Upon boarding the “SWISS” plane I greet the friendly stewardess with a “Grüezi” and laugh a bit inside because it fools her into thinking I’m Swiss (which I am a little, but not really). While speaking Swiss-German was fun, being able to understand English, German, and Dutch isn’t fun when you have to listen to the same boring safety announcement three times. But then I am reminded why I’m boarding this particular plane: Exchange Semester in Istanbul – a place where I’m a true foreigner and understand nothing at all.
I have just said “tschüss” to my sister at our newly bought house, which will be a fully refurbished home when I get back, and “doei” to my parents at Schiphol airport. On my way to Zürich I almost can’t believe it when I spot my old home in Büsingen!
In Zürich I’m transferring to a flight to Istanbul. Aaaahhh Zürich, how clean thou art. In true Swiss fashion, Zürich airport works like the ingeniously built clock house of an IWC watch. Even their toilets are so clean that there’s only one aspect making home’s toilet better: the absence of fart noises from the neighboring cabin (true story). And although I love the legendary landscape more than the airport, the hospitality is indeed almost legendary. Maybe it’s because they bribed me with chocolate. Anyway, from what I’ve heard, Turkish hospitality also enjoys a legendary status.
When I arrive in Istanbul I am greeted by a weather I haven’t felt all summer long. While I’m glad about all the sun, I also arrive at my hostel completely drenched in sweat. My hostel is directly at Taksim, which you could call the ‘Times Square’ of Istanbul. This is where I will be spending three nights while searching for a room. I’m surprisingly relaxed about not knowing where I’m going to live, and I’m happy with my decision to look at rooms in real-life instead of online.
My first night in Istanbul is not the best because a bunch of Germans are partying right outside my window. Even the next morning at orientation day, it turns out there is no escape from Germans: Out of the 300 exchange students at my university, about 40% is probably from Deutschland.
Istanbul Bilgi University has a beautiful campus and we are welcomed by a certain man named Erdogan. Bilgi is one of the most liberal and anti-government universities, so it’s quite ironic that our international director has the same name as the current prime minister, who’s face I’ve already seen on huge billboards across town.
Campus also has great food, and so I pay for my first Turkish dinner, with my first Turkish Liras and my first Turkish words: teşekkürler (Thank you)! After taking the free shuttle bus back to my hostel, I join a boat party on the Bosphorus for all exchange students. I can’t imagine a better start here in Istanbul. I also can’t imagine how big Istanbul is: we are on the boat for 2 hours and still haven’t left the city. Another crazy fact: With its 15 million (official) citizens, Istanbul accommodates just as many people as my entire country!
The next morning I enjoy my breakfast with honey and some feta-like cheese, and although it differs a lot from my beloved Old Amsterdam, it’s very good. Today I am taking care of business and completing the first of many steps in the Turkish bureaucracy system: registering at university, getting my tax ID, and buying a Turkish phone number.
While leaving home has been exciting so far, it’s really about time to find a new home here. I’ve made an appointment to look at a room 2 minutes walking from my hostel. While the location is simply perfect, the conditions are quite special: it’s a relatively small room in a tiny apartment of a 39-year old political science professor with her six-year old daughter. I’m excited. This is my chance to learn the Turkish language and the Turkish cuisine! The living conditions are simple, but it’s cheap, and the little girl has already won my heart. Since someone else is also interested, I will hear about her decision tomorrow.
After all this work it’s time to refuel. With our shoes off and our butts on the floor, we are enjoying a delicious Turkish dinner with great Kebab meat. This culinary delight with fellow exchange friends ends with the same combination I had this morning: honey and cheese. I could try to describe the mouth-watering goodness of this dessert, but I won’t.
Today is Saturday the 13th, which means I have to check out of the hostel without having any assurance for a new home yet. While I’m taking advantage of the fast Internet connection on campus, I’m scrolling through some more room advertisements, but everything is too expensive, too far away, or too international. I’m getting a bit nervous about my situation when I receive a phone call from Hatice that I can move in today and that they are excited to have me!
Istanbul is home to lots of great food, lots of great people, and lots of great places. I am very excited to call Istanbul my home for the coming 4 months, and I can’t wait to move into my room and dive into the city’s adventures!