Culture is Everywhere

Culture is everywhere. I am discovering that this is one of the most interesting things about living as an expat. The language barrier around us is an obvious sign of being thrust into a new culture. I am also noticing smaller and smaller things that demonstrate the culture here. As a newly-arrived expat, I often can’t make heads or tails of what I am seeing. İnşaala one day I will be able to. I learn new things about our new host country every day. It is a great adventure!

I bought these cherries the other day and I chuckled when I noticed the
“nazar” sticker. It is the “evil eye” meant to ward off bad things. I see
this everywhere, hanging on door frames and in windows, on necklaces
and as pins on the lapels of clothing, and I see it as stickers or
decorations for sale everywhere. Now, I’ve seen it on my fruit. I like
noticing or discovering things like this. Here, everywhere you turn you see the Turkish flag, a portrait of or quote from Ataturk, a Nazar, or something like this. There is a distinct sense of culture and identity here to be sure.

Istanbul already has proven to be a city unlike any other city that I have experienced. It is densely packed and filled with a diversity of people that I have never encountered before. It is historically meaningful to a great degree. I am truly enjoying some of the unique aspects of living here. Just for fun, I wanted to show you one part of my “office” from today as I wrote this.

I was traveling from the Asian side of Istanbul to the European side of Istanbul today. I took the Metro (subway) and then this Vapur (ferry) across the Bosphorus. The ferry ride is about 30 minutes and only cost me 6 TL one-way. A server walks around with tea, juice, and water after the ferry takes off. My tea cost me 4 TL. Where else does a normal method of public transit give an ambiance like this?

Escaping the City

In my last post I shared about how life in the city can be a bit constricting. Recently my family and I took a quick retreat from the city to another relatively nearby city. We rented an Airbnb in Tekirdağ (about 2 1/2 hours by car from the Asian side of Istanbul) and spent a couple of nights enjoying a new place. The house is in a small town outside of the small city.

Forgive the less than idea picture. This was our first glimpse of the house. It is just ahead at the end of the road sitting right on the water. At this point, we didn’t know which house it was or how close we were to it. The owners met us here a moment later and took us right to it. They, by the way, were amazing. They both speak great English (which for me, for now, is so helpful). They gave us lots of details about the place along with videos of the place and its contents via WhatsApp ahead of time. When we noticed that the baby bed and high chair were nowhere to be found in the house, they were very quick to bring them over for us. Like I said, they are above and beyond hosts.

This is the entryway to the house. The Airbnb is the entire ground level flat. It is a 3 bedroom, 1.5 bath. The greenery overhead as you walk in grows delicious little fruit. I don’t yet know what they are, but I do know they are tasty!

This is the view of the back of the house. We haven’t stayed at a beach front place in Turkey before. This was a good first experience.

From a bit farther back, you can see how the house looks next to its neighbors. Just off to the right of the taller building was a nice little restaurant with back patio seating right on the water. There were a handful of good restaurants within walking distance from the house. On the same block across the street is a Migros grocery store. Where one of the challenges of being in an Airbnb can be getting or making food, this made it way easier for us. We split it up between buying some food and snacks from the grocery store and getting a big dinner one night from a local Kebap restaurant a few blocks away. It was great!

This was my favorite part of the whole house to be sure. I took this picture from the window in the living room. I love when beach houses have a combination of covered patios and open space together. And just beyond the black gate in the back is the sand and water from the Sea of Marmara. It’s amazing, right?

Because this area was so safe and quiet, we could let our kids run around together out back constantly. They loved being able to come and go so easily. There were lots of places to sit, a fireplace, a table to eat at, of course the beach itself.

It may seem like a small thing, but this gate made me very happy. It was easy to use, secure, and gave us the freedom to not have to worry about our kids getting out when they shouldn’t. Every morning, my son would be up earlier than everyone and he would be quietly playing in the back patio area. Thanks to the large window in the house and the back door, it was easy to keep an eye on him and afford him some felt-freedom.

Finally, here’s a quick view of the surrounding beach area right outside of the house. You can see the house with the red tile roof on the left of the photo. If you can’t tell, I would recommend this place to you if you are in the area looking for a place to stay. We are already thinking about when we can stay here again for a longer time and with more gear to maximize our time.

Living in the City with Kids

Before we moved to Turkey I heard a lot about culture shock and culture stress. So many things would be different for us in our new host country than in America. We did our best to try to find out what to expect so that we could be more prepared. Some of that helped. Some things you just can’t prepare for. One of those things you can’t really prepare for is going from living in a small town to living in a mega city.

Thankfully, Istanbul is a livable place for us. We love the public transit options. Our neighbors are kind. When I speak a little basic Turkish I get glowing responses from many people. But there are still the challenges of living in an ultra urban environment. I’ll write more about culture shock and culture stress, as well as about living in the city as a whole in a future post. Today, I simply wanted to share a glimpse of our city that makes me really happy.

This amazing park is the Maltepe Sahil. It is a gem in our city. I was shocked by how many playgrounds there are. A special treat here is the hedge maze shown in the picture. It is quite large, but manageable. It is a wonderful place to get some fresh air, meet new friends, and appreciate some scenery. Beyond all of the playgrounds, there are uncountable amounts of picnic tables and grassy areas, as well as a bike and running pathway along the water.

Sometimes the city can be a little claustrophobic, but there are ways to remedy that. Istanbul is really quite a remarkable place to call home.

Is Turkey in Europe or the Middle East?

map of region around turkey
Is Turkey in Europe, is it in the Middle East, or is it in Central Asia?

Turkey is a Mix of Europe and Asia

“Is Turkey in Europe or the Middle East?”

That was just one of many questions we had during our process of moving to Turkey. Our family had never even been to Turkey before we moved here. You can probably imagine how many preconceived notions we had before we moved. We had been hoping to move somewhere internationally for a while. Over the years we had been to a number of different countries, but never Turkey. There was just something about it, though. I still can’t really explain it. In comparison to other countries in the region, it was so similar in some ways, and so unique in other ways. The uniqueness was a major attractor for us.

It may be timely at this point to make a bit of a disclaimer. I am the farthest thing from an authority on the countries and regions I’m describing in this post. I have a cursory understanding of some very basic facts about the peoples and places I reference. Truth be told, I’m writing this (the whole blog) because I am fascinated by this whole region, Turkey included, and I want to learn more about it from firsthand experience and exposure. In my last post I started sharing a bit about my perspective doing travel writing as an expat rather than as a tourist.

“Is Turkey in Europe?”

If you didn’t have some familiarity with Istanbul, you might easily mistake parts of the city for Europe. You would be at least half-right, so “afferin! (“well done!”). Turkey is a country that spans two continents – Europe and Asia. Istanbul is the only city in the world that does the same. The city is separated by the Bosphorus Strait; to the west, you are in Europe while to the east, you are in Asia. It is funny to say that the European side feels like Europe. No matter what, by definition, the European side must feel like Europe, since it is in Europe. It’s not quite the same as a “French Quarter” (New Orleans), or a “Little Italy” (NYC), or “Persian Square” (LA).

In some parts of Istanbul, there is a decidedly European feel. The streets and sights feel European. The worldview and culture is a little more like Europe than the rest of the country. I am eager to explore the distance between these two points.

“Is Turkey in the Middle East?”

Everywhere you look, there are signs that we are in a whole new world – mosques and various styles of head coverings abound. The call to prayer goes off regularly throughout the day. To our American sensibilities, we might think we were in the Middle East. Surely there are some similarities to the Middle East, but this is decidedly not that.

“Is Turkey in Central Asia?”

old broken down playground equipment in Istanbul
This playground in Istanbul has nothing to do with Central Asia, but I wanted to share it anyway because of how inviting it is 🙂

The final comparison I have heard is that Turkey is a sort of extension of Central Asia. By Central Asia, what is traditionally meant is the 5 “-stans.” Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan.

To be honest, I have the least knowledge about Central Asia. It is interesting to me because of how removed it is from my life and my understanding of the world. One of my iTalki tutors is from a Central Asian country and has told me that there are many similarities between both the cultures and languages in this region as compared with Turkey. I will share more about how language learning factors in for me in a future post. Suffice it to say that I am really enjoying the moments where I can have simple conversations about Turkey, Turkish, and other Turkic languages and cultures in Turkish. In the future, I would love to learn bits of these other languages too, if for no other reason than to make my understanding of Turkish a bit more 3-dimensional and to communicate with people from other parts of this region of the world.

I won’t be traveling to into Central Asia any time soon, but I do hope that eventually I’ll be able to travel to as many of these countries as I can. I am eager to explore the similarities and differences of the various cultures and languages as they compare with what we know here in Turkey.

A Land of Overlaps

Is Turkey in Europe? Yes, but only 3% of it is in Europe. Is Turkey in the Middle East? Kind of. It borders the Middle East, anyway. Is Turkey in Central Asia? Not exactly.

Clearly, there are lots of good reasons why people might so easily confuse Turkey with a neighboring land. And for someone like me who has traveled a bit but not extensively, it is an exciting challenge and adventure to set up life in a new land, on the edge of the unknown, exploring whatever there is to find along the Silk Road.

Travel Writing as an Expat Resident

Ruins and a glimpse of the Hagia Sophia in Sultan Ahmet area of Istanbul

It has been just over 3 months since my family moved to Turkey. We had actually never visited Turkey before we moved either. To say that we are “wet behind the ears” would be an understatement.

Before we moved, I started trying to learn some basic Turkish using Duolingo. I also did lots of searching about Turkey and watched a little bit of Turkish content on Netflix and YouTube. I watched a lot of travel vlogs and read some travel blogs.

I’m really glad I did those things. They definitely helped take the level of difficulty down a notch or two. But in the end, crossing a culture and living in a new country is always going to be a jarring and momentous task. All the things we take for granted, all the routines and mindsets that we have developed over time, these things work like square pegs in round holes. Whether it is Turkey or South Korea or Argentina or anywhere else, there are unique aspects in each culture. The more there are, the more challenging it will be to feel normal and at home. It will take time and the desire to adapt.

That’s my hypothesis, anyway. Check back with me every 6 months!

Working on Turkish in a local cafe.

When I was digging through vlogs and blogs, I found a ton of great content focused on the European side of Istanbul – primarily around the most well-known and beloved sites. Sultan Ahmet Cami (Blue Mosque), Ayasofya (Hagia Sofia), The Grand Bazaar, Topkapi Palace, Ortaköy Cami, Galata Tower, Istiklal street, and Taksim Square. Occasionally two districts from the Asian side would show up too – Üsküdar and Kadıköy.

These places show up regularly because they are amazingly beautiful and historically rich. It seems that when you think of Turkey, you think of Istanbul. And when you think of Istanbul you think of these picturesque sights.

A snowy spring day in the neighborhood.

Personally, I am eager to explore these places more and get to know more of the history and the culture of Turkey. I’m excited to share that with you. For the last 3 months, we have mostly been setting up our new life here.

Just a regular street in a neighborhood on the Asian side of Istanbul.

You see, therein lies the key difference in my mind from most travel blogs and travel writers compared to our approach here. I love and am compelled by those writers and video producers. In my case, I have always wanted to experience a culture in the longer term as a resident. I honestly never knew how that might (or whether it even could) play out one day. But now we are here, embedding in the culture outside of the tourist areas, trying to learn to speak the language, building friendships with locals, and learning to live in a new culture.

A blustery day in a mega city.

I have no idea how this blog will evolve over time. That fact actually makes me really excited. I feel a great sense of freedom to explore, observe, and learn. Because it is all so new it is difficult to know where to start. That’s why I’m writing this now. I want to give you a window into my mind as to how I’m approaching things. I think, at least for this season, this blog will be in a more narrative format. It’s my story of crossing a culture and exploring a totally new and foreign region.

A Blizzard in Istanbul

Last week an incredible blizzard blew through Istanbul and seemingly everywhere else. There were reports of as much as 31” (80cm) of snow in some parts of the city. We only saw a comparatively small amount in our area. But in a city of 16 million people, there’s no way to carry on like normal when that kind of weather arrives. Many businesses stayed open, which surprised me. The footing was treacherous however. Snow became slush became rough ice. A handful of days into the storm, our front walkway to our building was completely covered by a layer of 3” of ice. Eventually a pair of city workers were deployed with industrial-sized ice scrapers to break it all up and clear the walkway. It was beautiful and peaceful, but about the same time it seemed like everyone everywhere was starting to get Covid. We got it in our family too. And then I had some dental emergencies (which I’ll share more about in a future post). A blizzard, covid, and dental emergencies all at the same time. It was a rough week. We survived it though, so we are thankful. Things are looking up!

It is nice to be back in a place that can experience all 4 seasons. I have missed the snow (but not so much that I want a lot of it – I’m good for now). For now, I just wanted to share a glimpse of our city from our view in last week’s storm.

On the Menu: Börek

On the Menu

My last post kicked off an ongoing series called On the Menu. I shared a bit about my first experience with Tost. A key desire for our family in moving to Turkey is learning to live in a foreign culture and learning the foreign culture. Turkey is so intriguing to us, but we are discovering that engaging a totally new culture is a massive endeavor. I realize that it isn’t something to do over a weekend, or even in the month that we have lived here.

The way I have seen it, there are two key entry points for engaging with the culture, especially as an expat who has just moved here. One is language and the other is food. A culture isn’t contained in language and food, but so much of the culture is displayed by and woven into these things. Needless to say, I am eagerly engaging both.

Today, I want to share about a tiny intersection between these two things. I am enrolled in a language class 20 hours per week. There is nothing easy about learning Turkish, but the class is fun and it is helping me climb the mountain of learning to speak and understand Turkish. Every hour, we take a 10 minute break. Right across the street from my class is a little Börek shop.

The way I figured it, I am spending half a day each day learning the language. I might as well take the opportunity to start exploring the local cafes and shops around my class during my breaks and commute time. My favorite little spot is the Börek shop.

There are 4 main kinds of Börek. “Ispanaklı,” “peynirli,” “patatesli,” and “etli.” Those are “spinach,” “cheesey,” “potato,” and “meat.” Essentially, it is a long croissant, with one of those fillings, chopped up and served warm. It is light, flaky, and delicious. I prefer it for breakfast, but I have had one for a snack mid-day, as well as for lunch. It never really felt out of place. So far, I have only tried the meat version. I’ll be trying other kinds too.

Cost

  • Börek – 15 TL ($1.00)
  • Çay – 3 TL ($0.22)

Worth It?

It is absolutely worth it. Starting with Tost was a very simple, familiar start into Turkish food. Börek is a small step forward. One of my favorite parts about the food and drink at this little shop is actually the opportunity to say hello and begin speaking some basic Turkish with the owners. They are very kind and friendly people and they are patient with my elementary language abilities. They wave at me when I walk by their shop too.

Like I said at the outset, this is one example of food being a gateway to culture. It is offering me taste, environment, language opportunity, and new relationships. These are the things I’m here for (in reverse order!).

On the Menu: Tost

Food in Turkey

“Strange” and “normal” are often in the eye of the beholder. This is especially true when it comes to food and drink. I have often heard from people who have lived in Turkey or visited here that the food is excellent. In some countries or regions of the world, there are, let’s say, interesting foods and drinks. I have tasted a few of those things over the years. I never heard of any seemingly strange foods in Turkey. To my sensibility, there is a much lower learning curve here than in many places in the world when it comes to local cuisine.

On the Menu

I have been excited to share some of my discoveries, but truth be told, I wasn’t sure how best to share them. So what I think I’ll do is share little bits at a time, as I discover it myself. I’ll make this an ongoing series called On the Menu. In this series, I’ll share about the food and/or drink item, the cost and current conversion rate, and what I think of the menu item(s).

Today, I’ll start with something very simple, affordable, and familiar. It is called “Tost.” That’s not a type – it is a Turkish word. In this case, it is a grilled cheese sandwich. It came with a small side of fries and a couple of slices of cucumber and tomato.

Cost

  • Sandwich, fries, veggies – 15 TL / $1.08
  • Tea, bottle of water, fresh squeezed juice – 29 TL / $2.09

Worth It?

Yes. My goodness. The food and drink is fresh and good quality. As an American who has been living here for only one month, this dish is quite similar to something I would find at home, so it is that much more comforting. If I need a simple, quick, inexpensive, but tasty meal, this is one thing I can definitely choose.

Why Turkey?

“Why do you want to live in Turkey?”

We have heard that question more than a few times since we decided to move here, and especially since we got here. It’s a fair question, I suppose.

There are lots of reasons why we want to live here. At the top of the list is giving our family an opportunity live in and learn a new culture and language. For the longest time, I have always wanted to live in a foreign culture and I have always wanted the opportunity to raise my family in a foreign culture. Stepping out of our normal to find a “new normal” is appealing. We enjoyed and appreciated our life in America, but we knew it would broaden our worldview and grow us as individuals and as a family if we lived in a new culture.

Turkey is a place with great historical and cultural significance. That much is evident from its architecture and even a cursory knowledge of world history. Byzantium, Constantinople, Istanbul. These names bring ancient and modern history with them. I’m fascinated by this and deeply intrigued by this place.

These photos are another aspect of our desire to live internationally as a family. Our kids have lived in a small town and in a big city. Their experience in a big city was nothing compared to life in a city like Istanbul. We have only just arrived, but it feels like we have arrived at the edge of many beautiful discoveries – discoveries of history, culture, and language. There is much we don’t know, but one thing is clear: we will never be the same.

We’re Finally Home!

The Duffel Bag Saga Comes comes to an end. These bags have loomed large in our family’s life for the last 6 months. They have been a sort of bookmark in our life. It was quite the journey getting them from America to Turkey, but we are here.

We had been looking at apartments on Sahibinden (which is sort of like a mix between Zillow and CraigsList) for weeks leading up to our move. We couldn’t take any action on a place until we were in-country, but it was good to know what we might expect. Once we were in-country, it took us 2 days to find our apartment and sign the rental agreement.

We found a new-build place in a good area with an easy walk to the Metro. It was a great find and we are so excited to have our home!

It was a true joy to see the movers pull up with a load of home furnishings we had bought ahead of time. The only stuff we brought in-country from America was in the aforementioned duffel bags. This truck was loaded down with a “household,” which included everything from furniture, to furnishings, to toys, etc.

Now that we are finally in our new home, we are starting to get adjusted to life in a new culture. We are so excited to be here. We have so much to learn, but it will be good process.