The Desire for a Spot of Green: How Five Istanbullular went on the Search for a Garden.
By Rebecca Meier
As much as the Istanbullular (residents of Istanbul) love their city, sing about its beauty, and pridefully wear its name on t-shirts: By the end of the week they all flee to the surrounding parks, the adalar (Princes' Islands) or to the Black Sea. Sometimes even a small strip of green between two highways serves its purpose for the obligatory ızgara (barbeque) – as long as there's nature.
Yet for some, these small, green niches are not enough anymore and so – like in other urban centers around the world – they begin their quest for more nature and less city in their lives. Accordingly, one of the first WhatsApp messages I received from my new Turkish flatmate read: Ama Çarşamba günü ağaç dikmeye gidiyorum. (But on Wednesday I am planting trees.)
Umm yeah. My mind started buzzing: I had neglected my Turkish in the past years, but it couldn't have gotten that bad. Or had it? He isn't actually planting trees? where? In this city? I started translating with the help of various dictionaries. The sentence remained: Ama Çarşamba günü ağaç dikmeye gidiyorum. And so on the evening of my arrival in Istanbul, my new flatmate Cemal appeared in the apartment to greet me, completely covered in mud – he had indeed been planting trees.
Now we are sitting in a garden, in the midst of an untouched landscape, against the backdrop of a small village, looking out onto a lake in front of us. In the background you can hear the call for prayer. The contrast to Istanbul couldn't be starker. Together with three other friends, Cemal and Ersin, good friends of his, had bought bahçeler (gardens) at the beginning of last year. Although the English definition of this term needs to be adapted: the “gardens” are in fact vast fields. Meadows, where, apart from the occasional apple tree, only ideas and dreams are sprouting so far. But indeed they are abundant, ranging from organic farming to a theatre festival to colorful little summer cottages.
Finding the bahçeler had been a difficult endeavor. The place couldn't be too far away from Istanbul, since all of the friends had freelance jobs in the city. Preferably untouched nature and close to the sea. For seven or eight months they continuously visited various locations in closer proximity to Istanbul and spoke to the local farmers. “Because of this, I had the chance to see the nature during every season”, Cemal recounts. His desire for a bahçe had been growing for quite some time, but he had never really pursued any concrete plans. That is until Ersin delivered tangible ideas. A place with a number of gardens and a small community of friends was to be constructed. And so distant dreams turned into concrete plans, according to Cemal, without putting much thought into it. “We share the work, that makes it easier”, Ersin explains. “When Cemal is on vacation, I tend to his garden and vice versa.”
And for this desire to become reality, they put up with quite a bit. With a lot of luck, it’s a fifty minute drive from Kadıköy, where most of them live, to the bahçe. With more traffic, those fifty minutes often turn into two to three hours. If they are very unlucky, even five. All of that, just for one, sometimes two days in nature. The journey takes them to the edges of the moloch Istanbul, along the seaside with its heavy industrial and port facilities into the green, where the distance between the villages is ever increasing and you often can't even find a bakkal (corner shop) . That's what it's like when you arrive in this small village with its dusty gravel roads.
Five new people almost seem like an invasion into the sleepy little village which usually only has about 30 residents, like a second, alternative settlement. Next to the physical work, this turned out to be the biggest challenge for everyone: building trust between each other. Two worlds, which couldn't be further from each other, colliding through the purchase of these gardens, because, even though both sides speak the same language, they are very much alien to each other. On the one hand, you have the colorful group from Istanbul, molded by urban life and internationalism, on the other there is the traditional village community, who have been living in harmony and familiarity for decades. To find a common denominator in this already culturally and politically deeply divided society seems impossible. Instead a third path between conflict and aversion was found: sensitivity. This is quite a challenge for both sides. Instead of the usual political exchange of blows and the near trench warfare, they discuss common themes, which are actually abundantly available: plants, the harvest, the weather and family. Whoever makes their way into the village, makes sure to greet anyone and everyone they pass by. They stop for a moment and have a quick chat, answering questions about Istanbul and receiving valuable tips for the gardens from the locals. Both sides learn to adapt. In the village the friends dress more modestly, use the traditional forms of greeting and do without the usual close physical contact between each other. “If you can't manage that, you might as well stay home”, says Ersin. “That's part of the game.” And the village locals, who suspiciously eyed the ever changing, agriculturally inexperienced bunch at the beginning, now approach every newcomer with open arms and warm hospitality, often sharing their fruit and knowledge. They know and have found each other by now.
This place appears particularly beautiful because of the lake, an almost untouched landscape, and the scattered villages. But especially because of the people they have befriended. The heavenly smell of nane (mint) growing in the gardens hangs in the air. There are countless wild herbs growing and the tranquil silence is absolute. Something you can no longer find in Istanbul, if it ever even existed there at all. All five friends want to take advantage of this; their trial and error attitude helps immensely in the process. Just do it. Since none of them have ever lived in a small village anyway.
“When my family initially came to Istanbul, they were living village-like. With a big garden and chickens even. But even that place has become too urban,” Cemal tells us.
“The internet is really useful, just trying, just doing something and if it doesn't work, you've learned from it for the next time.” Ersin jokes. Learning by doing – everything they do is self-taught.
“Next I wanted to build a small house, so I can stay here two to three nights comfortably”, says Cemal while we are picknicking. Originally a series of steps were supposed to follow this summer, a kind of test phase for their future life here. Learning to live with nature and the village.
But when a sixth friend decided to purchase a garden, everything changed. Suddenly the price was considerably larger than what the others had paid for their properties. The value had increased, because a highway was to be built, they were told. What sounded like an awful joke then, has now become bitter reality. There are plans to construct an access route for the third Bosphorus Bridge, which will most probably run along the range of hills opposite their gardens.
Probably an eight-lane highway. The city, from which they fled, has caught up to them. Construction is supposed to start and be completed within the year. Unfortunately this sounds realistic. Large construction projects like this one are often quickly advanced through the extensive provision of resources by the government. You won't find stand-stills like Stuttgart 21 or the Berlin airport in Turkey. Yet the following also applies here: No one knows any exact details. You can't find any plans on the internet, there is no information provided for local residents. Faits accomplis either here or with luck five kilometers further down. Cemal and Ersin don't believe this though. Strategically speaking, it would make more sense here, they say. Big parts of the area belong to the state, which makes the project cheaper, and only a few trees would need to be chopped down here. It seems reminiscent of other Turkish building projects.
Cemal and Ersin appear disillusioned, stunned and frustrated. “They've destroyed it”, Ersin mutters.
Some of the locals have similar fears. “But we don't want to continue living in Istanbul, I hate it in that city!” And there it is, that defiant attitude towards the world that I often admire: “Cemal and I are already looking for other options”, he says grinning. The search for a new bahçe has long since begun.
Istanbul is the heart of Turkey– a huge heart at that. But she keeps growing, probably becoming one of the classic megacities in the future. 16 million inhabitants so far. From official side influx is endorsed. In ten years maybe Istanbul will already have arrived here. The consequences of this growth are visibly obvious for Ersin and Cemal: “You become sick in the city: mentally and physically!” Yet many of the long-established locals have a very different perspective on the situation. For the most part, their children are already in Istanbul because of jobs and education, now the city is simply coming to them. It will bring along job opportunities and an easier life. The mutual migration is already in full swing.
A poor consolation for the Istanbullular: While in Germany the land prices often drop with huge infrastructure projects, they will likely receive more money by selling the land for more than what they spent on. The five friends will continue onwards with their ideas and dreams – dreams of another life in Turkey.
Bana zaman ayırıp güvendikleri ve samimiyetleri için Cemal ve Ersin`e çok teşekkür ederim!
After enjoying the pulsing chaos of Istanbul and the calm tranquility surrounding the city during her Erasmus year abroad, Rebecca Meier has now settled back in Berlin. She is an author and editor at MAVIBLAU, a German-language online magazine, which is based in Istanbul and deals with stories, events and encounters between Turkey and the German-speaking world in the fields of art, culture and society.