This past week, the country’s health minister confirmed the first case of coronavirus in Turkey.

The news was greeted by many with a peculiar wave of relief more than concern, believe it or not. As the pandemic spread across the planet, we here in Turkey anxiously awaited our turn, for the virus to show up here. Weeks, months, passed with neither word nor trace of anybody infected.

Then one night on the news this past week, a color graphic on the news showed that every neighboring country had been infected. In fact, every country in the region – except Turkey.

“That can’t be right,” my wife said, echoing the skepticism of many. “We’re not some magical country.”

Yes, it was rather odd, wasn’t it? Anecdotally, we had all been treated to theories on Turkey’s curious omission. The mighty Turk blood was immune to the virus. “Must be all that kebab!” people joked, some only half-jokingly. Yes, kebab has always been known to possess certain superpowers.

Or maybe, perversely, we all just felt left out. All the rest of the world was getting sick, and what devil possessed us that we felt so well?

There were questions naturally. Were there in fact cases that the government was not telling us about? Were they simply unaware of any cases? Was the legend of Turkish kebab founded in fact?

As you can imagine, the official confirmation of Turkey’s first case, an unidentified male who reportedly just returned from a trip to Europe who has since been kept in “complete isolation,” we all breathed a sigh of relief through our masks. Just kidding. We haven’t been wearing any masks, at least not the vast majority of us.

In fact, I recall just last weekend enjoying glasses of Tuborg with an old friend at Bahane Kultur in Kadıköy, under mauve-colored skies. It felt like spring, the air fresh and fine, and people were out walking. My friend had just returned from a business trip in Dubai and Saudi Arabia. He told me about how at the airport in Dammam, officials were taking the temperatures of all the incoming passengers.

We discussed the spread of the pandemic, but found statistical comfort in the fact that only about 4 percent of coronavirus patients worldwide had died. And there we were, under the spring skies in Kadıköy, having beer and feeling perfectly healthy. Of course, after clinking glasses, we touched the wooden table.


Those rays of smug reassurance changed on Wednesday morning, the day of the virus.

At work, colleagues were talking about the first case, which had been reported late Tuesday evening. Earlier that morning, on the ferry boat from Üsküdar to Beşkitaş, and on the bus to the university, I had noticed a few masks here and there. But in Istanbul, long before the coronavirus reared its microscopic head, you could always see a face mask here and there, so right now it’s hard to tell how much the first case has affected the populace. And even now, as I write this, there is the possibility that by tomorrow everything could be different. There could be 50 new cases, or more.

Owing to our newborn son, I have been expressly forbidden by my wife to get sick. Always a loving and devoted wife, I am sure that should that which is forbidden befall me, she would make sure I was properly cared for in a flophouse somewhere in Tarlabaşı (“They say drinking alcohol kills the virus! You can go back to your bachelor drinking days, my love! Geçmis olsun!”)

At any rate, in the interests of health and our newborn, I have tried to avoid using the metrobus, as well as the Marmaray, and stick to the fresh air of the vapor and minibuses as much as possible. I’ve even refrained from going to our beloved fish market, where I’ve always picked up a couple of fresh levrek once a week. Last time I was there, a week or so ago, one of the guys cutting the fish asked where I was from.

When I told him America, he looked closely at me for a second, muttered “Coronavirus?” I muttered it back nervously. We both stood there, nodding solemnly, pondering the entry of this phantasmagorical word into our lives, then he patted me on the back and picked out two fresh specimens to take home to dinner. Then we shook hands, patted each other bravely on the back once more, and he went on to the next customer, and I to get some wine to go with the levrek.


Like most people, I have kept an eye on the news these past weeks, as the virus shapeshifted into the specter of a global pandemic. The news about the total lockdown in Italy really hit close to home. Francesco and I used to be flatmates when he was an Erasmus student. After he moved back to Italy, we kept in touch, and when my wife Ozge and I visited Florence a few years ago, Francesco was pleased to act as our personal guide to the city.

The other day, with the news reports of a total lock down, I decided to check in on my old friend. He lives in Prato, a Tuscany town of about 30,000 a few miles outside of Florence. At this point, we miraculously hadn’t had any cases reported in Turkey.

To my relief, Francesco responded to my messages promptly, a sign of his good health. These days, he’s working on his PhD. He leaves his house once every two or three days, to walk his dog and go the supermarket. (“It’s crazy! Like Black Friday in the U.S.,” he says, about the supermarkets. “People are stupid, buying up everything, acting like it is a nuclear apocalypse!”)

“What about meeting friends?” I asked.

“Ha! You don’t!” he replied. “I met some friends on Skype yesterday.”

As we chatted, I recalled our visit to Florence, a pleasant day spent walking the cobbled streets, our wonderful lunch at a local vinai that Francesco personally selected, and climbing the steps to see Brunelesci’s dome at the famous cathedral.

These days, the streets of Florence are much quieter than usual. “More like a city and less like Disneyland,” Francesco says.

We joked that maybe the virus has its upsides – it could help fight the problems of hyper-tourism and global warming, since travel – especially air travel – has fallen around the world in recent weeks.

“Personally, I thought this crisis would help me to focus on finishing my thesis,” Francesco added, ruefully. “But unfortunately, this is not the case.”

Instead, since the lock down he has spent most of his time at home, at first binge-watching movies on Netflix, and now increasingly the news. His girlfriend, a physiotherapist, still goes to work. Two of her friends have been quarantined because of the virus.

I asked Francesco if he had any advice, if by chance the virus should ever show up on our blessed shores.

“This is really hard to answer,” he said. “Because every day things are changing. I think the main thing is that we should all behave for the common good. A lot of people underestimate the crisis. Even here, with the lockdown, people from southern Italy work in northern Italy, and each day they are going back home. The risk is they could carry the virus with them.

“And others are over-worried. I can say it is really easy to panic, but a majority of Italians are now united and respecting the lock down.”

I wished my old friend well. My wife and I, and hopefully our newborn son, would love to return to Italy someday, and have a splendid reunion with Francesco (hopefully, pandemic or not, he’ll have finished his thesis by then). Thinking now about our conversation, I can imagine that his experiences probably are similar to people all over Italy, and around the world.


By lunchtime on Wednesday, talk of coronavirus’ long-awaited arrival had become common talk in the corridors at the university. And in the classrooms. There was word of a second reported case in the news.

My students, well-informed on such things, told me that already two universities had announced they were closing for precautions, allowing for online lessons.

“Teacher, will we close too?” they asked hopefully. Ah, may the virus grant them a reprieve

I told them I would let them know whenever they let me know.

Up on the terrace, where teachers gather for smoke breaks, we have installed a disinfectant station. You just press the button and some alcohol-based lubricant get released into your hands.

“But what about the button itself?” I asked. “What if the virus is on the button?”

“It doesn’t live on plastic,” a colleagues assured.

After lunch, the corridors were strangely quiet. About half my students showed up, the rest had gone home, unnerved by all the coronavirus talk in the air. The rest of us toughed it out, the light spring air coming in almost ironically through the window. I thanked those brave few who stayed, and after some review, as a reward let them go home early.


On Thursday morning, the students were restless. The weather has been really nice, so spring fever had set in, on top of the coronavirus fears. Also, several universities had announced they were closing for a few weeks to allow for cleaning. Classes would be held online.

Naturally the students wanted to know if our university was going to close too. I said I had no idea, which was true.

To help them settle in and focus, I went online and we checked the latest updates. Approximately 127,000 cases worldwide, and roughly 4,700 deaths. Only two cases in Turkey.

“Any math majors here?” I asked. “What are your chances of dying of coronavirus?” They calculated on their phones. “About 4 percent,” was the consensus.

“And you all are young and strong, so that makes it even less for you,” I said. That seemed to mollify them a bit, and we got down to business preparing for the morning’s quiz.


Later that day, taking the bus to the waterfront, I noticed almost no one was wearing masks, including myself. I thought about the lesson. As a teacher, had I gone about things the right way? Was I being overly optimistic? Too cavalier? What were a teacher’s responsibilities in these situations?

(Most importantly, what about my infant son, Leo? Was I being careful enough for his sake?)

Then I thought about the university’s motto: “Learning not just for school, but for life.”

Well, this if this isn’t learning for life, then what is?

I thought about all the other things that we have faced here the past decade. Adapting to sudden, dramatic change has always been the way in this part of the world. We will have to learn to live with this new crisis. Just as we have learned to live with terrorism, the civil war in Syria and the influx of refugees. But just as we have weathered these crises, I know we can deal with this one as well. Maybe we should all eat more kebab. After all, maybe the legend is true.


James Tressler is a writer and teacher living in Üsküdar.