I think the most challenging part of living in Istanbul has been the social life. (Ironic, since this is the part that I thought would be the most rewarding.) When I first arrived, there were so many social differences that I thought I’d never make real friends. I was going out every night to different social events, whether it be coffee, special interest groups, couchsurfing meetings, clubbing, you name it—and everywhere I went, I struck out in finding friends. I felt like I was crazy, because even though I thought I was forming good connections with people when we were together, it was really hard to keep in touch with anyone even via text, and much less to meet in person. I guess that I have a steady connection with many people– we’ll meet up every 2 weeks or so, and it’s enough to fill my social calendar– but I haven’t been able to find any sort of stable friend group, or companion, or any kind of real closeness in a form that I recognize.
But as I stayed here longer, and went through a lot of frustrations in the process, I grew to learn about some of the major cultural differences in socialization.
I’ll preface by explaining that I think some of the biggest differences are related to the Mediterranean style cafe social culture. Much of socialization takes place in cafes, where you’ll walk around and have tea/coffee in different spots with your friend. In each place, you’ll stay and chat for a while.
I think it follows from this style that you wouldn’t expect to see a friend too often. If you were meeting all the time for coffee, what would there be to talk about? You would just sit there awkwardly. I think it makes some sense in this case to have a lot of people in your life who you see on an occasional basis.
And then, it also follows that you wouldn’t keep in touch too much while apart, through texting or otherwise. Again, what will you have to chat about in the cafes if you are chatting all the time? You don’t want to give away too many interesting stories until you get together again.
A third thing that makes some sense in this light is to expect/desire a great influx of people in and out of your life. You always want to have new people to chat with, to keep things interesting. Turks are more content with fleeting encounters than any other group of people I’ve ever seen.
People can be kept at such a far distance and still be considered friends. They may not occupy any kind of role in your life, more than as someone to chat with occasionally. And yet, these people aren’t awkward “acquaintances”… they are somehow still important, though far removed from your daily life. And you can enter in contact with them, warmly, even after not talking for weeks.
And a good friend can be someone that’s close not because of the frequency of meeting, but because you’ve met them so many times over the course of a lifetime.
In order to find a friend that you meet with often, I think that the biggest factor is not the amount of liking, but the convenience of meeting that person. The city is so big that its a drag to try to meet people who live somewhere else. You could easily spend an hour and a half traveling to the other person. And there’s not really a compromise in those situations– you’re either in Asia or Europe, the halfway point would be in the middle of the ocean. So one person of the two usually has to commit to a long commute. It’s a big deal, since most people already waste so much time per day on commuting to work. And if there are always so many new people to meet, whats the point of keeping people around who are difficult to access?
This different situation created a lot of misunderstandings for me. Back home, if you meet someone you really get along with, both parties will put in a great deal of initial effort to solidify the friendship. Otherwise, one or more people will probably label the other as an unimportant (temporary) person, and that will be the end.
Here, its not like that. Associations are easy to start and maintain, but almost impossible to move forward. At first I thought it was great that so many people were always willing to meet new people. But when I realized this was a constant thing with no further outcome, it started to seem inane, and I got real sad. What kind of sharing and deep emotional connection can there be, if this is the norm of social life?
I was taken aback recently when someone here told me that I was their good friend, and would always be. It made me think a little deeper about the different forms that friendship can take. Is it enough simply to be fond of someone, and the time you spend together, even if it is infrequent? Or does closeness need to come from time spent together, and making the other person an active part of your life, as I am used to thinking?