I pushed my luggage cart towards the exit keeping my eye out for any indication of whom in the pressing throng of the anxious; the welcoming; the greeting and the embracing, was supposed to be meeting me. Towards the end of the line were two young men waving a placard with my name and the name of the school for which I had come to work scrawled on it. I made a beeline for them and introduced myself, for which, in return I had my hand vigorously pumped, my shoulder heartily slapped as if I was a friend they hadn’t seen for a while and thus had my first taste of Turkish hospitality. One of them spoke fluent English (it turned out he was a teacher/administrator), which was a relief, and together we headed out to the car park. Luggage loaded in the boot, ourselves installed in the car, we set off on my second Turkish experience: driving. With no apparent speed limit and a careless abandon for lane discipline we hurtled towards our destination, which turned out to be Şişli.
Sometime around midnight we arrived at a basement flat that I was told was near the school. It immediately reminded me of my first student flat in London. Damp, dank, cheaply furnished and reeking of unwashed dishes, fried onion, cigarettes, beer and rancid socks; I could not imagine such a regression, especially as I had just spent three months at my parents’ seven-bedroom medieval farmhouse in luscious Kent. A couple of teachers were still up watching Turkish TV and quaffing beer and they greeted me warmly enough. The three-bedroom flat I discovered was actually sleeping six and my “bedroom” turned out to be one of two sofa beds in the living room, the other of which was used by an Australian, Lindsay. Things could only possibly get better I told myself hopefully as I finally drifted off to sleep. Which, of course, they did.
After some induction meetings and class observation I was then transferred to Şaşkınbakkal on the Asian side, which meant a considerable daily commute. One night, tired after a long day, I jumped on a bus I thought was going to Şişli from Mecidiyeköy, but which turned out to be the last bus to Topkapı. As the driver pulled onto a parking lot near, I presumed, his home was there, I was still sitting, hopeless and helpless with absolutely not one word of Turkish to help me. “Şişli?” I asked, adding the body language of the utterly lost for emphasis. He then said, as I now know, “Stay there I will help you,” and proceeded to drive me back to the center and a minibus station where he instructed the driver to take care of me and ensure I got to Şişli safely. Try getting that kind of service in London, Paris or New York!
Soon after that event I moved to Hasanpaşa in Kadıköy. In those days it was unlike anything I had ever seen. I shared a new flat with two teachers, which was part of a new-build project in the area. The street was a mud track, and the “houses” opposite were decaying wooden shacks with dirt floors and wires hooked to the overhead cables to steal electricity. I had already observed how the city’s infrastructure: roads, pavements, buildings, public transport, etc., were so run-down and worn-out looking, but this street took the cake. There, I experienced my first traditional Kurban Bayramı (Feast of the Sacrifice) complete with the slaughtering and butchering of animals in the streets and backyards. It was awful. I also had a run-in with the local mafia -- don’t ask -- another first for me. Preferring to live alone, I moved closer to our main branch in Kadıköy to an old one-bedroom flat in Rasimpaşa where, in 1999, I had another new experience: an earthquake. In view of how powerful and devastating it was, I considered myself fortunate that my building had only a few cracks -- later deemed “acceptable” and no threat to the building itself. Two years in İstanbul and I was already stacking up some milestones along my life’s journey.
Hearing from a friend that a wonderful three-bedroom flat with heating (at last) was available in Bostancı for the same price as my one-room ruin in Kadıköy, and it being identical to hers as her family owned them, I didn’t even go to see it but drew up a contract the next day and moved. Finally, this was more like home.
By the year 2000 I had been promoted to education director for the group and combined teaching with managing teachers, schedules, course programs and so on. When I wasn’t in class I was either in my office or in meetings at various branches across İstanbul. Thus, I entered into a long, exciting, rewarding, challenging and hectic but happy phase of my life here, aspects of which I have already written about on this page. Of course, the economic crisis of 2001/2002 hit us like all businesses, but we weathered the storm and once the basis of economic recovery had been established by the former minister of state for economic affairs, Kemal Derviş, and picked up and carried forward by the newly formed and soon-to-be elected Justice and Development Party (AKP) to govern with an outright majority -- the first since the ‘50s -- the extraordinary rise and rise of both the party and the country’s economic performance have transformed Turkey and certainly İstanbul almost beyond recognition, including the environment in which we live, as vast new road, rail, housing projects, public transportation networks and Manhattan-style skyscrapers rise up from the ruins of the ‘80s and ‘90s.
I must have been feeling ridiculously optimistic about my life here as I eventually re-married -- something I had said I would never do -- and with my beautiful young Turkish bride set about completely refurnishing and redecorating my apartment, turning it from very nice to quite stunning, even if I say so myself. I also bought her a car, another thing I said I would never do in İstanbul. Who needs a car these days with public transport so varied and integrated?
Unfortunately, just like the .com enterprises and the Western housing and mortgage boom, the bubble burst with a number of coincidental events, turning all our lives upside down. After three years, my wife and I agreed that things just weren’t working and we got divorced. I became ill, and sapped of my strength, found it harder and harder to do all I needed to do to fulfill the multiple duties of my work. Then a major internal crisis hit the school and a number of us simply left. With a divorce, no job and failing health there was only one thing left to do. In early 2009, I returned to England with no idea if or when I would ever be back. The party was over. In part two, I will bring you up to date.