City Scherzos: Bukowski in Sultanahmet (and Other Ghosts of Teachers Past)

(Source: Nicolas Alejandro Street Photography / Foter / CC BY)

I’ve been a teacher for the past ten years, first in Prague and now in Istanbul. Over the years, you get used to seeing people come and go. The business – teaching English as a foreign language – is transient by nature. It attracts a lot of eternal wanderlusters, seekers, flakes, drifters, dreamers.

Many of them are just out of college, looking to put grad school on hold, see a bit of the world. Why not? I envy them – those who, at the age of 22, seem to have their shit together a lot more than I did at that age. Some of them are truly impressive; I’ve worked alongside Oxford, Columbia and London School of Economics grads, among others, and I take it a compliment that I can count them as colleagues (or in most cases, former colleagues).

They come to Istanbul, just as they went to Prague when I was there, and they go on to Seoul, to Saigon, or Beijing (most of the money is in Asia nowadays). That’s the idea: stay somewhere six months, a year, then move on to somewhere else. Nobody gets rich as a teacher, except perhaps rich in “cultural experience” (which means you get to post lots of pictures of sunsets, old buildings and food on your Facebook page).

Still others are on the other side of life, retirees who, now in their late fifties or even early sixties, want to travel and make a bit of money to offset their savings/pensions. Some of them are retired teachers, while others had careers in business. They can be a handful at times. Along with all their rich experience, they also can be less adaptable. They can be a pain in the ass.

There was a woman from New Zealand, for example, who worked at the school several years ago. She was in her early sixties, and was on various forms of medication – when she remembered to take them (You could always tell when she forgot). One morning she came limping into the school, visibly and audibly upset.

“A driver just ran over my foot!” she exclaimed.

“What?” That was a new one.

“How did that happen?” someone asked.

“I was walking in the road,” she said, “because with the construction the sidewalk was blocked. The construction here is awful! So I was walking in the road and this driver ran over my foot! I yelled at her (it was a woman driver apparently), ‘You just ran over my foot!’ And – the woman just looked at me and drove on!”

“She probably didn’t understand you.”

“Of course she didn’t!” the New Zealand woman cried. “Because nobody in this bloody country speaks English! I just went to the pharmacy to get my prescription filled,” she said. “And – ahhh! Unbelievable! Nobody speaks English!” She looked around the room, waiting for sympathy.

It was slow in coming. Most of us were either nursing hangovers or preparing for lessons, or both. We’d heard similar diatribes against the “ignorance of the natives” all too many times before. We too were guilty of it, especially when we first arrived. Hadn’t she ever heard of Lonely Planet? Their language books aren’t bad. Couldn’t she ask her Turkish flatmate to write her a little note?

“Nobody speaks English in this bloody country!” the poor woman went on, limping around the room, a portrait of woe. Finally, she left the room.

We all looked at each other. At last, one of the teacher said: “Well, thank God they don’t all speak English. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have jobs.”


You get the Bukowskis as well, the (mostly) men who see teaching as time spent between the bars. For instance, the English guy, a rummy, who reported for a new class in Sultanahmet. He’d been out late the night before in Taksim. The classroom was filled with mostly Syrian refugees.

At one point, the discussion got around to politics. One of the students asked the teacher if he knew the English meaning of Bashar al-Assad? The teacher, either hard of hearing or else still drunk from his night out in Taksim, misunderstood. He thought they were asking, “What does ‘Bash her box’ mean?”

So, right there, in front of the students, our Bukowski friend performed a grotesque, randy pantomime in an effort to explain the meaning. He thrust hips, pumping an invisible bent-over woman.

The students were shocked and appalled at this display. The women, many of whom were covered, broke into tears. They ran out of the classroom. The teacher, who must have been a bit puzzled, was sent home, where he presumably slept off the rest of his Taksim drunk. (Luckily for him, because some angry Syrian guys came by the school looking for him later that afternoon).


Finally, there are the “lifers,” those who, for a variety of reasons, end up settling down in one place. For example, one of my former colleagues in Prague, a New York City-born Irishman, arrived in the Golden City fresh out of university in the late nineties. Doubtless he planned to stay a while, walk across the Charles Bridge, enjoy his share of Pilsner Urquell, as well as the company of the beautiful Czech women, then leave. But one night, in a nightclub, he found the love of his life. Nearly 20 years later, he and the girl are still happily married, with children. He’s a Praguer, though he and his wife and kids do make it over to New York once a year or so for the holidays.

Now that I’ve been in Istanbul for six years, and recently married a Turkish woman, I suppose that makes me a lifer, too. “So you and your wife – are you planning to stay in Turkey?” people ask.

“Looks like it,” I answer.


With autumn slowly approaching, it’s almost that time of year again, time for a new crop of teachers to arrive. Many of them are more nervous than ones we’ve had in the past, judging from conversations I’ve overheard. In Skype interviews, they nervously inquire, “Is it safe to come to Istanbul?” They ask about the war in Syria, about the threat of terrorist attacks more than in the past. They ask about the political situation.

Meanwhile, the old teachers have left already. They’re working on their tans down in Bodrum or Kaş or Marmaris, showing off their growing command of Turkish in ecstatic Facebook posts. Soon most of them will pack up and move on to the next glittering capital, or else they have already gone back home to see family, to get their bearings, weigh their options.

As a lifer, the feeling is bittersweet. After a decade in this business, you learn to take it in stride. You learn not to get too attached to people, and to anticipate meeting the new arrivals. Still, I find myself taking sentimental/comic journeys down through the years, remembering the ghosts of autumns past.

I think of the New Zealand teacher, the one whose foot got run over. I think of our Bukowski friend in Sultanahmet, and wonder if he’s still around. I think about all the other teachers, and where they have all gone.

Well, I can’t wait for this year to start.

James Tressler is a writer whose books, including “Conversations in Prague,” and “Letters from Istanbul, Vols. 1 and 2,” can be found at He lives in Koşuyolu.

Featured Image Source: Nicolas Alejandro Street Photography / Foter / CC BY

James Tressler
James Tressler is the author of several books, including Conversations in Prague and The Trumpet Fisherman and Other Istanbul Sketches. He lives in Istanbul.


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