Letter from Istanbul – Spring 2017

Dear Friends and Family,

Spring has come to Istanbul once again. There are sunshine and flowers. More people are sitting at the outdoor tables of the cafes and restaurants. This spring is especially welcome after what was a longer, colder winter than we had been used to.

The big news locally is that in a few days there will be a referendum on whether or not to change Turkey’s constitution. A “yes” vote will strengthen the office of president, giving it much broader executive powers. The current president has already assumed those powers under a state of emergency that has recently been extended. The constitutional change will simply legitimize the de facto state of affairs and make it permanent. On the other hand, a “no” vote will deny the change, keeping the status quo.

Although Kay and I don’t watch Turkish TV or listen to Turkish radio, we haven’t entirely escaped the high-stakes politicking around this issue. The neighborhood where we live is predominantly “no” territory. On a few occasions, we’ve first heard and then seen a van cruising our main street with a patriotic song blaring from its roof-mounted loud speakers. Its exterior is emblazoned with the word HAYIR (NO.) On the other side of the water, on the European side, in a working-class neighborhood, other patriotic songs are blasted and the word EVET (YES) is displayed.

For Kay and me, there is no suspense. As foreigners and non-Turkish citizens, the outcome of the referendum is not likely to affect us much. Besides, we don’t think it is much of a contest. The president has huge support among the population who feels he can do no wrong. He has taken pains to shore up his support by claiming Turkey’s problems are caused by conspiracies, especially those of westerners, who wish to see Turkey suppressed. It’s an all-too-familiar page from the autocrat’s handbook.

This August 11th, Kay and I will have lived in Turkey for thirteen years. Yes, we can hardly believe it ourselves! In those years the country and the city of Istanbul have changed considerably. In the matter of politics, what was a strongly a secular government when we arrived has become one dominated by a religious party.

The infrastructure of greater Istanbul has changed in progressive ways. A third bridge over the Bosphorus has opened and a new, larger airport up near the Black Sea is under construction. This is good because Atatürk Airport, the larger of the two existing ones is seriously overcrowded.

The last two or three years have seen the opening of two tunnels under the Bosphorus. The first is a light-rail passenger tunnel called the Marmary that links up with the city’s metro lines on both sides of the city. The second, newer tunnel is for passenger cars and is a wonderful addition because it eliminates the wait to drive over the congested bridges. Traffic in the new tunnel is light, probably because its toll is higher.

As for the metro system, when we first came it had a single line with only a few stations. That line has been extended in both directions and other lines have been added, including a long one on the Asian side that we use frequently. Dozens of new stations have been built along these lines. Compare these feats of construction to New York City’s, where it has taken ten years and two billion dollars to build a 2nd Avenue line two miles long with three new stations.

Closer to home, our neighborhood has changed radically. It has become in the words of the New York Times, the trendiest in the city. As a result, it is invaded, especially on the weekends, by residents from other, less trendy parts of the city. Despite the increased congestion, Moda is still a terrific place to live. Everything we need on daily basis is within easy walking distance.

As commercial rents have risen, some older businesses have been forced out and replaced by bars and coffee shops. There are many new restaurants, offering a wider selection of choices. For instance, we now have a Chinese/sushi fusion spot that we really enjoy.

There are more international grocery items and a greater selection of produce available now. In the past, it was very difficult to find celery, sea salt, blueberries, and avocados. Now, these are common. We have a fine small wine and liquor store, too. Potables like sherry, port, and imported gins and whiskies that were once rare or non-existent here are now available.

The rhythms of our lives have changed, too. We no longer roam the greater city as much as we once did. Partly this is due to our increasing age, partly to our changing interests, and partly for security reasons. We feel safer closer to home.

One pleasant development is that as we’ve made lives for ourselves here, we’ve acquired more friends, most of them younger. Some are Turks; others are Turkish Americans or Turkish Germans. We also know French and British citizens married to Turks. My new friend Daniel is French and retired from teaching. I see him Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings when I go to the gym. Although Daniel speaks English and Turkish well, he prefers to speak French with me and I with him. It keeps me in practice.

In Front of Tribu, Ilker Drinks His Own Coffee

Of the several coffee shops nearby, one has become central to our lives. Ilker, the man who owns and runs it, has named it Tribu (Tribe.) Besides serving the best coffee around, it has become a gathering place for a group of regulars among whom Kay is very prominent. She has acquired a real coffee jones and loves to chat with the people she meets at Tribu who tend to be artists, translators, musicians and other culturally inclined persons that enjoy each others’ company. Tribu has become our clubhouse.

It is thanks to one of the Tribe, our friend Ayça, that we have been enjoying one of our neighborhood’s loveliest amenities. Ayça loves classical music, so the day that tickets go on sale for a recital or a chamber music concert at Süreyya, our local concert hall, she is on the Internet ordering a ticket for herself and ones for Kay and me. Usually, our seats are in the second or third row center with a close-up view of the musicians and their instruments. Thanks to Ayça, we’ve spent many evening hours enjoying wonderful music.

These days our lives revolve around exercise, reading, music listening, watching films, cooking, eating, and planning trips. As you know, if you’ve been receiving our posts, we still enjoy travel. Kay is more inclined toward Western Europe while I’m a bit wider ranging.

This year we’ll both be attending our annual literary conference in July, to be held this summer in Gdansk, Poland. I’ll be speaking about Bob Dylan and Kay about a novel by Haruki Murakami. We enjoy these conferences; we’ve become close to some of the other attendees.

This fall we hope to spend some time in Japan. It will be another one of our trips of a lifetime.

We love staying in touch with you, so please write to us about what you’ve been up to.


Eric and Kay