Life begins all over again in the fall: That old saying is particularly apt this year.
In the city by the Bosphorus, students and teachers are back on campus (although we still have online lessons a couple days of the week). Seeing all the young people makes the city feel young and vibrant again. Their fresh
faces strike a stirring contrast to the fallen leaves, which lay scattered on the sidewalks in red, yellow and brown.
The city’s natural riotous rhythms have returned — the clamor of traffic, pedestrians crossing the crowded lanes, smartphones in hand; car horns puncturing the faintly misty air; the Bosphorus churning with ferries and container vessels passing under the bridges, the street musicians playing their saz and lutes in the tunnels and sidestreets.
With this rebirth of urban life, the anxieties many initially harbored about the “new normal” have more or less faded with the last rays of summer. Nationwide, nearly 60 percent of the population has been vaccinated against the virus, and in Istanbul that number is considerably higher. Overall, people seem to have turned a mental corner, and are determined to get on with the business of living.
That feeling prevails at the campus where I teach. Yes, we have to wear masks in the building and in the classrooms, which we all worried about at first, but so far the lessons have gone smoothly. The students enjoy seeing each other face to face again. After all, for them college is about socializing, seeing and being seen, flirting, hanging out, as much if not more so than the curriculum or prepping for their departmental studies next year. They feel like they are free to be young again.
In the classroom, they are more engaged than in years’ past. Of course, students are always like that in the first term, I suppose. They’re 18- and 19-year-olds, they’re excited and a bit impressed by this first step forward in their adult lives. By the second term, familiarity breeds contempt and they get bored with the prep program, anxious to get over to the main campus in Santral, to start “real” university. At any rate, it’s nice to see all their (masked) faces in person again.
On the home front, my wife Özge still has a few months left before she has to return to her job at the national palace. With me at the campus during the day, and the era of lockdowns behind us (touch wood!) she has finally been able to enjoy something of the idyllic maternity leave she had pictured in the days of her pregnancy two autumns ago. She takes our son Leo out for walks, or to museums, or to the aquarium to look at all the fish in the mornings, and during his afternoon nap, she’s able to have some quiet time to herself for a change. When I get home in the evening we take turns making dinner (depending on who’s got the energy), or go out to one of the local restaurants. Then we take Leo out again for a walk so that he’ll burn some energy and be able to settle down at bedtime.
On Thursdays and Fridays we have online lessons, so we go back to our old lockdown home routine, with me, the laptop and headset out on the balcony while Özge occupies Leo for a few hours until the lessons are over and we can head outside to catch the gorgeous afternoons.
On the weekends, we alternate between Kadıköy on the Asian side, and the shores of Beşiktaş and Karaköy over on the European side. In these glittering neighborhoods, the tourists have long since returned, for good or ill. I say that because the other night, after having tasty tantuni at a street food cafe in Karaköy, my wife wanted to grab some baklava from one of the famous places on our way to the ferry. While I waited outside with Leo in his stroller, she went in — emerging two minutes later empty-handed and frustrated.
“The queue is a mile long!” she said. “One Arab customer was ordering 10 kilos of baklava!”
“Ten kilos!” I exclaimed. “Who the hell needs that much baklava?”
“It’s to take home.”
As a local, at times you feel a bit pushed out in some places — or priced out. Inflation has been an issue for some time here — the lira limps along down 9-1 to the dollar, leaving locals to feel the crunch, while the tourists, with their dollars and euros, prance around raving about how “marvelously cheap everything is!” It’s nice to be them, I guess.
The tourists are generally well-behaved, though. We see a good deal of them in Kuzguncuk, a lovely seaside neighborhood that rests beneath the shade of reassuring chestnut trees, the sidewalks now freckled with their falling leaves. We often take Leo to the park there because he likes to kick his ball around and watch the older kids playing. The other parents bring their little ones too and they often come and take Leo’s ball and wander off with it, our son still too shy to stop them. The kids are all friendly, and their parents usually instruct their kid to give the ball back to “Arkadaşım” (“My friend,” the kind Turk address).
The tourists come into the park in groups, as part of a guided tour of the city that includes Kuzguncuk presumably. The ones we see most often are Italians, Russians, and Arabs, but recently I’ve overheard a few French speakers and have seen a few Asians too.
Most have their masks draped around their necks, which is OK in the city as long as you’re not in crowded areas like the markets; the park naturally offers lots of fresh, open air. The Russians for some reason never seem to wear masks, and seem a tad bit haughty about it, but then Russians have been coming to Turkey for ages — the southern coastal resorts, especially Alanya and Antalya practically become Russian towns in the summer. The signs and menus are in Turkish, English and Russian. During the worst days of the pandemic, the loss of Russian tourism was felt keenly in these areas. With their return, the Russians perhaps feel their self-satisfaction is well-deserved. Ah, well …maybe I’m just starting to sound like some grumpy local.
Walking through Kuzguncuk, with Leo walking beside us, my wife and I look at the people — mostly young — sitting at tables outside the busy cafes. On the weekends, they enjoy noon breakfasts, the famous Turkish kahvalti with all of its cheeses and meats and eggs and cream and honey spread on fresh simit bread, with tea in the hour-glass shaped glasses. With a toddler, we don’t have that luxury anymore, to wake up on the weekend whenever and be able to have late breakfast and afterward just sit as long as you want without a care in the world. The women are all young and fashionably dressed, elegant and lovely. Just like Özge, I remind myself — that’s right, you married one of them, remember James? That’s right.
I look at my wife walking beside me, and down at Leo, who’s helping push the stroller in his little determined way. We pass people having their late breakfasts and head back down to the intersection, where we can see the busy Bosphorus, the world and all its seasons, passing by.
James Tressler is a writer and teacher living in Istanbul.