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)!

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!



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