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Six years in Ankara: why I love the Turkish capital

“What’s the best thing about Ankara?” goes a well-worn joke in Turkey about the nation’s capital. “The journey back to Istanbul.”

I have been told this roughly once a day since moving here six years ago, almost exclusively by people from Istanbul who like to sneer at what they think is a boring, artificial, bureaucratic city. But as I prepare to leave Turkey after seven years in the country, it is Ankara that I will miss the most.

My husband and I moved here in 2016 after a year in Istanbul. Straight away, I fell in love with the city centre neighbourhoods that people lovingly refer to as “old Ankara”: places such as Kavaklıdere, Ayrancı and our own neighbourhood of Gaziosmanpaşa that date back to the 1950s and 1960s.

Strolling through the quiet residential streets, I enjoy spotting Modernist metalwork balconies and the Battenberg effect of lines of houses daubed in pastel colours — especially the salmony hue that I have come to think of as “Ankara pink”.

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The climate is perfect: cold and crisp in winter, hot and dry in summer. But the most beautiful time of year is May, when pungent lilac fills the air and the local “aunties” — as the older women of the neighbourhood are affectionately known — emerge from hibernation to begin a summer of taking their afternoon tea in their front gardens.

There is a real sense of community. I have accrued much joy over the years from being called Abla (big sister) by the young people here, or being told hoş geldin (welcome home) from neighbours who have noticed I’ve been away.

Ankara’s old city: the collectivism and solidarity of Turkish society is ‘eye-opening and beguiling for someone like me who grew up in the individualistic west,’ says PItel

This might all sound absurdly quaint. But it speaks of the paradoxes of my time in Turkey. The past seven years have been a time of profound political and economic turmoil and, at times, even violence. But, despite everything, I have had a deeply enriching time here, and have found it a wonderful place to live.

Part of that is, I think, thanks to Ankara, and our treasured neighbourhood, which has served as a refuge from the unforgiving news agenda. This city of around 5mn had a population in the tens of thousands when it was made the nation’s capital in 1923 by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the military commander who founded the modern Turkish republic out of the ashes of the Ottoman empire. Although it has expanded massively over the past 99 years, it has managed to remain friendly, down-to-earth and liveable.

It is a cliché to say that Turkish people are warm. Hospitality towards visitors does not always translate into acceptance of foreigners. But the collectivism of Turkish society — and all the love and solidarity, questions and obligations that come with it — is eye-opening and beguiling for someone like me who grew up in the individualistic west.

Our connections deepened after our daughter was born in March last year. She became a local celebrity and, thanks to her, we built new networks of friends. People in Turkey are so kind to children — and their tired parents. Rather than being made to feel like an imposition for taking a baby to a café or restaurant, it is more likely that a waiter will take your child from your arms and whisk them off to meet the entire staff.

Pitel’s favourite ‘esnaf lokantası’, or tradesman’s canteen
Pitel’s favourite ‘esnaf lokantası’, or tradesman’s canteen

It would be remiss not to mention the food. Over the years, I have slowly built up a mental map of Ankara’s best esnaf lokantaları: tradesman’s canteens serving up homestyle stews and casseroles.

At weekends, it is a point of principle to have at least one full Turkish breakfast of olives, cucumber, cheeses and menemen: eggs scrambled together with tomato and pepper. A favourite Sunday activity is to walk up to a small café near Ankara’s old kale (fortress) and then work off a large breakfast with a browse through the antique shops or a trip to the nearby art gallery Cer Modern.

In the city’s wealthier districts, there is also a vibrant scene of independent and alternative coffee shops. For a night out with friends, few places beat Afitap, a buzzing meyhane where I have spent many happy hours eating creative renditions of Turkish meze and washing it down with plenty of rakı: Turkey’s aniseed-flavoured national drink.

For all I love about Ankara, I cannot sugarcoat the political backdrop of the past seven years. When we first arrived in Turkey, in 2015, suicide bombings were so frequent that people would seek circuitous routes through the city to avoid busy areas where they might be blown up. An attack that killed six people two weeks ago in the heart of Istanbul was an alarming echo of that era.

‘Pitel describes the colour of some buildings as ‘Ankara pink’
Pitel describes the colour of some buildings as ‘Ankara pink’

In 2016, a violent coup attempt left 250 people dead, some mown down by tanks on Ankara’s streets. In its aftermath, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan embarked on a ruthless crackdown that cast a dark cloud over the whole country.

Today, as well as facing restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly, millions of people are struggling to get by due to a collapse in the lira and annual inflation of more than 85 per cent.

I am acutely aware that, as someone paid in foreign currency, I have been largely sheltered from these savage economic conditions. My middle-class Turkish friends, meanwhile, have seen their purchasing power dramatically curtailed. The country’s poorest are increasingly facing poverty and hunger.

And yet, I find it remarkable how little the economic hardship is publicly visible. There is still almost no homelessness and little street begging — something that I think can be attributed to the strong family support networks that continue to prop up society even as it is pushed to breaking point. I continue to feel safe travelling not just around Ankara but across Turkey, often alone.

The view from the city’s old fortress
The view from Ankara’s old fortress

That is not to say that the capital is without its gritty or more edgy sides. There is a strong streak of leftwing and anti-establishment politics. A night in the stands at Ankaragücü, the city’s fiercely supported Super Lig football team, is not for the faint-hearted. In winter, in some of the most deprived districts, the air catches in your throat due to the coal still widely used by the poor to heat their homes.

Ezhel, the 31-year-old Ankaralı who has become Turkey’s most famous rapper, sums up his hometown in his 2017 song “Taste of My City” as “soot, rust, dirt, coal, plastic, garbage, tire, fumes, weed”.

While I would choose different desc­riptors, it is hard to describe Ankara as a whole as beautiful. Thoughtless development is rife. The elegant Art Deco train station, built in 1937, now sits in the shadow of a high-speed rail station that looks like a cross between a spaceship and a cruise ship. It is impossible to find aesthetic value in the Eskişehir Road, the main artery of the modern-day city lined with endless shopping malls.

This is the unattractive side of Ankara seen by daytrippers who are whisked in and out for a programme of meetings before rushing back to Istanbul, London, Berlin or Washington. They miss all the charm and verve of life here.

I love the ingenious taxi system. With thousands of push-buttons mounted on trees and lampposts across the city linked to taxi ranks, there is no need for Uber in Ankara: simply press the button and a taxi will be with you in minutes.

No Uber needed: just press the button and a taxi will arrive
No Uber needed: just press the button and a taxi will arrive

There is a vigorous trade in gossip thanks to the droves of politicians, diplomats, lobbyists and journalists living here. And the city embraces the Turkish spirit of spontaneity that allows you to set up a meeting, for business or pleasure, as little as an hour in advance. In Ankara, you can make it there on time. That is not something that can be said for Istanbul. With its population of 16mn and its unbearable traffic, the city has become increasingly unliveable.

I have long believed that it’s unnecessary to come down in favour of one or the other of Turkey’s two big cities. Each has its virtues and its flaws. I will forever love visiting Istanbul for work, tourism or fun. But it is always a joy and a relief to return to my adopted hometown. Let the Istanbullular enjoy the journey back to their sprawling megacity after coming to visit the capital. We Ankaralılar are happy to have the place to ourselves.

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