Just Another Friday Night in Istanbul

Every student studying abroad, whether in Australia, France, Peru or Turkey, receives some sort of Welcome Packet that includes program logistics and cultural analyses highlighting the ways Americans are, basically, different from the rest of the world. Duke in Istanbul provided us with, “CULTURE SHOCK! Turkey.” I did not read this. In fact, it is sitting in front of me now, starring me in the face, screaming, “I can tell you how to not embarrass yourself! Understand your world. Read me!” Every day, I tell myself that maybe I might sit down with a cup of cay and flip through the pages of cultural wisdom. Instead, I continuously decide to go down the cultural slide head first and see what fills the pool at the other end for myself.

To no one’s surprise, the pool is not always as warm, calm and clear as we might like to hope.

To make a really long, melodramatic story short and slightly less melodramatic, I left my phone in a taxi last Friday night. I ended up walking around for two hours to three different taxi stations around the University, talking with large hordes of old men chain smoking cigars and playing backgammon, trying to figure out which taxi I left my phone in. Of course, no one spoke English, and the state I was in was not ideal for remembering the Turkish phrases I picked up in “Turkish for Foreigners I” (which, in reality, has primarily taught me words such as blackboard and eggplant, and might not have been useful in this situation). In the end, I bribed the taxi driver 25 lira (around 15 dollars) to return my phone because I shouldn’t have ‘left it in the taxi’. Afterwards, I found myself alone, pathetically eating the last borek at the local Borekchi cafe at 2 AM as a few tears may or may not have been shed over the Turkish potato knish. I then returned to my apartment where my parents, brother, and friends from both Newton and Skidmore were subjected to their semi-intoxicated, emotional train-wreck of a friend/son.

I had never felt so alone and out of place in my entire life. I have always relied on my speech, communication, and friends to solve problems and gain accolades. Remove my language, my phone connecting me to external help, and anyone on the streets in general, and there I was last Friday night.

My mother (who, by the way, I have since learned has told this story to everyone from her coworkers to relatives to women she ran into at Fruggle Fannies Department Store) put the situation into perspective as she is often able to do. She reminded me of her study abroad fiasco when she was separated from her friends while traveling from Copenhagen to Vienna, and had no way of communicating with them to meet up. She told me that these experiences are a part of living in a new country, especially one where we do not linguistically or culturally naturally fit in. I’m sure “CULTURE SHOCK! Turkey” explained it all, and maybe would have helped me figure out what to do in the moment. However, I think I got the point, just in a slightly different way.

Since my last post, I have faced similar challenges. The process of selecting and attending classes reminds me that I am, more or less, reliving freshman year of college, thrown into a new environment with new faces, new expectations, and new levels of homework (only unlike the high school to college transition, the workload has significantly decreased, one of the benefits of being a native English speaker at an English University in Turkey where many of the students are not far above proficient). On three separate days, I somehow found my way to Asia via four different modes of transportation, stumbled upon one of Istanbul’s most famous hole-in-the-wall restaurants while lost looking for a different one, and came across what is considered to be Istanbul’s most hidden, well-preserved seaside village while trying to look for my Skidmore friend’s mom who was loaning me a blanket.

I’ve been on some amazing excursions with the Duke in Istanbul program, and have seen so many amazing sites due to these thoroughly planned out itineraries. But the moments that stick out most are those pushing me out of my comfort zone in ways I could have never anticipated. For instance, I was so excited to be on a small, intimate program with only 19 other Americans. However, the nature of the program helped me realize I did not want to be confined to a group of other Americans from  other small liberal arts colleges. What I thought was a program designed to hold our hand throughout this process has without a doubt helped me do the opposite. I am constantly pushing myself out of my comfort zone as I become friends with more and more Turkish students. The people I meet along the way are some of the nicest, most genuine people I know, and provide me with information, insight and discussions I could never have with another American. While these interactions momentarily create language barriers and highlight, bold and underline cultural differences, I have an amazing opportunity as a full-time student at Bogazici that many people on 60 or 200 person exchange programs do not have. And let’s be serious, with the rate this country is developing, the people at this top university will without a doubt be my future employers, so it’s a good time to start meeting them.

I have also recently learned that we cannot travel out of Turkey until May due to the wonderful organization that is the Turkish bureaucracy. As a result, it appears that the traditional euro-tripping component of most study abroad programs can be added to my list that I have named, “What Makes Istanbul Unique.”

However, I am quickly learning to accept and appreciate this unique experience, and am looking forward to stumbling upon the other curveballs around every corner, fruit stand, and taxi station.

-David

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