“I believe falling in love with a city is just as exciting as falling in love with a person. Your senses becomes engaged and you simply feel more alive…”
I’ve been studying in Paris for a good 5 months now – almost half a year – and despite the romantic reputation of the city, I’ve had a hard time falling in love with it. It did eventually happen – as I strolled by the Seine one day to get flowers for my room – but it still took quite a bit. Istanbul, however, was a different story. I fell in love with it the very next day after I arrived, and as love goes, I can’t really explain it. Every city, I believe, has its own sense of beauty, but this is the one that has captivated me the most in my 22 (going 23) years of being alive on this planet.
The Nostalgia of China
This is a particularly difficult one to explain, so I’ll start with it first. While walking down the streets of Istanbul, I do notice that some buildings are worn down and the street paving is uneven…but instead of being bothered by it, I find myself smiling fondly at the realisation. And then it hit me – in many ways, Istanbul reminds me of the childhood I spent in China.
First, there is, of course, the food. The Turkish, like the Chinese, are incredibly proud of their food, and the food is bold, flavourful and honest – an increasingly confusing array of adjectives to be sure. Bold because, in comparison with all the food I’ve had in Europe this past half a decade (has it really been that long?), the ingredients are much less predictable and cliched. Yes, I understand that lamb intestines is a revolting thought to many Western Europeans and Americans (i.e. “white people”), but it just has that level of boldness that reminds me of China – after all, I grew up on a healthy diet consisting of pig’s brains, hearts, goose intestines, etc. Flavourful because I have grown too accustomed to the Western European assortment of flavouring – salt, pepper, a very select few herbs. It was, thus, incredible when I bit into a meatball and it burst into flavour – actually very reminiscent of 燒烤 (shao kao). And that food, ladies and gentlemen, is what I grew up eating in the street stalls of China. In fact, the ingredients must be similar since they smell almost identical. Honest, a very uncommon word to use regarding food, comes from the fact that Western European signature dishes tends to be very pretentious…especially since I’m living in Paris. Turkish food tastes homely, like it’s made with love, care and attention. Again, that’s very similar to Chinese food – our signature dishes were never meant to be eaten in fancy restaurants, but enjoyed in the loud and boisterous company of family and friends.
Also, might I add, my taste buds seem to have a natural inclination towards Turkish food. I say so because most of my Chinese friends, and family, find Turkish food to be an acquired taste – I say: What’s there to acquire? It’s delicious.
Architecture and Skyline
Of course, you also have the architecture. I’ve traveled quite a bit around Europe after coming to Paris, and I’ve grown incredibly sick and tired of Churches and general Western architecture. No offence, but it’s dull. I genuinely believe that if you think churches are more aesthetic than mosques, then either you weren’t in a Western European country, or you’ve never been to a mosque. There is colour, there is artistic designs and tiles, not the same depictions of the same saints in the same colour over and over again.
It’s, of course, not just about the architecture of individual buildings, but more importantly, the skyline. I remember standing on the Galata Tower and my brain is just chanting, on repeat, “Holy shit, that is breathtaking.”
You can see these quite dilapidated houses, looking like my grandparents’ neighbourhood in China. You can see these construction sites and newer buildings. You can see the gigantic modern business towers off in the distance. You can see the various mosques. And then there’s the gorgeous blue ocean. Have I ever mentioned how much I love the ocean? The city is a feast for the eyes, right after my stomach has already feasted.
The Ocean, Oh God, The Beautiful Ocean
Every person has this particular setting that they love – the mountains, the forest, etc. Mine is the ocean, or any body of water, but particularly the ocean. I don’t know what exactly it is about the ocean I love so much. It could be the smell, slightly salty with a fishy scent (I love seafood, so that’s great). It could also be the sound of the waves hitting the rocks. It could be the feeling of the wind rushing past my face. But I think it’s the sight. The grand vastness of the ocean that brings along with it the feeling of adventure, of freedom, of unlimited possibilities – that’s what the ocean represents to me. Paired with the flight of hundreds of seagulls, spreading their wings and flying wherever the seabreeze takes them. The ocean always gave me a sense of letting go that reminds me how much I love being a solitary traveler in life. It also is another reminder of my other home, Singapore – and in this way, the ocean is both freedom and a way home: the thought that this ocean eventually leads to the one home.
The Strays, Oh I Love Animals
In no other country have I ever seen stray animals live in such perfect harmony with the humans around them – and that’s a sense of harmony to strive for. Growing up with a Chinese family meant that animals were always thought as not really worth taking care of – if a family does so, they’re being kind-hearted, it’s not a given. In Singapore, yes, we do provide for the stray cats, but stray dogs don’t have a good life.
That’s not so in Istanbul. The stray dogs are huge and non-aggressive – why should they be if the humans treat them well? There’s pet food all over the streets and while some (I’ve heard tourists say this by the way) may think that this makes the streets dirty, that just reflects on how uniquely people in Istanbul love their strays. Dogs nuzzle you when you give them attention. Cats approach you and do the same. I’ve even had one walk right up to me, nuzzle me, crawl under my jacket and then take a nap on my lap. In what other city do the humans love their strays so much that their strays can love them back like that?
The Solitary Factor
This was my first “faraway” trip alone, and I love it. A few weeks back, the father of the girl I babysat said something that was very profound to me, “It’s not a bad thing that some young people these days are not rushing to be attached to a place or to a person (referencing that I don’t have a significant other and am not desperate for one). That gives you more freedom to walk the world the way you want to before settling like everyone else.” And that’s undeniably true.
The romantics out there will think “Oh, I’ll just travel with my partner.” I can only pity these people. There is beauty in traveling with someone you love, but there is also a unique beauty in traveling alone – and as you get older, the latter becomes far rarer. As I jumped from rock to rock on the shore of Kadikoy, I found myself thanking all the people who have rejected me and broke my heart thus far, allowing me to partake on this journey alone. I am not burdened by any expectations – don’t tell me where to go and see unless I asked – neither am I burdened by excessive worrying that I actually care to keep in mind. I don’t have to care when to wake up, when to eat, where to eat, when do get home, etc. etc. Everything that one must worry about when travelling with others. Worse still, with a partner, you’re pretty obliged not to abandon them simply because you don’t agree.
Travelling alone brought this one quote to mind: “How beautiful is it to live in a world where nothing lasts forever. We must learn to fall in love with the love inside us, only then every moment living will be worth dying for.” Travelling alone in a city so vast, so beautiful, so friendly reminded me that me – as someone who loves independence and is so stubbornly inclined to “do whatever the hell I want” – should be proud, not ashamed of it. I’m truly not cut out to love a single person – not yet at least – because I want to fall in love with places, whole peoples, food, smells, sights, etc. and, for the first time, I’m damn proud of having such wanderlust.