No.7 December 2000

From Here to There in Istanbul 

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This month, not withstanding the fact that three major religions are celebrating sacred holidays and one minor one will celebrate the Winter Solstice I am not going to write about matters philosophical or metaphysical or even inspiring. (Surprise, surprise.  I must be getting a little tired.)  The topic this month is concerned with getting around Istanbul and how difficult it is.  This is not meant to be comprehensive.  I say nothing here about driving a car, taking the new Metro, or riding in taxis or mini buses.  I am limiting myself to comments about walking and riding on buses. 

Few streets in Istanbul are flat.  In addition to hills, of which there are many more than the fabled seven, the curbs are often astonishingly high -- one climbs up from the street onto the sidewalk.  There is sometimes a sidewalk that can’t be walked on because cars are parked along it; forcing one to descend from the high curb into the street, walk along until the sidewalk is once more accessible, and take great care lest one be hit by a car, a bus, or a motorcycle.  I want to call your attention to the fact that the sidewalks themselves are not finished.  In any case, there is enormous variation among sidewalks.  Some contain small stones and shells mixed with concrete, resulting in a surface like lumpy mashed potatoes.  Others are relatively smooth, but have many holes in them, which can range from six to twenty-six inches in diameter.  There is always dirt or mud or garbage or all three at the bottom of the holes.  Sometimes old cobblestone paths continue to function as sidewalks by dint of being partially covered with cement.  Still others are made of modern imitation cobble­stones.  Occasionally, even in a place where one would expect to find one, there is no sidewalk at all.  Almost all of the sidewalks are difficult to walk on, and some actually hurt to walk on.  When I first came to Istanbul I could not afford to take taxis very often and ruined many pairs of shoes.  My feet developed blisters and sore spots, and for longer than I care to remember, the last thing I felt every night before I went to sleep was my feet. 

Besides the omnipresent fact of the sidewalks, and the perennial problem of being a woman in Istanbul (it must be admitted that an attractive woman can get hassled a lot, unless she has learned how to carry herself in a certain way), there is also the problem one encounters with umbrellas.  Walking is especially difficult in the rain.  I am taller than many Turks and so when it is raining I have to be really careful in case the end of one of the spokes of my open umbrella pokes someone's forehead or still worse, someone's eye.  There’s also the fact that the patterns of pedestrian movement are different here than they are in Kansas City or New Orleans or Los Angeles.  It’s somehow difficult to predict the trajectory of someone waking toward you.  This becomes infinitely worse whenever it rains because then I have to deal with the problems associated with my height and my umbrella, as well as those connected with the movement of people in crowded places.  In the early days, I sometimes considered buying a small battery-operated tape player, making a tape that said “Pardon, pardon” and carrying it with me whenever I went out, so I could push the appropriate button at the right time thus saving myself the trouble of speaking.

So much for walking.  Now, let’s look at riding buses.

One of the first things I learned when I came to Istanbul was that riding the bus is not at all like riding the Parisian Metro.  Knowing how to ride on a bus is a basic survival skill in Istanbul, at least for those who lack the money for taxis or a driver.  In my early days, whenever I knew I would have to get on a bus, I planned for it ahead of time.  The buses in Istanbul are always crowded, and it took almost a full year for me to learn how to manage them.  Seasoned riders keep a careful eye on incoming buses.  When the right bus comes, sometimes while it is still moving, they push their way forward to the folding door, adroitly avoiding getting their feet crushed by a wheel, and stand firm until it opens.  Although considered bad form for a woman to stand firm when men are pushing against them to get on, I learned to be stubborn, and not to be intimidated by the waves of hostility.  Once the door opens, the trick is to allow passengers to get off without being dislodged.  At the first possible instant, one places one's foot on the first step while rising so as to be able to grab hold of the bar with one hand.  This has the effect of simultaneously blocking someone else's path up into the bus and enabling oneself to board.  Life has been made considerably easier by the akbil, but previously the ticket had to be in hand so that it could be slipped into the slot in the metal box without looking  (if it was a halk bus, a so-called people's bus, the required coins had to be ready to hand to the collector instead) thereby leaving the eyes free to spy out available seats.  The most desirable seats range along two sides of the bus and are single, facing forward.  Next in order of preference are the seats at either end of the two benches located along both sides of the front and rear thirds of the bus, that allow a person to turn so that the feet are out of the aisle.  Least preferable are the seats on the benches since there is nowhere to place one's feet, which are then inevitably stepped on.  Standing is worst of all, and until I learned the system, I usually had to stand.  It took me a long time to learn how to steady myself by holding on to a strap with one hand, while at the same time guarding both my purse and my body with the other. 

It is true that seats are often relinquished, but the pecking order is embedded and extremely complex.  Men sometimes give their seats to women, but women also give their seats to older men.  It seems to be expected that very young children be seated whenever possible.  Older children are, in principle, supposed to offer their seat to adults in the following order:  elderly men, elderly women, covered women of any age, middle-aged women and young women (especially those burdened with packages).  Elderly persons of both sexes are given preference; elderly men have a slight edge over elderly women, however, and an elderly covered woman has an edge over one who is not, particularly if the latter is dressed well.  Often, men pretend they’re asleep so as not to be pressured into giving up their seat.  The result is that when an elderly person boards any woman up to the middle age feels compelled to rise and to offer her seat.  Curiously, in such circumstances, young covered women tend to yield their seats even to middle-aged men, whether the men are traditional or not.  Occasionally there are young men who bra­zenly ignore the entire system, remaining seated regardless of who is standing.  In such cases, I’ve discovered there are various ways of changing the situation, often to my own benefit.  For example, when I make the clucking sound accompanied by an abrupt, backward tilt of the head that means general disapproval such a man may rise and offer his seat to the elderly person in question.  If that doesn’t work, depending on the particular personalities involved, I gesture for him to get up.  This almost invariably meets with success.  In either case, there is usually some middle-aged man who observes what has taken place who then offers his seat to me.   Then, when I graciously thank him in my accented Turkish, and he realizes that I’m a yabanci, his estimation of me visibly rises.  Frequently, the entire scenario is noticed and sometimes even commented on by surrounding passengers.  In such cases, I find myself enclosed by a warm cloud of good will that lasts many moments, sometimes for the remainder of my journey. 

Now that I read over what I’ve written here, it doesn’t seem like a big deal.  Somehow, though, the simple fact that I have learned a new skill, and one that is so complicated and challenging – how to get around a city with a population of around eleven million – makes me feel positively jubilant. 

No.1- April 2000 No.11 April 2001 No. 20 July 2002 No 29 April 2003
No.2 June 2000 No.12 May 2001 No. 22 September 2002 NO 30 MAY 2003
No.3 July/August 2000 No. 13 June 2001 No. 23   October 2002  NO 31 JUNE 2003
No.5 October 2000 No.14 July 2001 No 24 November 2002 NO 32 JULY 2003
No.7 December 2000 No.15 August 2001 No 25 DECEMBER  2002 NO 33 August 
No.8 January 2001
(No. 8 Ocak 2001 - Türkçe tercume
NO 16 September 2001 No 26 January 2003 No 34 September 
No.9 February 2001 No. 17 April 2002 No 27 February 2003 No 35 October 
No.10 March 2001 NO 19 JUNE 2002 No 28 March 2003 No 36 January 2004

No 37 February - March 2004 No 38 April 2004

 

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