My wife and I moved into our new apartment in Üsküdar, on the Asian side of the city. It’s official: for the first time in our lives, we are now homeowners.
For years, like many people, we had longed to have our own place. We were tired of landlords, of rent payments. We longed to have our own little garden, a bit of green space, for the cat Ginger to wander and mew about. The problem is that in this city, most places anywhere near the center are formidably expensive. For working folks like us, it seemed that if you wanted something reasonable, you had to settle for the sticks – Kurtköy, Kartal, Gebze – places that even with the metro system would mean long commutes to work, not to mention being consigned to a soul-less existence in Istanbul’s version of suburbia.
Fortunately, my wife Özge happens to be a patient, persistent woman. Most Anatolian women are. She also happens to be a smart, resourceful one. So after several years of faithfully tracking the real estate web pages, of sizing up and dismissing flat after flat (with her sullen, “Can we go home now?” husband usually in tow), she had finally found something promising.
Boy, did she ever. When we went to look at the place, we couldn’t believe our eyes. Located on a hillside just up from the ferry boat station, the apartment offers a view of not only the Bosphorus and the Istanbul skyline, but also the Bosphorus Bridge, which connects Europe and Asia. Prime real estate, my friend.
On top of that, we discovered upon entry that the flat, though admittedly small and located on the basement level of the complex, looks out onto a pleasant little garden. A tiny, humble garden, but a garden nonetheless, with grass and flowers and vines crawling up the walls.
Ah, the price, you ask? I won’t go into figures, but let us just say that it was a fraction of the cost of anything else in the area. Apparently its size and basement location put off some potential buyers, or else had just been overlooked. Perhaps some passing deity, on a whim, had decided to smile upon us.
“You’re buying this place!” Özge’s parents all but commanded, after they flew up to the city to offer a second opinion.
So we did. Due to certain positive recent development in our finances, we were able to buy the place outright. No monthly payments, except for the new appliances (fridge, stove, washing machine) that a new flat requires.
Speaking of my in-laws: Turkish parents are awesome. As I said, they interrupted their quiet, idyllic retirement on the south coast to help us close the deal. It was they who for the most part navigated the byzantine process of homebuying, the details of which remain largely a mystery to me. It was they who finalized negotiations with the emlak (real estate agent), made numerous trips to crowdedbelediye offices, acquiring necessary documents, getting the gas and electric going (a much more involved process here in Turkey than elsewhere), buying new things for the flat, securing a reasonable price from the moving company – not to mention cleaning and preparing the old flat so that the landlady would return our deposit. A thousand details that Özge and I could not possibly have managed on our own (With my bad Turkish, and being a yabancı on top of that, the bulk of the job would have fallen on my wife’s shoulders, and most likely would have required her to use vacation days).
All of these boxes ticked, the day of the move finally arrived. I felt a little guilty. For weeks, my wife had chided the cat and I for being a couple of idle aristocrats, deftly avoiding much of the whole tiresome business. What could I do? My students were reviewing for final exams, so I had to be at work. And you could hardly blame the cat for being so cat-like in its ways.
Anyway, I waited until well into the afternoon on moving day before calling home to see how everything was going.
“Is everything OK?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” Özge said. She sounded tired. “I mean, we’re here. Everything’s here – all over the place.”
The moving guys were Kurdish and Syrian, all young and strong-backed. One of them easily hefted our heavy solid wood coffee table over one shoulder, balanced a book shelf over the other, and loaded both onto the truck, my wife reported. Good to hear we were getting our money’s worth.
“Oh, and I gave him our old washing machine,” Özge added.
“He’ll probably just sell it,” I said.
“Whatever he wants to do with it.”
When I arrived at the new apartment that evening, the interior looked as though a bomb had exploded. Piles of stuff jammed every inch of the space (You ever notice, when you move, how all your possessions, loaded into bags and boxes, look almost pitiful, like you’re a refugee or something?). I immediately jumped in and started helping with the unpacking. We worked furiously, and within an hour or so, my father-in-law, Baba, and I carved out the makings of a living room, while Özge and her mother worked on the bedroom and kitchen.
By sunset, we had managed to give the place the semblance of a home atmosphere, although there was still a lot of work to be done. The cat Ginger, frightened and bewildered, hid under the sofa for most of the evening, looking out at us with feline suspicion. Her castle had vanished, and she was now trying to suss out her new surroundings.
We ordered a couple pizzas, and cleared some moving junk off the dinner table. We had our first meal. Somehow the ritual of the meal made it really feel like home now, with the soft light from the garden coming in through the glass doors of the terrace.
Sometime around ten, Baba and I were beat, plus I had to get up early for work. We both hit the sack, snored and slept, while Özge and her mother cleaned, arranged, rearranged, fought, fussed, folded, separated, and all the other necessary things mothers and their daughters do long into the night.
In the morning, I woke up. My wife was asleep. She looked peaceful, so I tried not to wake her. The cat Ginger had come out of her hiding spot, most likely to explore during the night, and had found her old familiar post atop the wardrobe.
I had my first shower in the new flat. The newness of it all hit me like the hot, high-pressured spray of the shower. It was our shower. It was our bathroom. It was our apartment, and our terrace and garden outside. Everything in the flat, even the walls, the paint on the walls, were ours. If somebody had a problem, they could call the landlord – except, oh wait – we were the landlords now!
Remembering to take the new keys, I put them in my pocket and set out. Everybody else was still asleep. Outside, it was sunrise. The streets of our new neighborhood were dead quiet. I walked, almost wishing good morning to the bridge, visible in the distance. Further on, I looked down the hill and saw the Bosphorus. It was as smooth and clear as a lake. The ferryboats were just getting started. Beyond lay the grey skyscrapers in Levent and Maslak, awaiting the start of another business day. In the street, a lone street dog, grey and sleepy-looking, watched indifferently as I strode past, down a long series of steps to catch the Marmaray to work.
Everything felt brand new, our life in the heart of the great city. Again, I thanked the gods for my wife’s patience and wisdom, and for her parents’ tireless, unwavering support (and mine, too, for even all the way from America, they had also helped).
Y’know, reader: Some would say we’re crazy, settling down in today’s Turkey. What with a state of emergency, rising inflation, an economy in turmoil, with a lot of matters still far from resolved in Syria, the nation and region’s turbulent politics and uncertain future. Hell, we had read and heard personal accounts of refugees working in factories, on virtual slave wages, forced to share miserable, wretched, overcrowded apartments. We were very lucky. But perhaps the old saying is true, that crises can also be opportunities.
We hope so, for is it so much for anyone to ask? To have a place to call home, especially a home by the sea?
James Tressler, a former Lost Coast resident, is a writer and teacher in Istanbul.