Talking Turkey

Gail Westbrook Issue: Section:


In our second apartment in Istanbul, there was a poster across from the bed, a pedestrian street scene with the words “Istanbul is relentless"  weaving in and out in yellow.   It's as good a summing up as any I've found yet of my first impressions of living in Istanbul. We arrived on August 21st, planning to stay a year or two and are now thinking 9 months will be it, or 4, depending on which day you catch us. But who knows. I've met several people who left after a year and swore they'd never come back. I met them here, in Istanbul. It may be relentless, but it's also addicting, in a way that's hard to describe.  A few things you probably won't find in the guidebooks:

    There are protests every day, sometimes several a day, up Istiklal, a more or less pedestrian shopping and eating street topped off by Taksim Square, notorious for its demonstrations.  Usually there are more riot police than protestors, standing at attention all along the street and square, just standing behind their shields, letting their presence be known.  But the biggest protest we've ever seen occurred one Sunday recently, thousands, many thousands of people, shouting angrily, waving their fists, some carrying pictures of dogs, some leading dogs on their leashes.  Uh oh, was our first reaction, I hope it isn't a protest against the American dogs who allowed Mohammad to be insulted on youtube.  We turned off to a side street, my husband muttering "I've started saying I'm Canadian, when anyone asks."  The next day I asked my students if they knew what the demonstration was about.  They looked blank, demonstrations are so frequent, as I said, that no one pays any attention to them but finally one young man lit up "I know, I read about it, the government just passed a law designed to get rid of the stray dogs in the city and the people were protesting against it."  

Istanbulites love their feral cats as well.  These are happy, healthy cats, well taken care of by someone, or ones, on every block.  But the other night, hanging over the edge of my faux balcony, I saw an old man, crippled, come lurching up our street, swinging his cane, working hard to propel himself forward.  He stopped under our street light, where a local resident puts out scraps for the cats on little pieces of paper that turn into rubbish when the cats have finished feeding.  He leaned down, gobbled a morsel rejected by the cats, and moved on, swinging and dragging himself up the rest of the  street.  

There are pedestrian cross-walks in Istanbul, and the cars ignore the lights no more often than the pedestrians themselves do.  But I smile every time I come to one.  The green light is a man walking, like the "white man walking" in NY.  But then he starts running, his little green legs moving back and forth like pistons,  and then he turns very red and very still.  Direct hit.  

The Bosphorus is endlessly fascinating, and there are many commuter ferries, very inexpensive, that enable you to get out onto it, up and down it, back and forth from the European to the Asian side, out to the Princes Islands in the sea of Marmara, up to edge of the Black Sea.  But there are very few affordable places to sit next to it.  Our favorite is in Kabatas, at the bottom of the funicular to Taksim.  There you can sit with the fishermen, who very politely ignore you, or buy a chay (Turkish tea) for one or two lira at one of the cafes and spend hours just watching the traffic on the water, every kind of ship imaginable, from every part of the world. 

We stayed for the month of September in a beautiful, renovated apartment in a very un-renovated area, just below Tarlabasa Street. Tarlabasa is known for its prostitutes, especially the transvestites and transexuals.  The government is trying to "clean it up" and took the first step of tearing down a notorious "working girls" hotel.  The entrepreneurs and their customers just jump the fence and ply their trade on the rubble where the hotel used to be, no problem.  The police station down the block, the one with the tank in front of it, appears not to notice.  

From this same apartment, I used to walk to work on a little side street where the city had obviously made an attempt at beautification by stationing heavy cement planters along the sidewalk, filling them with dirt and presumably (though you can presume nothing in Istanbul) at one time, plants.  An enterprising individual has covered the planters with slabs of scrap wood, set out little stools, and serves tea for 1/2 a lira from a hot plate inside a doorway, to men who sit every morning, sometimes as many as 8 or 10 at a time, sipping tea and reading their newspapers.  Every single one of them, reading a newspaper.  

I teach at an English language school on Istiklal and was interested to discover that no one there thinks much of Turkish men, even the Turkish men.  As for the women, a lovely middle-aged professional with whom I had coffee expressed concern that the rights of women are already being eroded by current government policies and she is afraid it is only going to  get worse.  For now, one sees complete burka walking down the street next to a mini skirt in seeming harmony.  There is a huge trend among women who aren't completely shrouded to wear thick, long-sleeved, ankle-length trench coats and cover their hair with a scarf.  I personally have nothing against this attire, or the burka, for that matter, despite what must be the incredible discomfort in the heat and humidity of Istanbul. It's the men walking with these same women in their shorts and t-shirts who infuriate me.  

Istanbul is expensive and my work uncertain so we don't know how long we'll stay.  But we'll never forget the friendliness and charm of our first neighborhood, at the edge of Fatih and the university area, up from the Askaray tram stop, in the old city.  We'd be there still if we could have found housing, strolling past ancient walls and mosques and remnants of the Roman acquaduct, sitting in tree-shaded cafes on quiet streets where children play and families meet, reading undisturbed while nursing a chay in a tulip-shaped glass.

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