So how was New York? How did it feel to be back in Istanbul?
Everyone kept asking the same questions. And Leyla Anamur kept giving the same answers. Yes, New York was “great.” Being back in Istanbul was “different.”
She had gone to New York for two reasons. First, to study for her master’s degree at Columbia, and second, to improve her English. Having spent a year living in Brooklyn, and studying full time, she had achieved both goals. Afterward, Leyla considered staying in the U.S., but her family wanted her to return.
Six weeks had passed since her return to Istanbul. Initially, it was nice. When her plane was making its descent, and she looked out the window and saw the city spread out, the Golden Horn, the Hagia Sophia, as well as the thin strand connecting Thrace and Anatolia, she had felt a surge of nostalgia, a sense of returning.
But after that initial thrill, and after the joy of seeing her sister, Nur, a certain flatness had set in. Of course, Leyla had read all about reverse culture shock, so she recognized the signs, and knew that it would take time. Everyone else said the same thing. Just take things slowly for a while, don’t force things.
Leyla was 27, and very attractive. Friends said she resembled Penelope Cruz, and Leyla guessed she saw what they meant. They had the same long dark hair, the same eyes and shape of the face, the same type of Mediterranean beauty. She had good taste, preferring light dresses and espadrilles in the summer.
Back in New York she had lived with an Italian exchange student named Francesco. He was from Florence and was studying political science at NYU. She liked Francesco – he was different from the stereotypical Italian paisano in that he was not macho; he had a great self-deprecating sense of humor. Most Italian men were similar to Turkish men in that they could be very macho and possessive, qualities that Leyla detested in men. The only disappointment in Francesco was that he was a rather indifferent cook. His pasta dishes were a grad student’s cheap, hasty creations. Actually her pasta dishes, served with a yogurt sauce, was better than his. In the end, she had done most of the cooking, using what ingredients could be found in the shops to make menimen and the traditional Turkish kavalti tabagi, which consisted of feta cheese, tomatoes, olives, boiled eggs, cucumbers and toast with honey.
Anyway, she had never told her folks back in Turkey that she was living with Francesco. Even though her parents were fairly liberal – they despised the country’s ruling conservative AK Party, for example – like most Turkish parents, they would not have been pleased with their daughter living with a man, and a yabanci at that, without being married.
Still, looking back, her parents must have at least suspected something. She and her sister Nur had of course talked about it, on their many Skype chats. It was possible that her mother might have overheard something. That may have been the reason why her parents had so strongly hinted at her returning home.
Her parents’ fears were somewhat ungrounded. She and Francesco were more like brother and sister more than anything. Theirs was more a relationship based on mutual sympathy, bound together as foreigners in a strange land. They took care of each other. Now that she was back in Istanbul, she often chatted with Francesco, on Facebook and Skype, and worried about him. He was a diabetic and she would give him motherly warnings about watching what he ate, etc. Sometimes Francesco talked of coming to Turkey after finishing his studies at NYU. He had never been to Istanbul.
Leyla looked forward to this prospect, of seeing Francesco again, and showing him around the city. But that idea would have to wait another year, when he finished school. In the meantime, there was just this – being back in Istanbul, and the feeling of everything being “different.”
So how was New York? How did it feel being back in Istanbul.
Well, it would just take time. Don’t force things. Yaddah-yaddah-yaddah.
It was early July. After a rainy June, the summer had finally arrived. The waters of the Sea of Marmara sparkled like a fine chardonnay near her parents’ flat in Bostanci, on the city’s Asian side. Leyla often woke up late (she was a night owl, and was up late most nights chatting on Facebook, and browsing YouTube videos). Her parents, wanting not to “push” her, had urged her to relax, take it easy for the summer. She could look for a job in the fall.
Her father, Orhan, was general manager at a leading retail firm, and each morning was already off to work. His work also meant he travelled not infrequently around Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. Her mother, Faraye, was a retired engineer, and was usually off shopping on Bagdat Caddesi.
Each morning, Leyla would get up, shower and have a toasted sandwich and tea. Her sister was at school, so she enjoyed having the flat to herself. After breakfast, she go out. She liked to take walks by the sea. She’d walk to Caddebostan, where there was a nice park popular with locals. Most of the people who went there were retirees, who brought their grandchildren with them. So nobody bothered her, except the occasional old woman (“balcony aunt,” they would call these women in Turkish), who would stop and make gossip.
She put on her swimsuit under her clothes, and brought along a towel , bottled water and a book. She would stay a couple of hours, occasionally taking a dip in the sea, swimming far out near the sailboats, and turning over on her back. The world of noisy Istanbul was drowned by the waves, and she liked how lying there on her back, floating in the sea, reduced everything to very simple terms. It was only you and the sea, and the occasional cloud passing by high overhead.
Afterward, she would dry out on the towel and read. Or she would just lie on the towel and watch the children splashing around. Many Istanbullus, her parents included, discouraged swimming there. They said the sea was “dirty,” and preferred to wait until their summer holiday in August, when they would go to their summer house on the Turquoise Coast. But the sea at Caddebostan was crystal clear, and so salty that on a hot day, you couldn’t sink if you tried. When the afternoon heat got to be too much, and she could feel it on her shoulders, Leyla would slip back into the sea, and swim far out past the sail boats, and turn over on her back once more, giving her thoughts over to the embrace of the sea.
The mornings were OK, since she slept late, and the afternoons were alright, too, covered as they were by the swimming at Caddebostan. It was the evenings that were the problem. Her mother would come home, and after having a shower, Leyla would help her prepare dinner. Her sister, Nur, the baby of the family, disliked cooking, and preferred to do the washing up.
When the father came home, the Anamur family would sit down to dinner. They liked to have it out on the balcony. That year Ramazan was in July, but none of the family fasted, so it was not an iftar, but merely dinner. Conversation at the table usually consisted of her father, Orhan, alternately blasting the latest announcements by “Tayyip,” (most Turks address the prime minister by his middle name), and advising Nur on her studies at the lycee.
“Remember, you can be anything you want to be,” Orhan would say, with the idea that everyone at the table should take note as well. “If you want to pass your French exams, remember it is up to you. If you want to pass your English exams, only you can do it. No one can do it for you. You must focus, you must believe in yourself, and you must work hard. Then anything is possible in life.”
These sermons usually carried through until they had Turkish coffee in the fading light. Then the mother, Faraye, would read the coffee grounds. She was worried about Leyla’s signs. They seemed to show some kind of clouds approaching, some misfortune. Leyla herself didn’t take such superstitions very seriously, but it was an old Anatolian tradition, and so she listened with passing interest.
Afterward, the family would go into the living room. Sometimes they watched a football match, if Fenerbahce was playing. Otherwise, they would watch a film, and later the Turkish news on TRT. The mother, Faraye, liked this part of the evening. They were “one happy family,” all sitting together. Leyla was bored, and it took all her patience to keep from showing her restlessness.
It was with relief that, sometime around eleven, her parents would go to bed. She and Nur would talk for awhile, and then they would go to their rooms. The night was Leyla’s favorite time. She liked having those lonely hours to herself. She would watch videos on YouTube, random stuff, and chat with Francesco on Facebook. Sometime around two or three o’clock, she’d finally go to bed.
This routine carried on, the days rolling past in a ritualistic, semi-comatose blur. The end of Ramazan came, bringing about the Şeker Bayram, a four-day holiday to celebrate the ending of the fast. The family was heading to their summer house on the Turquoise Coast for two weeks. Her aunt and two cousins from Izmir were also joining them.
Leyla viewed the bayram with a touch of panic. She felt she needed space, and the thought of being cooped up with her family and relatives for two whole weeks was unbearable. On top of that Francesco had stunned her with wonderful news. He was coming to Istanbul the same week!
She lied. She told her parents that she had applied for a job, a teaching position at one of the universities, a position that was scheduled to start in the fall. Her parents were surprised, but pleased.
“But surely, the interview can wait until after the bayram?” her father asked.
“It’s a position they have to fill urgently,” Leyla said. “The teacher they hired backed out at the last minute. Actually the interview will be after the bayram.”
“So you can stay with us during the bayram, then go to Istanbul for the interview, then come back?”
“Of course,” Leyla said. “It’s just a day or two I’ll be away.”
“I don’t like the idea of you travelling alone,” Orhan said.
“But I travelled all alone in New York, remember?” Leyla said, teasingly.
Her father, Orhan, studied the situation. It was true that he had had reservations about her living in New York. It was the mother, Faraye, who had finally persuaded him, appealing to his oft-quoted sermons on the importance of education and the power of the will, about how no daughter of his was ever going to be a “simple, Anatolian housewife.” Also, in the six weeks since Leyla’s return, he had seen that she had grown up. He saw in his oldest daughter something of his own willfulness, and grudgingly accepted her request.
“I guess it’s alright, if it’s just for a day or so. But you know, it’s not very often we see relatives, and get to spend so much time together. So when is the interview?”
“It will be on Tuesday. So I can get the bus to Istanbul on Monday, go to the interview and come back on Wednesday. Three days maximum. It will be fine.”
“Do you want me to drive you?” her father asked.
“No it’s fine,” Leyla said, a touch panic in her voice. “I can take the bus.”
“It’s 12 hours by bus,” Orhan protested. “I will drive you.”
“You don’t want to spend your holiday driving back and forth to Istanbul, father. I can book a flight ticket online.”
They compromised on the flight ticket, with Orhan insisting on paying for it. By a touch of fate, the cheapest flight would have her flying on Monday and coming back on Thursday. So she ended up gaining an extra day.
With her father’s consent, Leyla had secured at least a day with Francesco. More importantly, she had won a temporary reprieve. The closer she examined her feelings, she faced a troubling thought: Did she really look forward to seeing Francesco again, or was she merely thinking of spending time with herself?
The bayram arrived, and the family set off in her father’s car for the south Turkish coast. The highways were busy with other travellers, and the further south they drove, the hotter it got. By the time they got to the family house in Alanya, it was a sweltering 45 degrees Celsius. The aunt and the two cousins were already there, and greeted them with “Iyi bayramlar!” hugs and kisses, as well as presents.
The two cousins were teen-age boys, and spent most of the day in front of the computer playing video games. Orhan worked in the garden in the mornings and slept in the afternoons. Leyla and Nur went swimming in the mornings, when it was not too hot, and later went to their rooms and laid down with their laptops, browsing Facebook and What’sApp.
The aunt sat on the patio with Faraye, drinking tea and talking of so-and-so, who was getting married, and so-and-so, who was having a baby. They talked of Istanbul. The aunt wanted to come and visit them, and Feriye said maybe she could come during the Kurban Bayram in September. They talked about Nur’s schooling and Leyla’s upcoming interview, and the reservations about her travelling to Istanbul all alone, and how it was really OK. The flight was only one hour, and it was only for a couple of days. Plus, it was agreed that perhaps finding a job would help with Leyla’s re-adjustment.
“Yes,” the aunt observed. “She does seem to spend too much time by herself. The young people nowadays, all they want to do is sit with their laptops and their video games. Yani, onlar gerçekten bencil nesil. They are a really selfish generation. Family means nothing to them. But maybe Leyla just needs time.”
“Aynın,” Faraye said, agreeing. “We think so. I think she still misses America. It was a good experience for her. Yani, we think it’s time she put America behind and settled back down to life here.”
“Evet, aynın,” the aunt said. “Life is not some Hollywood romantic comedy. One must be realistic.”
Orhan drove Leyla to the Alanya airport early Monday morning. The flight left at 8:45 and she was back at Sabia Gerkcen Airport in Istanbul shortly after 10 am. Her father had given her money for the shuttle bus, so she arrived at Bostanci about an hour later.
On the shuttle she texted Francesco. He was due to arrive around 4 o’clock. She gave him instructions on how to take the shuttle from Ataturk International. She would meet him at his hostel, which was located just off Istikklal Caddesi, at 6 o’clock. Then she called her parents, letting them know she had arrived home OK.
At the flat, she took a nap, and awoke early in the afternoon. She showered and dressed, putting on a new summer dress she had bought at a shop in Alanya. It was a white dress with a red and green floral pattern, and also some new sandals. Her perfume, sprayed on her neck, smelled of fresh gardenias, and blended with the light perspiration that came with the August heat.
She took a ferry boat over to Besiktas, on the European side of the city, then got the funicular train up the hill to Taksim. Neither the ferry nor the train was crowded. With so many Istanbullus having fled the city for the south coast beaches, the city felt empty, even a bit lonely. Leyla liked the feeling, the sad, melismatic ripple of the waves in the Bosphorous that caught the late afternoon sun, drowning it in its depths.
Taksim Square also seemed curiously deserted; but Leyla reflected that it was a Monday evening, in addition to being the bayram. It was nice though, for she and Francesco would have the city almost to themselves.
She found the hostel. It was a cheap place on a sidestreet off Istikklal Caddesi, not far from the Swedish Embassy. Francesco was sitting outside at a café next to the hostel. She recognized him, with his big, frizzy hair – his Italian afro, as they liked to joke – and long, skinny frame squeezed into one of the low, small tables. He was having an espresso. Or rather, he had ordered one, tasted it, and finding it somewhat lacking, left it to its own devices on the table.
“Why don’t you try Turkish coffee?” Leyla said, after they greeted each other and exchanged long-departed hugs and kisses.
“It’s not for me,” Francesco said. “All the grounds floating on the top of the coffee. I don’t get it.”
“Welcome to Turkey,” Leyla said. “Where many things don’t make sense.”
“Oh, you forget I am Italiano,” Francesco said. “We’re used to it.”
“And don’t forget we were an Italian man and a Turkish woman living in a together in a flat in Brooklyn,” Leyla said, with a flourish.
“Essatamente. You are correct, madame.”
“Essatamente! Correcto!” Leyla enjoyed throwing about Italian phrases, using them in that way that makes everything sound like a protest. “Well, shall we go? Or do you want to rest?”
“No, let’s go.” Francesco paid for the espresso.
“Well, you might as well get your bags.”
“What do you mean?”
“What do you think?” Leyla tilted her head, smiled. “I said, get your bags because – you’re staying with me.”
“Ah yes, the famous Turkish hospitality,” Francesco said. “It is time to put it to the test.”
After retrieving Francesco’s bags from a somewhat bewildered and irate concierge, they took a walk down Istikklal Caddesi. There were a few street musicians out, playing traditional Anatolian music. They walked past the flowing elegance of the embassies, the small cafes and shops. Leyla played the tour guide, explaining how, in Ottoman times, the avenue was the commerical heart of the city. Later, they had dinner at a place that specialized in Turkish cuisine, and had lentil soup and iskender kebab, with a bottle of red Angorra wine. By nightfall, with the last traces of sun still shimmering over the Bosphorous, they caught a ferry back to Bostanci. They went to her flat, talked for a while, drank more wine, then made love and went to bed.
Her mother Faraye called in the morning while they were still sleeping. Wildly, suddenly remembering everything, Leyla jumped up and grabbed her mobile.
“How was the interview?” Faraye asked.
“How was the interview? It was today right?”
“Oh –” Leyla’s mind reeled off a range of excuses. Then the most common one, the most believable one, came:
“It was cancelled.”
“İptal edildi? Really?
“Evet. They called this morning and said the academic director was on holiday in Bodrum during the bayram. He couldn’t get a bus back to Istanbul. All the seats were booked.”
“Because of the bayram,” Faraye said. “That’s understandable. So did they reschedule the interview?”
“They said they would call in a few days.”
“Tamam,” Faraye said. “OK. So are you coming then?”
“Yes, my flight leaves on Thursday. I’ll be back by Thursday evening.”
”Tamam, cenim. Have a safe trip.”
“Tamam, anne. Hadi bye-bye.”
Leyla, feeling much better – now she was completely covered – went back to sleep. Her excuse might come across as transparent, and her parents as gullible. But really cancellations, especially around the bayram, were quite commonplace. And her parents trusted Leyla, who for quite some time now had shown that she was quite capable of taking care of herself.
They awoke around noon, had a quick breakfast, and went out. They took the ferry boat to Buyukada, the biggest of the Princer Islands. There they rented some bicycles and spent the afternoon riding around looking at the Victorian mansions. There were no cars on the island, only bicyclists and the horse drawn carriages for the tourists. When they got hot from the cycling, they went to the beach and had a swim. The water on the far side of the island was perfect, despite a few jellyfish.
“It’s amazing here,” Francesco said. He took some photos on his iPhone. “Here we are on an island. Istanbul is only over there,” he pointed over his shoulder. “Twenty minutes by boat, and yet it feels like we are so far away.”
“Yes, it’s nice,” Leyla said. “You can get away, and get right back when you want.”
It was a nice easygoing afternoon. Almost too easy-going, Leyla thought. Where was the tension, or should there be? She wasn’t worried about her folks. Francesco was the same old Francesco. He wasn’t pressing her about anything, about New York. He always seemed to be easy going, in the moment. Part of her sensed that the situation called for some sort of conflict – maybe she was looking for it? – even the sea was silent, with scarcely a ripple, as a cargo ship bound for the Mediterranean passed.
That evening they had dinner at a fish restaurant in Kadikoy. They ordered sea bass and raki, the strong aniseed drink. Francesco had said that he could “look at all the touristy stuff” by himself before he flew out on Friday.
“I much prefer spending time with you,” he said. “And seeing your Istanbul. The tour guides can give me the rest. It’s going to be lonely without you though.”
“Is it lonely for you now in New York?” Leyla asked.
“Well, I have been seeing someone,” Francesco confessed. “It’s nothing serious. I didn’t want to bring it up.”
“Who is she?” Leyla asked.
“She’s just another Erasmus student. I met her a few months ago. We just go to movies, have coffee, you know. She’s from Roma.”
Leyla knew Francesco, and how he got lonely and always seemed to need someone to mother him. She wasn’t jealous, or even upset; in fact, she was happy that he had someone to look after him a little.
“So you are not angry?” Francesco studied her.
“No, I’m not,” Leyla said, telling him some of her thoughts.
“Yes,” Francesco said. “I knew that it wouldn’t be possible that you would come back, so – ” He took a sip of raki , and looked at Leyla. “I mean, I’m sorry.”
A waiter came and took their plates, and asked if they wanted tea or coffee. They asked for the check.
“Don’t be sorry,” Leyla said, shrugging. “I mean, don’t worry. I’m a little sad, but I know that I’ll just be sad for a little while, then move on. That’s life. She must remind you of home. And you can speak Italian with her too. You should go home though. I think you miss it.”
“Actually after this week, I’m going to visit my family for two weeks.”
“Oh, that’s nice. They will be glad to see you.”
“Don’t be so formal, darling.” Francesco kissed her forehead, and began massaging her shoulders. “After all, we are on holiday!”
Leyla resisted, pulled out from his embrace.
“Not in public,” she said. “Remember, we are not in America.”
“Oh – sorry.”
The next day, Wednesday, was their last day together. Again, they woke up late. They took a ferry to Kabataş, then walked up the hill to the Galata Tower. It was the one “touristy” thing they decided to do together. They bought tickets and waited in line, and went to the top of the ancient tower.
At the top of the tower, it was windy, offering a panoramic view of the city. Surveying the horizons, felt as though you were seeing the gateway to the Muslim world. The Golden Horn was a kind of transit center, a place where spiritual values underwent a sea change, amidst a lingua franca world of commerce.
They took some “selfies,” with the city backdrop, then went and had lunch at a nearby café. It was a windy afternoon, and the mood of the city had changed. Whereas before, there had been almost an excess of calm, now there was a bit of restlessness. Leyla felt it, too, and suddenly wished that she was alone.
Her phone rang. It was her father, Orhan. He’d obviously been informed by his wife of the interview cancellation.
“So where are you now?” he asked. “What are you doing? Why don’t you try to get an earlier flight? We are waiting for you.”
“Alright, I’ll try. I’ll call you later.” She hung up.
“Is anything the matter?” Francesco asked.
“Oh, my father.” Leyla groaned theatrically. “He wants me to join them at the summer house.”
“That’s too bad, but I suppose if you have to go – ” Francesco seemed genuinely regretful.
“I know.” Leyla said. “Well, I told him I would try to book a flight for this evening. But maybe there won’t be anything available on such short notice.”
She went online and searched the flights. There were a few seats available, but they were very expensive. She got on the phone and explained the situation to Orhan. Francesco, listened, uncomprehending, but attentively all the same.
Her father agreed that the prices were too high, and reluctantly concurred they just keep to the schedule. “Tamam,” he said. “See you tomorrow evening. Have a safe trip. I will pick you up at the airport. Remember, we are waiting for you.”
“So what’s happening?” Francesco said, after she rang off.
“Well –” Leyla sighed. “He says he’ll pay for the ticket. I have to go back tonight.” The deceit, her second in the space of a week, came off surprisingly easy and natural.
“Tonight?” Francesco’s face fell. “That’s too bad. Well, what should be do then?”
Leyla face was busy. “I have to back to the flat and pack my things. You can come with me and get your things too. It’s OK, really. Don’t worry. We had a nice time. I’ll pay for the lunch.”
“Oh, madame,” Francisco said, in mock chivalry. “I insist.”
Back at the flat in Bostanci, they packed their things. It was a fairly quick good-bye, without much time for sentiment. There was a faint strangeness in the air, but each of them, for their own reasons, dismissed it as “one of those things that happens when you’re on holiday.”
Leyla asked if he was hungry, knowing that he probably wasn’t.
“It’s OK,” Francesco said. “I’ll get something later.”
“Alright. So do you want me to walk you to the ferry station?”
“No, I can find it. Caio, my Leyla. I wish we could have had more time together.”
“So do I,” Leyla said, a mist the color of the sea hovering in her eyes.
That evening, she went for a walk by the sea. There were people out, sitting on the rocks and looking out at the sunset. A few fisherman cast their lines, while a few joggers passed in shorts and T-shirts.
Leyla found a spot high up on the rocks and looked out at the Bosphorous. A splash of water caught her attention. It was a dolphin, its shiny head popping up just a second before disappearing. Leyla looked for the dolphin, hoping it would appear again, but she didn’t see it. All around her, the city was alive, and waiting for it to get dark, so that the many eyes of the city, her city, could shine like ghosts in the transcontinental night. Yes, it was her city again, after all, and it felt good to be back home. Tomorrow she would go and join her family in Alanya. She hoped Francesco would enjoy the rest of his stay, and that he wouldn’t be lonely. Well, she’d call him later.
James Tressler, a former Times-Standard reporter, lives in Istanbul. His books, including “Lost Coast D.A.” and “Letters from Istanbul, Vol. 1,” can be found at Lulu.com