I lived in Istanbul for sixteen years. At first I prided myself on not trying to hang out with yabanci, foreigners. This was in spite of the fact that I was the director of a school and hired foreign teachers. Over the years I became known for giving house parties and finally I ran Molly’s Cafe for six years. As a result, I did indeed hang out with a lot of foreigners, local or visiting, but I also knew a lot of Turkish people.
Having the cafe was the peak of my interactions with people from all over the world, literally. People would ask about the Canadian community, but I would say that Canadians do not clump together as much like some other groups. Perhaps because people assume Canadians are American they can blend in more. In fact, when things got tense, such as during the Iraq war, several Americans claimed they were Canadian, which ticks most Canadians off, fyi.
Now that I am not an expat but a repat, I have spent some time thinking about expats who live in a place. This is different from travellers or tourists. Or perhaps expats who stay put for several years are a kind of slow moving traveller. At any rate, there seems to be a sense of ownership because expats live in an exotic place that they are coming to know well. When expats go to a place it is like it attaches to them, like things do, and then both sides have possession. I think there can also be a sense of arrogance– how cool am I to live in such a fabulous place? Which of course is when a slapdown happens.
Of course people who were travelling from their home countries in various ways often stopped into my cafe. Sometimes they had been on the road for a while and were pleased to come across more familiar comfort food. Often a local expat would offer advice for these people. Some tourists were taking a day off their cruise ship or from their travelling. People who lived in another foreign country but were visiting Turkey because it was close came by. These included exchange students in Europe stopping by to explore or occasionally Fulbright scholars. Some people were visiting Turkey for a rest. In this category were aid workers from Sudan or Somalia. Istanbul was interesting, but quieter, at least until the Gezi protests.
Often business brought people to Istanbul and they stayed on a bit to see the city. There was one Scottish man who when he first came to my cafe, announced that he was from God’s country. I asked which one that was– Scotland. But he actually lives in France, as he works for Airbus.
Zimmermen discovered my cafe. I had never heard of zimmerman, so when the first one came into my cafe, I asked if he was a musician. He was wearing leather pants, a white shirt, and an embroidered vest, topped off by a fedora. A zimmerman is a travelling carpenter who is doing his apprenticeship on the road– hence journeyman. When they came in, I would give them coffee and cake, as is the custom.
Sometimes history would walk in the door. At my first cafe some guys came in who had lived there and one woman stopped by to say her grandmother had lived upstairs many years before. At the third cafe, a woman came in who told me she had been born in what was now the cafe and a man arrived who said he had been born in the building. He was Jewish, as that had been a street for upper middle class Jews. An elderly woman came in to tell me she had grown up in the building and had raised her daughter there. She and her friends had played in the garden. She asked to look at the garden and when she came back in, we both teared up. And finally a man came into my last cafe and announced that he had been born in what was then my kitchen.
Since Turkey has such fractious neighbours on one side and somewhat resistant neighbours on the other, there are many involuntary expats in Istanbul. If you came to one of my special dinners, you probably met Arun and some of the other Sri Lankans. There were also Afghans and Syrians, of course, as well as Africans. It brought the difficulties of these places closer to home.
Local expats made up such an interesting and diverse group. Teachers from around Istanbul came by to get their home cooking. Because of the cafe, I could host art shows by Shirley Verrette or Trici Venola.
Some very well known poets such as John Ash or Mel Kenne, Julie Doxsee read their work.
Internationally known poets such as Jerome Rothenberg, Neils Hav, Bill Berkson, and Edward Frost stopped by to read.
Journalists and other writers came by. These included journalists Hugh Pope and Scott Peterson and mystery writer Barbara Nadal.
There were even theatre evenings with the Tempest Ladies and Eric Wilcox’s play, Oscar Wilde in San Francisco.
Most of the music at my place was played by foreigners as well as Turks. The most exotic was probably the Maori flutes or perhaps it was the Sicilian throat songs.
We had jazz, bluegrass, blues, a little rock by the likes of George Wabisca and the Orvilles.
Nicholas brought together Ivir Zivir in its many permutations and Elisabetta Lanfredi sang Italian folk songs.
Cam Neufeld, from Alberta, fiddled and the Cyclown Circus played old style. The Petrovich Blasting Company blasted out their music (and had the neighbours in a fit). Darius and Oshan, both Brits with Iranian mothers, played rousing music from India and the Middle East. Thanos and friends came several times to play Greek taverna music.
Who were the Turks that I met? Certainly with the cafe, the customers included, for example, Robert College students as well as Austrian High School students. Sometimes Turkish teachers came by. Certainly poets, writers, musicians. Parents waiting for their child’s lesson to be finished.
My favourite Turks to deal with were the ones who were kind of grizzled, even if they were young. I loved the fact that people would come by my cafe to sell me things or services. There was the egg man, the yogurt and cheese man, the cut flower man, the potted flower man, the fruit cart man. The knife carver came once a month. The salep seller came every day during the winter. At my last cafe the local drunk, who was maybe 30, would find random things and bring them for me to buy. If there was ever any question, I knew that my Turkish esnaf, my business neighbours, would help me. One time the tea guy ran after someone who had stolen my phone. They would assure me that they were there keeping an eye on things. Of course they were also nosy, but I was nosy about them too, so it was fine.
My years in Turkey were some of the best in my life. My years doing the café, in spite of the hard and long hours, were definitely a high point of my life. I am so glad I had the life I did in Istanbul. It opened my eyes to history, culture, and the different lives of others. I am so much richer as a result.