23 January 2016

The Enigma That Is Istanbul

Today is my three year anniversary living in Istanbul! I'm not really sure what I thought would happen or how long I thought I would stay when I first came here in 2013 but part of me is a little surprised that I'm still here. This place is kind of insane. Sometimes charmingly so; other times not so much. On this anniversary though I thought I'd take a moment to share some of the things to which I've finally become accustomed and some of the things that still completely baffle me.

7 Things to Which I Am Now Accustomed:
  1. Tea: It's ubiquitous and I never turn down a glass in a restaurant (and usually accept it in shops). At home however if I drink tea instead of coffee I usually just drink one-off cups of Lipton Yellow Label. I know, I know, it's a sacrilege but who has time to go through the process of a double pot tea steeping ritual when all you want is one lousy mug?!
  2. Getting groped on public transportation: Yes this happens, it happens often and more likely than not on the tram. Chances of it happen increase apace with the number of tourists in the city. Note: if this ever happens to you don't ignore it or be afraid to do something just because you don't speak Turkish. I started elbowing, yanking back fingers, and outright punching people. Seriously.
  3. Turkish bureaucracy: I wish putting this here meant that I even remotely understood anything that was going on or that I'm at all confident about my residency renewal in yet another new system but it doesn't. This really just means that I am used to the fact that that it exists, its awful for everyone (Turks and foreigners alike), and, like tea it's bloody everywhere; but not nearly as pleasant.
  4. The call to prayer: I barely hear it anymore really; it's just part of the general background noise now. Sure when the mosque nearest my apartment was renovated and got a new loudspeaker I spent a couple mornings cursing Islam during the 5AM call to prayer. But not even that wakes me up now.
  5. Cats everywhere: A New York Times article a few months ago correctly said that Istanbul should be renamed Catstaninople. There are cats everywhere and, for the most part, they are well cared for. People put out water dishes and food and you can often find boxes that have been repurposed as cat houses. Most business (even restaurants!) don't mind cats wandering in and out and a lot of them have regulars.
  6. J-walking: This is a city of 18-20 million people, and a lot of them drive so traffic is a nightmare. Given that you can imagine how dangerous the roads are and would think that might limit the amount of j-walking. Not so. It is entirely common to see people jog across a 4-6 lane street dodging cars as they go. There are sidewalks here but they are largely ignored in favor of walking in the street. Although to be fair sidewalks are often narrow and/or already occupied by shop ware or cafe tables. When I'm abroad now I have to be reminded to use sidewalks and only cross the street at the appointed place and when pedestrians have the go!
  7. Turkish lines: In a way I am used to this. People here don't really seem to like to queue. Really it would be quite helpful if the British were to colonize the world for a brief period of time and teach people how to bloody queue. A Turkish queue looks a bit like a rugby scrum, complete with the pushing and shoving. I'm getting a little better at pushing my way to the front but I'm still a little too Mid Western to really do it successfully.

7 Things That Still Baffle Me:
  1. Turkish language: Obviously I'm in a much better position than I was when I moved here but after 11 classes (11!!) much of it still eludes me. Sure I mostly understand but using a lot of the fiddly little bits is just beyond me.
  2. Getting groped on public transportation: Yes I know I have this as #2 above and while I am used to it happening I am not used to the culture of hypocrisy that surrounds it! If some guy is bothering you all you really have to do (if you can) is turn to the nearest guy not assaulting you and say: big brother, this guy is bothering me, can you please help me? And dude will throw down for you! I have seen this happen. You are now his sister and he will go full-on fisticuffs to defend your honor. But here's where the hypocrisy comes in: five minutes ago your knight in shining armor could have been assaulting some other girl. This is why I recommend punching guys in the throat or grabbing their junk, squeezing as hard as you can while laughing maniacally and asking how they like being touched. I've done that too (although that was India).
  3. Turkish bureaucracy: Sensing a pattern, no? It's everywhere. I'm not sure you can sneeze without having to pay a tax or get a piece of paper stamped. It would be marginally less painful if they would just STOP. Changing it. Every. Damn. Year. Specifically the residency system which each year gets more complicated and messy. And you know, even if they want to change it every year that would be okay if: 
    1. They changed the system AFTER they decide what the final process will be.
    2. Again they wait until they have a system in place to implement the new system.
    3. They provide instructions to all the relevant offices about what the new system is and what paperwork is required.
    4. They tell ANYONE ON THE PLANET what the new system is and what paperwork is required.
  4. The lack of international cuisine: Turkish food is good, it really is. But there's a lot of sameness. We are lucky to have a couple decent Thai, Korean, and Japanese places but I have yet to have Chinese food that doesn't make me sick. The Indian food is nearly always disappointing (and overpriced!) and while pizza and burgers abound there's not a lot outside that. I hear rumors of Ethiopian and other ethnic foods but where the are I don't know. I got spoiled living for so long in DC with decent renditions of just about any ethnic food within easy reach. Thank goodness for Pop Up Istanbul and my Georgian connection!
  5. The price of alcohol: Don't even get me started. Thankfully we have bringing it in down to a science. Did you know you can get 10-12 bottles of wine in a normal sized suitcase and still be largely within your weight allowance? And that you can buy from Duty Free in the airport you're leaving and again when you get to Istanbul? This is how we survive.
  6. Stairs: The bane of my existence. It's not bad enough that I live at the top of a five-floor walk-up. To be fair I did that to myself but living here does mean I carefully plan each excursion so I can keep my trips back up the stairs to a minimum. Walk-ups are one thing but streets that are so steep that they can no longer be streets but become giant staircases are another. That's when you have to just say no and figure out more sensible city planning.
  7. Discrimination against foreigners: The Turkish word for foreigner is yabangee which is often used here derogatorily. Foreigners are more likely to be the ones harassed on public transportation, until recently even those of us with residence permits couldn't get mobile phone contracts (it's still not an easy thing), and then of course when you shop in markets and bazaars, engage services -especially anything remotely touristic- there is always the yabangee tax; the higher price we pay simply for being foreign. It really makes me miss Taiwan where I never heard the word 'foreigner' used without 'friend' going with it. We were always the 'foreign friends' there. 
It has been a rather crazy three years and if I manage to make it through the residence permit renewal process again it will be another crazy year here. However after that I think I'm done. I love you, Istanbul but I think we may need a break from each other...

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