When I tell my Turkish friends I came to Istanbul to escape the West, they think I’m being ironic. I’ve explained that if you’re young and live in New York or Berlin, you have to cultivate a life of such flatness that emails and delivery food become your most exciting problems. The Turks find all this amusing but not convincing. I want to tell you, instead, what it’s like to be a COVID expat in Istanbul right now. If you can join us, maybe you should consider it. Some of my countrymen tell me flying is immoral at the moment. It might be, but I think there’s more people like me every day: people who still want lives of light and beauty and virtues more real than handwashing or face-masking. I don’t have an argument, just impressions. Here’s a few of them.

In Kadıköy, a slick secular neighborhood on the city’s Asian side, there are old tramcars painted red on the bottom and white up top. At one point on their short perimeter around town, concrete pastel half-spheres run parallel at each side of the track. They look like thick rubber balls for some sort of now-unfashionable sport, repurposed to adorn what is officially called the “Istanbul Nostalgic Tramway.” Nostalgic for what?—I haven’t heard anyone say, though I did hear a dusty-looking junkman gesture at the pastel spheres and exclaim (in English, as if realizing something for the first time) “the Gumdrop Highway!” I track my way home up from the water by finding the Gumdrop Highway. The rest of the neighborhood is charming and dense with interest, but its grey 70’s-era apartment blocks (seeming somehow more ancient than the Byzantine architecture across the Bosporus) and their sloping networks of right angled streets lack color, lack landmarks.

My first night in Istanbul I couldn’t sleep. I jet-lag badly. New cities give me a Christmas Eve sort of feeling: they make me restless. Around 2:00 am, I went to the water to smoke and look back west at Europe. The neighborhoods across the Bosporus are dense, bright. Ferries—most named after professors and minor bureaucrats—drift through the water and between the hills. The Sea of Marmara’s vast lightless drop-off to the south is deeper and closer than you expect.

On my way back to my room, I called my brother in the States. While I chattered away in English, I saw a group of men in greyish-black jumpsuits looking like if the local plumbers union had started policing the streets. They were talking to a guy not in uniform, and he seemed nervous, so I decided to ignore the whole thing and walk past them. A hand grabbed my shoulder; I heard some angry Turkish. Obviously, I ran away. When the whole pack of them followed, I wheeled around (phone in pocket, brother still on the line, just in case the plumbers thought I was a fugitive jammer of sinks) and asked them what was going on.

They were unpleasant with me. I’m not that tall, but I was taller than them and they circled me doggishly. My shoes were searched, my cigarettes sniffed with cruel precision. They unbuckled my belt. They wouldn’t let me put my pockets back to normal after unfurling them, my brother clutched now silently against my chest. A few of them kept body-checking me like we were going to play flag-football. One man put his hand against my left cheek and left it there for a solid half-minute. The whole time there was the loud word “passport! passport!”, shouted less at than around me and stressed on the wrong syllable. I didn’t have my passport, I told them, it was in my room; did they want to come up the street and see it?

Eventually I started saying “I’m an American; I just got here.” The word was like a spell or joke. Most of them looked disappointed; two or three laughed. The shortest of them, who had close-cropped red hair and rheumy almond eyes, barked hoarsely and ran away. The man who had developed familiarity with my cheek winked and gestured as if we were in his living room: “Welcome Turkey, you walk night with passport.”

For an American, that’s how authority sounds in Turkey these days: casual, immediate, now rough and then gracious. Nobody cares about social distancing. A public smoking ban effort to help masking raised everyone’s morale by being universally ignored. I’ve met some people who still don’t know what Zoom is. Those men I saw my first night were Bekçi, or night watchmen. They harass people for their ID cards, and my landlord told me firm eye-contact can be enough to ward them off. At every demonstration I’ve passed, the riot cops outnumber the protestors five to one. A special crack-squad of ponytailed MP5’d young women mince around grimly for the cameras while the protestors do the same rising-call sub-rhythmic screech-chanting as they do in America, only its quieter and a bit more cowed here.

My host is a guy named Aslan—like the lion, yes—and he runs a waltz studio. A narrow hallway transverses the back of the place, my room on the left and his on the right. Hulking brightly and lined with mirrors, the studio takes up most of the space in the apartment. Four days a week, Turks gather here to practice all the dances they’ve forgotten how to do in Vienna. Aslan has an imported sound system from America and he always reminds me that he hates rap before cutting loose the waltz’s rolling barrel swells. He imports his dresses from Paris for the women to wear during classes—all with old brand names I don’t recognize like Midinette and Entrechat—and ever since I taught him the word “bespoke,” he yells it proudly at whomever will listen. He assures me the little velvet backroom where the women change is erotically significant for him; I believe it. After he got comfortable with me, he started yelling certain slurs proudly, too, though he taught me that it isn’t a problem since in Turkey, nobody’s racist.

The morning after the Bekçi welcome me, I meet my friend Hank in Kadıköy on the Gumdrop Highway. We forearm clasp like we’ve escaped a prison camp together. Blonde, benign, tall, Hank hails from that memory of California when the most popular subjects at UC Berkeley were forestry or metallurgy and they were brave enough to impose universal basic weightlifting on all students. He wants to found an institute to research coastal cities—Istanbul means essential fieldwork—and he has the most vivid dreams I’ve ever heard. All the Turks think he’s Russian, all the Russians think he’s Swedish; his girlfriend, Lili Lee, is Anglo-Chinese and passes as a Mongolian until she speaks in her deep-tone London purr.

Hank and Lili came to Istanbul a few days before me and live in Cihangir, a hillside outpost on the European side that Hank calls Muslim San Francisco. Their first night, they hit a club where a man in a camel overcoat and cracked glasses leaned over close and whispered, “Welcome to Istanbul, my friends. This is a Leftist bar.” He looked darkly into the mirror behind the drinks. “Here we are all Leftists.”

Cihangir is nearby enough to the tourist shots you’ll see in most Istanbul guidebooks: Galata Tower, Sultanahmet with the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, Topkapı Palace (to us it will always be Topkek Palace), Taksim Square, all that. Most of it isn’t precisely worth seeing beyond brief visits. The Hagia Sophia’s desecration into a mosque is like seeing your grandfather’s corpse with a fez and some Arab jewelry on, and everyone on the Asian side pretends that Europe doesn’t exist. The best parts of the western neighborhoods are the moments when you drop off the central spine leading from Galata up to Beyoğlu and find yourself in a back alleyway with indistinct shopfronts and an old woman beating laundry and those black-hooded fog-bodied crows they get in this part of Eurasia. People like to talk about the cats in Istanbul, but there’s big slow-ankled dogs around too that will follow you loyally if you go anywhere off a main path into woods or side-streets. I found a Greek-alphabet Ottoman-era typewriter in one of these places for 350 lira. There’s usually a man who will produce tea in fluted teardrop glasses if you ask.

Lili turns dinner every night into a high-stakes research-and-run operation, culling reviews in four languages, wheeling and dealing for Istanbul’s most aggressive spices, its cheapest smoothest treats. Mostly you glut yourself on sweetness—heavy Kaymak in slow honey, the cool marmoreal pleasures of San Sebastian cake—but the organ meats help the desserts go down. My favorite is street-bought Kokoreç, thickly-fatted lamb intestines grilled and wrapped around offal. If you go to a seafood restaurant, you quickly find accidental poetry in fish names like Bosporus Blue Bass or Black Sea Whiting. I saw one scale-monger selling an item he called “Dogfish of the Runny Depths”; I’m sure some enterprising grad student chalked out the translation for him.

One of the reasons I came to Istanbul is because I wanted to go to Mass. A priest I know told me that Kadıköy in fact derives from Chalcedon, where St. Anatolius crushed the heretic Eutyches. The grey-eyed, gem-robed Fathers of the Council of Chalcedon are nowhere to be found. If imperial Christianity appears anywhere, it is only as a purple ghost that hangs over the city at some sunrises or whenever there’s a large gathering of doves. I attend St. Mary Draperis on the European side. Quick internationally inflected liturgies play out under the ruined mosaics’ frozen fire hues; I deliberately don’t know any of my co-religionists here, but we sometimes nod at each other like old friends. I’m glad the Turks tolerate these sacrifices. The souls who died at Lepanto must be surprised to see the Church suppressed in Europe, allowed in Turkey.

A few nights a week, Hank and Lili take the ferry over for gatherings at Aslan’s. Sometimes we waltz, sometimes we play poker, and there’s always new people. The crowd is very various and everyone is very happy; they shake hands and don’t wear masks off the street. Aslan’s friend Tanri is in his late forties, but he looks somewhere younger than that despite his shortness and his baldness. Apparently, his grandfather was a Polish count living in Istanbul on diplomatic missions who married a Senegalese woman. Aslan loves reminding him of his heritage. On his forearm in flat black tattoo sound the words “It’s Hard Bein’ a God”; you can guess what his name means in Turkish. His girlfriend, Derya, is just out of high-school and rodentologically pretty. Once, while we were all laughing and smoking on the balcony, she ended a joke with sudden sobbing wails, and even Aslan’s kind  banter couldn’t console her. Tanri kept walking in and out the kitchen, grinning at us and saying “women, women” in various tones of voice. He conceded that the earthquake in Izmir last week had levelled Derya’s family home, ruined the ceramic Dutch oven she wanted to inherit from her mother; she wasn’t crying about that, no, it was that she had had a dream the other night that all of Istanbul was shaking and falling into the sea. But (he smiled) the government has been ready for the big Stamboul quake for years now: last they calculated only 853 people would die in Kadıköy when it hit.

In the strait, there are dolphins, little black paperclips across the long water and the horizon’s rapid fold. There are jellyfish, too, which I like to watch from deck while I drink a thin milky brew called Salep enlivened by sawdust cinnamon. Here and there you see medical masks floating between the jellyfish, plastic bags as well; former stages of life’s development flushing south and far away.

All the Turkish girls complain about all the Turkish men. There’s advantages for foreigners in this type of market, though I feel bad for some of the more standard-issue Istanbul bachelors I know. One night at Aslan’s while waltzing I met a woman named Sihir Sangu. She has cropped grey-blonde hair and cold grey-blue eyes staring from a wearily symmetrical face. Older than me, she had just dragged herself across the finale of a literature degree at a university recently censured for aiding in the production of student pornography films; she makes her money by translating Edwardian spy novels into Turkish and lives on an island an hour into the sea by ferry. In many ways, she is the most Western of the Turks I have met—she is half-Circassian, with a tribal family crest showing a white goat with aquamarine eyes and mean barbed arrows to match—though her interests are hybridized to the point of being in spite of themselves unique. She hates Islam and tenderly enjoys the New Atheists; she and a girlfriend in Ankara used to run a Pre-Raphaelite inspired publishing house called Flagellant Foxlette Press that in its final days released a series of increasingly desperate attacks on Atatürk.

It quickly became clear that Sihir and I agreed on nothing and hate speaking to each other. Every time she brings up a new point of possible debate (are ghosts or morality real?—of course I was “yes” and she “no” on both questions), I flinch like she’s about to stab me. But she is a generous person, more generous than I am. She let me have regency over her apartment on the island one long weekend while she hiked up north to the Black Sea side of the strait to visit a grove of trees she communes with every new year. I have never been so envious of someone else’s living situation. She left me a note sealed in wax. In part it read: “This is an old building and houses are a bit like people. If left alone for extended periods of time, they can get rather eccentric, and when they are old, they can get a bit smelly. It’s of the utmost importance that you turn off all switches whenever you leave a room. If you’d like a wander, I’ve instructed the islanders not to bother you, though I can’t promise the same for the hedgehogs or the seagulls,” and so on; you get the tone.

The island where Sihir lives is small, with most buildings clustered around the main dock. The architecture exudes rotting pastels, clapboard Ottoman grandeur; occasionally I passed a single man banging boards in front of an 80-room estate like he was just getting ready to fix the place up. The islanders have banned cars, so the old or the lazy get around on three-wheeled speedlight mobilets that they swing zippable tarpaulins over for when the rains come. A disused Greek Orthodox monastery surmounts the highest hill like a gun battery that’s stopped firing. There’s a rickety whitewashed sanitarium tucked behind a feature of rock the furthest away from town it can hide, and the massive hooked red of a Turkish flag commemorates a wildfire last summer.

Hard cropped men with assault rifles and real uniforms guard a low cryptic complex somewhere in the island’s center. I asked Sihir why they were there, and she told me that in a locked broom closet in a room nobody remembered, a secret of some sort was sleeping. Nearby, I found a neat stone tower looking stumpily north and protected by high camera-watched walls. Hank and I snuck out one night to climb the walls, and in a fit of vertical willfulness, Hank climbed the tower, too. The last time I went to the island, as I walked down to the ferry to leave, I saw an ice-white peacock hooping through the trees by an old trilingual graveyard.

A few days ago, Sihir and I argued about whether cities have a gender; I was saying that only neighborhoods do. She concluded her points by claiming that Istanbul was the world’s sole hermaphroditic city. Perhaps; if you believe Bronze Age Pervert, it is one of Europe’s last real cities. It feels more European and less real every day: the universal rule of COVID measures creeps along even in Turkey, and people are beginning to have opinions about Biden. Turkish citizens now need to stay inside for a 10 p.m. curfew on weekends, but foreigners are exempt, and every Friday, the Bekçi stun themselves with American slang in an attempt to govern the new nightlife crowds. Once we met a group from Wisconsin and Hank and I started defending our respective coasts with all the regionalisms we could muster. The light hit in that big way it can in the States and someone produced a pack of PBR and I got Aslan to cut loose some Cash for once, and I felt like we were all back home.

It’s a good place here, a place I don’t understand well, but Hank and I are thinking about buying a jalopy and stick-shifting somewhere new—Macedonia, maybe, or Montenegro. I hear both their borders are open.