The other day I was having lunch at Café Nero with one of the new teachers.
She said she came from Austin. Since I grew up in Austin, it gave us something to talk about. We talked of the things we missed about the city, like Zilker Park, Sixth Street, and the great Tex-Mex food.
“Of course you can get decent Mexican in Istanbul now too,” she said.
“Well –“ I said.
“Seriously,” she said. “These days you can actually find Mexican in Istanbul. When I was here 13 years ago, there was no way you could find it.”
“Yes, I suppose lots of things have changed the past decade,” I said. “So you were here before then?”
“Actually,” she said, “my mother is Turkish.”
“So you were born in Turkey?”
“No, I was born in Libya.” She smiled. “My roots are Turkish-Arab.”
I remarked on her accent; she had certainly fooled me in thinking she was a native Austinite. Her eclectic background was also interesting: born in Libya, to Turkish-Libyan parents, raised in Turkey, and recently come from more than a decade living deep in the heart of Texas.
Later that afternoon we were talking with another of the new teachers, a guy from Ireland. Actually, he was Irish, but was born in London and his family had later moved back to Ireland.
“So do you consider yourself English?” we asked.
“Hell, no!” he said. “Open my veins, and I bleed green! I’m Irish all the way. But I know what you mean when you say that backgrounds can be confusing to people. Take my wife, for instance. I was from London but living in Ireland, and that’s where we met. My Irish friends asked, ‘So she’s Irish then?’ they asked. ‘No, she lives in Belgium,’ I said. ‘Oh, so she’s Belgian?’ ‘Actually she lives in Belgium,’ I said. ‘But she’s actually Turkish.’ ‘So she’s Turkish but she is from Belgium?’ they asked. ‘No, actually she’s living in Belgium but she’s actually from Germany and her father is from Greece.’ They were like, ‘All right, stop there, mate! Just stop right there!’”
We laughed. It certainly did make the head spin.
“So what do you think about nationality?” the Turkish-Libyan girl asked. “I mean, how do you determine where you are from? I always thought it depended on your parents, where they were from.”
“Not necessarily,” said the Irish teacher. “I think it depends on where you went to school, where you were educated. I think that matters most.”
I was listening. “Well,” I said. “My parents were born in Pittsburgh, but I was raised in Texas, but then I was educated in California. So you could say I was from Pittsburgh, since my parents were born there, or you could say I was from California, since that’s where I was educated.”
“But at least in your case, it’s all America,” the Irish guy said. “You were born in America, plain and simple.”
He had a point. But I wonder if it really is that simple. I’ve always been a bit tenuous when people – especially students – enquire into my background. As a foreigner living in Istanbul, people naturally want to know where you come from. They’re curious.
In my case, when they ask, “Where are you from?” I always respond first with America. But then they want to know more. “Which city? Or which state?” they inevitably ask.
My answer tends to vary, depending on – on the weather, or the wind, I don’t know. Sometimes I’ll say, “Pittsburgh,” since that’s where my family lives. But Turks generally aren’t familiar with Pittsburgh; it draws a blank. So sometimes I’ll say, “Pennsylvania.” But you have to be careful with saying you’re from Pennsylvania, since the controversial Turkish cleric Fetullah Gülen resides there; you feel a certain suspicion cast over you.
So, just as often, anticipating this, when people ask, I just reply, “From California.”
The response from Turks is always immediate, and gratifying. They are longing, jealous.
“Ah, Kal-i-fornya! Very beautiful!” They know all about Kal-i-fornya. Land of Hollywood, palm trees and where all the women look like the girls on Baywatch. I am very lucky to be from Kal-i-fornya. Sometimes, they even ask, “If you are from Kal-i-fornya then why would you come to Turkey?”
“Well, Turkey is very beautiful too,” I say, not just diplomatically, but sincerely too. “Istanbul is a very rich and vibrant city.”
They are always happy to hear me say that. “Yes, Turkey is also beautiful!” they say. “Which is more beautiful? America or Turkey?”
“Both are beautiful, but for different reasons,” I say. And with that truce in hand, we raise our glasses and drink to each other’s health.
I see that I’ve veered off the original path of the story. Originally, the train of thought had been set off by talking with the new teachers, and about their eclectic backgrounds. In fact, such stories here in Istanbul, especially among expats, are nothing unusual. Teaching abroad is a haven for the desperate wanderers of the world.
That evening my girlfriend Özge and I went out for dinner in a neighborhood café that serves a variety of dishes. I ordered the chicken quesadilla and she had a Chinese stir fry. I related to her the interesting conversation I’d had earlier in the day. She got a kick out of it, thinking of her own experiences.
“It’s like when I was living in Scotland,” she said. “I was a Turkish girl dating a Scottish guy, and then we moved to Cyprus.”
“Yes,” I said. “And now, here we are, an American and a Turkish girl, sitting in a café, and I’m eating Mexican and you’re eating Chinese.”
I told this to the Irish guy at the school the next morning.
“But that’s why we do this [teaching abroad],” the Irish (not English) guy later remarked. “You can be in a pub drinking Irish Guinness and eating kebab while in Bursa near an ancient mosque. It’s a total package.”
I agree. Having given it a lot of thought over the years, and travelling from Pittsburgh to Austin, from Kal-i-fornya to Prague, from New York to Paris, from Belfast to Istanbul. We are all travelers on a journey, and who we are really consists of the sum of all our travels. Have a good trip.
James Tressler is a writer and teacher whose books include “Lost Coast D.A,” “Conversations in Prague,” and “Letters from Istanbul, Vol. 1.” He lives in Istanbul.
What are Letters from Istanbul?
Istanbul is a million villages woven, one might even say, thrown together, rather than a single vast city. The city is best understood by understanding little bits at a time, one person at a time. It is a city that defies perspective, for it is constantly shifting. It is an endless parade of street musicians playing simple, overlapping melodies, rather than a symphony orchestra striking a single majestic chord; it is an intricate mosaic rather than a grand oil portrait, the pieces of the mosaic each giving meaning and sustenance to the whole.
All that sounds a bit high-flown, I know. But to paraphrase James Joyce, the universal lies within the particular. So, that’s the intent of these Letters: to gather up those mosaic tiles one at a time, and to find the little stories that fall between the cracks. Hopefully the pieces of that mosaic will add up to an interesting portrait of this city a lot of us call home.