Ne Var Ne Yok? Expat life in Istanbul.

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An important milestone was crossed recently. A mere three months after arriving in Istanbul, dangerously close to overstaying my tourist visa, I have successfully navigated enough Turkish bureaucracy to officially be called a resident of the Republic of Türkiye.  I even have the horrendous photo and the booklet hand-typed by the polis elves in the immigration department to prove it, in which I am officially known as ‘WILLIAM PATRICK WATSON DAWSON WILLIAM PATRICK WATSON DAWSON’. So good they named me twice. A milestone worth celebrating indeed, so recently I’ve been turning this humble weblog into something a little more fully fledged. I started All the Distant Ships as a Tumblr before leaving Brisbane all the way back in June, and while I’ve appreciated its streamlined approach to blogging, recently I’ve been wanting something a little more substantial to share all my travel stories on. So I’ve collated all the writing I’ve ever done on anything remotely travel-related and put it in the one place. Please feel free to have an explore. In the meantime though, I figured this would be an opportune time to attempt to document some of the intricacies of my life in Istanbul, to date.

It seems improbable that I have been here three months already. It feels like yesterday that I was first trying to navigate the sheer immensity of this city. Quite possibly because it was in fact yesterday; despite settling in pretty well I am still overwhelmed almost on a daily basis. I am getting used to it now though. Routine will do that do the best of people. Most days begin at 5.30am when I am shaken from my slumber by the mosque two doors down bleating its morning call to prayer. It might just be my groggy self imagining things but I am positive it’s louder and longer in the mornings. For a religion that prioritises modesty above all else they sure do know how to be ostentatious here.

It's hard to get annoyed at the mosques when they're all so gosh darn beautiful.

It’s hard to get annoyed at the mosques when they’re all so gosh darn beautiful.

Thankfully the service bus that takes me to school every morning doesn’t pick me up for another 2.5 hours so I generally get some more shut-eye. The bus is driven by a man intent on addressing me in French and is full of adorable little children who regard me with all the wariness and awe of a Chinese tour group looking at an exotic exhibit at a zoo. Because I teach at one of the most expensive schools in the country the morning commute passes through ridiculously wealthy suburbs where there are parks and trees and villas and streets filled with other white buses whisking students away to their equally expensive educational institutions. Istanbul, the land of the long white service bus.

I’m slowly getting the hang of teaching, I think. I do use the term ‘teaching’ loosely because it often feels like going into battle for 40 minutes at a time, 25 times a week. It’s a battle I still almost constantly lose but the casualties are steadily getting smaller. There’s been many a discussion amongst us ‘native’ teachers as to why the students resemble gremlins more than actual human children, but no-one has quite been able to pinpoint the exact reason why. Some observations:

a) Turkish children are treated as divine beings sent down from Allah and therefore are unable to be punished because how could such adorable things do any wrong

b) The schools are supremely money hungry and therefore do not discipline their children for fear of recrimination by parents (see exhibit A), something the students are well aware of

c) We are foreign and can’t speak to them in their native language (this may have something to do with it but I don’t think it can be the sole reason)

None of these things are inherently wrong individually but as a whole they make for an environment where teaching can be trying, to say the least. I’ve watched Turkish teachers give students answers during exams. I’ve witnessed ‘punishment’ from a vice principal consisting of a quiet talking-to and the kid walking away with a lollipop. I’ve seen teachers being told they aren’t allowed to take points away from children lest they get disappointed and instead the naughty kids should have to BAKE A CAKE to share with the class. Despite the absurdity of punishing children who are already wired on obscene amounts of sugar from the 600 vending machines in the school with even more cake, I am the most OK with this because we always get the leftovers.

How can you punish someone when they do something as adorable as make a Hannibal Lecter mask and proceed to walk into walls?

How can you punish someone when they do something as adorable as make a Hannibal Lecter mask and proceed to walk into walls all lesson?

Despite the challenges I am growing to love (some) of my kids. They are unfortunate products of a system that is in desperate need of an overhaul, but in the end they are just kids. Children with hilarious names that when translated to English mean things like Sea, Bravery, Wilderness, Cloud and my personal favourite, ‘Dolphin Star’. I play games to keep them happy and the best teaching methods for these tech-savvy millenials is through gifs and memes (except we can’t say meme because it means boob in Turkish). In reality, the hardest thing is that nobody gets it when I make excellent puns.

For all the chaos and questionable teaching methods there are many lights that shine through and constantly make my day. There’s the boy on my service bus who holds his finger up to me ET-style whenever I get on and yells FINGER at the top of his lungs. There’s the vice principal who pops his head into our staffroom every morning with a ‘Good morning Vietnam!’ (the only words he can say in English), before walking away murmuring into his satellite phone from the 90s (including 30cm retractable antenna). There’s the Grade 5 students who are absolutely convinced that I’m in love with Laura, one of the other native English teachers, and demand to know why I don’t buy her flowers every day. There’s the six-year old who makes it her mission to find and hug me almost on a daily basis despite me having only covered her class once at the beginning of term (I still don’t know her name but I assume it’s Zeynep, almost every other girl is called that here).

Another bonus of living in Istanbul: instant cat friends wherever you go.

The benefits of working school hours is that we have a decent amount of time to explore this enigma of a city. I’ve made it my mission to check out a different neighbourhood every week and write about what I see. I’m slowly learning Turkish (the title of this post roughly translates to ‘What’s new?’ and is one of my favourite things to say) and can barter at the local market to a point where I can get fresh fish and a week’s worth of vegetables for the equivalent of about $4. Despite my best efforts everyone still laughs at my (admittedly horrendous) pronunciation but are incredibly willing to try and help me learn, even when I end up just staring at them blankly. Turkish hospitality is wonderful, even when it means being practically force-fed food after eating your weight’s worth of baklava.

Life in Istanbul is undeniably hectic but I am learning to seek out and appreciate moments of serenity, even if they are few and far between. Sitting on my balcony on a Saturday morning listening to the birds in our courtyard and a man play accordion down the road has become one of my favourite pastimes (because I am actually 60 years old). I live five minutes walk from the seaside and it has become my favourite place to sit and write. Water is everywhere in Istanbul; I can’t get enough of seeing the Bosphorus peeking out behind every other building in Cihangir, or the Golden Horn snaking up through the old city of Sultanahmet, past the E5 highway and into the multi-million dollar suburbs of Bebek and Eyup. Crossing continents on the ferry still hasn’t gotten old, and now that it’s getting colder I can enjoy the view with a steaming cup of Turkish çay, which I am hopelessly addicted to. There are times where the city is so stunningly beautiful that I still have to pinch myself that I’m here.

The Golden Hour of Istanbul, where everything is stunningly beautiful.

The Golden Hour of Istanbul, where everything is SO GORGEOUS.

We’ve been incredibly lucky to have an abnormally long autumn season, to the point where it’s only been in the last two weeks that I’ve needed to buy winter clothes. But after a last ditch effort to chase the warm weather in Antalya last week, winter in Istanbul is well and truly here and will undoubtedly be the biggest test of this Queenslander’s resolve. But this season also has some of the best benefits: Sahlep, a drink that is better than the best eggnog you will ever have, kış çay (cinnamon, apple and chamomile) and snow days, which I am super excited for as school is cancelled. I’m already thinking about what to do next year (Stay in Istanbul? Teach in Korea? Move to Melbourne and do my masters?), but for now I am quite content with living in the present, because at the moment it’s pretty çok güzel.


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