Like any huge city, Istanbul is a place of extremes. Extreme beauty and its very opposite. Extravagant wealth and visible poverty. Its sheer size and sprawl accommodates the gamut of humanity, and indeed its sheer age has done the same.
And like with any huge city, sometimes it gets too much. All of it. The noise, the people, the constant state of action. The rubbish, the haggling, the begging, the mangy animals – not every street animal is lucky enough to score a food sponsor in the form of a restaurant – picking through bins.
Five days into our week in Istanbul, I hit a wall. It was a Sunday and most things were closed, so we hopped on the tram and caught it out to Topkapi station, where you can see the remains of the huge, ancient Walls of Constantinople. From a distance, the walls are sensational. Imposing, even in the places they’re crumbling.
Up close, there is rubbish everywhere, trodden on and added to so as to form thick, matted carpets of plastic bags and cans and wrappers and old shoes. Walking up some narrow stairs, I saw a litter of puppies, just a week old, huddling. Nearby two lay dead, one from a broken neck, the other from who knows. We tramped on a little further, past clusters of men loitering and smoking behind the wall, the matted carpet of trash underfoot, until quite literally and indeed metaphorically, I hit a wall.
So I retreated. Back in our sliver-in-the-wall hotel, in the quiet emptiness of the lounge room, I sat by window with my notebook and watched Istanbul do its thing outside.
And I wrote:
Istanbul has beaten me today. The noise, the people, the dirt, the crush. Perhaps it was the puppies, one week old and curled around each other for warmth, two siblings already dead. Then the clambering around this big old wall that was once a city’s border and is now a dumping ground for human shit, literally human shit.
We went for tea and baklava afterwards, the waiter gave me a napkin rose. Both of us had exhausted the ‘can we take a puppy home’ discussion on the train, until it stopped being about the puppy and just became about being tired.
But it’s all part of it. The wonder, the awe, the energy, the fatigue, the confrontation, the processing, the overwhelming sense of how vast, how varied this world is. All big cities have dead puppies and matted carpets of rubbish. Picking through the shit is part of the parcel. And sometimes, most of the time, you can’t take the puppy home.