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Berlin, Frankfurt, Paris, Chapel Hill, Boston, Istanbul, Calgary, Washington DC, Austin, Tunis, Warszawa and counting

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Life in Istanbul I

It's been a week that I've been staying here now, and while my grasp of Istanbul as a city, let alone Turkey as a country, is extremely rudimentary, I would like share a few observations.

I live in a neighborhood called Cihangir here, one which has frequently been described to me as being an expat quartier. While this might be very well be true, foreigners are a common sight on the street, the place is still (luckily) very much dominated by Turks. This, in turn, leads me to my first (and primary) complaint of life here. I have a very hard time dealing with my muted existence here due to the fact that I don't speak any Turkish (discounting the three words I've learned since arriving here). Even in more touristy places (and I try to avoid those) people (customers and servers) have only a very rudimentary command of English (or French or German). Surprisingly when talking to elderly people chances are higher to be able to communicate with them in French (and sometimes German) than in English. In any case, this is a sore subject for me as it makes me extremely uncomfortable to be incapable to express even the simplest inquiry or to understand the response.

As a disclaimer, I have to add that I have met a decent amount of Turkish people whose command of English is astounding. The problem is, I feel, that there is a large disconnect between a select few who are absolutely fluent and the large majority who can barely say anything. Whatever the implications of this (high Gini-coefficient? the advantages of private schooling?), I am very undecided what to do about this as I will most likely not stay here long enough to make it worth it for myself to truly try to learn Turkish. I guess I will simply have to deal with the accompanying frustration.

Very charming is the fact that life tends to take place on the street here. Shopowners sit in front of their stores, drinking tea (çay), street vendors roam with carts selling fruits or collecting scrap metal. Men gather by the dozens in tea houses and sit for hours. More modern cafés cater to a younger crowd. Restaurants and bars invariably have virtually all of their customers sitting outside, making certain smaller pedestrian streets hard to walk through (and quite deafening). Kids play outside and every shady corner, step or grass area is occupied by one, two or three men (mostly, the grassy areas in parks are also occupied by whole families, who bring tea-making machines, water containers and stay hours). All in all, this provides a really nice atmosphere and I seriously wonder how this city changes with the weather in the winter.

The glaring negative aspect of this outdoor life is the sexual divide. Young women and men one sees without distinction, but there is a true generational gap when it comes to the presence of women on the street. Secondly, this seemingly charming street activity has at least some basis in very high national unemployment rates (~17% overall, more than 25% for youths). Thus, and as much as I enjoy the atmosphere, at least one underlying (and I assume important) explanation for it is of the more depressing kind.

To be continued....

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