The one in which I get deep…

I’ve now been in Istanbul for one and a half months.  And I meant to write this at one month, to be all “anniversary-ish” about my reflections.  But, you know, I got caught up in living, so here we are, a bit late.

I still can’t believe I live here.  Sometimes I’ll be immersed in a book, or laundry, or cooking,  and will look up and see the view from my apartment windows and get completely awed all over again.

You know, most people who do this 1) aren’t Americans, as we’re so caught up in the cycle of graduate, work ,marry,  buy house, have kids, work harder, retire; and 2) are younger.  You know, like those kids who backpack across Europe right after college.  They aren’t 37 year-olds who have a job, own a townhouse, a dog,  serve on non-profit boards…but I am.  Was.

Outside the Blue Mosque in my headscarf. Do I look Turkish?

Now, I’m a 37 year-old expat, living in a historic, crowded city halfway around the world.  Leasing an apartment.  With no job.  And a dog.  And I love it.  We get so used to our surroundings (which in my case, were good!), but it feels great to break out of the mold.  I’m challenged every single day.  Every time I leave the comfort of my apartment, I have to interact with people in a language I don’t know.  I have to use public transportation while terrified I won’t find my way home.  I have to ask for medicine while pantomiming symptoms (not always pretty!).  And try to form some sort of relationships when I really can’t say much more than “How are you?” and “Thank you.” Great starts, but it’s hard to get deep with (limited) small talk.  It would be easy to just stay in my pretty apartment and hide.  But that’s not why I’m here, is it?

I miss home, my family, my friends, the ease in which I lived.  I miss Tex-Mex and margaritas.  I miss the arts I was involved with.  I miss having a schedule, at times.  Every now and then, I even miss driving.

But, I’ve found things I love here.  Things that I know I’ll miss forever when I return home.  Things like having an amazing water view, and walls made of windows to bring me that view, and lovely fresh air, even on hot days.  My neighbors who smile at Clover and I and say “Iyi gunler” (have a good day) as we pass.  Going to the corner market in the morning and buying a gorgeous loaf of fresh bread for 1 Turkish Lira.  The tomatoes that are the loveliest and tastiest I’ve ever had.  That walking by historic buildings and monuments is the norm, not an exception.  Turkish çay served in pretty little tulip-shaped glasses.  Roses growing wild everywhere.  My cute little 11 year-old neighbor who runs up to me and gives me a hug.  The Spice Market where you can buy everything from sumac and red pepper to plastic buckets, artificial flowers, perfume, live chickens, and corkboards.  And bargain for them all!  The true hospitality, generosity, and openness of the Turkish people.  And the rhythms of the Turkish language.

It’s not all been easy.  I’m amazed and frustrated at the bureaucracy.  Remember carbon sheets?  Not the paper with the carbon built in,

New friends! Irish on the left, Turkish on the right.

but the actual loose black carbon sheets?  Yep, they still use those (at the airport, at least.)  And people are not in a hurry.  At times, this is positive.  It makes you realize that not everything needs to (or should be) be fast, fast, fast.  But the times when you need something fast?  Not happening.  (Unless you give them a little “fee” for their time, in which they go a bit faster.) Perhaps this country will teach me some much-needed patience.

I’ve learned several things.  I don’t accept them all easily, but I’m learning.  (See the above mentioned patience thing.)

I am learning that when you’re new to a country, and someone you trust offers help, take it.  Don’t be all “No problem – I can figure it out myself, I’m sure it’s not that hard.”  Trust me.  It’s hard.  Take the help.

I’ve learned that culture shock can be tough.  It can come with mood swings that take you by surprise, it can make you feel lonely and isolated, and obsess over cleaning.  It can also give you pretty high highs, but you have to watch out that a low doesn’t immediately follow.

I’m learning that when someone invites you out, go.  You’ve got to leave your comfort zone in order to learn, to experience, to grow. And to have fun.

I’m learning that you can’t learn a language by immersion alone.  Yes, you pick up words quickly, learn pronunciation and language rhythms faster, but you must take lessons.  And the faster you do, the better you become part of your community, which makes everything better.

I’ve learned to eat the local food.  Lamb intestines?  Well, when in Istanbul…(thanks, Victoria and Terri!) (It’s actually quite delicious!)

I’ve learned to meet other expats.  It’s important to have time where you can relax, speak English, and talk about silly things from home.  But don’t spend all your time with them – that’s not why you chose to live in another country.

I’ve learned that sea gulls, feral cats, and the huge Istanbul crows are LOUD.

And, I’ve learned that when you walk your dog in a hilly city, stand uphill of her.  🙂

Terri and I, at my favorite restaurant, trying lamb intestine. Really, it's fantastic!

Maybe, most important of all, I’ve learned the importance of staying in touch with people from home.  I’m so grateful for technology that allows easy communication.  I can’t imagine doing this without email, Twitter, Facebook, IM.  Days that I miss home, it’s right there at my fingertips.  And the support I feel from you all  keeps me going on bad days.

Lucky for me, I’m having pretty great days lately.  I’m on a really positive path, and I can’t wait to keep sharing it with you all!


This isn’t in the tour books, but…

Lovely tombstones.

This cemetery is close to my new house, and I’ve passed it several times, but had never gone in.  Frankly, I wasn’t sure what the “rules” were – was I welcome there?  It’s a Muslim cemetery, and could I go in- at all? Without a scarf?  Take photos, walk around – was there procedure?  When an old lady in a headscarf waved at me, I scooted right in.

It is truly one of the loveliest cemeteries I’ve seen.  The greenery, the birds singing, the flowers!  It seems as if the person is interred, then a plot of dirt is placed on top.  Then flowers, plants, etc., are planted in the earth.  Roses grow like crazy here, so there were truly lovely graves with roses just bursting out of the ground.  Talk about the circle of life!

I loved the bursts of color throughout the plots.

There are these crazy big (I think) ravens here in Istanbul.  They are quite intimidating looking, and must have been Edgar Allan Poe’s inspiration for The Raven. They, of course, live in the cemetery.  They just perch on the tombstones and solemnly watch as you pass.  Very apropos.

What a fantastic resting place.  Or a great place to sit and read – I looked for benches, but didn’t see any.  The cemetery is huge – I only covered a portion of it, but it looks as if there’s a main path that people use regularly as  a short cut.  I think I’ll be doing the same.

"Quoth the raven, 'Nevermore'."

Politics, Part 2

Today is the national election in Turkey.  This is an extremely important election, and the results can have powerful future effects.  As stated in Politics, Part 1, the AKP (current ruling party) has a chance to win both Prime Minister/President and the majority in Parliament.  The West has recently become very concerned about this scenario, especially as US/Turkey relations have been strained.

The AKP has also stated its intention to re-write the Turkish constitution.  If they win both the executive and legislative party, they will not have to consult with other party leaders on the revisions.

A few interesting things about the election process:

  • Polls open early in the morning, but close at 5 pm.
  • All posters, signs, etc. had to be taken down by yesterday afternoon.
  • No alcohol will be sold until tomorrow afternoon.
  • Media reporting on results is restricted until 9 pm tonight (no CNN fancy graphics or “The Best Political Team in America” rhetoric.)
  • 15 political parties are on the ballot, but they must win 10% national vote in order to be seated in Parliament.
  • Voter turnout is expected to be high.  The total amount of eligible voters is 50 million.  In 2007, 85% of eligible voters turned out to vote. (Wow! Wake up, America!)

HUGE sign for Erdogan, the current Prime Minister. This is at a major ferry port.

Personally, I’ve found this whole process very interesting.  I live in a city of 15 million people (in 2009 Houston’s population was 2.25 million), and most use some form of mass transportation.  I’ve been truly amazed at the campaign posters, enormous signs (covering large buildings), seemingly endless campaign vans that drive through the streets, blasting their party messages, pop-up campaign stores, brochures, car door hangers…it’s been endless.  As I don’t watch Turkish TV or listen to the radio, I don’t know if there’s been much advertising on digital media.  But the money that must have been spent…it’s incredible.  I’d be very curious to see how the money spent here compares to the ridiculous amount spent in the States.

The Thing that Lives on the Landing

As you lovely readers know, I have this fantastic new apartment, with my fancy sea view.  The place has just been refurbished, the furnishings are new, my landlords are fantastic and new friends.  I’m stupid lucky, right?

Well. Let me start with this:  my building is essentially 5 stories.  A basement, ground floor, and 1st, 2nd, and 3rd floors.  There is one apartment per floor (other than the basement, which until the other night, was a mystery to me.)  I live on the 3rd floor – or as I like to call it, the penthouse.  Heh.

I moved into my place shortly before it was done, and understandably, there was a pile of building scraps, tools, trash, etc., on my landing. A few nights after I moved in, Clover started to whine and paw at the inside of my front door.  Weird, but OK.  When we went out for the evening walk, she went crazy sniffing the trash, and digging her nose into the piles.

Which is when I realized there was a Thing Living on the Landing.

My lovely building.

There are street cats all over Istanbul, and I was really, really hoping that there was a kitten living in the pile.  Completely legitimate, right??  Well, three nights ago, around 11 pm, I opened my front door and saw It.  Not a cute kitten, but a rat.  Oh, God.  I told my landlords the next morning, and they immediately had the trash on my landing removed, which was great.  I then swept and mopped that landing with enough highly floral scented soap to repel anything that prefers sewers.  Or so I thought.

The next evening, I went out with a friend, and came home around 11ish.  As I was walking up the stairs, The Thing came scampering down, almost running over my foot.  Let me just say that it took a huge amount of energy not to emit a blood curdling scream.  I quickly opened my front door, and somehow Clover managed to get out.  And of course, charged down the stairs after It, right into the dark scary basement.

So, here I am in my dress and heels, trying very hard not to wake my neighbors, trying my best authoritative, get-your-ass-OUT-of-the-basement-and-AWAY-from-The-Thing, CLOVER! whisper.  Needless to say, that didn’t work.

So, yep, I go back upstairs, get her leash, the flashlight (that I’m very clever to have brought from home), put on my flip flops, and head down to the basement.  As basements go, it was dark, scary, at least one Thing-infested, and spidery-webby.  Did I mention it was really dark?

I finally retrieve Clover, and literally pull her up the stairs, and shove her outside so she won’t pee in the house over her excitement.  At this point, two of my neighbors come out to see what the commotion is about.  This was not my ideal scenario to meet the neighbors. I was picturing me bringing them apple pie, them bringing me baklava.  So, I’m my little black dress, but now streaked with dirt.  Clover is totally excited.  And I don’t know Turkish.

So, I’m half apologizing, half trying to say “THERE’S A FREAKING RAT LIVING IN THE BUILDING!!” I manage to say hayvan, which just means animal.  I’m wildly pantomiming the size of The Thing, and motioning that it has a long tail.  Of course I’m using my hands to show where a tail would be on me.  Frankly, they could have thought I was saying that I was an animal that farts alot.  Oh, God.

Anyway, I think they got it, and I think we somehow “discussed” the virtues of Thing traps vs. poisons.  And they were very gracious about the whole thing.  But didn’t seem to understand why I didn’t want to let Clover loose in the building to hunt.

I get it.  I live in an old city.  With old buildings.  “Things” happen.  And my landlords have promised to get a pest control company out, ASAP.  I do love them.

Again, I said I wanted adventure.  I didn’t exactly image this, but it’s all part of the grand package, right?  And I’m rolling with it.  Without screaming.


Pazar booty!

Cooking veggies on my cute 2-burner stovetop - my first cooked meal!



Politics, Part One

I’m just starting to learn about politics, and the political system here in Turkey.  And what a good time to learn, as national elections are this Sunday.  The history of this country is so fascinating – a long, winding saga.

The handsome and revered Mustafa Kemel, or Ataturk.

After the collapse of a 600-year rule by the Ottomans (brought on by a poor decision to align with Germany in World War I), a man named Mustafa Kemal, now called Ataturk or “father of the Turks” led a 3-year war of independence (against Greeks, Russians, French and Italians) to establish a secular republic.  Ataturk played a large role in getting Turkey “caught up” – not just economically and politically, but also with a large focus on social issues, which took the country away from it’s religious rule.  His philosophy is called Kemalism.

Ataturk is very popular with the majority of the Turkish people.  You don’t walk into a place of business without seeing his picture on the wall.  And there are statues and monuments aplently.  It’s extremely interesting to see such reverence for one leader.  I can’t think of an equivalent in the US – can you?

Turkey is led by a Prime Minister and President, although the prime minister has the majority of power.  There’s a 550-seat parliament, with reps elected for 4-year terms.  Much like the US, a party sees more action if they win both the executive and legislative branches. However, unlike the US, there are more than 40 political parties.  And, a party must get a 10% national threshold vote in order to actually serve.

With that being said, the party currently ruling is the AKP, or the Justice & Development Party.

Prime Minister Erdogan, of the AKP Party.

They are pretty darn conservative, and from what I’ve learned, have definitely rocked the boat while in office, starting to call for reforms that lean away from the current emphasis on social freedoms and secularism. There’s also been some strong restrictions on freedom of press, and access to internet sites around the world.   But, Turkey’s economy has been very healthy during their rule, so they will most likely be re-elected.  What will be important is whether or not they carry the parliament as well.  If they do, there could be some major changes coming to this country.  The Economist recently wrote this article  that simultaneously praises the current prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, but encourages the Turkish people to vote for the opposition, or CHP (The Republican People’s Party).



My cute kitchen!

Tomorrow, you will smell heavenly.

House is so close to being done.  My ocak (stove) comes tonight.  I haven’t cooked in almost a month!!  It’s absolutely perfect timing, as my neighborhood pazar is tomorrow.  Beautiful domates (tomatoes), sogan (onion), patlιcan (eggplant), here I come!

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