Second Prize Winner of the 2013-14 Writing Contest

Miriam Shestack, ’15, participated in the Istanbul: Middle Eastern Civilizations program.


Paint me a picture of a city that stretches as far as the eye can see, of an emergent order that blends a million specially crafted pieces into an organic and purely accidental whole, of every earth tone and shade of salmon and gold you can imagine under clouds that promise a storm.

That’s one way I could have got here, if someone painted a perfect picture, an Ottoman miniature featuring four young women posed with parasols on the roof of the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. As we four young women pose with our clear plastic umbrellas purchased for five lira in the light rain earlier that day stand before the most stunning view of the city that we have seen yet, we take pictures. One, or two, or three of us will stand and smile or look pensive and gaze at the city under our umbrellas while someone else situates us perfectly in the camera’s eye, framing the face and hair and teeth with the endless tangle of rooftops and broken windows and vines and billboards domes and minarets over the steely grey Bosphorus. In an Ottoman miniature each figure in a scene is specifically placed such that their symbolic meanings speak to each other, creating a cohesive whole with a distinct meaning. Putting this almost indescribable scene into a photograph, thinking of it in terms of art and composing it as though it were made for us to find is one way of understanding how I came to be here.

About a week ago I traveled to Cappadocia with several students on the program over a long weekend. Cappadocia is a UNESCO world heritage site, home to cave churches and plateaus, it is like nowhere else in the world. One day we took a minibus out to a national park in the area, and as we sat at a café on a mountainside drinking sweet Turkish black tea in damp air that was just cool enough, I felt I had never been as content in my life. Just then a friend of mine looked up and said, “Do you ever just take a second and think ‘how the hell did I get here?’”

I was there because I took a ten hour bus ride from Istanbul to Göreme and stood by as tougher members of our group negotiated a good price on large van with a driver to fit all nine of us. The van would then drive us out of the tiny town, through a bigger one, past many fields, a small lake, and up a mountain for three hours to get to the waterfall we had all wanted to see. I visualized the line that my path must have drawn through space, taking a long jump over the Atlantic to Amsterdam where it squiggled around for a few days, then a straight shot to Istanbul, where it spiraled and swirled and scribbled over the ancient city before taking the winding path into Anatolia and curving over itself and up and up through the mountains to that very café deep in a valley. I imagined it winding like DNA does in forming a chromosome, wrapping erratically on itself yet still forming this perfect packet of information. And so it had been, the creation of the path through space that would lead me to exactly that café over the rushing water coming down from the fall, where I watched fish pulled right out of the water with a net and gutted, where lunch was made before our eyes and I sat full after a long day drinking the watered down yogurt that every Turk loves and is distinctly an acquired taste for those of us not raised on it, where I sat as content as I believed I had ever been. All of the random winding, the lost moments, the asking for directions and bargaining over prices, had meandered us into a perfect spot, a place with meaning, a story that I’m happy to tell.

No, it’s not as simple as that. I am here, back in bustling Istanbul and overlooking the city. for more complicated reasons. My path is winding and not solitary. I am here because my grandmother moved her four children to Turkey from Illinois in the 1960’s after her husband died. She taught English for a few years as my mother accidentally grew up in Turkey, which made her love it, which made me want nothing more than to visit, which made me fill out an application to attend this fabulous program. I am here because some combination the study abroad office and bursar’s office and financial aid office, not without persuasion, conspired to be kind and allow me to attend in spite of outstanding debt. I am here because my parents are paying for me to go to college. I am here because one of the several students I might otherwise have not met but have become friends with on the program loves travel blogs. She read that it was possible to get to the top of the Grand Bazaar. I am here because a man running a scarf shop just outside of the Bazaar directed us to the right set of dark stairs using a combination of Turkish, English, and gestures. I am here because there was a little old man at the end of a long hall at the top of the stairs who had a key to a door leading to darker stairs, who let us through for one lira apiece.

As I look out over Istanbul now, what strikes me first are the sharp lines that the supports of the Galata Bridge draw over the city. Ever so slightly curving diagonal lines of the cable supports form half a star around a pointed white pillar three times on each side of the massive road over water. The design element in the bridge is clear, it is an art piece as well as a feat of architecture and engineering that supports the slow crawl of traffic over the Golden Horn. It throws into sharp relief the element of art in the city as a whole, how it occupies a middle space between accident and design. Istanbul is nothing if not sprawling. It is nothing if not dense. Many elements of the scene before me are dilapidated. Shards of glass hang precariously in windows in the surrounding crumbling buildings like teeth barely attached to sagging gums and vines and weeds sprout everywhere up here. There isn’t a surface that some cat or seagull does not call home. Each element of the city was designed once, some more immaculately than others. Minarets soar over the relatively low apartments around them, which are painted in pastel colors. The Galata Tower stands strong across the water. Traffic flows across the Galata bridge, complementing the pastels of the building and the forbidding gray of the sky with steady streams of red and gold moving in either direction. The sounds clanking metal and power tools from the workshops on the top floors of the Grand Bazaar filter upwards through the roof. Steam spews out from a chimney on a neighboring roof and it parallels the clouds and frames the hilly urban landscape, which itself is framed and echoed by the landscape created by the small domes we are climbing on. As I regard the world around me at this moment I believe that this scene must mean something, that it is too beautiful and each dilapidated or shining piece too perfectly situated for this to be anything but art. The factors that got me here to see it are too many to count. Travel is a winding path that becomes cohesive. Like the city itself, it is the culmination of a million factors that could not have been more perfectly laid by divine intention. The landscape exists in a middle space between accident and art. Likewise my journey here exists in a middle space between the carefully planned and a thousand happy accidents. Travel is access to this middle space, which I find somewhat sacred, which is why I do it, which is why I’m here.