Updated: Jun 30, 2018
I can almost hear the mosques singing the call to prayer now. To anyone who wasn't raised in a muslim country, the sound is at first disarming, as I'm sure church bells banging around is to people from those countries. In every movie about the Middle East, you hear this song. It is a passionate cry, ringing out from delicate minarets perched high above the city. It is frightening at first. You can almost feel soldier's boots drumming on the streets outside, but Istanbul is not the war-torn country (not within almost 100 years) that we have seen the Middle East portrayed as time and time again.
Istanbul sits on the Bosphorus River, connecting Europe to Asia. This makes it a lush, vibrant city, so go ahead and get the picture of camels and sand out of your head because we are not even close to that! This city is over 5000 years old! It was once known as Constantinople (hence the song, "Istanbul not Constantinople.") In Istanbul, you see ancient remains that are Greek, Roman (Byzantine), Genoese, and Ottoman. This city has been an important hub throughout history and has some incredible sites. It's like nowhere else on Earth.
My first encounter with Istanbul was in modeling. You must understand that I have a love affair with travel, and I would not always consider this a healthy relationship. My love for travel has taken me to obscure places for modeling jobs that I didn't necessarily want or need, because I felt that models had to travel in order to be successful. I have touched on this subject in other blog posts, but I was very successful as a model in America. I flew to New York, Los Angeles, Texas, & Florida in a very steady stream of work for the most popular plus size companies in the world, but that wasn't enough. I would make $25,000/day shooting catalogue work, but that wasn't enough. I didn't feel like a success. It wasn't until I moved to London and began to travel internationally for work that I felt like anyone cared about the work I was doing.
These jobs (for the most part) did not pay as much, but I got a reason to travel and usually a free trip! Sometimes, just a free trip. Consumers don't realize that the world's most coveted jobs pay the least. I remember Anya telling me that she shot a cover for a huge magazine in Asia. It was a really big deal! I asked how much they paid her and she said $25. I was shocked! As my experience continued in the fashion world, I began to understand. Models don't go back to their hometown and brag about being in a Walmart catalogue, right? But Walmart is paying you $25,000 to shoot 5 outfits over 7 hours, on location in St. Barts! This should be a desirable job. Vogue will pay you zero dollars to be on the cover, shooting in the same location, and you pay for your flight. Why is that? Because everyone wants to shoot for Vogue! It's cool! So, now that you understand money/work in the industry, you can see that I was being pretty stupid to leave the cushion of catalogue and venture out to work on weird fashion labels with little to no funding.
I was also in an extremely unhealthy relationship for almost 4 years. I think that in hindsight, some of my obsession with travel came from not being in the same country as, let's just call him Dick Face. Dick Face had an extremely controlling mother and he wasn't allowed to visit me. She tried to charge me rent when I visited him. She would have his financial manager freeze his accounts when we were together, so I had to pay for everything. Every time I broke up with him, he would do something extreme to "prove his love." Once, he drove overnight from Texas to New York to win me back. Another time, he drove to see me in Los Angeles and showed up on my doorstep, reeking of cigarettes, begging for me to take him back. There was no escape! So, perhaps escaping to another country was my only way to really rid myself of him for any extended period of time.
My agency in London had recently partnered with an agency in Istanbul. One of the other plus models in my agency was heading over for a few months and as soon as I heard, I asked the head of the agency if I could go when she came back. I think I caught her off guard, but she reached out and they agreed to host me in the model apartment for three months. I'm not going to lie; I could not have pointed to Istanbul on a map before I took this trip. I was pretty terrified to go, but I didn't show that side to anyone. The US Embassy was bombed in Turkey the same week that I flew there. The day before I left, a Chicago woman's body was found by the Bosphorus river. My mom begged me not to go. I was terrified, but every time I told someone that I was flying to Istanbul to model, I could see that they were impressed. It made me feel like a somebody. What was I thinking?! This is the Middle East and I am a tall, blonde, non-muslim, American woman. I would surely stand out like a sore thumb.
Upon arriving in Istanbul, a man picked me up in an unmarked van (sketchy). It took me a while to figure out what van I was supposed to ride in because I do not speak Turkish, and very few people in Turkey (outside of the tourist areas) speak English. I was holding my keys in my hand in case he tried any funny business, trying to pretend like I knew where he was taking me. Once I got to the model apartment, I felt much better.
My model roommates all spoke english! There were two Czechoslovakians, one Russian, one American, and a rotating bed of girls who would fly in for a day or two. These girls had all spent plenty of time here and were more than willing to show me the ropes when they weren't working, which was rare.
If I complained about not working or being busy enough in the past, that would all change after Istanbul. I worked my fucking ass off. This was not the same work that I was accustomed to. I went to castings all day, every day, or I had photo shoots. There were no free days, not even holidays or weekends. Thankfully, in Istanbul, they do give you a driver to transport you to the castings. I would be picked up at 7:30am by a man in a van and he would drive me through tiny, ancient roads from casting to casting all day, back to back.
My agency emailed me to let me know that I booked my first job. I saw the pay in the email and flipped out. I was going to make 500 euros to shoot all day for a catalogue. $500!!! For a whole day of work! And on top of that, my agency was taking 50% of that! So, after the currency conversion, I was only making $500/day compared to $10,000-$25,000/day. This is a huge difference! I Skype called my dad, freaking out. I thought that he would have my back. These rates were ridiculous! I was ready to pack my bags and go back to London on the next flight. Dad let out a sigh and said, "Whitney, the average human being makes less than $2/day... You are not digging ditches. You are modeling." Yikes. Ego check! I suddenly remembered how fortunate I was to be genetically blessed for a living and decided to shut the fuck up. It's amazing, but if you close your mouth, you are actually able to learn so much more about your surroundings.
The photoshoots were grueling. I have never, nor will I ever work as hard as I did in Istanbul. I shot hundreds of looks in one day, and unlike in America where you get paid extra for working late, it is just expected of you there. Don't let that excite you too much because if you finish early (which I did), they just pull out more clothes and make you keep shooting! I can say this with total and complete confidence at this stage in my life; I am a fucking amazing model. I have worked my ass off to get here, but no one in the industry is better than me. I work long, hard hours. I never complain. I don't whine about needing food, or breaks, or about the temperature... I arrive early and I always finish shooting early. I know exactly how to move and position my face and body. I am a fucking rock star supermodel and I mean that without even a hint of irony (I am always self-depricating. Let me have this!!!) I attribute a lot of my being a great model (okay, that's the last time I'll say it) to my work in Istanbul. Even if I wanted to complain, I couldn't do it in Turkish, so no one would understand me. I worked shoots where I had to change my hair, makeup, and shoes (along with clothes) for every single image. It was grueling. My skin started breaking out. My hair was fried beyond repair (if you're bleach blonde, do not move to Istanbul), and I still didn't know what half the things in the grocery store were.
I mostly stayed home with the other models in my free time and didn't leave the apartment unescorted at all until my last two weeks.
My model apartment was not in a touristy area which means that there wasn't a ton of foot traffic. I am open-minded and adventurous, but I am not going to do anything to make it easy to get kidnapped. I was afraid to even call a cab and because of that, I missed out on a lot of the city on my first trip. It wasn't until my model roomie, Ashley had a few days off that I saw anything tourist-related. She took me out and showed me the city. We went to the Hagia Sophie (pronounced Aiyah - Sophia), shopped in the grand bazaar, drank Efes beer overlooking the Bosphorous, toured bath houses, ate baklava, and sipped Turkish coffee. One night, we even convinced a cafe to make us pancakes, which is not a food that you will ever find in Turkey. She was my saving grace and showed me that I could do more than just work in Istanbul.
I began to fall in love with the city. It was breathtakingly beautiful. There is a bridge that crosses the Bosphorus river and there are restaurants built into the structure of the bridge! The people were always friendly and tried to help me when I looked lost, which was often. Turkish food is some of the best in the world! I didn't even know half of the food I was ordering but all of it was incredible! Anything with aubergine is guaranteed to be delicious. Shopping in the grand bazaar was a bit overwhelming, but the exotic smells and sights were worth the anxiety. Plus, the exchange rate was fantastic! My money went a lot farther here than it did in London.
When I finally felt like I was beginning to trust the city, it was time to fly home. I had spent three months learning about myself and the city. I didn't want to leave, but I had started a new relationship back in America just two days before I flew to Istanbul, and I was eager to pursue that new love, someone different from the toxic partner I had spent the last four years trying to fix.
Interestingly enough, I ended up marrying that guy, and when we picked our honeymoon destination, we went with Istanbul. Obviously, coming back to the city was a completely different experience. We stayed right by the Hagia Sophia and did all of the touristy things! He fell in love with the city just as I had. We walked down to the bridge, nestled into a cafe and smoked hookah, watching the boats pass on the sapphire waters below.
Things to do:
The Grand Bazaar Built in 1455AD
You know those Turkish towels and bath robes that are so trendy? Those are bullshit. The only authentic ones come from right here and they are not even expensive! Of course, a 3000 year old shopping center is not just selling towels. This is one of the oldest and largest markets in the world! It has hundreds of vendors. You walk past barrels of spices, dried flowers, and teas that excite your senses! The path through the bazaar is dizzying and easy to become lost in, but if you just stay focused on the menagerie of goods around you, you'll be fine. They have gorgeous hookahs, handmade clothing, fresh honey, stained glass lamps, and anything that you could imagine. You absolutely must spend a day exploring the bazaar!
Drink Turkish Coffee
This stuff is jet fuel!!! I LOVE Turkish coffee. When it comes out, is is extremely hot. You'll want to wait to take a sip. I drink mine black but lots of people add sugar. I must warn you, there is a thick layer of coffee sludge near the bottom, and there is a very fine line between taking the last sip of smooth, rich coffee, and choking on coffee grounds. Be mindful!
Hagia Sophia Built in 532-537AD
Don't confuse this with the blue mosque, which is directly across the street. The Hagia Sophia was a Greek Orthodox Christian basilica that later became an Ottoman imperial mosque. It's fascinating because some of the original Christian artwork is still there, but you also see the emblems for Allah and muslim ornamentation too. I've never seen anything like it. The structure is also massive! You could spend at least a full day exploring the mosque and still not see all of it. If you have time, walk across the street to the blue mosque too. It's less touristy but really gorgeous. Remember, when you are going to any place of worship, even if it's now a museum, you need to dress respectfully. Don't wear anything revealing. In istanbul, I always wear a scarf around my neck in case I go to a place where I may need my head covered. It's always better to be safe than sorry in these situations.
*If you do visit the Blue Mosque across the street, which you should, keep in mind that it is an active mosque. Women can not go everywhere and you must have your head covered at all times.
Basilica Cistern Built in 532AD
There are hundreds of cisterns below the ground in Istanbul. Cisterns are used for storing rain water. This is the largest surviving Byzantine cistern in Istanbul and it has some really cool features, like the head of Medusa carved into the base of a column. It's beautiful, oddly romantic, and cool on hot days! Check it out!
Eat Lunch on the Bosphorus
It doesn't matter what you eat or drink, but you absolutely must go sit down and eat or drink something at any number of the restaurants nestled beneath the Bosphorous bridge (this is probably not the name, but it is the big bridge that goes over the Bosphorous river). You will have stunning views of the entire city. You'll hear the call to prayer coming from minarets all over the area while sapphire blue waters glisten below. I think I would like to die here. It is perfection.
You will have to seek this out, but it is worth the effort. Whirling dervishes are men who use their minds and bodies, turning round and round and round in a spiritual journey, towards "the truth." He then returns from this spiritual journey as a man who has reached greater perfection, able to love and to be of service. I would undoubtedly pass out after spinning for the first minute. It's really incredible and powerful to watch. You won't see this practice anywhere else on the planet.
I believe that Istanbul is one of the greatest cities to visit in the world. It has so many people from all walks of life. It is a melting pot, a place where you can truly embrace international cultures and cuisines. If you ever get the chance to go, do it!!! You will never regret this incredible international destination.
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