The thrilling continuation of anything remotely organized I've ever done on my blog. From Nomad's Seven Questions for Expats in Turkey.
3) What one event has most shaped your impression of Turkey?
Ah, an easy one!
When I first came here, I (like many teachers) was working illegally. It's still pretty standard practice, I think. You come in and buy your 3-month tourist visa at the airport, then go to work in some language school. Every 3 months you get a few days' vacation in a nearby country, like Greece or Bulgaria or Northern Cyprus, and when you come back in you get your passport stamped with a new tourist visa. A decent school in those days would even (at least partially) fund your visa run and arrange the bus or train. I'm not sure if they still do that. If you went to Alexandropolis, the nearest proper town in Greece to the Turkish border, there's a nice lady named Helena with a cheap and cheerful pension who will give a little discount to foreign teachers from Turkey. Her son is a big strapping stereotype of a Greek who says "Bravo" all the time.
I do get bogged down in details, don't I? The other cool thing about visa runs is the duty-free liquor at the border and the pork chops in Greece.
It's not like we're the kind of illegal immigrants anyone might be worried about. If the Ministry of Education were coming for an inspection, they'd let the school know ahead of time and all the illegal teachers would have a day off. My school even had some students who were officers for the Foreign Police (a branch of which acts as Immigration here). When I did eventually get a work permit from that school, it was through those guys-- a bit of purchased torpil in exchange for free lessons, so everyone was happy. The downside of having a work visa was that when everyone got a day off for inspections, you had to stay and be the token legal foreigner on display.
Still, there were times when schools wanted to be careful. Shortly after I arrived here, a Nigerian co-worker was politely asked to leave. This was because another Nigerian (who had nothing to do with our Nigerian) in a very highly publicized case was caught smuggling heroin into Turkey. Sadly, he didn't know there was heroin in his bag but he's still in jail. Suddenly there was all this police attention on Nigerians, so they fired the co-worker rather than risk drawing attention to all their illegal workers. Or to the co-worker, for that matter. Nigeria and Turkey trying to untangle their various bureaucracies makes it next to impossible to get a work visa for a Nigerian, or so I'm told, and no one wanted to see this fellow get deported. I still run into him from time to time. He's one of the kindest, gentlest people I've ever met. Plus, he was a hell of a teacher. None of his students ever bitched that they wanted a "real" native speaker.
Anyway. My first visa run to Greece, I went to Alexandropolis. One very interesting thing is the crossing from Turkey into Greece. Not the actual border control, which is a pain in the ass and another story entirely. The place where you actually cross is a rickety little bridge over a large stream or small river. One one side, there is a Turkish flag and on the other is a Greek flag. There are also two military bases. The Turkish one is (or was at that time) a weedy area with trash strewn all over the place. There are a few ramshackle buildings with peeling paint and a lot of forlorn guys squatting in the shade smoking cigarettes. You can almost feel them missing their mothers. The Greek side, on the other hand, is all shiny new buildings with a nice basketball court and some grass and nary a soldier to be seen except for the one or two on duty.
The actual trip to Greece was uneventful except for some really good pork chops.
I returned to Turkey on the train, with a backpack laden with several bottles of decent wine and duty-free Jack Daniels, as per my responsibility to my friends here, plus personal use. The train went about 5 miles an hour the whole way, which was fine. I just kicked back in an empty compartment and smoked and read and watched the scenery, which was cool-- Trakya is very beautiful and I love it that it's Thrace because that's where Spartacus was from. Or, at least in the movie, he was skilled with the Thracian dagger. It's the one time I saw a proper Sivas kangal, which is a type of working dog that is taller than the sheep he watches over.
By the time we arrived in Istanbul, it was dark. The train started to slow and I made to disembark in Halkalı, which is the place you can catch the Train of Misery, the old inner-city train that's smelly and rundown and you have to keep the windows closed in summer because of kids along the tracks throwing rocks and bottles. It goes from Halkalı to Sirkeci, which is near Sulanahmet, the main tourist center. Halkalı is a few stops on the Train of Misery from Bakırköy, where I was living at the time.
But when I tried to get off, the train guys stopped me and wouldn't let me out. I couldn't understand anything they were saying except "Sirkeci! Sultanahmet! Blue Mosque!" By the time I managed to say something brilliant like "Ev! Bakırköy!" and by the time they figured out what the hell I was talking about, the train had already left. I couldn't really get mad at those guys because they were just trying to be helpful, which was sweet. On the other hand, I couldn't really understand what they were on about either, except that they kept saying "Kumkapı." Eventually I worked it out that Kumkapı was the next stop, where I would be able to connect with the Train of Misery and get back to Bakırköy.
Although I didn't know it at the time, Kumkapı is less than savory. A foriegn woman alone at night wouldn't really have much reason to be there except to hang out with Gypsies or engage in prostitution. There are some good fish restaurants, I gather, and it's certainly a picturesque place-- exactly what you might want from Istanbul with crooked houses and crooked roads and clotheslines all over with people shouting, set neatly next to what's left of the old wall that used to ring the city.
As soon as I got off the train, I realized this was somewhere I didn't want to be. The station was crowded for that time of night, probably mostly people getting off work from blue collar jobs and pretty much all of them men. Of the staring variety. And by staring I mean the kind that lock onto you intently and don't look away no matter what. I saw a small clump of women to go stand near, but they turned out to be hookers so I moved away and just stood there gritting my teeth and trying to look cool and streetwise and stuff.
The Train of Misery was packed. I took a place near the door where there was a strap I could hang onto, and continued trying to look like I knew what I was doing. There were a few men around me who appeared to be enjoying getting pressed up against me a little too much. The difference in our heights made their faces uncomfortably close to tit level. Pretty soon I had the distinct impression that two of them were rubbing up and down against me, each apparently unaware of the other but I can't be sure.
Suddenly from behind me, another couple of guys started edging up next to me. I began to wonder if this all had some sort of comedic value, and exactly how many guys would be able to get a piece of me before we got to Bakırköy. I just focused on the sign above the door that listed the train stops, and tried to configure that with where we were. This was a pretty daunting task on the Train of Misery since the signs in the stations that said which station it was weren't visible from the train (they've since fixed this wee problem), which meant you had to keep count. I'd already lost count but was sort of confident I could recognize Bakırköy.
Then one of the new guys leaned his head next to me and asked in English, "Where are you from?" I figured answering him would be a mistake so I just shrugged and looked away.
"Are you okay?" he asked softly. By then he'd managed to work his way between me and one of the leg humpers. His friend was slowly doing the same on the other side. "Yes," I asnwered, still looking away.
Suddenly the two new guys started shouting in Turkish and everyone turned to look. I had no idea what they were saying, but there was a lot of clucking from the crowd and the leg humpers quietly slipped away while everyone gave them dirty looks. A space cleared around me.
"There are some bad men in Türkiye, very bad," the man said. "It isn't safe for you. Are you going to Bakırköy? Are you a teacher?" I nodded. The man informed everyone around us that I was foriegn and that I was going to Bakırköy and that I was a teacher. They were all ever so pleased. The silent train erupted into happy jabbering as they all discussed this and started asking him and me questions. The volume doubled when I said I was American. I wish I could have understood them, but mostly I only heard words like "futbol" and "Jennifer Lopez," which means, in retrospect, they were probably asking those somewhat endearing and naive questions Turkish people often ask about America, like do we have football there and have I met Jennifer Lopez and America is so nice, why did you come to Turkey? It was all very jolly, down to the guy who asked about football getting a playful smack on the head from his friend who sagely informed him we have American football in America, not regular football.
In Bakırköy, another man who was also getting off there had been appointed to look after me. He saw me off to where I was meeting my friends near the station and merrily went on his way.
The story was a long time in the telling, I know, but that time on the Train of Misery pretty much captures a lot of what needs to be captured about this country.
Thanks for reading to the end.