The past few days I have been very unhappy, frustrated and irritable. Part of it is that my mouth hurts and I think it's from clenching my teeth at night and also the pressure of my wisdom teeth (no, I haven't gotten them pulled yet). The other part is that when I go out, even in my rather calm neighborhood of Mecidiyeköy, the amount and type of attention I get from men is close to intolerable at times. I must go from looking foreign to looking pissed off and foreign within a matter of minutes. Sometimes I will endure someone's stare for an entire block. Sometimes one man will see me and nudge his friend and then they both just watch me. Sometimes they mutter things under their breath as I pass. One time a man walked by me and, while there was plenty of space on the sidewalk, he ran half his body into me and I couldn't help but feel slightly groped... so much so that I actually stopped a few steps later to check of he had stolen anything from me.
All of this just feels more like a lack of respect than a compliment. I say this because when I mentioned to my female Turkish friend how often men stared and yelled out to me asking, with hope in their voice, if I am Russian, she said it is like a compliment because they think Russians are beautiful. *I researched it a little and some people think that it's a little more psychological than that... that Turkish men like to sleep with Russian women because it feels like they are "conquering Russia" in that act.
All in all, I know from traveling since I was young that people treat a tourist woman differently and also that they are attracted to them because they are new in their eyes, but the lack of subtlelty here is what infuriates me. As I walk past a local mosque on the second day of Ramadan and almost every man on the block is staring at me with dark, hungry eyes... I feel the literal pull between the two strangely coexisting aspects of Istanbul, though I have a hard time identifying them perfectly.
On one hand we have this old, old city. It is jam-packed full of history, significant cultural and religious places. There are mosques everywhere and many women wear the hijab and many men stroll around with their rosaries.
On the other hand we have intense consumerism, so many shopping malls, short skirts, high heels and heavy makeup, nightclubs, alcohol and the idea that this is Europe.
The clash of these two things can be strikingly beautiful or unpleasant...
At times I love it. Like when I saw a girl in a hijab with a long full covering dress and then her bright pink converse all-stars peaking out. That makes me smile.
Other times I can't stand it, like when I saw a man smacking his wife as they walked down a main street and then grab her forecfully by the arm and pull her along.
It's confusing. I know that I am a modern independent woman who has just as many rights as any man. But as a yabancı (a foreigner) living in a new city, it can feel that I am what I am seen as, and I am not sure I like it.
I know, I know: don't let others define you, and I don't. I am just irritated when it feels like how other see me does not line up with how I see myself.
I don't feel very comfortable defining myself as a bellydancer here, I say the words but the reaction I get seems like I just said I am a stripper or a prostitute. It is lowly and sexual.
In the U.S. it felt like I had said something synonymous with "artist" because the thought of it being an ethnic dance form is easy to understand. Here I feel like I have to explain what that means and it still isn't easily swallowed.
Honestly, there are times when my dancer spirit feels totally pushed down, away from who I am and I think, perhaps I shouldn't try to do that [dance] here? Judging on how little I like the attention I get just walking down the street, how would I like the attention I would get from performing? I worry that it would bring on more unwanted looks, words and experiences.
And then I wonder, then what the hell am I doing here? And hope that something shifts in my life so that I can feel artistically fulfilled.
I want to teach regularly. I want to perform to quality live music from this region of the world and I want to do this all for fair compensation. Do you hear that, universe?
Because this is who I am.
Since I haven't been able to get any gigs yet, I have been trying to stay positive and practice as much as I can. I try to deepen my understanding of my muscles and movements and also try to see what patterns I've gotten accustomed to doing, breaking dance habits and trying to create something fresh. Often I will video improvisations just to playback and observe these things. It can be VERY helpful and sometimes (just sometimes!) I will like it and share with friends.
Here are two improvisations from the past two months that I felt happy about and also that did something new for me. In both there are a lot of isolations, sweeping arm movements, and the attempt to portray the songs as best as I can.
first song: Beats Antique Remix of "Makaan" by Natacha Atlas
second song: "Amphibian Circuits" by Dirtwire
THE TRASH WOMEN OF ISTANBUL
Your big laugh echoes
down the street, convincing me
that life’s not so bad.
THE TRASH MEN OF ISTANBUL
These streets were not made
with you in mind, up-down-up
hope lost and hope gained.
pushes my insides high up
to my throat with guilt.
THE OLD MEN WHO SMOKE
outside on their swivel chairs
think and stare and smoke.
ALL I CAN SEE ARE YOUR EYES
I don’t mind your scarf
all I can see are your eyes
as they window shop.
Girls here link their arms
like we used to, like it would
save us or something.
As I walk to work in Istanbul I pass by beggars: children just a few years older than my daughter, mothers with their bundled babies and old women selling packets of tissues for a Lira. I am not a rich person and at this point in time barely financially sound but sometimes I will give them some change. These moments, which since I have been in Turkey I can count on one hand, always have such a strong impact on me that I think about it for days and days, like I am recovering from something.
I want to emphasize here that my reaction is not much to do with my action... that is to say that I am not incredibly impressed with what I did or think it some grand step for humankind. Rather, my reaction is more of a realization of how closed off I was up until that moment of giving, just so that I don't feel too much. My reaction is really my reacquaintance with the truth of my emotional, compassionate, tender and sensitive nature, all of which are aspects that I hide and harden at times in order to cope with problems, enjoy the world and maintain healthy and growing relationships.
As far back as I can remember I have been an emotional type: easily humored, easily inspired, easily depressed and easily teary-eyed. Not only did my acquaintances with the world through travel deeply imbed the visions of poverty and desperation, but the little things of day-to-day life would bring me to moral decisions. My willing imagination gave feelings to inanimate objects and I would create groups and families of types, colors, petal and leaf shapes. I wanted everything to feel fair... even if it couldn't really feel. I wanted everything to feel like it wasn't alone, and thus I began to cope through creating communities. Communities of stuffed animals, communities of beads, communities of m&m's and communities of seeds. I felt that is something was alone it was afraid and would prefer to be paired up with one of it's kind, whether that be on a shelf, in the ground or in my belly!
The thought has often crossed my mind, "is this like Obsessive Compulsive Disorder?" but I don't think it's quite the right fit. Instead it is something like "Emotionally Ever-Expansive" or "Compassion Unraveled"... "Compassion Unrivaled"? I know I am not alone here. The scene in American Beauty when the two teenagers are watching one of the boys home videos and he says:
"It was one of those days when it's a minute away from snowing and there's this electricity in the air, you can almost hear it. Right? And this bag was just dancing with me. Like a little kid begging me to play with it. For fifteen minutes. That's the day I realized that there was this entire life behind things, and this incredibly benevolent force that wanted me to know there was no reason to be afraid, ever. Video's a poor excuse, I know. But it helps me remember... I need to remember... Sometimes there's so much beauty in the world, I feel like I can't take it, and my heart is just going to cave in."
That final line is perfect to me. That is how I feel! I have taken to a new habit, since I am seeing so many new things here in Istanbul, of taking a quick second to close my eyes like the shutter of a camera when I see something that makes me feel this way; something I wish I could capture and share. The woman peeking under her Turkish coffee cup to see her fortune, the beautiful Syrian refugee mother walking through the Metro station with her family, the young men walking with arms around each other, the woman's sideways glance from behind her burqa at the revealing lace and sequined gowns in a store window... I take an extended blink as if my lashes press the image deeper into my memory to recall upon for inspiration.
I think I have been an expat long before now, even while residing in “my country” of the United States of America. My upbringing was a training to leave and the evolution of my attitude towards my hometown were the stepping stones to my eventual expatriation. As my opinions and beliefs regarding American politics, media and the government developed, I day-dreamed more and more about leaving. It isn’t a strong part of my character that has wanted to “abandon ship” and it doesn’t agree with all the things I feel. I feel a lot about all of those things, I have an opinion, but in actuality I was doing very little about it. Posting my opinion about Palestine on Facebook was not really an action as much as I love to imagine all 1409 of my “friends” reading it and agreeing with me. So to live in a place where many aspects of the country infuriate me and at the same time be in a personal or emotional place where I don’t or can’t prioritize making a difference resulted in a very helpless and pathetic feeling me. This, along with other things I will explain, was one deep underlying reason for me wanting to leave the United States.
I was raised inside the fascination of the worlds cultures, constantly seeking more and indulging in the magic of the Eastern religions, the tastes from roadside kitchens, the masks of ancient art forms. We left as much and spent as long away as we could afford to. My mind held onto the magic, the tastes… the steam of rice dishes and sweet purity of fresh tropical fruits. My heart held onto the sight of poverty and the way it would induce a harsh and sudden appreciation for all that I have. All of me held onto the knowledge that there is so much more than what we are born into and if made a priority, one can experience it and possibly achieve a higher level of awareness and understanding. I had a beautiful illustrated book about Siddhartha and I could always relate to his secret trip to town, where he first witnessed sick people, poverty and death. That is how traveling felt for me… transformative and therefor irreplaceable. Without seeing these things that give perspective it is like living your whole life blind. The way I’ve said it to friends considering a trip: “There is no better education than to travel the world.”
Obviously not everywhere else is some tropical paradise. And so I find myself in a “somewhere else” that looks a lot like home. This city has tall buildings, malls, restaurants, coffee shops, bars, playgrounds, hamburgers and french fries; men drenched in cologne and women wearing high heels in the rain. In many ways this is just like the United States of America, aside from it being an Islamic country, though the governments power via this matter doesn’t seem so different to me as the so-called “Democracy” of the U.S.A.
Yet here I am an “expat.”
I didn’t realize that we were going to be called that, I didn’t think about it. I remember my mom using the term when we were in Thailand. I always associated expats with a grey-haired white men from America, England or Australia who moved to a third-world country and married a native girl who was, usually, quite a bit younger. They would relax for the rest of their lives and live comfortably, if not lavishly, with her cooking all his meals and him inviting his friends to visit, usually convincing at least one of them to stay and join him on a life of remarkably real affordable happiness.
We are expats here, young and brown-haired with our toddler daughter. We do not live lavishly, we do not shop for things we don’t need; we do not live much differently than the average local in our neighborhood. We seek out the cheap markets and while our apartment is spacious and lovely, there were a few cockroaches living with us during the first week of transition from vacant to occupied (by humans). Needless to say, my definition of “expat” has changed dramatically since becoming one.
No one called me one, I only realized my new identity because I was searching for answers about where to find things or do things in Istanbul that were centered on being a resident and I kept on being brought to websites that were “A Guide for Expats in Turkey” and titles like that. And so I realized, “A-hah, I am an expat!” and then, “Wait…where’s my fresh papaya and pad thai?”
Before I left, and since I’ve been here, many people asked me, “Why move to Turkey?” and while I understand that California and The Bay Area in particular are incredibly beautiful places to live, I think it is also a bit of a curse to be born there. Now don’t get mad and let me explain. I only consider it to be a curse because if you’re someone with a soul like mine, someone who longs to see other places and re-root somewhere else in the world. For me it is painful to be from the Bay Area. With it’s beautiful land, incredible art scene that bounds boldly to all ends of the spectrum, the coast, the mountain, the food, the nature and the great schools, the Bay Area is a Utopia. But my soul has longed to leave home and because of all it’s great qualities, I feel unfortunate to call it “home”! I am often jealous of people we were born and raised there and have no desire to leave but to get to know it better and become those awesome experts of their habitat. Those people who test our tons of different Pho restaurants and know which farmer’s market is best and weird shortcuts through the city. Cheers to you! I seriously and very genuinely applaud you.
Of course I am grateful to have been raised there. Childhood in Bolinas was like a dream with it’s wonderful seasons of blackberry pickin’ , puddle stomping, cliff-climbing and hot beach days. It is a truly enchanting place that I was and am proud to be from. I look back fondly on the first 18 years of my life that were primarily spent there, give or take the half-time that occurred once I was in high school (us Bolinas kids usually end up finding at least one surrogate family “over-the-hill” just so we don’t have to take the hour-long bus ride over Mt. Tam every morning and evening of the school week). I think that those years of development within a place that is surrounded by wild nature and a community of eccentrics and artists is healthy because kids there tend to be more open-minded and accepting of things and people that may not be “normal”. At least that’s how I felt until I was 18.
A sad, violent and shocking event occurred in Bolinas that changed my view of it for quite a while and was a large reason for why I was so keen to move away. Without going into to detail, a group of my peers attacked and actually attempted to kill a man who was not a local, but had been staying in Bolinas for a few months. I could not understand why. Even after town-meetings and hearing their many reasons or excuses… I couldn’t see it from their side. And it was on this note that many long, some life-long, friendships I had were cut off and I moved to Berkeley, disconnecting myself from my hometown but still residing in my “home” of the Bay Area. This was the first time I expatriated myself. I barely visit much and when I did return for one summer I spent most of my time over-the-hill or with a different group of friends in town, mostly adults whose ages sat strangely perfectly between my mom and I so we just shared them.
Between the years of 2008 and 2011 I lived in two different apartments in Berkeley and then with my boyfriend at the time, Andy, who was also my best friend. We lived in a few different places within the East Bay and during one summer we lived at our parents houses (though like I said before, I really spent most of my time at his house… I even had a drawer for my clothes). Eventually we got a place in Emeryville with a roommate and had our own house. It was all good fun until someone broke in and stole a bunch of our stuff. I know that I may sound like a wuss, especially to all you who have lived in Oakland, but we packed up all our stuff that night and left. If the set up of the house and property have been better then I may have reacted differently, but it wasn’t like most blocks in the East Bay. This house stood alone with a lot of space between it and the other houses and a weirdly huge and open backyard that made it very visible from all angles. It was like a perfect little target for any one to check out and break into. After that we got a very safe studio apartment in the heart of Downtown Berkeley and we lived there until 2011 when we broke up and parted ways.
It wasn’t long before the love of my life, and now father of my child, moved up to the Bay and we officially became something, not just summer loves. Now, I must warn you that from this point onward my housing luck (or rather, our housing luck) just kept getting worse and worse. The only gem of positivity I can find in it is that our shitty experiences together only made our togetherness stronger and our ability to behave and think like a team was sharpened. I won’t go into detail on all the places we lived at, of which there were many, but the experiences included a vanilla extract addict, a swinger party-throwing and prostitute-hiring landlord, a prostitute neighbor tenant (suprisingly, the last two were in different cities… maybe they know each other though), a psychotically angry roommate and his hysterical girlfriend, a renting through family disaster, an over-controlling roommate and a live-work situation with people who didn’t trust us. It has been quite a ride. Of course within all of that there were good bits, staying with our good friends in Berkeley for the most part and there were really great times at some of those places even if the roommates sucked or the landlords we jerks. But in the end, when something wasn’t right, we would eventually move on. At one point we built our own little wagon and left Northern California for warmer weather; it felt like we were escaping in that sweet mini-home. I can barely find the words to describe how much of a sanctuary that wagon was; a hand built and necessary, even if only momentary, protective shell for our little family.
I also want to point out that I understand there is more to the United States than California, but not many other states attract me as places to live. Portland, Oregon and Austin, Texas have caught my interest before for school and dance reasons, and I would love to visit New York City… my family has land in Wyoming that I would love to see, but where else in the United States would I want to actually live? It’s not just about whether the land is pretty or if I’m close to the ocean, whether there is a nice city or a job waiting for me. It’s also whether or not there are incredible dancers for me to see and study with, whether or not there are musicians for my husband to learn from or perform with, if there are places to perform, and I think most of all: is there a culture we are interested in.
I’ve taken part in the “American Culture” discussion many times and I used to say that there isn’t one. That is not true, there is definitely an American Culture. It’s just very new and very spread out and different from many cultures across the globe, it is infinitely multi-faceted. The United States is a huge place and within it there are cultures and countercultures and endless types of people and ways of being. But to say “I’m American” and have that mean more than just where you were born is a bit of a stretch. Because of the multi-faceted nature of American Culture one person walking down the street could be a African-American Wiccan Woman who works at a thrift store and another person walking down the street could be an Irish descent man from the countryside who recently converted to Islam. There are certain places was there is more of a norm, but if you’re in the Bay, for instance, there’s really no telling who anyone is!
So when asked, “Why move to Turkey?” this is what I wish to say:
Aside from us both having the types of souls that seek something fresh and untried, we also both seem to marvel at the existence of a primary culture: it is mentally arousing, personally challenging and a stimulation and education for the soul.
The culture that exists here is old, even if there are gleaming new aspects to it; even if there are awesome and appropriate new countercultures. It is a place that has always made sense: a crossroads for trade, for knowledge. A bridge between two continents. A land of treasure and battles; history has been made here before. People have combined here. Empires built and lost here.
The fact that the culture is old and seems so set in stone makes it feel like there is some structure to how things are here. It isn’t an American free-for-all. While I don’t doubt that many walls need to be broken down or updated (this is both literal and metaphorical), I think that the existence of this structure is a good thing, it is the skeleton of this ancient place.
As for my soul… the hunger to be somewhere new and untried has been fed for now. But hey, there’s still the whole world out there. That is said with a smile and was my go-to short answer for the frequently asked question, “Why move to Turkey?” and then I’d like to turn it around and ask, “Why stay in the United States?”
"Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.”
"The World is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page." -Saint Augustine
I can think privately as much as I want, but there is nothing like being questioned only to find my true opinion within the spontaneous answer. For instance, a woman came to a party at our house the other night and asked me an array of questions all of which were centered on the main curiosity of the difference between the United States and Turkey for me. I can elaborate here and maybe say things more clearly. So far, there are some things that are incredibly similar and familiar, especially since we live in Istanbul which is an urban metropolis. I think my answers would vary greatly if I were comparing rural Turkey to “the United States”. So I’ll just compare Istanbul to the cities I’ve lived in within the U.S. which are, by the way, San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland, Santa Cruz and San Diego.
The first thing that comes to mind is the state of the city when it comes to cleanliness, air quality, poverty and buildings. Most of the streets here are closer in likeness to the streets of Asia, much dirtier than the streets of any of the U.S. cities I’ve lived in, give-or-take a few back-alleys in Oakland or San Francisco. I asked someone in a store if I could throw something away and they gestured toward the street and laughed at me like I was ridiculous. There are garbage men who collect the endless trash bags that people throw onto the street or from the occasional large bins that are sometimes on the corner of blocks (we are lucky to have these on our street). It doesn’t seem like most people separate recycling and trash but there are some poor people who pull around huge bag-like containers and search for recycling in the trash which I assume they bring somewhere to sell by weight. We decided to separate ours so it would be easier for them. I saw such a young boy pulling one of those containers the other night, full after a long days “harvest” and his mother was walking beside him, trudging up the hill of our street. I thought that the hills of this city must make this boy so frustrated, since he wants as much weight as possible, but probably despises the weight almost as much.
The air is thick, full of cigarette smoke and the sweet smell of roasting chestnuts which are sold by vendors on all the main streets. These scents combined with the frequent bakeries makes Istanbul a very warm and delicious-smelling city; it reminds me of fathers and uncles, winter holidays and one of the best things in the world: bread.
The buildings are a perfect metaphor for Istanbul: half old, half new. Even on super busy main roads it feels like an almost perfect pattern of old, new, old, new… I started wondering if they can only renovate a certain amount of buildings per block or not more than two beside each other. I enjoy the pattern because the stark, boring new buildings make the beautiful details of the old stand out even more. Sometimes though, the old buildings have lost most of their beauty and are actually close to being ruins: walls falling crumbling, windows missing, roofs collapsed. They look unlivable to me but I’ve seen lights on in the window and laundry hung out on makeshift lines.
I see more beggars out at night: a crippled man, small dirty children with clothes and shoes that don’t fit right, mothers with their babies and children. Being a mother, it is difficult for me to see little babies on the street, their huge eyes peering up at all the people walking by just inches from them. It makes me wonder about what they think of the world, from this strange position below the bustling businessmen and brisk rich wives walking home from the mall. The constant perspective alone must be having a strong impact on their literal view of the world. It makes me sad of course, but I cannot afford to help them with money; I have given them food. However, for those of you who have been to Asia, the amount of beggars here are minuscule in comparison and not in as bad of shape physically or in general. They seem to be warm enough and I see restaurants and stores put out food and boxes of produce that has gone a little over it’s prime so it’s possible for the poor to get food, even relatively healthy food. They may eat more salad than a lot of wealthy people we know!
Speaking of supplying food… I have never lived somewhere that has so many fat and healthy street cats. Barely anyone owns a cat but lots of people buy cat food and make little perches for them outside their windows. Even more than that, people build little apartments for the cats out of old drawers and cardboard boxes, decking them out with soft blankets, old sweaters and scarves, bring them new plates of food every day. These cats are stoked, and, as a result, not very whiney at all. The same is done for dogs although there are much less of them in comparison. Most of the ones I’ve seen have little tag earrings which means they’ve been documented and given shots. The fact that they have these didn’t really eliminate my fear when two of them decided to jump on me the other night, paws on my back and shoulders and smelling my hair and purse. Luckily they weren’t aggressive and backed off after I yelled one big “NO!”.
A frightening aspect of Istanbul is the driving and traffic. In the United States I feel like even though people may speed sometimes or run the occasional red-light, the majority of people are respecting the laws and also pay close attention to pedestrians and emergency vehicles. Here, it is as if cars were created without the option to go in reverse. I said this to Ryan the other day and he looked at me so genuinely and said, “They don’t have reverse in Turkish cars.” and I totally believed him. This is not just a testament to my gullibility, but even more so about how aggressively people drive! No one wants to come to complete stop, no one wants to back up. Never. It’s like it would insult Turkishness which, in case you didn’t know, is an actual crime here (check out Article 301: Turkish Penal Code). We were walking along a bigger multi-lane freeway the other day and there was thick traffic and an ambulance blaring, trying to make it’s way ahead of everyone. We watched not one, not two, but three taxis speed in front of the ambulance because you know, their job is so much more important.
Now, moving away from describing the city, to my experience so far and how it feels to be here as a woman, a foreigner and a mother. I have to say I feel like I have two completely different selves here but don’t worry, it’s not in a scary psycho way, just in the way the locals see me. This depends entirely on whether I walk out of the door with my family or by myself.
When we go out as a family we are immediately defined, identified, adored and accepted. The fact that we speak little to no Turkish is irrelevant because we are a family. That essentially means we are good people headed down the right path and our doing our duties as human beings. Szabina is doted upon and gifted constantly with toys, treats and many praises (to God no less!). Now, I should point out that in the U.S. I felt like we were judged as a family because of our ages. There it seems much more acceptable and commendable to do the regular track: complete high school, get into a good college where you will meet your true love, earn your degrees together and get jobs in your desired professions. But that is not all… no, no, no! Then you need to get married and using your massive savings and wedding gift money buy yourself a 4 bedroom 2 bath with a nice backyard, paint a nursery, get a dog, and then talk about “trying”. My family is the exact opposite of all of these things. We represent the unplanned, illegitimate and unorganized. We are young, unmarried and degree-less. In the United States we are poor dreamers and artists with baby in tow. But not here…
Here it feels like the fact that we are young and have a child is the way it should be; we are some link to the past, the good ol’ days (I wonder if they have a phrase like this in Turkish). Heck, I should’ve been popping out babies since I was 16 according to the good ol’ days! Also, we take full advantage of the fact that nobody knows us so we just say that we are married just to smooth that bit over in the fragile and easily offended traditional mindset of a monotheistic country. I love going out with Ryan and Szabina because we meet lots of people, make new friends, practice more Turkish and learn more because people like to explain things to our 2 year-old. And she impresses them with her “Merhaba” and counting and “Iyi gunler!”. Going out together is also easier because between Ryan and I together, we can usually understand a bit more of what someone is trying to tell us. And we both soak up different grammar points or notice different things and then point it out to each other. Also, it’s totally normal for a complete stranger to walk up to us and either touch Szabina or try to pick her up. Depending on the setting and her mood (or whether or not she likes the person) this can either be sweet or stressful. As a foreigner I don’t want to offend them but above anything I am a mother and will protect my child even if it’s just her being cranky. As an emotionally sensitive person I try hard to treat her emotions like I want people to treat mine. Usually just telling people that she is tired works but sometimes it’s a relief to have Ryan there because he is more assertive and get’s the message across more clearly.
Everything is different when I go out alone. I feel like I stick out like a sore thumb whether it be because of my long uncovered hair, blue eyes, dress or gender. I am looked at so intensely and sternly that I cannot figure out why. It doesn’t matter if it is a man or woman looking at me, I can’t tell what they are thinking. In the U.S. if someone looked at me for that long and looking at my whole body it usually felt like there was a fairly clear motivation or inspiration behind it. Here it could be just as easily by judgement as it could be attraction. I don’t necessarily have a preference considering I’m not looking for either type of attention. I try to dress respectfully but also be myself. Almost every day I wear blue jeans, a t-shirt, boots, scarf and jacket. In my neighborhood there are more family-types and older people, but three blocks toward the center and there are tons of young people: students, teachers, tourists, businessmen and businesswomen. Compared to many women I see from that point onward toward the fashion shopping area, I would consider my attire to be very conservative. However you see a hot young woman in her sheer tights, short skirt and heels and just a few paces ahead of her is a woman in a full burqa with only her eyes showing. It’s all so old and new! Or perhaps the right words are: “Traditional and Modern”?
I saw a girl in front of an English Language school… she was wearing her hijab tightly pinned on and her dress was unflattering and practically floor-length… but below it her Converse sneakers were poking out. In one hand she held a cigarette and the other was scrolling over her iPhone. If I could choose one person I have seen so far to represent how I see Istanbul, it was her.
When we decided to move to Istanbul, we worked hard over several months with the hopes of saving up between $15,000 to $20,000 so that we would have cushion in case it was difficult to get work or if any surprise costs arose such as new types of permits, visas, deposits or doctor visits. Although we worked hard, in the end we were only able to save about $8000 and after plane tickets and an airbnb apartment in a good neighborhood for our first 20 days we were already down to much less, but it wasn’t frightening. More than anything it pushed us to get out of our jetlag/nocturnal life quicker and get on top of finding work, finding our own place and grounding ourselves here in this new country for us. Have there been moments when we wondered “how is this going to work”?, yes. For sure. Have there been feelings of desperation? Certainly. But instead of getting overwhelmed by being less prepared than we hoped, we pushed harder for what we needed. The truth is, for Americans, jobs are practically spoon-fed to you here. To be a “native” American English speaker is admired and desired, and so easily acquired.
Because I am new to the schools I’m eager to impress my employers and teaching is somewhat new to me, so it’s a learning experience in itself… although I think that remains true for all teachers, no matter how long they have been doing it. Structuring classes, choosing exercises, re-learning grammar rules, fulfilling requirements and remaining captivating is my new work world. I know that over time it will improve, but for now I’m sticking close to the book and trying to soak up as much as possible from my classes to be better prepared for future classes! Sometimes it makes me miss being a student… maybe one day I’ll go back to school. I hope so. I should be taking some Turkish language classes since we have decided to move here. Unfortunately, it’s not the most beautiful language, and isn’t a very intriguing one to learn. I would much rather reacquaint myself with Persian or Arabic or even French which I am more attracted to.
What does make me want to learn Turkish is my inability to communicate with everyone around me, I feel really foolish sometimes… like the other morning after we had a party at our house, someone rang our doorbell and I opened it to find a woman holding a mop and there was water all over the stairs and on the landing in front of our door. She started talking to me in Turkish and all I had to work with was her expression which, to me, seemed stressed and worried. That plus all the water and all I could assume was that there was a flood upstairs and she was telling me something about it. I woke up our friend who had slept over after the party and asked him to translate. The actuality was that she cleans the entry and stairs of our apartment building twice a month and we pay her 20 Lira, which she was asking me to pay her. I felt like such an idiot. So, learning Turkish is a PRIORITY, to save face if nothing else!
Another interesting thing I have been feeling and thinking about since we moved here is my lack or loss of the consumer mindset. I think that I, like many Americans, receive comfort in the act of shopping.
You have extra money!
You keep up with the latest fashions!
You can get just what you want right when you want it!
You have multiple bottles of perfume for different occasions or emotional states!
I have no extra money, I wear essentially the same thing every day and it’s functional instead of fashionable, I don’t need anything else and I use lotion or body oil with scent but don’t enjoy using perfume because I personally feel accosted or attacked by the smell of others’ perfumes at times and would not want to cause that for other people. I find it rude, sometimes, how much perfume someone will put on themselves. Of course there are times that I catch the scent of someone and think that they smell incredible! But, more often than not, I feel like I can taste the “designer perfume” and get mad about it.
Anyway, back to my point. I am not currently someone who just shops aside from groceries or necessary household needs like dish soap and laundry detergent. When we first got our apartment we spent far too much money at this one store about 10 minutes away that is like an underground IKEA, but way better and much more colorful. That was the last time I felt like I was shopping and that’s only because I was getting more than I needed.
So, I am no longer a consumer and it really changes things! It’s quite liberating actually. It isn’t that I don’t see things that I’d like to wear or own. Believe me, Istanbul is FULL of things I want: antiques, cute jeans, gorgeous rugs, vintage Anatolian vests and Afghan coats… I want it all, but I don’t even consider buying anything when I see it. I’ve replaced “considering purchasing” an item with photographing it. I am treating all these things with the respect of documentation. Part of me thinks, “maybe one day…” but I never get attached. I think there’s only one thing that my old consumer brain clings onto and that’s treats. I buy cookies and nutella and ice cream and pastries on the regular. I get excited about it like someone else might get excited about a new outfit or new shoes. I go leave the house thinking, “Which Turkish treat will become mine on this outing!?”
There is another aspect of my relationship with money which has to do with being part of a family unit. What is “mine” is no longer just mine. As a partner and parent I can’t be frivolous and spontaneous with money. Simply put: it isn’t an option. I still think about things to purchase but because there is no option to buy it right now I think about it in more detail. Instead of considering things I see right in front of me, I think about what would be really, truly perfect to make our home and life more beautiful. For instance, today I saw Szabina admiring the windows of a restaurant that had been decorated with large butterfly and flower stickers. I started thinking about her play area and what would make it feel more beautiful and personalized. Perhaps a low table for her to sit at while she draws. Maybe a few fairy posters or a small bookshelf. Or when I was walking through the mall in the Trump Towers today there were festive lights hung all over the building, inside and outside. It made me think about finding some soft lights to hang in the living room to create a magical feeling and an alternative to bright or completely dark.
All of it makes me think about the homes that have made me feel in awe. One of those homes belongs to our family friends Beth Ann and John. This really applies to to their whole property but most of all their main house. When you walk in it’s like you’ve been invited into their soul. Nothing is generic; everything is personal. Everything has a story and is perfectly placed. Their house emotionally embraces anyone who enters it with the comforting thought that is is possible to create an environment that is truly yours. Just like how animals have environments to suit their needs, we can do that to. While it may be a long time before we get to create ours from the ground up, we can do our best in the places we rent. So now, when I consider something for our home, I remember the feeling of entering their home, their environment, and literally knowing them better.
I want my home to feel like our family: full of laughter, smiles and play while living with a constant and continuously growing respect for our arts and passions.
I like my house filled with music and smelling like a fresh pot of Mercimek Corba soup, with Szabina running around happily or, more likely, climbing on one of the musicians and being her sweet self.
I like having a bit of a work schedule now, it gives me incentive to do other things because I have time at that moment, like dancing.
I still don't have any mirrors but because of the light that comes through our big window I've been practicing with my shadow... it's only slightly distorted.
I like preparing for classes and private lessons, since English is my native language there are definitely things that I'm relearning!
I like baklava... I LOVE baklava when it's the really good stuff!
Most of all, I love watching my little girl learn so many new things every day, whether we are just at home or going out into this new world we moved to. She remembers full sentence from some of her books and random references. She draws with intent now (mostly "Moooons" "Dragons" and "Egg"). Whenever Ryan is leaving the house she asks him is he has his keys (just like I do) and also took on my warning of "careful!" when something seems like it might fall or is unbalanced.
She is so amazing!
p.s. we're having a party tonight so prepare for some awesome videos of music and fun ;)