Home > Expat Life > Relocating > First months in Istanbul, the diary of Francesca

Francesca is an old friend of Expatclic and as she says “this is not going to be an article about Turkey or about Istanbul. This is just a nonlinear and pretty personal chronicle on the first  months as an expatriate in this new country…”

Thank you Francesca for this lovely account of your first months in Istanbul, and all the best to baby Luna!!

I’m leaving and I’m lucky, I say it immediately. In Venice I was settling well, I just opened “my” own law firm and finally things seemed to be getting started. But I had no hesitations when Rob talked about moving to Istanbul. For how long? Who knows… indefinitely, if everything goes well.
I’m leaving and I’m lucky because I’m in love. Actually it’s three of us who are leaving, even if she is still inside my belly. She will arrive in May: so she gives/grants us six months to get organized.
I’m leaving and I’m privileged because for the first time I will not have to worry about money, about the rent, about bills.
We arrived in Istanbul on the evening of the 21st of November 2007, temporarily settled in a residence in the Asian side of the city.

The first day

The very first day I get out at 7.30 a.m. with Rob: it’s early but I think I will walk around just a little bit before going back to the room, so that I can understand where we are, since I have no idea about it (I don’t even know the name of the residence).

I ask a lady, a simit seller, to show me in the map where we are and how far Uskűdar is from here… she immediately stops a dolmuş and ushers me in. Great, I don’t even know where I am and I don’t know where I’m going. At 7.40 a.m., still half sleeping…

I try to look carefully and fix in mind what I see out of the window… anyway I understand the dolmuş is going to Kadiköy (that I can find in the map): a harbour down on Marmara Sea, sun rising, seagulls, people walking fast (it was 7.55 a.m.)…
I am feeling like a goddess.
My strategy is to call Nazan (the one who will become my fairy godmother, that is Rob’s secretary) to ask her the name and the address of the residence (so that I can go back, right?), but I’ll be able to do it after 9.30 a.m.

Then I decide to wander around the little streets, while the market is waking. I am as peaceful as ever. After a while, I stop in a tiny café where I ask for a tea and a thing I see everybody is eating: I pray that it is not filled with green peppers or smoked camel meat (it’s 8.20 a.m.) and I’m lucky.

I have the great idea to ask the waiter to show me where we are on the map, but of course he calls a client who knows one English word and who decides to take me to the bus stop. He’s really nice, in fact he gives me his card and says “telephone – problem”.

Well, I get into another dolmuş to Űskűdar Meydani (which I remembered because I had already been there during our last summer vacations) and… voilà! another nice walk in front of the Bosphorus, but now just in front of the European side. The atmosphere is the same as the earlier one, but more messy. I take a big walk in the market, I get lost, I wander, I turn around, I come back, I walk walk… it’s 9.40 a.m.

I find a place with telephones and I call Nazan, who starts laughing as soon as I start explaining. I get the information and I get even more peaceful.
At this point I deserve an orange juice sitting down with Turks, don’t I?

IstanbulDiary_3 IstanbulDiary_2

I walk for forty more minutes to go back to buses, then I jump into a dolmuş to Kadiköy and, once there, I change and I get an otobűs: still praying to be on the right one, I sit and look out of the window to verify that I’m on the same way I made on the first trip… too bad, they were all one-way streets!

Then I come to a wonderful seashore that reminds me of California.

According to my poor orienteering that should be right. I get off at a bus stop that I believe is vaguely close to the residence, I cross a 15-line highway and I find myself in a park.

Well, I don’t know how, but I have arrived just in front of the five-hours-earlier simit seller. Who, as soon as she sees me, makes me sit down with her, at the simit stand.

Thanks to a lady able to translate, I tell her that, thanks to her, I made this wonderful tour and I thank her. Then she hugs me (!!!) and says that if I need a place to stay I can go to her house.
Then I say – with my magic vocabulary and my dialectic abilities such as “me Tarzan you Jane” – that I am looking for a house for me, my husband and my baby…
She immediately prepares a cheese simit, which actually I would have rather avoided, but she forced me to eat it all “for my bebek”. Inshallah.
Well, we make friends and I remain seated at her stand for about one hour while she sells her simit.

IstanbulDiary_4At this point, it’s only noon… I save you the rest of the day.

I just tell you that at 7p.m. I call Rob and tell him I was going to meet him at his office, no problem.

So… Dolmuş to Kadiköy, bus to “Altunizade”. Those criminals take me in the middle of a 27-lane highway, where I could see nothing more than overpasses and overhead crossings and darkness all around.

I had no idea about where I was, who I was and what I wanted… two guys make me understand to follow them. Inshallah. We go across guardrail and ditches and finally we arrive at a bus stop full of people. Then I take Rob’s card and I say “bin koja” (= my husband). I was in the middle of a group of twenty people (all males of course). I understand that the place is totally far away from here. GREAT. One of them decides to call and I think “mammamia, now myRob is going to get worried” (… he never did: he was laughing under his beard). Nazan explains to him how I get there and I start walking to my destination: “maximum bir kilometer”.
Well, here I am, Inshallah, and myRob is there, still laughing.

I found out that, in order to say “my husband”, I should have said “benim koja” and that I was going around saying “a thousand husbands”.
I get my thousandth husband and I take him out for his ehmehmth birthday… and he takes me (us) to dine at the top floor of a skyscraper, with a 360° sightseeing over Constantinople.
At the end of the day my baby girl and I were really happy.

istanbul IstanbulDiary_6

The first Sunday

Since Rob is going to face a very stressful week, we decide to delay the visit to Rumeli fortress and to have a resting Sunday: a “normal” weekend, as a normal family, without touring around, even trying to get bored a little bit (sometimes it may be healthy).

Coming from an unexpected and invalidating back ache, Rob gets to sit in the passenger seat and I get the command of the car: with my driving abilities as a Palermo gondolier, I drive across the Bosphorus and take myRob to the European side, in the middle of the world, in the thousand lights of Istanbul, where we will find a wonderful house.

We arrive at the new residence, just behind Taksim square.

(In the other residence, in Suadiye, we had a flat with 3 bedrooms, 3 bathrooms, iron room (who me?), a large kitchen and a double living room, full of light and with a candid white furniture. That was actually very elegant, but definitely far from our idea of “home”, closer to the Reagans family’s one than to ours.)
Now we have a tiny apartment, really really cute, that I like so much that I would stay here for a few months!

We decide to take a rest, a three hour-long rest. Since we got up around 11 o’clock, our average-Italians Sunday was going wonderfully.

So, while the boss starts working at the computer, I go down to do grocery shopping: with my vocabulary, I succeed in buying salad, eggs, bread, cheese, white wine, olive oil, vinegar… and I go back with three bags full of supplies, smiling and happy: actually Turkish food is great, really really good, but everything has such a strong taste…

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You should have seen us: him, sitting at the computer with his wine glass and cheese on the side, and me, lying on the couch with my faithful book on the big belly.
We were feeling like two gods…
Dinner time: with our big fresh and healthy salad (which, even though it had no taste at all, we liked so much) we sit in front of Turkish TV.
You won’t believe it: 400 TV stations, half of which are porno!!! Their names were pretty clear: “arab porno”, “erotic arab”, and so on. And I assure you that the ladies were not veiled.
Anyway, after searching and searching… RAI TRE, REPORT!!! In Italy we never spent a whole Sunday night in front of TV. What a feeling!

The Dardanelle’s tour
No time for tourism, we knew that.
And we left from Italy with six kilos of LonelyPlanet (apart from Turkey: Continental Greece, West Balkans and Central Asia).

So, as soon as we have three days off we leave for a real tour, out of town. The chance comes from New Year’s holidays. We get the car to… first we go then we decide where to. So here we are, heading to Dardanelle.

Our plan is a quiet one: given my growing-belly conditions I should not sit too long in the car, I should avoid jumps and traumas. In fact, after just one hour we run into a dirt road which was not marked on the map, who knows for how long and who knows where to.

As long as we can see the sea on the left, no problem.
In a few words, the idea is circumnavigating the Marmara Sea, going across Dardanelle’s.

We arrive at Gelibolu (Gallipoli) at night, ugly and dirty and with two big smiles on our faces; a small hotel on the beach and a nice little dinner on the small harbour, fish for him and hummus for me.

Actually the place is very dull, but who cares… we are on the Dardanelle’s!

The next morning we wake up very early and we decide to go out to see the sun rising… which we could not see because we were on the wrong side. Anyway, how nice!

Before crossing Dardanelle’s strait we stop to explore Akbas and Kildűlbahir kalesi… in fact we are strangely in love with anything that looks like a fortress: we are able to find one anywhere we may go!

istanbulFinally we cross the strait and we head to Truva (yes, Troy, the Iliad’s one): those who stated that “there you can only see two stones” deserves… to be stoned. What a charm!
Maybe because when we arrive nobody is around, it is sunny and windy… we pass three hours walking, staring, going up and forth, smelling the stones…

We have a guide (a paper one) explaining everything: do you know there are nine different levels, that means the city has been built lots of times over its own ruins? The first level seems to date back to 5000 years ago, in the Bronze Age!

And do you know they say the famous horse is only a legend and never existed really? Well, according to a theory, if you look at one of the doors (the West Door) of Troy VI walls, you can imagine the traces of the attempts to enlarge the door in order to enter the huge horse inside the citadel: once the horse was entered, the door seemed to be closed quickly, with rough stones… and actually you can see they are rough, compared to the others of the wall!

Well, I don’t know what historical strength that may have, but it’s a charming explanation and that satisfies me.

Together with a lot of squirrels, we pass in front of the door where the fight between Hector and Achilles took place, we are just in time to finish our tour that we see a bus full of tourists… and we run away!

So we head to Tenedo (now called Bozcaada), a small island right out of the Dardanelles, on the Mediterranean Sea. A great, impressive, well-maintained fortress welcomes us, and at the entrance we found the phone number of the guardian, ready to take us in anytime.

For us Venetians this island has a special value: in fact, thanks to its strategic position, there have often been struggles and conquests between Venice and the Ottoman Empire.

Apart from that, the isle is just what I want from an isle: it reminded me a little bit of Favignana, a little bit of Ustica, a little bit of Linosa. Only prickly pears missing. We explored it far and wide. And for the first time I’ve been under a windmill: I felt so small!

The night before New Year’s Eve there were only three cafés open: two of which were populated just by males, deepened in the fog of their cigarettes and so silent in front of the TV.

The other one, a blast: people jumped out from who knows where, amazing and colourful, and you could feel their friendship. I thought they were “come back home” for holidays, maybe from Istanbul, Ankara, Bursa, who knows, and they were going along like in a summer night, at a party on the beach.

istanbul istanbul

We danced wildly with them until two o’ clock in the morning, all three of us: Rob, me and my belly. Until… I swear it’s true… the police came and sent us home… maybe we were disturbing the sheep!

The morning after, we woke up smiling. Last walk, ferry, we finish circumnavigating the Marmara Sea and we reach Istanbul from south.

Finally home!

istanbulAnd finally comes the day when we step in our new “home”; carefully selected by me, after visiting all the real estate agencies and the houses available in Cihangir.

It’s here, in this neighbourhood, where we decided to live: where you can have a nice walk, where you can go everywhere, full of small shops and colourful cafés and small streets that in a certain way recall Paris. No Bosphorus sightseeing, for that we should have moved a few hundreds of metres away and we wanted to stay just there.

They told me to be prepared for Turkish handymen: ask the painter if he can make a garden fountain and he will answer yes. Well, I confirm. But maybe everywhere that happens.

So we more or less (more “less” than “more”) settled in. NOTHING works, but we will win sooner or later. A team of gas technicians came three times and at the end they stated that there is no danger. That the bad smell you smell when the cooker works is not gas. God knows what it is. What shall I do with that? Open the window when you cook. Fine.

The heating system stops, but only once a while, and generally the house is getting warm. The washing machine floods, but only when it’s working. The fridge door stays closed if you kick it down. The modem does not work but I can ask the guy at the café, he’s skilled and he’s nice. The gas alarm will be fixed by the landlord’s son: there is only a wire sheared, no problem.

Last night I get rid of the Molotov that somebody forgot out of the door: I went to the guys at the parking and I said “bu hediye” (it’s a present). They were happy as ever.

But we have home theatre and satellite, so we can watch all Italian news and gossip. What else do we need?

Towards integration

And step by step we discover all those little things that make everyday life; the coiffeur, for instance.

Of course not for me (once a year is enough), but for Rob, who is getting closer and closer to a mushroom. As our friend Saigun suggested, we book at Suleyman Kuaför’s and we ask for Ali Bey (Mr. Ali).

Who takes myRob, washes his head as if he was a horse, cuts his hair one by one (really, one hair after the other, even more times, with crazy little clippings), offers him tea until he accepts it, washes him again, keeps on cleaning his ears, dries and combs him like Bobby Solo (the famous Italian singer), and finally he dips him into a cologne which smelled like anchovies juice.

And for the whole time, I was quietly resting on the couch, reading magazines and laughing with no mercy.

The most important thing anyway was finding the doctor who will assist the birth of my baby.

It is not hard to find English-speakers doctors. I found several (private) birth hospitals, clean and ready to offer an English assistance. It seems that I must forget about a public sanitary system: everybody (the ones who can afford it) has private insurance and avoids stepping into a public hospital.

Too bad, I would have preferred a public hospital (because of my ethical standards) but they told me the best thing that could happen to me is giving birth and “going back home with a baby who is not mine”. Inshallah.

Anyway I’ve found the right doctor. He speaks perfect English and French. I’ve also chosen the hospital where my baby will arrive, small and clean and reachable by metro (do you have an idea of the traffic here? I am sure that if I step into a car I will give birth right there, in the back seat, with horns yelling and insults flying).

Because of course, I would like to be understood by the nurses, at that moment. I really want them to understand me, when I yell at them…

In fact it’s true, being able to express yourself is necessary in order to start the real integration.

And you know Turkish is pretty different from any other language one could know.
So we registered at Tömer’s, the most famous language school in Turkey.

The first thing we noticed was the fact that in a school like that, attended by people from all over the world, employees did not know a single word in English.
When lessons started we had not moved to Cihangir yet, but we were still living in a district on the Asian side (we changed place several times, so that we could know the city better) which means “bitter almond”, Acibadem.

So, the first day of school we left from Asia on a crowded bus, that we were squeezed like sardines. Then we jumped on the ferry from Űskűdar to Kabataş and we crossed the Bosphorus.
Seeing Rob looking at seagulls (for the first time he was not driving in the jungle!) was so peaceful. Finally we got into the funicular and stepped out in Taksim square, relaxed and clean.


We also had new books, do you know the ones where you could smell fresh printed paper: a book like a horn book, just like the first grade ones, with drawings and colourful figures, and an exercise book, which reminded me the homework book for retarded children.
In class, apart from us two, there is a Norwegian boy, two Nigerians, an Indian, a Pakistani, a Canadian girl, a Polish girl and a Russian whose name could not be but Olga.
Lesson began… with me CRYING… with laughing!

I swear. It never happened to me before, I swear.

It happened that the teacher starts talking to Rob… strictly in Turkish. You should have seen the face of my thousandth husband… so confused that only after half an hour he understood he had to repeat the same words said by the teacher.

Actually the problem was that he wanted to laugh but he could not, so he was stuck, poor boy. That was a good reason to laugh. But the best part was when he tried to repeat… you know when one tries to keep the laugh inside and makes it even worse? Well, I got tears, then hiccups and at the end I ended up under the table… laughing so hard, with my mouth open that one could easily see my green underwear.

Let me just say that the teacher thought something was wrong with me, she asked me if I was feeling fine, while I could not stop laughing and crying at the same time…

So, every night before school, here in our new little no-working home, while my baby girl jumps inside me, myRob and I sit down at the table and do not go to sleep until homework is done.

Gűle gűle!!

Winter 2008
Istanbul, Turkey
Photos ©Francesca
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