Do you ever touch down in a city you’re only vaguely acquainted with and soon realise things are likely to stay that way? It’s not that there’s anything particularly wrong with the place but then you find there’s not much that’s terribly right either.
For various reasons, you know you’ll have to visit from time to time but it’s going to be a strictly business affair: meetings, hotel, so-so dinner, meetings, hotel and car. Like with that completely pleasant colleague you worked with for nearly a decade, you know early on that there aren’t going to be many laughs or shared personal moments.
I have that relationship with a few cities that make it on to my itinerary from time to time; Oslo, Lisbon, Chicago and Miami all fall into this category. They have their unique features and peculiar charms but somehow we have never gone beyond handshakes and polite chit-chat.
Once upon a time I had this relationship with Hong Kong but, little by little, I’ve started to look forward to visits and will happily tack on an extra day here and there across the year to carve out a bit of time to understand the city better and strengthen relationships.
Istanbul is another city that has long teetered on the edge of being in that purgatory between a rather mysterious acquaintance and dependable friend. As it hadn’t made it on to my schedule for about two years, it was in danger of going the way of Oslo and co. But things took a turn for the better earlier this year when I arrived at Ataturk airport, fought my way through the crowds and settled into my hotel in Galata. In town to launch a little pop-up Monocle store at the Beymen department store in Nisantasi, and to anchor a few radio shows for our station, the city had a decidedly different feel from earlier visits.
I can often be distracted for days trying to get to the bottom of what has changed about a city’s personality but I couldn’t pin it down to just one thing. Was it the transformation of shop spaces in Galata and Karakoy into smart, independently managed galleries and ateliers that appealed? Was it the arrival of a host of smaller hotels that I liked? Or was it a spirit of optimism, economic growth and positivity that felt very attractive? It could have been all these elements that had me primed but it was most likely a single event that made all the difference.
On Wednesday morning I set out with my colleagues Andrew and Anders for a meeting, which was to be followed by a lunch hosted by the same client. After two hours of discussion about the sorry, directionless state of print media and the digital fables surrounding too many concepts on the market that never stand the slightest chance of making money, we set off in a small motorcade. After 10 minutes of winding our way down to the European side of the Bosphorus we were greeted by the most handsome lobster boat I’d ever seen, with a green hull and terracotta cushions. Following two days of cloudy skies, the sun put in an appearance on cue and we boarded the sleek launch bound for lunch with our client. Zipping across the strait, huge container ships and ferries rumbled past and after five minutes we pulled up in front of the house: all wood, perfect seating areas and staff waiting with glasses of chilled Turkish white.
Over lunch we discussed the rate of economic growth, the ambitious plan for a new six-runway airport to replace Ataturk, the extraordinary rise of Turkish Airlines, which has seen it become the carrier with the fourth-biggest route network, and opportunities to use Istanbul as a hub to make forays into Baku, Erbil and Tblisi. It was this heady mix of Ottoman-style hospitality, mixed with a keen Turkish sense of commerce, that was intoxicating.
Back in the launch we sped back to the European side and made our way along the shore to Nisantasi, stopping in a cosy stretch of Bebek for magazines and then on to our shop opening. Istanbul still has plenty of work to do to make it all hang together. Traffic is starting to feel like a journey through Bangkok or Jakarta, while city planners need to be vigilant that a boom in luxury malls doesn’t suck all the life out of its more vibrant neighbourhoods. Likewise, developers need to look for once-in-a-lifetime chances to revitalise districts in need of restoration – not renovation.
But I’m pretty sure it was this perfect afternoon that made me and Istanbul firm friends. It might also have been helped by the simplest pleasure on my departure for Singapore: a good shave at the hands of a Turkish master and a perfect manicure.
Why haven’t other airports thought of this simple service for gents needing to look their best on arrival? Here’s hoping Istanbul’s new mega hub will see fit to put barbers at every other gate come launch date, circa 2018.
Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine