through Travel … to Istanbul

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It was our last night at the Neorion Hotel Istanbul & we’d been so busy we hadn’t taken advantage of the promised “Happy Hour on the Terrace.” Once we made our way up to the hotel’s 7th floor we realized we’d been missing out on a treat, and it seemed most of the other guests hadn’t made our mistake, and there were no empty chairs.  Nonetheless, there was plenty of room along the railing and, while the wine was nothing special (though who can complain too much when it’s free?), the view of the sun setting over the minarets was an unexpected pleasure.

Istanbul was like that for me, full of unexpected “Turkish Delights.”  To paraphrase a quote from a website that summed it up nicely for me, you know that feeling you have when you arrive somewhere for the first time but it feels like you’ve already been there?  That doesn’t happen in Istanbul.  It is like no place I’ve ever been.

The first pleasant surprise was the Neorion Hotel itself.  After a wild ride racing up and down a jumble of cobbled streets barely wide enough for one car in a taxi that, as proved typical in Istanbul, had no seatbelts, we parked on the sidewalk in front of the glass doors to a hotel taking up only a narrow space along the vertical wall of buildings here in the heart of the Old City.  I’d reserved the hotel based solely on its Tripadvisor reviews.  Although Tripadvisor has rarely done me wrong, the fact that the Neorion wasn’t mentioned in any of my guidebooks meant I felt some trepidation.  Had I made the right decision when I booked here rather than at a better-known hotel?  My anxiety was immediately eased when we walked through the glass doors into a well-lit, modern lobby and the welcoming arms of Merve Bozarstan, the hotel’s Guest Relations manager.  After handing my passport to the gentleman behind the walnut desk so he could check us in, Merve lead us up a few steps into a sitting area of dark red cushioned seats and small tables, where the hotel serves tea free to guests every afternoon.  “Welcome,” she said warmly, “please select a welcome drink and then I will speak to you of dinner options and tell you about my city.”

We choose Raki, and soon we each had a flat, cylindrical glass of anise-flavoured Raki, mixed with water so that it appeared in cloudy, milky white swirls, accompanied by a glass of water.  To me it tasted like Everclear; it reminded Austin of absinthe.  It was the only Raki I drank during my trip, but I was glad I’d at least tried it once.

While we sipped our Raki, Merve gave a brief overview of the hotel and its services, as well as offering menus from various restaurants for lunch and dinner options (the hotel only serves breakfast).   Tired, we opted to find something quick nearby, and a 5-minute walk later found a kabob house full of a mix of what looked like Turks as well as tourists.  The tables downstairs were full, but the waiter led us up a narrow staircase to a large, green-walled and cavernous room filled with wooden tables, with paintings of Turkish men on the window glass.

Kabob House in Old City, Istanbul

We were the only diners upstairs, which felt odd at first.  But our waiter soon made us feel right at home.  He asked where we were from.  “America,” we said.  “Afghanstan”? he asked.  No, we laughed, and tried again, but still he couldn’t understand us.  Finally he pulled out pen and paper to ask us to write it down, but his pen was almost out of ink and didn’t write well.  I grabbed my pen for him to use and he misunderstood my gesture, thinking I meant to give the pen to him permanently.  “Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you” he repeated as he cupped the pen between his hands and made a little bow in my direction, so grateful for the gift.  He was so happy I couldn’t bear to correct his mistake, and his joy in that small pleasures was his gift to me.  It was an experience that sticks with me now that I’m back home — the gratitude, the friendliness, the welcoming nature of everyone we met.  It didn’t seem fake, or customer-service-oriented.  Although later in the week I’d run across a few salesmen who I felt were friendly in order to entice me into their showrooms and into buying a souvenir or two, almost everyone we met was genuinely kind and welcoming.  Despite the crowds and the cultural differences and the language I couldn’t hope to understand, kindness and warmth proved once again that they have the power to connect us despite our differences, if we’re only willing to open our hearts.

After a delicious (and inexpensive) chicken and meat kabob dinner, my son and I walked the short block back to our hotel and sank into the comfortable beds and, with the help of an Ambien, were soon fast asleep.   Our time in Istanbul was off to a great start

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