Back when I was consumed by boy bands and early morning cartoons, my parents put our family through a moving phase. We moved from one part of the suburbs to another, in my mother’s attempt to put us in the best schools available. For her, this meant storming into offices and insisting that her daughters were put in gifted and talented classes despite whatever preconceived ideas the naive secretaries had on how this scenario was going to play out. But during these years, I too had a challenge: the first week of school. My mother always seemed to believe that all children instantly befriended other children. My mother still holds this theory. So yes, I’m nearing the end of my stint in college but to her “kids just want to play.” I used to wonder if her use of the word play is just a poor usage of the English word, but lately I have been convinced that she genuinely believes it. She was unconcerned about my first days of school in Turkey. I, on the other hand, did not share these same feelings.
Unfortunately, I arrived to the Atatürk Airport in perfect timing for a record snowstorm; our first day was the coldest it had been in thirty years in Istanbul. Of course, this was the same day our agenda was full of campus tours and exploration of the city. Between jetlag, acclimation, and cold temperatures, our twelve-hour orientation days were exhausting. Despite my father’s best attempts at producing a child with navigational aptitude, I am not particularly good at adjusting to and mastering new layouts. So campus orientation was a bit useless. After a week, I could order exactly one meal (in essence a grilled cheese sandwich) and had confidence on how to get to the library, basically the essentials. Eventually orientation was over, and it was time for the first day of school. Koç University has a wonderfully brilliant and life saving (take notes GUSA and GU maintenance) underground tunnel system that connects all of the academic buildings to the student center. Meaning that if a student who particularly detests the bitter cold and miserably wet touch of snow and couldn’t pack all of her indispensable winter gear, she could simply go into to the student center and walk down the lengthy hallway to her class. This was my plan for the first day of school. Little did I know, that every other student had similar plans.
So on the first day, the halls were crowded of students shuffling from class to class, excitedly chatting with friends in Turkish, and brushing against me to embrace missed friends. I can admit shamelessly I indulgently selected the Henry Nilson’s song “One” on my Ipod to match my mood. This was all more than I anticipated. As quickly as possible, I ducked into my classroom, ready to reflect, and promising to blog about this in a timely fashion. That last part is a work in progress. Incredibly this first week, I always chose the wrong seat. For my first Sociology class, I slipped into a seat in the middle of the room (my comfort zone in all classrooms across the world) but unexpectedly placed me at the end of the aisle. This happened to be directly in front of the entrance, meaning that each student who opened the door to the classroom was more or less was directly face to face with me. While on the streets of Istanbul, I can convince myself to attribute some gawking to my own miscalculations on account of my poor eyesight but at this point facial reactions were both more apparent and more easily observed. I am only one of the few exchange students in each of my classes and though it does not need to be said, I look far from Turkish.
An emotional eater, lunch sounded delicious, but of course to maximize the experience, I would need good company and good food. There are not enough words to say how much I love Turkish food, without a doubt, it is a food lover’s dream. What is absent in my dream is the language barrier preventing me from attaining my satisfying meals. As I explained, I could order precisely one meal. Clearly, these were limited options. My solution lied in buying an apple and cookies from the grocery store, perfectly mobile but totally satisfying in an indulgent snack kind of way. Much like scenes from the movie Mean Girls, it can be difficult to know “your place” in a new social sphere. To complicate the matter further, the Koç student center has several dining options not including the cafeteria. While I could have texted any one of the five phone numbers I had in my cell phone, I was torn. The night before, a friend studying in Japan told me that at his school, some students would rather eat their lunches in the bathroom stall than to eat alone. I thought of this for a moment, knowing that my “gross factor” tolerance was too low. I considered the next best safe haven, the library, but just in time I spotted a table of fellow exchange students, a community formed out of necessity. Yes, we have probably only met twice before, and probably have nothing more in common than being new, but in these trying times that is good enough.