Istanbul, after

Gail Westbrook Issue: Section:

So much has been written about Istanbul lately, East meets West, Religion meet Secularism, Modernity meets Tradition, that even after living here for eight months it's hard to know what to say about it.  So here are some very subjective impressions, from an English teacher working in a private language school and living, after 3 previous abodes, in Cihangir, a neighborhood of twisting streets, cafes of every description, trendy shops and second-hand stores, boutique hotels and scruffy backstreets.

Since I don't think enough is written about the Bosphorus, I'm going to start here.  I fell in love with the Bosphorus at first sight and the infatuation hasn't worn off yet.  We've taken the Bosphorus Cruise at least four times, been out to the Princes' islands twice and gone across to the Asian side more times that we can count. We've sat by the water on public benches, bits of old concrete, on the grass, on a stool with a lira glass of tea.  We've been the only people outside on some of the ferries, and gotten wet more than once sitting beside the water a bit too close.  Some of the freighters and cruise ships we know by name and greet like old friends.  The Bosphorus has played a vital role in the history of the world for thousands of years, linking the Black Sea to the Mediterranean and Europe to Asia.  It is still vital, still a challenge to navigate (a ship went down this winter), still bustling, and still home to fish and seabirds, after a bit of a comeback.  The ferries are cheap, the people-watching priceless, I can't think of a better way to get a feel for the city.

Through knowing my students, I've come to realize just how important family is to the average citizen of Turkey.  Parents take care of their children until they are so old the children have to take care of them. And they do.  There is both a good and a bad to this.  I know first hand of a young man seriously depressed by a father who belittles him daily and who still would not dream of leaving home before marriage, if then.  I know of a woman who left her husband because she could no longer stand living with her mother-in-law. And yet in the vast majority of cases families seem very loving and close, very supportive and appreciative of each other.  I had to explain to my students what a gang was and there does not seem to be the kind of drug problem prevalent among the young in the U.S. today.   But what's interesting to me as well is that the close family ties spill over into communal action of all kinds.  You have never seen so many demonstrations anywhere in your life, people on the streets for every cause imaginable and sometimes for causes you would never imagine.  The closing of an iconic movie theater on Istiklal, the main pedestrian thoroughfare in old Pera, had people out in such force the police felt compelled to bring in water cannon to disperse the crowd.  And the demonstrations in support of the stray dogs that I mentioned in an article last fall were so large and persistent the government gave in and is now trying a new policy of sterilization rather than removal.

The communal energy is evident in other ways.  This spring, the minute the weather turned warm or sunny or miracle of all miracles, both, it seemed as though the entire population of the city spilled out into the streets, people plonking down in their favorite cafe's outdoor seating for tea, or coffee, or pastries, or all three, and then heading to the ice cream vendors for "dessert".  Istanbul in general is quite expensive but tea is cheap and people seem to meet their friends over a glass of it many times a day, in every place imaginable, on the street, in a doorway, in a park or even a parking lot, and of course in a myriad of cafes of every description.

I've been teaching English in a private English language school since September and I'm ready to be done.  But I can still recommend it and realize that some of my favorite people here, people i would like to know for the rest of my life, I have met through my classes at the school.  And in other ways.

I ducked into a cute little cafe one day a few months ago, to get out of the rain, and ended up teaching the mother of the owner, a retired architect/city planner and her friend, a retired high-school biology teacher.  If I could afford to, I'd pay them, rather than the other way around, just for the pleasure of their company.  I teach a film maker, for barter, and a TV broadcaster, who pays me and takes me out to lunch to boot!

But one of my biggest thrills came recently, when my school sent me out to what they call a "corporate".  They knew nothing about my new student, no name, no level, no affiliation, just an address.  I found the building, very decrepit, on a rather unsavory and very busy street near the Golden Horn.  I went up in an elevator made for one, which reeked of urine and stopped between floors before grinding its way up another little bit.  I stepped out to face a door with no indication of any kind, reminding myself that I was too old to be sold into white slavery, and knocked.  Someone peeked at me through a spy hole and the door opened to a small but busy office, with two young European women greeting me in near perfect English.  What sort of company is this, I asked.  Oh, we're NGO's, one answered, I'm with Medecins Sans Frontieres, you may know it as Doctors without Borders, and she's with Helsinki Citiizens' Assembly.  You'll be teaching our Turkish liason officer.  Who turned out to be a philosophy major who had worked for 20 years in the field of Human Rights, is still very active in Amnesty International, and has just moved over to Humanitarian Aid. Bliss. I feel so privileged to be able to work with him on his English skiils.

What will I think back on fondly, long after I've left this city? The history certainly, the beauty of the view from my terrace in Cihangir, the water, the museums and art galleries, but most of all the people, and their spirit.  In my first article on Istanbul, I described the energy as "relentless".  Now I would describe it as indefatigable.


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