Lots of people had advice for me when I told them I was going to Turkey. As has been well documented, I didn’t know a lot about Turkey or Turkish culture before coming here, but I’m naturally skeptical about unsolicited advice.
The thing I kept hearing over and over again was that I was going to have to be very careful about what I wear.
“You have to dress modestly,” an antiques dealer who claims to have lived in Istanbul for months at a time exhorted me, “or you’ll be in for a world of trouble.” He looked me up and down. “What you’re wearing now is okay,” (below-knee length peasant skirt, tee shirt, flats) “you look nice, but in Istanbul you’ll want to cover up more than that. You’ll want to make sure your arms are covered.”
Turns out skinny jeans are in in Istanbul, too. And I’ve seen lots of girls wearing micro-minis. And I’m pretty sure that the only reason I don’t see more cleave is cause even though it’s unseasonably warm here, it is, in fact, mid-November.
There are lots of covered women here, but to say that you have to dress in a certain way so as not to offend certain portions of the Muslim population strikes me as being about as ridiculous as saying that you need to cover up in New York so you don’t get harassed by Hasidic men. People wear what they want, here, and unless I’m touring a mosque there’s no pressure to cover up my elbows and ankles and other dirty-lady-bits.
The same antiques dealer told me that Istanbul is “a very clean country. They’re obsessed with cleanliness. And you’ll never, ever see dogs. Becuase they’re Muslim, you see.”
This lil fella on the right is the resident dog at the pet shop down the street. At the park around the corner from out apartment, I counted nine dogs being taken for walks in the forty-five minutes I was working out. And that doesn’t count the strays.
One of the most remarkable things about Istanbul is the strays. The givernment rounds up homeless dogs and cats, gives them shots and fixes them, and releases them. Everyone feeds and loves them. The streets are full of dogs- big fellas with a lot of lab and German Shephard in them- who roam around, fat and calm and happy, and take naps in the middle of the sidewalk, or stretched across the walking path in the park. On sunny corners you’ll find piles of fat, sleek cats sleeping in tangles of ginger and tabby, a pile of kibble nearby for them to find whenever they wake up. It’s such a striking difference from America, and in particular Baltimore, where there’s a growing animal-torture problem, and where strays are skittish and sickly and dirty, and where you don’t want to put food out for them for fear of rats.
On a related note, almost everyone told me to be careful. A dear friend, who has most recently traveled Guatemala, told me to always be very careful with my purse, to watch out for swarms of kids in the open markets who would want to take advantage of me when they figured out I’m American, and to never take my laptop or anything else valuable with me when I left the house if I could help it. I’ve been told not to walk alone at night. I’ve been told not to make myself conspicuous. I’ve been told that if I laugh too loudly I’ll be mistaken for a prostitute. I’ve been told to watch out for the men, that if I’m not careful I’ll be harassed or worse on the streets.
Well, this is the kind of kid I run into most often:
I also run into a lot of teenagers on the transit, but they’re generally glued to their smart phones and don’t seem interested in stealing my purse or begging me for an American dollar.
In all seriousness, Istanbul, at least the neighborhood I live in in Kadikoy, is safer than Baltimore. The Turkish men I meet on the street openly stare at women, and that took me a few days to get used to, but once I realized they weren’t going to do anything else it stopped making me nervous or self-conscious.
In all, one of the most surprising things to me about Istanbul is that it isn’t exotic at all. I’m writing this from a coffee shop around the corner that has the Cranberries and REM on heavy rotation, and except for the shape of the glasses and the hookah bar in the back could be anywhere. Outside is a row of shops selling the same kinds of cheap junk they sell in every city. The teenagers have the same ridiculous hair they have everywhere. It’s cleaner and better run here than in Baltimore or New York or Chicago, and of course there’s the little issue that I can’t understand a damn word anyone says, but otherwise it’s just a place, not that different from where I left.