Living in Istanbul Turkey: The Queen of 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.
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 against us.
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 behaved.
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 by The 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 two easiest ways to arrange accommodations are via Craigslist or the “Flatmates” forum on www.Couchsurfing.org. These websites are full of cheap, good accommodation listings. 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.
Like 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. The fastest, easiest way to get a job doing one of these is through Craigslist.
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 on Craiglist. These are also in high demand and sometimes pay up to $60 an hour.
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 committing. To get a good idea of what’s on offer go here.
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 staff.
Teach 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 school.
Other language academies include: EFINST Turkish Center and KediCat. Private tutors can also be arranged through Craigslist, and language exchanges with Turks can be easily arranged through www.Couchsurfing.org. Simply post a message saying you’re looking to do a Turkish/English Language exchange on the Istanbul forum and you’ll receive numerous responses.
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 countries.
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 you up.
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.