People often ask me “Why on Earth would you go to Turkey?” A legitimate question, I suppose. Most of my American counterparts seem to envision travel abroad as the typical tourist trail of Western Europe. My experiences in France, Spain, Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands are unforgettable. I appreciate each culture, each land for its unique history and qualities, but I sought a more eclectic mix of humanity only found at a few crossroads of history. This is why I went to Istanbul, the city on two continents.
Prior to my arrival, I knew little about Turkey and its Culture. I knew that some of the oldest ruins of ancient civilizations lay within its boundaries. I’d read that Istanbul was founded as Byzantium in 660 BC, became Constantinople in 330 AD, finally getting its current name in 1930. I also knew that with the only sea route between the Black Sea and Mediterranean Sea and with positioning along the historic Silk Road, Istanbul became an epicenter of culture and trade between Asia, Africa and Europe.
What I didn’t know was how warm Turkish Culture is. I’ve been privy to the warmth of “southern hospitality” here in the states, but Turkish hospitality was warmer than peach pie. Friends walk arm in arm, everyone kisses the cheeks of everyone when greeting and saying goodbye. Though this is common in Europe, in Turkey even the straightest, most macho men can be spotted doing it.
It also came as a surprise that this empire of nearly 15 million people, fueled by a boom in economic growth, has a hunger for learning the English language. A friend of mine had taught English there for three years, and because of her wonderful experience teaching, it became part of my plan as well.
In January 2013 I stepped off a bus at Taksim Square. All I saw was a sea of people. “This is definitely the heart of this city,” I thought. At almost midnight this place hummed with energy. As I made my way into the flowing masses, my heart rate fell in sync with the pulse of the city—so rapid, so ready for anything. It was my kind of place.
Taksim Square and adjacent Gezi Park are at the head of Istanbul’s most famous street, Istiklal Cadessi (Independence Avenue). The pedestrian superhighway leads visitors from Taksim Square to a labyrinth of side streets crammed with cafés, boutiques, pubs, galleries… every kind of shop one could imagine. Thousands walk in either direction, in complete disarray, all seeming at home in the chaos.
Gypsy kids annoyingly peddle hats, nightclub promoters say anything to win you as a patron of their club, and street performers play a variety of folk music with hopes of earning a few Lira (Turkish money). Every so often, the classic fire engine red streetcar slowly rolls through the crowded street while passengers hanging from the side wave to pedestrians. The whole area from the square to the far end of Istiklal is simply known as “Taksim,” though it is in the district of Beyoğlu. On a weekend day, nearly three million people make their way there. It can be described as somewhere between Times Square and San Francisco, with ten times the history.
It’s easy to meet people there, especially when you have one friend to start with. Turks tend to be interested in foreigners. Before long I was getting to know people well enough that they invited me to dinner, to meet for drinks, even stay in their homes. There were so many names and numbers in my phone by the end of the first week that I couldn’t remember who was who!
I had much to learn. After a few weeks of wandering past modern skyscrapers and 700 year-old ruins, taking the 15-minute ferry across the Bosphorous Straight to Asia and back, visiting bazaars, eating baklava and all of the unique things that one can experience in Istanbul, I learned the city layout, transportation system, some cultural norms and language. Most importantly, I learned to negotiate the price of everything.
By the end of the first month, I was living with a guy I met in Taksim and through him, my full-time job making friends became a part-time job teaching English.
By then, I’d fallen in love with this magical, chaotic place. As weeks passed, I didn’t think I would ever leave. I’d made as many acquaintances in three months than the past three years. I was teaching English and loved it. I had never felt more alive, never been more interested in my surroundings and never had people so interested in me. But all good things must end, even if only temporarily.
After living in one of the oldest melting pots of human history, one of the most populated cities in the modern world for three months, I learned a lot about people, the world and myself. Now when someone asks, “Why on Earth would you go to Turkey?” all I can say is “Why on Earth wouldn’t I?”
A month after I arrived back in Wisconsin, Taksim Square and Gezi Park took center stage in international news. Massive protests erupted after police attacked a group of demonstrators seeking to protect Gezi Park—the last park in the city center—from being bulldozed for another mall. That single act drew upon long rising tension in millions of Turks in dozens of cities. It became a unified protest of years of blatant corruption, authoritarian leadership and a disregard for the Democratic ideal their Republic was built on.
The protests in Taksim have largely subsided for now. In a short lived victory for the people, a court ruled that officials had in fact broken the law and that Gezi Park would remain. Unfortunately, a higher court has reversed this decision. UPDATE January 2, 2015: Gezi Park remains for now.