In Istanbul in November of 2005, I had one of those rare ‘aha’ moments. One of those moments where I saw myself as others might see me, and realised why even those who like me refer to me as ‘mad’. Personally, I prefer the term ‘eccentric’ – but we all mean the same thing; that I do tend to march to the beat of my own drum.
So there I was, in Istanbul, with an 18 month old and a three-and-a-half year old. We’d just gotten off our plane from Prague, and were in a taxi. My eldest daughter exclaimed that there were no seat-belts in the back of the cab and I murmured that I’d be delighted if there were brakes.
My Turkish is non-existent and the taxi-driver had just a smattering of English, so communication was minimal. I was able to give him the name, address and phone number of our hotel – having typed it out in large, block letters before we left home. Our driver nodded ‘I know,’ he said, with sage reserve. Entrusting my safety, and that of my precious children, to him, I settled back to get my first glimpses of Constantinople.
I’d wanted to visit Istanbul for years. Ever since our history teacher, Geraldine Haughton, introduced it to us back in fifth year; particularly the details of the Ottoman Empire, Selim the Sot and the Golden Horde. My imagination was captivated by the notion of a city that could straddle two continents. I spent the first twenty years of my life in Europe, and most of my adult life in Asia, so it felt only right that I visit the one city that joined both ‘my’ continents.
Before driving off from the airport, I hadn’t ascertained what, exactly, it was that our taxi driver ‘knew’. Apparently, it was the general direction of where our hotel was located rather than precisely where we were going. On the outskirts of the city proper, with one hand on the wheel, he pulled out his mobile phone.
A quick conversation took place in Turkish and he resumed driving with increased confidence.
‘I know, I know,’ he reassured me brightly.
About fifteen minutes later, my ‘aha’ moment dawned on me:
It was just after midnight, and I was going the wrong way up a one-way street, in a city I’d never visited before, with my children in the back of a taxi, with whose driver I could not communicate; I had a booking in a hotel neither he nor I knew the location of, and my ‘guidebook’ was two pages torn from a month old copy of the Sunday paper. Nobody knew where I was, and my mobile phone didn’t work in Turkey.
Still, something inside me knew it all work out – and it did. Within another five minutes, we had reached our destination, a gorgeous boutique hotel on the same street as the Topkapi Palace (one of the city’s top tourist attractions).
My girls and I had a wonderful five days in Beautiful Byzantium and I learnt that it is, indeed, a divided city: The inhabitants couldn’t decide which of my children it preferred. Half of them favoured my three year old with her dark looks and vivacious, outgoing personality that knows no language barriers.
Everywhere we went, people just gave her things – sweets, apples, smiles, hugs – even perfume! The other half was smitten by my 18 month old – with her paler complexion, curls and general baby-ness. Whenever I stood still, she was patted and cooed to. On three separate occasions she was extracted from her sling in order to be cuddled by complete Turkish strangers.
The people in Istanbul were also of both continents – most of them dressed and looked like Eastern Europeans, yet every single person exuded the warmth and generosity that I had grown accustomed to in Asia.
Flying out of Istanbul at six in the morning, I realised how grateful I was for my ‘madness’. Without it, my girls and I would not have had the wonderful visit to Istanbul that we’d enjoyed.
I finally understood what Shakespeare meant when he wrote ‘To thine ownself be true’: That it is important to march to the beat of your own drum, no matter how out of synch with the rest of the world that beat might be.