I moved to Istanbul to the dismay of my parents who wanted me to stay in New York and build a life within the framework of the so-called American Dream. That dream had nothing to offer me. I found myself doing the most touristy thing one could do in Istanbul: sitting at one of those Galata Bridge restaurants and eating balık ekmek. I watched the old ferries glide by, the lights of Sultanahmet’s iconic structures reflected in the dark strait. It was a moment that proved to me how everything surreal is indeed inspired by reality. Istanbul’s nostalgia enchanted me.
I soon began living between two worlds. The Istanbul I saw, young and new, and the old Istanbul from the grainy photographs of Ara Güler, or scenes from Turkish films from the ‘60s. I became a little obsessed with Orhan Pamuk’s memories and sometimes wished that they were my own, or that I had witnessed a time when the structures that now stood dilapidated were full of life. When İstiklal was the Grand Rue, when people swam on the beaches that lined the Bosphorus, jumped into the water from their mansions. I often wished I had been friends with my father who was a student at Boğaziçi University in the ‘70s, that I rode with him in his car up and down the coast. That I was there when the modernists realized their architectural designs. When Atatürk sat in Vefa and drank his boza. I have a hard time adjusting my emotions when Istanbul’s past is disrespected, when the landscape is demolished to make way for more phallic apartment buildings which stretch superfluously into the sky or when I read about Istanbul in the news.
I find myself defending Istanbul to strangers who don’t know the city the way I do. And then I give up. And then I return (inevitably) and find instant comfort in the city’s young people who, despite it all, continue to do what they love. The chefs and the artists, the shopkeepers and the designers, the drag queens and the entrepreneurs. Something new opens in Istanbul every day; a new event is planned or a new project comes to life like a silent declaration of love for a city that has, for centuries, flourished and fallen and re-emerged. Istanbul is eternal. It’s young and brash but also antique and elegant. It’s conservative and it’s free. Istanbul is a delicate balance that functions despite its opposites. It breaks and it heals.
There was no doubt that back in 2011, Istanbul was on the rise. I took a cab home that night after finishing my balık ekmek. As the driver snaked his way through the narrow streets of Cihangir in order to escape the traffic on the main roads, I was envious of all the young people who sat outside in cafes conversing and drinking, illuminated by the lights inside the old Istanbul apartments, their cigarette smoke rising into the night. They were already locals, so comfortable in their chatter, surrounded by their friends.
I immediately found a job as a teacher in an English language center for adults. They only hired native English speakers, but because I was Turkish yet sounded like an American they decided I would be ‘Mia from New York.’ I chose that name. Of course, I always broke character and my students appreciated the fact that a Turkish person could also speak ‘native’ English. I think it kind of gave them hope.
I lived in Kadıköy and in the evenings sat on my balcony from where I could see a tiny bit of sea between other buildings. There was an underpass on my street, which was called the ‘Feride Geçidi,’ and every time I walked through it, I thought that the universe had somehow granted me a sign; that I had made the right decision. But the European side beckoned me as I boarded the ferry and put my feet on the railing while the waves unfolded beneath me. I looked at the other passengers and thought that for those few quiet moments on the Bosphorus we all finally had time to rethink our entire lives. I thought about how Kadıköy had a down-to-earth humility about it, a bohemian spirit that was kind and open. But every time I reached Taksim, I had crossed the strait as if I had crossed the worlds. The ebb and flow of the crowds on İstiklal Street, the high rises of Levent, the ornate 19th century buildings of Pera, the rowdy bars and taverns in Asmalı Mescit, the historic mansions and fancy fish restaurants up and down the wealthy Bosphorus coast…and then Istanbul became my job when I began working for a tourist and expat magazine in one of those Levent towers I had admired from afar. I moved to the European side.
I spent the next two years in the middle of the whirlwind that was the youthful explosion of Istanbul. I ate too much when restaurants invited us to taste their new menus and write reviews. Burrata with a sprinkle of dried tomato, Mille-feuille with raspberries, grilled octopus on a bed of eggplant puree, profiteroles filled with cream, lahmacun with organic ingredients, Turkish breakfast spreads with a view of the Bosphorus, linden pannacotta, passion fruit tarts and Adana kebab. I was the first to write about an American who opened up the city’s first real cocktail bar. I collected articles and social media posts and spent my lunch breaks trying out new restaurants and cafes. I wrote neighborhood profiles and spent days in Balat, Yeniköy, Kuzguncuk and Karaköy wandering the backstreets, discovering old churches and synagogues, art galleries and boutiques, cafes and bars. Old surfaces came to life with the work of the young. I interviewed a street artist who later came to my apartment to draw a giant fox on my wall. On my birthday I drank eight glasses of rakı at Ali Haydar tavern and then went to Münferit to order whiskies at the bar as a DJ played music so loud you could barely hear what anyone was saying.
We went to Kiki to squeeze through the crowds to get to the terrace where everyone used the excuse of smoking to hit on one another. When the other bars closed but we still hadn’t had enough, we ended up at Mini Müzikhol, dancing in that tiny space that was once someone’s living room. We danced to Justin Timberlake songs on the terrace of Mama Shelter, after rounds of gin & tonics and extra helpings of Lynchburg Lemonades. We climbed on the tables at Lucca and danced to Beyonce, waited in line as groups of people went into the bathrooms to do coke. We ate mantı at 5am and went to bed at 7 and sometimes went to work the next day, unable to function. We stumbled through the streets as the day’s first call to prayer reverberated chaotically across the dawn. Watched the sun rise and turn the leaves of plane trees iridescent as we sat on the stairs in front of apartment buildings in Çukurcuma not yet ready to call it a night.
And then Gezi happened, and for the next few weeks we spent our nights on the streets with our water bottles filled with a mixture of liquid antacid and water, meant to mollify the sting of teargas. Taksim turned into a kind of film set with burning police cars and masses of protestors. The streets seemed to be on fire. Everyone helped everyone and nothing felt right except sitting in Gezi Park and just waiting. And when nothing changed, we retreated. And Istanbul did what it does best, life resumed despite any and all circumstances. I left the magazine and became a freelancer, having grown weary of the 9-to-5 boundaries of office life and a boss whose ego-fueled rage threatened to destroy all my fond memories.
I traveled as an amateur scriptwriter for a documentary about falconry, and while in Belgium I began to envy something new: a simpler, more predictable life. I fell in love with a German man and moved to Berlin, I got married. But Istanbul never let me go and I kept going back to write articles about eccentric musicians and successful architects, chefs redefining the Turkish kitchen and shopkeepers in love with their craft. And when I do go back to Istanbul I realize that perhaps it wasn’t the city that changed, but that it was me who changed. I got older and left and was replaced by a whole new generation of young people filling it with their vivacity, doing the same things that I once did, and maybe doing it better. I’m happy to write about them and to love the city from afar. I suppose like all dysfunctional relationships, absence makes the heart grow fonder.
Photo by Elif Savari Kızıl