Leaving Mongolia/Searching for Lost Youth in Istanbul

Friday, June 28, 2019

Friday the 21st was a very long day. It started at 4.30 am in Ulaanbaatar with a knock on the door of the guesthouse where I was staying. Juje, the guy who had driven me down to the Gobi desert twelve days earlier, was back--through an arrangement I'd made with the guesthouse to drive me to the airport. 

I'd come back to Ulaanbaatar after having spent ten days in the Gobi and central Mongolia. While I'd been somewhat dismissive of Ulaanbaatar's charms upon my first arrival there, by the time the desert tour was over I had become much more enthusiastic about the city's advantages. I spent my last two days in Mongolia there, visiting some of the sites that I hadn't managed to see the first time around--like the Dinosaur Museum and the Black Market, where I bought some pretty cool Mongolian duds. I had a really great last dinner, and event went to a small music festival that was taking place close to my hotel. 

Now, however, it was time to leave. I was heading back to the land of my youth. I was flying back to Istanbul.

I was 23 when I first moved to Istanbul to work as an English teacher in 1992, and 30 when I returned to the US to begin an MA at Princeton. These years constitute a pretty important period in most people's lives, and mine has been no exception. In Istanbul I had my first real job, the first apartment I'd ever rented on my own, and my first real adult relationships, and I had done all of this in Turkish and, for the most part, with Turks. For this reason, whenever I travel back to Turkey--I've been back every year except one (2002) since leaving in 1999--I'm not only going back to do research, but also to see the land of my onetime young adulthood. 

That's actually the joke that I make to my friends--that I lost my youth here at some point and I keep coming back to try and find it, with mixed results. While I've spent quite a bit of time in Turkey since 1999--including a couple of seven-month stretches and several stays of 2-4 months--these trips have obviously differed quite a bit from my initial seven-year stay here in the 1990s. Back then, I was living here--standing in line to pay my gas bill, haggling with my landlord, dealing with all of the mundane crap that's associated with putting down roots somewhere. Now I come for research, mainly, and glide through my stay in a more superficial manner. 

This year's visit started off on a bad note. I'd flown to Istanbul from Ulaanbaatar via Moscow, and my bag had remained at Moscow's Sheremetovo airport. This was a real hassle that took up way too much of my time the first three days I stayed in town. Finally, the bag was dropped off at the apartment I'd rented in Bebek at 1 am on Monday morning, but not after I'd spent most of Saturday afternoon and all of Sunday afternoon and evening waiting for it. The people in charge of baggage delivery all seemed to be reading from their own script--no two service representatives were in agreement when it came to any of the pertinent details, such as when the bag would be delivered and whether or not I'd receive a phone call warning me in advance of its arrival. Anyway, it was that kind of a week for me--I was also hit by a motorbike and got food poisoning--so I guess I had to take it in stride. 

The visit to Istanbul this year was a vacation, rather than a research trip, in that I paid for it out of my own pocket. Nevertheless, there were a few books that I wanted to buy and I did end up spending a couple of days at the Boğaziçi University library chasing down some loose ends for the book that I'm working on. Mostly, however, I'd come for social reasons. An ex-girlfriend of mine from the 1990s, someone who had a pretty huge impact upon my life in Istanbul back then, was having a 50th birthday party here. We remained on good terms after breaking up and I'd seen her on a number of occasions in the early 2000s, but she lives in Germany now so our interactions take place mostly in the form of liking one another's photographs and status updates every once in a while.

Frankly, if it hadn't been for this birthday party, I probably wouldn't have come to Istanbul this summer. The plan had previously been to spent 17 days in Mongolia, then get back to Moscow for another 4-5 days. And, when I was initially invited to the party, I pretty much dismissed the idea, mentally crossing it off as yet another event that I would miss due to the fact that I'd be in a different country (Mongolia!) at the time. 

Back balcony of my apartment
But, back in March and April when I was deep in the process of planning my summer travel plans and preparing to buy tickets, my mind kept coming back to this party. Why did it matter to me? This was one girlfriend who, while of singular importance to the years that I spent in Istanbul in the 1990s, was ultimately someone that I hadn't even spoken to in something like fifteen years. Nor did I have anything particularly meaningful to say to her other than "happy birthday." Even as I purchased the ticket from Ulaanbaatar to Istanbul--guaranteeing for myself a very long day of travel (six hours from Ulaanbaatar to Moscow, a ninety minute stopover, and another 3.5 hours to Istanbul)--I still didn't know exactly why this was so important to me. 

When I got to the party on Saturday night--it was held at a brewhouse on the Bosphorus not far from the apartment I'd rented in Bebek--I started to get something of an inkling of why I had come. It was great to see everyone--there were lots of familiar faces, people I'd had dinner or drinks with at various points in the 90s, but it's not like they were my friends. I certainly hadn't traveled all this way to see them, even though it was no doubt nice to take that trip down memory lane. 

And then there was the ex-girlfriend in question, with whom I hadn't spoken in years, and likely won't see again anytime in the foreseeable future, if ever. We chatted a few times during the course of the party--more than I had expected--but it was all rather surface-level stuff. There were lots of people there, and lots of time had passed, and that's when it occurred to me why I had come: when there are no words that really can be said, just showing up was all I could do. 

Ultimately, I think the party I went to on Saturday will in some ways be as memorable to me as the two weeks I spent in Mongolia, and probably more meaningful as well. I was in the "neighborhood," so to speak, and was able to divert my trip back to Moscow without a lot of added expense. But coming here was not simply a question of squeezing in a quickie vacation in Istanbul prior to returning to the US. It had to do more with making actual, tangible contact with my own past, and in particular with a time of my life that has had an immensely powerful impact upon the trajectory that I've taken since.   

Are you a Turk across empires? The paperback edition is coming out this July! Order a copy today, then get another one for your library.

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