‘Here’s İzmir, bro’
Nazlan Ertan - firstname.lastname@example.org
It is the final week of April and İzmirians are basking in the glory of the late-spring sun and the praise of the out-of-towners who come to visit. Suddenly, my social diary, empty most of winter, fills up: the Hürriyet Daily News editors are in town; the nieces, nephews and all choose İzmir for the spring family reunion; my classmates who live in Istanbul decide to “steal away a week” in İzmir. In the whirlwind of breakfasts, lunches and dinners, the topic du jour is the same: How would it be to live in İzmir all the time? Oh, Istanbul is so stressful and Ankara so dull, İzmir is so liberal, so easygoing and so… civilized, isn’t it? Surely, I am having a ball, right?
In such a debate, I usually tell an anecdote from my first week in İzmir: Seduced by the good weather, I prepared myself to work out of office and settled in a near-by café with my computer and mobile phone. Armed with strong black coffee, I proceeded to work on a PR issue with messages and swift phone calls with the U.K. Office and our Istanbul PR agency. After an hour, I asked for the bill. It did not arrive. I asked for it again. Still nothing. When I asked for it for the third time, in an irritated tone, the waiter gently responded, saying, “You are not from here, are you?”
I was amazed, also slightly irritated. After all, hadn’t I finished high school here? Didn’t I have a tan like every other woman in town? Ok, so my legs and my hair were a bit shorter, but I did think that I could pass as a native. “Why do you say that?” I asked him, peevishly.
“Women who sit at this time of the morning do not ask for the bill three times and get stressed over it,” the waiter replied. “It’s İzmir.”
“It’s İzmir” is often a gentle reminder, sometimes a not-so-gentle reproach that you are not doing things the right way, sometimes a boast. Every now and then, it is a political stance. Sometimes, it is often uttered by newcomers with a hint of irritation that something is not done quickly enough: “It’s İzmir.”
A video that has been going around the city for the last few months shows anger in a metro after an old man in the wagon gave a good scolding to two youths embracing and kissing. “What do you think you are doing?” the man had said. “I will film you and put you on internet so that people can see how disgusting you are.” Just as he took he was taking his phone out, the crowd attacked the man. “You will do nothing of the sort,” they shouted. “Young people can kiss and embrace as much as they like. It’s İzmir.”
With the exception of Bodrum, İzmir may well be Turkey’s most demonstrative town: Young people kiss on streets and on the huge green grass in the Kordon district, the city’s sea front. They play musical instruments, drink beer without interference and read books. The young girls with and without headscarves are in the same groups. It’s İzmir.
When they leave, the green grass is completely dirty with the remains of the roasted sunflower seeds – that is also İzmir.
“I got into a cab and saw that the cab driver was listening to Frank Sinatra,” narrated a friend who was in İzmir for the weekend. “I started mumbling the song. He turned off the radio and asked me to sing along with him. We ended up singing together ‘My Way’ and ‘Strangers in the night.’” No, the cabdriver did not get overtly-familiar or bother her in any way. At the end of the ride, he simply said “Thank you, Madame.” It’s İzmir.
İzmir’s cab drivers - including the newly recruited women drivers – are often second-careerists who have retired. Thus, they are polite and have a strict no-political-discussions policy, unlike the cab drivers in the rest of the country. On the other hand, I have yet to meet a cab driver who knows the city inside out. The informality of the city turns the driver-customer relationship into a driver-co-pilot one. Your cab driver would simply ask you to use your smart phone to navigate. It’s İzmir.
Unlike Ankara and Istanbul, “Do you know who the hell I am?” (A jerk’s way of demanding fast/better/careful service) simply does not work. Service is friendly but slow and bad. Insistence and expressions of self-importance would guarantee poor service. It’s İzmir. Hierarchy is different and it is not in favor of elected representatives, bureaucrats or even white-collars. The city’s long-serving mayor Aziz Kocaoğlu, a fatherly figure who prefers open air meetings with farmers to conference rooms, waits for a table like everyone else. It’s İzmir.
“İzmirian women are not jealous,” wrote my colleague Aynur Tartan for her column on Hürriyet’s Saturday edition. “You can be from Hollywood or Bollywood, but every İzmirian woman considers herself a star, so assured is she of her beauty, style and brains.” Not only women but men in the city are assured of their opinions and utter them with the finality of Henry Kissinger-Thomas Piketty- Robin Sharma combined in one. They alone know the way to save the economy, conduct and acknowledge independent foreign policy (whatever that is) and obtain the pleasure of a slow life. Man or woman, if any İzmirian bothered to rule the country, things would be great, as they know each and every solution. It’s İzmir.
Liberal, well-educated and historically diverse İzmir deserves to be a global brand and attract more investment, as all İzmirians agree. With more jobs created, the bright young İzmirians who leave town will stay here. Yet, this should be done without getting “all those ambitious and stressed business people from Istanbul and other towns” into the city and alter its relaxed way of life. The paradox is İzmir.