Basak meets me at the airport shuttle drop off point in the busy city center. We hail a cab and we’re off to my new apartment. She shows me how to get in and gives me a tour of the apartment. I drop my bags in my room and then we’re off again. She wants to show me the neighborhood so I won’t be lost when I’m all alone at home during the coming weeks. We walk, and walk, and walk. Where we’re going, I don’t know. She shows me her workplace, says I can come there anytime if I need help with anything. And then our destination is in sight: Cevahir, the biggest mall in Europe.

She shows me to the grocery store so I can stock up on a few necessities. I feel awkward shopping in front of her so I try to make healthy choices. I throw a couple of nectarines and bananas into the handbasket, then I head toward the dairy section. Without having to tell her what I’m looking for, and before I can reach for anything, she stops me: “That’s not milk.” I look at her, completely befuddled. We walk over a few aisles to where the cereal is, and there we find a wall of milk boxes – the kind that would never survive in America, the kind that has a shelf-life of two years and needs no refrigeration. “Oh, the Turks do milk like the French,” I think to myself. I throw it in the basket, along with some cereal.

“I need shampoo and soap too,” I tell her. She takes me to the toiletries and I’m dumbfounded by the sheer number of shampoo bottles, not one of them with a label I can read. Right, first order of business: Find an English to Turkish dictionary. I look at her and say, “We need a bookstore.”

***

The next day Basak takes me to see the University I’ll be attending. We aren’t able to talk with the International Student Relations office because it’s after business hours so she heads home, leaving me to explore on my own. I wander the street in front of campus until I see the restaurant I’d seen in my classmates’ pictures back home. “God, I hope this is the place,” I whisper as I walk in the door.

A handsome man with cutting green eyes approaches the reception counter. Nervously I ask, “Is there someone here named Aşkın?”

With a charming Turkish accent he says, “I am Aşkın.” Now I’m really nervous. I’d hoped I could explain the situation to a waiter or someone and they could explain it to him in Turkish. But now here I am and he’s right here, and he has those eyes.

“Uhhhh….I’m a friend of Kristina…” I begin to say, but he cuts me off before I can finish my explanation. “Are you Rebecca?” he asks happily. “Yes!” I say with relief. With ease he changes into French and welcomes me, telling me that my friend Dana had been there earlier that day, but that he wasn’t able to speak with her because he has a very limited English vocabulary. He calls Dana and hands me the phone.

***

Dana and I barely knew each other at home but we’re practically inseparable here. We’re both so grateful to have someone to share this craziness with. We help each other navigate the buses, the cell phone companies, the campus, and the Turkish bureaucracy.

After three weeks of spending our days sightseeing or in the mall, wishing school would start so we could make friends here, we learn of a language exchange group that meets every Saturday evening for drinks and conversation. We’ve got only one week of Turkish lessons under our belt and this week’s meeting is on the Asian side, but we will not be deterred. We leave two hours early to ensure we’ll make it there in time, but when we arrive in Kadiköy we’re not in the right place at all. All we know is we’re near the shore of the Bosphorus. With several missteps and the help of a number of Turks – one of which walked us all the way to our location even though he and his girl friend were running late for some kind of family ceremony – we finally made it, half an hour late.

Dana and a Kiwi girl get wrapped up in a Turkish lesson, while I mingle with the French at the table. I eventually find myself at a table with three young Turks who refuse to believe my claim that I can already count to a million in Turkish. When I first sat down they had asked me what I’d already learned in Turkish.

“Well, I pretty much only know my numbers,” I responded.

“Oh really, so you can count to, what? Ten?” one of them patronizingly asked me.

“No, I can count to a million!” I replied with confidence.

So they proceeded to quiz me by writing down numbers, first easy ones like 99 or 25. Then moving on to the hundreds, and finally giving me what was to be their “Gotcha!” number: 126,573.

Yüz yirmi altı bin beş yüz yetmiş uç!” Success was mine!

***

My pasta and cereal rations are running low and I’m tired of wasting my money on restaurant food, so I finally head to the grocery store on my own for the first time. I have  a personal mission to buy and then cook actual Turkish food. After all, one cannot survive on pasta, cereal and white wine for six months without wanting to jump out a window at the thought of food (or so I reasoned). I see the bread for Dürüm and it’s decided that this will be my first foray into Turkish cuisine. I head to the meat section and inspect everything, trying to decide whether I trusted myself to cook chicken or not. I decide on spicy pre-cooked Kebab meat (or at least it looks pre-cooked and the picture of peppers and fire on the package clued me into the spicy factor).

Then I’m off to conquer the cheese section. There are hundreds of cheeses, none of whose names I recognize. I finally just decide to grab any white cheese and hope for the best. Somehow my random grab landed me with cheddar, for which I will be forever grateful. Tzatziki sauce, tomatoes, and a couple walks through the aisles for good measure and then I’m done.

Elated by the fact that I didn’t die from food poisoning, I invite Dana over the next day to try what I have now coined “The Turkish Burrito.”

***

I’m sitting on a bench with my earbuds in, waiting for the metro to arrive. A pre-pubescent boy sits on the other end. His younger brother sits between us – his little kid arm, sticky with sweat, resting against mine. “Pardon,” he says as I inch over so we’re no longer touching. He looks up at me and asks something in Turkish. I look down at him and say, “I’m sorry. I don’t understand Turkish.” He looks confused and his brother gives him the 411. “Ah, Ingilizce?” he says, looking back at me. “Evet,” I say.

Now, excited to practice his English, he points to my earbuds and says, “What is this?”

“Music?” I say, confused by what he’s asking.

He looks thoughtful for a moment, then says, “Where are you from?”

“California.”

Ah, Kalifornya.

And we have now exhausted this eight-year-old’s English vocabulary. So we sit in silence, until, just as the train arrives I see his face light up. He’s remembered something. “I love you!” he shouts over the sound of the train. I look down at him and laugh. I walk away to catch my train and as the doors close I know for the first time that I’m really going to miss it here when I leave.

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REBECCA ADLER is from Sacramento, CA, where she is a grad student in applied linguistics and works as a freelance journalist. Her work has appeared in Jane & Jane, Sacramento Business Journal, and Comstock's Business Magazine, among others. She also keeps a book review blog and can be found on Facebook or Twitter.

One response to “My Life in Istanbul So Far”

  1. Original Comment Thread Below:
    30 Comments »
    Comment by Matt
    2009-10-05 09:44:28

    Damn it, the Turkish Burrito has made my stomach growl. And it’s not even lunchtime yet.

    Also: I’m jealous. I so need to travel more.
    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Rebecca Adler
    2009-10-06 06:53:55

    Oh my gosh, the Turkish Burrito will rock your socks! Come visit me and we can kill three birds with one stone (you get to travel more, you get a Turkish burrito, AND – best of all – you get to meet me!).
    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Matt Baldwin
    2009-10-07 06:19:40

    My socks do need a good rocking, it’s true.
    (Comments wont nest below this level)
    Reply here

    Comment by Irene Zion
    2009-10-05 10:19:11

    Rebecca,

    How sweet that the little kid’s only English sentence is: “I love you!”
    You are going to have a ball there!
    Reply to this comment

    Comment by PQ
    2009-10-05 10:27:47

    Ohhh…I have a feeling this will make me SO homesick!!

    I’m going to enjoy reading about your experiences!
    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Rebecca Adler
    2009-10-06 06:55:04

    Thanks PQ, I hope I do Istanbul justice. You’ll have to correct me if I make any mistakes about cultural stuff 😉
    Reply to this comment

    Comment by James D. Irwin
    2009-10-05 12:06:08

    Oh, I got your postard this morning!

    Thank you, it was quite unexpected as well, which made it all the more pleasant.

    The picture is beautiful, but I’ll save it all for the letter I’ve been to write since last week…
    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Rebecca Adler
    2009-10-06 06:56:01

    Yay! I’m so glad you got it! You have a letter coming your way too (what can I say, I was bored).

    I’ll be expecting your letter VERY soon. 😉
    Reply to this comment
    Comment by James D. Irwin
    2009-10-06 10:20:48

    a letter too?! awesome. I love post. I’m annoyed that there was none today— I bought a load of stuff online and I hate having to wait…

    I’m finally getting around to my letters tomorrow. There have been so many days when I’ve had to do something + write letters but sort of sit down after the first thing and don’t feel in the right mood to write a letter…
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    Comment by Rebecca Adler
    2009-10-07 21:05:22

    Something’s wrong with the mail here. I’ve only seen it delivered to my apartment complex ONCE since I’ve been here. Note: I’ve been here a month.

    What is that about? I hope your letter makes it to me.

    Reply here

    Comment by Simon Smithson
    2009-10-05 12:43:41

    So how does one make a good Turkish burrito?
    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Rebecca Adler
    2009-10-06 06:58:56

    First, you have to have Dürüm bread, which is essentially just a really thin tortilla. (Dürüm is the actual Turkish word for the wrap I made BTW). Then you get chicken or kebab meat (mmmmm….kebab), add lettuce, tomatoes, cheese and tzatziki sauce and you’re set. I like to melt the cheese to the tortilla in the pan before adding the other stuff. None of this is actually the Turkish way to make it, but it’s the Rebecca way and it’s DELISH.
    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Matt Baldwin
    2009-10-07 06:22:33

    That sounds delish. Think I can get all of those ingredients at my local Trader Joe’s. It won’t be “official” of course, but still: socks, prepare to be rocked!
    (Comments wont nest below this level)
    Comment by Rebecca Adler
    2009-10-07 21:06:20

    You’ll have to tell us what you think!

    Reply here

    Comment by Chason
    2009-10-05 13:30:02

    Sounds like you’re having a great adventure already. Thanks for the postcard from Dresden. Very beautiful.
    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Rebecca Adler
    2009-10-06 06:59:18

    Mwah! I’m glad you got it!
    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Zara Potts
    2009-10-05 17:53:16

    You’re doing real good, Rebecca. I bet you are feeling really strong and good about yourself right now…at least I hope you are – you should be! Nice writing, keep them coming!
    Reply to this comment
    Comment by D.R. Haney
    2009-10-05 20:50:09

    And you did notice the presence of the Kiwi, yes?
    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Zara Potts
    2009-10-05 21:06:09

    Of course! Like I said previously somewhere else sometime, for flightless birds, Kiwi’s sure get around.
    (Comments wont nest below this level)
    Reply here

    Comment by Rebecca Adler
    2009-10-06 06:59:56

    Yay! Thanks Zara. I was a bit homesick and lonely at first, but now I’m doing fab.
    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Kristina
    2009-10-05 18:25:55

    Oh, that’s wonderful! I had been wondering how the details of your first meeting went. Oh, you make me miss Istanbul so much, and especially my dear darling Aşkın. Oh, and Basak – is that your roommate?
    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Rebecca Adler
    2009-10-06 07:02:03

    Basak is my roommate’s ex-girlfriend, which I didn’t find out til later. He sent her to meet me because he was working late that night. I felt so bad when I found out it was his ex-girlfriend and she was so sweet and showed me all around the city. Bleck, men. I felt like it ruined the flow to put all those details in the story though so I deleted them. Haha.
    Reply to this comment

    Comment by D.R. Haney
    2009-10-05 20:52:35

    I’ve been looking forward to details of your life in Istanbul, and I remain jealous that you’re there.

    I love that you almost immediately required a bookstore. Also, funny that you knew your Turkish numbers before the curse words. Those were the first things I was taught in Serbian.

    A charming conclusion, too. Looking forward to more.
    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Rebecca Adler
    2009-10-06 07:04:34

    Aw, thanks Duke! I actually DO know one curse word in Turkish, but only by sheer coincidence. The word for “boring” when pronounced incorrectly becomes “fucker.” Hahaha. I’ve been warned to be careful about how I pronounce things here. It really changes the meaning.

    I don’t know why I have such a block for vocabulary here. I can ONLY remember my numbers. The rest of the stuff I just pretty much guess at. I’m right some of the time though, which I suppose is a good thing.

    Thanks for the comment! Oh, and I prepared your box of goodies the other day. Now I just have to get to the post office…..
    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Marni Grossman
    2009-10-06 21:48:05

    I love that all foreigners seem to know “California.” When I’ve been abroad, people always ask if I live in New York or California. Without fail.

    Rebecca- you’re so brave. I could never do this. I spent four months abroad in college and, for the first two, I was completely miserable. I had no internet in my dorm room and the computer rooms were only open for five hours a day. I watched my “Arrested Development” DVDs over and over. I made five friends. Ten, at most.

    It was hard. I salute you!
    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Rebecca Adler
    2009-10-07 05:26:34

    I spend a lot of my Internet time downloading the latest episodes of my favorite TV Shows for the lonely nights at home. Unfortunately, I’m having the same problem with the Internets.

    I hate to admit it, mostly because it makes me look like the “typical American,” but I spent a ton of time at Starbucks here because the Internet is free and it’s within walking distance of my apartment.

    I was also using the school library, but for some reason the wifi is asking me for a password now and I have NO IDEA where one would get such a password. Super sad for sure. Internet DEF makes living abroad easier. I don’t know what I’d have done if I had been in your position.

    Oh, and people may know “California” but they will NEVER believe Sacramento is the capital, even when speaking to a Sacramentan. “Hi, I live there. Trust me on this one.”
    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Cris Weber
    2009-10-07 19:39:33

    I am so enjoying your adventure and lovely writing, thanks love!
    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Rebecca Adler
    2009-10-07 21:07:25

    Aw, thanks Cris!

    P.S. I saw the pics from Oktoberfest and I was so jealous that I couldn’t make it this year. Brought back memories for sure.
    Reply to this comment

    Comment by john
    2009-10-08 11:24:47

    Loved the post. I will admit that the They Might Be Giants song kept repeating itself in my head, but that happens pretty much every time I hear/read “Istanbul” (now it’s Constantinople etc.).
    Give us MORE! Nothing is better than being able to live vicariously through people with more exciting lives than my own!
    Reply to this comment

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