Letters from Istanbul: The Anatolian Way

Maider Lopez's video Making Ways (2013) typifies pedestrian’s routes in Istanbul.
Maider Lopez’s video Making Ways (2013) typifies pedestrian routes in Istanbul.

As a yabancı, you probably have your own first impressions of the city.

One of my own was made while coming from Ataturk International Airport with my driver several years ago, when we were rounding the highway that goes past the city walls. As you know, it’s quite busy there; I had my first experience with Istanbul traffic, and my first view of the Bosphorous.

Amidst all these impressions, something stuck out. I was in the back seat of the car, a bit unnerved by how fast the driver was going (get used to it, babe), weaving in and out of lanes, around other cars. The other drivers, of course, were doing the same, like we were in a Formula One race where first prize is – God knows what, a terrifying plunge into the sea.

Suddenly, as we were whizzing along, I noticed an old woman, covered, walking in the middle of the highway, ambling along just as easy as you please. She was clutching some oranges, I believe, and was possibly trying to sell them. Anyway, I couldn’t believe the sheer gumption (or was it senility, I thought?) to hazard crossing that hellish road, let alone at that easy-going pace. It was as if she had all day long to cross that road.

It was my introduction into what I would later dub, “The Anatolian Way.”

I’m sure you see what I mean. How many times have you been in, say, Beyoğlu? It’s a busy, Saturday afternoon. You’re in one of those bars perhaps behind the Çiçek Pasajı, having a pint and watching the people pass by on their way to the street markets. Hordes of young men in Galatasaray shirts are warming up their chant en route to watch a match. Fashionable young women are carrying their Louis Vuitton bags in one hand and talking on their phone in the other.

As the people rush past, you see perhaps a solitary old man, with a cane and some pens for sale, and he’s taking something like two steps a minute. You could actually go downstairs, use the toilet, wash your hands, check your face in the mirror and go back up to your table, and you might still see him, having made just a few more steps all that time you were gone. More than once, I’ve caught myself watching such old men and making a mental note: Study that man, I say. That’s the way to go. Look at all these other people, rushing past on their way to their hurried destinies. That guy knows how to squeeze each moment for all they’re worth. (I know, you’ll say – No, James, he’s just old, all old people are like that.)

I don’t know, maybe you’re right. But over the years, I’ve come to appreciate this quality. Again, I call it the Anatolian Way. You might call it something else. Why do I call it that? Probably because I’m a romantic, and I like to fancy that the people who came to this great city from the Anatolian countryside brought something of their ways and attitudes along with them. A slower approach to life, I guess. God knows, this city has a thousand ways of driving you nuts; it’s a city that you have to learn to negotiate with, sometimes on a day-to-day basis, sometimes on a minute-to-minute basis, sometimes on a second-to-second basis. It’s a City of Moments, if you will.

That’s something most of us have had to learn. Don’t get too high with the highs, or to low with the lows, to use the cliché. If you’re stuck with a shitty teaching schedule, for instance, don’t worry. Next week you’ll probably have a completely different schedule, and it could be light as a feather. And vice versa, if you’re on easy street this week, don’t get too excited about it and just enjoy it. If your flatmate’s an asshole, well, he or she may just text you this afternoon and tell you they just found a new job in Beijing (And wouldn’t that be great?)

Anyway, my point is, having lived in this great, kaleidoscopic smattering of villages thrown together in a lopsided form of East-West madness, joy, chaos, lurking disaster and hope that we call Istanbul, the best piece of advice I could offer is to take an example from that woman crossing the busy highway with her oranges, or that old duffer with his cane in Beyoğlu: take it slowly, and let life come to you. That is the Anatolian Way. Yavaş, yavaş.

Case in point: now, remember, I live in Kadıköy. I’m an Anatolian, you could say. I generally prefer the Asian side of the city. It is my home and where I work. Whenever I travel over to the European side I always feel myself in another city. I feel like a day-tripper, a tourist. Well, this past Saturday I was in Beşiktaş for an important meeting. The meeting went well, and afterward I went to get a ferry boat. I found myself trying to cross the busy main road. Not being accustomed to Beşiktaş’ peculiar rhythms, I was suddenly in a potentially perilous position. I was standing in the middle of the road, and the traffic was a-hoppin’.

Oh, shit. What to do? What to do? In a flash, I suddenly remembered: I just started walking, just as slowly as you please. I was that old woman. I had all day long to cross that road. All I needed maybe was some oranges. The cars passed around me like water does around a rock in a stream. Bear in mind, though, I’m Anatolian by attitude, but not by blood. So just to be safe, as soon as a window opened I hauled ass the rest of the way.


James Tressler, a former journalist from California, is the author of several books, including “Conversations in Prague” and “Letters from Istanbul, Vol. 1.” He lives in Kadıköy. 


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.

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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