Travelling Istanbul by Night

Istanbul: A Tale of Two City Experiences

Our guidebook warned us about Tanya*. She worked in a club just off Taksim. The sort of place where, according to the Dangers and Annoyances section of our guidebook, the following might happen:

One of the most popular scams targeted at single men is the nightclub shake-down. You’re strolling along Istiklal Caddesi in the evening and a well-dressed man or couple of men approach and start to chat. They offer to buy you a drink in a nearby club. You’re given a seat next to some girls… when the bill arrives lo and behold the girls’ outrageously expensive drinks appear on it.

Appropriate for a city bridging two different continents, our time in Istanbul was notable for two differing experiences. One was of sightseeing on foot and backpackers hostels, the other of being shown around town by Turkish millionaires and drinking in clubs like that described above.

One city we saw by the light of day, the other experienced solely at night and it was perhaps appropriate that the four words that would lead to our ejection from rich Turkish person’s Istanbul to poor backpacker’s Istanbul would be spoken at the exact moments the sun came up on our fifth day.

We went from insiders running up a 1000TL bar bill with the minor financial elite of Turkey to homeless tourists and as we sat on the street, surrounded by our bags and in need of an Istanbul hostel, we wondered: ‘how the hell did that happen?’

Travel in Istanbul, Turkey, by night

We had met Tanya two years previously. A Russian refugee from Estonia, after her late teenage years in London she had told UK immigration to go fuck themselves when asked to jump through too many hoops for a British passport. She can wrap men round her little finger, insisting they buy multiple bottles of good wine for her and her visiting backpacker friends.  Then at 9am, after hours driving around the city pointing out the shadowy sights, she finally gives the man leave to depart and attend to the business that made his million.

Quick to laughter or anger, and at times intolerant, narcissistic or prejudiced, money obsessed, Putin-loving Tanya should be easy to dislike but her unpretentiousness, generosity and easy charm make her the quite the opposite.

With her English step brother, who she was meeting for the first time, she became the first guest to walk into the apartment we had newly bought in Turkey. With a bed, two plastic garden chairs and a fridge we had acquired enough furniture to spend a first night in our new home. Instead the tone was set for our experiences with Tanya as we sat on the floor drinking heavily and laughing often until the sun started to rise.

The Policeman Boyfriend
At the time of our visit to Istanbul she was in a long term relationship with her then boyfriend. He was a Sergeant in the Jandarma – Turkey’s militarized police force – stationed in a conservative town a few hundred miles south of Istanbul.

Galata Tower. Travel in Istanbul, Turkey, by nightWe had stayed with him for a couple of days on our way up to Istanbul. We liked him and were amused how they reconciled their incompatible lives. We thought they would make good characters in a bad TV cop show. The handsome leather jacketed undercover cop would solve crimes while trying to keep his private life with a glamorous Russian girlfriend from his bosses. The episode where he led the raid on her club, feigning not to recognise her as he threw her and the visa-less Russian and Ukrainian nightclub girls in the slammer would be our favourite.

For the most part Tanya managed to keep her two lives apart. Though there could be friction and stormy arguments, the life of the hard drinking party girl didn’t often intrude on the life of the policeman’s soon to be dutiful wife. Or it didn’t until I nearly broke them up with those four words at dawn.

The Nightclub
The club really did get raided at times for employing staff without proper documentation but otherwise operated on the up and up connecting money rich, company poor Turkish businessmen with Russian girls with the opposite problem.

If I were to walk in to the club of my own accord, perhaps on the recommendation of a taxi driver, I would be met by Tanya. She would offer a seat and talk to me for a while, assessing my tastes and cash reserves before sending over a suitable girl or girls to sit at my table, talk to me and drink at my expense.

There would be no funny business but boys being boys and girls being girls I’m sure private arrangements must sometimes be made. If this were found out the boys would be barred, the girls fired. Why should the management make trouble for themselves when so many otherwise smart, wealthy men could so easily be parted from their city-job wages in this more innocent fashion.

Normally there would be a show in the French Moulin Rouge style but on the days we visited few girls had turned up for work on rumours of another raid and the club was operating with a skeleton staff.

The Customers
Most, perhaps all, of the customers seemed to be not only aware of the extremely high prices for drinks – 50TL for a beer, 75TL for a glass of wine, 100TL for a cocktail – but were regulars. Our backpacking kindred, it seemed, had headed the warning in Lonely Planet and any touts roaming Istiklal Street for suckers had gone home empty-handed that night.

The customers varied in ages and looks but all had one thing in common: they had money. The people I spoke to were mostly city types, rich kids working for daddy’s firm and, in one case, someone on the board of Fenerbaçhe Football Club.

Most girls kept their home life separate from club life. Tanya and her flat-mate and co-worker didn’t invite men from the club home for any reason, even innocent ones. As part of a couple and known to the policemen it was ok for me to stay in their home but unknown visiting single men would cause the neighbours’ curtains to twitch.

However, the lines were frequently blurred in the bars and restaurants of the city. Out and about some club customers were treated as walking ATMs. On finishing an expensive meal by themselves the phone would be drawn from either Tanya or her friend’s handbag and a call made. A man would drive down and enjoy a drink or two, settle the bill, meals and all, before going back to his business.

Some, such as our impromptu night time tour guide – a young, good looking rich man – were self aware and confident enough to realise their interactions with the girls outside the club were merely a private extension of the deal that exists inside. They were happy to enjoy the company of the girls outside of club hours and continue footing the bill in the absence of a middle man. There seemed to be no malice or resentment on either side of the arrangement.

Others perhaps thought it bought them something: at least entry to the inner sanctum of Tanya’s private life and this, and four words from an idiot tourist, bought Tanya’s two lives crashing into each other and nearly ended her seven year relationship.

Travel in Istanbul, Turkey, by night

The Idiot Tourist
The night Tanya’s two incompatible lives met was Deirdre’s birthday. After spending the evening together Tanya suggested we meet her at the club we had heard so much about.

Assured as guests we had nothing to fear from the bill, Deirdre would spend the night treated to the slightly surreal experience of being the only woman in the club not being paid to talk to anyone.

Though we turned up reasonably late, not too far short of midnight, Tanya wasn’t there. Any effort to entice us buy a drink twice the price of our following night’s accommodation was met with a slightly hysterical giggle and an attempt to slide down the seat into the darkest corner of the booth. Until we were certain Tanya was coming to work that day we were going to remain hiding.

Tanya’s late arrival was due to her own bill payer’s tardiness. Like a row of dominoes only when the first piece was in line could the knock on effect of bill settling begin.

At one point Tanya showed her skill at working the room, pleasing both her boss and Deirdre by buying a bouquet of flowers at the football man’s expense.  As an additional gift the director presented Deirdre and his assigned hostess with a Fenerbaçhe football shirt each. The Russian changed her top at the table.

After heading to a bar with some of the younger customers – including one I didn’t much like –  we squeezed into a taxi home and, as I exited the taxi, I said the four words to the last guy to be dropped off:. ‘Are you coming in?’

It was a question not an invitation but he took it as such.

He’d made it into Tanya’s home world and it was obvious to him she wasn’t happy about it. Perhaps sensing her mood and realising for the first time his purpose in life he turned nasty. Voices were raised, bottles were thrown in the garden (by Tanya) and the noise reached the policeman via the neighbours.

Travel in Istanbul, Turkey, by night

The Aftermath
Turkish hospitality is rightly famous for its generosity but comes with rules I only learnt that night. No matter how accidentally, I had broken them. Coming from Britain, where it is difficult to damage your reputation no matter who-the-hell-I-have-in-my-own-house-thank-you-very-much, I had failed to recognise that Turkey is different. The damage done wasn’t so much to Tanya but to the policeman.

In an attempt to help matters, I spoke to the policeman later that morning to take the blame. We haven’t spoken since. I suggested to Tanya that we should leave her house. The offer was accepted.

Tanya quickly forgave my mistake. Her and the policeman married but have since divorced. This had nothing to do with me.

We are still friends with Tanya even though we haven’t seen much of each other this past year. Left to our own devices we could now see the city on our own terms: sober, in daylight and when the sights are actually open to visitors.

We even got asked back to the club a few days later. I didn’t take it upon myself to invite anyone else along.

* Names have been changed to protect the not so innocent.

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5 comments to Istanbul: A Tale of Two City Experiences

  • Suzy  says:

    What a story! I didn’t know about this side to Turkey’s nightlife.

    • The Working Traveller  says:

      It was a bit of a surprise to spend both our anniversary and D’s birthday that year in a hostess bar in Istanbul.

  • Ash  says:

    This is EXACTLY why Istanbul is one of my favourite cities. Epic read…

  • Emrah Ayvali  says:

    Istanbul is the city where I live and I have been living in here more than 15 years. I see everything what you mentioned in your blog so many times and I am still getting impressed. I love to make photos of Istanbul and I have devoted a website for my Istanbul Photos here you can see the link.
    thanks for the great article about Istanbul!
    Emrah Ayvali recently posted…The Egyptian Bazaar | Spice BazaarMy Profile

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