Istanbul, surprisingly western
in: Global Connection
Photos: Slawomira Kozieniec
Oriental and different. This is what many expats expect when they hear that Istanbul is to be their base for the next few years. However, they soon discover that this city on the Bosporus is a cosmopolitan gem. Istanbul is a ‘global city’: very modern and surprisingly western.
“The Bosporus is Istanbul. The water, combined with the hills and their lush surroundings, is what started it all. It is simply an ideal location and 3,000 years ago, people were already well aware of that,” explains Business Economist and history enthusiast Mirjam van der Lubbe. She and her husband Coen (posted to Turkey by Rabobank and now working at insurance company Eureko) are part of the growing expat community in Istanbul. Mirjam is quick to tell you she is happy in this city. “I feel at home here,” she says.
For many centuries, Istanbul has held a mesmerizing attraction for traders, conquerors and visitors. Byzantine churches, oriental palaces and sultan mosques from the days when the city was still known as Constantinople testify to its rich and turbulent history. The old city centre was successively the capital of the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. For twenty-six centuries, this strategic peninsula has been controlling commerce in the Bosporus.
Trade and manufacturing are still the most important pillars of this thriving city. Its busy container ports and the Levent business district’s ultramodern skyline dotted with skyscrapers speak for themselves. And though Ankara became the official capital in 1923, Istanbul remains the spiritual, economic and cultural capital of the modern republic of Turkey. At least 55 percent of Turkish trade washes through Istanbul, the city generating 21 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.
This is why the city is a magnet for foreign companies as well as for Turks moving in from the provinces. In the past 30 years, the population of Istanbul has tripled. According to official statistics, 12.8 million people live there now, with the actual figure believed to be as high as 16 million.
The continuous flow of migrants has led to an unrestricted growth of suburbs packed with basic dwellings called ‘gecekondu’ (literally translated: built overnight) on the frayed edges of the city. This organic growth of working-class areas became incorporated into the city, or torn down to make room for modern council housing in the form of high-rise flats.
By contrast, most expats live in guarded compounds with modern apartments in districts such as Etiler, Kemer, Zekeriyaköy, Arnavutköy, Sariyer, Tarabya and Kuruçeşme, northern suburbs of Istanbul, built on the hills overlooking or on the banks of the Bosporus. Prices vary. Those enjoying an apartment with a waterside view pay between $1,500 and $2,000 extra per month in rent.
A comfortable place to live
“What has surprised me most is that this is such a comfortable place to live, and that it’s so modern and western,” Mirjam says. “I had prepared myself for a city with an oriental feel, but had not expected that all the things that make living in the west great would be here as well. I love that, while you feel you are in a different world, you are also close to home. It’s only a three-and-a-half-hour flight home for me, so it’s easy to maintain family relationships and old friendships. In addition to that, I feel safe here. It’s easy for a woman to get around the city. I won’t deny that I have had my wallet stolen from my handbag here, but thinking back to the brutal burglary we experienced in Luxembourg, my thoughts about the wallet were: “Is that all?”
Initially, Nurse Oona Smelt (expatriated with her husband to Istanbul by Philips) was skeptical. “I thought that it would be an oriental city. As soon as we arrived here, I realized that I needed to adjust my opinion. I was really surprised to see what a metropolis it is. For example, all the international coffee chains are here, there are a lot of expensive cars, all the top labels from the fashion world are represented and there are countless expensive shopping malls. Istanbul is a very modern city, and I even think it’s a lot more modern than many Western European cities. It was nowhere near as bad as I had expected.”
Many expats think the busy chaotic traffic, the pollution and the noise are a minus. “That and the fact that, as a mother with young children, you need a car for every single trip, even one to the park.” Oona says, “It is a very hilly place, which makes it difficult to just go out for a nice walk. In my own country, I used to cycle everywhere. I do miss that here.”
Public transport is a good alternative, as it is very well-organized. There is an extensive network of bus links, as well as a modern subway and tram service, a ‘metro bus’ that drives on a car-free bus lane running from the European to the Asian part of the city. There are ferryboats, ‘dolmuş’ minivans and countless yellow cabs that are cheap compared to those in Europe and the United States.
Not everyone has a problem with the traffic and the noise. Dora Quadranti, posted by UniCredit with her husband Luca, says: “I have fallen in love with Istanbul. I like the sounds of the city, the hoot of the boats on the Bosporus, the tweets of the seagulls, the singing of the muezzins from the minarets five times a day, the traffic police shouting through loudspeakers and the taxi horns. After five years, I am now used to chaotic traffic without rules. You just have to be extra careful.”
According to Francesca Messina Boiteux, who lived in Istanbul from December 2001 to August 2006 after being posted there by Solvay, getting a job in Turkey does not appeal to expat partners. “You have only two weeks’ vacation a year and part-time jobs are hard to come by in Turkey. Therefore, like many foreign women, I did voluntary work. This included a spell as Editor of ‘Lale’ (2003/2004), the magazine published by the International Women of Istanbul (IWI) organization.”
International schools for expat children are widely available and of an excellent standard. The same goes for medical care. All the private hospitals have internationally trained doctors and are very luxurious. Other plusses are the high standard of living, the way the Turks enjoy life and the extensive expat community. “It’s a large and very diverse group,” Dora says. “Everyone helps each other and there are various organisations that arrange all kinds of activities to strengthen mutual bonds. And the shopping in Istanbul is fantastic.”
“I think I am going to have a problem from now on, because once you are used to Istanbul, everything else just disappoints.” Mirjam says, “Can you imagine a better ‘shopper’s paradise’ than Istanbul? I never buy anything in other countries anymore. When I go shopping for clothes, the selection is incredible and there are many price ranges to choose from. You can buy t-shirts for two dollars and handbags for 5,000 dollars. At first, you do become a bit of a shopaholic, but if you stay for a longer period of time, the urge to spend does diminish.”
Oona: “What I like a lot is that all the women here make an extra effort to look nice when they go out in the evenings. The clothes are all brand new and very fashionable. These days, my jeans spend a lot more time in the wardrobe than they used to.”
Most expats who arrive in Istanbul for the first time expect a subtropical climate, but it can also be cold and very rainy. A positive surprise, according to Francesca, is the friendliness and unparalleled hospitality of the Turks, voicing an opinion shared by all the expat partners. “One time, I was momentarily confused when taking the tram and a Turkish man gave me a free coin, just like that.” Francesca enthuses, “Another man gave me a calligraphy sign saying ‘Maşallah’ (May God protect you) for my baby, Riccardo. Even now that we are in Warsaw, Riccardo says: “Every time I see this ‘Maşallah’ sign, I feel at home”.