Learning to adjust to a different rhythm of life in a foreign culture brings unanticipated rewards and downsides for an English teacher in Istanbul.
Overnight snow coated the suburb of Kadiköy with a quiet sigh. The moment mirrored her mesmerised stillness. The fountain frozen where it had fallen into a distorted shape, Bahariye Street lay still this early cold morning, with not a living soul in sight. Surveying the urban winter scene, Melissa felt unexpectedly at peace in her own headspace. Beauty dawning on her at last. After a couple of months trudging through the wet, grey days, dampening the culture shock of earlier months, this was a northern hemisphere vision she cherished.
After finishing her leisurely breakfast, Melissa received text messages from her friends inviting her to come outside with them and play in the snow. They threw snowballs at each other and made a snowman. It was like rediscovering the plasticity of the child’s brain, usually concealed.
Invigorated, they headed out to Bar Zinger for a drink. Cold this place never really is when you look further inside to slowly excavate each layer of archaeological emotion. Everyone had a story to tell. She listened carefully to those around her before she made her move outside into the white landscape again.
I need to get to the internet café to report this novel experience to everyone back home, she thought.
Along the way, she waved at the man in the boutique at the bottom of her apartment building who brought his black and white kedi – cat – from home every day to keep him company in the shop. The other adoptee, a one-eyed street cat, was sitting in a box by the window. The cats of Kadikoy were loved by all the locals.
And I love being surrounded by them, Melissa thought. Either that makes me a crazy cat lady or just like one of the locals.
They were everywhere. Bar Zinger had its resident cat. There was a resident cat in the bookshop by the port – a short-haired white cat with black and brown patches who always seemed to have a fresh litter of kittens around her. They sat on the old books and frolicked around the shelves. But there were some sad cats too, especially tiny thin orphans and old cats. The old, fluffy ginger cat who sat at a doorway every evening was a sorry old thing, even if she graciously purred every time she was stroked and fed. One day she disappeared.
Crossing the road with a horde of pedestrians during the third announcement of prayers, she spotted one of the many street vendors as he yelled his thousandth sales mantra and she approached him quickly.
“Saaaalep, salep!” bellowed the moustachioed man with his basket full of cups.
She dug out the right amount of coins to purchase this delicious, orchid-based, milky drink to warm up her brain and body this chilly day.
Just as she reached the internet café, she saw Matteo donate a few coins to a homeless man sitting outside. He radiated ‘ubuntu’ or compassion, and was one of the most generous and courteous expats she had met there. From Italy, working for a multi-national company, they had been friends ever since they’d met at this very internet café. She was grateful for his tips on navigating the confusing Turkish keyboard and culture. Moved, she forked out a few coins too.
“Buon giorno – good day,” she returned his greeting followed by “Merhaba … hello,” for the café owner.
Voicing the daily niceties reminded her to try to learn more of the language. After all, it is part of adjusting to a new culture and surviving in it well enough. The language barrier often stood out when she was alone asking for directions or trying to ask for something in a shop. It was like a new synapsis being formed, difficult to access and challenging to maintain.
Isn’t this one of the reasons why I’m here? she asked herself.
With the late afternoon call of the day over, she headed home for downtime. She often thought about why she was here. Even those who’ve never been, or who will never come, must imagine what kind of synapsis might be formed afterwards. The energy required to pump up your nerves at a junction of life where everything that had been carefully divided into neat compartments was now sizzling all together on a tightrope. What living a foreigner’s life does to you.
She hoped she had left her old life behind by coming to this city, simultaneously new and old. She hoped that the daily grind of making ends meet in a solitary fashion had broken. This is why she’d left Sydney. The office politics she could no longer endure, the economic and political changes that made life that bit harder and the distances she had to travel in order to see friends all disappeared in this expat community. There’s always a reason for leaving and there’s always a reason to stay.
Somehow being a yabanci – a foreigner – made you more supportive of each other, more open and less judgemental, no matter who you had been before in other lands. This getting on with life in a strange city is what they shared together.
The evening light was dimming as she entered one of her favourite restaurants.
“Iyi akşamlar hodja – Good evening, teacher,” Beamish Ismet always greeted the teachers respectfully.
“Akşamlar,” Melissa mumbled with her poor pronunciation. He smiled politely.
She felt lucky to be treated so respectfully and hospitably as a teacher everywhere she went.
“Hey honey, I’m starving!” Rachel, her irenic Texan friend, boomed as she sat down beside her.
“Hi! We got our water back on. Did you?” Melissa asked.
“Yep! Thank God it was only for one night this time. Had all the water bottles ready though.”
Strange what you begin to get used to. These new habits with new people break up the muscle fibres that used to hold you together in familiar ways and mend them in new ways.
Melissa and Rachel ordered one of their favourite meals: beyti, small pieces of lamb mixed with herbs wrapped in pastry and served with bulgur, yoghurt, tomato sauce and vegetables. With a shared interest in history and culture, they had formed a strong friendship exploring sights, discovering new places and sharing books. Together they had gorged on novelist Orhan Pamuk’s imaginative words. There was always something new and interesting to learn and surprises everywhere.
One day at Easter, Melissa and Rachel decided to check out the local Greek Orthodox Church. It felt like a momentous day as the Greek community slowly gathered inside the church. Everyone seemed excited about something and they didn’t know why until the ceremony began. A regal-looking man dressed in a long, black cloak and sporting a flowing beard entered, followed by an entourage of red, white, and golden robes. The Patriarch. Black-clad nuns in the congregation were taking photos. He walked over every inch of the church, blessing every man, woman and child. They sang the whole time. In fact, when they left after two hours of ceremony, they were still singing. It was all so Byzantine.
Even her students engaged her with stories that struck open a new layer of imagination. The older ladies who told her of their mini-skirted days in Istanbul in the ’60s. The ex-soldier who showed her the bullet wound on his leg. The beautiful, heavily made-up girls who colourfully narrated what was going on with their jobs and boyfriends. Equality at work but not at home, they quipped. The heart surgeons who loved taking her out to restaurants in Ortaköy after class and the textile millionaire she tutored and dined with at some of the best restaurants in the city were all part of her real life as much as it was part of a life that somehow didn’t seem real. It was hard work teaching English more than 30 hours a week but it was rewarding too. Enjoying good rapport with her students, she learned much from them.
Occasionally on her outings, she was captivated by other kinds of locals and visitors. She struck up conversations with an old lawyer, the last one in a line of Italians who had come here generations ago, and a German woman who had retired to Istanbul. A young Turkish man who hid his sexual orientation and another who hid his ethnicity stirred new questions she buried as she listened to their pain. Another time, it was a proud Greek student she met. He went to the Princess Islands for his annual ancestral pilgrimage. This mosaic imprinted itself as a narrative she emailed home with regularity. A story that seemed like the beginning of the first few paragraphs but in actual truth stories that had already been told many times in this city.
Adjustment was a continuous process – like fixing wires that had burned out or had to be repaired occasionally. The unexpected had to be dealt with, even if it sometimes felt like a shock to the brain. She fought getting used to everything though. Like the time she was hissed by men down a street she had not walked through before.
Was it because of her sleeveless summer dress? It had been an oppressive hot day that made her homesick for Australia. She was lost looking for the apartment of her new friend, hungry and late and ended up anxious in unfamiliar streets. With a wrenched stomach, she walked hurriedly with a lowered head. She never got used to that.
Her Mediterranean looks often gave her an insight into how they treated their own, while most of the other teachers were looked at as a piece of exoticism. Once she was perplexed by an angry lady who scolded her at the markets. Another time coming home from the port, a man lunged towards her hissing and spitting unknown words. Her amygdala urged her to run but she tried to keep her cool. Keep going calmly. Keep walking fast. Don’t run. For days afterwards, the emotional impact of those experiences permeated her soft spirit in ways she didn’t like.
Later, at home after dinner, she thought about how her lenity had been disturbed during those experiences. Peeling through all of her emotions and reactions, she reached the questions she didn’t want to deal with before.
Do I have to harden up?
Or continue to stay within the protective circle of friends?
Without them, it would have been a harder struggle. Intransigence could cost you in a place that is not your own.
She recalled what happened the other week. When they were walking back home together, passing a men’s-only café, one of the teachers who had clearly had one too many insisted on entering to tell them what she thought. Melissa and the others dragged her away just as a couple of them stood up to move towards her.
Is there a reason to stay or leave? What every expat thinks.
She got a text message from her Turkish friends, Ozlem and Murat, asking to meet up for brunch tomorrow morning. She enjoyed their company and sense of humour and the rich and fulfilling brunches.
Ne zaman? When? She texted. Trying hard to remember the words was like a lost neuron being ploughed out of her cluttered brain.
All sorted for tomorrow.
The last prayers sang out into the darkness of the night.
Is there a reason to stay or leave?
Whether to stay or leave, it was already too late. The fusion had begun. No longer walking fearfully on a tightrope because she had learned how to balance bravely. In her mind’s eye, she could see the finish line ahead of her, waiting patiently for her to reach it when she was ready. Her identity had merged into something larger than she had been before in another city.
The more knowledge she had gained about herself and about the world, the more self-possessed she had become and this is what rewired her, made the rope taut and secure. She was tranced into a life of her own making and could walk ahead as she chose at her own pace.
About our Short Story author:
Caterina Mastroianni is a published poet, educator and blogger. She has had poetry published in various literary magazines and anthologies, and her work was read at the Sydney Writers’ Festival in 1995 and 1998. Since then, she has published articles related to her work as a learning designer. A mid-life urge to return to her creative roots has led to the writing of this short story.