Adjusting.  This is the life of the expat.

There are a million things you must adjust to, all thrown at you at once.  To survive, you’ve got to roll with them, embrace them, and adjust your expectations accordingly.  Some of the adjustments are easy, like buying lovely fresh bread for one lira.  Or having amazing sea views.  Some of them are more difficult, and take a huge amount of patience.  There’s been books, dissertations, essays, etc., written about culture shock, the signs and symptoms, and how to survive it.

Overall, I feel like I’m adjusting pretty well.  I’ve now been here two months, and feel more comfortable every day.  And I feel such support and love from you all, that keeps me moving forward.  However, there is one thing – one BIG thing – I cannot get used to.  Think you know what it is?  Close your eyes, think for a second, and take your guess.  Now read on, and see how you did.

Is is the noise?

While challenging, nope.  I’m now sleeping through the honking of the taxis and the seagulls, and the screaming of the feral street cats.  I barely pay attention to the street vendors calling out selling melons, simit (sesame pastry), mops and brooms, or the guys that collect your discarded metal.

It’s the shopping, right?

While occasionally challenging, no.  Yes, I miss Target, but for the most part, I know where to buy things, and I discover new shops all the time – some like Zara (great clothes!) Mavi (fantastic jeans!) and Carrefour (Wal-Mart-ish) that I love. The sizing system has taken some getting used to –  my feet seem to have grown exponentially from a 7 1/2 to a 38!  🙂

I know, it’s not having a car!

It’s crazy, but I don’t miss my car in the least.  This city embraces mass transportation, and while it’s admittedly not always easy figuring out what combo of ferries, trams, buses, and taxis to take, it’s great not having to worry about rising gas prices, parking spaces,  flat tires, and car payments.  I thought that not having a car would represent a loss of freedom, but I’m finding freedom is in the getting rid of possessions.

It’s got to be not having a schedule!

Yes, it’s weird.  After years of having a full-time job and other regular commitments, it’s a little strange to wake up and think, what am I going to do today?  Some days it is a little disconcerting, and others it contributes to loneliness.  But overall, I’ve gotten used to this much faster than expected, although I will look forward to having a bit more predictability.  I’m really looking forward to this week, as I have all sorts of activities/meetings/goals planned.

Duh. The language difference.

Well, this has obviously been a huge challenge, as I’ve talked about previously.  The good news?  I’ve started Turkish lessons, and I’m learning, fast.  I have so far to go, but I’m already improving, and having what you could almost call “conversations” with my neighbors. Everyone is so patient, and wants to help me learn.  I think they are half amused/half really excited that I’m taking the time to learn their language.  I’m picking up more words, so at least I’m starting to – slowly – understand context.  It’s starting to be a fun challenge, as opposed to a constant source of frustration.  But is it the one thing that plagues me?  No.

Aha!  There’s no Diet Coke in Turkey!

You are so very close.  Technically, there is Diet Coke.  It sure looks like it, but does not taste like my lovely manna from heaven.  The American Diet Coke recipe is very different from the one used in the rest of the world.  On my vacation here a few years ago, I remember Kim and I drinking 3 or 4 American Diet Cokes on the plane home.  We were so excited to get back this comfort (read: addiction) from home.  The closest thing I’ve found to it here is Pepsi Maxx.  But it’s not the same.  And it is amazing how much – after two months –  I still yearn for the D.C.

There’s no air conditioning.

Winner, winner, chicken dinner!!  As silly as this sounds, compared to language barriers, transportation issues, etc., it’s the truth.  This week is in the high 80’s.  That sounds pretty decent, right?  Well, when there’s no A/C, it’s incredibly hot.  I’m so used to our lovely Texas summers, where our homes, offices, cars, and stores are chilled so dramatically that we wear jackets indoors.  The hot times are the getting-to periods.  You know, the getting-to the car from the house; the getting-to the mall from the car.  Here, there is no relief.  Except for the shower and the ferry, when the breeze cools you.  If you’re in the shade.

I’ve always said to people who complain about cold that it’s an easy fix.  Put on another layer.  Get a jacket, a hat.  But when it’s hot?  There’s only so many clothes you can take off without getting arrested.  And the #1 goal of mine?  Do not get arrested in a foreign country.

I find myself moving around the house to get to the coolest place possible.  In the early morning, it’s my dining room.  In mid-day, I’m kinda screwed.  It’s all sizzling.  At night, my bedroom.  And even then, it’s not cool – it just happens to be where the sun is not.  I sleep with my fan on high, aimed directly at me.

Like home, August is the hottest month in Turkey.  This scares me as I’m already dying in July.

So, I would greatly appreciate hints for staying cool.  Other than taking 5 showers a day.  I learned to say cold water (soğuk su) very quickly.  I’m buying clothes made of light material.  I keep cold watermelon in the fridge.  What else?

Help! Please??!!

Oh.  And if you hear me complaining when it starts snowing, remind me of this post, OK?


Eating Turkey: recap of an epic food tour

I am absolutely delighted to tell you all that I did not write this post!  The one, the only Victoria Rittinger is my first guest author!   She and I participated in this crazy, supposed-to-be 6-but-turned-into-7 hour food tour.  As she has such great food knowledge, and an eye for food photography, I asked her if she would be willing to write a recap of this amazing day we shared.  Luckily, she agreed, wrote a great post, and provided her photography (and has not even sent me a bill!).  We had so much fun, laughed a lot, and created great memories.  Enjoy!

I think I could spend years eating in Istanbul and never fully explore all of the variety that comes from it being at the crossroads of Europe and Asia.  Jessica had just moved here a few days before, I only had a couple of extra days before departing, so we decided we both needed a professional exploration to at least begin to scratch the surface.  We joined up with the folks at Istanbul Eats  to break away from the mold of the typical tourist chow that involves plenty of familiar hummus and dolmas and döner kebap.  Off we go!

Behind the steam table

First breakfast:  Özkonak, a typical working-class breakfast & lunch steam-table joint, cooking mama’s comfort food.  It’s really not that different from a good American diner breakfast.  The role of eggs is played by menemen, a scramble of tomatoes, peppers & eggs (served here with a runny yolk on top). The role of bacon is played by suçuk, sliced spicy sausages. Instead of a fruit cup there’s sliced tomatoes and cucumbers with salty feta cheese (beyaz peynir). There’s soft sliced bread, and instead of topping it with butter you use the greatest gift Turkey has given the world: kaymak. Kaymak is an incredibly rich and smooth clotted cream that you eat for breakfast with either honey or the amazing homemade jams that every restaurant seems to make in abundance (at Özkonak it’s a delicate rose jam).

First Breakfast!

Second breakfast: Özçağdaş Börek Salonu, more of a grab & go pastry place where you might find lahmacun pastry with cheese, tomato & minced meat or a simple round ring-shaped simit bread topped with sesame seeds. But the real deal here are the various types of börek pastry, all starting with the same paper-thin rolled sheets of yufka dough (very similar to phyllo). At top is the standard börek, which can be stuffed with feta, spinach, or minced meat (or all three!) and baked crispy.  At right is su börek where the pastry sheets are soaked in water, making it rather lasagna-noodle-like, then layered with cheese and baked.  At left is sade börek where the pastry sheets are soaked in sugar syrup, baked, and the whole thing is topped in powdered sugar. The yufka dough makes a lot of appearances in Turkish cuisine in a variety of forms.  It’s used in the “Turkish pancake” dish gözleme,

Making gözleme.

where it is wrapped flat like a crepe around a huge variety of fillings, from the typical feta/spinach to minced meats, even to sweet ones like banana and honey.  It’s cooked in a tandir oven that sounds suspiciously like the Indian tandoor (and probably the inspiration for the oven, if not the dish).  To further the Indian connection, gözleme can often be accompanied by a frothy salted yogurt drink called ayran that isn’t too dissimilar from a salted lassi.

Delicious künefe.

Additionally, one of my favorite Turkish desserts, kűnefe, has the same yufka dough, but is shredded super-finely and sandwiched around a layer of cheese, then cooked until crispy all around and soaked in sugar syrup and sprinkled with pistachios.  Gooey cheese surrounded by sugary crispy pastry? Yes, please. Back to the tour.  We were now on to “snack stops”, with the first at Asri Turşucu, which has probably every type of pickled product known to man, using primarily salt & lemon juice for the pickling agents. They even serve a couple of varieties of colorful salty pickle juice drinks that will set your mouth a-pucker.

We drank pickle juice. And discussed the merits of adding vodka, with fabulous guide Angelis.

Another snack stop found us walking through the market streets with their heaps of fresh fish.  The proprietor of Vera Kokoreç makes good use of them, parking himself next door to the fishmongers and frying up heaps of sardines served with a pungent and creamy garlic puree.  The flaky sardines are enclosed in a crisp semolina-like crust and a perfect snack for fueling your market shopping. There’s also a bar district close by, and where there are bars, there are snack shops with hangover foods.  The Turks take a different view than we do, believing the best medicine is to slurp down bowls of işkembe çorbasiTarihi Cumhuriyet serves the tripe-broth soup with garlic puree and lemon juice, along with dried red pepper sprinkled on top.  It looks innocent, but is extremely pungent and earthy.  While we tried it, none of us actually finished the thing (but so proud of Jessica for even trying a spoonful!).  The Turks can have this one.

Tripe soup. Blech.

Editor’s note:  Jessica tried two spoonfuls, after Victoria said it was much better with bread.  Foul, foul, lies. We needed a sweet snack shop to offset the lingering tripe flavor, and got a real treat at Sakarya Tatlicisi.  They make a delicious ekmek, bread soaked in sugar syrup and baked, then topped with the delicious kaymak to “cut the sweetness”.  They’ve also got ayva tatlisi which is a sugar-poached quince, also topped with kaymak – but it really pales in comparison to the sumptuous ekmek.


Sugared-up and in need of caffeine, our next stop was naturally at Mandabatmaz for Turkish coffee.  The name implies that a water buffalo can walk on top of the coffee without sinking, so that gives a clue as to the potency of the Turkish coffee served here.  It’s so thick it’s almost chocolate-y. The proprietor has been making coffee for almost 50 years, and is undoubtedly one of the coolest guys in Istanbul.

The real Mr. Coffee.

We fortuitously brought along a snack to have with our coffee, from our first stop at Özkonak, where they make an Ottoman dessert called tavuk göğsü which is… chicken milk pudding.  It tastes like a thick creamy pudding, but on closer examination you see thin shreds of chicken breast meat, which are added for body and consistency.  During Ottoman times it was probably considered a luxury to fritter away valuable protein on a pudding dish. Enough with the snacks, let’s get to lunch! First lunch: Ficcin restaurant specializing in Circassian cuisine (from the Caucaus mountains), for ficcin dumplings.  They’re are stuffed

Colorful and delicious.

with minced meat and topped with a simple yogurt sauce.  At first they’re a little boring, but then we realized the dumplings are served with bowls of mint, sumac, and red pepper to doctor them up.  Condiments: not just for decoration. Second lunch:  another steam-table lunch joint, Şahin Lokantasi for a dizzying array of small plates, including ezogelin, where the simplicity of the bulgur-lentil base is utterly comforting; Arnavut ciğeri  fried peppery cubes of earthy beef livers; a hearty beef stew called kavurma; tender kofte meatballs stewed with vegetables; and my favorite, karnıyarık, baked eggplant topped with minced meat (similar to the famous imam bayildi dish which has vegetables instead of meat).

Lovely karnıyarık.

Second lunch also involved some tasty desserts, again heavily involving sugar syrup. (Noticing the sugar-soaked theme of Turkish desserts yet?).  There’s the traditional sütlaç rice pudding with a caramelized top, semolina cookies soaked in sugar syrup, and finally kadayif with the shredded yufka which is layered with pistachios & covered in sugar syrup, similar to the popular Turkish baklava.

Second lunch goodness.

My favorite part of the lunch is the pride and seriousness with which the employees served and discussed the food.  When asked to take a photo, the whole kitchen staff came out to pose and smile, and when asked about how a dish was made, the waiter launched into an animated 10 minute discussion to ensure that we completely understood.

Famous Turkish hospitality.

Third (and last) lunch:  Akderiz Kokoreç for their delicious kokoreç sandwiches, served fast food style, and definitely worth a break

Intestines, in a pretty package.

away from the ubiquitious döner kebap sandwiches that all of the tourists eat.  Kokoreç is made by wrapping skewered seasoned sweetbreads with lamb intestines, grilling it rotisserie-style, then chopping it up with peppers and tomatoes and tucking into a soft baguette. Heavenly and a totally worthy conclusion to our tour. While our tour was a fantastic exploration of the variety of foods in Istanbul, there was one Turkish meal that was even better:  two friends sharing a last pide (Turkish pizza) and an Efes beer before saying farewell.  Şerefe (cheers)!