I’m sitting in Ataturk Airport, and the smell of banana bread lingers in the air. I’m not sure if the scent currently drifts in through the central ventilation system or if my mind is subliminally moving with the change occurring at this moment. I have spent 201,600 minutes, 3360 hours, 140 days, or 20 weeks living in Istanbul, and I cannot fathom spending a second away from here.
My last few weeks in Istanbul were maybe the best of the whole semester. Deciding to move my exams so they would end on the third day of the two week exam period was the best decision. My summer began early, and there was not a single care in the world (even though, let’s be serious, there was not much work done to warrant the break, but I’ll take it). In Istanbul, the weather was warm and I was able to get that sun that only North Cyprus in April was able to give me. My final weeks consisted of a diverse array of activities to say the least: I swam in the less than clean Black Sea at the Bogazici Kilyos Beach, strolled around Dolmabahce Palace, took part in a chocolate making class, went on a boat cruise with the Duke Program (no flippy-floppies allowed on the green, let alone the boat), raged at a free Avicii concert on Caddebostan, and experienced Gonca’s cousin’s circumcision ceremony in a village outside Afyon. In my free time, I was able to sit back and reflect on my experiences over the previous few months. And after a lot of thought and mellow-dramatic moments, I can genuinely say I do not regret a moment of this adventure.
To begin, I passed all my classes (even though Ottoman history came way too close for comfort). My biggest academic success of the semester was learning Turkish. I did not realize my ability until I was forced to translate and speak for my family during their four-day visit, but I became fairly conversational in the span of four months. Sure the conversation did not go far past the weather, school, and family, but my fluidity while speaking on those topics could be described as impeccable (according to numerous taxi drivers). However, I can only attribute a segment of this success to Beginner Turkish for Foreigners I. The thanks go to the moments I sat with my Turkish friends and listened…and listened…and listened…
My favorite moments were when I would input into the conversation, and my friends would pause, turn toward me, and ask, “You know what we just said?”
To continue with academics, I was extremely proud to call myself a Bogazici student, even if it was only for one semester. The response of “ohhhhhh, you go to BOGAZICI, your parents must be so proud,” never got old. While the school could use some new ideas, the school lives up to its reputation as the most prestigious school in Turkey. The campus has unbeatable views of the Bosphrus, the students are smart as well as engaging, and the Wonderland Café on campus makes the best falafel salad outside Jerusalem.
Speaking of food…
This semester, I found a few places to quench my hunger for those necessary staples of Borek, Menemen, and Tavuk Durum. I met a handful of restaurant owners and moved on from moo-ing at waiters at the beginning of the semester to having complete conversations with them. I was rarely disappointed at mealtimes, and I think I tried most Turkish staples (I left goat’s head and intestines soup off the list. I know they both cure hangovers, but I had to draw the line somewhere). I was never tired of Turkish cuisine, except for the few quesadilla cravings which are natural for any student Turkish or American. However, I think this speaks to the types of foods prepared in Turkey. There is an unbelievable variety of foods to try here despite the lack of diverse ethnic cuisines. It’s all Turkish all the time, and it’s all cheap. I believe a true sign of good food is when you want to learn to cook the dish yourself, and I picked up a few recipes along the way. Anyone at Skidmore next semester who wants the best scrambled eggs or lentil soup you’ve ever tried, just hit me up.
I think the next subject I must reflect on is the people I met in Istanbul. I can truly say this aspect of my trip most impacted my semester. For the first few weeks, I really struggled to find my place in the crazy metropolis. I felt a bit lost to say the least, and I questioned the hype around the city itself. However, the people I met over these past months have truly shaped my opinion of this city, and my life in general.
I need to start with Onur. My resident Hercules truly helped me see life from an atheist’s perspective, and made me realize that I will never be an atheist myself. We have such differing views on so many issues, music, and general life styles, and yet we’re always able to come together over How I Met Your Mother. This guy introduced me to his group of friends and introduced me to life at Bogazici. As the best roommate I could ask for on my exchange, you were the reason my semester became better after those first few weeks. Thanks bromeo. I’ll make sure to feed you soooo much food that you get tooooo full from eating when you come to America. In return, you’ll give me a share of your father’s company.
To my American biddies Yunus, Glen, and Becca, yall truly gave a taste of the good ole’ USA by being the most Texan I could ask for (Yunus, let’s be serious, you and I definitely picked up a little drawl during the semester). You guys joined me for some crazy Taksim and Nexus nights, and helped me have a pretty epic exchange experience. Let’s try to convince Hazal Anna to ship us some Iskender and Tavuk Salata to reconvene over in the states.
The Freshman Industrial Engineering Department. From nights at Kucuk Beyoglu Café Pi to Kareoke to Fasils, you gave me familiar faces on campus to see and relive some of my best Istanbul moments with. You guys are the most welcoming group of people on campus, and easily the craziest I came across in Turkey. Thanks for permitting someone with the least science and math skills to join a group of Turkey’s best engineers. Sing some Hande Yener for me.
Gonca and Buse: You completely opened up and warmly brought me into your lives. I spent every day with the two of you, and your “Oh, David, Hello!” and “Gunaydin”’s made every day better. Thank you for putting up with me living in YK-1 304 and always inviting me to everything you did. I know you’ll be in America soon, and hopefully I’ll be back in Turkey sooner so that we can keep the good times rolling.
And Hande, you know how thankful I am to have met you, but I’ll tell you again. You taught me that it’s ok to not look at a price so long as you will enjoy the product as well as the importance of not eating like a 5 year old. You took me to all your favorite places and came by my side to re-experience Istanbul with me. You even threw me my first surprise party at the best club in Istanbul (which still makes me smile every time I think about it). Every day together, I matured and learned something new. I could not be luckier to have you in my life, and I could not be more excited to travel through France together.
Overall, this city is different. I don’t know what it is, and I don’t know what makes it so unique. Maybe it’s how every store and restaurant has a person in the front welcoming you in. Maybe it is how this one city has equal parts sea, mountains, and cosmopolitan city centers. Maybe it is the blend of determination and relaxation on the faces of the residents on every street corner, and maybe it’s the friendliness that Turks have toward Americans that is rare among most Europeans. Whatever it is, Istanbul provided me with a unique study abroad experience that I truly believe was unlike any I could receive in another country. When I look back on my opinions and perspectives before I arrived here, I can tell that my outlook on life has grown and developed. Trust me, there are some aspects of Turkish culture and politics that could use revamping, most notably in terms of gender and ethnic equality. However, my exchange in Turkey depicted a country in the midst of rapid development that still maintains much of its cultural roots. While these roots may be displayed on stages in front of wealthy European tourists for absurdly high prices, the same rituals can be found in the smallest of villages just a few hours’ drive away, re-creating unique cultural experiences that everyone can appreciate.
It comes down to this: The fact that I can be flying over Italy en route to Paris, recognize the number of things I still need to do in Istanbul, and not regret missing any of them because of the number of things I accomplished this semester, is a true sign of my experience in itself.
Whenever my Turkish friends ask me if I think I will come back, I’ve never been so sure about my positive response. There is still so much to see and do that cannot be accomplished in one semester, and deep down, I believe I will be back in the near future (‘insallah’, as they say in Turkish). To anyone looking for a unique study abroad experience that re-defines what cultural-exchange truly means, I highly suggest coming to Istanbul. If you’re willing to let go of your pre-conceived notions of what Turkey is supposed to be and make a strong effort to blend in with the hard-working, laissez-faire attitude, this country will be a good fit for you, just like it was for me.