Tan Line of My Sandals

Mujgan Afra Ozceylan


As a law student in Istanbul, Muigan Ozceylan revels in the smells of exotic spices, the sight of silk scarves draped on ancient walls, and the sounds of her friends’ laughter as she wanders the cobblestone streets in her Birkenstocks. Adjusting to cold, organized Toronto is hard until summer finally comes. Then she sees that familiar tan lines appear on her feet, thanks to her old sandals, and she begins to feel at home.


A strange question crossed my mind: “Why am I sitting in the middle of this bench? I mean, why not on the left side like I always did, almost obsessively?”  I felt the coldness and rigid structure of the wood. The sun was setting at Evergreen Brickworks, and this artificial lake appeared more genuine, reflecting the colours of the dusk. The sharp lines between nature and downtown Toronto were becoming invisible. 

Instantly, the answer rang in. I was sitting in the middle, contrary to my custom because I wasn’t expecting any company. I had always sat on the left to reserve the right seat for “that person” worth waiting for. But there was no other living soul in this foreign land. It was a ghost town: white, cold, freezing. Honestly, where were all the people? Before, benches were to wait for someone, not for spending time in solitude. There was no one to wait for in this city.  

I recall that moment now, at my favourite coffee shop in Little Italy, as I leafed through my notebook. The feelings I had then spread through my body, circulating around my spine and my ribs with every sentence. Every word screamed: “You don’t belong here!”  I had left my home, Istanbul, a city where everything melts into the whole: history, art, nature and even people. I was studying law and working as a photographer. With the first money I ever earned, I bought two pairs of Birkenstocks, one for me and one for my mother. During that summer, we both wore those sandals every single day. Of course, my mom’s kept their perfect shape while mine were completely worn out. 

Summer brings the most vibrant months in Istanbul. The smell of exotic spices, the feeling of silk scarves hanging on the ancient walls, the warmth of spontaneous smiles, and the sound of loud conversations. With every step, you collect the ingredients of the city. You carry them wherever you go. Istanbul becomes you, and you become Istanbul. I walked on the cobblestone streets with my friends, threading our way through the human mountain as if we owned the entire city. “Too many tourists,” we said, complaining about the crowd. We were the “locals.” I didn’t know back then that I was going to become a foreigner soon. It leaves a severe taste when something good comes to a sudden end. I had to leave my city and everything behind because of things I had no control over, because of how my country had changed. 

It was a cold winter day when I arrived in Toronto. I was surrounded by unfamiliar places, voices, and glances. Trying to establish a sense of familiarity, I grabbed my camera and went outside, just as I had always done in Istanbul, to get lost in the maze of streets. But the streets didn’t reveal their secrets right away. I wasn’t even sure if they had any. It was too well organized, grid-by-grid; everything was wide open. What is there for me to discover? I needed a touch of chaos, mystery. Instead, I was left feeling like an alien.  

When the cold abandons Toronto, it is hard to believe how the city is transformed. Funny how everything once foreign becomes gradually familiar. Perhaps a mirage to my eyes, harmony, whispering greens where serenity breathed and light shone? I am wearing my sandals again. To feel the wet grass, I’m taking them off, and I look down. 

There it is, two odd-looking stripes on my feet, a gift from the sun, tan lines of my sandals. I find the familiarity I was looking for. They were with me on the sands of the Sahara, in the forests of Northern Turkey, in Marrakesh, and on the nostalgic streets of Paris. Now, I am wearing them in Toronto, spreading the dust of my worn-out sandals as if I’m placing tiny pieces of my being into the pavement.  

MUJGAN AFRA OZCEYLAN lives in Toronto. She was born and raised in Istanbul, where she found her passion for photography. She dropped out of the 3rd law school in Canada in 2017.

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