It’s like the pandemic all over again. That’s the feeling you get these days at the campus. The corridors, bustling with students and teachers just a few weeks ago, are empty and silent, as all classes are online pending further government notice.

Outside in the neighborhood, some of the cafes that rely on student foot traffic are closed, and there is a general dismal air throughout the vast city.

Upstairs, the teacher’s terrace, normally full of colleagues grabbing a coffee and cigarette between classes, is deserted except for a handful of mainstays like myself, who come to the campus because there are fewer distractions than at home. My boss and another lady were conscientiously caring for the somewhat neglected plants, sweeping up leaves that have dried and fallen.

“So,” I joked, referencing Covid days.  “Are everyone’s office plants gonna die again?”

Photo: Tressler.

My boss gave a rueful grin and I returned to my office on the fourth floor, passing no one in the silent halls. A persistent feeling of defeat, of resignation has hung over the country ever since a series of massive quakes rocked the southeast, killing upwards of 45,000. A feeling of déjà vu, of not again! What else can happen to us that hasn’t already happened?

“Aren’t you worried at all about the earthquakes?” my wife asked the other evening. Ever since last month’s tragedy, she has insisted that we relocate sometime in the next year to a safer zone, most likely the capital Ankara.

“No,” I said, and I meant it. Just answering the question made me tired.

“NO? Not at all?” my wife asked, shooting a meaningful glance at our 3-year-old son Leo, who was playing with one of his cars at my feet.

“No,” I persisted. “I mean, here in Turkey if it’s not one thing it’s another!”

My wife acknowledged that point. In the decade we have been together, we have seen the country face not one but two wars – Syrıa to the south, now Ukraine to the north, and all of the refugees flooding into the country. We have seen political turbulence – from the Gezi Park protests to the 2016 failed military coup, and all of the resultant fallout, the mass arrests and persecutions. We have seen skyrocketing inflation that has crippled growth.

“And Covid,” my wife added, listening while I listlessly listed all of the above.

“I mean, I’m 50 –” I went on, about to add how I felt entitled at this stage of life to not be bothered.

“Yes, but what about his age?” my wife said, indicating our son Leo, who was still playing with his cars, oblivious to these significant discussions about his present and future.

We have had these discussions, in varying forms, ever since the earthquakes struck, and each aftershock jolts them back into focus and relevance. Aftershocks: experts warn that the aftershocks of the quakes down south could persist for months. Aftershocks? Isn’t living in Turkey one long, continuous aftershock, from disasters natural and otherwise?

Of course, I know my wife is right (isn’t she always? Happy wife, happy life?). Still, I have resisted the idea. We just bought our apartment near Kadıkoy last summer, the paint on the renovations scarcely dried. There is my work at the university, where I am for the most part content, and not to mention the fact that Istanbul is one of the great cities of the world. Ankara?

“Think of it this way,” I told my wife, during one of these discussions. “Imagine after we married we’d gone to America and settled in New York, had a new apartment in Manhattan, and then suddenly I was talking about moving us to somewhere like Pittsburgh?”

“I’d rather live in Pittsburgh than New York,” my wife said with casual defiance, and which I almost knew she would say.

These kinds of debates are probably not confined to our Kadıkoy apartment. Doubtless the recent tragedies, coupled with all of the country’s other longstanding woes, have prompted countless other couples around the city and country to start evaluating (or re-evaluating) their options. In fact, some of my colleagues, not entirely joking, asked me right after the earthquakes: “So are you going back to America?” They asked the question with the implication that they wished they had that option, that I was lucky. If only it were that easy. Perhaps if I were younger and single – as you get older and settled, it’s a lot harder to just pack your bag and leave (for years, in Prague and upon arriving in Istanbul, I lived by the self-made mantra: never own more than you are able to pack into a single bag at a moment’s notice).

Of course, watching the disturbing images on the news, of whole apartment buildings collapsing, reading of entire families wiped out in a matter of seconds, and those who died trapped in the rubble, freezing or starving, have a way of putting such feeble thoughts in perspective. What if the next big one hit Istanbul, is the general fear here, shared by my wife and most others with a grain of reason?. No doubt the casualties here, with its population of 15 million densely packed into tenements and buildings no better or stronger than those we saw collapse into rubble on the TV, would be much higher.

“But we’re invested here,” I protested. “What about our apartment? What about my work? Your work?” And so on, to little avail, and realizing that of the two, her argument is no doubt  the more reasonable one. She usually knows best, after all. But damn it, Ankara? Where there is no sea, where there is not the proximity to Europe, nor the cosmopolitan vibe I like so much? A land-locked city on a river in the middle of Anatolia, the Midwest of Turkey. It’s like moving from San Francisco to somewhere like Lincoln, Nebraska, except imagine Lincoln, Nebraska with 9 million people.

Most likely, we will be moving there sometime in the next year. That means I will need to start looking at universities in the Ankara area, and getting used to the idea of leaving Istanbul behind. I know, it’s for the family’s sake, for our son’s sake. I know I am being selfish, and who knows? Maybe good things will come of the decision.  Who knows what will happen next in this country?

On a related note: I have kept up with the latest news back on the North Coast, itself no stranger to earthquakes. A proposal there to use barges for student housing caught my attention, and set in motion a brainstorm. After all, here in Turkey there has been increased interest in converting shipping containers into housing. Maybe you have seen examples on the Internet. Why couldn’t we sell our flat and invest in one of these converted shipping containers?

As usual, my wife was way ahead, having already looked into the costs. The containers themselves were fairly reasonable.

“But you need land,” she added. “Or a park? Do you know any trailer parks around here?”

As for the barge idea (I tried painting an image of new apartments floating on barges in the Bosphorus – sensible, eh, romantic even?), my wife shot that one down instantly, citing researchers findings that the faultlines here extend into the Bosphorus and nearby sea, so we would be if anything even more vulnerable should the Big One strike. So much for containers and barges, for now.


Some time back I was having a discussion with students about results of a World Happiness Index, an annual survey. At the top of the list were the usual suspects – Finland, Denmark, the Nordic countries basically. At the bottom was likewise dismally predicable, with war-torn countries like Syria and Afghanistan near the bottom.

Where was Turkey? Somewhere in the middle, as it always seems to be. “Well, we’re not the best, but far from the worst,” I said, in that teacherly encouraging way.

“Geography is destiny,” mused one of the young men, a tall basketball player. The rest of the class nodded in agreement, and we all for a moment imagined ourselves existing blissfully in somewhere like Switzerland. Why can’t we all live in Switzerland, a wealthy, peaceful country where absolutely nothing bad ever seems to happen? Why did we have to live in Turkey, where catastrophe, crisis, disaster, in one form or another, always seems to hover just over the last horizon and over the next one?

A few days later, over beers with a close friend, Omer, I passed on this “geography is destiny” pronouncement.

“Yes. Absolutely!” Omer concurred. We drank our beer, and I told him about our plans to move to Ankara. “If your wife is worried,” he said, “why not have your building evaluated for earthquake safety? If there is a danger, you could always keep the flat and rent it out, and find a safer one. “

It was encouraging to have Omer on my side. My wife thinks well of him, and takes his advice seriously, so I was happy to pass it along. Don’t know if that will make any difference, but we’ll see. Meanwhile, I have to prepare for my online lesson, and the next looming disaster. I think of my wife, and my son at home with his grandparents, and think that if geography is indeed destiny, then I couldn’t have picked a better place.


James Tressler, a former Lost Coast resident, is a writer living in Istanbul.