Saturday, December 06, 2008

Nostalgia, or 'Three years later I have learned nothing'

Now, this is cheating. I've ample time on my hands so decided to clean up my in-boxes from various email accounts. I found a few emails I sent long ago, when I had first arrived in Istanbul and was unware that almost four years later, they wouldn't let me back in.

I knew I was in love with the city then, and I still am. Strangely enough, visas were already an issue way back... I never learned.

February 2006

Well, I’ve now turned into that sort of person I’d said that I’d never become – I’m sending a collective email. After several months kidding myself that I’d eventually get around to writing to all of you individually, I’ve had to eat humble pie and admit that it’s just not going to happen soon.

I have no valid excuse, so I proffer none. I’ll just get on with regaling or appalling you with details of my little life in a big, busy metropolis. Some of you are already privilege to the events recounted herein. You therefore have a perfectly valid reason not to continue further, but instead to make better use of time by ironing, cleaning the oven or maybe just falling asleep.
Let’s start with work life, mainly since my sad tales of woe ought to provide you with enough reasons to stay in your current position and stop moaning about whatever it is that annoys you in the workplace.

As an illegal worker, I rely enormously on the goodwill of my current employer to do what’s required to keep me being physically removed from the country. Sadly, my current employer has no goodwill, but happens to be a lying, cheating pig-eyed sack of shit who spends his day hunched over a laptop, staring at Christ-only-knows what and, in my mind, possibly searching in the keyboard for any sign of his brain matter which has clearly leached from his cranium during recent months.

New to the world of Teaching English as a Foreign Language, I knew I’d have to make a few adjustments to my varied ways of thinking; that I’d encounter a steep learning curve and need to put in a lot of work for the first few months; that I’ve have to remain flexible in my outlook, enthusiastic in my approach; in short, I was in for a few surprises.

What I didn’t factor into my thinking was the pathetic bunch of lies that I would be confronted with from the start, and to which I initially remained oblivious. Over time things would happen that just didn’t make sense. Things weren’t adding up. Different responses to the same question from the same person in too short a space of time for the situation to have changed. When you finally realise that lying is an acceptable part of your corporate culture, you either play the game of you don’t.

I have chosen not to join in on the fun, not because I have higher morals than anyone else, but simply I rely on work to pay me money to stay in this city. Recently staff have not been paid on time and in fact, small amounts of money are sometimes passed discreetly into our palms, like a adulterer might placate a enraged mistress – ‘Go on, treat yourself to something nice, we’ll settle this little tiff later’.

More disconcerting is maintaining a valid tourist visa, something that causes undue stress on numerous teachers in my school.

The ‘system’ works thus. You supply the school with a copy of your passport, ten suitably sized photos, a standard bureaucratic form with personal details. The school uses its contact in the Foreigners Police Office to obtain a Foreigner Resident Permit. The permit expressly prohibits working, but it does allow you to stay on an extended tourist visa. It’s a case of you-know-that-they-know-that-you-know-but-we-all-say-nothing-and-somewhere-someone-makes-a-stack-of-cash-out-of-all-of-this. So I did know what I was getting myself in for when I decided to teach here. what I didn’t anticipate was lie upon continual lie, compounding each new difficulty and blurring the contours of reality so often and so well that I frequently ended up believing the sincere bullshit that constituted answers to my simple questions.

However, a benevolent ray of sunshine appeared. Five weeks ago I landed a job opportunity that seemed too good to believe. In comparison with my current situation I would work fewer hours for twice the money, have a driver transport me back and forth, work only weekdays between eight and four-thirty, and benefit from long paid holidays. I sailed through the interview, charming everyone with reach of my smile. It worked. They had me sign an pre-contractual agreement before I’d even finished my third cup of tea. I left feeling fabulous and treated myself to a new pair of burnt orange Adidas™ trainers on the way home.

Over the following days I rummaged about filling in new forms, getting signatures on documents, requesting academic transcripts, thinking about a new wardrobe and whether there was anything in the new contract about sporting a beard. I was on a high, and handed in my resignation to my current employer, giving an ample five weeks of my intention to cease employment.

Some time later my boss, already under financial pressure and perhaps reeling from the fact that on average a teacher leaves the school every month, took it upon himself to make some unilateral changes to the work contract. Notwithstanding the fact that my visa had expired at the beginning of June and that I will continue to work here until the end of next week, Ahmet informed his administration staff that they needn’t pay for my visa extension. No-one bothered to tell me, which, I feel, was a shame.

The school has long had all the papers it needed to renew my visa. Indeed, my papers have been sitting in a draw, along with my passport, for the better part of two months. During a highly-strung moment of complete and utter rage last week, I vented my anger downstairs and demanded that someone process my visa. I threw the necessary money on the desk and stormed off. I am still waiting for my Foreigner Resident Permit. and of course, I am quite angry.

My current employer is effectively jeopardising my new job, as my new employer needs to see my visa before they in turn approach the Turkish Ministry of Education – the latter, in some bizarre twist, is exactly the power that can both regularise my visa and extradite me from the country simultaneously… Christ, does any of this make sense? Also, I cannot leave Turkey, since without the Foreigner Resident Permit I have only a passport containing a visa that expired last year. Well, let me correct that. I can depart, but will be made to pay a hefty fine.

Such is my sad life. But I do have very fashionable burnt orange Adidas™ trainers.

And aside from work, I’m still loving Istanbul. Here you can see it all, even if you really don’t want to. I usually get an eyeful of it every day on my way to work.

Istiklal Caddesi, probably best translated as Independence Street and formerly known as the Grand rue du Péra in times gone by, is a two kilometre pedestrianised stretch linking the heart of the European side of my city, down to this historic quarter that I call home, Tünel.

The streets is lined with all the normal consumerist crap, though the Turkish take on fashion makes for some fairly outlandish window displays. I’m not sure whether words or phrases like subtle or understated elegance have equivalents in this very difficult of languages, methinks not.
As with all peoples of the Mediterranean, less in not more. Only more is more. More stitching, more embroidery, more bits of useless material dangling off God-awful designs, most of which have disturbingly large bit of gold and silver on them. Fabric in Turkey comes only in two shades – vivid and glaringly-vivid. To be fair, in a shop window I can easily divert my eyes from such vulgar displays of tastelessness and continue up the High Street knowing I look great in unironed jeans and a T-shirt that’s probably as dirty as the Shroud of Turin but… just look at the people who wear these clothes.

If there was ever an investment opportunity in this country, then Hair Gel is where the money is at. These people are quite likely the worlds’ largest consumers of that greasy sludge, trowelled on in quantities that could support the weight of a four-storey building on the average seventeen year-old’s head. At thirty-six, I’ve lost touch with fashion and it’s quite possible that across the planet today’s youth adorns itself with massive blobs of the stuff that is then sculptured into styles that defy both gravity and common sense. Whatever the mode actuelle, I’m certain that Turkish men account for a disproportionately large share of hair product consumption.

Fashion here is so, well, busy. You cannot purchase anything plain, everything sports some garish pattern or additional thing or bit that you’d rather it didn’t have. Friday night in Istiklal Caddesi is my absolute favourite people-watching hour. Scores of restless youth pour in from the suburbs to hang about gaping at foreigners, women and whatever else seems to be on the street.

The passing parade is not soon forgotten. A blind man clacks his stick over another example of mismanaged infrastructure, and as he stumbles over loose pavers, his lifeblood of cheap lighters scatter in front of him. Veiled women clothed in black shuffle past with their regulatory disobedient sons, while the odd transsexual glides past on roller blades, pinching the buttocks of an outraged posturing wannabe Casanova, his shirt so tight it might actually be causing permanent lung damage.

The wannabes lurk in doorways, ogling each woman who passes as though she were the first of the species they’d set their eyes on. To other men they simply furrow their brow, contemptuous that any male might be tougher, more handsome or able to get away with a shirt exposing more chest themselves.

The odd conservative religious type wanders past, the type media like to portray as the bomb-throwing fundamentalists, but personally, in this town those who do most damage to the environment and are a general affront to my well-being are well-heeled females – the fairer sex and money do not a gracious combination in this city make.

Turks are a good looking race of people. Why the women destroy their looks with badly bleached hair, heavy-handed make-up, collagen-fuelled lips and Paris Hiltonesque haut-couture… well, I just lost the train of though in that sentence.

Gipsy kids try to pick-pocket you and louts eagerly entice you to visit a nice Russian dancing girl in a bar ‘not too far from the street’. Ooh, yes please, I’d love to sit on the lap of some sad prostitute while you ring up a tab on my credit card then muscle me into paying one thousand dollars for a beer…

Among the natives are the throngs of slovenly-dressed backpackers, kids from the village in the big smoke on holiday and strangely enough, huge numbers of families who seem to enjoy being thrusted this was and that across a street by perhaps a hundred thousand souls.
Bewildered tea-quaffing, rosary-clacking mustachioed old timers sit on miniature stools, no doubt bemoaning the fate of the country and biding their time until nationalism raises its head again to shake the country to its senses. Arthouse type try desperately to look dangerously aloof and cool, somehow forgetting that Sleepless in Seattle is years past its prime, and, let’s be honest, who really ever gave a shit about grunge and Winona Ryder? A small punk contingent hangs out the famed Galatasaray Lycée, something in their dress and countenance makes me wonder how soon they’ll swap the mohicans for side parts and the rags for Armani as their bourgeois backgrounds weigh down on them in years to come.

Down toward my neighbourhood is where the musos are to be found. Someone seriously needs to tell these people that Metallica is dead. Long straight hair may have look good on Crystal Gayle and Carly Simon, but it’s a hardly sensible look for men in the first decade of this century. Black is not the new black.

Lastly, if the shops don’t bedazzle with their window displays, there are always the hagglers on the street. Personally, I like to buy my Nike and Adidas socks for one dollar - who cares if they’ve fallen of the back of a truck? Yes, I love day-glo light displays. Oh, yes, please, sell me anything, as long as it’s made of plastic and as long as it’s from China.

And that small wind-up fluffy chicken that barks like a irritated Rottwieler? Only $2.50. Please, I’ll take two of them. I plan to insert them both painfully into my boss when I leave the school next Friday.


ASLI said...

I think in one part of the article you are talking about my jeweleries... Do you have a problem with them? Who cares? I love them... Maybe you can buy me a couple of silver earrings from Dubai. You know what to do... Choose the biggest ones...

James said...

Never about you!

I'm talking about those crazy women who never leave Nisantasi and think that the whole world is contained within Vali Konagi and Rumeli Caddesi...

But sure, I'll get you some big earrings!

ASLI said...

What!!! The whole world is not contained within Vali Konagı and Rumeli Caddesi???
Dear friend, I was just kidding about my jeweleries.But I am serious about big earrings. Please don't forget to get me them...

James said...

The world as it exists beteen Yargici and Citys Nisantasi is a frightening place. Don't go there.

And I'll get the big earrings.