I’m helping to copy edit the travel book of a friend of mine in Istanbul. He just turned in his second draft, and I’ve been looking at it for the last hour. It’s making me think that it’s finally time to talk about the ten days I spent in that city and all the thoughts his book brings up besides.
My best woman friend from college, Alex, her Peace Corps application languished a few months too long, so she applied to Teachers in Turkey and they snapped her up inside a week. I went out there and did nothing like I was supposed to. I spent one morning in Sultanahment and the bazaars and only because she had a lesson to teach that day. All the rest of my time passed in Kadikoy and the other parts of the Asian side, meeting her friends, attending dinner parties, drinking on the Bosporus.
But for the language, Istanbul would be my ideal city. Massive, the cultural and political heart of its entire country, cosmopolitan and polyglot, gleaming on the European side, dripping with history, and bohemian to the east, affordable and chockablock with cafés and hookahs and smart young expats who’ve escaped the work culture of the States and gone abroad to write and teach and make art and play music. A city torn by dissent, wracked by protests over the KDP and Kobane at the time and still possessed by the warmth and hospitality that make Mexico so endearing.
Alex and Ernie and Anna and Jari and Valentin and Sadaf and Maedeh are living the kind of life that I wish I were brave enough or unbeholden enough to my folks to lead.
Unafraid to cut ties with the assembly line shuttling from high school into college into debt into work into the grave. Which is more or less the thesis of Ernie’s book.
Our crippling inequality and good-jobless recovery might be historical artifacts, might be over in another ten years or even less. There might be a job market in the States that could slot me into Deloitte or Credit Suisse or some comfortable position in DC that would have be riding the metro in from NOVA by the time I finish my service. We might even reform unpaid white-collar overtime and benefits and vacation time so that it’s not a thankless thirty-year slog to an early grave.
What there won’t be, even if all that comes to pass, is a writing job waiting for me. Not at the end of my service, not unless I turn sixteen months of failed freelancing into an unbelievable success by November. But I could go back and take one of those other jobs and tell myself that I’ll keep writing I the evenings, that it’s just a stopgap, and there would come a point, five, ten years down the line where I might forget what I wanted to do in the first place, quietly slide into a habitable mediocrity, breed another try with whoever happened to work the next desk over.
That’s what the States feels like to me, a land without opportunity that will shame the very heart of you for failing to grasp what isn’t there. Ernie’s got a couple of lines in this draft that called to me.
Imagine that you’re told the economy is made up of ‘freelance’ or ‘flexible’ workplaces now, so being successful is about using time-management apps and lifehacking and a Fitbit, all to extract the productivity from your time. Imagine that being told that everyone has a passion, and that this passion will make you money—and if it isn’t, you’re either not working very hard or you’re not very passionate.
There I am, aren’t I.
My folks are retiring outside of Nashville, and they’ve offered to put me up in a spare room for a couple of months after service so I can write and set up the next step. It’s tempting; I’ve got a couple of projects I’m tapping away at, and it feels like I’ll almost have something by the time I COS, enough to piece together in the muggy Tennessee night. But if I go and do it and it doesn’t pan, that’s it, or it feels like it would be.
We got on, my new Istanbul friends and I, and by the last half of my stay, Ernie was offering to find me a job while his brother Jari started looking for apartments to share. God love me, if they’d come up with something solid in my first week back in site, I think I’d have booked a flight the same day. Because they weren’t just holding out an income or a roof, they were offering me a specific freedom, the same freedom that lies at the heart of Ernie’s book.
The thesis in his introduction is more or less that if you’re a young person in the US confronted by a hostile working world, one that casts aspersions on you for not buying into it and a political system that refuses to be moved by any but the wealthiest, vote with your feet, get the fuck out. That’s what their offer felt like to me—an out, a place to work to live, to write, to try journalism, to make art, to exist in a place where your job does not define you and the strangling day to day of your society doesn’t brand false starts as permanent failures.
Writing and journalism and art-making in the States are far from impossible. I know kids from my year who are doing it—they were more talented or more focused, they figured out what they wanted to do soon enough to make inroads toward it in school, some of them might just have been luckier. The boat is gone, though, long sailed for the lands beyond the western ocean, and I’m not them, and the States present me—not people in general but me in particular—no great way to become them.
I’m finding it hard at this point to tell if I’m getting where I’m going, so let’s try another point of ingress. Ernie writes, and I think it’s true, that one of the reasons we travel is to ‘become cultured,’ or, at least, to see other cultures. When I write that phrase, ‘see other cultures,’ what comes to my mind’s eye is some place like Oaxaca. Colorful costumes and exotic foods and intricate handicrafts by people who look a little different than me. I think that’s how we imagine culture in terms of travel; these paintings, this rug, that language, those foods. But culture, real culture, the stuff that should matter when we travel, has nothing to do with any of it.
Culture is hard to get at when we tour around in the American style, planning two meticulous weeks so that we can see everything, take in everything, timing checkouts and train tickets to the minute. Real culture only comes through when you’re moving the way Ernie’s advocating, when you stay somewhere else, inhabit a place. It’s the pace of the life, the way people walk and talk between themselves, how their families work and how friendships form, what the shops sell, the flavors of the blessings and the curses and greetings among friends. Mexico is an amazing place to tour and taste and see, but it’s a better place to be.
No proud-of-yourself in-Spanish conversation with a tour guide compares to a secret Santa with your adoptive family, to dating a local, to having a job, to holding a teaching post you hate so long that the love you have for your kids creeps up on you so slowly that you never see it coming.
It’s only by traveling like this, by staying and living, can you get the perspective on the homeland that is the beginning of an honest view of other cultures. It’s the only way you can begin to see how toxic we are back home, how shame-driven and closed-off and exclusionary. It’s only when you live out here that you realize how much happier everyone is than we are back there.
Earlier it sounded, I think, like I was just afraid to fail in the US. That’s true as far as it goes, but I’m not afraid to fail elsewhere. I’ve been failing happily here in Mexico for more than a year, every good blog a testament to a failed attempt at freelancing. Here, or elsewhere in Latin America or in Istanbul, that failure doesn’t crush or strangle. In these places, I can work three days a week on oDesk and make writing what I do, regardless of publication, whereas in the US it would be a hobby, cute through my twenties and ever more disgraceful for every year after.
I don’t want to have to go back and I want to keep working on Ernie’s book because he and I have the right of it. Our streets are better paved in the US, our supermarkets cleaner, our laws more respected, our lines faster, our guns bigger, every aspect of our existence more efficient, but they are everywhere else happier, and as long as me and Ernie and Alex and Alex and Jari stay away, we’re part of that ‘they’ and happy with them.
If in the next year or the next country, the next adventure, my writing takes off in someone else’s eyes, I can come back to the States and enjoy whatever status it affords me. Or I can remain without and make my life about what I am rather than what I earn, who I love and whose hands I shake and who I call family.
It’s hard to grasp until you’ve felt it, but it’s so much easier to breathe out here.