Saturday, May 29, 2010

Ex-Pat Questions: Number 3

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.


Nomad said...

For me, it's moments like the one you described that makes all the crap one often has to endure in Turkey worth it. I was lucky enough to have read a certain book about traveling through Europe (I've forgotten the name unfortunately) and one quote that stuck with me was:
Whenever you have a nightmarish event occur just keep telling yourself what a marvelous story it will make in future tellings.

The single idea has managed to keep me from losing my mind on many occasions.

Bulent Murtezaoglu said...

Hmm? What's so neat about this? Perhaps I don't understand this as a Turk? I mean of course those two guys who helped you ought to have done it, and they did. That is not a problem here. (Another blogger that I reached thru Nomad's blog, had a similar piece w/o the nasty beginning). The problem is that on that same train same thing will be needed from some other guys the next time some foreign woman rides in it. We don't seem to do anything about that.

Anyway, we have saying that fits. Allah sevdiği kuluna önce eşeğini kaybettirir, sonra da buldururmuş.

Nomad said...

@Imagine living day to day in a society where this kind of behavior- coming to somebody's aid is not considered normal.

Stranger's story reminded me of a time when I first came to Izmir and I was waiting at a bus station with my girlfriend. We were exhausted and just waiting to go back home to Izmit. A man came along and tried to sell us a lemon drink. We kept telling him we didn't want it but he insisted and put it down next to us and walked away. I didn't drink any of it (it looked rather nasty) but my girlfriend did. A minute later he returns and pours out the remaining drinks and asks for 20 TL for the drinks. (Mind you that was a long LONG time ago, too) I told him that since we had told him we didn't want the drink and he gave it to us, we considered it a gift. Immediately a crowd had gathered around us and it was all very intimidating. Then a woman sitting nearby came and in English asked us what was the matter. After we told her, she jumped in with both feet and blasted them with a shocking fury. I very nearly started laughing. They scattered in every direction. Immediately after this, my girlfriend persuaded me to go to the "tourist" police. I didn't expect much help and hesitated. She- being British-was all about the principle of the thing and so I followed. We found the police- a balding round man with an cartoon air about him- who listened to our tale of woe and to my surprise, stood up and asked us to point out the man for him. The policeman pulled the guy aside and gave him a very stern talking to- threatening to go to the man's boss etc. etc. And there was the same crowd that had previously encircled us, now clustering around the lemon-drink seller.
In this world we have come to expect very little in the way of satisfaction but sometimes, very little can be quite enough to change your outlook on life and a country.

Bulent Murtezaoglu said...


Is the 'other' society you have in mind the US? If so, people not coming to others' aid has not been my general experience there. I'm not an expert on the country, obviously, but I did spend more than 15 years there (Western NY). It is possible that perhaps when I was around I'd either provide the aid myself or somehow shame someone into doing it, but I have received aid myself too. The aid wasn't just for trivial stuff either. For example, we had my mom treated there and based on the kindness she felt/received, her expressed fears of American women grabbing hold of and somehow damaging his precious son (yours truly) got replaced by hints that she'd have no objection if I married one of those women. (Stranger might appreciate what high praise this is from a prospective MIL, and it wasn't directed towards a particular girlfriend or anything like that.)

In any event, in both of the examples here, the problem that required aid from others was caused by the members of the very same society. I mean, the fortçu assholes and that lemonade-peddling şerefsiz aren't exactly examples of some natural misfortune that people bound to need the others' aid for.

Wait, I thought Americans here were supposed to over-generalize disparage Turkey and Turks were supposed to get defensive. What's going on?

Stranger said...

Hmm. Maybe I should put the harassment thing in context a bit. I'm pretty much a harassment magnet. If there are idiot men around who are going to harass someone, they choose me. It's not just in Turkey. It was also in Spain, Italy, Mexico, Southern California, San Francisco, Vienna... I also attract crazy people and people who talk too much.

It's not like I'm excusing those guys. It's just that I'm used to getting harassed and grabbed at or whatever, and it pisses me off but I don't find it tremendously upsetting. Istanbul is more harass-y than, say, Salzburg, but way less harass-y Madrid and Rome. I know where I shouldn't be, especially at night, and Kumkapı train station is one of those places where I would expect to be harassed.

That particular incident wasn't scary or anything. Mostly I was worried about missing my stop and thinking, "Are those guys doing what I think they're doing, or is it just the motion of the train? Ew. Nope, they're totally doing that." Then I did a quick calculation if I had anything stealable in my pockets, and where I would go in Bakırköy in case they decided to follow me, and at what point shall I make a scene if it comes to that?

My experience in big cities in America is that no one would help in such a minor situation. I've had people in big US cities (San Francisco and NYC) refuse help in larger, more dire situations too, even when I specifically asked. Smaller cities and towns are quite different and people are less afraid to help out.

The reason I liked this train incident so much wasn't just because those guys helped (and I've been helped countless times here, enough that I go out of my way to help people too even when my Turkish is in no way up for the job), it was the way everyone dropped their big-city mask and got in on the fun. I like how Turks drop the mask easily, like they're just waiting for a chance to relax and be nice and talk about everything.

The Train of Misery, for all of its awfulness, seems to attract the more old-fashioned people. It's actually one of the few public transport places left where someone will most certainly offer a woman a seat, and where, if something bad happens lots of people will gather around to help, and then apologize and reassure you that Turkey isn't really like that, please don't think anything bad about Turkey.

Rebecca said...

I ride the train almost daily on the Asian side, and it isn't anywhere nearly as colourful! Posh people are always horrified that I ride the train with 'poor people', but I think it is safer than being driven through Istanbul traffic. Once in 3 years I suspected someone was trying to grope me but it was just before I got off at my stop.
I have noticed over time, that fewer and fewer men give up their seats for women. In fact they will almost fight a woman for the seat in some cases.
I know someone else who calls the European banliyo treni 'the train of misery', a mutual acquaintance maybe. Ha ha reminds me that when I first came and my Turkish was even worse, I used the think the announcer was saying 'banyo treni':)

Nomad said...

America- and Turkey are complex countries so admittedly it is hard to generalize about which country's citizens are more helpful. I'm sometimes afraid that I come off as being very down on Turkey and perhaps I overcompensate, so point well taken, Bulent. Stranger's point about how quickly Turks are willing to get involved is probably the reason for the positive impression. (Of course,on the flip side, getting involved may not always be helpful. It could be just getting involved and making things more complicated.)
I grew up in the Midwest and, though it was in the suburbs, all my neighbors were displaced country people so the idea of helping each other was very normal. They didn't build each other's barns or anything but you could count on somebody in times of a crisis.
In some other places, (and not just urban areas either. Oklahoma, for example.) I found a kind of unwillingness to get involved. It's not my problem, was the attitude. Sometimes it was pretty subtle and sometimes it was quite obvious. Over the years it seemed to get worse too.
And anyway, going back to the original question, what one event has most shaped your impression of Turkey? Everybody would naturally have a different answer, and impressions don't have to be justified or even particularly logical. For example, I went to a Greek Island and while I was there I happened to stumbled upon a plastic bags filled with alive newly born kittens. Somebody had dumped them in the trash on a hot summer day. This one event- which could probably have happened any place- has left me with a negative impression of that particular island. And I know it isn't fair or right but that's sometimes the way impressions work. That's why scientists tend to ignore anecdotal evidence, I suppose.
Your American experience may be different but that doesn't make any other experience more or less representational of reality. The "truth," of course, was not actually the point of the question. Expats have made a conscious decision to live in Turkey and certain experiences must have left a positive (or negative) impression of the country. This, in turn, has formed a image- rightly or wrongly- of the country. That's the actual purpose for the question.
By the way, Stranger, I'm trying to decide if I am the one that is crazy or the one that talks too much. Most likely both.

Stranger said...

@Nomad: If you're the sort of person that would strike up a conversation with a stranger that began "Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your lord and savior," then you would find me. Otherwise, you seem okay :)

@Rebecca: I'm not sure if I heard someone else call it the Train of Misery or if I made it up. Maybe it's caught on! On the other hand, it's too apt of a description to be original...

It occurs to me that I also talk way too much. I could have probably made everything simpler by pointing out that the Train of Misery event shaped my impression of Turkey in a very good way, with a grain of salt.

Bulent Murtezaoglu said...

Nomad, Stranger, points taken, thank you.

As for who talks more, it is fun to see Americans muse about this. Amateurs.

Stranger said...

Hee! :)

Jess said...

I like your stories, Stranger. I've been through Kumkapi during the Kurban Bayram... and I still really like that neighborhood. :)

I recently took a long walk with some friends from Yedikule to Aksaray (I like that whole stretch of the city, for many reasons.) There's some pretty hinky business going down in Aksaray in particular, but at the same time, it's where people live and work and raise families, and I just love the energy....

Vicky, Bursa said...

Yuck, Stranger! that is just horrendous!! When I first came here I read the lonely planet and rough guide to turkey from cover to cover and the first phrases I learnt were 'çok ayıp!' and 'Bana Yardım et!' Luckily I've never had a chance to use them, but there were ready to be yelled out as the occasion arose.

I2m naturally cautious in a foreign country, though - I visited South Beach in Miami and jumped a mile if anyone walked too close, completely sure I was about to be shot or robbed. My poor pal was so embarrassed and kept telling me to relax.

Mind you, I had a dodgy experience in Pakistan when I was 18 - I was with a trekking group and we were staying at an orphanage for boys - suffice to say that I wasn't entirely au fait with more eastern cultures, and after giving some boys my old copies of Cosmopolitan, was then shocked when they though that was an invitation for a threesome! I managed to get away and was later told that a group of american teenagers had been there the previous month and had been making out, as American teenagers are wont to do, so these boys just thought that was what all westerners are like. Sigh. The awful thing was, because they were so worried of the repercussions, they ran away from the orphanage so goodness knows what happened to them as it was their only chance of an education.

Bill said...

17 days.

This post, btw, is among your best.

I did a mini-one on SF at

Stranger said...

Jess, it's those kinds of places that fit my idea of "Istanbul" much better than the burbs where we live.

@Vicky, wow-- that's really intense. The worst part for those boys is that it was such a failure of all the grown-ups involved. Sad.

It's funny-- learned çok ayıp from my guide book long before I came here, but I've never actually used it. I tend to make the mistake of swearing in English when I'm making a fuss to get rid of some idiot. Unfortunately, you can come up with a nasty stream of words, like "you motherfucking cock sucker son of a bitch" and all the guy hears is "fuck," which he interprets as an invitation.

Nomad said...

"BEY EFENDI!!" as loud and as screechy as you can and you'd surprise how flexible necks can suddenly become.

Stranger said...

Yes, or the high pitched "N'apiyorsun sen!" or "Gitsene!"

Bulent Murtezaoglu said...

Hmm. Perhaps this doesn't happen anymore. I don't know if it would have turned into a lynching, but I do remember a scene from an Istanbul bus where a woman screamed, an eyewitness confirmed her claim, and between that moment and the time the perpetrator made it out of the door pretty much everybody in his path hit or kicked him. The driver was sane enough to stop and open the door. Luckily I was away from the action, so never got to find out if the mob mentality would have affected me. (Actually, not hitting isn't enough, one ought to try to exert some influence for sanity to prevail, so just 'I didn't touch the guy' wouldn't have been enough really). This is probably the early 80's.

Something to keep in mind. BEYEFENDI is fine, mutevveffa beyefendi probably isn't. The guys who helped Stranger may have intervened tactfully for a similar reason. People can get killed or can be cornered and thereby induced to pull weapons between stops on a train where it isn't possible for an authority figure to intervene and change the game in a short time (eg by immediately stopping and opening the doors).

Stranger said...

It happens. Once in Bakırköy I was being pursued by some tinerci kids who were saying nasty things in English and tugging at my hair. A group of idle young men grabbed a couple of them and started a brawl. One of the young men then left the brawl to try to get me to go out with him, and then he tried for free English lessons. I guess he thought I should be grateful.

And once in Taksim, Istiklal was very crowded for some reason-- maybe it was the day of New Year's Eve? Crowds are the worst for shitty men because you can't always tell which one is touching you. Some guy grabbed my ass, and not just a polite little pinch. He shoved his hand between my legs from behind and grabbed all he could get. The first time I couldn't tell who it was, but the second time I caught him by the arm and shoved him into the ever-present clump of idle young men, shouting "Sapık," or something to that effect. I didn't even stick around to watch his beating but I pretty much think he deserved it.

Kristin Ohlson said...

Stranger, I so long to come for a visit!

Stranger said...

@ Kris: It would probably seem pretty tame around here, but I'd be thrilled to have you!