The end of this year provides me with a chance to evaluate my experiences and come up with a list of personal highlights from my first year of life abroad. If there’s anyone reading who is currently considering whether or not to make the move, I hope it may demonstrate the positive aspects of being an expat in Turkey. Of course, it hasn’t all been rosy; there are a few hurdles to overcome. Turkish bureaucracy can be tricky and more generally the cultural differences may be hard to get used to at first. However, I’m never one to focus on the negatives, so here the highlights of my 2012.
Before moving here, I had visited many times, and although I had tried to learn a few of the basics, I never got much further than merhaba (hello), teşekkürler (thanks) and istemiyorum (I don’t want, useful when making your way past the gauntlet of touts in a touristy area). I really wanted Turkey to feel like home, so when I arrived I threw myself into studying the language, albeit with books at home. My Turkish is now şöyle böyle (so-so). I find myself being able to follow conversations and am usually able to get my point across, even if it’s not in the best Turkish. This has opened up so many doors and allowed me to get past the surface of being a tourist and learn much more about Turkish culture and Turkish people.
Becoming part of the expat community
Although the expat scene can sometimes feel a little fragmented and disjointed (and, dare I say it, even a little cliquey), I have now lived in two cities in Turkey — Antalya and İstanbul — and have felt warmly accepted into this assorted community in both. Turkey is so different from many people’s home countries that there really is a sense of being “all in it together” that bonds anyone who’s faced the hurdles and embraced the challenges. I’ve met a wide range of people from a variety of backgrounds and formed good friendships with German Erasmus students, American Peace Corps volunteers, Australian English teachers and retired New Zealanders, among others.
As the ferry approached the dock on my return to Turkey after four months away, the familiar smelling aroma of simit, grilling meat and brewing tea filled the air and I was surprised to realize that it smelled like home. When I first moved here, I found myself missing my old home and my old friends, but the longer I’ve spent away, the more I’ve settled in. Now, I find that on my infrequent visits to the UK, I miss those aspects of Turkish culture which at first seemed so strange, such as the offers of çay (tea) in every little shop you visit, the late opening of all the shops and the central importance of food in all interactions.
I’ve been lucky enough to do a bit of exploring, from the famously oxygen-rich peninsula of Datça to the other-worldly fairy chimneys of Cappadocia, taking in the ancient ruins of Termessos, the bizarre landscape of Pamukkale, the backstreets of İstanbul, the lake district around Eğirdir and a myriad of other beautiful and historic places along the way. Turkey’s landscapes are so diverse, and the regional cultures so different, you can sometimes feel like you’re visiting several different countries in one trip and I’ve enjoyed discovering stunning places that I’d previously never even heard of.
Cycling in Turkey
I spent two weeks cycle-touring through Turkey, from the ferry port of Dikili in İzmir to my final destination, Antalya. I’d cycled in 11 other countries before, but had always been a little unsure about cycling here. The locals I’d mentioned the idea to had all told me it was madness and far too dangerous to even consider. Never one to shirk from a little adventure, I ignored these warnings and did it anyway. The experience I had was on my all-time highlights, not just from 2012. The people I met and the places I saw are far better than anything I could have experienced traveling by car and have inspired me to take a longer trip around the country as soon as I can.
Discovering the tastes of Turkey
Being an expat here has enabled me to go much further than the döner kebabs that are all most people know of the rich cuisine of this country. Since living here, I’ve been endeavoring to try as many different foods as possible and have had my taste buds simultaneously delighted and confused by the chicken breast dessert (kazandibi), I’ve tried and loved countless different meze dishes and I’ve even sampled the sheep’s head and knuckle soup, or kelle paça (not something I’m in a great hurry to try again but it served the purpose of staving off a hangover, as is usually intended).
There are not many places in the world where you can go swimming in the sea and skiing down a snowy mountain on the same day, but that’s what I did last winter. There are several ski resorts in Turkey, of varying sizes and quality. Saklıkent is small but handy in that it’s just an hour and a half’s drive from my old home in Antalya. One bright and sunny day, my stepfather and I bravely set off up the mountain to get a few hours of skiing in before driving home, stopping for quick dip in the sea at Konyaaltı beach on the way. The water may not have been particularly warm, but it was still a long way from the cold, grey, wet shores of the UK.
And what’s next?
There have been many other positives, too many to name here in fact. 2013 will see me entering my second year of life as an expat. I hope to have as many enriching experiences in the coming year as I did in this one. In the age old tradition, I’m also going to make a few resolutions:
1. To learn more Turkish. I’ve spent a total of eight months living in Turkey and believe my language skills aren’t bad. I know some foreigners who have been here 20 years and can barely string a sentence together. Starting in January, I plan to attend a language school in İstanbul to give myself the boost I need to be able to speak good Turkish.
2. To see more of my adopted country. I’ve been lucky enough to visit a number of places, both popular on the tourist route and those that are a little more obscure, but there are some glaring gaps. I haven’t yet been to the east of Turkey at all, and I’ve never seen the Black Sea. I hope to rectify this with a long tour in the springtime, when the weather is a little more forgiving.
3. To improve my Turkish culinary skills. I have been practicing my Turkish cooking on anyone I can persuade to eat it. I’m now pretty happy with my kısır (spiced bulgur wheat salad), imam bayıldı (stuffed eggplant) and menemen (a tomato and egg dish). Yet, there’s a lot more to learn. There is a wealth of cookery books out there, but there isn’t much that beats home cooking with family recipes. I plan on collecting some of these recipes by getting the people I meet to show me their secrets.