While we were stuffing our face with delicious Turkish food and drinking Raki (pronounced Rak-eh), we came back to our apartment to find stock markets around the world had woken up to themselves. In one session they had fallen by around two per cent.
The Aussie market spent last week ‘recovering’. The ASX200 rallied all the way back to the technically important 4,700 level, which also happens to be where the 200-day moving average is. But it could go no further. In one day the index gave up a week’s worth of hard-fought gains and plummeted back to 4,600. In a few weeks we’ll probably be closer to 4,500.
But we’re in Istanbul at the moment and worrying about where the ASX200 is heading seems a tad trivial. So for the end of the week we thought we’d give you a break from financial markets and bring you some thoughts on one of the world’s truly remarkable cities.
Istanbul defies accurate description. It is chaotic and sublime, ramshackle, noisy and peaceful.
The chaos is most easily seen from street level. Road rules are there to be ignored. Use of an indicator is optional, tooting your horn is mandatory. Like Rugby League, driving in Istanbul is a game of inches. Crossing the road is a feat of wit and skill. Pedestrian crossings offer no more refuge than any other part of the road. But with a bit of practice, it becomes easy enough.
People sell just about anything from anywhere. Lottery tickets, nuts, bread and pastries are all on offer from roadside stalls. Shops teem with fresh fruit and vegetables.
In a country that seemingly has the heavy hand of state looming over it, interference at the individual level appears minimal.
In Australia, you can’t park your car in the wrong place for more than a minute without copping a fine. Here, you can park on the sidewalk and no one seems to mind. As long as you’re not hurting anyone, it’s OK.
The contrast with Australia is striking. In a seemingly free society, Australia – or we should say Australians – are being drowned in bureaucracy.
We caught up with an old Aussie friend here who works for Deutsche Bank in London. So he’s no stranger to rules and bureaucracy. He’s been away from Australia for a few years now but returned late last year for work.
He couldn’t believe how expensive and regulated Australia had become. He and his English colleagues thought Australia was increasingly becoming a nanny state.
Walking the streets of Istanbul makes you reflect on how this type of regulation squeezes the life and soul out of a place.
Obviously wealth has a lot to do with it. The commodities windfall has provided justification for a lot of people to have their say about how that wealth should be divided and redistributed.
You could argue that Australia’s nanny statism is the result of a wealthy and compassionate society. Fair enough. But what is unseen in this interpretation is the abdication of personal responsibility that goes with a growing welfare society.
Individuals look to the state for help whenever things go wrong. People peer over their fence and think that their neighbours’ grass is a little bit greener. So they look to the state to even things up…to get their ‘fair share’.
The contrast between a wealthy, welfare state and an emerging economy like Turkey is starkest at the family level. Because there is no widespread welfare here, the family unit remains the cornerstone of society. An individuals’ welfare is taken care of by the family. True, without a family you’re going to do it tough. But there is something endearing and nostalgic about a society that values family so highly.
We are travelling with our two-year-old daughter. The attention she gets is incredible. Strangers pinch her cheek, men pick her up, cuddle her and give her sweets. Children are the stars of the show in Turkish society. They bind the family together. They are adored.
Children are certainly adored in Australia and elsewhere in the West. But not to the same extent. The advent of the debt and welfare society in the West means our children, through economic necessity, spend two, three, four and even five days a week in day care. To afford the mortgage, two-income households are a necessity in Australia these days.
When the welfare state gets taken to the extreme, we become Greece.
Our society may be wealthier in the monetary sense, but we are also losing a richness that poorer societies seem to have in spades.
These observations are of course the romanticised thoughts of an infrequent visitor. They may be completely wrong. But the hustle and bustle of the streets makes you feel alive. You can feel the soul of the city here. Sometimes back home, we can barely feel a pulse.
While ‘the street’ moves without rhyme or reason (some bloke tried to sell us a stethoscope this morning!) the chaos down below turns to sublimity from the heights.
We are staying near the Galata Tower built in 1348 by the Genoese traders who had established themselves in the area. Built on a hill, it provides sensational views (as does the apartment) over the Golden Horn (a natural harbour) and across to the old city.
At night, you can see Aya Sofya and the minarets of the Blue Mosque in the distance, bathed in light. Aya Sofya (also known as St Sophia) was built during Emperor Justinian’s reign between 532 and 537AD. For 1,000 years it was the largest Church in Christendom.
But the Byzantine Empire crumbled from internal fighting and, for the last few hundred years of its life, was but a shadow of its former glory. In 1453, the Turkish Sultan Mehmet II, with the help of a new weapon, the cannon, breached the once impregnable walls and took the city.
As the Turkish soldiers streamed through the walls, the remaining Christians sought refuge in Aya Sofya. But it was a refuge no longer. The city was lost. John Julius Norwich recounts the moment the Sultan entered the church for the first time in The Middle Sea – A History of the Mediterranean:
That was the moment. Cross gave way to crescent; St Sophia became a mosque; the Byzantine Empire was supplanted by the Ottoman; Constantinople become Istanbul.
After more than 1,000 years as the capital of Christendom (Emperor Constantine moved the centre of the Roman Empire east in 330AD to establish Constantinople) the city became an Islamic one.
It is these vast sweeps of history that you can feel from high above. It is what gives the city its character, charm and peacefulness. It straddles continents, faiths and long-diminished empires like no other.
Until next time, when we’ll talk about the food…
report. But they are what they are.
Daily Reckoning Australia