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.


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.


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.


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.

Menengiç: Coffee that breaks the rules

Monday marked my third month living in Turkey. The anniversary prompted me to reflect on how things have changed, from feeling utterly lost in my new environment to feeling a sense of confidence and acceptance.

When I say “acceptance,” I mean I have finally accepted that my life in Turkey is different from in the United States in both positive and negative ways.

One of the small things I had trouble accepting in Turkey was Turks’ patent refusal to add milk to Turkish coffee – something I tried in the United Arab Emirates and really enjoyed.

On a discouraging Saturday afternoon during my first month in Turkey, I stopped inside a small coffee shop by Istanbul’s Eminönü ferry terminal. I had been lost for almost two hours, having missed a couple of bus connections and wandered around looking for another bus that was supposed to take me to the Ortaköy neighborhood where I had an appointment to look at a flat, which eventually would become my home.

I ordered a Turkish coffee and asked the barista to add milk. In Turkey, that’s like adding vinegar to baking soda: It erupts.

“Turkish coffee, no milk!” he yelled.

“Can I just have some? I like it that way,” I pleaded.

“Turkish coffee, no milk,” he insisted.


For a while after that, I tried to convince baristas that Turkish coffee with milk is delicious and that they should keep an open mind. But after consistent backlash, I ultimately gave up and largely stopped drinking Turkish coffee.

The marvelous ending to this story is that acceptance eventually opened the door to my desire.

The door led to a spectacular vista in Cappadocia’s Ihlara Valley in Central Turkey.

During a guided group tour of the valley in May, our tour guide, Aysel Sivri of Woop Woop Travel Agency, pointed out some wild pistachio trees, growing on a ridge over the valley.

The wild pistachio seeds are used to make a very delicious “coffee,” she said in passing.

As we hiked through the valley, I asked her to repeat the name of the coffee and jotted it down.

Her next words stunned me: “It is like Turkish coffee, but it’s made with milk.”

Once back in Istanbul, I was on a part-time mission to find the coffee, which is called “menengiç” coffee. It is also called “terebinth” or “turpentine” in English. I found some shops that sold the grounds, but having never tried it and not knowing how to make it, I held out for a coffee shop that served it.

A coworker gave me the name of a coffee shop in Istanbul’s Kadikoy neighborhood – Okkalı Kahve – that offers menengiç on its menu, so I added that to my list of places to try.

Before I had a chance to visit, I was unexpectedly served the coffee during a meal with my friend, Zeynep, at Ciğeristan, a homestyle kabob restaurant in Istanbul’s Fatih district.

The restaurant serves the coffee on fire. They ignite a flammable salt-like substance on the saucer to cook the coffee in its cup. Beyond its thrilling presentation, the coffee is the most delicious coffee I’ve tried. It has a nutty – and more importantly to me, a milky – sweet flavor.

Calling it coffee could be a misnomer because menengiç coffee has no caffeine, but then again neither does decaffeinated. In that respect, it’s a good alternative to caffeinated coffee in the evening. Menengiç has digestive benefits and is packed with vitamins, including A, B1, B2, B6, C and E. It also contains protein, fiber, fat, phosphorus, calcium, iron and potassium, according to the Turkish food website, Harbi Yiyorum (which means “I am really eating”).

The coffee – which originated in Iran and is served there, is cooked in the same way as Turkish coffee, in a Turkish coffeepot and on a heavy fire, the website says. To make it, add two teaspoons of menengiç grounds to one cup of milk, as well as sugar to taste. Boil the ingredients while continuously stirring. It’s traditionally served with nuts and water. In Turkey, the beverage is most associated with southwestern Turkey, especially Gaziantep, where wild pistachio trees flourish in the region’s dry, soft soil.

An unwitting intro to Turkish pop music

Two Turkish pop music stars. One night. Two separate locations. It might seem unlikely, but it just goes to show that anything can happen in Istanbul. The Queen of Cities has been leaving visitors awestruck for more than a millennium.

Apart from hearing Turkish rap blasting from vehicles on the motorways, I have been somewhat inattentive to investigating Turkey’s music scene.

Just as the discovery of Turkish rap was inadvertent, so too was my unwitting introduction to Turkish pop music on Monday night, June 17, 2019.

As you may remember from my last blog post, my friends, Kubilay and Zeynep, took me to a whirling dervish ceremony on Monday at a dergah (house of worship) in the Fatih district of Istanbul. Before entering the mosque, a bald man with expressive eyebrows started talking to us. When he learned that I was American, he zoomed in on me. He had a lot to say about Americans and U.S. President Donald Trump, specifically.

He started out by expressing his hope that Trump will follow through on his plan to visit Turkey in July, as first reported by Middle East Eye last month.

Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan are already scheduled to meet at the G-20 summit June 28-29 in Osaka, Japan, where, according to Turkish media reports, Erdoğan hopes to dissuade U.S. officials from imposing sanctions over Turkey’s decision to purchase S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems from Russia.

I had no idea who this man was.

“He’s a famous Turkish singer,” Zeynep whispered to me, before we took a group photo together.

Later, I found out his name. Mazhar Alanson is a Turkish pop music singer and guitarist who represents the “M” in the famous Turkish pop music band, MFÖ (Mazhar, Fuat and Özcan).

Alanson explained that Americans have major misconceptions about Turkey. A visit from Trump could shed more light on this secular country that sits strategically where the East meets the West.

“They think Turks are Arabs who carry guns around everywhere,” Alanson said.

That sounds more like America, I thought, considering all of the mass shootings at schools, malls and other public places.

“Americans are very pure-hearted,” Alanson continued.

The problem between Turkey and America is between the governments, he said.

“People are people everywhere in the world,” he said.

As if that weren’t enough for one evening, Zeynep, Kubilay and I had another chance encounter with Turkish pop stardom while stuck in a traffic jam in Beşiktaş, on the way to my home in the Ortakoy neighborhood.

Eurovison star Can Bonomo and his wife were sitting in a shiny black car directly next to us. A Syrian beggar was badgering them to buy a bouquet of wilted roses. Bonomo handed the man a 10-Turkish lira note but didn’t want the roses, so the man pulled off the petals and scattered them over the couple’s car. People in neighboring cars were hanging out of windows to snap photos of the musical celebrity.

I had never heard of Bonomo either, but my impeccable luck for running into Turkish pop stars did prompt me to look them both up on YouTube.

Alanson sounds a bit like American singer-songwriter Tom Waits. Here is MFO’s song, Yandim, which means “I have a burn.”

Bonomo’s music is really catchy. Here is one of his songs called Bardak Tasiyor, which I believe is an idiom that means, “That tears it!”

I have yet to learn what that means.

The moral of this story is I never would have known whom I had met if it hadn’t been for my Turkish friends, Zeynep and Kubilay. I think that speaks volumes about how important it is for foreigners to befriend the natives in the country where they live. It’s more comfortable sometimes to cling to those whose cultures are most similar to ours, but we miss out on so much that way. For instance, I would have never been at that mosque that night if it hadn’t been for Kubilay’s inside knowledge, and I might never have known that I had encountered Alanson and Bonomo if I had been out with non-Turkish friends, who like me, probably wouldn’t have recognized them.

And if you’re just a traveler, there are ways to befriend natives in the country you’re visiting. An app called Couch Surfers allows you to stay with people who live in the country, but if you’re not comfortable doing that, you can just meet someone for coffee or a meal. It’s a good way to learn the inside scoop on the country for which you have probably paid a lot of money to visit, and you might make a lifelong friend.

Why you should see whirling dervishes in Turkey

Watching a performance of whirling dervishes – who worship God by twirling into a mesmerizing spiritual frenzy – are a hallmark of any visit to Turkey.

As a souvenir, you can buy figurines depicting the mystical dancers, and if you go on a tour, such as an evening Bosporus Tour, you might see a performance as part of the packaged tour price.

I recently joined an American friend on an evening Bosporus tour, where a whirling dervish performer decked out in a black sequined robe delighted us with a dizzying performance set to soothing instrumental music – the kind of music you might listen to while sailing.

But if you would prefer to see a more authentic rendition of whirling dervishes, you might consider visiting a dergah (house of worship).

My friends and former Airbnb hosts, Kubilay and Zeynep took me out Monday night, June 17, for an authentic evening of whirling dervishes. By authentic, I mean that we went to an actual Sufi worship service, not a whirling dervish performance arranged for the pleasure of tourists.

Every Monday night, Nurettin Efendi Dergahı – an authentic Sufi order in the Fatih district of Istanbul – holds a “sumi,” the name for the worship service. It’s usually held around 9 p.m., but in the summer, they begin as late as 11 p.m.

And unlike professional performances for tourists, seeing these whirling dervishes is free of cost.

Zeynep and I were required to cover our hair for the sumi. Women ordinarily are required to worship up in a latticed loft above the ceremony hall, but Zeynep managed to convince the lady in charge to allow us to sit away from the men in the main ceremony hall, where we could see the action.

As a side note, the mosque has a dresser full of scarves, so if you arrive with an exposed head of hair, the mosque is equipped to cover you. With typical Turkish charm, the ladies searched their cache of scarves for scarf colors that flattered our complexions.

Before I continue, for those of you who are new to the subject, whirling dervishes are part of Sufism, a mystical style of worship within mainstream Sunni Islam, the origins of which remain in dispute even among Sufi scholars.

The followers of world-famous poet Rumi (Jalaluddin Muhammad Rumi to be exact) founded the Mevlevi order of Sufism shortly after his death, and the Mevlevi order gave the world whirling dervishes, according to tour guide and blogger Burak Sansal.

Rumi, who was born to Persian-speaking parents in present-day Afghanistan and lived most of his life in Konya, Turkey; is wildly popular in the United States and worldwide. In 2014, he was America’s best-selling poet, more than 700 years after his death, according to the BBC.

The rituals established within the Mevlevi order focus on spiritual introspection and closeness to God through poetry, chants, music and you guessed it, dancing.

And that’s where the whirling dervishes come in.

The best place to see whirling dervishes is in Konya, where Rumi lived and died, but if you can’t make it to Konya, Istanbul has some alternatives that are just as authentic.

Inside Nurettin Efendi Dergahı, the dervishes, dressed entirely in white, began with slow turns and gradually worked themselves into a state of transcendence through whirling and reverberating chants and music performed by worshippers.

As the worshippers chanted and swayed in a swirling motion with their upper bodies, I felt myself involuntarily swaying along with them.

As they prayed – a ceremony called the “zikr” – they held their palms up. As a yoga practitioner, it reminded me of yoga meditation: Upward open palms position the mind and body to be open and receptive.

We couldn’t see the whirling dervishes that well because on that particular night, they were in an adjacent room. We just saw their reflections in the glass. Occasionally, the corner of a whirling white robe whipped out of the door frame into view.

Typically, whirling dervishes perform their worshipful, meditative twirling in the main part of the mosque (the equivalent of a church sanctuary). On Monday night, however, the dervishes were trainees and were not yet ready for their public debut, Kubilay said, after speaking to someone at the dergah. (Update: To see the whirling dervishes performing in the main part of the mosque in September 2019, click on this video.)

Apart from the experience of seeing this moving form of worship, going to a suma can be informative to a visitor to Turkey, because whirling dervishes played a pivotal role in the evolution of Ottoman culture. They obviously influenced the visual arts, but they, additionally, shaped music, classical poetry and calligraphy, according to Sansal.

Look for Kubilay and Zeynep among Airbnb’s selection of Istanbul experiences. They regularly hold Airbnb events to showcase the best of Istanbul’s whirling dervishes.

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.