Year two of my overseas contract. I’m working at a private international baccalaureate school as an elementary counselor. It’s the dream of job of a lifetime of work in education. I’ve just moved from my first rather bland apartment on the 2nd floor in another building to the coolest 25 sq. meter, 5th floor loft, perched on a steep incline high above the neighborhood of Ortokoy in Istanbul Turkey. I have a precarious balcony that opens up onto the pink blue gray vistas of endless buildings sloping down to the water’s edge of the Bosphorous strait. It is a highly coveted one room studio that will be my abode for the next year.
Istanbul, aka Constantinople … easily the most exotic, romantic, frenetic, historic amazing city in all the world, and I am part of its energy, the magical daily whirl of fast cars, high end shops, simple little markets, and ancient cobblestone streets, beautiful well healed women and handsome men who know how to smile ever so kindly. We walk everywhere, my colleagues and I, to the markets and the waterfront and to the excitement and buzz of Taksim Street. We mingle with the Turks and the tourists and the animals of the city.
Istanbul, population of approximately 19 million, is a myriad of small interconnected neighborhoods, villages that have distinct flavors and odors and rhythms. I am fortunate to live in Ortokoy… an iconic burg that is defined most stunningly by it’s famous waterfront where families come to recreate, couples come to romance one another, women strut and men go about in groups linked arm in arm, perusing. Tourists snap pictures of the famous Ortokoy mosque and take the hour long cruise up the strait that separates European Turkey from Asian Turkey. The cats come too. Tens of thousands of cats populate every nook and cranny of Istanbul. The nation is famous for it’s “Kedi” (cat in Turkish), and a movie with that same title has been made about these inahibatants. They beg fish guts and café leftovers. They sit curled up in ceramic bowls that are for sale in the storefront windows. They peer out from between the gates of embassy grounds. They line the slate rooftops of 500 year old buildings. Old ladies in dress from another century come out and feed the hordes. Busboys chase them away from outdoor seating, and the mosque dogs allow them to parade about without lifting a sleepy head to notice. It seems a delicate balance, perhaps one born of the special fondness the prophet was said to have had for cats.
I do not want a pet. I have left my old life behind, sold everything for this adventure, flown across the ocean and I am happily enjoying my second year of being responsible ONLY for myself. After raising 5 children, now grown, it is a freeing feeling to be rid of must do’s and have to pay’s and the treadmill that is American life. Our school is down the hill a bit from my new building. Istanbul is known as the city of seven hills for a reason. I walk the slope each morning, greeting co-workers from the US, or the UK, or South Africa, Australia, Spain, etc. Some people have been at the international school game for a long time. I am new to it and still star struck with daily discoveries and experiences. The children are lovely and the work is not altogether difficult. Life is pleasant. Uncomplicated. Absolutely wonderful.
Always have I loved animals. I’ll tell you a short story about my first foray with cats… I was four… we lived on the outskirts of a crossroads town in Southern Colorado. The southwest landscape was full of gullies and ravines and it was all too easy for people to abandon animals in that place. One night a huge stray cat came into our yard, and being who I guess I was shaping up to be, I scooped him up when he did not WANT to be scooped up and that feral tom, in his attempt to escape my clutches, left 5 indelible deep wounds on my right forearm that you can still see today. Then he ran off. I must have cried, but I don’t remember. There was a restaurant next door to us and he probably came back a few days later because of the vermin that ran around the discarded vats of cooking grease. This time I was certain I could make that cat like me….. this time he went after my face. That scar is also still very much visible just above my left eye. Forty-Two stitches. To this day it remains tender. My parents did not allow me to have a cat of my own until I was 16 years of age. Undeterred by my traumatic experience…. I still love cats. There are plenty of them to love in Istanbul, but they are wild and I am fine sharing scraps with them and admiring them from a distance. Of course I take lots of pictures of them. That is how far my relationship with the Istanbul kedi goes.
It's been a long, long day. I am feeling a bit raw from something that happened at the school, and I am dragging home to my building. A movement catches my eye under one of the bushes in the front of the building. Kittens. Older kittens to be sure, but still… kittens. The guards of the compound are very aggressive in their mandate to keep the wild animals off the grounds. The kittens hide when they see me, except for one. It is pretty bold. Actually really bold. It comes out from underneath the shade and rubs against my bare leg. Black and white and longhaired, it has a cute little face that I am unable to ignore. Ok, so maybe it will let me just stroke it a bit. “Yes, yes that’s very nice” this charming cat seems to say, then runs back to shelter with its siblings. Sweet encounter.
I am to meet my friends later that evening to go out for drinks and dinner, Ethiopian or Indian or maybe just kebab…. We’ll figure it out once we get going. As I exit the building, my newfound feline friend is there, curiously watching me. It just stares. I am fairly sure it is a male because even at such a young age, this animal has a swagger and a defiant look on its charming face. The thing mews at me. Damn. Ok. I head back to the elevator, up to my rooftop apartment, slice some cooked chicken from the leftovers, roll it up in a napkin and take it back down to that handsome little devil. It’s still there and gobbles up the chicken like a pig. Looks up at me like…”Is that it?” This will set a pattern for our relationship. I hear my friends calling and bid the cat goodbye, walking off into the humid dusk.
My South African friend is not a fan of cats and he is slightly offended at my tale of befriending one of the wretched street animals. He cautions me about disease and interfering with the natural order of things. My Spanish friend just chuckles and grins. She is secretly in love with him, but he is gay and she would never tell him how much she cares. It’s a good evening. We go to a local Turkish joint, sit on the rooftop drinking and eating and laughing until we all know that sooner or later we will have to make that long hike back up the brutal hill to our respective apartments. Putting the inevitable off, we stop on the way for desert and the thick strong coffee that will boost our evening long enough to get us back to our apartments.. It’s a long haul up the steep street and I am sweaty by the time we arrive at the compound gates. My two friends tease me about how fast I walk…. I tease them back about being so slow and we part ways lovingly. The cat is waiting for me.
Just waiting. As if it knew when I would return. Two glasses of wine and the heat have gotten to me. I think this cat knows me. It’s looking at me like it really….. knows me. I sigh, having become accustom to feeding strays of all kinds… this is just another responsibility. Another demand. Dutifully I take the lift to the apartment, break off some more chicken, head back down and oblige my little charge with some more meat. Seems grateful this time. I do quick visual check, confirming my hunch that he is male. I steal away while he eats, heading up to slumber and my nice empty apartment.
The next day is a work day and as I exit the marble and stone porticos, I instinctively look for the cat, but do not see him anywhere. Nor do I hear mewing. Oh well, must have moved on. Then the thought that the guards may have discovered the hidden clowder. Did you know the word for a group of cats is “clowder”? Just an obscure little bit of trivia that amuses me. What doesn’t amuse me is my concern for the absent charmer. Why should I care. It isn’t my cat. I have to shake dark thoughts off of what end may have come to my little friend at the hands of the stoic order following sentinels that perform their various assigned duties in our protected world. I’m going to be late to work. I find myself saying a little prayer for my friend to be ok, to be alive.
I had almost forgotten about the little black and white fur ball until I spot him near the glass doors to my building. Waiting again. I am grateful that he is still around and wonder if the wild animal will let me pick him up without tearing out a piece of my flesh. Tentatively I sweet talk the young thing and lift it up … He snuggles close to my chest and begins to purr. Ok, I’ll just bring him up for a bit. He rides in the elevator rather calmly in my arms. We sit out on the balcony together, him eating more chicken and me sipping cold pinot grigio. I snap a picture of him close to my leg, mainly because he is so doggone cute! I post it on facebook and a co-worker comments – “Well now you have to keep him.” No no no no no. That is NOT my intent. He’s just visiting and we are friends but we do NOT have a relationship like that. I don’t want the responsibility. What would an American woman do with a Turkish cat??? Sooner or later this would have to end and then what. I am good at “what ifs”. Really good. I take him back down stairs when it’s bed time and we go our separate ways.
This pattern repeats itself over a period of about two weeks. I buy a small (small mind you) bag of cat food. He doesn’t sleep over. He doesn’t have a name. He isn’t mine. He gets bigger, healthier. He waits for me to come home, but that’s just because I am feeding him.
One evening, long evening we had a function at the school for families and I am late getting home. The cat is nowhere to be seen. I look and make the clicking sound he has become accustom to knowing is my call for him…. but he doesn’t show up. I am slightly concerned but I have kept my heart from this cat knowing that someday… we would have to part company. It’s inevitable. The relationship is impossible. It takes a while for me to accept the fact that he isn’t going to show up tonight. I am concerned but I am also tired. I head into the building, pushing the elevator button. The shiny doors open and there, on the floor of that elevator….honest to goodness…. Waiting for me is the cat. He looks at me like… like he’s kind of perturbed that I am so late. “How’d you get in here? What are you doing” I ask him, incredulously, picking him up as I push the 5th floor button. He purrs his answer. I am caught. Tamed. Captured by this creature. I am his and he knows it. Now I know it too.
He spends the night next to me on the bed. Snuggling warmly, purring contentedly. He will never spend another night sleeping on the sidewalks of Ortokoy again. He will have chicken and tuna and good cat food. I will fuss over him and worry about him during the day. He will sometimes follow me to the school and the children will laugh and point and I will have to take him back to the compound, back to our apartment with a little scolding and a smile. This is the last cat I will ever have. He is a love. His name is Z for the last letter… the end note.
Z will have to obtain a passport and travel with me to Morocco, my next assignment. He will live in another compound and will become a legend in that neighborhood for his gregarious and bossy manner, his loping across the green lawns to meet me when I come home from work. Two years later, he will fly across the ocean with me, nestled under my seat crying the whole way because he does not like airplane travel. He will make a transit through Canada to the US where an American border agent will comment to me… “You just had to get a cat huh?”. It’s a jovial interaction and I will joke back because I want to distract the man from looking too closely at Z’s paperwork, because his passport wasn’t stamped in Morocco. I smile at the agent and tell him that I did not get the cat. He looks confused as if this might turn into something that would require conflict negotiation skills…… and then I laugh and tell him that the reality was…. the cat got me. And that is the truth.
Post Script – Z the very Turkish cat has lived on three continents, visited 4 countries, resided in two (soon to be three) states. He has adopted a rather large Great Pyrenees dog and has managed to establish clear dominance. The three of us now reside quite happily in our new tiny house on the shores of the Pend Oreille River in Usk Washington. He still has his passport.