By Zeynep Camuşcu
I have been sleeping. Midday naps to kill some time. Without a constant occupation, quarantine in times of Corona has meant that there’s much more time to spend. From mid-March to May, we stayed at home as a family, but we weren’t terribly concerned. The only thing that kept my physician father from going to work was his age, but that did not stop him working from home. With each patient he diagnosed with Covid-19, however, our anxiety grew.
Istanbul is a city with a strong connection to the sea. It only takes ten minutes to go to the seaside from my home, but during the quarantine, not only the seaside, but also the city’s parks and gardens were forbidden grounds. Seeing my friends who live abroad relaxing in parks or at the riverside, I constantly felt jealous. I was angry, but on the other hand, I knew very well that keeping Istanbul’s citizens away was a necessary precaution—you have no idea how deep the Turkish people’s love for picnics is. An epidemic would never stop them from setting up their tables on the grass with a view of the famous Princes’ Islands in the Marmara Sea.
The month of May not only brought a sense of habit, but also very hot weather. Watching the blue sky from the narrow windows of an apartment complex and envying the sea birds alighting on the adjacent roof, I started applying for master’s programs, not knowing what to expect from the future. I needed my own space, so I took a deep breath and decided to explore the streets of the epidemic-ridden city. At first, I only walked around my neighborhood. Then I began stopping off at supermarkets for a bottle of milk or some ice cream. The mask and gloves. . . how to describe the burden? The small drops of sweat covering my mouth and my glasses fogging up with each and every breath. . . an unbearable level of stress that made me want to run home.
With the coming of June, we were forced to “normalize.” Suddenly, the crowded Metrobus—a type of transportation unique to Istanbul, a mix of subway and bus that services most of the city—started to appear again. People reclaimed their jobs, the parks and the seaside were once again crowded, and no one seemed to care about the rules of social distancing anymore. The city regained its chaotic regularity—if this is the correct term. I started dreaming about unmasked people coming after me, and I woke up in fear. On my bike cycling through the recently reopened seaside, I wanted to tear off my mask, but it was prohibited and subject to a fine of 900 Turkish liras, about 130 dollars.
The normalization liberated the elderly, who had been forced to stay home for more than two months. To be honest, though, even the strict ban had been unable to stop them from going outside. Passing them in the street, I looked into their eyes, searching for signs of distress, but couldn’t find any. I specifically remember one who was buying a big box of chocolate for the upcoming Bayram visitors—in normal times, it’s common for people to visit their elderly relatives to celebrate a Bayram or holiday in Turkey, but I doubt much of that happened this year.
On TV, there have been ads praising the beauty of Turkey with images of pristine beaches and turquoise-colored water, mosques at sunset, and archaeological sites to encourage people to support domestic tourism and keep the broken economy alive. To add to this, private companies keep running ads emphasizing “the power and the unity” of the Turkish people. If I hadn’t already heard the voices of people on the street complaining about the insecurity of their jobs, rising inflation, and the high cost of living in the big city, I might have believed them. But I did not. What I’ve seen over the past several months has been a troubled city and its people, who suddenly, without warning, found themselves in the Covid nightmare.
It was not that long ago that I was sitting in their place, those poor souls sweating through the university entrance exam. Like every June, millions of people waited for their children in front of school doors. This time, it was a festival of masks; a festival some children were brought to in ambulances.
And now? We are looking for a new house. I can hear you asking “in the middle of a pandemic?” Maybe not a wise choice, but it’s our own. Did you know that the city district I live in, Kadiköy, is itself already the size of Amsterdam? That’s how big the city is, and no part of it is like any other. Trying to find a house in this city feels like trying to find a grain of salt in a kilo package, and no one can guarantee that you won’t run into unpleasant surprises. Home owners greet us with masks on, a bottle of cologne on their hands. We are wearing our shoe covers and smell the strong odor of alcohol in the cologne. The viruses are killed, we are happy. Old furniture and old people in new houses, family pictures attached to mirrors and smelly kitchens. In each house, we try to imagine living there, and in each house I search for a corner to put my book shelves.
These days, I am working toward getting my driver’s license. I take private driving lessons and navigate the car as if I were about to operate on someone: gloves on both hands and with a mask on. Fear seems to have vanished, and even the rising number of people coming down with the virus does not cause enough pain. The city is still pretty much alive, but I am not sure about its inhabitants.