Growing up in Hisar

I can't imagine a much better place to grow up. Rumeli Hisar was home to Robert College when I was a kid growing up there. I attended the Robert College Community School from 1st through 9th grades, the entire education available in English in Istanbul (if you were "military", you went to the Dependants' School, which must have disappeared around 1970). The Community School (RCCS) went from K-9 and had a total enrollment of about 100 in the sixties. It was a very decent education, basically American (we said the Pledge of Allegiance every day in First Grade!) but with a very realistic influence from its disposition - French and Turkish were taught beginning in first grade, and Latin was offered in addition in 7-9.

The section of Istanbul called Rumeli Hisar was, in the sixties, basically a village. Most of the houses were wood (and we saw a bunch of major fires over the years!) Certainly the settlement area behind upper Hisar was farms (where today there are multi-story apartments topped with satellite dishes). The streets were all cobbled and littered with donkey and horse poop. (Much of the drinking water for Hisar came from a handful of fountains around the neighborhood, and it was distributed on donkey-back in square 15 gallon tin cans, two to a side up and down the hill. Lower Hisar had a decent grocery, but we did almost all our shopping in Bebek, which had a couple of grocery stores, a few banks, a butcher and a news agent that carried the Herald Tribune (two days late).

Hisar offered a lot of open space for kids like us. There was a large enough community of foreigners, mostly American, that we could Trick or Treat more houses than we could keep track of as far away as the half-hour walk to Bebek. Somewhat isolated the rougher edges of the city and fairly comfortable in spite of being foreigners in a strange land, most of these kids made up the community school population. At one point in the sixties, I recall crowds as large as 40 kids convening on the RCCS playground Friday nights to play "Capture the Flag".

The RCCS playground was virtually next door to us, regardless of which of the 3 different houses we lived in over the years, and we played there almost every day after school: basketball courts, swings and jungle-gyms. Our yards and the neighbors' were no less entertaining: tree forts, a forest with a cave, a swimming pool, the extensive grounds and facilities of the college, two huge graveyards with 500 year old Ottoman tombstones, and last but not least, the outer walls of the Rumeli Hisar castle. (While the castle had been turned into a museum, no one minded the neighborhood kids scrambling around outside.)

The Robert College campus had two gyms (Big Gym and Little Gym) and we were frequent guests. The school had two canteens, where we snacked. Our PE lessons were in the Big Gym, and we walked to gym class through the cobbled streets of upper Hisar, and got our lunches on gym days from the "lahmacun" seller just outside one of the college gates on our way back to school. (We may or may not have had a faculty escort for the 10 minute hike from RCCS to the Big Gym). The college had several tennis courts, and we grew up playing tennis on a venerable red-clay court a 5-minute walk from home.

There was a stretch of open area between the College and the RCCS community that was shaped like an amphitheater for 50,000 - called "the Bowl". Planted with pines and topped by one of the two graveyards, it was kind of a no-man's land with a view so historical (and yet so quotidian to us!) that it still appears on postcards sold to tourists to this day (pictured in its sixties' serenity, no less). If my memory/history serves me correctly, the Bowl was the vantage point from where Darius viewed the crossing of his troops from Europe to Asia, and had to have been a spot frequented by Mehmet the Conquerer, since this was the highest point up the valley 500 yards behind his castle.

When it snowed hard, the bowl got waist-deep (and more in places), making the road behind upper Hisar impassable from the drifts. Being on a hill, the community of upper Hisar was incommunicado in a snow storm, and several of my most idyllic images of Hisar are of a snow-bound street lit by a yellow street lamp in the falling snow. There were certainly lots of spots for a good sled run.

Our yards were in themselves remarkably rich in entertainment. The Greylock property took the cake, but the others weren't shabby either. A major factor was the lack of other distractions: TV had not yet arrived, and so our entertainment was "natural". We created golf courses in at least two of our yards (I'll never forget the time my best friend let the club fly out of his hand and through the windshield of the neighbor's car parked alongside our yard.)