My Neighborhood Cafe

I’ve always wished that everyone could live to gather the stories of the unemployed, of the drifting, of the dreaming.

There’s a cafe down the street from my apartment in Istanbul. I go there every late night after work, after 10pm, (I work at a language school geared towards English teaching for adults so the school is at its busiest in the evenings) because it’s cheap (it runs on Communist ideals, meaning that you pay however much you think your meal and drink are worth) but, also, the cafe attracts young people from around the world who travel through, work, study, or simply live in Istanbul.

I’ve gotten acquainted with Iranians, Syrians, Bahrainis, Russians, Georgians, Ukrainians, Americans, Germans, etc., and, of course, Turkish people.

Every night, I’ve collected many stories from the cafe.

People sit on wooden stools that are ready to break at any moment (with paper taped on the seats that say, ‘Sit at your own risk in black marker’, or on the black metal stairs that lead to the second floor. The cafe is full of black cushions on old wooden furniture and mattresses on the floor to serve as seating with a bench. There are books in wooden crates nailed to the walls. There’s a fridge upstairs and downstairs. The walls are covered with stickers with political messages. A rainbow flag that represents a welcome to anyone who identifies as LGTBQI is displayed at the front window. Every week, the cafe hosts international food nights (Kurdish food night, sushi and Vietnamese rolls night, Lebanese food night, Syrian food night, etc.); all of the food being vegetarian or vegan, and, on those nights, large gatherings of people are present. The cafe’s interior contains many messages that proclaim an aversion to sexism, racism, ageism, any sort of discrimination; making its point clear that the cafe is to have a peaceful and welcoming atmosphere at all times, that absolutely no one should have any reason to feel threatened. It’s a great and safe space that I love going to about six days a week. It’s the place where I’ve opened up more to people than I’ve ever had in all of my 29 years (meaning that I’ve not only listened to people but have spoken to them as well; initiating interesting dialogue at times).

The first person I’ve really talked to (after about three months of visiting the cafe) is a young Iranian man (who was born and raised in the worst, most religiously conservative city in Iran called Qom [where many religious fanatics are reputed to be found in the country and where even Iranians say never to go there]), who ran away from home and hasn’t seen his family (or communicated with them for that matter) for years (and he’s only 2 years my senior but looks a lot older [he can easily be mistaken to be in his forties]). He said that he learned at age 17 that he didn’t agree with his family’s ideals of the religiously conservative Islamic life being the only life there should be. He lives in an abandoned building in Istanbul, 45 minutes away from the cafe on foot, without any windows, not electricity nor water nor gas. It gets bitter cold in the fall and winter months in Istanbul so I have no idea how he could possibly be living that way for the past year and a half. He tells me he can’t sleep most nights and that he found the shoes that he wears (without socks!) and that he hasn’t showered for a long time. He comes to the cafe for wi-fi access, for hot water, a warm meal (which he doesn’t pay for but he washes dishes and cleans the WC) and just to feel comfortable, just to feel warm. A few days before December 23rd (his birthday), he told me that he had never celebrated his birthday before with a blissful smile on his face and that he hadn’t thought about celebrating his birthday. His story, his lifestyle has inspired me to be thankful for what I have. He told me that he aspired to be an artist and a carpenter, that one of his hobbies is to practice writing and drawing with his left hand, to use it as well as his right one. He also plans to continue to improve his Turkish and English. I tell him often that I find his life interesting, that I admire him very much (and he doesn’t understand why).

The cafe attracts unemployed yet educated, creative, and cultured and open-minded people in particular. I’ve gotten to meet Russians who are mostly interested in travel; attempting to go about their days without money. I’ve met a 19-year-old Ukrainian who was only in Istanbul for more than a week and who told me that he hoped to travel forever when I asked him how long his trip around the world was going to take. I’ve gotten acquainted with a young Turkish man who graduated from university nearly a year ago; he has been unemployed since his graduation and he isn’t certain what to do with himself; whether he could enter a master’s program or not or continue to hope that he finds work (as with most Turkish people in their twenties, he’s still being supported by his parents who live in central Turkey). I’ve found him to be insightful, with many great ideas. I’ve also met a young American man who was a drifter in the US, who traveled up and down the Californian coast (after becoming disillusioned with university life) and found himself in Turkey after meeting someone who told him to come to Turkey because the music scene was really good. His girlfriend is Kurdish who ran away from her husband (to whom her parents arranged for her to marry at 14). She came from an ultra strict Islamic family. She remains anonymous and will probably be on the run for the rest of her life. This couple has inspired me the most; Life isn’t necessarily about finding a purpose but having the motivation to do something every day.

The couple doesn’t work, however they play music on the street to earn their meager living and the young man does spend some hours a week teaching English. The girl works at cafes from time to time (she used to work full-time in one when she lived in east Turkey).

The cafe has become my first regular hangout place. Before visiting the cafe, I’ve never gone to any place on a very regular basis. Since visiting the cafe, I’ve come to love the feeling of going to a usual spot in the city I live in; it’s a worthy ritual (to start and keep anywhere that I go). I also explore other places during the day but I am of the opinion now that everyone must find that social space (or just a special space) outside of home and work to feel at home in. I used to think that going to a particular one every day was going to be dull but it’s not. At times, just sitting in a comfortable space with interesting people whether or not for a short time or for a long time is good enough. Let’s always continue to find places where we feel at ease in for all of our lovely lives.

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