I hadn’t lived in a city for more than 20 years. I’d worked in the clear cuts and forests of two islands in British Columbia: Haida Gwaii (population 2,000, or so), an island due south of Alaska, and Port McNeill on the north end of Vancouver Island (population 2,765, give or take). In 2005, I bid farewell to my Canadian life to work in rural Japan.
So it was that on January 14th, 2008, as the plane circled this sprawling city of 15 million+ and I saw the translucent brown pollution line on the horizon, I started to panic. The sparkling waters of the Marmara Sea, the Bosphorus and the Black Sea helped calm me down, “at least I would be near water”, I thought. ‘I can do this’ , I said to myself, “ it’s only a year.” Famous last words, it’s been 9. My mother told me later she bet I wouldn’t last 6 months.
I had been hired by Berlitz Istanbul to teach English as a Second Language and as is typical in this sector it’s always a leap of faith when you leave your country for a job in another one. Uncertainty is the rule rather than the exception. You’re moving to an unknown country to work for an unknown employer, hoping that everything you were promised will be. I was lucky.
At that point I wasn’t yet hardened to jet lag, so on the bus ride from the airport I was barely able to pry my eyes open from time to time. I caught glimpses of the ancient walls of the city and the seaside monumental trees as the Havas sped by.
When we got to our destination I was welcomed by the cacophony of Taksim square. I remember it like it was yesterday.
Before they built the tunnel, Taksim, one of the main arteries of the city, throbbed with action and movement. Motorbikes weaved in and out of traffic, buses, taxis, people, dogs. It was like a choreographed ballet of chaos. Could it be true? Was I really watching a dog waiting for the light to turn green? I would soon discover this was normal.
When I was a kid I used to look at Istanbul on the map with longing. The only city to bridge two continents, a byway of empires, merchants, and travellers. Turkey was the home of the first peace treaty, the first coins, St. Nicholas (Santa). It was Asia Minor. To go there was a fantasy, now it was my reality!
In my wanderings of the side streets and back roads I stumbled upon Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman relics, semi-ruins and monumental buildings. Your taxi takes a roundabout that has a Roman column as its centrepiece, a mysterious set of stairs takes you through a labyrinth of old workshops and traditional restaurants (lokanta), doorways lead into centuries old Hans turned into workshops or storage areas. People are friendly and you can overdose on tea.
It didn’t take me long to understand that empires and governments may come and they may go, and Istanbul will watch.