Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Istanbul: Calm in the Chaos

To me the most striking feature of Istanbul, besides breathtaking Bosphorus views and 2000 year old city rubble, is the massive amounts of people moving, living, eating, and just generally inhabiting every corner of the city. With approximately 15 million people, from the business districts to the Bosphorus shore neighborhoods to the ever-bustling Taksim, the crowds of people never cease, the masses never part. For most people, this is an annoying feature of a city. The normal reaction is to avoid the crowds; to go where there are less people, stay in on a Saturday night, wait out the rush hour. And many Istanbul-ers do just that. I have friends who avoid the crowded young city center of Taksim like the plague. I know people who refuse to take public transportation because of the crowded nature of the Istanbul bus. Many go to inland cafes on beautiful spring days rather than braving the horrific traffic for hours to arrive at a waterside coffee shop in Bebek.

But not I. I love the crowds. And not only will I brave them to go downtown, but I actually adore the massive amounts of people making their way through this city, individuals moving as one, pushing their way to various end points. There's a sort of beautiful calm that comes over me within the chaos. There are so many people to watch, so many small social phenomenons to study as I stand squished in a sweaty metro. An hour commute by way of public transportation passes more quickly than you can imagine when there is so much to observe. Besides observing others, one must also be more conscious of oneself. I focus on my feet, my hands holding the bar, the people getting too close, my location in regards to the shady old man on my right. I must focus on not dying while crossing busy streets filled with psycho honking taxi drivers, watch my bag as I navigate the crowded passageways, weave between business women in high heels and old village men with bushy mustaches, between Turkish-born gypsies and clueless European tourists. The chaos, the noises, the smells, it all gives me this strange sense of calm that I have yet to find elsewhere.

There is of course something beautifully relaxing about sitting in a meadow up in the mountains, or watching the sunset from a quiet cliff next to the Pacific Ocean, or even just sitting alone in your empty home. But the solitary calm I feel is different than the calm I feel when I am one among many in the crowds of Istanbul. To be alone, but not alone. To see and feel humanity around you, to breathe in society...there is nothing like it and it's actually rather addicting. I find myself dreaming of being lost in the flock, of stumbling around the city surrounded by strangers.

There is, of course, a time and place for all types of calm, and of course preference plays a part in this feeling that we seek. I suppose if I grew up in the Istanbul crowds, I might not like it as much. I grew up in a city, of course, and actually a decent sized city at that, but no crowds really. So every time I make my way back to Istanbul, I can't help but enjoy the calm that I feel in the chaos.
Calm as a result of chaos....what irony, huh?

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