Feeling The Fear in Istanbul

Kuzguncuk, image courtesy of eyoki.wordpress.com

Kuzguncuk, image courtesy of eyoki.wordpress.com

Victory! I have just returned from the market with a clutch of bags containing chicken, honey, aubergines, peppers, onions, ginger, tomatoes, parsley, rocket, cucumbers and bananas. I may be drained and still trembling slightly from the effort, but I have come home with everything on my shopping list. Re-sult.

I know you’re probably thinking, what the-?! Since when was doing the weekly shopping something to be applauded? How could such a simple act induce trembling?

Well, let me tell you, it is as bemusing for me as it is for you. You see, I’ve got The Fear. For some completely infuriating and entirely inexplicable reason, I have often found myself nearly paralysed with anxiety about going out and about on my own here in Istanbul. As a person who’s navigated the mean streets of Fez, Kolkata and Manila solo, you’d think I’d find Istanbul a stroll in the park. And yet, somehow, it isn’t.

I can’t pinpoint exactly when The Fear started (although it was probably around the time M and I were transitioning from holiday romance to something far more serious). But at some point the simplest little things like popping round the corner for milk became a gauntlet for which I’d have to gird my loins and force myself out of the front door.

I was overjoyed when I discovered that I’m not alone in this irrational terror. Liz over at Slowly by Slowly writes so compellingly about her own private battles with The Fear that I nearly cried when I read her post. Like Liz and the wonderful blogger behind Turklish, another fellow battler, part of my version of The Fear must stem from M’s concerns for me and what might happen to me, alone, in Istanbul. The first time he expressed these concerns,  I pretty much flipped out. It made me worried that this was some kind of controlling instinct, or that he didn’t want me to go out on my own at all. But I’ve come to see that this absolutely isn’t the case. M is always encouraging me to go out, to explore the city on my own.

The other thing I want to be clear about is that I’m not actually afraid of anything happening to me – despite the occasional reports of foreign women assaulted or even killed in Istanbul. Nor have I had much experience of the street harassment that is rife in Istanbul, either.

My theory is that, for me at least, The Fear comes from my need to be able to fit in to M’s culture and, in turn, a fear of f*cking up – of making a cultural faux pas so huge that I’ll never be able to recover from it. When I walk down Kuzguncuk’s main street alone, with butterflies in my stomach and tremors in my legs, what I’m afraid of is not so much that I’m not going to be able to remember the word for ‘parsley’ (although that does come into it a bit). Instead, it’s that I’m going to say or do something that will cause such offence or outrage that I’ll be forever marked as an outsider.

Having M here to lean on does make me lazier when it comes to fighting back against The Fear. In Bangladesh I had the same Fear for a while, but I had no M to hide behind. If I wanted to eat, I couldn’t ask anyone to go to the market for me – I just had to suck it up and get out there. But that’s not the only reason The Fear is stronger here. The real difference is that the stakes are so much higher now. This is not just a holiday, or even a 2-year volunteer placement. It’s the rest of my life.

On the bright side, after nearly three years of living my life between here and Oxford, I’ve definitely made inroads against The Fear. I can now throw a jumper over my pyjamas and grab the morning bread, for instance, without sweating profusely or needing to lie down afterwards. And today, I even went to the butcher ALONE and specified what cut of chicken I wanted and how I wanted it prepared.

Writing this post has also given me some much needed perspective on The Fear. I can see that it’s irrational and ridiculous. I know that there is almost nothing I could do that would have the effect I’m so worried about. And there are lots more things I can do to push myself out of my comfort zone – today’s market trip was one of them, and next week I’m going to finally force myself to check out at least one of Kuzguncuk’s cafes.

Right now, though, I’ve got an even bigger, far less existential fear to contend with. M’s brother, sister-in-law and nephew are coming round, and I’m COOKING THEM DINNER. Yep. Me. For them. Bricking it doesn’t even begin to cover it. Stay tuned to find out how my planned dinner of ginger sesame chicken goes down…