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Hip lifestyle meets old Turkey in Istanbul neighbourhood

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When Erin O’Brien announced that she was leaving her native Washington DC to live in Istanbul many of her friends had one question for her: “When are you coming home?” Others, however, were more understanding. “They realised that this wasn’t a vacation and [that], compared to some of the places that I’d been to, it seemed like a relatively quiet and safe option,” says O’Brien, 23, who had backpacked along much of the Silk Road including Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan as part of her degree course.

Not only did she opt to live somewhere that many of her friends regarded as unusual, but she also chose an unusual industry to work in — her employer, Gram Games, is a social gaming company. Why would a woman who had read gender studies alongside her degree in Middle Eastern studies at Princeton go to work in an industry that is often perceived as being about boys’ toys?

“The perception that gaming is for guys is simply not accurate,” says O’Brien. “Around half of gamers are female and casual gaming [games aimed at new or infrequent players], which is what we do, is dominated by women. Women shouldn’t be discouraged from joining an industry that’s very creative and amenable to them.”

After graduating, as she considered her career options, O’Brien already had a strong inclination to live and work in Istanbul, having studied at the city’s Bogazici University for a semester in autumn 2014. Another Princeton alumni introduced her to Gram Games and she arrived in Istanbul last summer.

She lives in Moda, a hip waterfront neighbourhood on the Asian side of the city. “It’s peaceful with lots of green space. You can find vestiges of old Turkey, such as little traditional restaurants, but there’s also a really vibrant arts, music and creative scene here.”

O’Brien shares an apartment with her best friend who is also American. They had met while studying at Bogazici University in 2014 and, having stayed in touch when they both returned to the US, the two decided to move in together when they came back to Istanbul.

“Finding an apartment isn’t too difficult — however I lucked out and took this one over from my cousin, who was living here before me,” she says. “Our landlady has been incredibly welcoming. She treats us like her children. We got a kitten and one day we realised that we’d forgotten to change his water. I was really freaking out but she got her maintenance person to go in and fill up my kitten’s water.”

Istanbul is a city of contrasts, she points out — thousands of years of history sit easily alongside a thriving modern arts scene, and within minutes you can escape the crowds to find tranquillity in one of its parks.

“I love to take the ferry from Kadiköy on the Asian side to Besiktas on the European side in the morning. As you’re drinking tea [on the boat] you get this spectacular view of the Topkapi Palace, the Blue Mosque, the New Mosque, the Galata Tower and the bridges,” she says.

Istanbul’s food culture is part of its appeal for O’Brien. “Kahvalti doesn’t just mean ‘breakfast’, it means the process of having breakfast with family or friends,” she explains.

Unlike the malls of the US, shopping in Istanbul is a voyage of discovery. “I go to the Besiktas bazaar on Saturday for fruit and vegetables and my favourite olives. Upstairs they’ve got clothing, jewellery and every possible type of sneaker.”

As well as the more exotic items, finding the essentials in a city of bazaars and markets is not as difficult as you might think. “You just have to figure out where to go,” she says. “Within about four minutes of my apartment I can get anything I could ever want . . . It’s also super easy to find a doctor. A lot of medical services here are better than in the US.”

Since arriving in the city, O’Brien has immersed herself in Istanbul’s art scene. Much of it is focused on Karakoy, on the northern side of the Galata Bridge. “You’ve got the Marmara Institute of Fine Arts and the Istanbul Modern. There are lots of cultural exchanges between here and Berlin. There are also concept bars and galleries, really good DJ sets and so many cool gallery openings.”

Here she offers a comparison between Washington DC and her new home. “I [have been] in both places when they were developing — I won’t say ‘gentrifying’ — but they were embracing more culture. After Obama was elected more liberal young people came into DC to work for the administration. Istanbul is also embracing millennial culture.”

Most of O’Brien’s friends are either Turkish or Kurdish, although she prefers the umbrella term “locals”, another acknowledgment of the city’s diversity. “I don’t have many expat friends,” she says. Istanbul’s vibrant arts scene with its shows, concerts and events has been the source of most of her friendships. “I fell into one group of friends, which snowballed into a ton of lovely connections — it’s a group of creatives.”

Despite the recent terrorist attacks and the rise in religious conservatism, O’Brien feels safe in the city as an American. “I think many people maintain misconceptions about Turkey, which are perpetuated throughout the media. There needs to be more of a focus on the remarkable ways in which people continue to live their lives around unrest, and in difficult situations — life, after all, has to go on.”

Favourite places

700gr Bakery & Café, great for brunch

Arkaoda, cosy bar popular with locals and visitors

Go for a walk in the Belgrad Forest or the Atatürk Arboretum

Visit a meyhane (traditional Turkish tavern) to drink raki and eat mezze

Buying guide

  • Foreigners are allowed to purchase freehold property in their own names in Turkey provided that Turkish citizens can purchase freehold property in the purchaser’s country of origin or residence
  • Both buyer and seller have to pay purchase/transfer tax, which is usually about 4 per cent
  • It’s advisable to grant “specific power of attorney” to a reputable solicitor in Turkey to handle the legal aspects of the purchase

What you can buy for . . . 

£500,000 Two to three-bedroom apartment in a quiet street in Kadiköy

£1m Four-bedroom apartment with views of the city or sea

£2m Five-bedroom villa in Kadiköy

More properties at propertylistings.ft.com

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