In Praise of Cihangir – My Istanbul Neighbourhood

CihangirWithin the larger metropolis of Istanbul are many smaller neighbourhoods with their own identity – much like London. In London, my neighbourhood was Balham, which was my home and which I loved for its brunches, green space and excellent front doors (if you need more convincing on this last one, then check the #DoorsOfBalham hashtag on Instagram, which has been an unexpectedly delightful find.)

In Istanbul, my neighbourhood is Cihangir:  a unique part of the city that, despite being five minutes from the thousands of tourists of Taksim Square, feels like a pocket of residential, tree-lined, old town glory. It’s part of the European side that feels incredibly European: full of narrow streets, cafes, bars and boutique shops. I really believe it’s one of the most beautiful areas in the city. Most tourists get swept from Taksim Square down Istiklal Caddesi – a long, bustling road of shops and restaurants that, apparently, sees three million people walk down it every day. It’s a slightly more interesting version of London’s Oxford Street… if you imagine last-weekend-before-Christmas levels of shoppers walking down it on a daily basis. This is definitely worth an inclusion on a visitor’s itinerary, but walking down the road parallel to it (Sıraseviler Caddesi) and experiencing Cihangir instead gets my vote instead most days.

Going out for brunch in Cihangir certainly feels a lot more relaxed than in Balham, where you practically need an early night and a weekday alarm set to get anywhere decent for a Saturday brunch. Have breakfast before 11 here and people will think you’re an early riser; even the best of places have only a short queue after this, if at all. Van Kahvaltı Evi draws the crowds thanks to a Lonely Planet mention and a spot on Sıraseviler Caddesi, but my favourite has to be Doğacıyız Gourmet – amazing breakfast in the form of 26 small plates, never-ending tea in a thermos and a toaster brought up from the kitchen and plugged in next to your table if you prefer your bread on the warmer and crustier side. You can have a smaller breakfast, too, but why would you? If you are coming to visit me in Istanbul any time, just make sure you’re hungry, is all I’m saying.

Cihangir is also largely considered to be where many of the city’s artists live – apparently, you can often spot a Turkish soap star or two having a matcha latte (probably) in one of the cafes on the cobbles. Not knowing what any of these people look like, I like to imagine I might have sat ignorantly next to the Danny Dyer of Turkish soap operas on one of my trips for coffee. Attempts at watching the soap operas here have confirmed to me that you need more of a solid grip on the language than my current few sentences of (fluent) taxi (“right”, “left”) and restaurant (“where are the toilets?”) Turkish. I’ll get there…

Essentially, Cihangir shows me every day that Istanbul is so much more than the main areas I associated with the city – and, like Cihangir, these areas are hiding in plain sight. The Istanbul metropolis is huge, but never feels as busy as London: people take their time, brunch places are rarely full and people strike up conversations in restaurants. You sometimes forget the city has over twice London’s population (estimated at 15 million), and the smaller neighbourhoods of Istanbul contribute to this feeling.

Finally, another unexpected surprise: A few weeks ago, I lost my purse in Cihangir and only realised the next morning. Luckily for me, a passer by had found it, handed it to the police, who returned it to the consulate. I mentioned this story to the waitress in a café and she wasn’t surprised. “Turkish people are very honest”, she said. “Purses always get found in Turkey.” I just thought that was a lovely note to end on, really.

Ghost Wall – Sarah Moss


This short novel is one of the best things I have read in a long time. It is powerfully discomfiting and hostile: from the rugged Northumberland woodland where the characters are living, to the toxic masculinity that infects the male characters in the space of only a week. Silvie, the 17-year-old narrator, and her parents are engaging in a reenactment of Iron Age life. They take part alongside a University professor and three apathetic students who wear mocassins and scratchy tunics for course credits, but who are happy for a quick trip to Spar or to the pub in between.

Bill, Silvie’s father, is a nationalistic, working class bus driver with a chip on his shoulder. His obsession with ancient Britain turns him into a man with little regard for anything that does not lie with the values of the past: he is a brutal misogynist and the hold upon his family is evident, even when he is not around. Silvie and her mother are not on this reenactment willingly. Silvie’s eavesdropping of the students talking about “CVs” and “going to Berlin” early on shows us exactly the claustrophobic life she is living, as she wonders “how you would even get to Berlin” – demonstrating exactly the vice she and her mother are in. Domestic violence is hinted at and, at one stage, described in brutal detail, and throughout the novel this pervasive masculinity slowly pollutes the other male characters. Pagan rituals, foraging and skinning rabbits become almost like childsplay to the men before the increasing cruelty that takes place as the novel unfolds. Moss’ novel focuses on the brutality that lies underneath normal life, like the Iron Age’s own practice of ‘ghost walls’ to frighten the enemy, that line the beautiful woodland with sinister skulls of the dead.

However, Moss shows some glimpses of change and hope, and indicates that we need to recognise and appreciate the progress of the present. Molly, one of the students, rages against the male characters, refusing to do their work and telling Silvie’s mother not to wash the boys’ clothes. She takes a highly anxious Silvie to Spar instead of foraging for bilberries, and is perceptive in recognising the cloud that Silvie and her mother live under. The role of the brutal father can often be seen as a two-dimensional plot device for a louder message on misogyny, but the beauty and difference of Moss’ novel is the  layers of emotion and relationship that has clearly existed in years before. As Silvie is now essentially an adult, this has become lost, and she now shares the same status as her beleaguered mother – even more powerful and tragic to read as we understand the depth and confusion of the emotional bonds she has. While domestic abuse becomes almost normalised under the stark rituals of the Iron Age, Moss seems to also be showing us that there is always some hope for a different path. There is a friend, a relative, or a kindly shop assistant, if only we know where to turn.

This novel is everything a book that wins the Women’s Prize should be – I loved it and have not stopped thinking about it since I read it. To quote the man in Waterstones who served me: “it’s wonderful, but insidious.”

A run along the Bosphorus

In three months in Istanbul, I’ve found myself doing a lot of what, I think, a lot of people do: replicating a little of their old life into their new one. Switching mindset into a new routine, particularly with a lot more time on your hands, takes some bedding in. A semblance of home comforts has really helped me with the transition.

Along with Turkish brunch, which I feel deserves another post entirely before I wax lyrical at the joy of eating clotted cream and honey for breakfast, a huge comfort to me has been the Bosphorus that runs from top to bottom through this city. In central Istanbul, you never seem to be very far from it at all. Rather than reminding me of the Thames, it reminds me of the green, open spaces of London, where I used to walk to work, go for a run or meet friends with coffees and prosecco picnics. This was a huge part of my routine in London, and despite the lack of much green space in Istanbul, the Bosphorus is helping me feel as though, sometimes, I’ve not moved very far at all.

I wrote about this recently and, last week, it won The Telegraph’s “Just Back” Travel Writing competition! If you would like to read about how beautiful the Bosphorus is, and also about how unfit I have become since not having Tooting Common on my doorstep any more, then here is the link.

The Bosphorus splits Istanbul in twine
“Why the only way to truly know Istanbul is to jog along its river.”

And here is the picture of my article in my Mum’s very well-read paper, which I’m sure I will stop gazing at in disbelief one day, but not quite yet.

Telegraph Bosphorus article

New beginnings

As I’ve had a fair few new beginnings lately, why not add one more to the ever-expanding list? I’ve recently left the leafy-green comforts of South West London in favour of a significantly hillier Istanbul: a city over twice London’s size that I’m slowly familiarising myself with. As a teacher in London, time was a luxury I’d almost forgotten what to do with – and now it’s been gifted back to me somewhat, I intend on using it! 2019 is all about using this new time to do what I’ve always said I didn’t have time to do: namely reading, writing and getting to know more about my new part of the world.

A huge part of my life is reading, and I’m excited to talk about books on this blog. (Yes, I was an English teacher…) As an introduction, I thought I’d summarise a few of my favourite reads from the last few years, which certainly sounded easier in theory. Here is my list of four of my favourite books of the last four years, which could easily have been twenty favourite books and, quite frankly, I’m counting my ruthlessness here as one of the greater achievements of my adult life.

Normal People, Sally Rooney

Normal People

No surprises here, so I’ll get this one out first. I read this on honeymoon on New Year’s Day this year and made my husband delay our exploring just so I could finish it – it completely swallowed me up. I spent days after thinking about Marianne and Connell, and at one point I turned the book over to start it again, wanting to revisit the characters in the beginning whilst knowing where they end up. It’s one of the most evocative accounts of a first relationship I have ever read: of its evolving dynamics, the concern and misunderstandings of one other and everything that unravels in a relationship. I love how Rooney has shown the power of external factors on a love story: Marianne and Connell’s bubble is burst and attacked again and again by the way they deal with others’ opinions on their relationship, and the confusion in their own mind of what they feel their relationship should resemble. The characters’ struggles to understand one another, and to express this, resonates hugely. Once you have a dynamic, then how can you ever change it if you fear breaking it? This felt like one of the most authentic accounts of a love story I have read in a very long time. Long live Queen Rooney.

Hot Milk, Deborah Levy

Hot Milk.jpg

This was the first of Levy’s books I have read, and I am keen to read so much more of her writing. A daughter, Sofia, and her mother are searing hot Spain to meet with a bizarre consultant, the last attempt to cure her mother of an illness that has plagued her for years and kept her daughter in a close psychological bind to her. We spend the novel inside Sofia’s inquisitive, frustrated mind, and the relationship is transfixing from the very beginning. The extent to which Sofia’s life is on hold and void of any parental comfort is clear from her smashing her laptop from the very first page: “my laptop has all my life in it and knows more about me than anyone else. If it is broken, then so am I.” Sofia is as emotionally broken as her mother is physically, and her desperate search to find her own identity is often as humourous as it is painful. I want so much more of Levy’s poetic and imaginative prose in my reading life.

Days Without End, Sebastian Barry

Days Without End

The blurb of this book didn’t appeal to me at first, so I left it – but all the reasons I didn’t pick it up immediately became all the reasons I couldn’t put it down. Barry’s narration is so authentically American and accessible; the violence of the American civil war through the eyes of Irish immigrant Thomas McNulty is hugely compelling, despite it being a genre I would never normally choose. The love between Thomas and another soldier is beautifully written, flourishing amongst the bouts of violence and arbitrary trauma that characterises the majority of their time together. For a book about a violent war, there is also such hope: the kind you find in the smallest of things in the darkest of times. If, like me, you thought this book might not be for you, then I could not encourage you more to read it. 2019 is also my year of reading more Sebastian Barry!

The Outside Lands, Hannah Kohler

The Outside Lands

Set during the Vietnam war, the unexpected death in the first few pages of Jeannie and Kip’s mother sends their lives spiraling into directions it may never have gone. Their loss is diminished by the assassination of JFK on the same morning: an indication of the wider theme of this novel of the destructive influence of higher powers on the lives of ordinary people. Kohler’s writing is what makes this book so magnificent for me: lyrical and precise without cliché and never seeming self-indulgent. We shift from urbane Californian life to the jungles of Vietnam, breathing in Kohler’s prose easily: at times, it reads almost like a poem in its lyrical description of characters floored by loss and moral dilemmas. I’m continually keeping one ear to the ground for Kohler’s next novel – while still finding it pretty hard to believe that this was her debut.