Istanbul, surprisingly western
Oriental and different. This is what many expats expect when they hear that Istanbul is going to be their home base for the next few years. However, they soon find out that this city on the Bosporus is a real metropolis. Istanbul is a “global city”: very modern and surprisingly western.
“The Bosporus is Istanbul. The water, combined with the hills and all the green, is what started it all. It is simply the ideal location and 3000 years ago, people were well aware of that as well” business economist and history enthusiast Mirjam van der Lubbe (50), tells us. She and her husband Coen (posted by Rabobank and working at insurance company Eureko in Turkey) are part of the growing expat community in Istanbul. You can easily tell that she is happy in this city. “I feel at home here” she says.
For many centuries, Istanbul has held mesmerising attraction for traders, conquerors and visitors. Byzantine churches, oriental palaces and sultan mosques from the era in which 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 26 centuries, this strategic peninsula has been controlling trade in the Bosporus.
Trade and production are still the most important pillars of this super city. Its busy container ports and the ultramodern skyline with skyscrapers in the Levent business district speak for themselves. And though Ankara took over the title of “capital” in 1923, Istanbul remains the economical and cultural capital of the modern republic of Turkey. At least 55 percent of Turkish trade comes through Istanbul. The city generates 21 percent of the gross domestic product.
This is why the city is a magnet for foreign companies as well as for Turks 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, but the actual number is believed to be as high as 16 million.
The continuous flow of migrants leads to an uncontrolled growth of the expanding neighbourhoods with basic “gecekondu” (literally: built overnight) houses on the frayed edges of the city. Such organically grown working-class areas are later incorporated into the city, or torn down to make room for modern council housing in the form of high- rise flats.
Most expats live in guarded compounds with modern apartments in Etiler, Kemer, Zekeriyaköy, Arnavutköy, Sariyer, Tarabya and Kuruçeşme; northern suburbs of Istanbul, on the hills alongside or on the banks of the Bosporus. Prices vary. Those who choose to live in an apartment overlooking the Bosporus pay 1,500 to 2,000 US dollars more 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 is so modern and western.” Mirjam says, “I had prepared myself for the oriental aspect, but had not expected that all that which makes the west great would be here as well. I love that, while you are in a different world, you are also close to home. It is only a three-and-a-half-hour flight for me, so it is easy to maintain family relationships and old friendships. In addition to that, I feel safe here. It is easy for a woman to get around the city. I will not deny that my wallet has been stolen from my handbag here, but thinking of the brutal burglary we experienced in Luxembourg, my thoughts on that wallet are: “Is that all?”
Initially, nurse Oona Smelt (29, posted by Philips) was skeptical about Istanbul. “I thought that it would be an oriental city. As soon as we arrived here, I realised 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 is 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 is a minus. “That and the fact that, as a mother with young children, you need the 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-organised. There is an extensive network of bus links, as well as a modern subway and tram, a “metro bus” that drives on a car-free bus lane running from the European to the Asian part of the city, 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 (40), 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 carefuI.”
According to Francesca Messina Boiteux (34), who lived in Istanbul from December 2001 to August 2006 after being posted there by Solvay, getting a job in Turkey is not appealing to expat partners. “You have only two weeks of vacation a year, and part-time jobs are not widely spread in Turkey. Therefore, like many foreign women, I did volunteer work. I worked, among others, as the editor of “Lale” (2003/2004), the magazine of the International Women of Istanbul (IWI) organisation.”
International schools for expat children are widely available and of top quality. 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 life, the way the Turks enjoy life and the extensive expat community. “The expat community is large and very diverse.” Dora says, “everyone helps each other, and there are various organisations that organise all kinds of activities to strengthen the 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 “shopping 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 2 dollars and handbags for 5000 dollars. At first, you do become a bit of a shopaholic, but if you stay for a longer period of time, that will 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 is “the friendliness and unparalleled hospitality of the Turks” says Francesca, voicing the opinion of 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. We just arrived in Warsaw and Riccardo said: “Every time I see this “Maşallah” sign, I feel at home”.