I was asked recently to sum up my experiences studying abroad in Istanbul — a question that really has no good answer because there really is no way to sum up living in a country that is totally different from your own, and especially a place as diverse, exciting and crazy as Istanbul.
I think that for a lot of people who ask this question, they expect the answer to involve something about how exotic Istanbul is, or how it really bridges the gap between East and West or something of that nature. It’s not that these things aren’t true — it’s that there is so much more to explain. And, as my study abroad experience here was my second visit to Istanbul, I already knew a lot of what to expect.
I knew I could expect beautiful views of the Bosphorus Straits, copious amounts of tea and the feeling of being jostled and lost among the crowds in this megacity of 16 to 20 million people, depending on who you ask.
Something that has both frustrated and excited me throughout my time here is that apart from my university, many Turkish people do not speak English, or at least well enough to converse. It’s something I wanted in my study abroad experience — I wanted to be made uncomfortable. But it only really hit me during spring break, traveling through Europe with a friend studying abroad in London.
“It’s going to be really weird going back to the States and understanding everything people say around you,” I remarked, which of course, to her, was not an altogether novel experience.
It really put in perspective my small victories — finally being able to find a lint roller at a convenience store in Italy after searching in vain for one in Istanbul, for example — and realizing that sometimes, life is confusing, complicated and hard, but that’s why it’s also fun. And, if we’re going to characterize how easy countries are to navigate based on how easy it is to find a lint roller, then I’d probably rank every country I visited over spring break (Italy, the Czech Republic and Hungary) over Turkey.
And of course, there are other unexpected occurrences — such as the uncertain security situation — that I found myself attempting to reconcile with my need to regularly access “soft targets,” like the metro. It’s hard to package this aspect of my experience into a convenient graf about what I’ve learned about the world and myself by learning to deal with the sometimes twice-weekly security alerts from the U.S. Embassy, but it has certainly taught me valuable lessons about the power of fear, and why terrorism is called what it is.
This will be my final blog post, and I leave Istanbul in a little over two weeks. I can’t say I’ve always felt this way, especially during the difficult times after attacks and security warnings and email check-ins from friends and family, but I don’t want to leave, at all. Istanbul, I’ll be back — Görüşmek üzere!