Living in Istanbul: The
Queen of Turkish Cities
I. Towards a More Mature Understanding
It began with an image, a photograph
I found on a postcard. It was a frontal, low-angle shot
of Istanbul’s Blue Mosque at dusk, and, to an 18-year-old
who had never really been out of the U.S., it seemed magical.
| One view of The Blue Mosque.
Photo by niekverlaan.
The early-2000s middle-American society
that surrounded me when I saw this photograph had instilled
in me a great caution regarding the Middle East. I grew
up in Oklahoma, a state where Islam is almost non-existent.
Most of the images that came to me from that part of the
world were angled and frightening, as the dominant news
source in my small town — where most focused their
excess energy on football, television or raising families — was
Fox News. Within my community the Middle East encompassed
every Muslim-majority nation on the planet, from Indonesia
to Morocco, and this, of course, included Turkey. I did
not know then that to include Turkey in this category was
a political statement.
The irrational fears that the Middle
East aroused in my society inspired me to want to go there,
not simply to see for myself, as most travelers say, but
to accumulate social capital, to expand my worth in the
eyes of others. I thought that if I were to go to the Middle
East then people would think that I was brave, and that
I would somehow become more important. It was an adolescent’s
approach to travel.
You may be different, or these issues
may have never consciously emerged in you. I mention them
to highlight the first phase of any transition to another
place: romanticism. It involves the fragmented images we
hold of every place we’ve never personally been to.
The images are constructed from disconnected photographs
found in guidebooks and on the Internet, from stories published
in books and travel magazines, and from the often exaggerated
tales we hear from television or from people who’ve
actually been there. The images are lovely, or ugly, but
fragile, and they shatter and rebuild themselves every time
we learn something new about our destination.
Once the romanticism has worn off and
the place is before our eyes it is often a mild fear that
emerges. This fear may come subtly, may only be the want
to avoid the discomfort we feel when people stare at us.
Or it may be a larger fear, such as the fear that emerges
when we must deal with something dissonant or extraordinarily
difficult, such as being witness to an event that our conscience
finds despicable and we find ourselves too diffident to
act out against it for fear of unleashing unfamiliar forces
But this too fades as we become accustomed
to an environment, when familiarity makes the smaller fears
diminish and we often unknowingly drift into an attitude
of blind infatuation, enthralled by the obvious otherness
of a place.
And we often fall too much love with
our new foreign homes, permitting every act and idiosyncrasy
of the new culture to overshadow our own. We often criticize
and attack ourselves and our homes for what now, in our
new expanded and worldly perspective, seems to us shoddy
and questionable about the way we have until this point
All that we thought to be natural and
stable is obliterated and, seeking some sense of order and
wholeness, we grasp out to our new home to reconstruct the
picture, and we often do this blindly, willing to ignore
the social proclivities and injustices that we find appalling,
or dismissing them as necessities of a system we dare not
say we comprehend.
And as radical as the blindness at this
end of the spectrum is, what often comes next is reactive,
and equally blind. After the months and years pass and our
new home becomes as much a part of us as the old, we often
grow frustrated. What we once saw as the faultlessness of
the new society begins to reveal its fissures, and the resulting
distress — as the conception we have built of it collapses
before our eyes — is overwhelming, and all the stronger
depending how much truth we had wiped away with our idealizations.
The small burdens we once thought were
cute or amusing began to expand and mutate; they become
cumbersome and irritating. The attitudes we once thought
enlightened and perspicacious shrink in stature as we begin
to realize that they too are expressions of circumstantial
humanity, driven by the times and the environment rather
than some new vastly superior manner of being. The illusions
we created cause us to feel betrayed. Every day we retreat
deeper into our old patterns of thinking, often bitterly,
fed up with all this strangeness that we no longer pretend
to understand until finally we achieve some manner of equilibrium;
we accept the otherness for what it is; we accept that although
we may never be fully integrated into our new homes, that
is okay. We settle into a relationship where we feel comfortable
with giving and taking, with criticizing ourselves and our
new homes in a conscionable way. After the ups and downs,
the romanticizing and demeaning, the retaliations and the
passing of time, we finally are able to engage with our
new societies in a more mature manner. Our relationships
with place mimic our relationships with other human beings.
II. The Attraction of The Metropole
For more than 1600 years Istanbul served
as capital for two major world empires, first of the Byzantines
and then of the Ottoman Turks, and has remained the cultural
capital of the Turkish republic since its founding in 1923.
The brilliance and beauty of this long legacy can be found
throughout the city, in its deteriorating monuments and
in the spirit of its people.
And throughout this extensive history
Istanbul has been attracting a certain type of traveler.
As a “bridge” between Europe and Asia, the city
has lured in travelers from the West to see at first hand
the mysteries of the East, and from the East to see at first
hand the mysteries of the West. The city’s population
over the last 20 years has burgeoned so rapidly that most
of 12 million living there were born elsewhere, migrating
in due to economic necessity or for the opportunities and
experiences that only a big city can provide.
The expatriates that Istanbul attracts
has fluctuated through the years. In the 1970s, for instance,
it attracted mostly hippies from the US and Australia. Today
it brings in a slapdash assortment of English teachers,
drifters, writers, musicians, entrepreneurs, diplomats and
especially young freelance journalists (who base themselves
in Istanbul while covering the wider Middle East). English
teachers will find never-ending job offers (through language
schools, public schools, universities and freelance); drifters
will find other drifters to drift with; writers will find
cheap living expenses and plenty of great material to use
in their work; musicians will find one of the liveliest
busking streets in the world, and countless venues to play
in; entrepreneurs will find a cheap place to build their
business; diplomats will find a country where such expertise
is becoming increasingly valuable; and journalists will
find themselves in the middle of some of the most important
stories of the 21st century.
In short, Istanbul is rather easy. It
is easy to find a job with little qualifications and easy
to live. Crime is low, most things are cheap, and you’ll
be living at the crossroads of Europe, Central Asia, Africa
and the Middle East, to all of which you can easily travel
overland or via cheap flights.
Istanbul is enormous and getting from
one side of the city to the other can take hours, so choosing
where to locate yourself is very important. There are myriad
choices when it comes to neighborhoods to live in, and the
place that’s right for you will depend on your character
and budget. Most expats prefer the Beyoglu district — particularly
Cihangir (voted one of the top five places to live in 2012
Guardian) — which is the entertainment and
nightlife capital of Istanbul, filled with plenty of restaurants,
live music venues, bars, museums, and art galleries. Musicians
tend to gather around Galata, while the more adventurous
find a home in Tarlabasi, the deteriorating and chaotic
district of the more marginalized segment of Istanbul society.
The further away from Beyoglu you venture the cheaper rent
becomes, and there are also plenty of nice places to rent
on the Asian shore if you prefer wider avenues, trees and
easy access to the Sea of Marmara. When choosing, however,
be aware of your building’s structural soundness.
Within days of moving to the city you will be conversant
with the threat of The Big Earthquake that may strike at
any moment and devastate most of the city, so try to find
a building that isn’t leaning on its neighbor for
support, and has a sturdy foundation.
The easiest way to arrange accommodations, often with roommates,
is through websites like erasmusu.com or the forum on Couchsurfing.com, which are full of cheap, good accommodations.
Another option is to hire a real estate agent. Simply wander
around the district you wish to live in and you’ll
find plenty of offices, many with English-speaking staff
on hand. These agents are especially helpful if you’re
seeking the perfect apartment to have all to yourself rather
than to share with roommates, but be aware that they often
charge a fee equivalent to one month’s rent.
Outside of Istanbul the wealth of employment
opportunities lessens, though they still exist in places
like Ankara, the country’s capital, though many bemoan
the fact that it is a boring and rather charmless city.
Another option is to take root in one of the smaller towns
along the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts, which offer English-teaching
or tourism-related opportunities, as well as the sort of
atmospheric solitude that artists and writers crave.
Regardless of where you live, however,
one of the more enthralling aspects of settling down in
Turkey is the variety of interesting characters you will
meet. Besides the earnest and friendly Turks themselves,
you will also find yourself part of a very lively expat
scene, with people from manifold disciplines from all over
the world, who will help to broaden your mind and build
you an international network of friends.
An exciting — though also sometimes
frustrating — part of moving to any new place is becoming
familiar with the local customs. In Turkey, as in other
places, this can be profound, ingratiating, and sometimes
irritating. You may find yourself transformed into an incredibly
hospitable host after being lavished by the famed hospitality
of the Turks; you may find that the depths of your friendships
deepen, that you appreciate more the security of a family
network, or that the blind pursuit of things you don’t
truly desire has slightly slowed and rotated more inward,
towards existing in the moment and appreciating life’s
more subtle rewards.
But you may also find it unsettling
that nobody speaks or looks at one another on public transportation,
or that foreigners often cause a spectacle whenever they
do something in public, or that the complex systems of pride
is complicated to navigate through, and that the whirlwind
of emotions stirred up by an argument are unsettling to
confront, or that the slightest, unintended insult may result
in an ongoing, secret vendetta.
There will be language and cultural
misunderstandings to deal with. You may find your friendship
groups perform mitosis, breaking off into two groups, into
local friends and expat friends, who will seldom mix together
on account of language or cultural complications. You will
change roles and navigate personalities and complain about
locals to expats and about expats to locals. You will learn
how to balance the presentation of yourself to different
people, to become sensitive to what is being lost in translation
in both your speech and your attitudes. But it is all part
of the process, of growing into world citizen, of gaining
wisdom and becoming a more cosmopolitan creature.
As in most countries, you’ll
need a work permit if you plan to work certain professional
jobs. As a student fresh out of university, you’ll
probably be teaching English, being a nanny, or doing something
related to tourism. All of these you can usually do without
a work permit and get paid cash.
English schools in Istanbul typically
pay decent wages, offer significant benefits such as housing
and health insurance, and teachers are in high demand. TOEFL
certification helps, but, usually, isn’t strictly
necessary as long as you’re a native speaker. Some
schools will attempt to force you to sign a 6-month or year-long
contract, and will retain a significant portion of your
pay to ensure you don’t flee, so it’s best to
shop around before you decide on a school. You can also
offer private lessons which are also in high demand and sometimes pay up to $60
For women, a lucrative way to earn money
is through being a nanny. Many positions are live-in and
usually offer $1000 a week, though it is best to be discerning
when deciding on which family you work with. Many of the
highest-paying jobs are with aristocratic families with
snobbish children who will treat you like a common servant,
and it will do you good to scout out the environment before
For journalists and writers, there are
many opportunities in the publishing industry. It is best
to develop a relationship with editors of English-speaking
publications before you depart, but once you’re on
the ground you’ll find that Turkey is becoming increasingly
interesting to international media, and the stories are
everywhere and in high demand. For beginners, there are
internship opportunities with the country’s main English
language newspapers, the Hurriyet
Daily News and Today’s
Zaman, which are also always on the hunt for copy-editors.
Other well-paying options include The
Oil and Gas Year and The
Oxford Business Group, two English-language publications
based in Istanbul that are in constant need of editors and
writers. If freelance cultural and travel articles are your
thing, you can find work with The
Guide: Istanbul and Timeout:
Istanbul. Freelance transcription and translation
work is also widely available for those who seek the freedom
to work from home, and those with at least at bachelor’s
degree will find a plethora of opportunities with companies,
particularly telecommunications companies, seeking English-speaking
Yourself Turkish provides a wonderful introductory
booklet along with audio CDs, but if you’re really
set on learning Turkish you should go to a private language
Other language academies include: EFINST
Turkish Center and KediCat.
Language exchanges with Turks can be easily arranged
through Couchsurfing.com. Simply post a message saying
you’re looking to do a Turkish/English Language
exchange on the Istanbul forum and you’ll receive
US citizens, along with most other nationalities,
are issued visas on arrival for $20, which allow you 90
days in the country. In the past many expats went on visa
runs every three months to renew, but on February 1, 2012
this practice ended, and now tourist visas restrict your
visit to 90 out of every 180 days. Most expats in the past
preferred the visa runs to enduring the expensive and labyrinthine
process of obtaining a residence permit, and although this
process is still frustratingly confusing and inefficient,
it is getting faster and cheaper every day. Permits are
a matter of formality and are available through the Foreigners
Department of the Provincial Security Directorate General,
or at local Security Directorates throughout Turkey. For
more information, see the Embassy
of the United States in Ankara, Turkey.
Applications for residence permits,
which are usually based on work or student visas, should
be made within 30 days of arrival in Turkey. Documentary
requirements and application forms can be found here.
Turkish residence permit fees can be found at Istanbul Directorate
of Security (Branch for Foreigners) on the same website
(The numbers from 1 to 61 show the amount for the months
that you want to stay).
IV. Widening the Perspective
Adventures Further Afield
If you plan to stay in Turkey for an
extended amount of time, and want to better understand the gestalt of
its culture and its place in the region, you will surely
want to explore beyond Istanbul. Traveling around Turkey
is cheap and easy, but the distances can be vast. Domestic
flights to most parts of the country can occasionally be
found for $30, depending on the season. Many international
flights can also be surprisingly cheap. The cheapest airline,
usually, is Pegasus, but you must book directly from the airline
website to get the low prices.
Train travel in Turkey is cheap, comfortable,
and slow. A map of the rail network, along with detailed
information on the trains, can be found Turkey section of seat61.com.
Nearly all trains have descent sleeper cars and a dining
car. You can also take trains to Iran, Syria, and many European
Buses in Turkey are comfortable, clean,
relatively cheap, and will take you just about anywhere
(for tiny villages in the interior you might need to take
irregularly timed dolmuses). The "Metro" company has
the most extensive network and is usually the cheapest.
For large cities, or cities where the bus station is inconveniently
located, Metro and other companies have “servis” buses
that ferry you almost anywhere in the city. Be sure to ask “Servis
var mi?” to the driver after you arrive and he will
point you in the right direction.
You usually don't have to book ahead
for buses, unless you’re traveling on holidays or
weekends. You don't necessarily need to go to the central
bus station either. Companies in major cities have numerous
conveniently located offices that run free service taxis
to the station or to a location where the bus will pick
To explore Turkey from your reading
chair, you will need to delve into its literature. At the
very least you should read Stephen Kinzer’s Crescent
and the Star and Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul.
Nobel Prize-winning Pamuk is Turkey’s best-known author
internationally. He’s written countless novels about
life in Turkey, both past and present, and his insights
into the Turkish psyche are said to be unmatched by any
other contemporary Turkish writer. Most Turks will also
recommend Yasar Kemal (particularly Memed, My Hawk)
and Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar (particularly Mind At Peace),
my two personal favorites. Here is
a fine list of books about Turkey and the wider region.