Istanbul is like the Med on steroids; stronger coffee, crazier roads and very animated, opinionated people. But the pace of life is more relaxed than in western Europe and the party scene doesn’t stop until dawn.
There is a Turkish word that has no direct English translation, a word that English speakers would do well to adopt. In the same way we borrowed “joie de vivre” or “la dolce vita” from our continental cousins, keyifli has even more everyday import than its French or Italian equivalents.
Crudely put, it is the joy derived from the small things in life, “Keyifli is this,” says graphic designer Pinar Birim gesturing at the encounter we are sharing, an al-fresco conversation over Efes beers and Marmarabirlik olives by the Bosphorus. “It’s hard to describe in English, but it is something close to the ‘luxury of comforting things’,” she concludes.
Keyifli is manifold – for some Istanbullus it is casting a line from a pontoon on one of the nearby Princes’ Islands, to others it is crunching through the first green erik plum of the season or blowing on a glass of çay to cool it in the shade, and for many it is all of the above.
So much of life in Istanbul is given to the pursuit of keyifli. A life lived on the streets; from rooftop to rooftop; afloat or by boat; in taxis and in traffic jams; at prayer, in sin or somewhere in between; from Karaköy to Kadaköy; at 20 to a table; at two to a nargile; laying back at top speed; with bellies full and glasses empty; smoking, joking and forever in gesticulation.
Istanbul life is an embellishment of that in the Mediterranean – the sun and coffee are a little stronger, the pace and service a little slower and the people, well, the people are a lot edgier. Istanbullus have a wide-eyed, air-punching approach to life, an attitude apparent in their politics. Over a dinner of patlican salatasi (aubergine purée), ahtapot (grilled octopus) and hamsi (a fish from the Black Sea) at Sabahattin in Sultanahmet where even a sheep has been made honorary waiter, Melis Alphan, one of Turkey’s most popular columnists at the national newspaper Hürriyet, talks politics Istanbullu-style. “Everybody has an opinion – put them in the prime minister’s or the mayor’s seat and they’ll do wonders! The politics ‘experts’ are the taxi drivers. You can get into fights. Once I had to throw myself out of a cab in the middle of the road,” swears Alphan.
Turkey’s politicians are a far cry from the bores elsewhere in the region – they’re a hoot. Back in May, 72-year-old Deniz Baykal, leader of the opposition Republican People’s Party, was forced to resign after the emergence of a sex tape in which he and another member of the party cavorted unknowingly into a cock-eyed hidden camera. “This scandal reflects people’s shallow attitude towards politics perfectly. Experts discussed the future of the opposition party on TV but in the cafés of Istanbul locals were discussing whether Baykal’s boxer shorts reflected his ideology,” winks Alphan.
Indeed, all of Istanbul is found swarming around cafés, restaurants, bars and street vendors that anchor the innumerable neighbourhoods on both sides of the strait. Food and drink is still Sultan in the city, with the imported boredom of Zuma-by-the-sea struggling to surpass the simple heart attack-inducing delights of the street hawkers that all strata of society enjoy.
“Oh my god, I love kokoreç from Sampiyon!” yells Ozlem Avcioglu, an elegant writer who also edits her own travel website. “It’s made from grilled lamb’s intestine. I sometimes make my driver Ozman stop while I run in and grab one. You should see his face when I return to eat it in the car!”
By contrast, Lucca in Bebek, Istanbul’s laid-back waterside quarter, is an airy bistro serving equally breezy Euro-Anatolian food to attractive diners. “When we opened five years ago there was nothing like Lucca, it was either street food or expensive restaurants,” says Cem Mirap, the café’s relaxed owner, “Now there are lots of little Luccas in Bebek,” he says smiling.
Calling it a day in Istanbul is hopeless, there is always one more party to attend or secret rooftop saloon door to swing through. Minas Balcioglu has been Istanbul’s maître de nuit for over a decade. His latest venture is Mini Music Hall where he, his friends and a growing group of devotees play really good shuffle sets from their iTunes until it’s time to leave. “Come back to mine, I’ll ride my moped, you can follow in the taxi with this bag of beers,” he grins.
For all its relaxed qualities Istanbul is surprisingly practical in its cultural vision. From her unusually high-ceilinged apartment four floors above her husband’s architectural practice in Nisantasi, the city’s moneyed enclave, Ozlem Avcioglu lets us in on a secret, “We are in the process of opening a multi-use cultural arts centre that will be a big deal and Gökhan’s practice GAD has just finished the Borusan Music & Art House in Beyoglu,” she says.
With a boost in confidence from two hotel power-properties – Park Hyatt landed in Nisantasi last year with a refined renovation (see issue 20) and the Four Seasons at the Bosphorus in Besiktas – Istanbul continues to pull in desirable, big spending visitors and hold onto the odd adventurous expat too.
There are many things wrong with Istanbul: the wretched, seemingly incurable gridlock; the visa queues at Ataturk airport and the subsequent lengthy transfer to the city; the sporadic street fights and criminal comings and goings; the crushing bureaucracy; and the total disregard for cyclists. But then you don’t live in Istanbul for its punctual transit system, lack of crime and leafy cycle lanes. When you have keyifli on your side all those unhelpful, heavy-handed civil servants, tiresome taxi drivers and miserable thieves disappear into the Bosphorus with a burp, and you can return to your ice-cold Efes smiling at having made one of the world’s most unusual urban prospects your home.