hopes that some of the park’s staff might be able to point us to an open café or diner. Much to our dismay, the guards informed us that most businesses wouldn’t be opening their doors for another hour. But like so many of the Turks I’ve met, these particular security guards went above and beyond the normal call of duty to be hospitable.
One of the guards sat on a short metal stool, his head just high enough that it was visible in the window of a small security hut at the entrance of the park. He motioned to us with his finger to “come here.” When we did, he put two tiny curved glasses down in front of him and filled them with steaming hot tea. I glanced over at Dasha and smiled in disbelief. The officers were offering us their personal pot of tea to share with a couple of ill-prepared tourists. I tried my best to say thank you in Turkish, — teşekkür ederim — which seemed to light up the faces of our newfound friends. When we’d finished our teas, we offered to pay. Of course, the guards weren’t interested. One simply smiled and nodded, while another exclaimed warmly — “Welcome to Istanbul.”
It was a small kindness, but one I won’t soon forget. That brief encounter will forever paint my perception of Istanbul and its people.
Of course the city has its shortfalls. It’s people are deeply divided, which leads to political instability. It’s under currently under the control of an authoritarian regime with little regard for civil liberties and even less so for human rights. And recently, a growing level of violent extremism has shook the city to its core.
Still, I wouldn’t expect to find the sort of random generosity I found in Istanbul in many other places in the world.
After Dasha and I finished our tea, we still needed to kill a few minutes before breakfast. We walked back through the park as the sun was rising. There, we caught a glimpse of the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn, painted by ethereal rays of morning light. And as magical and surreal as that imagery was, it’s not what I’ll remember most about my short time in Istanbul.
I’ll remember my Turkish friend who gave up the her tights just to make sure Dasha stayed warm. I’ll remember the friendly waiter who was thrilled to serve an American so he could practice his English. I’ll remember the taxi driver who called two of his friends just so he could help us get to where we were trying to go. I’ll remember the store owner who put out a grand breakfast for the neighborhood cats.
And I’ll remember the security guards with whom we shared a pot of tea.
Originally published at Breaking Abroad.