I’ve been living in the city for ten years now.

And for nearly a decade I have written these letters, to capture my experiences, but also as a way to stay in touch with folks back in America and especially the Lost Coast, which gave me some of the most vital and important years of my life in the Nineties and in the early years of the new millennium.

Together we have taken ferryboats across the Bosphorus, witnessed tumult and unrest in the Gezi Park protests in 2013, the failed coup attempt three years later (when even the roar of fighter jets shook our apartment late in the night), and this past year the raging, relentless onslaught of coronavirus that has left no city or town or village immune, not even the mighty former Constantinople. Oh, and don’t forget about Syria. We had refugees, whole families, on the sidewalks in our neighborhoods, holding up hand-written placards asking for help, the children playing on the sidewalks while the mothers hung freshly washed laundry (God knows how and where they washed the clothes) up on nearby shrubs and bushes in the shadow of a busy shopping mall. By and large, most of the Syrians disappeared from the streets, and many either opened up businesses or moved on to Europe and elsewhere. Ten years on, those children I saw on the streets are nearly high school age now, fluent in Turkish and perhaps English as well as their native Arabic. What a story they will have to tell someday!

But there have been good things too. Visiting places like the site of Troy, the honeyed waters of the Mediterranean and Aegean, and sipping wine near an ancient fortress on the island of Bozcaada. Meeting my wife Ozge, dancing atop a ferry on our wedding night with the stars shining over the Black Sea; witnessing the ever-transforming cityscape – a new international airport, a third span bridge; negotiating the Marmaray metro that runs beneath the waters of the Bosphorus; purchasing our small apartment in Üsküdar, with its generous view of the Martyrs’ Bridge and skyscrapers in Levent and Maslak, and Dolmabahce Palace were my wife works; being there for the birth of our little boy Leo Emre.

It’s hard to begrudge a city that has given so many things, especially as a writer.


The question that has surfaced over the years, both with readers and with myself, is why and how did I end up in Turkey? I always answer: Istanbul. I didn’t choose Turkey, in other words, I chose Istanbul. As much as I loved the Lost Coast and California, in my heart, I think I always knew that I would one day live in a big city, a really grand city. For years, I thought it would be New York. But suitable circumstances never presented themselves, despite three trips to the Big Apple and even a personal visit to the offices of The New York Times, where I was told the metropolitan editor, “Doesn’t really ‘see’ people.” So I went to Prague instead.

In 2009, when the world was spinning into the financial crisis, and millions (including several very talented people I knew) were out of work, there I was with a job offer in Istanbul. Istanbul! It’s not every day you get a job offer from Istanbul so naturally I jumped at the chance. A friend and former student in Prague gave me a lift to the airport. With a final handshake and “Na shledanou!” from my Czech friend, I departed the Golden City and set off for the shores of the Golden Horn.


Istanbul. I fell in love with all the things people who love Istanbul usually fall in love with. The crowded, (yes, labyrinthine) streets, the teeming markets and stalls, the salty air of the sea that reminded me of California, the clamor and din of immense, deeply lived urban life, the sense of urgency in the cry of the gulls. The sound of parties on nearby rooftops, a woman’s voice singing a melancholy tune somewhere in the night, expressing the universal sadness that can perhaps best be expressed by the Turkish word “üzün,” as Orhan Pamuk reflected in his Istanbul memoirs …

Anyway, the prospect of so many lives, conflicts, dramas, stories. The proximity of history, which was no further than my doorstep, the stories that lurk under every stone, as Elif Şafak told a CNN reporter on a visit back in 2010. The street cats, always on the prowl, maintaining their vigil over the soul of the city. The point is: as a writer, if you can’t find something to write about in Istanbul, a city that offers more stories per square meter than perhaps any city in the world, then you should consider changing your trade.


It was so easy to get lost in it, lost in the city. I think deep down that was all I ever wanted, to find a great city and to fall in love with it, deeply in love, and to get lost in it, lost in the multitudes. To be a stranger emerging from the metro out into the sun, or rain or fog. To be that old man we saw the other day on our walk. He was in his late sixties, rough skin, a white mustache and white hair parted on the side. I wondered if he was retired. Probably. Widowed? Possibly. I wondered if the gentleman had always imagined this scene as his retirement, the privilege of sitting in a park in the middle of the day, reading a newspaper and not having anyone bother him?

A false spring bathed the park in reassuring sunlight. Most of the benches were empty. Presently a quartet of young people, two boys and two girls, all wearing young lovers have. They had bought burgers and fries at a nearby Burger King and were evidently going to have a picnic at the top of the hill, a rendezvous. I watched them as they traversed the zig-zagging steps to the top of the hill, where they could escape Covid and find a place where they could enjoy being young together. I couldn’t blame them, could you? Lord knows youth doesn’t last long. Could you imagine being young in these times?

Anyway, the gentleman was sitting on a park bench alone, crouched over a newspaper. A newspaper! Not a phone. He was deeply engrossed in the newspaper, and in his solitude – so much that I almost hated to disturb him. Let him have the park to himself, I almost thought. But Leo, our boy, needed to get out of the house. For New Year’s the city was going to be shut down for four days. And Leo loves the park. Ozge lets him practice standing in the moist grass, with all the pinecones and the all the crisp fallen leaves and he leans against a tree, rejoicing and wondering as his small hands travel along the bark. I envy him, almost remembering when I too could be entranced by such things. A little while later, after we took Leo to watch the water in the fountain, I looked for our gentleman, but of course he was gone.

Reading over what I just wrote, I see that I was wrong. It was not a city I wished to fall in love with, nor any place, though these things can be worthy of love. I look at my son, and my wife Ozge, and I realize that the city, as great as it is, and the park, and that gentleman on the bench reading his newspaper, and the young masked lovers going up the hill for their picnic, and the Bosphorus itself, winking back at us in the false spring sun – none of these things would mean anything without my wife and son.

Ten years on, I guess I have become lost in the city, and happily so, as I always wanted. In this great city, and in this lostness, I have found a great many things: A new home and a family, a great family. I know it’s lame and cliché to end a story on a quote, so I won’t. Instead, I’ll just try to remark upon something Emerson once observed, but try to say it in my own way:

The times in life we tend to think as wasted can often prove to be, upon reflection, our most productive. Let’s hope the past year, and the new one, turn out to be among those times.


James Tressler, a former Lost Coast resident, is a writer and teacher.