On escaping the “emotion work” of everyday life in Istanbul


A man walking in Istanbul - image from the Reblog Phlog

A man walking in Istanbul – I wonder about the state of his emotion work with that wonderful and complicated city (Image from the Reblog Phlog)

On Sunday, I wrote that living in a Turkish-American marriage, you notice some cultural differences right away – and others slowly by slowly.

In thinking about cultural differences in this roadtrip called our marriage, work is a key piece when it comes to cultural difference – and as my theme of the month is “work,” due to my participation in Blogher’s NaBloPoMo, a discussion on “emotion work” as the sociologists call it, seems appropriate. “Emotion work” is defined as the management of one’s own feelings or as work done in a conscious effort to maintain the well being of a relationship – and in the case of this blog post – I am talking about the relationship between a person and their city, specifically, M. and Istanbul.

An image from the famous Cafe Algiers (Image by Neonlike at Flikr)

Let me go back some years, to the first date I had with my now husband. Sitting in the glow of warm light in Cafe Algiers, M. and I began the dance of getting to know one another. One of the first things I asked him related to the differences he noticed between his former life in Turkey and his present life in the United States.

“Oh,” he said, as if pained by an attack of acute gastritis (and eye rolling), “Turkey – Turkey – living there is just so much WORK. I was planning to move to a smaller city on the coast before I came here – Istanbul is just SO DIFFICULT.” I don’t recall the rest of that conversation – but I did wonder what the heck he meant, having never visited one of the second or third world’s mega-metropolis-cities at the time. I think my follow-up question was deflected elsewhere as we ordered a second cup of coffee before heading out for a walk along the Charles.

When M. did invite me to visit Turkey with him, to meet his family – and learn about that side of himself, I started to understand what he meant about the work of living in Istanbul – and it was indeed “emotion work” – just with a city this time. It didn’t take long,sitting in traffic, going in and out of markets, museums and watching M. trying to get a few bits of bureaucratic business done, I began to realize why living in Turkey might feel like so much WORK.

Istanbul traffic

Istanbul traffic (Photo credit: quicksilver_)

One day, sitting together in a cab without air conditioning, stuck in a a tangle of traffic like none I had ever seen, M. revisited the topic of the “work” of “just living” in Istanbul. Visibly frustrated – and a tinge sad if my eyes did not deceive me – he explained “This is why I left Istanbul, this is draining, like emotional work, just to get from one place to another.” He went on to describe the massive influx of immigrants from the eastern part of the country over the past 20-30 years that had changed his city of 7 million to one of 17 million seemingly in the blink of an eye. Of course, the city’s infrastructure could not smoothly absorb all of this – making day to day movement, well, work.

And then there were the queues – or rather – the lack thereof. Raised by very orderly people in a country in which queues are only slightly less relied upon than in Britain, I was shocked at the mad dash and super crush of humanity at the entrance to any particular venue – mosque, store, museum, move, restaurant, all of it. This image truly gets at the difference. And I learned too, that this, for my husband, had become intolerable “emotion work” as an Istanbullu, part of what eventually led him to live in this country. “Nothing,” he says with a frustrated sigh, “is easy, and over time that wears you down. When you want something – you have to battle with everyone to get to the front of the counter – there is no order, no peace.”

I believe that M’s dislike of the emotion work of living in Istanbul is a reflection of culture shift – from an eastern approach in which the present, comfort and balance were much closer at hand than in this globalized era. Now, this may also relate to his family’s class status – but I would argue we are a pretty good match in that department, so my bet is on cultural difference. And given his escape, I think that is why he is particularly happy with the boundaries around his professional work. And so how does this impact me? Well, it gives me a lot of food for thought.  The “emotion work” of living in our city is nothing compared to Istanbul – but given my recent workaholic collapse as a University professor and with my left shoulder injury to boot, I have a lot of time to re-consider my relationship with work – including the “emotion work” of academia.  But that, dear readers, is a post for another time.

And you – what about the “emotion work” in your life? I would love to hear your thoughts!

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10 Responses to On escaping the “emotion work” of everyday life in Istanbul

  1. Turklish says:

    A couple of comments here:
    Your description of “emotional work” of living in a big city is definitely one of my worries about possibly living in Istanbul. Just tack on those extra commuting hours to a full day of work and the rush and crowds and that seems like a dangerous recipe.

    All of your discussion of work and balance has inspired me to write a post on the end of the semester and all the doubts that surface when the work and stress is piled high. For the time being, balance to me means working hard so that I can enjoy the winter break in Turkey! Having flexibility to travel and spend longer times abroad is definitely a pro to being a student right now.

    In terms of a healthy balance in general – I’ve found for myself – exercise, even if just walking a bit in the morning or evening, is very important for maintaining my mental balance. It also helps me think through problems and sparks creativity at times. (I carry my Iphone and record whatever idea I happen to have while I’m wandering about, but I make it look like I’m talking to someone on the phone – ha). I know it’s a common suggestion, but the release of stress from exercise makes the day go so much smoother. I’m not much of a dancer, but when I take classes at the gym, like step aerobics, I have so much fun and I loose track of my responsibilities for an hour – I go home a totally different person.

  2. Jack Scott says:

    Oh, Istanbul how we love you and hate you all at the same time – wonderful and maddening, noisy and exhilarating, cold-hearted and warm-blooded.

  3. Alan says:

    . . after 15 years here, albeit not in Istanbul, I would argue that Turkey is changing as ‘Western’ ideas of orderly queueing, for example, begin to kick in. Being an outsider means that I will never, ever see Turkey/Istanbul with a native’s eyes, nor, with the Turk’s natural courtesy to visitors, will I be ‘shoved around’ like a local. This in sharp contrast to the way ‘outsiders’ are treated in the ‘Western’ world.
    As for dealing with work, in the often stressful environment of the prison system, I flatly refused to carry anything home in a briefcase – if it couldn’t be done within the working day it was re-scheduled and re-prioritised – those above in the chain of command could like it or lump it! (‘with respect, Sir!’ – of course). Eventually it was done or re-prioritised into the bin.
    This was a lesson learned from the attitude of a particular Chief Officer (and a total arse) towards a colleague whose wife was very ill with MS. The colleague asked for time off that was backed by many of us who were willing to cover for him – the C.O. told him that ‘. . the Department doesn’t employ your wife, Mister!’ I, for one, vowed that I would never, under any circumstances, allow a job to control me in such a way. I recognise that many will be scared through the risk of loss of income if they buck the system – finding one’s own balance is not easy in this awful capitalist system, but it is essential if there is to be any quality of life. I was always ready to ‘go the extra mile’, but only within the balance of the working day – it never cost me a promotion and actually built respect from the chain of command. Maybe I was just lucky!

  4. I love and second Jack’s comments! My husband leaves home at 7:30 a.m. every day to beat the maddening traffic and leaves work late to avoid the rush hour traffic at night. That’s been very hard for him, but we do both still find ways to love the city too. Sometimes, we escape to Belgrade Forest or just an early walk around the city, discovered some new places in Karakoy this weekend. It does drive me crazy that nothing can be simple here and I have to plan my life around what time of day it is, which part of the city I’m going and what public transportation will be the easiest way to do all this.

  5. E. says:

    I third Jack’s comments, and second yours…although most of our time in Turkey is spent living in a rural area, so the experience is very different. My goodness, what a very long day for your husband – I see my Turkish family members and friends engaging in the same long hours and planning life around locations/times of day. It was a very different approach for me to absorb at first, but you get used to it.

    And as I re-read my post on this, I feel I have neglected to mention that in some ways, by introducing me to his city, together we found some of the love parts of the city vs. just the “emotion work” hate parts – and maybe that is a topic for another post.

    So glad to hear that you are enjoying the Belgrade forest and some new haunts in Karakoy. Hope to read more about it on your blog sometime soon.

  6. E. says:

    I am fascinated, Alan, with the difference you experience in this regard in the Dalyan area. I wonder if M’s experience is heavily influenced by the sheer numbers of internal immigrants and the impact on the shoving-factor…a discussion for another time (with raki).

    A great comment on how “outsiders” are treated in the western world – and how lucky you are to have lived as you do, in Okcular, and to have been embraced so. The chance of a lifetime.

    I really appreciate your reflections on your time in the prison. I am quite amazed at the way you were able to tow your own line – and not at all shocked to hear of the horrible attitude of the Chief Officer Arse….I also wonder to what extent gender plays a role – and age. There is so much demand for tenure-track/tenured professorships, that Uni administration can lay on all the pressure they want – as new applicants appear to be a die a dozen.

    Thank you, yet again, for your helpful words to ponder on my journey to a better balance and quality of life. 🙂

  7. E. says:

    Beautiful words, Jack, and so true.

    How’s the “emotion work” in your new city?

  8. E. says:

    Ai yai yai, Dios Mio, I fear I have been TOO negative on the “emotion work” post re: living in Istanbul – I think it can feel like a dangerous recipe – but as you see from the comment from Turkish Joys, each one finds their way…I hate to tarnish the optimism needed to partake in such a large life move. I am sure it will be *just fine* and that you will find your way together – it will be an amazing learning experience with good and tough thrown in, I am sure.

    I am also worried that as a cynical tenured professor in the midst of a mid-life “reconsideration,” I will dissuade you from what can be the true joys of academic life. It’s a mixed bag – and as with the emotion work of Istanbul, you will find your way in academia as well, I am sure.

    I love how you are balancing things – and this is just right. I used this approach as well – and still do.

    Thanks so much, also for the suggestion on exercise – not always the first to rush to the gym – I have to say that I have been surprised at how much better I feel just from my long walks that I now have time for on a daily basis. I too go home a totally different person. I wish we were in the same city (maybe we are?) and we could walk and talk over all of this together. Perhaps one day!

  9. jolly joker says:

    it is very interesting to hear that people are going to belgrade forest to escape from traffic or any other chaos: we used to go a public park which was around our neighborhood.
    oh yes, i forgot that there is no park left in the city since 80’s, of course people will go to belgrad forest where else? now they try to rebuilt the public parks again, but it is too little, too late…

    i am so glad that i got out from istanbul which is not my city anymore or i don’t belong istanbul… vice versa. i also feel really bad those who didn’t see the city around 60’s and 70’s how beautiful the city was.

    whoever wants to have istanbul, feel free to have it but not me.

  10. E. says:

    Canım benim, It pains me to hear you say these things, because I know the pain you feel about beautiful Istanbul. Maybe we should write a post together about the good things that are left, or the ways that one might stem the flow of development in such a way that the beauty of the city could be renewed perhaps like a phoenix. Love, “Liz”

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