I gave up on the year, made a note to myself to reset on January 1, and just after Christmas turned my attention to a trip I'd been planning since the summer, when I won a UK prize for young writers. The award was instituted by the late Somerset Maugham and given with the stipulation that the prize money be spent on foreign travel. From a friend I learned that Angela Carter used her 1969 windfall to free herself from an unhappy marriage and move to Japan, where she became a radical feminist and fell in lust with a local man. From a Web site I learned that Kingsley Amis reluctantly used his 1955 award on a trip to Portugal, then wrote a novel about the indignities of traveling abroad called I Like It Here.
I chose Istanbul, out of a desire to know something of a city one of my favorite writers, Agatha Christie, passed through many times. When I booked my ticket, I was wholly unaware that heartbreak would be my travel companion.
By the time I arrived, my senses were in deep hibernation and preferred not to be disturbed. I was so sad that I felt a lean in my center of gravity as I walked—my progress over the paved stones was unsteady, as if there were water in my ear canal. I dropped off my bags at a bed-and-breakfast and made for the Pera Palace Hotel in Beyoglu, where Christie is said to have written part of Murder on the Orient Express.
The surroundings were sumptuous, but there was a sinister smallness, too, as if the grand hotel had shrunk over time and soon nothing would be left but a shriveled, gold-coated claw. I took afternoon tea in a curved Turkish glass and ignored the cakes and sandwiches, which seemed to be purely decorative. I'd brought Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage with me and became better acquainted with the protagonist, who in his boyhood believed in hell more than heaven because it seemed to him that anguish could last longer than life, and happiness most likely could not.
I remembered the first time I heard the adhan, the call to prayer, in the Alabaster Mosque in Cairo, which I'd visited in 2004 after reading that Malcolm X had prayed there once. I sat cross-legged on the richly patterned carpet, and this sound came ringing through the white pillars that encircled all of us in the main body of the mosque, a sound of such longing and such clarity that, at 19 years old, I thought it came from inside myself somehow. In Istanbul, muezzins recited the adhan five times a day from hundreds of minarets in the sky, their messages to the faithful flowing over the rooftops and pooling around transfixed foreigners like me.
Looking out across Istanbul from the Galata Bridge, I saw its history, with part of the city situated in Europe and the other part in Asia. I watched the Bosphorus flow between the continents. On both sides, stoic fishermen bait and sling hooks for hours throughout the day. Women in burqas take tea with bareheaded girls in jeans. Headscarves match up with minidresses and colorful tights. I observed all this as if through a screen. When people spoke to me I felt surprised and slightly reproachful, as if I'd been watching a black-and-white thriller and one of the characters suddenly turned to me for advice.
Next: Finding comfort in a faraway place