Istanbul is the coziest place in winter. While summer can be an inferno, winter is truly when this city sets itself apart. Coming from Canada — land of remorseless, bitter cold — I used to dread the onset of winter, but here it is my favorite season. Even, maybe, more than autumn. Gasp.
Why is Istanbul so great in winter? My hunch is because it slows down. A haze moves in across the Sea of Marmara sometime around the first of December, changing the very look and feel of the city from this vibrant, busy, hectic place to something stilled in a cloud of sooty mist. The air itself becomes infused with coal that swirls around the tops of the minarets that decorate the skyline, and people huddle inside shops and restaurants, warming their hands around small, perfectly sized glasses of sweet black tea, making idle gossip and, if you’re lucky, playing backgammon.
Throughout most of the year, I hear people complain about how disorganized or slow Istanbul can be, but in winter this aspect becomes a boon as locals slip into a lovely state of low production. Instead of feeling (as I often do in the holiday season) rushed and strained from the seemingly endless amount of activities and get-togethers that I need to attend, the opposite becomes true at this time of year. People seem to gather seamlessly for hours on end, chatting, sharing, and sometimes just sitting in a comfortable silence and enjoying each others’ company. In cafes, in restaurants that line the streets, in trinket shops and tea gardens, people just hang out. This is a time for eating mandarin oranges, and smoking Pall Malls, and drinking thick Turkish coffee all day long.
That’s what winter smells like here — citrus and cigarettes and sweet coffee grinds, all tinged with a faint touch of wood smoke. In years past, I spent whole days and nights that seemed to unfurl into each other, holed up inside my apartment, sometimes oblivious to the passing of time. The furnace didn’t work, so I bought a space heater for one room and my boyfriend and I would retreat in there for days — making love and watching crappy Turkish music videos. And while my life has changed since then, I still revel in the timeless aspect that winter in Istanbul brings each year. It’s like the whole city becomes cloaked in a fog that separates us here from the rest of the world, and as we float around the city in some magical state, as if it was some other place — as far away as Narnia.
I could talk about the indulgences of winter here — sifting through carpets at warm shops that smell like wool and dust and drinking wine from Cappadocia and smoking hash from Afghanistan. I could talk about the decadence of staying in a steamy Turkish bath all day, getting scrubbed down by large women who bathe you as if you were their own small child. I could even talk about the bright, gooey feeling of stuffing your mouth full of rose-infused Turkish delight — how sweet the taste is as you lick the icing sugar from your fingers even as you look around you, half-expecting the white witch to pop out from behind an ancient Byzantine wall. But none of these things compares to the slow-motion feel of winter itself. Coziness and comfort come from a feeling of peace, and appreciation. And you don’t need to be in Istanbul to do that.
Winter is here — and be grateful it is. This is a time to snuggle with your honey or your kids that much longer, to reach out to old friends and spend time to catch up, and to take a day to walk around your city or town or the woods, to drink that extra glass of juicy red wine. Be gentle with your time in winter. Don’t chop it up into tiny blocks that fit into a schedule — give yourself long baths, and long walks, and long conversations and long kisses. Slow down and put on the fire and curl up with a book, or your family or your pet or the whole podcast of Serial. And don’t forget. Cozy comes from the heart, so tell someone you love them.
Meghan MacIver is a Canadian writer and Kundalini pre-natal yoga instructor who lives in Istanbul. She has had a love affair with the city for nearly 14 years, and she is deeply excited about the opportunity to finally write about it in a spiritual way. When she is not writing or teaching yoga, she can be found exploring the city and contemplating life’s little intricacies. Her other work has been published in The National Post, CBC, RNW and ROOM magazine, amongst others.
Photo by Meghan MacIver.