About a week ago, I was taking the metro, on my way to my Turkish lessons after work. I had been conversing with another teacher about other cities we’d like to live in, or maybe we were talking about places we’d like to go for our Bayram holidays, I’m not sure. For whatever reason, I’d been talking about Sarajevo and how much I loved that city and wish I could go back for travel or work. My fellow teacher wasn’t convinced.
Breaking the unwritten rules of socializing on public transportation, a guy standing next to us joined in the conversation. He agreed with me that Sarajevo is a wonderful city. He had lived there for six years as a student. As we navigated the maze of escalators and moving sidewalks of the Taksim underground station, we continued to talk about what I’m doing here, teaching at the university, how I’ve been getting on, etc. He also teaches English in the evenings, but he makes quite a bit more money than I do. He wondered how much I pay for rent, and again, I’m getting ripped off. I laugh it off. Yes, teaching English is a tough job and it’s difficult to find a way to actually make money doing it, but I get by, paycheck to paycheck. And yes, moving to a new place where you don’t know prices and don’t know the language, you’ll get ripped off on how much you pay for rent. This is how it is, I can’t worry too much about it.
He wanted to get a cup of coffee, but I had to make it to my Turkish lesson, and he was on his way to the Turkey/Azerbaijan football match. I didn’t think too much more of our meeting, but then a few days ago, I was again on my way to my Turkish lesson. If I am going home, I transfer trains in Taksim, but get out of the metro at the Sishane metro stop. For my lessons, however, I get out at Taksim and walk down Istiklal towards the Galatasaray high school. I was walking up the escalator, and felt a tap on my shoulder from one of the people on the right I was walking past. My friend, I just knew I would see you today! We reminded each other of our names, and walked through the station together, again talking about Sarajevo.
My friend, you’ll be very jealous of me. My job will send me to Zagreb, Sarajevo and Belgrade next month! He’s a real estate price analyst or something like that. There’s probably some technical term of important sounding noun clusters for his position, but I don’t quite remember. But yes, am I ever jealous. It’s been nearly a year since I was traveling in the Balkans. Not a day goes by without reminiscing about my travels, and I often look at the date and recall where I was at this time last year. Oh, to be back in Sarajevo. Ibrahim said that if I want, he can pull strings with a university or company he works for, because they have a Sarajevo location. I’ll be in Istanbul for a year, but who knows about next year? Maybe I’ll go to Sarajevo.
He wouldn’t let me run off to my lesson this time without treating me to a coffee. My friend, you look exhausted. You cannot go away this time without drinking a coffee with me. I obliged. You are taking Turkish lessons, tell me something in Turkish. I know basically nothing, but mustered to say çok soğuk (very cold) as we emerged from the underground and began walking down Istiklal. My lessons are near Galatasaray, so he took me to a place he knows in the area. We continued to talk of the Balkans. Oh, Bosnian women. You cannot find better women than in Sarajevo. Except for Belgrade, the best women are in Belgrade. Sure, I say, there are beautiful women in Sarajevo and Belgrade, but this is Istanbul, and surely there’s no shortage of beautiful women here! No, my friend, not from what I can see. You must go to Belgrade for beautiful women. We continue to laugh lightheartedly in this typical male conversation about which cities have the most beautiful women. He told me of his girlfriends in Sarajevo, and then finally: My friend, it is true. When you find a girlfriend, you don’t want to have others, and you don’t know why.
We ducked into a sidestreet, and went to a place the likes of which I see all the time, but am too intimidated to go in. One of the small coffee/tea closets that just have a stove and a table inside, and old men sitting outside on plastic chairs drinking tea, smoking cigarettes and reading newspapers. We sat outside and chatted over our şekersiz Türkce kahve.
He said that he meets many Americans and he always likes them. But he doesn’t care for most of the French or British that he meets. They’re too snobbish. Fair enough, I respond, but most of the Americans I meet in my travels abroad are clueless. Our educational system is no good, and myself included, none of us knows what’s going on in the rest of the world. We don’t know global politics, geography, history, culture, languages, anything. The Europeans I meet when I travel always know about what’s going on in the rest of the world.
We then got talking about the recent tax hikes on alcohol, cigarettes and cars. Cigarettes used to be 5 or 6 lira for a pack, but now they’re 9 lira. The pubs where beer was 5 or 6 lira now charge 7 or 8 lira per pint. I could already barely afford to buy beer, but now I really can’t afford beer. Turkey has no sources of revenue, Ibrahim tells me. Only tourism, textiles, taxes, and oil, insha’Allah. In order to make any money, the Turkish government must always raise taxes on alcohol and cigarettes.
I forget how we got there, (but as often happens with certain people) but this turned into a discussion of how in this life there are no real hopes. We live our silly lives, occupy ourselves with petty concerns, and end up underground. That’s all there is. Everything, Ibrahim said, everyone, just lives with empty Hollywood dreams. Ah my friend, I say, we’ll get along well. All this reminded me of the book I’ve been reading. I pulled out my copy of Tanpinar’s A Mind At Peace, the lyrically beautiful brick I’ve been slogging through for about a month now. It’s Istanbul in the 1940s, and the difficulties of being in a city with such rich culture, history and tradition, and trying to be a modern city at the same time. Yes, my friend, this is a very wonderful book. But we cannot understand ourselves and our time without knowing history. And to know this book you must know Turkish history of the 20s and 30s. Then you will know this book, and then you will know this city.
I was reminded of a passage I’d just read that morning: “Why is it we’re so bound to the past? Whether we like it or not, we’re bound to it. We admire our traditional music and for better or worse it speaks to us. For better or worse we hold this key that unlocks the past for us… The past relinquishes its epochs to us one after another and dresses us in its clothing.”
For example, he tells me, before the 20s and 30s, Turks used to drink coffee. Everyone drank coffee. But if you ask people today what the Turks drink, they will undoubtedly tell you that the Turks drink tea. But that’s only a thing of the twentieth century. After WWI, all the Turks started to drink tea. Why? I asked. Well, after WWI, Turkey and the rest of the world fell apart, and Turkey has been poor ever since. Everyone was poor, and coffee too expensive. If you’re going to sit around in cafes all day, you can’t drink something expensive, so now everyone drinks tea.
Sadly, I at this point I had to depart for my lesson. I hope to see Ibrahim soon. I never shy away from discussions of historiography and the ways history lives with us today, literature, coffee, or the various other topics Ibrahim and I lighted on over just one cup of Turkish coffee.
Completely off topic, enjoy a few pictures I took this morning while waiting for the sunset at Karakoy.