A Guide to Study Abroad and Living
The Queen of Cities is Fascinating
| With a ferry in Kadiköy, an
Anatolian port situated on the northern shore of the
Sea of Marmara. Photo by Lies
You know how children watch television
during breakfast, occasionally glancing down to help food
reach the mouth but quickly looking back to the screen?
This is how I’m watching the Bosphorus. I watch from
a lookout nearby the classrooms at Istanbul's Bogaziçi
University. Russian tankers are plowing to and from the
Black Sea. The view is so dramatic. I don’t want to
miss a thing.
Behind me, lording over me and the
Bosphorus like a bored god, is Rumelihisari, the Ottoman
fortress built in 1451 by Sultan Mehmed II in preparation
for the siege of Constantinople. The Bosphorus below, mercurial,
ancient, over 100 meters deep, in Turkish means "The
Throat." I stare at it closely. I want
to see below the nebulous sheen of its surface. I want to
see the thousands of ships and skeletons forever sunk beneath.
Right now, if I focus beyond the fifty
seagulls riding the azimuth of air between me and the shores
of Asia, I see old Ottoman mansions falling down the hill
slopes into the water. And in the distance, astride two
continents, perhaps the most poignant physical manifestation
of Turkey existing: the Bosphorus Bridge, suspended 210
feet above the swirling currents, linking the continent
and culture of Europe to that of Asia. Driving either east
or west, I could reach Paris in a matter of days, or Beijing
in a few weeks.
But, of course, neither Europe nor
Asia exists anywhere outside human imagination. They are
no more separate geographically than Mexico and the United
States. Long ago a mapmaker penciled a line down the Bosphorus
and wrote Europe on one side, Asia on the other. Those people
over there are different from us, he might have thought.
You can swim between them when the tides are friendly, just
as easily as Turks swim between the eastern and western
shores of their identity.
And it's this swim, these blasts of
influence that blow from every direction, rending open and
renewing Istanbul’s patchwork ghost—this ambiguity
of the present that smothers the millennia and all those
extinct worlds and civilizations—it’s this that
makes Istanbul the most fascinating city in the world to
spend a few months during your study abroad.
| A Whirling Dervish dancing in
Why Turkey? Why Istanbul?
For my study abroad I was looking for
a non-Western country where my occasional appetite for Western
comforts could be easily satisfied. I wanted an interesting
region where it was cheap to travel, and I wanted a university
that offered a wide range of courses in English. Above all,
I wanted to live in an inspirational city.
Istanbul is unbelievably gorgeous.
During the 2600 years of its existence it has served as
the capital of two world empires, first the Byzantine, then
the Ottoman, and has inherited all the lavish architectural
marvels those civilizations raised in demonstration of their
power and the majesty of their gods—such beauties
as the Hagia Sophia and the Süleymaniye Mosque. One
could spend months exploring Istanbul’s historical
There’s also the modern city—the
screaming rush of the traffic, the human sea that floods
the pedestrian thoroughfares, the million apartment lights
that twinkle among the hillsides, the trees of smoke resurrected
above the chestnuts roasters, the smell of baklava and goat
spits and fish. It is one of the most alive cities in the
world. Rarely, even during the deepest hours of the night,
are the streets unpeopled—and the Turks who people
them are some of the friendliest I've met.
| Men carrying flags and banners
Living in Istanbul is also relatively
cheap, and the nightlife rivals any European capital. The
expatriate community, when you desire the company of other
Westerners, is enormous, with constant parties, potlucks,
meetings, and trivia nights.
Location was also important to my decision.
Istanbul is the axis between Asia, Europe and Africa, and
you can fly or travel overland to these places cheaply and
Airlines, for example, offers good prices on roundtrip
tickets to Istanbul. If you enjoy the sea, you can take
ferries or cruises from Istanbul to Greece, Italy, Russia,
Cyprus or the Ukraine. And there are many weekend and day
trip options close to Istanbul on the Black Sea, Aegean,
and Mediterranean coasts, or to the otherworldly landscape
Before You Leave
Before your departure you should learn
a few words of Turkish. You can easily get around Istanbul
with only this, as most anyone who has anything to do with
tourism, along with many young people, speak a little English.
Turks, however, will appreciate your effort—and you’ll
need Turkish it if you plan on travelling outside Istanbul. Teach
Yourself Turkish provides a wonderful introductory booklet
along with audio CDs
It will also do you good to learn a
few things about Turkey. At the very least you should read
Stephen Kinzer’s Crescent
and the Star and Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul.
Pamuk is Turkey’s best-known author. He’s written
countless novels about life in Turkey, both past and present.
Although he’s a bit dry, and not very impressive stylistically,
his insights into the Turkish psyche are unmatched by any
other contemporary Turkish writer. There is a fine website
for a great list of books
Arranging a Study Abroad Program
You will need to meet with your study
abroad advisor to learn whether your home university has
a reciprocal exchange with one of Istanbul’s universities.
If not, you can usually arrange things yourself. The following
universities offer courses in English: Boğazii, Istanbul
Technical University, and Bilkent
University, and all of them have websites, in English,
explaining their requirements and the process of applying.
All these universities offer Turkish
language courses, but if you’re really set on learning
you should probably go to a private language school.
Other language academies include: EFINST
Turkish Center and KediCat.
Language exchanges with Turks can be easily arranged
through 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
| A tram in Taksim. Photo by bissartig.
The Basics: Accommodation and Transportation
Many universities offer on-campus dorm
accommodation, but dorms can be expensive and the living
restrictions can be depressing. Homestays can be arranged,
and they’ll do wonders for your Turkish, but they’re
often more expensive than alternative housing and due to
the often conservative nature of the families who host,
they will most likely interfere in your social life.
Most students seek freedom from these
restrictions, the freedom to travel, to stay out until 7
a.m. or to have lovers sleep over. The best option for this
sort of experience is to arrange your own accommodation.
The two best ways to do this are erasmusu.com or the “Flatmates” forum
on Couchsurfing.org. These websites are full of cheap, good
Deciding where to live is also
important. Istanbul is enormous and getting from one side
of the city to the other can take hours. If studying is
your priority, then house yourself near your university.
If a rich social life is more important, then I suggest
living as close to Taksim Square as possible; preferably
in Beyoglu or Cihangir.
Cihangir is the most European part
of the city, with numerous cafes, art galleries and bars.
It's close to the action of Istklal Caddesi, Istanbul's
main pedestrian thoroughfare, but is still peaceful. Nearby
is Beyoglu, which is a little cheaper than Cihangir. It’s
the entertainment caldera of the city and can sometimes
be overwhelmingly busy, so it’s best to seek a place
down a quiet side street.
Basically, look at an Istanbul map
and find something as close to Istiklal Caddesi as possible.
In general, the further away you are from Istiklal, the
cheaper the accommodation, but you should also calculate
in transportation costs.
You will most likely be spending many
of your nights out near Taksim, and the Metro closes at
11:30, and many buses cease service, or become hourly, at
midnight—so if you cannot reach your home by walking
you will probably spend a lot of money on taxis.
Although Istanbul’s Metro is
clean and efficient, its network is limited. Ferries are
an atmospheric way to save time if you're going between
Europe and Asia, but you'll probably be using buses most
of the time. The intercity bus network is extensive, but
due to traffic it's often VERY slow. It'll take time before
you can look at a bus and know exactly which one will take
you where you need (they post their destinations on the
front and side), but luckily the IETT has
a wonderful website, in English, which has detailed information
on every bus route.
To find exactly which bus, tram or
ferry will take you where you want to go you can use Google.
Simply type the business or address you're seeking into
Google maps and ZOOM in. On the map near your destination
you will find a transportation icon, along with the name
of the bus/metro/ferry stop. Look up this stop on the IETT
website and it will tell you every bus which goes there,
and at what time. All these transportation services are
cheap (One way: about $1 if bought in bulk, or 50 cents
Besides buses there are taxis and Dolmuses
(shared taxis). Taxis all have meters and aren't very expensive
if you use them sporadically or share them with other passengers.
Dolmuses serve many of the major bus routes, cost the same,
and are usually faster, but inside can be very claustrophobic
(Dolmus means "stuffed").
Around Turkey and the Region
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
less than $100, 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 website to
get these 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). Most buses are equipped with
movie screens, but the films are usually dubbed into Turkish.
About one in four have internet. During the ride you will
be served snacks and hot beverages.
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 has "servis" buses
that deliver 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. If you don't
know where you're going it's usually best to head to the
city center and find your way from there.
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. You can
find the location of these on Google Maps. Note: Always
ask for a student discount. Companies usually don't have
student discounts, but simply asking will occasionally inspire
the salesperson to lower their commission.
U.S. citizens, along with most other
nationalities, are issued visas on arrival for $20 that
are valid for 90 days. Most universities require that you
obtain a student visa before departure. Do this through
your closest Turkish consulate or embassy, but if it’s
possible (speak with your advisor) attempt to get out of
this. It's a waste of both time and money and not necessary
from a customs standpoint.
You'll hear you're required to get a
Turkish residence permit during your study, but this isn't
true. Getting one is expensive and time consuming and it’s
best to just buy a three month visa upon arrival. When your
three months is about to expire you can take a trip out
of the country, or go to the closest border (Greece or Bulgaria).
Most people plan weekend trips to Sofia or Thessalonica
when their visa is up, and then return with cheap wine or
Duty-Free liquor. One company runs ferries to the Greek
Islands and back for this purpose.
Note: months ago the government briefly
passed a law making it obligatory to spend 180 days outside
the country after each three month period, but, due to complaints
by foreigners who own holiday homes on the Turkish Mediterranean,
the law was revoked. They’ve made vague threats about
reinstating it, but it's unlikely. To be safe, check the Turkish
Embassy's website. If this rule does return then you
will be obliged to get a residence permit.
You will need a work permit if you
plan to work certain professional jobs, but as a student,
if you’re working, you’ll probably be teaching
English, being a nanny, or doing something related to tourism.
All of these you can usually do without a permit
and get paid cash under the counter.
English schools in Istanbul typically
pay decent wages 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 six 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.
Thinking of bringing your cell phone
to Turkey and slipping a new SIM card in? Think again. Turkey
has weird laws concerning foreign cell phones, requiring
you to register your phone with the government, apparently
a “counter-terrorism measure”. To do this is
confusing, difficult, and costs money. It's so confusing
that I haven't actually met anyone who has done it. Within
two weeks of arrival, if not registered, your phone will
miraculously stop working. Unless you feel ashamed using
low quality technology, you should probably just buy a used
cell phone from one of the ubiquitous phone shops. I got
mine for $20 and it has served me well for over a year.
These same phone shops, and just about any news or food
kiosk, sells SIM card and phone credit. The two major companies
are AVEA and TURKCELL, which are similarly priced for pre-paid
Money Saving Card
After your arrival, if you wait until
your university has issued a confirmation letter stating
you're a student at that institution (it may take a few
weeks) you will save hundreds of dollars on attractions.
This confirmations letter (ask the study abroad office at
your university about it) can be brought to almost any significant
tourist attraction in Istanbul (excluding private museums)
and exchanged for a MUZE card for $10. This card will get
you into most attractions throughout the country for free.
With this information you should be
able to avoid the major mistakes most study abroad students
make in Istanbul, and save money. Besides this, you will
need to make slight cultural adjustments in your daily life,
but Turks are generally very accommodating when it comes
to foreigners and won’t scowl at you for making mistakes.
A few general but important rules to
- Remove your shoes when entering
a home or mosque.
- When entering a mosque women should
cover their hair, and both sexes should be dressed modestly.
- Men, when using a traditional squat
toilet, should squat down to urinate.
- Don’t shake with your left
hand, as this relates to toilet habits from older times.
- Try your best to avoid political
and religious issues in conversation unless quite certain
that the person with whom you're speaking is open-minded.
Keep these in mind and you’ll
be prepared for all the wonderful things you‘re about
to learn in Turkey. And don’t be surprised when you
return to your home country with a tea and backgammon addiction,
along with a profound love and admiration for Turkish people
and their culture.