I’m sitting here amongst a pile of clothes, shoes, books, photographs, and little knick-knacks wondering how I’m going to stuff them all in just two 23kg suitcases. In two days, my partner and I are leaving the place we’ve called home for the past (almost) three years. My head is clear. I want to leave. I’ve been struggling for the past year or so. I haven’t been truly happy. Things about this country have been really pissing me off and it’s time to go. The head knows this but the heart, well, the heart is a lot less sure. It has loved (and loves) so many things about this place. For the heart, leaving the place you’ve called home for the past three years is a jumble of emotions.
We first came to Istanbul in the summer of 2012. We lived in London previously, but my visa expired and my partner and I decided to do ‘something crazy’ and move to a completely foreign place. We wanted a change. We wanted to be somewhere where English wasn’t the main language and where the lifestyle wasn’t working a 10-hour day and then getting shitfaced in a pub. But we also wanted somewhere that still had a European tingle (I’m brave but not that brave). As my partner specializes in Middle Eastern politics and as my family is from Odessa, Ukraine, the place that was calling out our names most strongly was Turkey. Iran was up in the air and so was Lebanon; Syria was crossed off the list for obvious reasons. But in the end, Turkey seemed like the most obvious choice. Part Middle East/part Europe; part traditional/part liberal. Cosmopolitan. Grand. With a rich culture and history. And world-famed cuisine. A mega-city that has awed countless historians, writers, intellectuals, and archaeologists.
I remember that first summer like it was yesterday. It was akin to falling in love. The cliché about Istanbul is the kaleidoscope of colors, sounds, and smells that hit your senses as you walk through the streets. But if you’ve ever visited yourself, you’ll agree that there’s no better way to describe this city. I was floating on air, giddy on Istanbul’s ridiculous beauty. Within a week, I knew I wanted to move here.
We had to go back to England and Australia for personal reasons after that summer but then made the permanent move to Istanbul in February 2013. The first few weeks were scary. My partner had a full-time job. I was freelancing but I didn’t have much work. We rented a flat for two weeks in a central area, but it was small and grim. I didn’t know anyone, I didn’t speak the language. I was alone all day in this flat and for a moment I wondered if we made the right decision. But then we moved to an AirBnB flat with a girl who has since become a very close friend, I started Turkish lessons, and soon got a dream job with the best English-language magazine about Turkey (I’m not saying this because I work there, it’s really the best). We applied for residence permits and with just a form, four passport-sized photographs, and a ‘fixed’ slip from the currency exchange that we had enough money to live here for a year, we got our permits. Family and friends came to visit and we showed them around with pride and excitement. Just like that our lives started to take shape and our adventures in Istanbul were firmly cemented as some of our most life-changing experiences.
Slowly, as time went on, and as we scratched deeper and deeper below the surface, cracks started appearing. No country is perfect, of course, but I started realizing that the particular daily grind of Istanbul was perhaps not for me. For example, something always goes wrong, there’s not an iota of privacy (even as I sit and write this in my home, I can hear the sounds and conversations of the whole street below me), and just forget about personal space. I’m not saying these things are bad per se, I’m saying that my personality is not suited to them. I grew up in Australia and lived in the UK, and I have to be true to myself and admit that I’m a fan of polite society.
Things first took a definite turn mid-last year. It was time to renew my residence permit and the rules have been changed. You now needed health insurance and a rental contract certified by someone called a “noter” (we don’t have anything like this in the UK or Australia, so I don’t know what to call it; basically it’s an office that certifies documents). I won’t go into all the details, but in short, I applied for my permit in June and got it in December (the previous time it took just two weeks). The application process was peppered with administrative woes and downright injustice (I was verbally assaulted at a tax office when attempting to pay tax on the deposit we paid for our flat; read that back, doesn’t make sense, right, but it’s one of the rules here). I went to the police office to check on the permit something like 10 times and was ignored for 80% of them until I had had enough (I needed to leave the country and you couldn’t without a permit for longer than 15 days; psychological entrapment right there) and yelled at one of the officers. My permit magically appeared the next day. In these six months, my Turkish bestie left the country for good, we had major issues with a real asshole of a neighbor that had nothing to do with us (read: dishonest landlord), and I launched SheRa Mag. I mention this last bit because although I have always been a feminist and seen the injustices for women in this country (domestic violence and femicide are at an all-time high), it was only when SheRa Mag came to fruition that I got downright furious about it and could see it everywhere I looked.
I was very ready for a visit home to Melbourne this January and when I came back in March, it was the first time I wasn’t excited to step off the plane. Over the next few months, I got even more down in the dumps, everything was irritating me, and things got tense with my partner and I. We knew we had to leave. It was time to relocate back to London.
There are things I’m going to really miss about this place, and things I’m definitely not. The turbulent political situation (it’s a dictatorship disguised as democracy). The government’s total disrespect for the environment (I care about rivers and forests, ok). The lack of personal space and privacy. The taxis trying to pick you up while you’re out for a run (I’m in fluorescent gear, for goodness’ sake). The 24/7 sounds whether yelling and honking (I’ll never be able to fall asleep to quiet ever again). And of course the treatment of women as second-class citizens (I have been asked out on dates and had my hand kissed in a taxi when paying even though I made it clear I have a husband—boyfriends are not recognized here. I have been followed down the street numerous times, once by a motorcycle. I have been asked to go have a meal with someone and when I refused—why would you randomly accept a meal with a stranger?—I have been scolded. I have been endlessly laughed at. Had my cheeks pinched because it’s so “cute” when I speak Turkish. Had my bum and hair brushed/stroked on crowded public buses. If my partner and I are out and I’m paying for the meal, nine times out of ten the waiter will give the credit card machine to my partner. After all, I’m just a housewife and he just gave me a card to his bank account so that I can do the grocery shopping.)
But the “things I’m going to miss list” is just as long. There’s the mind-blowing food, the strong sense of community, the endless activities you can do and places you can visit, the laidback nightlife, the fact that you can get anything delivered (hello McDonalds on hangovers), my Saturday morning shop at my neighborhood market (the one place where women rule supreme), the crumbling wooden konaks (houses) on hilly streets set against the backdrop of the majestic Bosphorus which stops you in your tracks and makes it seem all worthwhile on a really shitty day. And mostly, the complicated, crazy, funny people, who, if they accept you, will be your friends for life and do anything for you. (But if not, they will rip off for everything you got like our current and previous landlords have).
But mostly I’m grateful to Turkey for allowing me to see some hard truths about myself. It has been like a mirror held up for me to peer in and see the reflection of my reactions and behaviors in a not-so-comfortable environment. It has made me see that I’m not as patient and flexible as I thought I was, that I’m not at all easygoing (kind of knew it, been confirmed), that I like organization and structure (definitely knew it, again confirmed), that my sense of fairness and justice cannot be applied everywhere, that I’m not going to win every battle. That sometimes it’s easier to just accept things and move on. Turkey has taught me A LOT and for that I will always be grateful.
We’re having a going away dinner tonight and as I pack and write this, I’m getting teary at the thought of seeing some of the wonderful people we have met here for the last time (ok, we’ll probably be back but still). I know I have made the decision to leave—my partner is happy to stay—but saying goodbye, even when you know you need to, is never easy. I will miss you, complicated, crazy, beautiful Turkey. I hope you welcome me back one day.
Main image courtesy of coloredgirlconfidential.com.