If you’re thinking of going to Istanbul in January, beware! No, we’re not referring to terrorist bombs or earthquakes; our threat is much more mundane. We’re talking about the WEATHER. Gloves, scarf and a warm hat may become your most prized possessions. And boots ― yes, those things that take up so much room in your suitcase ― don’t leave them behind as we did or, like us, you’ll be shopping for new ones in Istanbul.
We arrived on a warm and sunny Monday. Alas, we might have savored it more had we known we wouldn’t see that sun again for a long time. On Tuesday it began to rain, just lightly at first, then in torrents. The rain didn’t stop with nightfall but turned to sleet. By early Wednesday morning, there were a couple of inches of slush on the ground, and the sleet continued, driven by a furious wind. Our faces stung with a thousand pin pricks. Little did we know then that we would soon be caught up in the mother of all storms.
Now at this point, some of you may well be asking yourselves, “What were our idiot friends doing outside in such weather?” Why, going to a job interview, of course. By the time we realized just how bad the weather was, it was too late to cancel and too late to turn back. Sabanci is a private university in a suburb ― no, make that an exurb ― of Istanbul and far, far away from where we were staying. It is reached, either by car or, in our case, by means of a toy shuttle bus whose interior must have been designed by a relation of Frodo Baggins, so small and close together were the seats. Anyway, our interview lasted a short hour, and it would be another two hours before the next shuttle back to town, and so, as the wind howled outside the windows, it was with sinking hearts that we watched the slush turn to ice. The bus out had been lightly occupied, but for the return, it was full, and Kay and I felt so squeezed that for the first time in my life I felt the panic of claustrophobia. Needless to say we returned at a crawl, and by the time we reached the end of the line at Taksim Square, darkness was upon us; the storm hadn’t abated, and the city was in chaos.
We had gone to Taksim that morning by cab from our hotel, but now those little yellow Fiats were in short supply and great demand, and it seemed impossible that we might get one. Without knowledge of the city or Turkish, we only knew of one alternative way to get back to our hotel in Sultanahmet: a city bus called the T4. Many buses came and went, some so packed the doors would barely close, but not ours. So we waited and froze. We had no boots and by now our shoes and socks were totally soaked as were our gloves, hats and scarves. The wind drove the freezing rain into every crevice of our clothing.
By now, most buses had gone, and there was only a small knot of people left who, like us, were waiting for the phantom T4. Finally, a bus arrived and even before it stopped we could read the magic T4 on its lighted sign. Then the light went out, and a frazzled and exasperated driver emerged and said something in Turkish which we understood to mean, “This f****** bus is out of service.” The road to Sultanahmet is up a long, steep hill, and presumably, with the now icy conditions, the bus could no longer make the climb. At this point, in our darkest hour, we got our first lesson in the greatness of the Turkish people. A stranger, whose name turned out to be Ahmet, asked us in broken English, where we were going, and upon learning our destination, leaped into action. We followed him as best we could, dodging through traffic and splashing through the slush as he went from taxi to taxi, pleading with drivers to take us “up the hill.” Finally, his efforts paid off, and I was never so happy to tip someone in my life. The next morning our first act was to buy substitutes for the boots we didn’t want to pack, not difficult as Turkey is a great place to buy leather and related goods.
The storm, now in its third day, had turned to snow which was already several inches deep. It was at this point that we learned another fact about this ancient cradle of civilization: the snowplow is unknown here as is the snow shovel. Really!
The few merchants actually trying to clear the mess from their doorsteps were using coal scoops and scraps of metal. Not that there was much business anyway. Cars without tire chains weren’t moving, and there were few buses. Much of the city was in the throes of a power failure that shut off lights and phones. We learned later that blackouts are not uncommon and that while the better hotels, including ours, boast generators among their amenities, other Istanbul residents cope in timeless, frequently charming ways. The tasty food in the brightly lit köfte restaurants seems even better when the lights fail and the candles appear.
So began our two-week stay in Istanbul. We gave up thoughts of visiting other parts of Turkey both because of the weather and an agenda of meetings and interviews that kept us in town. Istanbul is a city that attracts and repels by turns. On the one hand there are the Turks ― warm, friendly, generous ― and on the other, the physical city itself, a vast, complex metropolis with somewhere between 12 million and 16 million inhabitants and all the difficulties of infrastructure that such size entails.
There is wonderful food and awful traffic, historical treasures and contemporary sprawl, world-famous views and world-class clutter. But ultimately there is the magnificence of its unique location, half in Europe and half in Asia, sitting astride the Bosphorus, one of the most celebrated waterways on the planet. It is an amazing, challenging place that will provide Kay and me with multiple opportunities for work and pleasure.
Yes, in a couple of months we’re moving to Istanbul. Our intention is to teach English at an established language school where we’ll teach general English to interested adults and business English to employees of global corporations. Our job search found at least one school willing to hire us and help us with the complicated process of acquiring work permits. We’ll be renting out our New York apartment and renting another in Istanbul, and we don’t plan on roughing it. What we’ll be looking for will be spacious and situated on a high enough floor to get cooling breezes in the hot months. It will have a good kitchen, cable service, and a comfortable guest room for those of you we hope will visit. In our time off from teaching we’ll explore the natural beauty and archeological treasures of Anatolia and other nearby destinations. On our holidays, we’ll travel elsewhere in Europe, so those based in Europe will very likely find us knocking on your door more often. At this point in our lives, we want to make the most of everything. We’ll stay in touch with you by e-mail. In the meantime, love and good fortune to all of you.