As I’ve admitted, I know next to nothing about Istanbul. There are only about 3 or 4 things on my “I want to do that” list, and I made the first one my goal for today: eat a fish sandwich from a fishing-boat under the Galata Bridge. I would do a lot of wandering and exploring, but the aim was to get to the bridge and find those famous boats. And so that’s what I did!
I don’t know about everyone else, but my first day in a new country is generally spent hovering uncertainly next to ticket machines, asking strangers for help, and frantically consulting maps. It’s like becoming a baby again. You can’t speak or read. You don’t understand what anyone’s saying, and everything seems a bit overwhelming at times. You’re going to get completely lost if you wander off on your own.
Fortunately, getting lost in new cities is one of my favourite pastimes, so I had a wonderful first day being a clueless foreigner in Istanbul.
It’s the first really big city I’ve contemplated living in. I’m used to smaller, compact cities, which can be travelled around easily and quickly. I’m not sure how I feel about that yet – I only travelled a relatively short distance today, to reach one of the main touristy areas, and it seemed to take as long as it took to travel halfway across South Korea. Which could probably get annoying, in terms of meeting friends, commuting to work, etc.
However, there is a whole different vibe about a big city. It’s exciting. It’s crazy. It’s… friggin’ mental, actually, but in a good way, I think. Istanbul is full of people, full of noise, and full of delicious smells. It’s an incongruous, spice-scented mish-mash of ancient history and cosmopolitan style. (And cats.)
The people are truly lovely. I felt almost afraid as I held up my hands to the girl in the supermarket, admitting that I don’t speak a single word of her language, and it was a complete shock to the system when, instead of glaring sourly at me, she smiled and apologised for her English before asking me where I was from. All around me, people are smiling, cheerful, and friendly. It makes a huge difference to a girl from small-town Northern Ireland, who’s used to such friendliness. And to be honest, it’s not something I’d ever really appreciated until recently.
Anyway, I wandered along İstiklal Avenue, one of the busiest (3 million people per day, according to Wikipedia – and I can believe it!) and most famous places in Turkey.
It was a buzzing hive of activity, and I couldn’t do more than just walk along silently, gaping all around me, trying to take it all in. Eventually, I reached the Galata Tower, which is renowned for its views of the city.
The queue to climb it, however, was approximately 7 miles long, so I quickly abandoned that idea and kept going towards the bridge. I wasn’t disappointed. There they were, those hundreds of fishermen I’d read about, selling their catches almost as quickly as they could reel them in and unhook them.
However, while there were plenty of fishermen and plenty of boats, I couldn’t for the life of me find what I was looking for – a combination of the two. Historically, fish was sold directly from boats that had just returned from fishing.
A few enterprising boatmen had an idea: why not cook the fish right on the boat and offer it for sale ready-to-eat?
They built grills and fryers right in their boats, built fires in them, grilled fish fillets, stuffed them in half a loaf of bread, and handed from the boat to thousands of hungry, thrifty Istanbullus every day.
Balık ekmek! Balık ekmek! They shouted. (Fish in bread! Fish in bread!)
Nowadays, only a few, specially-licensed boats exist for this purpose, and they do a roaring trade. They were what I was looking for – even more anxiously, now that it was 5pm and I was starving from an afternoon of walking!
As I hung over the bridge, trying to spot the fish and bread boats among all the hundreds of ferries on the water, a friendly Turkish guy started chatting to me. I asked him where I could get one of these famous sandwiches, and he cheerfully offered to take me to the boats. Hurrah!
I was delighted when, after fighting his way through the crowds to make a path for me, Saygin stopped and gestured nonchalantly at the boats – an everyday sight for him, so he looked at me with a mixture of confusion and amusement when I clapped with delight and started trying to take photos through the heaving mass of people and gulls.
There were thousands of people queuing up to purchase freshly caught and cooked fish from the glitzy, rocking boats, and then sitting on low barrels and stools to eat, yet it only took about 5 minutes to get to the front of a queue and watch the red-faced men preparing my dinner on the deck of their boat. The fresh, steaming hot fish was placed into half a loaf filled with crispy salad and lemon juice, and wrapped in paper as it was reached to me with a smile. Sort of the Turkish equivalent of fish and chips. And oh good grief, so delicious!
Saygin took me for a drink and a stroll through the Spice Bazaar afterwards, and bought me a delicious Turkish coffee (ohhhhhhh yes… heaven in a little coffee cup!) before putting me safely on the next bus home.
As first days go, I don’t think they get much better than that. I’m exhausted and overwhelmed, but buzzing with enthusiasm for this place.
And the fish sandwiches, obviously.