David Moseley

East, west, home is best

2013-01-23 18:41

David Moseley

Just so you appreciate how much effort I put into these columns, I want you all to know that I took a ferry to the Asian side of Istanbul just to write that headline. I go the extra mile for my readers.

Having charged through vibrant Rome and serene Istanbul over the last two weeks I was expecting some sort of melancholy to set in on coming home. In fact, the opposite has occurred. My spirits have never been more lifted by seeing a countryman chuck his KFC packet on the floor.

There’s something remarkable about coming home after time away in foreign lands. It’s not that South Africa is better than Italy and Turkey, certainly in many aspects it’s a distant second. But the sheer joy of stepping off the plane at Cape Town International surprised me.

Maybe it’s the lack of space in the two cities we visited (though Istanbul, with its Bosphorus views on every street corner, does alleviate any big city claustrophobia by opening up onto such an impressive expanse of water) but suddenly it feels like you could roam Cape Town for hours without bumping into another soul.

My modest home feels like a vast estate compared to some of the cramped quarters we saw overseas (one Roman told us she paid the equivalent of R20 000 per month for a one-bedroom spot in the heart of the city).

Not that I’m complaining. Travelling is a luxury for many, and my wife (as she now likes to be called) and I made sure we got every cents worth on this honeymoon/cultural excursion.

Rome, as many informed us before leaving, is a manic hub of tourism, trinkets and high prices – even in the European winter. But to walk up close and practically touch the history of a dominant, bright, yet ultimately unruly empire (I touched the walls of the Coliseum while no one was looking) is a rare and thrilling experience, particularly for this history buff.

There’s no way to do the city justice in just 500 words, but an unexpected highlight was the allure and romance of the Fontana di Trevi (Trevi Fountain to you and me). It’s such a cliché that I’m kicking myself while writing this, but standing over the fountain and eating an ice cream every night was a surreal and heart-warming experience straight from the movies. Most moving after that was walking around the Vatican and appreciating the silence. I tend to stay far, far away from holy places, but the Pope’s digs does impress.

Istanbul, however, is where the magic floats. It was suggested to me that I read Nobel winner Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul: Memories and the City before travelling to Turkey. I duly obliged, and the experience of actually seeing the city was better for it.

Pamuk describes his home-town in terms of his upbringing in a well-to-do but dysfunctional family, touching too on how the crumbling of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of Turkish Nationalism as advocated by Mustafa Kemal Pasa (better known as Ataturk, or “Father of the Turks”) affects daily life in Istanbul. Weaving in and out of his story, as it does in the life of every Istanbullus (as Pamuk calls them), is the Bosphorus, something that appealed to me purely from its exotic appearances in a number of James Bond films.

The recollections of the changes in the city, as described by Pamuk, set the tone for my expectations. But nothing could have prepared me for the mix of vibrant and serene that Istanbul offers.

Anarchic markets open up to Bosphorus views that seemingly calm the entire city. Glimpsed through a narrow alley of decaying homes and urban renewal, with the sun setting on the water and the “City on the Sea” of hundreds of ships waiting to enter the strait, the day’s chaos magically floats away.

The busy tourist centres have their edge taken off too by the mosques that loom large over every angle of the city. Pamuk talks of an Istanbul skyline (something we didn’t see fully) dominated by Ottoman architecture. Looking from the ground up, though, gigantic places of worship instantly ease the stress of fumbling around a city in a foreign language.

Still, as Dorothy noted, there is no place like home – whether it’s for the everyday comforts or simply the familiarity. Wandering these historic, influential cities makes you appreciate not only their past, but your present. 

- Follow @david_moseley on Twitter.

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