I knew I was in Europe when my cabbie lit up a cigarette while speeding in the shoulder. He continued to drive the wrong way up tiny streets, exit an entrance ramp, and yell at those who disapproved. It was terrifying... but exhilarating.
British Airways left my bag in London. Arriving in a foreign country with no bag, nobody who spoke my language, and a cold that prevented me from sleeping after thirty waking hours was what you might call a rough start. I thought of the amazing summer I had just had in Philadelphia, culminating in a week and a half of saying goodbye to loved ones who I was used to seeing frequently if not daily, and wondered if I had made a huge mistake.
However, after a groggy day in dirty clothes, my bag arrived and I began to meet other exchange students. As soon as I had people to talk to, I was able to fully appreciate the beauty of the country and situation I was in.
I explored the town I am staying in, Etiler, with my roommate and some of his friends from Boston University. Everything was strange and beautiful. English was nowhere to be found, even though Etiler supported my English-speaking university: Bogazici (say "Boawazeechee"). Cats and dogs roamed the streets with tags on their ears to signify that they are fed and taken care of by the university. Cars, pedestrians, and motorcyclists seemed to take road laws as suggestions, yet transport looked more efficient and, somehow, accidents seemed less likely.
Bogazici Orientation consisted mainly of terrified exchange students pouring their fears out to the university's nonchalant program director. The director laughed off most questions, sometimes providing easy solutions, and sometimes simply indicating that the student's concern was part of normal life in Turkey/at Bogazici.
After Orientation was the "International Cocktail", a student organized event designed to allow exchange and Erasmus students to meet at a local pub. Here I had my first Turkish beer, Efes, to which I say: not bad. I also met tons of people from all over the states and Europe. The night ended with a steep walk down to Bebek - a high-rent neighborhood adjacent to the Bosphorus. We sat quietly looking at the enormous waterfront, knowing that what we saw was just a speck of the gigantic city.
After a day or two of settling in, working on class registration, and dealing with our living situations, a couple of new friends and I decided that it was time to start site-seeing. We took two days to get the most touristy spots in Old City out of the way.
On Tuesday, we walked through the Old City shopping district to get to Sultan Ahmed Mosque, a.k.a. Blue Mosque. We entered the front gates and followed the crowd to a line in which guards were checking visitors' dress. Shorts were not allowed, shoes had to be removed, and women had to cover all but their faces.
The inside of the mosque was beyond words. It contained some of the most stunning architecture and intricate painting I had ever seen. Complex patterns, physical motifs, and a diverse color palette created a spine-tingling sense of the divine.
A promenade with colorful gardens connected Sultan Ahmed Mosque with Ayasofya Müzesi (the Hagia Sophia Museum). This huge building was initially a sixth-century Christian basilica before being converted to a Mosque by the Ottomans. It was then secularized by the first president of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and opened as a museum in 1935.
After a long day of site-seeing, we sat in the nearby Gülhane Park, ate some Turkish street food, and discussed our plans for the next day. Day one of tourism ended with a rooftop dinner overlooking the Bosphorus and some delicious Baklava.
On Wednesday, we woke up early with plans to spend hours at the colossal compound of Topkapı Palace - the home of the Ottoman sultans from the fifteenth through the nineteenth centuries. We arrived in Old City just before noon, and waited in the blazing sun for tickets to the palace. Since one friend had already visited the palace, we knew that there was tons to see.
Topkapı, even moreso than the previous day's sites, was unbelievable. Giant courtyards, domed fifty-foot ceilings, and beds the size of bedrooms were present in numbers on the sprawling campus. I had never seen such grandeur.
We stayed at Topkapı for over two hours, visiting the treasure rooms, mosques, and the Harem (the "apartment complex" for the sultan's concubines).
A long, tired lunch followed, and then a trip to the Grand Bazaar. This was a stressful experience. The Bazaar is a maze of small storefronts with goods of unknown quality and vendors attempting to entice tourists. I was given a long presentation about Turkish rugs before awkwardly telling the vendor that I was not going to buy one.
Day two of tourism ended with an excellent dinner back in Etlier at PideBan: a restaurant that primarily served the Turkish speciality Pide (similar to pizza). We discussed what we had seen and met with others who had travelled to the Asian side, which I plan to do in the near future.
Today, I slept in, worked on some course scheduling and academic logistics, and began editing this post. Many events and details had to be left out simply because my experience of just over a week here has been so rich. That being said, there's much more to do. I'll soon visit the nearby Prince Islands since classes don't start for another week and a half. I have also signed up for two trips to Turkish historical sites: Cappadocia and Ephesus. Beyond that, I'll eventually travel to nearby countries - potentially Bulgaria and Hungary.
Although I was initially very nervous, my angst has completely dissolved into awe and affection for this beautiful place and its culture. I'm excited to continue this adventure and share it with the lovely people I've met, those I will soon meet, and you.