I can think privately as much as I want, but there is nothing like being questioned only to find my true opinion within the spontaneous answer. For instance, a woman came to a party at our house the other night and asked me an array of questions all of which were centered on the main curiosity of the difference between the United States and Turkey for me. I can elaborate here and maybe say things more clearly. So far, there are some things that are incredibly similar and familiar, especially since we live in Istanbul which is an urban metropolis. I think my answers would vary greatly if I were comparing rural Turkey to “the United States”. So I’ll just compare Istanbul to the cities I’ve lived in within the U.S. which are, by the way, San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland, Santa Cruz and San Diego.
The first thing that comes to mind is the state of the city when it comes to cleanliness, air quality, poverty and buildings. Most of the streets here are closer in likeness to the streets of Asia, much dirtier than the streets of any of the U.S. cities I’ve lived in, give-or-take a few back-alleys in Oakland or San Francisco. I asked someone in a store if I could throw something away and they gestured toward the street and laughed at me like I was ridiculous. There are garbage men who collect the endless trash bags that people throw onto the street or from the occasional large bins that are sometimes on the corner of blocks (we are lucky to have these on our street). It doesn’t seem like most people separate recycling and trash but there are some poor people who pull around huge bag-like containers and search for recycling in the trash which I assume they bring somewhere to sell by weight. We decided to separate ours so it would be easier for them. I saw such a young boy pulling one of those containers the other night, full after a long days “harvest” and his mother was walking beside him, trudging up the hill of our street. I thought that the hills of this city must make this boy so frustrated, since he wants as much weight as possible, but probably despises the weight almost as much.
The air is thick, full of cigarette smoke and the sweet smell of roasting chestnuts which are sold by vendors on all the main streets. These scents combined with the frequent bakeries makes Istanbul a very warm and delicious-smelling city; it reminds me of fathers and uncles, winter holidays and one of the best things in the world: bread.
The buildings are a perfect metaphor for Istanbul: half old, half new. Even on super busy main roads it feels like an almost perfect pattern of old, new, old, new… I started wondering if they can only renovate a certain amount of buildings per block or not more than two beside each other. I enjoy the pattern because the stark, boring new buildings make the beautiful details of the old stand out even more. Sometimes though, the old buildings have lost most of their beauty and are actually close to being ruins: walls falling crumbling, windows missing, roofs collapsed. They look unlivable to me but I’ve seen lights on in the window and laundry hung out on makeshift lines.
I see more beggars out at night: a crippled man, small dirty children with clothes and shoes that don’t fit right, mothers with their babies and children. Being a mother, it is difficult for me to see little babies on the street, their huge eyes peering up at all the people walking by just inches from them. It makes me wonder about what they think of the world, from this strange position below the bustling businessmen and brisk rich wives walking home from the mall. The constant perspective alone must be having a strong impact on their literal view of the world. It makes me sad of course, but I cannot afford to help them with money; I have given them food. However, for those of you who have been to Asia, the amount of beggars here are minuscule in comparison and not in as bad of shape physically or in general. They seem to be warm enough and I see restaurants and stores put out food and boxes of produce that has gone a little over it’s prime so it’s possible for the poor to get food, even relatively healthy food. They may eat more salad than a lot of wealthy people we know!
Speaking of supplying food… I have never lived somewhere that has so many fat and healthy street cats. Barely anyone owns a cat but lots of people buy cat food and make little perches for them outside their windows. Even more than that, people build little apartments for the cats out of old drawers and cardboard boxes, decking them out with soft blankets, old sweaters and scarves, bring them new plates of food every day. These cats are stoked, and, as a result, not very whiney at all. The same is done for dogs although there are much less of them in comparison. Most of the ones I’ve seen have little tag earrings which means they’ve been documented and given shots. The fact that they have these didn’t really eliminate my fear when two of them decided to jump on me the other night, paws on my back and shoulders and smelling my hair and purse. Luckily they weren’t aggressive and backed off after I yelled one big “NO!”.
A frightening aspect of Istanbul is the driving and traffic. In the United States I feel like even though people may speed sometimes or run the occasional red-light, the majority of people are respecting the laws and also pay close attention to pedestrians and emergency vehicles. Here, it is as if cars were created without the option to go in reverse. I said this to Ryan the other day and he looked at me so genuinely and said, “They don’t have reverse in Turkish cars.” and I totally believed him. This is not just a testament to my gullibility, but even more so about how aggressively people drive! No one wants to come to complete stop, no one wants to back up. Never. It’s like it would insult Turkishness which, in case you didn’t know, is an actual crime here (check out Article 301: Turkish Penal Code). We were walking along a bigger multi-lane freeway the other day and there was thick traffic and an ambulance blaring, trying to make it’s way ahead of everyone. We watched not one, not two, but three taxis speed in front of the ambulance because you know, their job is so much more important.
Now, moving away from describing the city, to my experience so far and how it feels to be here as a woman, a foreigner and a mother. I have to say I feel like I have two completely different selves here but don’t worry, it’s not in a scary psycho way, just in the way the locals see me. This depends entirely on whether I walk out of the door with my family or by myself.
When we go out as a family we are immediately defined, identified, adored and accepted. The fact that we speak little to no Turkish is irrelevant because we are a family. That essentially means we are good people headed down the right path and our doing our duties as human beings. Szabina is doted upon and gifted constantly with toys, treats and many praises (to God no less!). Now, I should point out that in the U.S. I felt like we were judged as a family because of our ages. There it seems much more acceptable and commendable to do the regular track: complete high school, get into a good college where you will meet your true love, earn your degrees together and get jobs in your desired professions. But that is not all… no, no, no! Then you need to get married and using your massive savings and wedding gift money buy yourself a 4 bedroom 2 bath with a nice backyard, paint a nursery, get a dog, and then talk about “trying”. My family is the exact opposite of all of these things. We represent the unplanned, illegitimate and unorganized. We are young, unmarried and degree-less. In the United States we are poor dreamers and artists with baby in tow. But not here…
Here it feels like the fact that we are young and have a child is the way it should be; we are some link to the past, the good ol’ days (I wonder if they have a phrase like this in Turkish). Heck, I should’ve been popping out babies since I was 16 according to the good ol’ days! Also, we take full advantage of the fact that nobody knows us so we just say that we are married just to smooth that bit over in the fragile and easily offended traditional mindset of a monotheistic country. I love going out with Ryan and Szabina because we meet lots of people, make new friends, practice more Turkish and learn more because people like to explain things to our 2 year-old. And she impresses them with her “Merhaba” and counting and “Iyi gunler!”. Going out together is also easier because between Ryan and I together, we can usually understand a bit more of what someone is trying to tell us. And we both soak up different grammar points or notice different things and then point it out to each other. Also, it’s totally normal for a complete stranger to walk up to us and either touch Szabina or try to pick her up. Depending on the setting and her mood (or whether or not she likes the person) this can either be sweet or stressful. As a foreigner I don’t want to offend them but above anything I am a mother and will protect my child even if it’s just her being cranky. As an emotionally sensitive person I try hard to treat her emotions like I want people to treat mine. Usually just telling people that she is tired works but sometimes it’s a relief to have Ryan there because he is more assertive and get’s the message across more clearly.
Everything is different when I go out alone. I feel like I stick out like a sore thumb whether it be because of my long uncovered hair, blue eyes, dress or gender. I am looked at so intensely and sternly that I cannot figure out why. It doesn’t matter if it is a man or woman looking at me, I can’t tell what they are thinking. In the U.S. if someone looked at me for that long and looking at my whole body it usually felt like there was a fairly clear motivation or inspiration behind it. Here it could be just as easily by judgement as it could be attraction. I don’t necessarily have a preference considering I’m not looking for either type of attention. I try to dress respectfully but also be myself. Almost every day I wear blue jeans, a t-shirt, boots, scarf and jacket. In my neighborhood there are more family-types and older people, but three blocks toward the center and there are tons of young people: students, teachers, tourists, businessmen and businesswomen. Compared to many women I see from that point onward toward the fashion shopping area, I would consider my attire to be very conservative. However you see a hot young woman in her sheer tights, short skirt and heels and just a few paces ahead of her is a woman in a full burqa with only her eyes showing. It’s all so old and new! Or perhaps the right words are: “Traditional and Modern”?
I saw a girl in front of an English Language school… she was wearing her hijab tightly pinned on and her dress was unflattering and practically floor-length… but below it her Converse sneakers were poking out. In one hand she held a cigarette and the other was scrolling over her iPhone. If I could choose one person I have seen so far to represent how I see Istanbul, it was her.