Language Learning Made Practical: Funny Moments on Istanbul Buses

Lots of people want to ride with you in the limo, but what you want is someone who will take the bus with you when the limo breaks down. – Oprah Winfrey

As a traveler navigating a new city, given a choice between getting around by local train or bus, I will always pick the train. Why? Because trains run on tracks, have big color-coded route maps and basically are just easier to use. Moreover, as humorist Lewis Grizzard once said, the driver doesn’t need to worry much about steering. Buses, on the other hand, force you to speak the local language, unravel a different payment system and be cognizant enough to get off at the right stop. It is as if each local bus system has a culture of its own. Even now, I still sometimes hesitate when boarding a bus. Am I getting on the wrong one? Or is it the right bus but going the wrong way?

Having lived overseas for the past seven years without a car, I am finally learning to appreciate the fact that each day brings a new opportunity for public transport adventures. As commuting is a part of life for everyone, it not only allows us to experience the feel of a place, but also provides some laughable moments. A friend’s uncle once tried to tell the bus driver “two people,” but instead said “two goats, please!” Another friend, when trying to exit a minibus mistakenly said, “Here is where I want to pee on a cow!”

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Success! – Riding the bus and actually finding the new Istanbul Magnum Ice Cream Store

One of our funnier bus incidents happened during our first week living in Istanbul. My wife and I set out to explore the route from our rental flat to the historic Asian district of Kadıköy. It was our first time riding in an Istanbul minibus. Unlike the larger city buses which use a special pass card and feature recorded bus stop announcements, minibuses require you to call your destination and pass money to the driver. We successfully boarded, stated our destination correctly enough and paid without any issues – hooray!

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Haydarpaşa Train Station – a helpful landmark in Kadıköy we knew!

What we didn’t know, though, is that the person standing nearest to the driver becomes a sort-of temporary conductor, passing money from other passengers in the back and repeating the destination name. Soon, the little bus began to swell with additional passengers. As luck would have it, my wife Shelly ended up next to the driver and unknowingly became its newest conductor. Without any knowledge of the local language, she began passing money and doing her very best to repeat the names of unfamiliar stops. The first two were easy enough, sounding something like “A-O” and “Optimum.” No one on the minibus noticed or even raised an eyebrow. I gave her the thumbs-up sign, doing my best to encourage her and grinning at her newfound Turkish language proficiency. I felt glad it was she and not me!

Now, it must be noted that Turkish sounds very different from English. It was inevitable that Shelly’s perfect pronunciation streak would be broken at some point. Sure enough, a passenger bound for Kozyatağı murmured something that sounded like “Kozy-ah-tah-uh,” and without missing a beat, Shelly repeated it as best she could. Unlike the previous two attempts though,, the driver and passengers turned and smiled at what was obviously a foreigner trying to pronounce the place-name!

Thankfully, all ended well and we made it to Kadıköy. The friendly driver, now endeared to us by Shelly’s courage, showed us the right stop and how to board for the return journey.

What about you? Do you have a favorite memory or funny experience when riding public transport in a new city?

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Sunset after the rain over Istanbul’s Marmara Sea

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