Romancing the Old City: A Somewhat Cynical Love Note to Istanbul

To-morrow is Saint Valentine’s day,
All in the morning betime,
And I a maid at your window,
To be your Valentine.
Then up he rose, and donn’d his clothes,
And dupp’d the chamber-door;
Let in the maid, that out a maid
Never departed more. 

-Valentine’s day, as ruefully bemused by Ophelia in William Shakespeare’s, “Hamlet

In my 30-something years on this planet I have experienced the gamut of Valentine’s days, of which I thankfully only remember few. Certainly there existed school-aged humiliation (of the Simpsons-esque “I choo choo choose you” variety – being given a flimsy card by the one boy in class whom I most certainly did NOT want a card from), a few awkward dinners with boyfriends (how romantic can artisanal-cheddar-baked-Macaroni-and-cheese be, really?), as well as a few singles-only anti-Valentine parties at bars where after several rounds of drinks I probably sang “Love is a Battlefield” without a trace of irony. The point is, this hallmark holiday has very seldom been enjoyable, whether I have been single or taken – with the exception of a boyfriend who once kindly presented me with breakfast in bed, which consisted of a giant glass bowl of red strawberry Jello. Incidentally, he remains one of my oldest friends.

(CC BY 2.0)
(CC BY 2.0*)

So, who was this Saint Valentine, and why is he commemorated with roses and chocolates every February 14th? Apparently, history being the precarious collection of stories that it so often is, there may have actually existed more than one ‘Valentinus’ within the Roman empire, whose staunch commitments to Christianity resulted in his being martyred. St. Valentine of Rome apparently performed wedding services for soldiers who were forbidden to marry, and ministered to Christians which resulted in his eventual persecution. Prior to his execution he signed a letter to the daughter of his jailer (oh, forbidden love), with the words “your Valentine”, as a final farewell.

It was Medieval poet Geoffrey Chaucer who is really to blame for the popularization of Valentine’s day, as he wrote poem after dreadful romantic poem, and the tradition of courtly love flourished all around him with Valentine’s day eventually evolving in 18th century England as an occasion to perform sonnets, offer confectionery to your sweetheart and leave other tokens of appreciation (such as a thoughtful flock of white doves) upon their doorstep.

(CC BY-SA 3.0)
Geoffrey Chaucer (CC BY-SA 3.0**)

Which brings us to now, and this Valentine’s Day, 2016, in Istanbul — where doves are still in plentiful supply, though perhaps have fallen out of favour for simit-eating seagulls. There exists plenty of opportunity for romantic wining and dining if you are into that sort of thing; I can visualize now a plethora of Turkish couples on crowded streets sharing fish and rakı, and making eyes at one another whilst trying to avoid spilling meze as the bread makes the perilous journey from hand to mouth; or better yet, rooftop meetups where in an attempt to ease tensions, various high heeled heroines imbibe a few too many vodka-sodas, and narrowly fall down the spiral stairs en route to the WC, before taking an emergency escape taxi home. For the more cynical and perpetually single among us, there does exist an alternative to this debauchery however, and with that in mind I propose the Valentine’s day antidote: a romantic solitary walk through the old city.

(photo credit: Julia Totino)
(photo credit: Julia Totino)

If possible, begin your romantic sojourn on a boat, as water is generally associated with romance (I’m just making this up), and having a ferry çay amidst a sea breeze is sort of like a sacrament to the city: manifest good thoughts as you sip, breathe deeply and will that this year prove fruitful. Lord ensure your next Tinder match won’t ask for sexy photos before even asking your last name. Nevermind online dating; look at the beautiful city you live in. It is so gorgeous it almost hurts! If you have any spare bread, take a moment to feed the birds. Those aviary beasts need lovin’ too.

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(photo credit: Julia Totino)

If you have found yourself now in Eminönü, you might want to head across the street, past the New Cami and behind the Küçükpazar, up the hill until you reach the Büyük Valide Han rooftop. While there is a chance that stray hipster couples may have come here to take cheesy, kissy Valentine’s photos, you should still be able to find a patch of land to sit and soak up the fresh air and immense views, and possibly even blow a kiss to the Gods who have made this ephemeral moment possible. Maybe send a text to your crush at this point, so you don’t feel like too much of a loner, before snapping a few Instagram selfies and petting the rooftop cats.

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(photo credit: Julia Totino)

After the Han, perhaps stop for a Turkish coffee; don’t forget to read your grounds afterwards, and speculate on romantic suggestions within the cup. Yes, that is definitely a heart with you and your crush’s initials in it, obviously. Stop in at the bazaar and buy yourself something red: slippers, a pashmina or a football jersey, it really doesn’t matter. Let the shopkeepers who call you ‘Shakira’ beckon and watch, smile, brush them off like sand and continue onward.

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(photo credit: Julia Totino)

Once outside the bazaar, keep wandering and ruminate on the beauty of this city, and imagine all the love that has been lost and found within Istanbul’s historical boundaries. Consider that in some nations such as Saudi Arabia, the sale of tacky Valentine’s red foil chocolates is forbidden, and there apparently exists an actual black market for red roses, which you may find yourself punished for, should you clandestinely make a purchase. Stop at the next Sultanahmet sidewalk flower vendor and buy yourself a bouquet, just because you can; pull the petals off one by one, and sink deep into a reverie of how fortunate we all are to live in a place where flowers are readily available, while staring at the gorgeous Hagia Sophia and smelling chesnuts roasting. This is your city. How lucky you are!!

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(photo credit: Julia Totino)

Love is a complicated thing; damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Sometimes it’s easier to pour one’s affections into a place, for it’s fairly difficult for a city to break your heart (though once having fallen ill myself with a bout of Typhoid in Romania, Bucharest certainly comes closest to achieving that). Who knows, maybe you’ll even find similar company whilst on your idle romantic strolling, and despite your best efforts to stay solo, you will pair up. If so, you can invite me to the wedding; I’ll be sure to bring the doves and wistfully scatter some cinnamon hearts.

Image sources:
*“I Choo-Choo Choose You” Card by Michael Bently (CC BY 2.0)
** By Frédéric – commons,→This file has been extracted from another file: LA2-NSRW-3-0081.jpg (CC BY-SA 3.0)

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Julia Totino
Originally from Canada, Julia has spent the past several years in and out of the Middle East, living in both Cairo and Istanbul , a city she affectionately refers to as her "Achilles heel" (whatever that means). Passionate about a variety of creative pursuits, she can often be found wandering alone in the more decrepit parts of the city, digging for inspiration while drinking coffees and talking to the cats. She is currently writing her first book.

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