Nothing about their story was planned or normal, so it shouldn’t have surprised him that the next time he’d see her wasn’t going to be in New York as a normal story would have it, but rather somewhere more exotic, mysterious, challenging, and enchanting – all things certainly more fitting for their abnormality than the safe mundane of the typical stories surrounding them. No, theirs was one of unplanned adventure, risk, even danger. And although they sometimes wished for the quiet comfort and ease of a normal life and a normal story, deep down they were high off a thrill uniquely theirs.
Their story was one that happened to them; an absolutely exceptional, unintended circumstance they fell into amid this brave new world of international connectivity. They relished every new chapter of ambiguous uncertainty, which now led them halfway around the globe back into each other’s embrace. Halfway, in every sense of the word, meeting quite literally ‘in the middle’ – in the only city where east meets west, situated on two continents, where worlds, including theirs, collided. He an American and she a Russian, neither defined by their nationalities but by their shared humanity, together again, at last, this time in Istanbul, Turkey.
Two months prior, when he walked her to her taxi in Moscow before they caught their flights home, he kissed her goodbye, never imagining the next time they’d be together would be through the customs gateway at Atatürk Istanbul International Airport. But again, nothing about their story was normal, and so they embarked on a week-long adventure in a country foreign to both of them, coupled amid their own language and cultural differences between each other. And in what better place than the physical joining of two worlds, where Europe meets Asia, where cultures and continents converged. It was a bold new step outside their comfort zone, one in which was sure to grow their character, stretch their faith, and test their resolve.
The unforeseen endeavor was planned and booked only weeks prior; the direct result of bureaucratic disappointments that torpedoed their original plan to have her spend New Year’s Eve with him in New York. It seemed only logical considering after nearly two years of talking and Skyping they finally met two months earlier when he undertook the long-awaited pilgrimage to Russia to do so. But mounting geopolitical tensions now stood in their way. She spent a lot of time and money applying for her tourist visa to the U.S., having traveled by plane to a consulate in another Russian city, preparing all her documents and information, awaiting an interview, and finally receiving one. She was hopeful, in part because he made her hopeful. She tried to calm her doubts, but when she was denied, she felt defeated, rejected, and excluded, and for no reason. She waited for him to come up with a solution, but when he didn’t have one, she grew impatient, distant, quiet, and short in her communication with him. She skipped her English lessons and moped. For days he felt like she had given up on him and his heart began sinking to heartbreaking depths. He couldn’t understand what was happening with her, so he tried to give her space. From his American perspective and experience, it seemed to be the logical thing a person ought to do. But coming from a different perspective and experience, she took it the opposite and saw it as him giving up on her and not wanting to communicate. It was easy for them to send each other mistaken signals tangled up in vastly different cultural worldviews, dating rules, and not to mention immense physical distance. What he saw as noble patience she saw as complacent inaction. However, it was laughable to think he’d let bureaucracy hinder their tenacity.
Finally, she broke her silence.
“Let’s just meet in some country where we both don’t need visas,” she suggested.
“Now you’re talking,” he replied.
But their options were minimal, especially on her end. Through her, he was learning to cast aside his privileged American mentality and view of the world to see with new eyes just how difficult their bizarre situation really was and yet continued to grow inspired by her fearless willingness to persevere.
That’s what he loved about her; brave, confident, and courageous, yet at the same time humble, wise, respectful, and loving.
“And we don’t need a big plan,” she wrote. “Let’s just spend time together, getting to know each other more, walking and talking and going to cafes.”
“That sounds perfect,” he responded.
There was no question he had to go. And despite any apprehensions, there would be no backing out. In the days leading up to their venture, he let his overthinking run wild. Would this make or break their relationship? (they dubbed it a ‘someship’ based on their difficult circumstances). Would she find him boring? Despite his love of traveling, he was actually terrified to travel alone. This was a fear he was now forced to overcome. He also wondered if he’d discover he was just in love with the idea of her rather than her true self. Their previous encounter was a five day whirlwind of activity, bustling between Moscow and St. Petersburg, in and out of hotels, joined by the company of one of his closest friends, and the security, comfort and ease of her natural environment, language, and culture. This would be different. Much different. It was just the two of them. One on one. One hotel. One city. Land and language foreign to both. Yet they knew they had to do it.
He caught sight of her at the airport before she saw him, melting at that same beautiful face he left two months ago in Moscow. For a moment they held each other and savored a kiss. At last, all was right in the world.
“So, what’s your plan?” she asked.
He scanned the exit signs, baggage claim carousels, currency exchange booths, and information desks.
“You don’t have a plan,” she stated sarcastically.
He held her shoulder and caressed her cheek, gazing into her stunning Siberian eyes.
“I’m pretty sure you convinced me not to have one,” he smirked.
Moments later he opened his Uber app and entered their hotel address.
“Here’s my plan,” he said, tapping the confirm button. With that, they whisked off into the night of a city over 3,000 years old, formerly known as Constantinople, en route to a charming hotel situated between two enormous, iconic mosques, which would become their home for the next week.
If Istanbul’s walls and streets could talk, they’d have recited millions of legends involving mythological gods, prophecies fulfilled, empires rising and falling, and enchanting tales of love lost and found. As their cab winded the ancient spiraled cobblestone, the towering presence of lit up mosques pierced the night. From their hotel rooftop, they basked in remnants of centuries gone by adorning their new, uncharted surroundings. To him, it all felt like a giant dream. And as he lay next to her that first night, even she seemed like a dream.
Some of the challenges of language, navigation, currency, and customs were unforeseen. The first morning he broke their number one rule of never leaving each other’s side to run back to the hotel where he left his credit card while she waited at a nearby café. The city hadn’t yet grown on them, so he raced to get back to her. In their cozy room, he admired her cleanliness and cuddles. Quickly he noticed her pickiness when it came to cafes. As she was a food photographer, it was only natural, and he didn’t mind. She pointed out his pickiness when it came to beds and comfort since theirs wasn’t the worst, but far from superb. By day three she was sleeping right through the raucous call to prayer blasting from the speakers of the city’s mosques, while he laid in bed wide-eyed each time.
They wandered the streets hand in hand, learning their way around, gauging their environment, and observing what appeared to be an infestation of cats; one of the city’s hallmarks. They explored The Grand Bazaar, the world’s largest, oldest enclosed market with 60 streets and nearly 4,000 shops attracting roughly half a million daily visitors. Merchants selling jewelry, rugs, lamps, and local handiwork sat on stools, nursing cups of steaming Turkish tea, waiting for customers to stop and admire their goods before springing to action and letting the bartering begin. Tea runners walked briskly through winding lanes, deftly swinging beautiful trays as they delivered fresh cups and collected the empties. The sharp aroma of exotic spices, dried fruits, olives, baklava, and Turkish Delight piled high in baskets wafted through claustrophobic throngs of people.
“This is the perfect place for a bomb,” she joked, signaling it was time to break free of the masses and breathe.
“That was fun,” he said after they escaped the vicinity. “For a one time experience.”
His natural navigation skills were unrivaled, and her choice in cafes was supreme, even if it meant first going inside to browse menus and feel out the vibe. Ripe tomatoes, crispy cucumbers, olives, eggs, jams, and freshly baked bread spilled out across their breakfast tables alongside Turkish tea. Traveling with a professional food photographer got him used to waiting 15 minutes before eating so she could position the foods and snap photos. And adventuring with a writer, she was patient with him in the city’s book and map shops, waiting as he carefully read up on the histories of attractions, monuments, and areas they visited. It was no wonder Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, Orhan Pamuk, and Agatha Christie all found their muses in Istanbul. The city was a utopia for writers, artists, designers, and photographers, and naturally, them.
There was no better way to conclude a day of traipsing around the city than stumbling across a gem of a restaurant. It was a tall, skinny building hidden in a secluded alley. Greeting them at the door, the owner guided them up a narrow spiral staircase five stories to an enclosed rooftop with a cozy cushioned corner seat and candlelit table overlooking a commanding view of the dazzling ancient city of Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman Empires. The day’s last call to prayer sounded from the colossal mosques as rogue thunder crackled over the Sea of Marmara. They ate in their own quiet solitude on top of one of the world’s most congested and populated cities. It was an unexpected vantage point with a sweeping view they would have never seen by means of a solid plan.
There seemed to be something new and unexpected around every corner, alley, or ferry ride. Discoveries abounded, not only within the city but among each other. Sometimes they were quick to misunderstand each other, but always patient enough to flesh it out all the way through until they understood.
Before long they were navigating the metro, charting ferry voyages, and compiling a list of cafes. At one point they passed an elaborate mosque on their way to Dolmabahçe Palace, a former waterfront estate of the Ottoman Sultans.
“Look at this one,” she pointed. “Should we peek inside?”
“It looks like it might be closed,” he said. She sighed, walked over to the door and opened it. They removed their shoes in the entryway, feasting their eyes on the ornate, domed ceiling.
“Sometimes you just need to open the door,” she stated, clearly implying a life metaphor. He knew she was right.
One rainy day, after visiting a museum dedicated to the classic car collection of the sultans, they decided to brave the weather and walk through a residential neighborhood far from the touristic center to try out a Turkish McDonald’s. Holding hands, they walked for nearly a half hour in the cold, past traffic, along broken sidewalks, and across a highway only to arrive at a site without a McDonald’s. The excursion didn’t go according to plan. They were tired and hungry, but there was little to complain about, simply because they were with each other.
On New Year’s Eve, they dined at a rooftop restaurant overlooking the water where the evening’s fireworks were launched. They exchanged gifts, he presented her a delicate box with a painted flower containing printed photos from their previous adventure and first meeting in Russia, a card, and a necklace. She presented him with a perfectly wrapped twine tied package with a feather. Inside was a handmade wallet crafted by a Russian artisan in the Altai Mountain region of Siberia, where she grew up. At the stroke of midnight, fireworks exploded along the Galata Bridge, and they kissed their way into the New Year. Afterward, they sat at their table and spoke of their future, feelings, and loosely, their plans. They talked of past relationships and the struggles of dating.
“I don’t think men notice me,” she said, looking at him out the corner of her eye with a slightly sad, sincere half-smile. His heart gushed. He hugged her close, turning his head so she didn’t see his welling tears. She felt she didn’t have the features of so many generic women. She was small and all natural, and although confident, she felt overlooked. For him, he couldn’t imagine how anyone in their right mind could ever glance over her. And yet he too often felt the same way about himself, completely unnoticed by women. They talked about how they were surrounded by easy relationships back in their home countries. Friends naturally and effortlessly paired up, met in school, at work, church, in their neighborhoods or cities, through friends, dating apps, social media, or even out at bars. Yet for them, relationships had always been so difficult. They wondered aloud what it would be like to just have normal lives like all the normal people they knew in their normal relationships with normal plans.
“But look what we get instead,” he said, smiling. She smiled back and kissed his cheek.
“Yes,” she replied. “I know.”
They clasped hands and rested their heads against each other as their waiter brought over a baklava dessert.
For him, the very best part of the entire trip came unexpectedly. He didn’t realize it was the best part until it merely unfolded. The second to last evening, they returned from a nearby café they had become regulars in over the week. With only lamplight in their room, giant, tall windows cracked open, thin curtains fluttering in a soft breeze, he played Postmodern Jukebox on his phone, grabbed her delicate hands and danced with her for a minute. With a bottle of red wine, a loaf of convenient store fruit bread, and Turkish tea, they sat together on their bed, sharing in their own type of communion. She told him her life story, from growing up in a rural Siberian village at the fall of the Soviet Union to making her way through school against the odds, becoming a lawyer, dismissing law, becoming a florist, a failed relationship, and then starting her own food photography business. She spoke dreams of someday opening a café tailored to her style and liking. He knew her story, but it was different to hear it in immense, slow detail, articulated verbally in limited yet impressive English. He sat captivated, wholly enthralled by who she was. He grew up in a working-class family in a blue-collar suburb of Philadelphia. His story was much different than hers. His life, much easier in many ways. It was no wonder she was fearless. The vast economic gap between their two countries was appalling and didn’t sit well with him. He spoke dreams of writing books, memoirs, and novels. Listening to her story made him want to write hers. That night felt almost like a dream or a movie. It was a scene he’d wish to relive and would never forget for the rest of his life.
They sat in bed and talked about how NASA faked the moon landing, 9/11 conspiracy theories, what she believed was Russia’s pending war with Ukraine, and theories about life, space, and God. The next morning they took a ferry from Europe to Asia, to one of the city’s many beautiful island communities. Once there it down poured. They missed their ferry back to the mainland and had to wait hours for the next. It wasn’t what they planned, but they made the best of it.
“The goal wasn’t the attractions or the places,” she said, squeezing his hand while walking the beachfront, peering across the choppy sea at a misty Istanbul skyline in the distance. “It was to spend time with each other.”
It was true. And it was the only plan that mattered.
Together they made a great team and a wonderful companionship. When they got back to the hotel, flowers he had secretly ordered were waiting for her. She found a vase, placed them on the table beside their window and took a picture. As they snuggled on their final evening, he realized how much he enjoyed living with her, and how much he was going to miss her, always. Together they survived embarrassing and vulnerable moments, good and bad jokes, cultural differences and disagreements, language misunderstandings, and cherished many laughs. He saw her as an incredible person, and the feeling was mutual. They pushed each other outside their comfort zones. They had goals and dreams that exceeded their imaginations and even seemed risky. Despite living worlds apart, they wanted to be part of each others.
The next day she waited until the last person boarded her flight home to Russia before they said goodbye and kissed one more time. He hated seeing her go. He returned her wave as she wheeled her bag through the jet-way door. Walking to his gate to board his flight back to New York, he didn’t want their adventure to end. He liked it best when their worlds collided. It was too soon to tell what would come next. He wondered whether or not she could see a future with him, and he feared having been too open with her. No matter, he knew he’d need to see her again, and soon. Now it was his turn to devise the next unplanned plan.
Back in their home countries, their relationship was the topic of conversation observed under a microscope among friends. They were so interested and fascinated, unable to wrap their minds around it. So outside their norms, this romance didn’t fit into their societal boxes or plans. It was all outside their perspectives, yet these two were just living into who they already were but never planned to be: different, abnormal, and unorthodox; trailblazers on a new frontier. It was in times of solitude and reflection where he came to appreciate her even more.
The life they wanted was never going to be comfortable or convenient. It could never be planned. There was no spreadsheet or timeline. And although it would be easier to seek out a safe, comfortable and normal relationship, they knew it would do them no good. They offered each other new sight and together peered out over a stunning vantage point they would have never known by means of a plan. Beneath all their colorful posts and pictures were two people on a journey, facing unique challenges most would never face. And somehow, their distance and disadvantages paradoxically worked in reverse, drawing them closer and further into one grand unplanned adventure. Perhaps they had obnoxiously petty bureaucracy to thank for providing them such a unique growth opportunity.
“You’re writing your story,” his best friend told him. “Or better yet, it’s writing itself. And this one you’re going to finish.”
It seemed to be true. But nothing about this story was planned or normal. But then, what of real, lasting value ever is?