The apartment-hunting went more quickly than I expected, with the calm voice of reason tempering my desire to cash in on Turkey’s economic crisis. $1200 a month gets you a penthouse view of the Bosphorus, and by “view” I mean an unobstructed view of the water through a full-length window the width of the room. Last year, the realtors say, the same places were more than double that. But we decided to be frugal and focus on the cheaper houses on the Anatolian (Asian) side rather than Europe. Places have been ranging from $95 a month to around $500. (Two realtors asked us, “You’re a young couple, would you be able to afford $250 a month, do you want to call your parents now and ask them?”)
We took a lovely apartment called Friends’ Apartment, on Pink Rose Street in Suadiye (right across from Writer’s Place). Suadiye is on the Anatolian side, one block both from the Marmara Sea and Bagdat Street (Istanbul’s Via Del Corsa, and the 34th-richest street in terms of rental per square meter in the world. Last year it was number 22, but the economic crisis in February took care of that.) It’s 140 square meters including the balconies, and has 3 rooms and a living room, 1 ½ baths. Adorable place and area, though we’re overpaying (rent is $600). We have everything from Chinese takeout to Marks and Spencer within two blocks of our house. It’s delightful to walk the streets and see the teenage boys with more pomade in their hair than George Clooney had in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” – they strut their stuff, arms locked, pacing like tigers in cages, looking like cats in heat. Fewer girls walk at night – their fathers have them home for dinner. Lots of adorable “Old Istanbul” couples going in and out of cafes after a concert, made up so elegant, shaking their heads at these nouveau-riche carpetbaggers. I like it so much more than the Italian passagiatta. Because you have to pass through poor areas any time you travel anywhere, I don’t feel trapped by all the chic. I even spot Christmas trees spotted in places (I mean New Year’s trees), although there are also a few more McDonald’s here as well (sigh). We’re seeing more retarded children on the streets than last time we lived in Turkey (but fewer lepers).
We have an electrician-plumber whom we want to move in with us. He lives down the street, and we call him to install light fixtures, toilet seats, door handles, change wiring, install telephones, and even hang pictures. Last time we called him during dinner because our oven wouldn’t turn on. The oven is an Arcelik – an Ankara state-issued beast with tons of dials and settings but no explanation for what they do. There are letters from A to G, each of which adjusts fans and heaters, so you can cook many things in the oven at once in different places and the odors won’t mix, or something. But we couldn’t get it to turn on. When he showed up 10 minutes later, he said we were turning the dial in the wrong direction. He also fixed our pilot light, while he was at it, and advised us on how to manage our settings for our hot water heater. The guy’s an oracle, and at a dollar or two per house-call, he’s a frequent guest.
Our doorman’s also helpful. In Turkish apartments, no matter how bad the area, you have a doorman, a live-in villager who resides for free in the basement, whose job it is to ring your doorbell three times a day, morning to bring you fresh bread and newspapers, noon to ask if you want them to go shopping for you, and in the evening to take your trash. They also sweep and mop the building and maintain the heating system, elevators, etc. They also collect and pay the utility bills – much more than a superintendent. It’s all pretty much free (they collect barely anything above what the utility bills would be); we hired our doorman’s wife to be our maid to clean the place when we moved in.
We had to borrow money from Dilek to pay the deposit until our money comes next week. (When we moved here last month, we had Ziraat Bankasi in New York send our money to Turkey, giving interest and doing the transaction commission-free, as long as we don’t touch it until 1/14.) We stopped by the bank to get our passbooks and see that the money actually arrived, but there was a line going outside of the bank and then around 3 of its 4 walls – yipes! It turns out that Ziraat is the state Agricultural bank, where all government workers get paid, and there’s rarely a line smaller than two blocks to get in. The inside looks like something out of “El Mariachi.” Elif pushed her way past the line to the manager’s office (tackling two stocky villager women in the process) and said, “We’re American, do you have our money?” After smoking a cigarette, the manager himself presented us with our passbook. Now that’s service! Next week, we’re getting a new bank.
There’s a hit single from a few years ago, a Turkish rap song called Param Olacak:
PARAM OLACAK (Olacak, olacak)
ARABAM OLACAK (Olacak, olacak)
Kizlar da var mi? (VAR! VAR!)
Beni kim tutar? (Seni kim tutar?).
All of which (roughly) translates to:
I’LL HAVE MONEY (I will, I will!)
I’LL HAVE A CAR! (I will, I will!)
Are there women too? (There are! There are!)
Who can hold me back? (Who can hold you back?)
We arrived here after the country’s worst economic crisis in 50 years, and we are rich. Elif’s been insisting we shop for clothes for me due to the economic crisis – many stores on Bagdat Caddesi are going under, they all have signs like “SHOCKING PRICES” or “EARTHQUAKE-LIKE FALLING PRICES” or “We’re lowering prices for the good of the country” or “Buy for the good of the country”; now we can afford some new duds to put my Mr. Bubble shirt out to pasture. It’s easier to find clothes to fit us here, as people here are much thinner than in the states – all they have are S,M, and L – no XXL or 4XL. After our morning breakfast on Bagdat (Elif gets tea and salty pastries, I get coffee and sweet pastries), we stop in a store to get a T-shirt. They’re blasting techno music. As far as I can tell, the only difference between a US rave party and a Turkish clothing store is the time of day and the absence of Ecstasy. We go to the men’s section, and have to run out of the store, not because of the noise, but because, even in the a/c, the people stink far worse than any herd of cattle. So we go to the department store next door, where I notice they have their own movie theater inside. I look to see what’s playing – it’s “Romance X,” a film so controversial it will never be given a real showing in the US, no way, no how, and here it is, playing in a department store cinema. Maybe I’ll see it here, or maybe I’ll buy it on the streets on VCD for a buck.
I haven’t gotten used to the feeling like you sometimes get in a foreign country: “Gee the local currency is worthless!” We can afford to eat out in a cafe – fresh pastries, cappuccino, anything we want, whenever we want, for practically nothing. We can see the doormen and part-time electricians congregate among us, coming back from the markets where they did shopping for the tenants, carrying dozens of bags of food. In the US, there aren’t enough cafes, and there, a cup of coffee costs more than the shoes I’m now wearing. If we ever move back, I’ll miss being able to freely participate in the sidewalk cafes and the people watching.
Last week, when Elif was at her aunts’, I went to the Cafe Marmara, the restaurant of the 5-star hotel where once a year Chechen rebels come in and take everybody hostage. (I like it because it’s central to everything, the food is amazing, and it sells Godiva chocolate for under $10 a pound.) I’m having a decaf cappuccino freeze and a roka salad, and I’m writing. It’s very chic – waiters dressed in black, etc. Mine looks over my shoulder and asks me what I’m working on. I tell him, he discovers I’m American, says, we’re brothers! I tell him I’m looking to buy a Zurna and for a guy to give me lessons. He gives me his phone number.
I look over to another table, where four middle-aged well-dressed businessmen are ordering drinks. Their waiter brings them their drinks, and one of them asks for ice. The waiter walks over to the bar, leans over it instead of walking around it, and hoists the ice bucket onto the bar. In full view of the restaurant, he removes the tongs, sticks his hand in the ice bucket, and fills a smaller bucket with the ice, cube by cube. Then he bends his whole body over the bar and comes up with a smaller set of ice tongs to put on the small bucket. This he brings to the businessman at the table. The businessman thanks him, removes the tongs and sets them onto the table, reaches into the bucket, and with his hand drops the ice cubes, one by one, into his glass.
While we’re living large, people here are really hurting, but despite an increase in street crime, honor still prevails. We just saw on TV that a family that committed suicide over the dishonor of having a $3,000 debt they couldn’t repay. Elif also had a strange experience on a dolmus last week. They were going over the Bosphorus, and a passenger realizes, once he’s on the bridge, that he left his wallet at home. This totally screws over the driver (who barely makes enough to cover the toll and the $4/gallon gas). He gets into a fight with the driver, but not about the money – they fight because the man is embarrassed and wants to be let off to walk. The driver apologizes for the situation and says he’ll take the guy home anyway for free. The passenger insists that he should get off after the bridge and be forced to walk, but the driver refuses and says, I’ll just take you all the way, don’t worry about it. This could not happen in America.