A little after eight o'clock in the morning, crowds of young professionals and older men in knit hats bundle down the docks at the edge of Istanbul's Kadıköy district and watch similar herds of busy gulls swirling across the Bosphorus, obscuring the panoramic view of the Byzantine city walls and the Hagia Sophia. Istanbulis don't queue, but they don't jostle either. When the gates finally open, they board the commuter ferries with amiable efficiency, holding their briefcases to their chests and casually minding the expanding and contracting gap between hull and dock.
Deckhands stand by to help everyone aboard. Only a few elderly tourists reach for their rope-hardened hands. The trip from Asia to Europe is, despite the staggering views on offer, a routine commute for the thousands of locals who live in eastern Istanbul's patchwork of bohemian and bourgeois neighborhoods and work in Sultanahmet, the city's arrhythmatic Ottoman heart, or Beyoğlu, the more student-dominated peninsula just to the north.
In the middle of the strait, the wind kicks up a bit and the Princes' Islands, which sit amid an encroaching fleet of tankers out in the Sea of Marmara, emerge from the haze. At the back of the boat a paisley-shaped flock of squealing white begs for bad bread and complains about the meager portions. The view toward the Black Sea is dominated by the Bosphorus Bridge and framed by the aging wooden mansions lining the waterfront.
The bridge is massive, 4,954 feet long and 210 feet above the water, but hardly guarantees the ferries' obsolescence as its main purpose seems to be transporting Puegots and Fiats from one knot of traffic to the next. A second bridge lies considerably further up the Bosphorus. That's why Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoga supports the creation of a third bridge, a project that many Istanbulis complain will destroy historic buildings and the city's maritime je ne sais quoi.
Locals have pointed out that they don't mind taking the ferry, that they rather like it. But they are fatalistic about appeals to Ankara, which fall on the ears clogged with quid pro quo proposals. It is hard to argue for the virtue of a system when that virtue is civility.
Tea is, of course, offered on board the ferry, but most of the steaming red liquid seems to wind up inside the crews. The commuters sit inside and rest their legs as the boat skulks past the jetty where travelers used to dismount, climb off trains from Baghdad and catch sight of the continent for the first time, admiring the pale, nippled domes of the Topkapi Palace.
There is a casual familiarity among the passengers. Boats are unlike subways in much the same way cocktail bars are unlike food courts. People talk about their families and admire each other's leather coats.
If commutes are the ellipses bookending the workday, then this literal sail to Byzantium is lowercase and bold, casual and striking. This is how Istanbul's hungry young capitalists get to work and, with the economy booming, there is a palpable feeling of nervous purposefulness on board. Turkey has been through enough rough waters that Istanbul's current fortune -- especially when contrasted with European chaos -- can seem delicate. The professionals on board are all invested in their city's modernity and relevance.
As one passenger remarked, "The middle of the world is the easiest part to forget."
When the boat lands at the docks -- Sultanahmet's sits next to the city's famed Spice Market while Beyoglu's sits beneath the medieval Galata Tower --passengers hop ashore, limping for three or four paces as their calves readjust to the predictable stillness of land. They disperse onto the tram or up the shopping streets toward boutiques and office buildings. A few head toward the Grand Mosque.
Until they glimpse themselves in store windows and make adjustments, the ferry commuters are identifiable by their wind-mussed hair, a sign of good fortune.