THE BLOG

Ich Bin Ein Istanbuler

I spent the past week at the world's largest-ever gathering of CEOs in Istanbul, Turkey. The conference involved more than two and a half thousand influential members of the twinned Young Presidents' and World Presidents' Organizations, exploring global issues with some of the best known corporate and political leaders from across the world.

This year we were hosted by an incredibly ambitious, sophisticated, booming and uniquely proud city of more than 15 million people -- Europe's largest urban metropolis and, in fact, the only mega-city on the old continent. Istanbul is often described as the place where East meets West both literally, as the world's only city that straddles two continents, and metaphorically, as perhaps the world's busiest intersection of cultures, religions and leadership styles. The city oozes optimism and a healthy kind of hunger for the future. Its exceptionally deep heritage is perfectly blended with the great energy of its educated, worldly and remarkably young workforce into one of the most powerful and attractive urban "brands" most of my fellow conference attendees had ever seen.

We all marveled at its relentless economic boom (it was barely touched by the global financial crisis), its spectacularly blossoming infrastructure, its gorgeous palaces and heritage buildings and the totally captivating attitude of its people. But for me this time Istanbul also triggered a much more personal feeling of belongingness and pride.

My grandmother was born and raised in Istanbul at the dawn of the 20th century. Back then the world still knew it as "Constantinople," the glorious old capital of the long defunct Byzantine Empire. It had reigned as the largest and richest and coolest city on the planet for more than a thousand years (imagine a combo of Shanghai, New York, Paris and London -- for a millennium?!) and there was still plenty of blue blood and matching attitude flowing through its veins, even though it was steadily sinking toward third-world oblivion by then. Like all good Greek Constantinopolites, grandma could trace her ancestry to some distant little corner of an imperial palace, she could always blend a bit of aristocratic French into her everyday language, she could cook like a Parisian chef and she could dress like a royal. And, like most good Greek Constantinopolites, she ended up fleeing her city and became a poor immigrant in Greece. She never really let us feel her bitterness -- but her impeccable style, her distinguished language and her stories about "The City", as most Greeks still refer to it, contained such intense nostalgia for a time that was obviously gone forever. I was raised in a country and a society that was still missing its city, still wishing it could have it all back some day...

So there was the grandson of the deposed city-princess, walking in her old neighbourhood, looking at her old school and her old church and feeling nothing but pride. I felt so blessed to be able to trace some of my roots to this gorgeous, happening, smiling place. I felt so touched, in a very Canadian inclusive and multicultural way, each time our beautiful Turkish hosts talked to us with such genuine passion about their city's Byzantine glory days, each time I heard them celebrate its deep multicultural heritage and link it all to its great new success today. And I felt so at home in a city that looks out to the future with so much optimism, so much energy and so much confidence.

My grandmother's city is definitely back. It may have a different name today, it may speak a little less aristocratic French and Greek but it sure deserves and draws the world's attention again with its hot new brand and its great new language of success! And it feels so good to be a small part of it all...

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