Two Years in Istanbul

I came to Istanbul for no other reasons other than the fact that there was someone willing to hire me, and I had no reason not to. It was a spur of the moment decision, there was absolutely no planning or research done before I left my home in Dubai to find new one in Istanbul. I arrived broke and without a plan (which is probably how I’ll leave as well), and it really hasn’t worked out too badly.

 

Istanbul is a strange and frustrating and beautiful and chaotic and many layered city. It is an incredible, innovative city situated on the divide between the Middle East and Europe, rich in history and tradition. In so many ways, I find Istanbul young and fun and exciting, and yet it is also a very traditional and conservative city as well. If you’ve just come for a visit, to see the historical sites and have a good time with your friends, you’d probably never notice this dichotomy; the divide between the old and the new, progression and stagnation, and conservative and liberal.

 

I love Istanbul, but at times I think I hate it. I love looking out over the Bosphorus drinking Turkish tea, and listening to the boats going by. I love watching the old men on the edge of the Bosphorus fishing into the water for hours on end. I love the street cats and dogs, and the way that so much of the city takes care of them. I love the winding cobble stone streets, and plain as day ruins you walk past and hardly notice. I love the fresh food in the markets, the deserts and the ice cream, and the way you can order six teas in row and nobody will think it amiss. I love the generosity of the people, and the way they are willing to help out. I love the sound of the call to prayer and the seagulls flying behind the boats.

On the other hand, the longer I’m living here, and working here, the more I find myself criticizing aspects of my life here. I can’t stand the way that Turkish families spoil their children, in a way that I’ve literally never seen in any other place in the world. I don’t like the way that Turkish people will look you up and down and gossip about you in the metro if you’re foreign. I can’t get used to the way that they don’t have any concept of personal space, and think it’s perfectly alright to lean right on you in the bus. I don’t like the way they don’t wait in line, and move in ahead of you at the cash counter. More than those things though, I hate the extreme nationalism, and the way their national anthem and songs all sound like they’re marching off to war. And I especially hate the traffic.

 

There are so many more things that I love (and hate) here. But I find that this is simply a symptom of the duality of this city. Even the city itself is on the point between two worlds; between the Middle East and Europe, split between the European continent and Asia. I couldn’t even tell you if I feel as though I live in the Middle East or in a modern European city. Some days I feel that this city is so incredibly forward thinking and ahead of its time, and on others, I’d tell you I’m living in the past. This city is busy, and yet people move slowly, sitting for hours at breakfast or drinking their tea. You will see old men playing backgammon in the streets or women sitting for hours over coffee, without a thought to the time going by. You might see a group of girlfriends out having coffee and while half might look like they’re ready to go dancing, the others might be wearing full burkas. Everyone here seems to want to go to Canada, when I say I’m from there, and yet they are full of this intense nationalism that I know will keep many of them from ever leaving Turkey. Interacting with Turkish people, I have found it to be a 50/50 toss up; often times they are the most wonderful, generous and friendly people you’ll find, but at other times they’ll glare right at you because your foreign and whisper in Turkish about how you should go back to your country. Even the surroundings and things to do in this city are in opposition; you might go shopping at the Grand Bazaar in the morning and end the day at a brand new mall like Zorlu Center, or start with Aya Sofia (Hagia Sophia) and end up in one of the shining new skyscrapers at a fancy rooftop bar.

 

This country has so much to offer, and there is so much to say about the places to visit, things to see, political and religious environment, and the day to day getting around; and I will write those things down too. As an introduction and overview of my two years here, what I’ve taken away from this city, and this country as well, is that it is so incredibly unique in its contrasts. Never have I felt so at odds with my own feelings and opinions about a place. I find myself telling people things about life here that are so completely in opposition with what I’ve told others, and yet they’re both equally as true. Istanbul is the first place in a long time that has really been home, and I have loved my time here. I never intended to stay for long, and now, two years in, I find myself leaving in a few months and I cannot imagine never coming back. Before making the decision to move away from Istanbul there were days that I couldn’t wait to go, to leave this city and never look back, and yet here I am, making plans and buying tickets, and I feel this incredible sense of loss. This city is strange, and wonderful and at times so frustrating; but it has been good to me, and has become home, and I will always love it for that. I wouldn’t trade my time here for anything, and am so thankful for having had the chance to live here, as opposed to simply travelling through or coming for vacation. There is simply too much here to condense into a week or two. To really experience Istanbul, to come to understand the place and the culture, you need to stay a while, or you simply won’t understand what this place really is.