Is there any city more melancholic in winter than Istanbul? Cold rain descends from a slate-colored sky and meets a clammy fog rising up from the Bosphorus, chilling everyone to the bone. And yet the locals carry on — dedicated fisherman cast their lines from Galata Bridge, youngsters parade up and down Istiklal Caddesi and touts hassle the tourists waiting in line to see the Hagia Sophia.
Inside the great cathedral-turned-mosque-turned-museum, the Ottoman-era chandeliers give off a glow that warms the vision but doesn't do a thing for the feet, which numb quickly after an hour of walking the tomb-like marble hallways.
The only anecdote for such inclement weather is tea — sweet mint tea with Turkish pastries, taken in a tiny salon found in the center of the labyrinth of the Grand Bazaar.
If hard sells and haggling isn't your thing, this is about the only purchase worth making in the venerable market. You might end up paying double the local rate for your tea and snacks, but at least you're not paying double for an already expensive rug and, like most of the food and drink in Istanbul, this meal will be delicious enough to warrant the high price. I know you're ripping me off, but this tastes so good I don't care. If I knew how to say that in Turkish, I would have, over and over again.
Back outside, floating restaurants rock on choppy waters; seagulls are blown off course by stiff winds; a man sells corn and chestnuts on the waterfront but has few takers.
I have begun to consider walking back to the warm hive of the Grand Bazaar, maybe to buy fragrant bags of dried rosebuds or jasmine flowers. But the rain has turned to sleet, so I decide to leave Istanbul early to catch my flight to Beirut, where I hope to find sunshine and blue skies.
On the way to the airport, I catch my last glimpses of the city. I see minarets and crescents. Harried office workers. Hillsides blotched by ugly concrete high rises. A poor man standing in the middle of a traffic-jammed highway, trying to sell wet newspapers as he is pelted by snowflakes.
Are these last impressions accurate depictions of the place? Is Istanbul in winter really the world's most melancholy city? I wondered, and then upon my return I discovered the author Orhan Pamuk and watched "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" and decided that my impressions were, if not 100-percent accurate, at least close enough to correct. I have walked the streets of Istanbul on its wettest and coldest day of 2012 and although I don't desire to repeat that soggy and uncomfortable experience anytime soon, it has left me with a need to know more about the city.
Travel is like that. Sometimes a bad trip can be a good trip.