Here's something that might surprise you: Istanbul is the third most populous city on earth and has the largest population in Europe. It's bigger than New York, Delhi, Tokyo - with almost thirteen million people crowded onto these shores, and more in hills beyond, it's a certifiable megalopolis.
But the funny thing is, it doesn't feel that huge. It's more spread out than a lot of cities, and the old part especially is low-lying, more a collection of dense neighborhoods than a easily recognized whole. Each part of the city has its own feel, its own style. For the past few days, we've been staying in Cihangir, which is... well, it's almost unsettlingly hip. But more than that it was familiar.
Above, the popular Cihangir bar and restaurant (bar, really), White Mill.
At first, Cihangir reminded me of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Then, I realized that it just feels youthfully international in that well-trodden style of the early 2000's. In other words, there are lots of places that have begun to feel like some version of Williamsburg, or at least the popular idea of the place. The sunglasses are the same, the color of the spraypaint, the music in the boutiques.
Cihangir was developed in the late 1800's, as Istanbul expanded and the non-muslim population was forced out of other parts of the city. Once primarily Greek, the neighborhood was, for a long time, considered seedy and dangerous. Bordered in the north by the Taksim Square area and, in the south, by the utilitarian Bosphorus businesses, Cihangir is still nearby to a few unsavory streets on either side. There's little hint of danger here, though, and none of the old red-light feel. Just like so many other places around the globe, gentrification has brought bright storefronts and fresh paint on the victorian walls.
Cihangir's bar and restaurant scene is famous - throughout the weekend, taxis stream into the neighborhood, dropping their customers off at some hotspot or other. The heels are high, the look is studied "hipster," the young Turkish men and women seem genuinely thrilled to have somewhere that's happening. In a traditional city of kofte and kebab, where the teahouse is the center of many districts, it must feel refreshing to find a place that's metropolitan in the international style, as bland as that style can feel to an outsider.
The neighborhood habitués have embraced brunch in a big way. At Susam cafe (the name means "sesame"), there was a line out the door on Sunday morning.
The neighborhood began its journey to bohemianism with Antiques, and there are still lots of great stores that sell vintage knick-knacks and offbeat used clothing. Sidewalk displays cater to a crowd of both wealthy young Istanbulers and British, American and Indian ex-patriates. It's a taste that's been established, but can't really be owned. The worn-edged ambiance doesn't belong to any time, really, or to a specific place.
What it feels like is a play on internationalism - we come to Turkey (or Europe) expecting to see "foreign." What we find is that there are parts of Istanbul (or Chișinău, Tbilisi, Krakow, St. Petersburg, Rome...) that feel like parts of home. It's strangely shocking, and initially made me feel suspicious that we (as New Yorkers) were being copied. But who is really copying who? Aren't our posters supposed to look like German ones, our cafes supposed to look French, our decor supposed to translate San Francisco-Scandinavian?
One begins to wonder about what entitles a place to "natural" internationalism. In New York or Paris, no-one gets excited about a little gourmet shop. Here, they're intriguing and rare. A place like Antre Gourmet Shop feels somehow un-Turkish, even when it's selling local olives, apple preserves and cheese. It's the fact that the stylistic type is foreign that makes it not fit in, even though it's of a vaguely Italian style that's unremarkable in hundreds of American shopping malls.
The thing is, what I think Istanbul's supposed to be isn't what a Turkish person thinks the city should resemble. This is the third largest city in the world. Shouldn't it have some Italian-feeling stores, some organic bistros, a few Seattle style coffee shops? Shouldn't the young people be just as cosmopolitan as they are in other places? How unique is internationalism?
A perfect example is the small Miss Pizza. Probably the most popular restaurant in Cihangir, the place feels like a supper club for those in the know. The pizza is good, but that's beside the point. What brings in the crowd is the ambience, the soundtrack, the fashionable cut of the waiter's plaid shirt - the sense, really, that one is anywhere but Turkey. And why shouldn't that be exciting?
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