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August 6, 2014

When I was here years ago, I lived in an area called Galata. The neighborhood is now probably one of Istanbul’s most frequented tourist destinations, although at the time it certainly wasn’t. It was empty, and crumbling, but I lived with a Turkish girl who had taken over an abandoned apartment and made it beautiful. As accommodation in Istanbul was hard to find then, I resigned myself to living in the area, despite its dangers. But sometimes I did feel a bit scared going home, and so I often took the Tünel — the famous little metro that runs from the bottom of the water up to the downtown area. It was the second subway in the world to ever be built.

In the heat of summer, the bottom entrance is an alcove of reprieve from the city’s festering heat. Dank and cool, it smells like my parents’ old basement; not like sewer, exactly, but of wet and concrete and earth. In the winter, the same area provides shelter from the elements — usually the rain and blustering wind that whips across the Golden Horn. Whenever I went into the Tünel, there was a little old man who worked at the ticket booth, and I would try to go through his line. (At the time, normal transit passes didn’t work, so you had to get a tiny token.) I would wave and smile at him, and over time we built up a tiny rapport. At holiday time he shared sweets with me, and I always tried to ask how his family was doing.

When I left Istanbul, I didn’t think to count him in my list of people to say goodbye to, but when I got back, eight years later, I found myself in the Tünel one day. I was surprised at how few people were in line to get a token, but then I understood that the new transit passes allow you to pass through the turnstiles. My old friend was still sitting in his regular spot so I went to say hello to him. To my happy surprise, he remembered me, and in his excitement of recognizing an old friend, he passed me some gum and a cookie. My husband laughed. “That’s something that would never happen at home.” I agreed.

But what has happened at home, and what is happening here, is that technology has taken over and now, whenever I use the Tünel (which is a much less frequent occurrence), I usually just scan my card and pass through the turnstiles. Sure, I can see my old friend alone, sitting at his booth, but whenever I come into the entrance strange thoughts start creeping into my head, like, It would be weird to just say hello to him without getting a token, or, Well, he might be busy and I don’t want to bother him, to just plain old, Whatever — it’s easier just to pass through the turnstile and not say hello.

But then, yesterday, I gathered my courage. It was the Muslim holiday of Eid here last week. In this social country, things were even more social as my neighbors sat outside drinking coffee with each other, and my local shop owners handed out sweets to everyone in the neighborhood. People have been visiting each other all over the country, and I thought, Dammit, I should go see that old guy. So I went down to Tünel. It was amazing to me how awkward I felt walking in. An act that used to bring me comfort and relief, that someone knew me and recognized me and always smiled at me, had become uncomfortable. As usual, there was no one buying any tokens, and as soon as I got to his window he took my hand and held it for a long time. He told me he was very happy to see me and we shared pleasantries about the neighborhood, about his family and mine, where I’m working now, and how his holidays were. And that was it. It took us less than five minutes to connect and then I took the ride up to the top.

But was it easy? It was a bit uncomfortable. I’ll be honest here — it is really so much easier to just not. To not reach out, to not say hello, to not make the connection. And in a society where it isn’t normal to connect, it can even feel confusing or, strangely, alienating. Of course, we all really like to blame technology for this situation – that blasted transit pass; it’s ruined everything! — but it’s not that. My old friend has been sitting there for two years, but it’s been ME who hasn’t said hello.
It’s like we’re all caught in some false sense of hesitation waiting for the other person to make the first move, but at the end of the day, it has to start with us. And like that challenging yoga pose, we should reach into it, slowly. It’s awkward, it’s not elegant, there’s a million other things we could be doing, and you know what? It might feel easier to just not. But there is one thing that does feel better, and that’s to do it.  So don’t wait anymore: be the first person to make that joyful movement, not just for the other person, but for yourself too.

Happy Eid, everyone. As the Turks say during this holy month, Hic Kimse Kimsesiz Kalmasin, which roughly translates to, No One Should Be Alone.

—Meghan

Meg in AlcoveMeghan MacIver is a Canadian writer and Kundalini pre-natal yoga instructor who lives in Istanbul. She has had a love affair with the city for nearly 14 years, and she is deeply excited about the opportunity to finally write about it in a spiritual way. When she is not writing or teaching yoga, she can be found exploring the city and contemplating life’s little intricacies. Her other work has been published in The National Post, CBC, RNW and ROOM magazine, amongst others.

Photo by FaceMePLS, used with Creative Commons license.