I didn’t take the coronavirus seriously at first. In fact, its severity didn’t hit me until a few days ago.
Earlier this month I was in Berlin, visiting my brother. The city’s tourism fair was abruptly canceled as a result of the virus, but we weren’t worried. We went out at night, eating and drinking and having a good time, as one does in this capital of debauchery.
Upon my return to Istanbul, I still wasn’t particularly concerned. At that point there had not been a case of the virus confirmed in Turkey. I went on a gastronomic trip to Nevşehir and Kırşehir where I feasted on Central Anatolia’s delicious regional specialties and enjoyed numerous bottles of the Cappadocia region’s famous wine.
By Friday, the number of cases had increased to five. I still wasn’t too spooked, and that evening I went out with a friend to try the new branch of Kaburgacı Cabbar, a famous Adana kebab joint that has been open in Turkey’s kebap capital since 1958 and just opened shop in Istanbul a few months ago. Their skewered rib meat was spicy and perfect, and the Adana was as succulent and delicious as anything I’ve had in its city of origin. I told some friends who (until recently) worked at an office nearby, and they rebuked me by saying I should be practicing social distancing.
The next day I hopped on a ferry to have tea at an outdoor café overlooking the Moda seaside with a friend I hadn’t seen for a while. We mostly caught up and talked about our lives and barely touched on the subject of the virus. The weather was nice as we sipped our tea outside, but it quickly took a turn for the worse, and I found myself shivering on the walk back to the pier. That night, I met another friend at Astek, a favorite neighborhood meyhane, for a few glasses of rakı, triangular slices of white cheese and plates of terrific meze. The conversation again revolved around ourselves, and the virus only came up sparingly.
A few days prior, I had remarked casually to friends and acquaintances in person that I wasn’t afraid, and fired off a few Tweets saying I had plenty of worries and this virus was not one of them. In hindsight, those comments were callous and foolish, particularly in light of how quickly things have escalated in my adopted home country of Turkey.
Sunday in Istanbul was a nasty, drizzly, depressive stretch of a day, a reminder of a Turkish saying about the month of March: “Mart kapıdan baktırır kazma kürek yaktırır,” which translates as “March makes one look outside from their door and burn their tools” but refers more generally to March rearing its ugly winter head after appearing nice for a spell. In spite of climate change that has resulted in an alarmingly mild winter, the proverb proved itself once again. The number of reported cases surged to 18 and things started to feel serious. That night, the Interior Ministry announced that all bars and nightclubs in every province of Turkey would be closed.
Social distancing now seemed imperative. I decided to embrace the opportunity to hunker down, focus on work, music and most importantly my health, which involved taking a break from constantly eating out and ordering delivery, the typical bad habit of a single 32-year-old living alone. It also meant not opening and finishing that peppery yet seductive bottle of Thracian red wine and smoking the three too many cigarettes that went along with it on a weeknight. That evening I made pasta with sauce from scratch, using divine tomatoes from Çanakkale and gleefully spicy peppers from Samandağ. As per the brilliant Turkish custom, I topped my bowl with dollops of rich yogurt.
I wondered on Monday whether or not it was a good idea to hit the gym. After three months of not going I had just resumed my routine. I concluded that it was best to steer clear of the weights and treadmill, but stopped by to ask them to freeze my membership. Minutes later, it was announced that the government had ordered the closure of scores of other establishments nationwide, including gyms, cinemas, cafés, restaurants and venues. The number of cases of the virus had climbed to 47. In the evening, the biggest neighborhood grocery store was full, its workers moving quickly to restock shelves with staples.
On Tuesday, the sun reemerged but it was still frigid outside. By nighttime, temperatures approached freezing, and the winter we were denied finally arrived. The number of confirmed cases suddenly rose to 98, and the fear continued to sink in that Turkey was just behind Italy and the other countries grappling with thousands of cases and widespread curfews. It seemed that everyone who had an office job was now instructed to work from home.
That evening, I left my apartment at around 10 p.m. to survey the vibe in the neighborhood. Many restaurants and shops were still open. In Kurtuluş, there are numerous places that deliver alcohol, cigarettes, snacks and other goods 24/7, and their business must be better than ever. Some of the newer bars that have sprouted across the neighborhood were shuttered as per the Interior Ministry’s orders. Other older establishments remained open, some empty, others with a few tables of customers who sipped rakı or beer. Carts selling buttery rice pilaf under shredded chicken set up shop on the street corner.
In 2016, when Istanbul was traumatized by a string of terrorist attacks and the failed coup attempt, it was a relief to see open bars with imbibing patrons and resilient street food vendors selling their wares in the late-night hours. Now, it just seems unnecessary and irresponsible. It’s clear that not everyone in the city has gotten the message. That said, I don’t have the burden of maintaining a day-to-day business and paying employees. It is too early to tell just how hard certain sectors of Turkey’s economy will be hit, but it certainly won’t be pretty.
Istanbul always manages to bounce back from chaos, strife and downturn, and I’m hoping this will be no exception. Still, in a city that lives on the streets, a place that is defined by bustling, crowded lively areas and a rich eating and drinking culture, it feels very bizarre being confined to my apartment. A comforting distraction came as a friend asked me to prepare a program for the popular alternative radio station where she DJs. She and her colleagues are now working from home, and I sent my playlist and recorded announcements via email.
It certainly appears that things will get worse before they better, so all there is left to do is take the necessary precautions, hope for the best and prepare for the worst. As someone whose career is based around writing about the city, which involves constant exploration, frequent use of multiple methods of public transit, and navigating crowded spaces near and far, it looks like I’ll be taking a step back for a while. It might be time to finally write my book proposal about Istanbul that I’ve been putting off for two years, with the hope that by the time it’s finished this crisis will be over, businesses will be back on their feet, the streets will be crowded, and I can resume telling the important stories left untold in this unparalleled, endlessly inspiring city.
Editor’s note: With the coronavirus (Covid-19) crisis rapidly and profoundly impacting many of the cities we work in, we’ve asked some of our correspondents to file dispatches detailing how they and the places they live in are coping with this new reality. Our fourth report is from Istanbul, which only had its first confirmed case last week.
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Published on March 18, 2020