Istanbul

Our time in Istanbul has been delightful so far. What a contrast from Prague! The basics are that the food is delicious, the people are wonderfully nice, and the weather, aside from this rainy weekend, has been beautiful.

In the airport, as a group of police officers or security guards walked past, we noted that the Turkish must not be a tall people. Mehmet would challenge this observation. Outside of baggage claim, waiting next to many short, dark-haired and mustached men, was the tallest Turk I had seen yet. With a haircut that could have been as freshly barbered as an hour before, Mehmet greeted us with my name on a card. He introduced himself and shook our hands and then remained silent aside from gestures. The man spoke no English.

Not to get lost in the details of our interactions with Mehmet, I’ll just say that he was often our silent guide as we were taken through the city for those first few days. When he dropped us off at our apartment on day 4, he left without a goodbye, as I sat on my bed and uttered, “Güle güle, Mehmet Bey.” He didn’t hear me.

We were taken to the Osaka Hotel that first night, and abandoned the following day. We were told we would be emailed to schedule a meeting, so we waited until 3 pm, and then decided to venture out. Our first night in Istanbul was quite scary. Our 4-hour flight had been filled with screaming babies and fidgety toddlers, (one of each sat behind us), and I had developed a terrible migraine on that restless flight. Kuba, meanwhile, was hiding in his hoodie, as he is terrified of flying and the seatbelt sign remained lit the entire flight, something that, regardless of the absence of turbulence, kept his palms sweaty and his mind racing. Not arriving to our flat was even more disconcerting, though we were tired and appreciative of any bed. The city was alive and unforgiving of our giant suitcases, and I’d never felt so conspicuous before. No longer could I blend in and act as if I were from the city I was touring. I was too light-skinned, with a too-European nose, walking next to a redhead. I felt like I had a target on my back.

That first night was terrifying. I remember repeating “It will be okay” in my head hundreds of times, but only slightly believing it. I also asked myself, “What the hell am I doing?” It was a scary night. With the dawning of the following day, my fears were relieved. Breakfast was free and waiting downstairs. This was going to be beautiful: my first Turkish meal! I was still a bit nervous about one thing, though. Having not seen many women the night before, (I could recall seeing none in my sleepy walk to the hotel), I took caution in my attire. I was uneasy getting dressed because I had no local style to imitate. I had seen a few headscarves, and everyone was wearing coats. That’s all I had to go by. To be safe, I threw a dress over my skin-tight jeans. Then I put a long swing coat on. Kuba was telling me the whole time, “It’s very Western. You don’t have to do that.” But I was thinking, “I don’t want to offend anyone. I already stand out as it is.” Upon entering the dining room, we saw only one other diner – a woman, wearing a short t-shirt and leggings. Kuba looked at me in time to see me sigh from relief, and we grabbed some cheese, bread, olives, tomatoes, jelly, a hardboiled egg, and a bowl of cereal (for good measure). We also got some tea, realizing three days later that the water next to it was meant to dilute it. Oops.

The second day, Mehmet was supposed to come get us at 12. He came at 10. We met him at reception, but after receiving a phone call, he told the receptionist, who told us (in broken English) that we needn’t go with Mehmet after all. Confused, I messaged the director of our school what happened. We decided to leave the hotel and come back at 12. We took a walk on the other side of the highway, where the apartments were and where it was much quieter, and about 40 minutes later, headed back to the hotel. A block away, our steps were interrupted by a hand being placed on Kuba’s shoulder. My first emotion was fear – who is touching him and why? Have we done something wrong? He told me later that his first thought was “A friend!” It was a friend indeed – it was Mehmet. He motioned for us to follow him, and another 40 minutes and a few buses later, we met Isan, our new guide. Mehmet gave us to him and walked away without a goodbye (typical Mehmet), and Isan led us to another bus, where he explained a bit of what we were doing (going to the director).

Every street seems to be a market here, and as we walked through the streets to the school, we smelled coffee, fruits, and corn cooking (they have “corn in a cup” as street food – and, like most simple Turkish dishes [i.e. rice], it is delicious). We expressed aloud how delicious the coffee smelled, and Isan stopped beside a street vendor who had heaps of fruits in front of juicers and asked if we’d like some. I said “Sure,” because you just don’t turn down street food when it looks this delicious. I ordered grapefruit, Kuba got apple, and Isan got carrot. “You can get coffee anywhere – Prague, America, here… but this juice is delicious!” Isan was right. My excitement for the street food here reminds me of being in Prague those first three months – except instead of Prague’s klobasa sausages, I’m enticed by the colorful stacks of fruits and vegetables.

We spent a few hours at our school headquarters. The bosses and some other seasoned teachers took us our to lunch at a tasty lokanta, where I got kofte and rice, grapeleaf rolls, and a bean salad. At the school, we talked with the director and our boss, sitting on the balcony that overlooks part of city.  It was nice to enjoy so much sun after a cloudy Prague winter. After a game of foosball, the director walked us to the docks, where he paid for our ticket on the boat that would take us to our part of Istanbul. It was a lovely ride as the sun set.

We finally moved to our apartment on Friday. They told us that the last guy to live in this room was really “messy,” and told us not to sit on the living room furniture because of him. Indeed, the living room is immaculate, as if they cleaned after he left for our sake, but refuse to live in there. The bathroom smells like ammonia and mold, and I’ve covered up a hole in the tile with a trashcan that I bought (now, the only one in the apartment). The shower does not have a head – you must hose yourself down, basically. The water is rarely hot. This is our free apartment.

On Saturday, we went into the city center to tour around a bit. Not having a map or an idea of where we were, we stumbled upon the Blue Mosque and went inside just after prayer time.