My first week in Istanbul

Eliot Claasen/Staff
The Bosphorus Strait

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I am now three weeks into my semester abroad at Bogazici Universitesi in Istanbul, Turkey. It’s been mostly cold and gray here. The city smells like spiced meat and the bus driver’s cigarette, and it sounds like traffic and the Islamic call to prayer over loudspeakers.

On my first morning in Istanbul, the call to prayer shook me awake. It’s a haunting sound, especially in the early morning. The voice is loud and sometimes distorted, and the melody it sings is melancholy. It echoes off glass buildings and crumbling stone walls. In the afternoons, it combines with the sound of car horns, storefront chatter and barking street dogs. It’s audible from almost everywhere in the city. At school, it sometimes makes it so I can’t hear the words of my professors.

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Bogazici Universitesi is north of Istanbul’s city center along the Bosphorus Strait, the waterway that divides Europe and Asia. The university is on the European side of the city. It was founded in 1863 as Robert College and was the first American university established outside of the United States. It is now a Turkish public university and one of the best schools in the country. All courses are taught in English.

Bogazici’s main campus sits on a hill overlooking the strait. Bogazici means “Bosphorus” in Turkish. The campus descends beautifully toward the water, which is represented in nearly every advertisement for the school. All but one of my classrooms has an expansive view of the strait and Asia beyond. There are gardens and museums and important-looking stone buildings and ivy and a Starbucks.

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I spent my first afternoon at the university wandering around campus, searching for the best viewing bench. At sunset, I came across a garden behind a building at the edge of the university. Along the far border of the garden were the remnants of a path leading into a forest. Even though it was nearly dark, I wanted to check it out.

I knew about Istanbul’s stray-dog problem even before I came here. But when I began to see piles of dog poop every few steps along the path, I didn’t put it together. When I stepped in a fresh pile I was annoyed — not alarmed. It wasn’t until a dozen barking dogs descended a hill in front of me that I realized what I was walking into. I turned around, grabbed a fallen tree branch and booked it back to campus. I made it out fine, with dog poop all over my shoes.

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It’s that way in Istanbul: There are Mercedes-Benz dealerships along broken streets, bars by mosques, stray cats sleeping outside pet stores and snarling wild dogs at prestigious universities.

Since I arrived, there have been weekly protests in Istanbul. Protesters are upset about new Internet laws put forward by the government of conservative-leaning Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, coming suspiciously on the heels of widespread corruption charges against the prime minister and his party.

During my first week in the city, there was a protest. There was a lot of tear gas, fire and rubber bullets. The government sent in riot police, police tanks and water cannons.

I was at my downtown hostel when something smashed against the window and it began to smell like tear gas. I went to the roof, where I had a good view of a standoff between protesters and police. The protesters had built a barricade of ladders and plywood and junk, behind which they shot fireworks and threw rocks and Molotov cocktails at a line of riot police and police tanks. Then a water cannon showed up, effectively flushing the protesters down the street and out of my sight. In the smoky aftermath, I saw two people carried away from the wrecked barricade and heard screaming. The tear gas made me sneeze.

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The protests will probably continue throughout local elections this month. The large guns and face-masked riot police downtown make me nervous, but I feel mostly safe here.

People are usually excited to learn that I am American — so far, being American in Istanbul has proven to be worth a complimentary cappuccino, sandwich and tea. Because I am American, I am sometimes asked about Las Vegas. I have also been spit on by a young child.

The day after the protest, I moved into an apartment not far from downtown, by a large cemetery in an Armenian neighborhood. I’ve been here about two weeks now. I have two Turkish housemates, my own room and a balcony that looks across the street to an apartment building as run-down as mine. There is usually an old woman leaning out of a window directly across from my room, scowling and looking like she has been smoking the same cigarette forever. I don’t use my balcony very often.

The city doesn’t issue garbage cans, so people throw bags of garbage onto the sidewalk to be collected. The garbage and the animals it attracts, together with the drabness of the buildings on my street, the barbed wire and tall stone wall of the cemetery and a gray sky, make for a sad image. It takes about one combined hour on the metro and bus to reach my school and its promotional pamphlet views of the Bosphorus.

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Heading into the third week of classes, it’s beginning to feel like I live in Istanbul. I have made friends with a man who sells me cheap wine on the walk from the metro station to my apartment. Plus, the wine isn’t bad.

Contact Eliot Claasen at [email protected].