Gabriel T. Erbs

About Gabriel T. Erbs

Gabriel Erbs is an English major studying at Bogazici University in Istanbul, Turkey. His intertest in literature extends to the East, especially Turkey. Gabriel hopes to forge a career path combining academic writing with literature studies. He also publishes an international Jewish student blog, the Global Jewish Voice.

A Fictional Conversation

A house built for travel writing / Photo: the Author

“How’s Istanbul?” Sruly asked.

It’s a sometimes-dreaded, sometimes-welcomed question whose answer colors the travel writing of student, tourist and expat alike. In “How to Write Bad Travel Writing,” a blog post by David Farley, the author writes:

Try not to have much of a point. In some travel magazines and newspaper travel sections editors like articles to have something called an angle—a perspective—and normally it should be as fresh and unique as possible.

[…]

Instead, craft a narrative that involves a play-by-play of everything that happened on your trip.

I didn’t want to do that. The blow-by-blow account of my time in the Orient interests Mom and Dad but it even bores me a little. Instead, I tried to answer my friend’s entreaty in the frame of “what has Istanbul done for me?”

Istanbul is a fantastic adventure, an open space for my mind to wander and an inspiration for writing, reading and reflection.

“I was hanging up my clothes to dry, again, Sruly.”

No dryer?

“No dryer lifestyle,” I said. “It’s that elusive life of non-consumption I’ve been able to exact here, really as a function of there being very little consumer choice…at reasonable prices.”

The lifestyle of ease is like strong drink.

“Which means, a lot less time in in the stupor of comfort and a lot more time spent in rigor (walking everywhere, cooking often) which has inspired (or reclaimed) an ethic for my creative/intellectual pursuits. How is New York City?”

I’ve always had a dryer.

Istanbul: Content and Melancholy

The sun also rises--over the Bosphorus Strait (Photo credit: the author)

When I arrived in Istanbul last week, exhausted from a nineteen-hour train ride via Bucharest, it occurred to me that I had not yet booked a hostel. I’d managed without a smart phone—or even a cell phone—for three weeks backpacking in Europe. I spent a considerable amount of time leaning on the exterior walls of European cafés, trying to get wireless Internet access.

The day-and-night-long rail excursion through Eastern Europe kept me from my café-leaning habit. Without the flicker of free Wi-Fi, I disembarked to Istanbul’s Sirkeci Station with 110 lbs of luggage and a vague plan. The sun was rising over the Boshphorus strait, gilding the water before it impaled my blood-shot eyes. Carrying my backpack over both shoulders, a day pack on the front and my duffel bag over my breast, I felt like a one-man band.

Waddling my way from the train station to the tram was a surreal experience. Istanbul’s population of over 13 million people makes the city into a labyrinth of suited men, veiled women and the inverse of both. At the pre-dawn hour though, the Sultanahmet neighborhood was an eye-rubbing smattering of dock-side fisherman and early-bird-gets-the-worm shop owners. In a metropolis like Istanbul it’s easy to feel alone. When the city sleeps, it’s even more isolating.

Orhan Pamuk (photo credit: renato.guerra / flickr)

The Turkish Nobel Prize winner and author Orhan Pamuk wrote that “Gustave Flaubert…was struck by the variety of life in [Istanbul’s] teeming streets; in one of his letters he predicted that in a century’s time it would be the capital of the world. The reverse came true: After the Ottoman Empire collapsed; the world almost forgot that Istanbul existed. The city into which I was born was poorer, shabbier, and more isolated than it had ever been before in its two-thousand-year history.”

I thought is would take time for this text to resonate with me; Pamuk writes of the city like a brother for which he holds deep affections. Instead, the irony of a mega city tucked away among ruins and skyscrapers left me beset with melancholy as I lugged my bags from hostel to hostel looking for an empty bed. America is proud of its meritocracy and I felt that there was an injustice in Istanbul’s decline.

Sitting on a bench, looking at Russian oil tankers make their way from Black Sea ports to Mediterranean pipelines, I considered the possibility for a more complex relationship with this future home. Pamuk calls Istanbul a brother because family can be both the most redeeming part of life and it’s greatest source of depression.

We’ll see if I’m ready.