Apartment Hunting in Istanbul

I’m now looking for my third place to live in the span of about 14 months. And trying not to have a heart attack while doing so.

A brief history: my first place, the one with the amazing view, was rented directly from friends.  An amazing place, but too expensive, and almost -but not quite – in the area I wanted to live.  Apartment #2 (where I am now) is just about perfect. It’s in Moda (the neighborhood I love), has a balcony for Clover, is furnished.  However, I sublet it from someone at a reduced, very affordable price, but now that the lease term is up, the price is going up 400 Turkish Lira per month.  Wowza.

So, I’m looking.  Again.

Istanbul is a very crowded city – depending on who you ask, there are between 15 and 20 million residents.  And probably at least 80% live in apartments.  So, real estate is at a premium, and gets snatched up fast.

Almost all owners use realtors (or emlakci in Turkish).  The weird thing?  The owners don’t pay them.  The people looking for an apartment (like me) pay the commission, which usually equals one month’s rent.  Yet the emlakci seem to consider the owner their client, not the renter.  Which is really, really backwards. But it’s the system, so I’m trying to accept it, as I have no other choice.

There are websites full of available apartments, or you can just wander the streets, go into any of the emlak offices, and tell them what you’re looking for.  I was told that this would be the time to look for apartments, as school is out for the summer, and people are moving. However, there are alot less places available, at least in my neighborhood, than usual.

And of course I’m used to looking two months in advance.  Here they laugh at you if you start looking much more than three weeks in advance. And they seem to think you are a pain in the butt if you ask to see a place twice before making a decision. I had a bit of an uncomfortable situation where I ended up shouting at at emlakci because he told me I needed to make up my mind.  Of course, I was yelling at him in English, and he speaks only Turkish, but I think he got the message. My friend pulled me out of the office as I was still yelling and told him in Turkish that he was  a “complete weirdo.” Yeah, we’re tough.

I’m not picky.  I have a budget and very few requirements.  Two bedrooms (hello! make your travel plans now!), a balcony for Clover (these are common) and it has to have working electricity and plumbing.  Sounds pretty basic, yes?

I’ve been excited about multiple places now, but something keeps falling through. The other day I saw a place that was completely redone, and the building is only 5-6 years old, which is quite unusual for my area.  But it has what they call here the “American kitchen.” What that means is that the kitchen is IN the salon. American friends, someone tell me if they’ve actually ever seen this design in America???? Anyway, as it was a nice place, in the right area, and in my price range, I told the emlakci that I wanted it.

I didn’t get it.  Want to know why? Not because I have a dog. Not because I’m a foreigner.  But because I’m not married. Apparently the owner is very conservative and doesn’t want what he presumes to be a hussy living in his place.  Lovely.

There’s another place I want, but someone else has an option on it. I don’t want to say to much as I feel I will jinx it, but please, cross fingers, toes, legs, eyes; pray; do chants and dances; perform voodoo rituals.  I’ll keep you updated!

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Drumroll, please…

Well, first, I’m celebrating my year anniversary in Istanbul (May 12th) – can you believe it?  Time, at times, has flown. Other times, it’s stood so still I thought it might be frozen.  But, I’ve survived, and can almost say that I’m thriving!  I still can’t  believe some days that I live here.

But, I’m going to be able to believe it a bit more, because I’ve decided to stay another year.  I miss my American family and friends terribly, but I’m going to plead for your patience with me while I continue my Turkish adventure.

I weighed this decision very heavily.  And I’ve fluctuated.  In fact, after my Houston Christmas visit, I was determined to come home.  I was ready for an easier life, was missing home acutely, and wanted a better selection of restaurants!  I was at my friend Joe’s party, and was talking about expat life with my friend Melody.  I told her that I would almost definitely return to Houston, saying that I thought life here would have been easier by then.  At that point, I had been in Istanbul for 9 months.  She looked at me shocked, and said that expat life doesn’t get easier until at least a year in.  And she should know.  She was in Japan before she was in Turkey.

And you know what?  The last couple of months have been significantly easier.  I can’t say it’s one thing or another, but I think it’s a

A minaret of the Blue Mosque on a beautiful day in Istanbul.

combination.  I’m learning more Turkish.  Even if I can’t speak it well, I understand more.  I moved into a new neighborhood in January, where I feel like I belong.  I have some good friends, and for the past couple of months, a wonderful boyfriend.  I’m more confident in most situations.  And I can find my way around a bit better.

I certainly have bad days.  Or hard days.  I cry a bit easier over some things.  About a month ago, I was having a really good day, and was walking home thinking about how much my life here was improving.  I turned the corner to my street, and the local florist was selling yellow roses.  Oh, my heart hurt!  I immediately was so homesick for Texas, and everything and everyone I love there.  And recently, I had to miss the wedding of my dear friends April and Jason.  I was heartsick about that.  So, as I made my decision to stay here longer, I had to consider those things.

But I’m excited about my decision to stay.  I have (another!) new job that I’ll start in mid-August.  I’ll be teaching English to middle-schoolers at one of the top private schools in Istanbul.  I really like the people I’ll be working with and for, and the campus is beautiful, and much, much closer to my house than my current school.  I’ve always liked middle school aged kids, and hope that this opportunity works out well.  I’m also looking for an new apartment (in the same neighborhood) now, so I’m excited about that.

It looks like I’ll be home for a couple weeks in August, and I’ll definitely be home for a week and a half at Thanksgiving.  I can’t wait to visit.  And, everyone, you realize now that I’m here another year, you have another year to visit!  You have a place to stay and a free tour guide!

I’ve also made a renewed vow to write more on this blog.  And not all my posts will be this long, I promise!

Friends, thank you so much for your support and love.

Updates!

Hey, y’all.  So, Oct 12th was my 5 month anniversary here, can you believe it?  Most days I can’t.  Some days – oh, my – I certainly can.

Overall, life is good and I am still just so happy that I did this crazy thing.  I’m definitely getting more homesick, though.  It’s funny, most articles you read about culture shock and expat “stuff” say that the first big wave of homesickness hits at 6 months.  Now, of course I missed you all, Houston, normal life, etc., as soon as I got on the plane to Turkey, but now that I’m (somewhat) settled, I have more time to think about,  and acknowledge my pangs.

But I’m coming home for Christmas and can’t wait!!  I don’t know how long I’ll be home yet – it will depend on the job – but I want to see you lovely people.  And eat Mexican food, Italian food, big juicy Texas beef burgers and steak, and my favorite sandwich from Whole Foods. All of those meals will involve pork products, by the way.   And there will be drinking of margaritas and nice red wine.  That isn’t Turkish. So, if you want to see me, be prepared to eat.  And drink.  And don’t judge me when I eat way more than any person should.

Some good news to share – I have a job!!! Finally.  If you read one of the last blog posts, you know that I thought I had one, then didn’t. Now I do.  What I’d ideally like to be doing is working at one of the many private schools here as a native English teacher.  But I didn’t figure that out (whole blog post on how to move here correctly coming soon!) until it was too late, and all the teachers were hired. So, what I am doing is working at a language school.  I’ll be teaching English to adults of varying levels that have paid money to come to this school and have a brilliant native English speaker teach them perfect English.  Little do they know – suckers!  Ha, just kidding.  Sort of.  The pay isn’t near as good, but it’s something.  And if I continue to give private lessons, I’ll be OK.

I’ve been working very hard on my Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) certification over the last couple of months.  I chose to get the 120-hour certificate, which has been quite difficult and very time consuming, but wow, am I learning.  The only bad part is that it is completely online, so it doesn’t include actual classroom practice.  So, I start tomorrow (Saturday) and my first ever classroom experience will be a two and a half hour lesson to adults.  This is somewhat terrifying. But, there is a book, and a workbook, and the school wants me to use it.  I’ve spent a couple of hours reviewing the material, doing my lesson plan, and praying.

In other news, autumn is here!  It’s been raining all week long, and has cooled down dramatically.  Today’s high was 60.  I don’t know if this is the norm, or if we’re in the middle of several cold fronts. What I do know is that I need rain boots, a heavy waterproof coat (for when it gets much colder) and a lightweight, waterproof coat.  Stat.

Mom came to visit week before last.  We had such a great visit, and managed to see all sorts of sights, but have some relaxing down time as well.  We visited the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia, shopped in the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Market, ate at my favorite restaurant (which she loved, of course!), and had two meals at friends’ houses.  One is a fellow expat, Sam, who made a delicious meal and, and one was at Ozen’s parent’s house.  They made us a very traditional meal from the Black Sea region, featuring delicious fried anchovies (hamsi).  On Saturday night, I had a small party, and Mom got to meet most of my good friends here.  I was so excited to share my adopted city with her. And it was incredibly hard to see her go.

My Turkish has really stalled.  My teacher went on a month and a half vacation (nice, huh?) and when he came back I didn’t have a job, so didn’t have money for lessons.  I’m bummed about that because I should be much further along by now.  I am still learning, just by being here, but not fast enough.  A neighbor invited me to have dinner with her tonight.  She doesn’t speak English.  God knows what we’re going to talk about.  🙂

Oh, and my apartment!  Well, I still love it, but have decided to move when the lease is up in December.  It’s just way more than I can pay.  So, I’ll be looking for a place  in Kadiköy, which is basically one town over, and where most of my good friends (expat and Turkish) live.  It’s a great place, where I do most of my shopping, dining out, and going out.  I love it.  I’ll most likely have to get furniture, so will have to be creative buying secondhand items.  It’s funny – when I moved here, I assumed I would only be able to afford a crappy apartment.  I had an amazing place, with one of the loveliest views in the whole city, and I can be grateful for that. And, when I get a new place, be grateful when I pay a much reduced rent!

Well, this has gotten long.  I really do intend to write more posts, and will make a sincere effort to.  I have tons more I want to share. Interesting, quirky things about this city, and the lovely people who inhabit it.  So, here’s a sneak peek!  Coming soon:  The Top 10 Sounds of Istanbul.”

Miss you all, my friends.

On gratefulness

We’re almost at the end of Ramazan, and today I decided to fast.  I really admire people who choose to fast for all 30 days of Ramazan, but since I am not Muslim, but wanted to experience a tiny bit of this spiritual journey.

I’ve been so grateful on this journey, and I thought today might be a great day to write about it.

Do you remember several years ago when Oprah came out with the Gratefulness Journal?  I never watched the show, participated, etc., but I think the idea was to write 5 things daily you were grateful for, in order to realize the riches you have in your life.  I think it’s easy to stop being actively grateful when life becomes routine.  Well, have I got a powerful suggestion for you.  It’s a bit scarier, and a bit more expensive, than a daily journal:  become an expat.  Opportunities for gratefulness abound.

My gratefulness started before I arrived in Turkey.  I got incredible, overwhelming support from so many people – some great friends, some merely acquaintances.  People came out of the woodwork with loving words, encouragement, and hugs.  My friend Cheryl connected me with her friend Shane, who rented my townhouse.  Nicole let me use her attic for storage.  My team at work supported my decision to move.  Kim told me I wasn’t crazy to do this, and April gave me some advice that led to me purchase my plane ticket.  My family, even if they didn’t understand this fully, supported me.

Ozen and her family (as well as the hotel family) have been there for me since I arrived.  I stayed with her my first week here.  I’m renting a beautiful apartment from her brother and his wife.  I just had Iftar dinner with them.  And she’s introduced me new friends, and guided me all along the way.  I’ve been amazed at the amount of time and heart she has freely given me.

Five friends from home happened to have trips to Istanbul planned – for pleasure or work, and each took the time to get together with me.  Most visited during my first month here, when I was a bit lonely and still figuring things out, and they bolstered my spirit.  Theresa, Victoria, Anna, John, and Terri – thank you.  I’m so grateful to all of you!

It’s amazing, however, how the little things help.  When you’re essentially alone, don’t know the language, don’t know where you’re going, a smile from a stranger at the right time is amazing.  Or someone who knows a few words of English – or pantomimes really well – when you’re at your most frustrated or confused.  I’ve had two cab drivers go out of their way to help me in the last month.  I know people are kind everywhere, but I don’t expect it from cabbies!  🙂

My downstairs neighbor, and what I think is his wife (remember, language barrier!) have adopted me in the last month.  They watch out for me, help me when I need it, and joke with me.  They didn’t talk to me my first two months here.  I don’t know what changed, but I’m grateful.

David introduced me virtually to Matt, a friend he grew up with in Houston.  Matt has been teaching abroad for 5 years now, and we’ve become fast friends.  He’s introduced me to his circle, and now I’m friends with his girlfriend, Joe & Melody, Daniel, and Sam, who I’m taking my first holiday with next week.  I’m grateful for this group of expats who have shown me the ropes, and made me laugh.

Megan, an American I met my first week here while on a tour with Victoria, mentioned she might have a teaching lead for me.  That led to my new job, and my new boss, Mark, and several co-workers that I adore.  It’s enriching work and in a short time, I’ve met some amazing, interesting, kind people.  I’m so grateful for this opportunity.

Wednesday, I went to the butcher shop for the first time.  The man who runs the store asked me where my dog was.  Then smiled and wrapped up a bone to take home to Clover.  I don’t know him – he’s just seen me walk by with Clover.  I have a group of little girls that say hello to me every day, and want to hear about American stars.  Another little girl is incredibly sweet, and gives me big hugs every time I see her.  When you’re not around your family and good friends, hugs are important.  And wow, I’m grateful for them.

Bayram begins Monday afternoon.  After a month of fasting, people celebrate by bringing loved ones gifts of sugar and sweets.  The stores are now full of boxes of pretty chocolates, candy, and fresh Turkish delight.  I look forward to paying some of my gratefulness forward by making some “sweet” visits to friends.

So, maybe you don’t want to move overseas.  But may I recommend that you do something to break out of your routine?  I guarantee when you do, you’ll find gratefulness.  And kind people.  Even without Turkish hospitality.  And it’ll feel pretty darn good.

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.

Scrumptious.

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)!