Love Tourism in Istanbul

If you think romance is dead, you can always fly somewhere it isn't.
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If you think romance is dead, you can always fly somewhere it isn't.

I met Annika in the restaurant down the street from my guesthouse in Istanbul. Her sturdy Scandinavian appearance made her seem self-sufficient and tough, which was unfair, as she was really quite meek and uncertain. It was her fourth trip to Turkey in six months. The first time she went to visit, it was for the experience. She’d recently separated from her husband and the trip gave her something to plan for, to focus on during the cold months of her divorce proceeding. She pictured herself walking through the markets, sitting in foreign cafes sipping sweet tea, soaking in the exotic cityscapes. It was on one of her solo walks soon after she arrived that Annika met Evrin. I groaned inwardly when she told me he sold carpets. I’d been approached by these guys as well, standing outside of their shops with their oiled hair, plying you with coffee, tea -- anything just to get you inside, where they could keep you captive for hours in their tiny stores, flinging down carpet after carpet from their tall piles even as you protested. Often, as I walked past, they resorted to putting a hand to their chest and belting out a line of a song. Whenever this happened, I seemed to be the only one embarrassed.


In front of the Hagia Sophia

Annika, however, was charmed by all of this swaggering, singing and public grooming. Her vacation romance quickly turned into a full-fledged love affair. They ran together down the small cobbled streets and kissed in the shadows of gigantic mosques. Since then, she’d returned to Istanbul whenever possible, taking weekend breaks to the coast with Evren, trying to learn Turkish and watching him play in a traditional band when he was finished with work at the carpet store. She didn’t know if it would work out in the long run, but she desperately wanted it to.He’d told her his family wouldn’t accept her and that she shouldn’t move permanently to the city. She told me she thought often about converting, but worried in the end even that wouldn’t be enough to win over his family. She worried often, she said, her hands twisted the mug of tea in front of her. She felt absolutely sick with worry and love.

She brought out her wallet and showed me a picture. He was handsome but his smile curved up arrogantly on one side. I observed that he had a sort of Clarke Gable quality to him. This made her happy. Annika wasn’t the only woman I’d met in Istanbul who had ended up in some sort of love affair. There were several other girls in my guesthouse with Turkish boyfriends they'd met in the tourist district. And there was the  woman who I met on a veranda one day who told me that she went to Turkey for a month every summer and every year she found a man to be with. Turkey seemed to be full of foreign women in romantic entanglements. They were like the sex tourists I knew in Thailand, but instead of cheap blowjobs, they sought out flattery and romance. “I think maybe we like them because they give us so much attention,” Annika told me as we ate soup one afternoon. “They take the time to look into our eyes. We are so used to being modern, to being treated like men. And the way we meet men is after too much alcohol on the weekends. I guess some things never change. Even in our modern culture girls still want to be treated like ladies.”  I saw her only once more. She seemed nervous and distracted. She’d gotten no further commitment from Evren, who seemed to almost be avoiding her, and only had a few days left before she had to fly home to Norway as she had a job to go to on Monday morning. I felt bad for her.

Later I wondered who I was, really, to feel sorry for anyone, to be so cynical about love when my own relationship was tenuous in even its best moments. But I knew from experience that the most cripplingly painful lovesickness comes from being the one who is more in love.