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Istanbul Airport Encounter

My travel notes

By Lana V LynxPublished 9 months ago 11 min read

I’m flying back to the United States from Kyrgyzstan by Turkish Airlines again, just as I came. Which means a layover in Istanbul. Istanbul is one of my most favorite cities in the world. I’ve been there several times, including one trip with my son for five days when we really had enough time to explore the city. Most other times, I was there either for an academic conference or on a long layover traveling between continents.

This time, I had a scheduled layover of over 10 hours and was still contemplating if I should go out into the city. On one hand, it would be nice to walk around downtown again, and just sit on a Bosporus pier watching the waves and ships. On the other hand, getting from the airport to downtown and back is a major chore taking up to 1.5 hours one way. Well, at least that problem was resolved for me: on the eve of my travel I received a note that my 6 am flight out of Bishkek was cancelled and I had to re-book for the 10 am. In a way, it worked out better as I would have no time to go out to the city, the temptation was gone.

When our plane landed in Istanbul, I could tell we were on the third level of the B Terminals that were below us. I took a mental note as on the way there about six weeks earlier I had to transfer from A gates to B gates and I didn’t realize how far apart they were, so I needed to give myself time. The new Istanbul airport is like a city onto itself, huge but well-marked, with clear signs in English. While I was standing there trying to figure out how to get to International Transfer Point, I saw a woman from my flight who was clearly lost. She was short and plum, in her late 50s or early 60s, and I could tell her left knee was giving her a lot of trouble.

“Are you alright?” I asked in Russian.

“I don’t read English,” she responded, almost crying. “And the wheelchair service didn’t come for me.”

We were now too far away from our arrival gate to go back for the wheelchair service. “Oh, where do you need to go?”

“Transfer to a Frankfurt flight,” she shows me her boarding pass, “It’s at 15:20 and I’m afraid I won’t make it. I can’t find it on the board either.”

“Oh, it’s because 15:20 is the boarding time; the departure is at 15:55. The gate is still not shown on the board.”

She just stands there, “What should I do?”

“You know what,” I say casually, “I have about six hours to my flight, so I can walk you to yours.”

“Really? You would do that for me?” I can see relief in her eyes.

“Sure,” I said. “My mom was once stuck at the old Ataturk airport. I wish someone at the time told her that she could have gotten out to the airport instead of sitting in their cold transit zone where she caught cold.”

“Oh, thank you, I’ll just follow you then.”

We start moving toward the transfer point and I realize how long of a hike it’s going to be: the woman’s left knee shoots out from time to time, she can’t walk as fast as I tend to, and we have to take frequent stops for her to take a break. The moving walkways help a lot, but they are not available everywhere. At some point, I end up taking her handbag so that she can lean on me by holding on to my right elbow. I try to ease our long walk with a conversation.

“So, do you live in Germany?”

“Yes, 28 years this year. My sister and her husband are still in Bishkek, I was visiting them.”

“How come? I have relatives in Germany, and I know most Germans have left Kyrgyzstan, especially if they have relatives in Germany.”

“Oh, I’m Russian,” she says, “Just married a German a long time ago.”

“I see. So do you visit your sister often?”

“Before the pandemic, either she came to visit us, or I went to Kyrgyzstan at least once a year for about a month. My husband died of Covid last year…”

“Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that,” we stop to take a break and I look her in the eyes, expressing my empathy.

“It’s OK, not your fault. I came to spend the summer with my sister then, just couldn’t stay at the house by myself, without him. I don’t know how I would have survived if it were not for my sister and my grandkids.” Her face lights up when she mentions her grands.

“How many do you have?”

“Six, all girls.”

“Wow, that’s so cool!”

“Yeah, my daughter has two. And my son and his wife have been trying for a boy. Just had their fourth child three months ago, a girl again.”

“Wow, that must be really frustrating for your son. Are they going to try for a boy again?”

“I don’t know. His wife’s said the shop is closed.”

“Oh, I know a family like that,” I smile, remembering my dear Ukrainian friends who are more like siblings now. “Four girls, including a set of twins, and they finally had a boy, their last child.”

“Oh, I should tell that to my son,” she smiles and signals that she needs to take another break, “You are too fast for me.”

We finally get out of the B terminal and turn left into another airport wing with straight arrows showing to the International Transfer Point. I see rows of chairs.

“You know what, let’s take a break here until they show your flight gate number, so that we know exactly where to go.”

“Alright,” she is clearly happy to sit down. The information board says the departure gate info will be available at 14:05. We still have about ten minutes. As we sit, she tells me about her knee problems, rubbing her left knee: One had gel injections four years prior and was fine, but the left one was operated on in January and never got right. It shoots out at random times, and she has to fix it manually.

“They offered to replace the kneecap with a titanium one, but I’m not ready for that yet,” she said. “I know it’s going to be painful and become a weather barometer.”

“I know, my friend’s mom had her titanium knee put in, in the United States. Never got used to it and always complains that it’s heavy and nagging her in bad weather.”

“Exactly,” the woman says. “I’ll hold out on that for as long as I can.”

“So, was it just a vacation with your sister this year?” I try to change the topic.

“Oh no,” she responds, and her eyes well up with tears. “My sister lost her only son in the war in February. It was my turn to support her and her husband.”

My heart sinks. At least she calls it the “war,” not a “special military operation” as Russians do. Might she be on the right side of it? That is quite rare with Russians coming from the post-Soviet peripheries. “Don’t ask anything, don’t ask,” I keep thinking to myself. She volunteers herself.

“He was only 36, left behind a three-month-old baby. He left on February 1, went through a couple of weeks of training, and then got killed on the first day in combat, on February 18.”

I take a mental note that she says, “left,” not “mobilized.” Might that be a good sign?

“It wasn’t even a combat, he was in the unit providing security for the civilians who wanted to evacuate from that little town they were stationed at, and they got bombed and droned.” Damn these passive language constructions! Who bombed whom? I’m still just listening, letting her speak.

“Hardly anyone survived, including the civilians. And only because they wanted to evacuate to Russia!” There you go, now it makes it clearer.

“So, was your nephew a Russian citizen then?” I ask with a bated breath.

“Yes,” she says. “They left for Russia in 2014, but my sister and her husband didn’t want to move there from Bishkek.”

I feel sick to my stomach. I get up and tell the woman that I will go check the information board for her flight departure gate. As I walk away from her, I talk to myself, “So they ran out of Buryats and now are mobilizing former Central Asians. Fuck this war! Fuck Putin! Fuck her nephew for going along with it! Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!” I bend over under the information board, to make my stomach pain go away. Ever since this war started, I say “fuck!” a lot. I also see my Ukrainian friend’s face a lot, including in my dreams. We studied at CEU together back in mid-1990s, and he is like a brother to me. Right now, he is participating in the Ukrainian offensive, and I worry sick about him.

I look up at the board, still no departure gate info, but it’s 14:03 now. Two more minutes. I look at the woman, still rubbing her left knee, about 50 yards away. I’m glad I don’t have to be with her right now. At exactly 14:05, the information board updates itself and I now know the gate for her flight: A4A. I linger for another minute or two. “Alright,” I tell myself, “Just one more leg, hopefully, and you’ll be done with your good deed of the day.”

I come back to the woman and tell her the gate number. She gets up and we head to the International Transfer Point. It takes us about another 15 minutes to get there. If we talk, it’s mostly about the flight and the airport. She points out how beautiful human diversity is every time we see someone in their traditional garb, which happens a lot. It seems like half of the world is on the move through the airport. She also asks me questions about what I do and where I live. I give her short, mostly yes or no answers. I hope she can’t detect my mood change, after all it’s not her fault her nephew got killed on the wrong side of the war, but I just can’t help myself from clamming up.

We reach the International Transfer Point. It requires us to scan our boarding passes for the next flight. The line to it is long and zigzagging through the roped area. There’s a guard there whom I ask if I could open and close the ropes to cut the distance for the woman. “She has a bad knee,” I explain to him as her left knee shoots out again and she nearly falls.

He gives me instructions on how to open and close the ropes. It cuts our time in line significantly. We scan the boarding passes and now have to walk back to her gate.

I suddenly realize that the walk will be just as long as it was to this point: A and B gates are mirroring each other from the Duty Free Shopping Zone. “Oh boy, brace yourself for another long walk,” I think to myself without telling this to the woman, not to upset her.

It takes us about half an hour to get to the Duty Free Zone, with a ton of food courts, shops, and lounge areas. As we walk, I take a note of “a napping zone” that I plan to come back to before my flight.

We finally reach the A gate signs, after we take an escalator one level down. I was right, A and B gates are mirrors of each other from the central shopping point. Looking up at the B arrival level, I point out to the woman that if she had that wheelchair service, they’d certainly have taken a shortcut as they do in other airports, and it would have been much shorter.

“See, we’ve made a huge hook,” I draw a loop with my arm in the air showing her where we came from and where we ended up.

“I realize it now. I will definitely wait for and demand the wheelchair service next time,” she says and ads, “If there’s next time. This international travel is so weary for me now.”

As we got to the A gates, I realize that we need to go one more level down for her gate. We get there by the escalator, and I see that her flight already started boarding. And because it’s on the ground level, not the second level where they board people through airplane sleeves, she will have to board a bus that will transfer passengers to their plane. As I explain that to her, she gives me a big hug and says, “It's alright, I'm here now. Thank you. You don’t even know how much this meant to me.” Her eyes well up again, and she smiles, “but at least you’ve had some entertainment with an old lady, and you’ve cut time to your flight.”

We wish each other a good flight and I head to the napping zone. I never sleep on the planes because I can't sleep in the sitting position, so those reclined napping seats look inviting. I set my iphone alarm for two hours later and doze off for some time. I also think about the little café I need to stop by for a bowl of mercimek chorbasi – wonderful Turkish lentil soup. As I drift into sleep, I catch myself thinking that I love the new Istanbul International Airport a lot more than the old Ataturk one…

solo travelhumanityfeatureairlines

About the Creator

Lana V Lynx

Avid reader and occasional writer of satire and short fiction. For my own sanity and security, I write under a pen name. My books: Moscow Calling - 2017 and President & Psychiatrist

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