Turkey in 365 days

One year ago today, I disembarked Turkish Airlines Flight 10 at the then-new Istanbul Airport and set foot in Turkey, with my cat, Cleopatra, to fulfill a longtime dream of living abroad.

My first evening in Istanbul foreshadowed a packed year of changes and discoveries – some I never could have anticipated: I hired one of Istanbul’s beloved “pirate taxi” drivers to take me from the airport to my Airbnb. At the time, I had no inkling of what a “pirate taxi” meant. Had I heard that specific terminology, I might have been more reticent to take one.

Stupefied from a 13-hour flight and an emotional farewell to America, I stared out the window of the driver’s cigarette smoke-scented car at the windmills rising up in vast green fields on the road from the airport, far away from the bustle of the city of some 16 million people.

As we passed through a town, I saw three chestnut-colored horses grazing in a bed of blazing red tulips – a symbol of Istanbul – in the roadway median. That same night, I met Zeynep who would become one of my closest friends in Istanbul. The girlfriend of my Airbnb host, Kubilay – who was traveling in Paris at the time of my arrival, Zeynep met me at the flat to greet me and show me around.

Between then and now, I have lived in three other flats, gone through several roommates, adopted two more cats, from Istanbul, explored seven different Turkish provinces and worked at two different English newspapers in the city.

I have soared over the landscape of Cappadocia’s whimsical “fairy chimney” rock formations in an air balloon, attended a Turkish wedding where I danced the halay and swam in a cave in the Mediterranean. I have sailed on the Aegean and seen an American soldier attired in a turquoise floral Asian textile suit dancing aboard.

I have wept in front of hundreds of people in Istanbul’s Eminonu Square during the course of being lost for three hours in the city. I have sifted through beautifully colored rocks on the shore of the Mediterranean, seen cattle enjoying a beachside stroll along the Black Sea and contemplated the legacy of the Lycians in the ancient city of Olympos while bathing on top of their ancient tablets submerged in a pool of spring water.

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I adopted a three-legged street cat named, Benedict Cesur, and temporarily lost him out an unscreened window, launched a neighborhood-wide search party and found him unharmed in a pile of rubble in the basement of our building in Ortaköy.

I have seen more statues of Republic of Turkey founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in town squares than I can reasonably count. I have learned enough Turkish to comfortably get around Istanbul and to feed myself. I have had a conversation with a Turkish rock star. I have crossed from Europe and Asia several times without leaving the city.

I have reveled in the exquisite serenity of the Black Sea highlands and the warm hospitality of its people and eaten nettle soup, fried anchovies and Turkish corn bread.

I have trekked up 300 meters to the Sumela Monastry built on the side of a cliff in Trabzon more than 1,600 years ago and visited a beekeeper and his hives in a remote village in Giresun.

Before the move to Turkey, I had heard erroneous information from another foreigner that wet wipes (islak mendil) are impossible to find, only to have been served hundreds of islak mendil with meals all around Turkey and to learn that Turkey is one of the most hygienic places in Europe.

I have eaten more eggplant and tomato paste than I ever thought possible, experienced Turkish coffee afire, explored cave churches and traveled on every mode of public transportation in Istanbul.

On my first weekend living in Istanbul last year, I strolled through endless beds of multicolored tulips in Emirgan Park during the city’s famed tulip festival. Afterward, I wrote a story about the tulip industry for an American agricultural newspaper and another story for my then-employer Hürriyet Daily News about the rollout of the world’s largest live tulip “carpet” in Sultanahmet Square.

I couldn’t have foreseen that the tulip festival – along with countless other events, millions of jobs and large portions of the economy – would shut down due to the emergence of a highly contagious and life-threatening virus, nor that I would be marking my one-year anniversary in Turkey, confined to my home because of a pandemic.

I don’t know how long I will be inside my flat, living in Turkey or what the future holds, but the isolation has afforded me the time to reflect back on the details of this year, colorful details that one-by-one weave themselves together to tell the story of a life, a community, a city, a culture and a country.

The Turks have embellished my life with their hospitality, kindness, sense of humor, compassion and artistic flair. From trees in Avanos tenderly wrapped in the embrace of a colorful crocheted doily (above), to stray dogs who are permitted to ride the ferry every day over the Bosporus and the Muslim congregation in Üsküdar that feeds and shelters a congregation of street cats on their mosque grounds, Turkey is a place I couldn’t have conjured up in my most fanciful daydreams. Despite learning its darker sides and experiencing the daily drudgery that life can entail, the spirit of the Turks and the civilizations that came before them make Turkey a magical and intriguing place to call home.

COVID-19: Thankful to #stayhome in Turkey

Ways to enforce the elder curfew

As an expat in Turkey, I have received many questions from friends and family about what it’s like here during the coronavirus pandemic. You can rest assured: During this health crisis, Turkey is a relatively safe place to be and even has some perks.

Like many other countries around the world, Turkey has advised its residents to stay at home to avoid spreading the virus. For the most part, people have heeded the warnings and taken the risks seriously. My boss sent us home the same day the country announced its first case of COVID-19 early on March 11, and we have been working from remote home offices since then.

We didn’t have time to fetch belongings we might want to have with us for the long haul (like my day planner). That was a smart move: It reduced our risk of exposure and the exposure of others in this city of around 16 million. That is just one of the many reasons I’m grateful to be in Turkey during this time. Here are several other reasons, which I hope you’ll find interesting and entertaining:

Stocked shelves

Fortunately for me and the public at large, Turkey has experienced less of the pandemonium that unfolded in the U.S. There was no stampede on toilet paper and no indication of people hoarding supplies. When I go to the grocery store in my neighborhood in Üsküdar, the shelves are well-stocked.

One reason may be that fewer people in Turkey have vehicles, so hoarding supplies is not possible to the extent that it is in America. I cannot carry more than what my hand cart will hold, and even then, it’s a workout trying to pull that thing up Istanbul’s steep hills.

Another reason I’ve heard from expats who have lived here much longer than me is that Turks are more community-oriented. In times of trouble, they embrace solidarity and collectivism. Hogging toilet paper or chicken deprives others in the community from finding those items when needed. If someone was seen hoarding, they could expect scorn from their fellow shoppers.

Bidets

There might be another reason for the plentiful toilet paper on store shelves in Turkey. Here, every toilet is equipped with a bidet. Not only does the shooting water leave you feeling cleaner but you don’t need toilet paper or at least, not much. As a result, toilet paper is not the highest priority item for shoppers looking to camp out at home for an indefinite period.

High hand-washing rate

After using the toilet, you can pretty much count on the fact that almost everyone in Turkey washes their hands, one of the main precautions against spreading the virus. Turkey has one of the highest hand-washing rates in Europe, according to a survey from 2015. Some 94% of people in Turkey wash their hands after using the toilet, second only to the tiny European country of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Kolonya

On top of high hand-washing rates, a traditional element of Turkish culture is the country’s cologne, or “kolonya” in Turkish. Think of a super elegant hand sanitizer that smells like exquisite perfume. People splash the cologne on visitors’ hands when they enter homes, businesses and even taxis. The cologne is made with a high alcohol content, killing those deadly coronavirus germs.

24-hour curfew for most vulnerable

Elderly people in Turkey are quite the handful. They’re used to doing what they want and getting what they want, because Turkish culture demands a great deal of respect, deference and indulgence toward them. So, the Health Ministry’s decision to give them a 24-hour curfew to protect them from the virus did not go over well. Police had to break up gatherings of hyper-social elderly Turks who were gathering on benches in public squares and parks. Police quickly removed the benches to deter gatherings. In one town, an elderly lady hit the mayor with her walking stick because he had the impertinence to tell her to go home.

The scenes inevitably materialize as memes on social media. My personal favorite is one showing the authorities digging a deep ditch under an old man’s doorstep to keep him at home. Don’t worry about the elders. The municipalities have teams of employees and volunteers to shop and run errands for them.

Drone-powered crowd dispersal

The country banned barbecues and picnics in the third week of March to prevent gatherings where the virus could be more easily transmitted. Naturally, we had gorgeous weather the following weekend.

Encouraged by the sunshine and warmth, picnickers descended on Istanbul’s shorelines, parks and forests to light up barbecues and socialize.

Responding to the overwhelming onslaught of violations, police in the Sultanbeyli district on Istanbul’s Asian side resorted to sending drones equipped with loudspeakers over Aydos Forest to disperse picnickers.

#stayhome traffic lights

Playing on the #stayhome campaign, Sakarya, a Turkish city on the Black Sea coast, installed traffic lights March 26 to remind people to go home (green) and stay home (red).

The city’s traffic director told German news agency dpa that the lights are meant to serve as a “conscience” for those out and about.

Why would a journalist move to Turkey?

The Neo-Baroque-style Ortakoy Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey

Since moving to Istanbul one month ago, a common question I hear from Turks is, “Why would you move to Turkey? All of us are trying to move to America.”

Undoubtedly, Turkey is in an economic crisis. Inflation has, in fact, bloated consumer prices to a painful degree. I feel that discomfort almost as keenly as Turks because in my new position as an English copyeditor I earn Turkish liras.

For instance, I pay the equivalent of $25 for one bottle of shampoo. A small bag of kibble for my American feline companion, Cleopatra, costs what would amount to $80 in the United States. Thank 

My penny-pinching lifestyle contrasts with my vacation here in November 2018. Then fortified with U.S. dollars, Turkey seemed an inexpensive and exotic shopping wonderland. Due to the dramatic gap between the value of the U.S. and Turkish currencies, everything I bought with U.S. dollars was effectively 80-percent off. Since November, the gap between the two currencies has only widened.

Perhaps more perplexing to my American friends was why as a journalist, I would want to go to a country that holds the worldwide distinction of jailing the most journalists, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

While I weighed those factors in my decision, I was more concerned with how the experience of living in Turkey would fit in with the overall arc of my life. My longtime goal has been to live abroad. What kind of experiences could I have here that were outside my reach in other places? On that basis, Turkey fulfilled most of my desires.

If I live in only one country outside the United States, Turkey seems to offer the most varied experiences in one place. Where else than Istanbul can I within 10 minutes visit both Europe and Asia without leaving the city? Turkey is one of the few places where I can experience European and Middle Eastern culture at the same time.

Around every corner, the land offers spectacular views of nature and geographic wonders – such as the whimsical cone-shaped rock formations in Cappadocia in central Turkey and the stunningly white, travertine-encrusted terraces and hot springs in Pamukkale.

Meanwhile, the historical and archaeological finds are so numerous and rich that even the locals have a hard time keeping up.

The Turks have made me feel incredibly welcome here – a fact that contrasts with the impression many Westerners have about whether Turkey is a safe destination. Complete strangers have helped me for no reason other than to be kind.

As a colleague remarked upon hearing my reason for moving here: “Turkey is the perfect synthesis of Europe and the Middle East” and of nature and civilization.