The swallows appear again, just at dusk outside my window, launching a spectacle of aerobatics as they swoop around the roofs of the apartment buildings. They trilling madly, swirling in little ballets of two or three, then break up into solos, diving and chortling all the way. Within minutes, the show is over, and they’ve moved on to other venues.
I’m on the downward arc of my stay here in Istanbul. This is my last weekend experiencing this exciting city, the last Saturday I will spend wandering the busy streets. Although Istanbul never really sleeps, from tomorrow until early Tuesday morning when I depart, the city will be moving slightly slower.
The quick onset of the summer has been difficult for me. The temperature rises to the early eighties by mid-morning, and if I haven’t made it out by then, I cloister myself in the somewhat cooler apartment, working on projects, listening to the city, until the evening air tempers the heat. So my days are slow, filled more with thinking and creating than with wandering and observing. It’s okay, really: there’s a different quality to be experienced, to be more resident than tourist.
Perhaps this is what it’s like to be an expat, to be away from one’s native country and to set up work and home in another, very different, place. I always thought being an expat was more about the ex, the act of leaving. And patriot is a concept I’ve always found alien, so the route to unbecoming one is not clear to me at all.
Now I’m seeing that the ‘expat experience,’ if it can be described at all, is not a particular event that happens, not a line crossed, not a decision made. It’s not even about acting in a particular way. It is more like a sense of being, crossed with a sense of place, tinged with a sense of the exotic. Perhaps it is the opposite of traveling: it is forgetting that one is traveling in a place, and waking up one day finding that one is living there.
The repetition becomes a kind of meditation practice: I walk the same streets, pass the same buildings, see the same skyline over the same rooftops, cross the same river. The place begins to show its nature. What was new becomes recognized, familiar, no longer so foreign and exotic.
So this is where I live, in a six-story flat in Hoczade Street, near Taksim Square, in Beyoğlu, in central Istanbul. Descend the 90-odd steps to the street, and smile at our friendly apartment neighbors. We’ll leave the building through its never-locked front door. Glance across the road to the men under the overhang at the little parking lot, where there is always someone ready to park a car for a few lira; more importantly, there is always someone to chat with, to share the day’s news or the expectations of tonight’s football game. Just next door you’ll notice the friendly and cheap barber shop, where the fellow who cut my hair one day invited me to sit down for tea the next day; we had a very long conversation in Turkish, which I cannot understand at all.
Up the street, just there on the right, is the produce shop that run by the cheery man who, although he’s Turkish, prefers to speak to his customers in French; I respond in my pidgin mix of everywhere I’ve been, including France. I taught him how to say ‘thank you’ in Japanese while buying his scrumptious peaches, which he carefully cradled in little gray paper bags.
Down the other way, see the young man who sells fashionable T-shirts. He seems to never close his shop. We’ll cross the street (watch that taxi!) to the corner grocery store where the owner’s kid brother is learning to make change and to answer the phone. Just beyond, in the small courtyard fashioned out of the side of the street, you’ll see two cats (Istanbul is full of stray but cared-for felines) sitting on the same pair of motorcycles, like they do every day, calmly in the heat, on the the black seats warming in the sun. Avoid looking into the sad eyes of that woman who tries to sell packages of tissues for a lira. Have a delicious tantuni — no, make it two — at the cafe on the corner that specializes in these delicious wraps; do not be surprised when the efficient yet ebullient waiter snatches your digital camera out of your hand to take your own photograph of yourself.
[dateline Istanbul, Turkey]