On Istanbul

Without really meaning to, I've passed a year in Turkey -- looking at the future in front of me, I know I have another year here. Given the way that research is going, there may always be more time here; and I have to confess to being flattered whenever the conversation leads from my Turkish into whether I've given thought to coming back to Turkey after I finish the Ph.D. But that's a different story -- gayret bizden, and beyond that it's out of our hands.

But I was struck on walking home tonight at just how familiar this city has come to seem to me. Clearly, Istanbul is an enormous city -- depending on who you speak with and their mood about the traffic and the crowds, it ranges from 16 to 20 million people -- but, paradoxically, it sometimes feels smaller than Los Angeles. I was trying to think about why, and I remembered a story that Hakan Kaynar tells in his really interesting Projesiz Modernleşme: Cumhuriyet İstanbulu'nda Gündelik Fragmanlar [Modernization without a Project: Fragments of Daily Life from Republican Istanbul]. He describes the vapur system in the early decades of the 20th century, the ways that these vessels became a new kind of public meeting place for the city. People had their ferry; even more, they had their seats, their views, their company. Even without speaking to their neighbors, there was a kind of implicit transaction, a mode of behavior, a social net within which everyone -- like it or not -- was embedded.

It came to mind because despite the sheer size of Istanbul -- and it's dizzying, quite often, even oppressive -- it doesn't feel as big as Los Angeles. One of the reasons, I think, is the ways that lives tend to be woven more tightly here -- both for better and for worse. Phrased differently, I'm living off of İstiklal Caddesi right now and as a consequence, pass up and down the street several times a day. I've come to recognize the street artists, the men slinging dondurma, the Bulgarian girl playing accordion, my folks at the breakfast cart, the one-armed simitçi at the door to our building. I've grown used to the crowds, their tides and currents, the ebb and flow of things. Even before I moved to the area, my schedule brought me through Taksim at least once a week. My point is this: Even in a city as large as Istanbul, my routes feel more concrete.

While I was living in Los Angeles, I biked the same route to and from school. Despite the relatively consistent schedule I kept, it was a relatively solitary movement: Man against the city, in a way. Moving through Istanbul is different -- it's thicker, for lack of a better word. One might describe it almost in terms of dipping hands in various liquids. If Los Angeles is cold salt water, looking out always for the edge of the horizon, Istanbul is honey, the stories of thousands upon thousands gathered and shared.

Life is, perhaps, a little stickier here, but perhaps more sweet.


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