Turkey emerges from coronavirus: a new normal for Istanbul
Post-lockdown, from Istanbul to the Coast Locals and Visitors are Enjoying Crowd-Free Streets, Shops, Cafes and Monuments.
I’m a second generation Classic Journeys guide. Now in my 30’s (never ask a woman in America or Turkey her age…), I first met company founder, Edward, when he came over 20 years ago to scout the first Turkish trips with my parents, Cemil and Yasemin. We grew up as a kind of dual-locale family, having homes in Istanbul and along the coast in Antalya (think of San Diego for climate, terrain and coastline). Over time, like many in my generation, I migrated more to Istanbul and my parents spent more time in Antalya. Now, I’m in Istanbul full time and they live up in the shade and serenity of the mountains above the coast.
I recently sat down to think about how the coronavirus is impacting Turkey, Turks and our guests who come here to explore. And it suddenly came to me that my experience and my parents’ are about as different as our two generations and the places where we live.
For Cemil and Yasemin (mom and dad), their main experience of coronavirus is how it has pleasantly slowed their pace of life. They are enjoying having more time at home, taking long coastal walks, talking together, cooking together and completing household projects my mother has been asking my father to do for years. They will tell you how nature is more beautiful than ever and how there are hardly any boats on the Mediterranean, as if the whole of Turkey has gone back in time to before the days of mass tourism.
For me in Istanbul, it is been a completely different experience. First, there were widespread closures, then curfews were instilled which brought on, of course, panic shopping. Just like in America, we also experienced the run on toilet paper! (In Turkey, when you live in rural areas, you do your household shopping for a whole week, so your kitchen is stocked up. In the city, we buy food and essentials more or less on a day-to-day basis, because the stores and markets are on our doorstep and our small city-center apartments can’t store as many groceries.)
Istanbul, the nexus of Europe and Asia, is famous for being in a state of constant movement dating back thousands of years. With a population of over fifteen million, and on top of that, thousands of tourists—you can imagine how one of the most visited cities in the world can seem a bit crowded – especially in a normal year on weekends and during the peak days when cruise ships come in to port. The Grand Bazaar and all of our markets are colorful, noisy and exciting. Our narrow streets are bustling. There are long lines for the beautiful museums and palaces. Restaurants spill onto the streets and fill roof-top terraces. It may be busy, but that’s the charm of Istanbul – the wonderful overload for all the senses.
Suddenly, silence. We were all stuck at home.
Empty streets. Instead of the constant buzzing, honking and music from car traffic, a single car driving through silent streets sounded almost alien.
Shutdown markets. No overflowing stalls, no delicious scent of spice, no constant chatter from vendors bargaining with shoppers.
No cruise ships in port. In a normal year, we have more than a half million people arriving by ships into Istanbul. You used to be able to tell the day of the week by the nationality of the cruise ship passengers filling the squares. Suddenly, none.
When mosques (which in Istanbul we have many of,) do their ezan or call to prayer, usually you hear the sound from all sides of the city, mixed with all the other noises. In the silence, the voice echoes off the walls, as if out of nowhere, I have never heard anything like it. It has taught me to slow down and see my city in a different light – without the other distractions, I have more time to take in and appreciate the history and beauty around me. Like listening to the sound of the waves on the Bosporus, and marveling that I am walking some of the same streets that Constantine the Great and others walked as they passed through this city. And one of my favorite slow down moments, has been taking in the scent of freshly baked bread. Oh, the smell of bread. The baking of it, the way in which we eat it, even the way the bread men deliver it to shops stacked on top of their heads is so important to us from a culinary and cultural perspective. (Which reminds me, our bakeries have stayed open throughout! We have always been able to buy bread, and cake too!)
This leads me to something else that makes me super proud to be Turkish: we always take care of our neighbors, even complete strangers, now more than ever.
So, where the older generation have not been able to run errands, neighbors have stepped in to help. Istanbul’s ancient tradition of hoisting baskets up balconies has seen a revival, so that people sheltering at home can receive their groceries without having to come into direct contact with other people. Near where my parents live in Antalya, one local has been buying groceries and delivering to people’s doorsteps – dressed as Spiderman!
On April 23, when we were in the middle of total lockdown, we found a way to celebrate an important public holiday from our homes. Leaning from windows and balconies to sing the national anthem, whistle, applaud and shout out to one another. It was a festive, electric atmosphere.
That feels like yesterday, but as I write this, I realize that it was two months ago! Today, almost everything has reopened.
For that, I thank those who put in place our pandemic plan, which was ready to activate as soon as the infection reached Turkey. We have been contact-tracing and testing from very early on.
All travel restrictions have been lifted (only two other countries worldwide have achieved this). Workers are going back to their offices.
Istanbul is back in business, but it is a different Istanbul.
Instead of weaving through hundreds of people as you navigate our narrow streets, you pass a handful of people. I know friends who have visited some of our biggest museums and attractions, and been the only ones there!
With the tourist board’s Safe Tourism Certificate, hotels are setting new standards of cleanliness and social distancing. (There is a new trend for luxury lodgings – a signature perfumed hand sanitizer!)
In mosques, shelves where worshippers would usually put their shoes are filled with donated food for people who can’t afford to buy it.
Our coffee shops are as busy as before (if not busier; we suffered homemade coffee long enough, which will never be as good!). Now they have disinfectant stations, thermometers to check customers, and spaced out tables. It’s the same with restaurants and those with terraces are thriving.
So, while life is different in Turkey, we are learning to slow down – as is much of the world, I guess – and connect again with our neighbors, culture and history. It feels like we have a little window of time when you can see, feel and experience Istanbul at a more human and humane pace. If you’ve seen it before during ‘normal’, see it now. And if you’ve never seen it before, see it now and never again so that you can make this your ‘normal’.