Just over two weeks ago, I made the leap from pregnant American in Istanbul to expat with child. My decision to have my first baby in a foreign country has been met with reactions from friends and strangers ranging from surprise and curiosity to outright disapproval. The transition to new parenthood is a strange and challenging time for nearly everyone, but living in a country that respects pregnant women and worships babies has made all the difference. While baby and child bans are being considered in many places from travel companies like Malaysia Airlines to American restaurants, Turkey remains one big baby-friendly country.
On the surface, Istanbul is not an easy place with a baby. The city is crowded, traffic is terrible and taxi drivers will barely pause to let you run across the street, and the sidewalks are a mini Olympics for a stroller with few ramps, cracked pavement, uneven cobblestones, and endless hills. There’s not many green spaces or parks, and for older children, few museums or activities designed for or appealing to kids. It’s the people that make the city welcoming to children. I can’t walk down the street without a chorus of “Maşallah” (bless you) and “çok güzel” (how cute!). Crowds form around us in stores of people wanting to kiss the baby, ask questions about her, and give me advice (this is when my limited Turkish is a blessing and I can just smile and nod). Waiters in restaurants coo over her and offer to hold her when I go to the bathroom (note: I’m hyper-aware of being a disturbance for other diners and will always take her out if she starts to fuss). As much as she is adored, the feedback isn’t always positive. Some older Turks don’t believe young babies should be out in public and think mothers should follow the custom of staying in the house for the first 40 days (our pediatrician says it’s fine to go out and we’ve taken her places nearly every day since she was born). Despite the current 100 degree heat, I’m warned against holding the baby near a fan, in air conditioning or even in front of the refrigerated case in the grocery store, lest she catch a draft.
Even before the baby arrived, Turks go above and beyond to make mothers and babies comfortable. Recently, a Turkish woman told me how she had been heavily pregnant in winter and one day found herself out in the rain, unable to get a taxi home. She began to cry in frustration and a police officer stopped to see if she was okay. She told him she was fine, just wanted to get home, so he approached a nearby taxi with two men inside, kicked them out, and gave the cab to her. I have no doubt that the ousted men were probably understanding and gracious about the situation, and the whole story encapsulates the Turkish experience for me.
In contrast, when I spent a week home in New York at five months pregnant, I was never offered a seat on the subway and struggled like everyone else for a taxi in the rain. Shortly after my visit, I read an article about a proposed official ban on food in the NYC subway (the idea has since been dismissed) with suggestions for other things that should be banned and was shocked to see a few commenters indignantly refuse to give up their seat to pregnant women. They reasoned that pregnancy was a choice and not the responsibility of society or any other passenger to cater to them. While I can understand their viewpoint, it’s so far from the Turkish mentality, I’d be hard pressed to explain it here.
While these are very extreme examples and not necessarily indicative of the average pregnant woman’s experience in New York or Istanbul, they represent two ends of the spectrum in terms of baby- or pregnant-friendliness. Consider this chart of a New York woman’s experience getting seats on the subway; while the overall results aren’t bad (just over 80% of the time she was offered a seat), it’s pretty appalling by Turkish standards. Since I began to show, I could barely step onto a bus or through the metro doors before I was offered at least one seat (and they’ll insist on it, even if I say I’m not traveling far). It’s not just on public transportation: I’ve been offered to cut in line for public bathrooms and even in line for ice cream. Several American cities like Boston and Chicago are considering or enacting rules against strollers (at least open ones) on public transportation to save space and aggravation for other passengers. When I return to New York, I’ll plan on wearing a baby sling or carrier on the subway, especially since few stations have elevators or escalators.
A few weeks before my baby arrived, I was wandering around Cihangir, a neighborhood I’d compare to San Francisco partially due its artsy, cafe-culture vibe, but mainly due to its many hills. My afternoon stroll involved many hikes up steep staircases and near-vertical sidewalks. Each time I’d pass a Turk, he would stop, watch, and wait for me to get to the top and once he saw I was okay and not about to pass out or go into labor, he’d continue on his way. Last week, I battled the same hills with a stroller and was helped by Turkish men on nearly every corner and curb.
So what makes Istanbul such a welcoming city for little ones while New York remains hostile? It’s hardly a small town, Istanbul’s official population of 13 million is nearly double that of New York and the high density doesn’t make it much less crowded. It could be the volume of children, Turkey’s birth rate is nearly double that of many western European countries and significantly higher than the United States. I asked on Twitter about what countries travelers have found to be the most baby-friendly and most hostile, and nearly all of the positive experiences were in European and Latin American countries. Writer Anita Bulan put it well when she noted that in these baby-friendly countries, kids are seen as a part of life and allowed to participate in it. I’ve seen babies out late at night with their parents in Argentina, young children at fancy restaurants in Italy, and toddlers in museums in Spain. I’ve also seen hardly any tantrums in these places. I haven’t figured out their secret yet, but I imagine it has to do with exposing them to real life from an early age. Few restaurants in Istanbul have a kid’s menu but nearly every place will happily provide something appealing to a child, even if it’s not on the menu. If a baby cries, the parents as well as strangers will quickly comfort him and return to their meal practically before anyone else can notice.
This week I applied for my baby’s first passport and am planning travel in Europe and home to the US in the next few months. I’m not sure what to expect in each place, we might continue to be treated like rock stars in Europe and get dirty looks in America, or the reverse. I’m hoping my past travel experience helps me navigate airports and new cities but I’m aware of how a little one will slow me down and make me think ten steps ahead. My baby won’t remember these early trips or appreciate new places, but I hope that kindly strangers and a well-used passport for my child will make me a better mother and traveler.
Vera Alcazar Nesterov was born July 12 in Istanbul. Read her about her travels before birth and pregnancy in a foreign country in past Knocked up Abroad posts.