It was night already when we arrived, the Friday night of Labor Day weekend, and so my first view of Ankara was through the dark. Blackened buildings were shuttered on our way through the city’s main throughway, and we seemed to drive for a long time. At one point, I saw a pack of large wild dogs running in the distance. Puzzled, I stared after them until they were out of sight. I noticed only a handful of men out on the wide streets. Some stood and smoked, their backs against the big nondescript buildings behind them, unlit, except on occasion by eerie green lights. Others walked to wherever they were going. My heart began to thwack inside my chest, for it felt to me, as we hurtled along, like we were driving toward the center of the earth. If there were any of the things I generally love about cities – some sense of character revealed through beautiful buildings or big old trees, or of people partaking in their city’s pleasures – I didn’t see them, and as we drove toward what was to be our life for the next several years, I wondered, already and with a sense of alarm, what I had agreed to do. (My husband, Mark, was working as a senior economist at the World Bank. And I had agreed to quit my job and move to Ankara for his new position.) Later, my daughter’s preschool teacher, an American from the Midwest, told me about her oldest son’s reaction upon arriving in Ankara the year before. He was about 12 years old at the time, and she told me that he had a look on his face when they drove from the airport into town that said you’ve got to be kidding me.
As we got closer to the sublet where we would be staying, (our apartment was not available to us for a few weeks), I noticed more plastic green lights the color of lime Jell-o lighting up the dry bushes planted on the meridians. More people were out crossing the traffic-clogged streets. We drove up a steep hill and stopped in front of a building on the left-hand corner of a neighborhood that I would come to know well. The sublet was in the basement, and the hallway was dimly lit. I held my three-year-old daughter, Sabine, in my arms as my son, Aidan, who was five at the time, slumped against my leg. The scruffy doorman opened the front door. I could smell stale cigarette smoke before I could see anything. The doorman and the driver talked and the doorman talked to us, but of course we could not understand, although Mark was doing his best with the few words of Turkish he had learned, and smiled and nodded a lot. The doorman stepped in before us and began turning on the lights. The person from whom we were subletting, whoever he was, kept a lot of ashtrays out on the coffee and side tables. The doorman showed us the bedroom. It was small and cluttered. There was nowhere to hang our clothes in the closet. A makeshift washing machine sat in the small grungy bathroom, which had a plastic yellow tub so dingy I wasn’t sure I wanted to bathe the children in it. We were told to put the washing machine’s plastic drainpipe in the bathtub when we washed clothes or risk flooding.
“Mommy,” Aidan said, tugging on me. “Mom-meee,” he said again, as Mark showed the doorman and driver to the front door.
“Just a minute, honey,” I said, putting Sabine on the bed. I sat next to her and ran my hand along the sheet. I could feel it was pilled. I closed my eyes, and pulled my children close.