How My Neighbors Became My Family

It has been a year since I moved to Istanbul, Turkey. This country is home to some of the most mysterious, well-built historical sites in the world.

Mystery and structural integrity are exactly what I want in a home. A well-built structure with decent insulation and neighbors I know nothing about. Talking to neighbors and forging a sense of community are all fine and good. But in an apartment building, after the front door closes, information sharing should cease.

At first glance, Istanbul is a modern city indistinguishable from other European cities. People from all over come here for a purpose — to work, to open a restaurant, to pursue passions in the arts, to make it big.

After a year, I’m having a second glance. It is a city becoming overcrowded, struggling to keep up with rapid growth. None of that changes what is great about Istanbul. It does, however, make certain aspects of life here more difficult.

One difficulty I face is maintaining my sanity living in an apartment here. I’m used to apartment life. I’ve lived in them for most of my life. When my family did live in a house, it was my whole family. Grandparents, aunt, two cousins, mom, and sister. What we had was an apartment building where you got a whooping if you made too much noise.

The driving force of my struggle with living in an Istanbul apartment is my perception of how apartment communities should operate. Where I’m from, apartments are for transitions. Broke newlyweds lived in them before they had kids or got a promotion. Single people would live in them as they plotted out their next few years. Families would live in them while they searched for a more suitable dwelling. People rarely stayed in apartments long-term.

That understanding of apartment living is not relevant to Istanbul.

What’s the main difference? The way apartment dwellers interact with each other. I’m used to people being friendly and nothing more. Everyone was content pretending they weren’t surrounded by 20–60 other people in the same building. The other side of your front door is your sanctuary. No one dared to upset that balance.

Yes, you will get noisy neighbors from time to time. Building quality varied based on the area you lived in. Sometimes you were blessed with good neighbors, other times you were cursed with bad ones. When you heard more than you wanted to hear from your neighbors, you had the right to be upset. People would feel your pain. You could even call the police to complain about loud neighbors. Your privacy was a right that had to be protected.

That dynamic doesn’t exist in Istanbul. What would happen if you called the police because of loud neighbors? Nothing. Nothing would happen. Your relationship with neighbors is very different here. Many buildings are family-style — about 4-stories with 10 or so units where an entire bloodline would live. That’s the fundamental change I had to learn to live with.

Apartments here do not only function as a reprieve from the world until work the next day. They aren’t a transition into your dream house. Commonly, they function as large houses where everyone gets their own 2 bed, 1 bath, room. In my building, my wife and I are the only foreigners in a family building. We listen to our neighbors go back and forth from their rooms at all times of the day.

I don’t mind the logic of the family-building. The main hurdle was letting go of the apartment as MY sanctuary. After I closed the front door, I could still hear everything happening with my neighbors. The walls and ceilings don’t impede the free travel of sound. The space between you and your neighbors — a thin layer of plaster followed by a single column of flimsy brick — was insufficient.

For eavesdropping, there’s no need to put your ear to the wall. Not unless you want to blow your cover, as your neighbors would probably hear you breathing. Just relax on the couch and learn all you want about your neighbors.

What role does Turkey’s history play? The people of Istanbul originate from all over the country. They came here for the opportunities of a big city. A person coming from a remote village in Turkey will continue to live like they are in a village despite the metropolis exploding around them. The young people who have only known Istanbul don’t embrace village life, but they have yet to produce a new Istanbul devoid of village influence. The homes are close together so you can hear what your family is up to. It’s a comfort for them. Your building is your village.

Maybe the real problem is me. I’m the one angry at people for living life. An outsider with a different set of values. But I only deserve half of the blame. The poor building quality of homes deserves the rest.

Thanks to rapid growth, the need for homes is great. Unfortunately, the emphasis is rarely put on the quality of the home. We need new apartments and we need them now. And when old buildings collapse under their weight, new shoddy buildings are erected to replace them.

Homes here are built too fast and with poor materials. And it’s mostly out of necessity. There is no time to worry about whether or not tenants will be able to hear each other’s kids running around.

Once these factors are taken into account, I could surrender to village life a little easier.

At first, I would go to bed angry. After a long day, I would crawl into bed, close my eyes, and a track meet would begin above my head. On lazy Saturday mornings, I would plop onto the couch and listen to our neighbors host their entire family tree for breakfast. That used to infuriate me. I’ve graduated to only being annoyed. I can even laugh about it. When our neighbors are having a big laugh, I join in to let them know I’m happy too.

My neighbors are my family. They are family because that is how you live in this country. They are family because they ask personal questions and I give them the answers. They are family because instead of hitting the ceiling with a broom, I pretend it’s my little brother or sister running around and screaming above me. They are my family because it’s silly to be angry someone for living a normal life in a poorly built building.

I’m an outsider who is part of their village now. In a city that has grown too fast to keep up with, we hold on to our small communities to keep our sense of belonging. Your apartment building is your village. And in our village, we hear everything. We eat dinner together, entertain guests together, and too often we stay up late together. Who am I to try and change that?

Freelance Writer. Music listener. Food eater.

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