Studying abroad with nothing to do but learn, leads to unforgettable trip

When I left New York on the first day of February, it was unseasonably warm. With the thermometer pushing 60 degrees, I sneaked in one more day of wearing shorts before winter would hit once again, as I boarded an airplane. One ocean, two continents and 10 hours later, I saw a city covered in the worst snowstorm it had suffered in decades.

Not quite what I expected when I landed in Istanbul, Turkey; a city I would be calling home for the next five months. Aside from personal accounts of friends and the guidebook I read on the flight over, I knew next to nothing of the city.

I knew even less of the language. I had learned how to say hello, but if I were completely lost and had no idea how to get to where I was living, being able to only say hello to a stranger on the street really wouldn’t help a whole lot. For the first time in my life, I could not talk; or more correctly, I could not communicate.

After finally recovering from jet lag caused by the seven-hour time difference, I went out; no objective in mind. At first it was to familiarize myself with my surroundings, but I found myself doing this many months down the road as well. Sometimes I went to new locales I had yet to explore, sometimes to my usual haunts. On most nights I would make the five-minute walk to the Galata Bridge, the bridge that connects the new side of the city with the older, historical side of the city (think Constantinople). During the half-mile walk, I passed by vendors selling cheese and tomato sandwiches, roasted chestnuts, simit, which are similar to a bagel and balık ekmek, grilled fish sandwiches served with lettuce, onion and tomato.

There is a place in my heart reserved for potentially-unhygienic-but-always-delicious street food, so I became a repeat customer to many of these vendors. If there had been no language barrier, I would know them all on a first-name basis.

After speaking with my fellow foreign students—in English—I learned that many of them were fearful of these vendors. Every Sunday I went to the local produce market in the “bad part” of town to buy my produce for the week. I could pick up kilos of fruits and vegetables for mere pennies, and I wasn’t about to let that opportunity pass me by.

I began telling myself every day, not to let this opportunity pass me by. I went to those questionable food vendors, not only because the food was delicious and cheap, which it certainly was, but because I wanted to belong. One particular favorite of mine was a man on the Galata Bridge who grilled spiced meatballs called köfte. Alongside the meat on the charcoal lay a cigarette, which the man took a puff of in between flips of the patties. Next to the grill sat a glass of Rakı, a grape-based liquor that many consider the drink of Turkey.

Life in Turkey was different. Cats and dogs would wander around the school, go in and out of the classrooms and nobody would bat an eye. Eventually, I didn’t either. It became normal.

By the time I was about to leave Istanbul, many of the friends I met there had already departed. So by myself, I went out; just as I did so many times before. I had already packed my clothes and went to the bazaar to buy goodies that I was hoping, with fingers crossed, would not get taken away at customs. I bought a köfte sandwich and a can of Efes and sat down on one of the many benches overlooking the Bosphorus Strait for one last time. I hadn’t spoken a word of English that day; only Turkish.

The night before, a few of my friends were to return home to Holland, so we met one last time to drink tea, smoke nargile, or hookah pipe and play okey, a game similar to rummy.

Surprisingly it was mostly Turkish students I would see eating the McDonalds and Burger King, not the American or European students. Turkey, or in this case, Turkish food, which quickly became one of my favorite cuisines, would be gone soon. There was no time to waste on things we could have at home.

My voice was hoarse from smoking too much the night before; I sat down and took a swig of that mediocre—but comforting—beer and a bite of my sandwich. The lights of the Blue Mosque and the Aya Sofya reflected on the water, the tram buzzed by and the fact that I was sitting on one continent looking at another had still not worn off. The view was not unique per se, for I had seen it many times before, but this final time around, it felt different. It finally felt like home. I was a foreigner, but this was no longer a foreign land.

2 thoughts on “Studying abroad with nothing to do but learn, leads to unforgettable trip

  1. Jacob, I’m an Turkish-American living in the USA. I visit Istanbul a few times a year (in fact right now I am in my beautiful city)…just wanted to tell you that your last paragraph truly gave me goosebumps, and teared me up! I’m glad you enjoyed your stay (so did my daughter during her study abroad at Bogazici University) and thank you for the article..

  2. I know how you feel Jacob. I traveled during the summer for 11 years to Turkey to buy goods for my business. I will tell you that you won’t ever stop loving Turkey, its people and its food. Istanbul is imprinted in my brain and my heart. I have traveled extensively thru Turkey and I can say it a wonderful multifaceted place. From the Iranian Border to the Black Sea and South to to the Turkish Mediterranean, the place is hypnotic. Now that I am old, there is not a chance to travel there and depression sets in when I think about that.

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