The cyclops

I felt bad as I looked back at Rob through the rusted bars. Although he was happy to go and look at abandoned buildings, Rob didn’t quite share my passion for exploring them (not to the extent of scaling a 15ft gate).

He’d never say that of course, or complain that I was leaving him lingering on the pavement in a foreign city. That was Rob, forever forthcoming, even when it visibly distressed him.

But we had come to Berlin, a mecca for urban exploration at the time and I was determined to get in somewhere, even if it was just the once.

On entering the building, however, I was dissapointed to find that the place had been stripped bare. It was impossible to tell what the building had even been used for.

Exposed steps led me up a few floors, and I scouted the corridors hoping to at least find a view worthy of snapping. And then I saw it.

The facade made me think me of some archetypal gang lair from an 80’s film. I found myself imagining what it must have been like when the new generation first discovered these places, choosing to reclaim them in their own way after the powers that be so dramatically fell apart.

I took a picture and then hurried back down to the gate, where Rob was waiting, albeit looking a little put out.

I was happy then, sufficiently cleansed of my selfish impulses and glad to be here with a good friend. Then we headed off to discover what else had emerged out of this newly reborn city.

This place has a name

It was only a matter of time before it all came down. The last time I walked through was on my way to town. Up the mossy steps and across the walkways, into strange spaces layered with paintings.

But then came the great reconstruction. Hoardings went up sharing brash statements about what’s to come once the work is undertaken.

And it got me thinking that something is amiss, the way plans come to pass. Before you know it a block’s pulled down before anyone’s thought to ask: is this what we want for our city, the place that we call home, what would I like to see and feel when all is set in stone?

Nuances of place is heavily underrated, developers don’t see because there’s no money to be made from it. Even when it’s included in the literature, which inadvertently contributes to the decline of what’s being pitched to you.

Luxury apartments in the heart of the street art scene, but in reality it’s being ripped apart by JCBs while men in hard hats and suits watch as the fruits of their labourers plays out.

Why can’t we take the rough with the smooth, no need for every last pock mark to be removed, renovated? It seems like some things are better left unregenerated.

For this history isn’t medieval or wartime but my-time. The paintwork and the street corners are part of a time-line that speaks of the most subtle feats of human endeavour.

Pavements beat bent and broken from stomping children, trees like grandparents leaning over parked cars pushing their roots up to make bike ramps.

Streets where the graffiti is a landmark, plotting a course to a destination where ancestry and intention is lived out.

Conversations over a rusty gate, the flaking paint dropping with the years it takes for bonds to grow so strong that they might just pass over to the next of kin.

These things weren’t prefabricated, but grown from a thousand imprints, thoughts and visions pressed together in a coalition so deep and intricate most would miss it. Except the ones who seek to add their own.

Thanks for picking me up

I feel drunk, except I’ve had no alcohol, only short, bittersweet glasses of tea; ubiquitous refreshment on the streets of Istanbul. It doesn’t help, however, that I’m stood up in a Dolmus, the taxi-cum-buses that chug about the city, picking up anyone anywhere who flags them down en route. My friend, Colin and I, clutch at the handrails and grin at the madness of it all as the driver bumps and jerks his way through the traffic. It’s just one more moment in a sea of experiences that have happened today and, thinking back, it’s no surprise that I feel the way I do.

First off, it was Carsamba market, with its never ending tunnels of clothes and groceries that filled up my eyes and ears with colour and chatter. Then there were the crumbling buildings of Balat that caught my imagination, an old Jewish neighbourhood, where washing lines are strung out across the streets and children roam as free as the stray cats that call the area their home. And I’m frankly still a bit fazed by the shoe-shiner who reeled us in with his thank-you-for-picking-up-my-brush routine and offered to polish our shoes out of gratitude only to snatch a 20 note from my wallet after asking for a donation. In hindsight, however, it simply added a little extra adrenalin to the mix as well as reminding me that not only am I tourist here, but a very fortunate one too.

The sheer variety of experience has been a constant as we’ve explored the ever-changing quarters of the city and by the end of each day my head has been left spinning with a heady mix of information overload and travel-inspired glee. It’s this combination that has led to such a feeling of intoxication and it’s something I know will only continue as we are dropped off at a gondola station where we await a carriage up to the Pierre Loti café overlooking the Golden Horn and the cityscape at dusk.

Tomorrow, the hangover will surely kick in as I board the plane back to England. But I’m hoping that I can take home at least some of the sense of adventure that has characterised this trip, so that I might better appreciate the colours, sights and sounds that are everywhere in my own city, albeit in a less exotic fashion. That way the trip never really ends.

(Written for the Telegraph’s ‘Just Back’ travel writing competition)