April 26, 2012

Istanbul Diary

Ferries Crossing in front of mine of the Bosphorus. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Dear Blog Readers—I am on a three day trip to Istanbul and although it is a bit of a divergence from my Italy and Mothering themes, I would like to share a few thoughts on one of my favorite cities in the world, and a few comments on Turkey in general. I do not profess to be knowledgeable about Turkey, so mine are just thoughts and impressions.

Istanbul is one of the most exotic, exhilirating, romantic, and stimulating cities in the world.  It is a mix of East and West, North and South, European, Middle Eastern and Asian.  It is a riotous jumble of diverse cultures and religions, costume and traditions and it is spectacularly beautiful.

The city covers a series of hill-tops around the Bosphorus and one can sit on a hill sipping tea and stare out at the ferries making their way back and forth across the water way, there are minarets from Mosques pin-pricking the sky, modern office buildings and phone towers and spectacular bridges crossing the water.

Like New York, the seabreeze in Istanbul electrifies and stimulates….the tanker horns and the muezzin calls, the rush of traffic…

The last time I was in Istanbul was six years ago (2006) and the changes were noticeable immediately. While Europe is floundering, depressed and demoralized in its economic crisis, Turkey is flourishing, confident and energized.

When we stepped off the plane and made our way towards the baggage claim area there were airport employees zipping around on two wheeled segways.  Gustavo and I were tempted to laugh – but they were clearly efficient, and environmentally friendly.  The bags arrived on the carousel before we got there (unheard of in Italy or the US) and when we stepped out of the customs area a driver was waiting for us with my husband’s name “Mr. Piga”  on a piece of paper.  I couldn’t help noticing that the driver carefully put the piece of paper in  the “paper recycling” bin before heading out of the airport.

As we drove into down, I was astonished by the change.  Gone was the chaotic, crazed third-world traffic I remembered. There were no more legless beggars at the traffic lights and continuous honking.  The road into town was filled with flowers — beautiful yellow and pink tulips.  On one side swish new apartment buildings with elegant balconies and big glass windows with sea-views lined the road.  I noticed many had the distinctive red Turkish flag hanging off their balconies. On the other side the city has fixed up a green sea-side park complete with kiosks and workout stations. Beyond the park was the only view that has remained unchanged, the dazzling Bosphorus – large tankers dotting the horizon—the rolling hills on the other side specked with buildings of the sprawling Istanbul metropolis and little green islands in the distance.

One thing I find fascinating about Istanbul is that they have neighborhoods dedicated to selling a particular type of product.  Just coming from the airport we passed the bike shops areas—with bikes of all shapes and sizes lining the streets, the musical instrument area with windows choc-o-block with guitars and all sorts of instruments and the lamp and lampshade nieghborhood where store after store window was filled with lamps.   From earlier trips to Istanbul I remember passing through a bathroom appliance neighborhood, where store after store had every type of faucet and toilet seat.  I also remember seeing the wedding dress neighborhood where white dresses of all shapes and sizes were in every window.  Although I have never heard of this anywhere else, I guess it makes a certain amount of sense.  Shoppers only need to go to one area to search for a certain item.

In the afternoon I took a walk through the neighborhood where our hotel is located.  It is the Besiktas area and clearly a place for the chic and wealthy.  I was amazed to see so many Italian stores that appear to be thriving—Giorgio Armani, Massimo Dutti, Max Mara, and Gucci.  There were also Mcdonald’s and The Gap, next to Kebab stands, Simit (a sort-of Turkish pretzel) sellers, and shoe-shine men.


Shoe-shine man proudly poses for me on a street in Istanbul. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Just across the street from this shoe-shine man, I took a photo of these unbelieveable shoes.  I guess the Turkish women want to give the Italians a run for their money (see my post Teetering on High).  This is what I love about Istanbul, the remarkable mix of old and new, poor and rich, religious and secular and on and on and on.

Shoes in the window of a shop in Istanbul. Photo by Trisha Thomas

My husband – Gustavo Piga, an Italian economist (you can check out his blog www.gustavopiga.it) has been invited to participate in a conference on called “Forum Istanbul 2012.

In the evening Gustavo and I attended the conference dinner. The Minister of the Economy M. Zafer Caglayan gave the dinner speech.  He was clearly bursting with pride over Turkey’s stable democracy and economic success story.  He proudly spoke of the government’s targets for 2023, the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the Republic of Turkey.

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was an Ottoman and Turkish military officer who led the war for independence and established the Turkish republic becoming its first president in 1923.   He revolutionized the country turning what remained of the Ottoman Empire into a modern, westernized, secular democracy.  He got rid of the Arab script and brought in Latin letters, he fought for women’s rights, abolishing the veil (it has returned) and promoting the education of women.  His photo can be found everywhere in Istanbul.  Below is a gigantic photo of Ataturk that I saw on the wall of a sporting club near our hotel.

Gigantic photo of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk on a building in Istanbul. Photo by Trisha Thomas

But back to the Minister of Economy – in his lengthy and enthusiastic speech about the current economic situation in Turkey he noted that  “the only pimple on our face is our deficit.”

I happened to be seated next to a prominent Turkish author and columnist, Osman Ulagay.  He has published 14 books on Turkey, his most recent being –roughly translated into English– “To Whom will Turkey be left?”  He quietly pointed out to me there is another “pimple on the face of the Turkey”  and that is freedom of the press.  He told me there are currently some 100 Turkish journalists in prison on a variety of charges who are being held in custody for years while they wait for a trial.   It didn’t take me long to find a lot of information available on that.  See this January article in The New York Times: “Turkey’s Glow Dims…

Osman Ulagay explained to me that the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is well respected in the region and abroad for maintaining a stable, secular democracy in a turbulent region.  Erdogan’s government is seen as a key power-broker in mideast conflicts in Syria, Iran, Egypt and Iraq.  But Ulagay explained to me there is no strong opposition so “for all intents and purposes Turkey has become a one party country.”

Day Two:

This morning I went to hear my husband speak at the conference.  There was a fascinating line-up in the morning and I will just mention a few highlights.  Andrew Leung of China gave a mind-boggling speech on the economic growth in China.  He started out his speech by noting “There is an elephant in the room, or maybe I should say a Panda.”  I loved that comment, as an American I am very aware that there is an enormous Panda sitting in the room. He spouted dozens of figures that were truly astounding.  Here are a couple: China is building 97 new airports by 2020,  China is building a high-speed rail across Asia to Europe, he called the the “renaissance of the old silk road”, China has the largest luxury market in the world with one million millionaires.  He encouraged Turkish businesses to look into providing products for China’s burgeoning mega-cities.

Gustavo had to provide the European view.  He described Europe as the “sick citizen of the world who needs morphine, medicine and therapy.”  And went on to provide a powerful vision of how Europe can unite and get out of the crisis.  His speech was inspiring and he had the audience in his hand by the end.   He has an Italian talent for combining brilliance, charisma and passion that can win over crowds around the globe.

Fascinating as it all was, by lunch-time I had enough of economics and was eager to get out on the Bosphorus.  For those who don’t know, the Bosphorus is the saltwater strait that divides Istanbul into a European and Asian side, and connects the Sea of Marmara to the Black Sea.

I headed out to the Besiktas ferry stop and bought a 2 Turkish Lira token (roughly $1.50) to take me over to the other side.  As I stood on deck breathing in the cool Bosphorus breeze and marvelling in the view, as if on cue, a school of dolphins began jumping and diving near the ferry.

I was enthralled…

Tomorrow: A Peek at Turkish Women

For more on Turkish experiences, I must recommend two bloggers that are much more knowledgeable than I am.  Check out: Slowly-by-Slowly and Archers of Okular.

Related posts:

Trisha Thomas

Author: Trisha Thomas

Trisha is a TV journalist working for AP TV News in Rome. She is married to an Italian and is a Mamma of three.


  1. avatar

    Hi Trisha,

    What an honor for your husband to be invited to speak at the conference. Congratulations. I have never been to Istanbul, but everyone always comes home with glowing reports, and now from your description it is better than ever. Thanks so much for the report. With today’s economic woes, I imagine the economists are quite worried. Overall so you sense that they express any optimism for the world in general, separate from the few countries that are doing well?

    • Trisha Thomas

      Adri — I am absolutely hopeless when it comes to economics, but you should check out Gustavo’s site http://www.gustavopiga.it because he is just bursting with thought and ideas and he writes plenty of posts in English. I was amazed at how energized and optimistic the Turks were, as was the Chinese speaker. Last night we had an excellent dinner speaker from France, who, with typical European elegance, was very discouraging and cynical about the past years. However, he concluded saying that the world needs vision and leaders with integrity, leaders who are intelligent but also courageous to get us out of this crisis.

  2. avatar

    Trisha, My husband and I just got back from Istanbul. We have been many times, last time was less than 2 years ago and we stayed a week this time. We love it. We noted all the same things, more or less, at the airport and the ride into town with the tulips at their peak was astounding. We are friends with the u.s consul general and the ambassador and we heard a lot about how great turkey is doing economically. I felt very happy to be in country where things were going well, such a switch from what we are surrounded with. We dined out in some great places, filled with the yuppies of Turkey who seemed to be doing very well. The employment rate for young people is very, very high. I came back here happy to know such a place exists. enjoy. jane

    • Trisha Thomas

      Jane– great to hear from you, and I am glad you share my views about the energy and optimism of Turkey and the charm of Istanbul.

  3. avatar

    I loved Istanbul when I was last there but it was a lng time ago. Clearly I need to get back! I’ve read the Lord Kinross’s biography of Ataturk. Very interesting. Concerning your speaker on China I would urge you to read “China Grows Up and Slows down” byt Ruchir Sharma in the NYT of 4/26 for what may be a more balanced view of China. Congratulations to Gustavo on his presentation.

    I note your new sponsorship, BlogHer and that Target is a supporter. You’re moving into the big time!

    • Trisha Thomas

      Wow, I must add these books to my reading list. I am fascinated by Ataturk and how he is still so lionized and adored by the Turkish people. Their admiration is sincere and even though the current government is pushing back some of his secular policies, even the government ministers at the conference spoke of him and the democracy he created with great pride.

  4. avatar
    Gretchen Bloom 2012/04/27 at 19:00 Reply


    Having just returned from booming Istanbul, from the AWID Forum (Association for Women’s Rights in Development), I could not agree with you more. Istanbul has polite people, who are helpful to visitors. Its streets are clean. And its bathrooms are generally immaculate. One definitely gets the sense of a country on the move. Let’s hope it stays that way! We are only sorry that we missed having a dinner with you and Gustavo during our Istanbul stay. Gretchen

    • Trisha Thomas

      Gretchen — I wish I could have seen you in Istanbul. I would be curious to hear your thoughts on women in Turkey. I am about to do another post with some nice photos of women, but I don’t feel qualified to make any concrete comments. You must have plenty of time to talk with Turkish women during the AWID Forum.

  5. avatar

    . . wonderful, vibrant? Absolutely! Yet living here one is aware of the reversal in Turkey’s policy of ‘Zero problems with our neighbours’. Halfway through NATO’s criminal attack on Libya Mr Erdoğan got his ‘Ray Nagan’ moment and everything turned around. From friendly neighbout to belligerent enemy to Syria – all in support of the US/NATO destabilisation. It is sad and the general population are appalled. This is such an accepting, warm, cosmopolitan society but NATO’s serpent is dragging it into regional conflict.

    • Trisha Thomas

      Thanks for your comment. Geo-political questions related to Turkey are so fascinating, but again I don’t have the knowledge to say much. I will share a few comments from the Istanbul Forum conference that my husband was attending, where I heard some interesting speakers. The Turkish Minister of European Union of Affairs–proudly spoke of Turkey’s stable democracy comparing it with Egypt, noting that the government of Mubarak didn’t even bother to keep the streets of Cairo clean because it had not been elected by the people. He also compared it to Pakistan which he said spent the money to make a nuclear bomb, but needs countries like Turkey to send it aid after major floods. He noted that the European countries had been arrogant and resistant to having Turkey join the EU, but now Turkey has “started to show the courage to talk to them the way they deserve.” He was followed by the Financial Times Correspondent in Istanbul who noted that Turkey needs to complete its new constitution that “unites democratic Turkey rather than divides”, he said that on questions of diplomacy that in recent years Turkey “seemed to command the world and the region,” but suggested that perhaps Turkey needs a “reality check in terms of the world.”
      Professor Gul Turan, an economist from Okan University, who was sitting next to me at dinner, described to me how deeply disturbed she is about the situation in Syria. She explained that if Assad had been pushed to make the necessary reforms, all this violence could have been avoided. She tried to explain to me some of the Shiite, Sunni questions, saying that Iran is trying to create a Shiite belt through Syria and Iraq to protect from the powerful Sunni nations to the South — Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
      It is all very sad and disturbing.

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  7. avatar

    Welcome Back to Turkey. Just found your blog via Alan at Archers. Even down in South West Turkey we are feeling the sweep of this economic boom, but it is nothing compared to the changes in Istanbul and Turkey. About the shoes – all the young women working in the banks in Bodrum wear these heels every day – such imperviousness to pain has to be admired if not recommended.

    • Trisha Thomas

      Thank you for your comment. Some day I must visit South West Turkey, it must be beautiful. Yes, the shoes were amazing. I thought that only Italian women wore shoes like that– boy was I wrong!

  8. avatar

    Welcome Back to Turkey. Just found your blog via Alan at Archers. Even down in South West Turkey we are feeling the sweep of this economic boom, but it is nothing compared to the changes in Istanbul and Ankara. About the shoes – all the young women working in the banks in Bodrum wear these heels every day – such imperviousness to pain has to be admired if not recommended.

  9. avatar

    Hi Trisha I’ve missed your posts – have been in Bali – so just catching up on all your news. Despite living in Crete for so many years I never made it to Turkey. You’ve now whetted my appetite even further – great reading as always – thank you . Francesca x

    • Trisha Thomas

      Thanks Francesca– lucky you that you were in Bali! I spent my honeymoon there…heavenly. You must go to Turkey, it is a special place.

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