In early May of 2006, I returned to Istanbul to live with Sevket Basdelen. We found a cozy garden flat complete with courtyard and two bedrooms so that we could have family and friends come to stay. Our apartment was in Kocamustafapasa, a working-class neighborhood within the ancient Byzantine city walls, which I loved since I am such a history buff. And there is so very much history in Istanbul and Turkey!
Here are some shots of our apartment, which also had an enclosed courtyard, a real bonus:
Our neighborhood was small and very friendly. The grocer on the corner was particularly nice to me. Our bakery was also at the corner, and every morning one of us would go there to pick up our fresh Turkish loaves of bread for the day. Turkish bread reminded me a lot of Italian country bread…yummy! Also on the corner was a defunct Ottoman-era water fountain, no longer in use since we theoretically had piped-in water. HOWEVER, that was not always the case, nor was it the case that our electricity was on in a predictable fashion. Therefore, as I found out from my upstairs neighbor, shown below in our apartment, it behooved us to stock up on plenty of candles, matches and lighters, as well as big jugs of water.
My friendly neighbor lady from an upstairs apartment in our building took me under her wing. Even though we didn’t speak a common language, we got along quite well. She and her daughter came to our party at the end of the month I spent at Tomer, a Turkish language immersion school under the auspices of the University of Ankara. I met many friends there from all over the world, who were studying Turkish for school or business or immigration purposes. Unlike in the US, language schools in Turkey are very expensive and I could only afford one month of the full-day classes. At the party to celebrate my completion of the month’s studies, several of my fellow students came, as well as some of Sevket’s Turkish friends. It looks like a pretty staid party, but actually we had live music on guitar and singing and the women danced!
My friend Ani Kazancioglu came to the party, too!
Some of my friends from school couldn’t make it to the party, but we got together on other days
A lot of the people I knew were folks I met through an expat organization that I joined online before I moved to Istanbul. We had some lively political discussions about the war, since by no means were all of us Americans (and even the Americans held differing views), but mostly we hung out at futbol (soccer) games, at which I was the designated photographer, followed by the obligatory watering stop!
Our place was not a home without lots of kitties! They lurked about on the walls, slowly edging forward when they realized I was a regular food source. The white mother cat with the truncated tail (some people in Turkey think cutting a female cat’s tail will prevent her from conceiving, to which Miss Pwiss gave the lie) became our house cat, along with her two new kittens who had been born in the bowels of the building. Their names were Sassy and Scotch.
Besides just regular everyday living, working and studying, we saw the sites in Istanbul and traveled round parts of Turkey. Here are some Istanbul scenes, starting with my favorite place in the city, Rumeli Hisari, or Roman Castle, which the Ottomans built overlooking the Bosporus to overthrow Constantinople, the jewel of the Byzantine Empire, at which they succeeded in 1453. Now the castle is both a museum and a great place for a picnic or an open-air concert. What surprised me as we scrambled around the ramparts was the utter lack of any safety precautions! No handrails, nothing…
Sevket at the teahouse outside Rumeli Hisari:
We also ventured out of Istanbul. One weekend we went to the city of Bursa, where we were not allowed to share a hotel room. One hotel wouldn’t let us stay there at all, even in separate rooms. We found one that would let us stay, but they gave us rooms on different floors. LOL Bursa is more conservative than the great international metropolis of Istanbul, but on the other hand, for me it had the GREATEST of distinctions: it is the home of my favorite Turkish dish, Iskender kebap. We went to THE Iskender kebap restaurant there, which serves only Iskender. I was in seventh heaven!
Sevket went to high school (called kolej there) in Bursa and still had friends there, so we poked around a bit. There is some glorious architecture there, too. And Turkey’s biggest (though not tallest) mountain looms over Bursa; it is called Uludag. We did some hiking on it. I also saw my first Turkish wedding car, which I thought was quite elegant, especially compared to how we Americans decorate ours!
We had a great time relaxing in a teahouse in Bursa:
We went on a day trip up to the Black Sea resort of Sile, by bus as usual. Although technically it is part of Istanbul, it is actually 70 km. away. It was very hot, per usual, and the city buses (unlike the inter-city buses) have no air-conditioning. On the way back at the end of a very hot day, a little girl threw up all over the place. Sevket was particularly kind to her and her mother…
Here are some photos from Sile:
Back in Istanbul, here are some of the places we checked out: the Aya Sofya (the Haghia Sophia that was), Gulhane Park, which used to be the hunting forest for the Sultan outside his castle at Topkapi Palace, and of course Topkapi Palace and its Harem.
Here we are at the park in front of the great Aya Sofya (Haghia Sophia):
At Gulhane Park. Outside the park a traditional processional of Janissaries was taking place…
You simply cannot live in (or visit) Istanbul and not see Topkapi Palace, the home of the Ottoman Sultans until the late 19th C. Although I had gotten brief glimpses of it during the blizzard of 2001 when it was technically closed to the public, I didn’t get to see the Harem, which I was really interested in, from all my reading both historical and fictional.
Another favorite building of mine in Istanbul is the mosque in the arty district of Ortukoy:
My good friend Yasemin, who I used to tutor in ESL here in Columbus, Ohio, where her husband is an engineering prof at Ohio State, invited me to come visit her at her parents’ house in Devrek, a bit south of the Black Sea coastal city of Zonguldak. While I was there, we went up into the mountains to stay with her inlaws at their village. Her father-in-law is an attorney and has pretty good English, so we had a good time talking about the similarities in our fields, especially since it was July the 4th, whose meaning he pointed out to me! My favorite part of the stay in the village was the al fresco lunch.
The trip back to Istanbul by myself in the inter-city bus was quite an adventure. Without Sevket there to run interference for me, I had to use my Turkish skills. And actually I was able to carry on several conversations, which built my confidence greatly. People bought food (regional specialties) for me at the bus stop. I was something of a celebrity in their eyes because I was way off the beaten tourist track and I was obviously trying to immerse myself in the language and the culture. It was surprising to me how well I could communicate in Turkish when Sevket wasn’t there; when he was there, I was afraid to make mistakes in front of him.
One day early on in my stay Sevket and I had a daylong outing to Buyukada in the Princes’ Islands in the Marmara Sea. We took a ferry from the Asia side of Istanbul to the islands, where no motor vehicles are allowed. If shank’s mare does not suffice, you can hire a horse-drawn buggy. The water is gloriously clear and blue-green, and the island provides both old mansions to admire and forests to hike in.
We decided to have a holiday down south. Sevket chose Bodrum (Halicarnassos in the ancient days) because it was one of his favorite beach resorts. If you are already in Turkey and can access the Turkish travel deals, staying at a four- or five-star all-inclusive resort is amazingly inexpensive. So we made our reservations and hopped another bus for the long trip down to the southwestern corner of Turkey where the Aegean meets the Mediterranean.
The resort we stayed in was full of Russians. That would not be the case these days, since Russia has forbidden tourism in Turkey (although I’ve heard that might be changing). There were also many people from all over Europe, including the UK and Scandinavia. We didn’t encounter any other Americans. At that happier time in Turkey’s modern history, it was considered one of the top vacation destinations for people in Europe. For them, it was not only cheap to stay there, but cheap to get there, too, unlike the expensive airline fares from the US to Turkey.
The room were lovely and cool, which was important given the 100+ degree F. temperatures outside. The maids always created new animals out of linens to leave on our bed, as well as flowers and candy. We had a lovely view.
The food at the resort was delicious and plentiful; both Turkish and cuisines from other countries were available in huge buffets. Drinks were included also, and my favorite drinks were the ones served up by the handsome bartenders at the pool. Basically you just ordered by telling them what color drink you wanted! : ) Swimming and pool party-type games were available in the large pool, and you could also swim down the slope in the rather bracing waters off the rocky beach.
There was a table tennis tournament while we were there that Sevket entered, and I was of little faith in him. I had grown up watching my Dad play, who had been a university varsity player at Ohio State. So I didn’t think anyone else could play as well as my father. But lo and behold, Sevket swept the competition! I was awestruck by his skill and his savoir faire and cool demeanor as he played. Well done, Sevket!
Finally, one day the sun and the heat got to us and so we headed into the town of Bodrum from the resort. I wanted to see the castle anyway because of my nerdist history tendencies. The castle was built in 1402 by the Knights of St. John. Wikipedia says: “Confronted with an invasion by the Seljuk Turks, the Knights Hospitaller, whose headquarters were on the island of Rhodes, needed another stronghold on the mainland. Grand Master Philibert de Naillac (1396–1421) identified a suitable site across from the island of Kos, where a castle had already been built of the Order. Its location was the site of a fortification in Doric times (1110 BC) as well as of a small Seljuk castle in the 11th century. The same promontory is also the probable site of the Palace of Mausolos, the famous King of Caria.” Thus the castle was built at what is now Bodrum, not far from the ancient site of Halicarnassus.
Bodrum Castle as seen from the water:
Halicarnassus is another fascinating and even more ancient site that is now little more than rubble. The modern city of Bodrum sits on top of Halicarnassus. The Mausoleum at Hallicarnassus was one of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World.
It has since been demolished by earthquakes. Now the Mausoleum looks like this:
We didn’t check out Halicarnussus, but we did tour Bodrum Castle!
On the bus heading back up the long road to Istanbul, I suddenly realized that we were withing hailing distance of Ephesus! Or Efes, as it’s called in Turkey. Visitng the ruins of Ephesus has long been one of my dreams ever since I had hoped to be an archaeologist as a girl. It was now 114 degrees F. in the shade, but I still pulled Sevket off the bus at the nearest stop to the ruins. Which wasn’t actually all that close. Sevket had seen Efes several times in school and hadn’t thought much about adding it to our itinerary, which he had considered to be a beach vacation.
BUT, kind readers, at this point I must leave you to await the next post, “I Used To Live In Istanbul…Part 3.” In it we will tour Ephesus and celebrate Ramadan and then, sadly, say goodbye to the partnership that was Sevket and me. I will also finally include the promised musings about life as an expat and living in a cross-cultural relationship in another country. Until then, I hope you have enjoyed today’s offering!