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The Semester of Yes

Monday, November 11, 2013

 

Hello all,

 

I finally had a couple weeks to catch my breath and just chill out in Istanbul, and as promised, here is a post about what I am up to here and what life is like.

 

The first thing you need to know about Istanbul is that it is enormous. The exact population is somewhat debated, but the general consensus is that there are about 14,000,000 people that live in Istanbul proper, and another 3,000,000 or so commute in daily. At 14M proper residents, Istanbul checks in behind Beijing as the second biggest city in the world.

 

The city itself is divided in two by the Bosphorus Strait. Geographically, the city actually rests in two continents, as the Bosphorus divides Europe and Asia, so Istanbul literally straddles two continents.

 

This is a map of the city (you can see the city limits outlined in black on the outside). The left hand side of the city is the European half, and the right is the Asian. Also, thanks to a sweet online mapping tool I figured out that the red highlighted area is equivalent in size to the city of Boulder. It's really a big city.

Secondly, I want to take a moment to assure everyone of my safety. Despite the unrest over the summer, Istanbul was recently voted the safest of the big cities in Europe, and it has the lowest rate of petty crime. Barring one incident, I have felt totally secure during my entire stay in here, no matter the time of night. Turkey continues to have some political issues, but let's not forget that America has it's own set of embarrassing problems (for Pete's sake, our entire government shut down). I won't go into details about the issues (Internet censorship), but I will say that I have not witnessed much unrest at all, and I've only tasted tear gassed twice, and it was a very light dusting. I am safe here, don't worry.

 

This is Istiklal street, a row of shops just off from the Taksim Square (where this summer's protests were centered). It's sometimes hard to believe that this was once a world center for civil unrest. I mean, they even have Christmas lights up, and it's a Muslim country. 

I am here as part of the Syracuse Program, and am one of just 16 students on the program (that's very small for a study abroad program, I know some friends who have over 10x that many). The program is great and I am having a ball. I am also hugely thankful to our wonderful leaders, Erika and Burak, who have taken great of us so far, and made the transition as smooth as one could hope for.

 

This is my group in the Harem at Topkapi Palace, which used to be the seat of the Ottoman Empire.

As far as school and such goes, it's all rolling along nicely. I am studying at Bahcesehir University, and taking classes with other Turkish students, although they are taught in English. Campus actually has more cafes on it than it does academic buildings, so I have not had the most intense semester ever. I have also taken an internship in the International Affairs Office on campus. I am in charge of most of their English language marketing materials that they put out.

 

This is my campus. Right on the water, it even features a rooftop cafe.

I have fallen in with a small group of locals that I play soccer with every weekend. It's a fairly eclectic group, made up of me and my roommate Conor (who is great), along with a Syrian, a couple Russians, some Saudis, a smattering of Turks, and one guy who's nationality is unknown. It's great to get out and run around, especially with such an international crew.

 

This marks the official international expansion of Team Deep Threat

I am living in an apt building called Republika, which we have semi-affectionately nicknamed The Pubes. It's a difficult place to describe, but if you were to cross a 4-star hotel with a mental institution you would be pretty close. Security is pretty tight (they actually have a room in the basement filled with security cam monitors, so I always feel watched), and the entire place is either very clean white plastic or painted a soothing shade of vomit green. It's pretty funky. However, in terms of location it couldn't be any better. We are in the Ortakoy neighborhood, which is a relatively affluent part of town, that is very central and has easy access to pretty much any part of the city that we could conceivably want to visit.

The city is covered with small carts like this. They usually sell chestnuts or simit (Turkish bagels).

I'm living with one other dude named Conor Hampson, and we get along great. He is from Napa, but goes to school at Bates College in Maine. We also got lucky, and the two of us were put in a three person room, so we have opened the unofficial Hotel of Two Boys to visitors. We have already had a few friends visit from out of town.

 

Conor and I

Delightfully, our first visitor was Max, who took a hiatus from his semester in Spain last weekend. We had a blast together and it was a fun test for me to play tour guide for a weekend (shouts to all my Ambassador buds back home). I took him to my favorite of the sights, along with a night out along one of Istanbul's many "main drags" for Halloween. However, the highlight was undoubtedly that I was lucky enough to score us tickets to the Galatasaray soccer game. The atmosphere at the game was something to behold, and I will be using it as inspiration for when I get back home to my C-Unit student section. The fans stood and sang for 90 minutes. Non-stop. To our pleasure, Galatasaray pulled back from behind to snatch a 2-1 victory, highlighted by a Didier Drogba goal which he celebrated directly in front of us.

King Didier in the flesh, photo taken by Max. For those of you that don't know, he was once named one of the Time 100 for his humanitarian work in his native Ivory Coast, and is considered one of the better strikers ever to play the game.

Our gang at the game, we actually had quite good seats.

 

And the dearest boy and I

Galatasaray also played cross-town rival Fenerbahce last night in the world's only intercontinental city rivalry. The city has three teams, but these two are by far the best and most popular. In all honesty, I can't do a good enough job of describing just how polarizing the intercontinental rivalry is, but this article is OK. I will say that who you support is a big deal, and whenever a local shopkeeper discovers that I am staying here for an entire semester, the first thing they ask is who I support. My answer either gets me a discount at their store, or a telling-off. Fenerbahce won 2-0.

 

Otherwise, I spend most of my time with friends exploring different parts of the city. It's such a big place, and the people here are so nice, that I can mostly just wander around and try and discover new pockets of life. I am confident when I say that I could spend many years here, exploring full-time, and I would still feel as though I hadn't really seen much. Every time I visit a new part of the city, or discover some cool new place, it makes me feel like I have seen even less of the city. Basically, the more I see, the less I feel like I have seen. It's sorta how I feel about the whole world these days.

 

The beauty of a city as immense as Istanbul is that there is always a great spot hiding around every corner, and discovering these places is a treat in and of itself. The other night, I was trying to meet up with some friends and ended up discovering one of the best disguised spots in the city:

 

The entry way looked like this

The second floor

Third floor

Fourth floor

Fifth floor. Sensing a theme?

 

But then on the rooftop you find this

With this view

As a bonus (as if I needed a bonus), the city has more history in it than I can wrap my head around. We went and visited a castle along the Bosphorus last week that is quoted as being one of Istanbul's "newer" attractions. It was built in 1453. For the sake of emphasis, Istanbul's new stuff was built before Columbus discovered the American continent.

Galata Tower. Built by the Venetians in 1348.

 

Inside the Haya Sofya. It was originally built as a church by Justinian in the year 537.

We also spend a reasonable amount of time in the Spice Bazaar, where Conor and I can sample infinite Turkish Delights. I make a point of wearing something outlandish every time we visit, and the shopkeepers end up being positively tickled by me, so they end being quite generous. You gotta love being able to sample so much that you can count it as a meal, it's like Whole Foods on crack.

 

Inside the Spice Bazaar

Arguably my favorite part of Istanbul is the food. These Turks have a very fundamental understanding one of the basic tenets of the my diet - portions should be larger than my head. The food on the street corner is often just as good as any white table cloth restaurant and much cheaper, and the variety that is available is enormous.

 

This is my favorite Doner stand. When I discovered it, I showed this picture to my local friends, and they all knew it. They simply referred to this place as "Doner Allah" or the God of Doner.

This semester, I have adopted a philosophy pioneered by a friend of mine called "The Semester of Yes." Basically, that means that while I am here, if something sounds fun or interesting to me, I do it. No questions asked. If it's expensive, but I think it's worth it, I do it. If I have a schedule conflict or something of the sort, I put all else aside and try and make it happen. I have booked trips to Rome and Amsterdam, and am working on a time to visit Azerbaijan to visit my Auntie Rita. I'm making a concerted effort not to make excuses and pull the trigger, because ultimately, what is a few extra bucks when I get home compared to 5 days in Rome. The way I see it, go for it now while I have the chance, and figure the rest out some other time.

 

If you get up high enough, you can see apartment complexes for as far as the eye can see

So I sorta just chill out and do my thing, max fun all the time. I do miss home sometimes, but I just take it as a sign that I'm bored, so whenever I get a little sad I just try and get up and go do something more stimulating. It basically means that I'm always moving, which is great.

 

There is no "downtown" Istanbul. It is so big that it has many, many city centers. This is looking across the Golden Horn towards Galata Tower and the Taksim area.

The Blue Mosque. The only mosque in the world with six minarets. Ironically it was built to commemorate an tiny Ottoman victory, and is basically a giant grandiose symbol of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

I also need to take a moment to wish a happy birthday to my Father, who would have been 61 on Friday. There has never been a finer man, and I can not begin to describe his impact on my life, even in his death. Miss you old man.

 

 

So overall, life is great out here in the Eastern Hemisphere, and somehow I continue to be able to click on all cylinders. I have the distinct pleasure of going to bed every night humbled by the day I had, and I try and take a little bit of time every evening to reflect on at least one thing that I learned in the previous day. The world is a big place, so I might as well try and pick up a thing or two.

 

The bridge across the Bosphorus connecting Europe to Asia

If you time it right, and catch a ferry around 4:30-5, you can catch an unobstructed view of the sunsetting behind the minarets of the Haya Sophia and Blue Mosque.

I hope all of you at home are doing well, and if you ever get the urge, drop me a line. I promise to respond. I still don't know the exact date of my return, but it'll be sometime in January, so I'll see y'all then.

 

From the City of the World's Desire,

Griff

 

Griffin
Marketing • Boulder, CO

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