Istanbul here and now

My friend Alev is keeping a fantastic blog chronicling the day-to-day developments of the protests in Turkey. If you have time for only one entry, this email she wrote at the beginning still rings very true.

Dear everyone,

I hate these kinds of emails but what’s happening in Turkey is important. I have seen the situation being misconstrued in the international media (and ignored completely by most Turkish media). I got worried calls from my parents long before my Turkish friends did, because on Friday many Turks outside Istanbul knew nothing about the protests. Now they have spread to 67 cities, thanks to social media. I don’t have a clue what is going to happen, I can only guess, but I am here so I can see what’s going on now.

Basically, this is what happens every night since I have been here (from Saturday until today): protestors gather and march, gathering pace towards nightfall, chanting for the resignation of the government. Police blast them with tear gas (more on that later) and water cannons, often at very close range. Sometimes the gas is dropped by helicopter over large areas, like last night. The protestors get angrier and more determined. Around 5AM the die-hard stragglers go home, leaving barricades blocking the road so police vans can’t follow. The protestors clean up in the morning: debris, discarded masks, paving stones, etc. Around 8PM it all starts again.

The President (Gul) tries to calm things down. The Prime Minister (Erdogan) insists that we are all extremists, alcoholics, foreigners (fair point) and anti-democratic. He is now in Morocco, which has actually calmed the situation a tiny bit.

The whys and wherefores can wait. Right now, these are the important facts:

If the police left, there would be no drama whatsoever.

Despite the scaremongering images of smashed shop fronts etc, the proportion of hooligans among protestors is actually very small. There are inevitably angry kids from the ghetto who come to these protests to throw rocks around, and they don’t care why they are there. The last few nights, I have seen protestors calming them down and getting them to put down the rocks, put out the fires, stop swearing at the police. However, the hooligan element has scared the conservative demographic – Erdogan has made much of the dangerous nature of these protests.

There is an amazing feeling of solidarity on the streets. People hand out masks, water, lotions for the tear gas, lemons to strangers. When there is a sense of panic, and people start running, a general cry of “Yavas, yavas” (slowly, slowly) calms everyone down. Football supporters wear the colours of rival teams (unheard of) and link arms, cheering each other on. I have seen two things in the past two days I have never seen in my two years in Turkey: friendly football fans and people picking up rubbish. These are both happening during a quasi-revolution – impressive.

A word on tear gas: I don’t think anyone has explained yet how debilitating it is, and how demoralising. I am so impressed that protestors have been persisting with not only sustained but increased energy, because the effects stay with you the next day in the form of a severe hangover-like grogginess and headache. Also, most protestors are on about 3/4 hours sleep.

At the time, tear gas is like a wall of pain. People have asked me what is smells like. It is not smell, it is pain. A warning note of bitterness is immediately followed by burning of any exposed skin, throat, nose and stinging tears. You cannot see and you panic. You run, you just want to get away. It is extremely effective, and so much of it has been used recently that even my friends with industrial-style gas masks cannot proceed sometimes. There is no air, just gas, so the filters in the mask are useless.

After running and returning, running and returning, hearing helicopters circling overhead and canisters being fired somewhere unseen in front, you begin to feel defeated. You feel like this could go on forever, and you wonder why you are still here.The fact that people continue their chants and their efforts to push forward is unbelievably impressive, and I am frankly humbled by the determination and spirit I have seen. I do not have the stomach for front line stuff, and I am in awe of those who do.

Please tell everyone what is going on.

The most important message is that Turkey has woken up to what it wants, or rather doesn’t want, and that is a wonderful thing. The next few days will be crucial, it’s up to the government now, but I can only echo what I saw graffiti-ed on a wall this morning: “Nothing will ever be as it was before.”


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Working Women in Arabia

Grad student asks: were you comfortable as a woman working in the Middle East?

Yes, I was. In the Levant (Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, and Jordan) I didn’t dress or act differently than I would have anywhere, and I’m not conservative by most measuring sticks. I’ll discuss below some slight changes I made while working in the more open Gulf countries (Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE, and Oman). If you’re going beyond those boundaries, I refer you to the advice of the Unaccompanied Lady

In the Gulf (except Saudi Arabia) normal businesswear is fine, including skirts; on the evenings and weekends I covered my shoulders and legs to my knees. But aside from that, very little separated my experience in the Middle East from any other business interaction. Occasionally more conservative men would put their hand on their heart and bow rather than shake my hand, as they didn’t wish to touch a woman not related to them. 

The women I interviewed usually wore headscarfs if not a full abaya, but I didn’t feel any pressure or judgment because I was dressed differently. 

However strange it may seem to my fellow Americans, people in the more conservative parts of the Middle East really seem to believe that many of the customs we find objectionable are ways of protecting, respecting, and/or empowering women. They don’t think women are stupid or incapable. They just consider being a woman and leader of a household as more important than career paths outside the home, for the most part. 

I did meet women at all rungs of the corporate ladder, from receptionists to government ministers. There are few, if any, professions that are limited by gender. (I didn’t meet any female taxi drivers, though I’m not sure if that’s legislated.) In fact, women are generally considered more competent and reliable employees, and are more likely to have gotten a higher education degree than their male counterparts.

But how does this shape your experience as a western woman in the ME? Fundamentally, you’re a foreigner, and they don’t measure you by the same standards they do their ‘own’ women. None of my interviewees seemed nonplussed to meet an unaccompanied, college-educated professional woman. A few times the men I met even said they hoped their daughters would grow up to be educated and independent like me (a huge surprise!). Yes, there were a few guys who wanted to ‘continue the discussion over dinner’, but all you have to say is no. And it’s not like that doesn’t happen in the Western world as well. 

I’m not going to say there was zero harassment on the street. There were occasional cat calls, whistles, or more often simply staring, but again no more than most other cities. (I also lived in China, where people would occasionally come up and stroke my hair because they’d never seen anything like it. So maybe I’m desensitized to these kinds of things). 

In a different field, or if you were planning to live and work there full-time and climb the career ladder, the differences between how men and women are treated might become clearer, but as an analyst who seldom spent more than two weeks in any one location I never felt compromised in my ability to do any work.

So if you have the opportunity: go! The Middle East is gorgeous. It’s the cradle of civilization. The food is incredible. Most of the people you meet will be as generous as they are proud of their heritage.

Most importantly, your visit, work, or time spent living in the Middle East will transform the way you look at the news. You’ll return to your home with stories of a land rich in history, hospitality, and hummus. Tell these stories. The western world needs to hear more of them. 
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Exploring Turkey

This is a quick overview of the main cities to see outside of Istanbul. It’s a follow up to the earlier posts on Planning a Visit to Turkey and Orienting Yourself in Istanbul. Like both of those, it was written in conjunction with Kate Bloomer.

Flights: Internal flights in Turkey are very reasonable. If you book in advance you’re looking at roundtrip for under 100 TL (US $65), but even last minute you’ll be able to get good deals. is an aggregator for internal Turkish flights, though it doesn’t always work. We’ve flown Anadolu Jet, Pegasus Airways, AtlasJet, Sun Express and Onur Air and they’ve all been legit (and much more comfortable than Easyjet/Ryanair).

Train: The train network in Turkey is slow and far from comprehensive, but that doesn’t tend to matter to people who are considering taking the train. There are apparently some lovely overnight options to Kayseri (near Capadoccia), Konya, or Ankara, though the former two do fill up so be sure to book a day or two in advance. There are also some slower, atmospheric (read: rather dingy) services to Van and Kars in the east.

Bus: most buses are extremely comfortable coach buses with a personal TV and attendants who will bring you tea and nibbles. Metro and Ulusoy often have Wifi as well. Since buses are mostly used by locals, it’s a great way to get a sense of the country outside the tourist enclaves.

Car: Highways are generally very good and international signage makes it easy to navigate. Car rental is quite cheap but gasoline is EXTREMELY expensive – count on paying more for gasoline than the car rental.
  • Cappadocia: This was the first place I visited after Istanbul and the first I’d recommend. The area has plenty to do for the active – from walking through the beautiful Ihlara Valley, visiting underground cities and rock cut churches, and wandering through the fairy chimneys. The Goreme Open Air Museum (15 TL, 8 TL additonal for the Dark Church) contains more than 30 rock-carved churches and chapels with amazing frescoes dating from the 9-11th century. I highly suggest staying in Goreme, and if possible at the Kelebek ( , where the owner Ali has a beautiful boutique hotel that’s actually built inside a fairy chimney (as well as a nice buffet breakfast included in the reasonable price). The view from a hot air balloon is supposed to be incredible, but comes at a (probably reasonable) price of around 120 euro. Fly or take the train to Kayseri or Nevsehir, where a hotel bus will pick you up.
  • Ephesus: Flights are available to Izmir, and from there you can take a bus or often hotels will provide a shuttle service to Selcuk (approx. 55 km), the closest town to these stunning Hellenistic ruins. Ephesus is a marvelous sight and well worth visiting – you can walk through in about 2 hours, it costs 20 TL to get in. In Selcuk you can also visit the House of the Virgin Mary (Meryem Ana Evi), 10 km south on the hills. As you might guess, this supposedly the house where the Virgin Mary spend her last days in Ephesus. The Vatican declared this place an official Catholic pilgrimage site. The Museum of Ephesus, which contains objects found in the excavation, is well worth a visit. The most famous of the camel wrestling matches also takes place in Selcuk in January. 
  • Olympos/Lycian trail: stretching along the Mediterranean coast west of Antalya (1 hr flights from Istanbul usually 70 lira or less) is a gorgeous string of ancient Greek and Roman towns, many with magnificent ruins. The ruins at Olympos are located in a national park (that includes a lovely stretch of beach), and it’s very popular to stay in bungalows or treehouses (literally, forts in trees – only recommended in the summer!) when you visit. Myra, about an hour west, features tombs cut into cliff faces, a well-preserved theater, and the church where St Nicholas was bishop (most people don’t realize Santa Claus was Turkish!). We haven’t been to Kekova, an island off the coast where you can swim among the ruins of a sunken city, but it’s supposed to be lovely.
  • On the other side of Antalya are the also-stunning ruins of Aspendos, Perge, and Sitra. They’re great out of season but can get a little overrun in the summer (apparently – we’ve only been in January). It’s easy to visit all three sites in the course of a weekend if you stay in the old city of Antalya and rent a car (which we did for 50 TL a day in January 2012). 
  • Cyprus is completely underrated in our book. Breathtaking Crusader castles, monasteries, Greek and Roman fortified towns, beaches and wild greenery – did we also mention delicious wine and seafood? See more details in the previous entry on Cyprus. Flights from Istanbul are absurdly cheap and frequent. 
  • The Aegean beach towns on Bodrum and Cesme peninsulas range from bucolic heaven to ritz and glitz to package holiday hell. In both places, having a car is probably sensible, as it costs about 50 TL/day whereas a taxi ride pretty much anywhere will likely cost you twice that (Bodrum peninsula is well served by minibuses, but they all connect through Bodrum town, which can be tedious). Only stay in Bodrum town if you are nostalgic for the days of sweaty frat parties or that trashy stag/hen do you might have once attended. Turkbuku, on the other side of the pensinsula, has some fun clubs, including the see and be seen Macikizi (rooms go for 400-800 euro a night here, but amazingly there’s no cover if you’re just coming to party at the bar). Cesme is more Turkish – better deals, more flavor, but ever so slightly more difficult if you aren’t tagging along with someone who knows their way around. The cobble-streeted, landlocked Alacati is definitely the jewel in Cesme’s crown, full of boutiques and excellent restaurants – a bit touristy, but gets points for being mostly undiscovered by foreigners. Plenty of nice beach clubs – or just undeveloped stretches of beach – are a quick cab or drive from Alacati.
  • Pamukkale: accessible from Izmir, this is the site of an ancient spa and hot springs used since the second century BC, and though you’re not llowed to swim in them anymore you’ll still be amazed by the naturally formed white calcium pools. The adjacent Roman city and Amphitheatre of Hieropolis are stunning. Day tours from Izmir are offered for around 45 Lira (as of January 2010) including English-speaking guide, entrance fee to Hierapolis and the travertines (this alone costs 20 Lira if you’re going independently) and buffet lunch.
  • Konya: How many cities are known for dancing but offer no nightlife? The important Muslim mystic, poet, and founder of the whirling dervishes, Rumi, settled here, and his lavishly decorated tomb (the Mevlana Museum/Mausoleum) is one of the more important pilgrimage sights in the Islamic world. Other attractions include the 13th c Iplikçi Mosque, where the final sultans of the Selcuks (the Turkic tribe which invaded Turkey in the 10th century and was eventually succeeded by the Ottomans) came to rest, and Ince Minare Museum, a 13th century madrassah. You can fly directly to Konya airport from Istanbul or take on a three hour bus from Cappadocia.
  • Kars/Ani: The city at the heart of Orhan Pamuk’s Pulitzer-Prize winning novel wins no beauty prizes, but gets some points for its castle and a handful of architecturally interesting buildings. 45km east, however, is (to our minds) the most evocative and beautiful place in Turkey: the ruins of the ancient Armenian capital of Ani. Perched on the edge of a gorge at the border of Armenia and Turkey, the ruins (many of which are 1000+ years old) deserve at least a full day of exploring. Bring a picnic of the deservedly famous Kars cheese, honey, and some vegetables that you can pick up at any street market in town – there is very little tourist infrastructure. *Kars, and especially Ani, can be inaccessible due to snow in winter and very hot and dusty in summer, so best to visit in spring/fall*. Hostels in Kars run tours, but we’re happy we rented a car and had the flexibility to travel onwards to Doğubeyazıt, a city at the foot of Mt Ararat (where Noah’s Ark supposedly came to rest after the flood), where the splendid İsakpaşa Palace marks the junction of Turkey, Iran, and Armenia. Four hours further south (and served by its own airport) is the important regional capital of Van. Peppered with Armenian and Georgian churches, historic temples and mosques, the city was hit by a massive earthquake in October 2011 so I’m not sure how feasible it would be to visit in the near term.

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Istanbul Tips, Part V: Get Legal in Turkey

Here’s a quick summary on how to get a residence permit in Istanbul. It’s a follow up to the earlier posts on Planning a Visit to Turkey and Orienting Yourself in Istanbul. Because I assume that after you visit you’ll want to live here as well, naturally.
When I first got to Istanbul, it was common practice for foreigners to show up, decide they wanted to live in Istanbul, and never get a residence permit. They’d live in the country on a 90-day tourist visa, get paid under the table, and take a ‘visa run’ out of the country every three months to renew their tourist visa.
For better or worse, the Turkish government has started to crack down on its illegal immigrants. The good news is that it’s very easy to stay in the country legally. You can either get a long-term Tourist Visa or a residence permit. The only differences I can tell between the two are that 1. you must prove that you have $500/month you intend to stay for the former and only $300/month for the latter, and 2. the Tourist visa is only valid for up to nine months while the residence permit can be for up to three years and renewed indefinitely. The following are instructions for how to get your very own long-term residence permit, or uzun sureli ikamet tezkeresi, based on an email that Amanda Pearson sent me when I was first investigating the process a few years ago. I’ve updated it to reflect some recent friends’ experiences as well.
Unless your work is sponsoring a visa for you, the ‘uzun sureli’ permit is the most hassle-free to get. It assumes you are hanging out here not working or being a student, and have money in the bank to cover living expenses for the period of the permit. You’ll apply for the residence permit after you’ve entered Turkey on a standard 90-day tourist visa.
Here is the website where you can get information and forms and make your appointment to apply for the residence permit: You will need:
  • 1 color printout of the Declaration for Residence Permit form (İkamet Beyanname Form  (completed using typewriter or word-processor).
  • 4 passport photographs. (5 if this is your first application).
  • Original passport and photocopies of pages in passport showing your photograph and last entry stamp IN COLOR they will absolutely not accept it otherwise. You will not have to leave your passport there while the permit is processing (which takes about a week or less, my renewal took 24 hours), but you need to show it when you drop off your paperwork and again when you pick up your permit. 
  • Bank Statement showing savings of $300 per month you intend to stay (so $3600 for one year), or notarised Real Estate Deed. The proof of savings needs to be in the form of a notarised document from your bank – ie a printout, stamped by the bank and mailed to you (if a foreign account). If you have a Turkish bank account, you can pick up a stamped copy in person anytime during business hours, just ask. One friend said she just exchanged $3600 into Turkish lira and showed the receipt of this transaction to the authorities and that worked ok. I think she got lucky and it’s worth getting the official documents rather than risk having to go through the entire process twice, but for what it’s worth…
On the website you can see the link to the “e-randevu”, to set the time when you go in and drop your stuff off with an officer at the yabanci mudurlugu in Aksaray if this is your first application*. It feels really hectic and you can wait a long time, but the most important thing is to get up to the waiting room and get in line for a number. Take the number, which instructs you to see an officer and/or specifies the particular desk that you go to. The process has been different each time I’ve gone. 
The officer will look through your application and then send you downstairs to pay (the table showing prices is in the bottom right corner of the web page – currently for American citizens it costs $25 for the first month and $5 for every additional month you intend to stay, plus 149 TL for the residence permit book if this is your first application). You get a receipt and bring it back up, and then they staple everything together and you are basically good to go. They give you a slip of paper telling you when you can come back and pick it up.
On your form, if you’re getting an uzun sureli permit you’ll have to fill out the reason for your stay. Just write “Serbest” (= free/unemployed).
Sometimes the appointments get backed up and you have to wait up to 1-2 months to get in, but as long as you show that you APPLIED for the appointment before your most recent visa ran out, you are ok. This is shown on your official e-randevu slip which you must provide when you get to the station on the day of (when you make the appointment, be in a position to print out the receipt). Also, note that they require you to print out the application form in color (they definitely will not take it in black and white). Make sure that you are in a position to do that when you download it and fill it out.
Sometimes the appointments get backed up and you have to wait up to 1-2 months to get in, but as long as you show that you APPLIED for the appointment before your most recent visa ran out, you are ok. This is shown on your official e-randevu slip which you must provide when you get to the station on the day of (when you make the appointment, be in a position to print out the receipt). Also, note that they require you to print out the application form in color (they definitely will not take it in black and white). Make sure that you are in a position to do that when you download it and fill it out.
It can be sort of intimidating to go through the process, but as long as your docs are in order and you don’t have anything urgent to do that day, you should be fine. The peace of mind you get by having the permit makes it totally worth it in my book.
If you need to travel after your tourist visa has expired but before your residence permit appointment, you should technically be allowed to do so. Make sure you bring a printed copy  of your residence permit appointment details showing that you made the appointment before your visa expired. If you don’t have this document you may have to pay a substantial fine and may have trouble getting back into Turkey.
*If you are renewing your residence permit, the procedure is much easier because you can go to the much smaller and more efficient Yabanci Mudurlugu in your district – just choose this when you’re making your appointment online. The Beyoglu office is on Tarlabasi boulevard about halfway down and has a very charming and friendly guy on the second floor who speaks excellent English who will walk you through the process. Unlike the Aksaray office, you have to make your payment in a different building, the tax office in Sishane; even so the entire process took about two hours when dropping off and then less than ten minutes when I came back two days later to pick up the documents. I was also able to make an appointment for the next day when I set it up online. 
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Sometimes March in Turkey is gorgeous. This year, it was a wet, snowy mess. In other words, we had a perfect excuse to fly an hour south and explore the mythical semi-country of Northern Cyprus.

Why Northern Cyprus?This pint-sized island rewards even a 1.5 day trip, though you’d be happier staying much longer. Crusader castles, monasteries, Roman and Greek fortified port towns, wild greenery, excellent wine, hospitable locals. It’s got to be the most gorgeous, safe, and compelling conflict zone you can visit.

More people should know about what’s going on in Cyprus and you can’t help but learn a little by going there. (The Guardian also thinks spending money there is a good idea.) The island is divided between a self-declared republic – recognized as an independent state by Turkey and Turkey alone – in the north and the EU member state of Cyprus in the south. The capital, Nicosia/Lefkosa, lies on the border, and walking over it (you’ll need your passport, but no other docs) provides perspective on the differences governance has on economic development. If you’d like to read up on the place, I recommend the Wikipedia summary and then the excellent work of International Crisis Group.  

Getting there: Flights from Istanbul to Ercan Lefkosa airport in the north are absurdly cheap and frequent. Turkish AirlinesPegasusAtlasJet, and Onur Air fly direct from Istanbul and a few other cities in Turkey. If you’re flying from Europe, you’ll land in EU Cyprus at Larnaca, Paphos, or Nicosia. Easyjet offers very affordable flights from London.

Getting around: Dolmus (shared taxis) go between all the major cities in the north, but you’ll want a car to be able to explore. The island is tiny: the road from Ercan airport to Girne/Kyrenia, the gorgeous coastal town where you’ll probably want to base yourself, takes about half an hour to wind over the spine of mountains that runs through the center of the country (view at right). If you rent a car in the north, you can only drive it through the Turkish Republic, but technically cars rented in the south can be taken all over the island. We couldn’t find anyone to rent one to us in the south for less than three days, but you might have better luck if you book in advance. We ended up sticking with the northern part of the island and paid 100TL (about 40 euro) for a two day rental.

What to see: The Crusader castle of St Hilarion ices the tallest mountain in the country. A contested site from the days of Richard the Lionheart’s invasion (1191) to the Turkish army’s (1974), it’s now a museum. It takes about 15 minutes to get there from the airport and at least a few hours to do it justice. Bring hiking shoes.

Other than the novelty of walking in and out of the EU, the capital Nicosia/Lefkosa doesn’t offer much to the tourist, unless you like gambling. The few historical sites are missable if you don’t have much time.

Bellapais monastery (pictured at the top and below) is mostly in ruins, but pilgrims sometimes hold impromptu services.

Still primarily known by its Greek name, Kyrenia,  the Venetian port of Girne makes a convenient base for exploration. There’s not much to see aside from the impressive fortifications, but the seafood restaurants, bars, and accommodation offerings are hard to beat. We stayed in a random hostel for 5 euro/night in March 2012. 

Farmagusta: we didn’t get a chance to visit, but apparently it offers much the same fare as Girne/Kyrenia. 

Nature: the entire northern coast seems to be one gorgeous sandy beach. Find a westward-facing spit of land and tell me it’s not one of the better sunsets you’ve seen.

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Istanbul Tips, part IV: So You Moved here.

This is fourth in a five part series of ‘Istanbul Tips’: Planning a visit, Orienting yourself on arrival, Restaurant & Entertainment Highlights, Settling in for the longer term (this one), and Getting a residence permit
Here’s a list of some organizations that helped me find a job, apartment, and friends in September 09. I’m not terribly active in any of them any more, so the information might be a bit dated, but hopefully at least somewhat helpful.
– For finding & furnishing an apartment: Craigslist and its Turkish-language sister, easiest navigated using are the easiest, though of course you could use an agent (called an emlak – I have no experience with them). The Facebook groups Buy, Sell, Swap in Istanbul Turkey and Expat’s Saver @Istanbul have an eclectic mix of home goods, often at rock-bottom prices. You can also sometimes find things through Couchsurfing, PAWI, and the forums (see below).
– is a networking site for those that have graduated from universities in the US. It wasn’t around when I first got here, but I’ve been to some events subsequently as they’ve had very interesting high-profile speakers (Minister of Finance, the American Ambassador, Minister of EU affairs etc). Mostly Turkish, and sometimes the speakers present in Turkish, but if you don’t speak the language it’s still worth it if you’d like to connect with the professional Turkish crowd. Mostly a bit older (30s predominantly). If the job board ends up going active I would imagine would have very good listings. 
– Zero has reasonably comprehensive listings of concerts, exhibitions, and other happenings. A pocket-sized book is published every month and can be picked up for free at most of the ‘hip’ spots in Beyoglu. Along the same lines, lecool used to have excellent recommendations for the hot concerts/films/exhibitions, but it’s lately been very sparse – maybe a staffing/funding issue. The magazines Time Out and The Guide are hit or miss, but may be useful at the start just for the fact that they are so comprehensive.
– Professional American Women of Istanbul (PAWI) – if you’re an American/Canadian/Mexican woman. Free, but you submit an application to join. They organize seminars (‘how to figure out your taxes from abroad’ etc) and social gatherings (sushi night, walk in Belgrade Forest, etc) and have a pretty active Google Group which is a great forum to answer questions (where to find a cleaner, a good OBGYN, etc). I don’t usually consider myself a women’s group kind of woman, but this has probably been the best resource during my time in Istanbul and I’ve met some wonderful people. Monthly meetings, including an annual meet-and-greet with the US Consul-General at his/her house, plus a few social events. Age group is mostly 23-45ish.

– International Women of Istanbul (IWI) and International Professional Women of Istanbul (IPWIN) – same lines as the above but more international and fee-paying. IWI is very Junior League/Rotary Club-esque – from my limited impression it seems to be mostly trailing spouses (ie, those who came over for their husbands’ jobs and don’t work) and runs lots of charity events. Dues are around 100 TL a year and they organize events, day trips etc, age group is mostly 30s-50s. IPWIN (just a separate mailing list within IWI) has had some great events recently, offering networking nights with most of the top diplomatic brass, useful briefings (how to work legally in Turkey, how to incorporate a company, etc).

– The Sublime Portal ( is another online forum along the lines of mymerhaba with a much more active user base. Some friends that have gotten involved say it is quite cliquey and the one time I met anyone from the group in person – impromptu stop at one of their weekly ‘Thirsty Thursday’ gatherings – seemed to confirm that impression. Regardless the forum has a lot of insight into the expat experience here, organizes some events, and has an active job board as well. Free, all ages but the ones that show up at gatherings seem to be mostly 30s-40s long-term expat types

– Internations – a sort of facebook for expats, it’s along the lines of the forums but much more user-friendly. Despite the fact it is nominally for expats, it’s more than half Turks, including a fair few men who think it is a dating service and not a social network. However, they organize events at some really great bars/clubs and attract a decent crowd of professionals, generally 25-40 years old. Cover is usually 15 TL for events (which includes a free drink), or you can join for 3 or 4 euro a month to get free entry. I’ve generally found Internations events a bit too meat markety, and so avoid them, but some of my best friends met each other at Internations.
Friends of the American Research Institute in Turkey (ARIT) – . A dues-paying organization that  sponsors lectures (free, generally with a cocktail hour after), day trips guided by scholars (60-200 TL, with discounts for members), and academic-focused weekend to week-long trips abroad (650-4000TL), as well as scholarships for students. Their day trips are fascinating but the lectures can be hit or miss. The crowd is generally older professionals (my friend invited me by saying ‘we need more members under 40’; average age is probably 55), with a smattering of grad-school types, generally really interesting people who have been in Turkey for decades and so have wonderful perspective. Membership 70 TL for the year and you most definitely don’t need to be American – in fact I think it is more than half are British or Turkish. 
– Pub Quiz – is really popular among the 20s-30s English teacher/yuppie set. You can find the group on Facebook – quizzes are Thursday nights at 10, almost always at a bar called Funky Teras just off Istiklal in Taksim. The quizzes are usually clever, but I have also been to some terrible ones.  You can show up even if you don’t have a team – you’ll be added to one, so it’s a good way to meet people. Buy-in is 5TL and if you win you take the pot home. There’s another pub quiz at 8pm on Thursday nights organized by Internations people, but I’ve never been. 

– Square Peg Theater Troupe – ‘Istanbul’s premier ex-pat theater troupe’ puts on original comedy shows and is always looking for more talent. Performers are predominantly from the English teacher crowd, and the shows can be hilarious though decidedly not family-friendly. 
– is a great resource if you know how to use it: be open to overwhelming friendliness and be understanding of people that are just plain overwhelming. The ‘Istanbul’ group is very active and organizes drinks, day trips, etc, etc, and is a good place to air questions (‘good jogging route in Beyoglu?’). There are also apartment listings in the ‘IST – Flat/Flatmate…’ subgroup. The website is predictably dominated by hipster backpacker types (which is not a bad thing). Unfortunately, meetups tend to be dominated by Turks Who Want to Get In Foreign Girls’ Pants, who are tedious. Free, weekly meetups for drinks plus a ton of other impromptu activities like day trips and parties, age group 18-40ish (mostly 20-somethings)

– Foreign Press Club – if you can make an argument that you are a member of the foreign press, or actively trying to become one, you can email the head of club and ask to join the mailing list. Actually being a foreign correspondent doesn’t seem to be a stringent requirement, considering I’m a member. In addition to being the best way (short of personal recs) to find a fixer, translator, driver, relevant AV cable, etc in Istanbul, there are monthly drinks nights and occasional talks/conferences arranged just for the group.

Istanbul Modern and the Pera Museum have good weekly newsletters of their goings-on, including film screenings and exhibition openings. You can subscribe on their websites.
– there are about a billion blogs kept by expats which can be interesting/informative. and are some of my favorites. Yabangee is also great. My all-time favorite is Carpetblog, though she’s traveling so constantly it’s barely Istanbul-focused.
If you try any of these out and form vastly different impressions from me, I’m curious to hear how they are these days.

This article from The Guide: Istanbul (in which my brother and I are both profiled) has some additional tips. Also, my friend Kaan runs a Q&A forum called Atdaa that aims to be a comprehensive place to get answers about Turkey, both for visitors and those who live here.
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Istanbul Tips, Part III: Nom nom nom

Over my three years in Istanbul, I’ve answered a bunch of questions from people who wanted to visit or move here. Some I got so often that I decided to just write a set of Google Docs to answer them. Now that I’m leaving, they’re not going to keep evolving, so I might as well publish them here, in a series of ‘Istanbul Tips’. This was written in conjunction with the amazing Kate Bloomer. 

Istanbul Watering Holes: A Treatise

Lonely Planet recently put out a decent summary that you can find here. I agree with almost everything they say, except the reliability and price of taxis (much lower and higher, respectively) and the likelihood male travelers encountering a ‘friendly local who will take them to a mafia-run dive bar’ – I have never heard of this happening. If you’re a dedicated foodie, Culinary Backstreets (formerly Istanbul Eats) has the best advice by far. Anyway. Topics covered:

The Music
Upscale but Low-key
Late Night
Hidden Gems
Rough Around the Edges
***Our favorites are marked by asterisks (creatively)***


  • The Golden Mile – If you want to go big in Istanbul, this is what you should see and where you should be seen. The Golden Mile is string of exclusive (and vastly overpriced) clubs along the Bosphorus. Located just under the first bridge, in Kurucesme, it’s really only accessible by taxi at the hours you would want to go (certainly not before midnight). Unfortunately traffic on the shore road is ghastly in the evenings as everyone is trying to get to and from this area, but once you’re there, you’re in the glitz and glamour among the Istanbul elite, with epic views of the waterfront. Most clubs are also restaurants. In order to avoid traffic and entry fees, it’s worth having dinner beforehand, then you can stay on and watch it fill up with labels. Arrive by boat for added effect. Reina is the most famous, otherwise it’s hard to keep track of what’s hot these days. Sortie and Blackk were big in summer 2011.
  • NuTeras (Pera) – A great club / restaurant that’s much closer to the center of the city, NuTeras is a rooftop gem which also has great views over the Golden Horn in Beyoglu. Drinks are still quite pricey, but the venue is great with an awesome glass dance floor that goes down about 11 storeys to the entryway below.
  • 360 (Istiklal / Galatasaray) – 360 is a well known restaurant that becomes a nightclub after the 10:00 sitting on weekends. The food is not terribly overpriced if you’re looking for a nice meal and again affords great views. It’s a bit of a tourist trap, as it’s been written up in most of the travel guides, but, well, the view really is nice. Service can be slow, so make sure to accost your waiter.
  • Ulus 29 (Ulus) – Located in Ulus, which also requires a taxi, this restaurant is one of the best in the city. The views are unbeatable, as it is set back from the Bosphorus on a high point so there’s great visibility. You’re treated like a star here, but you’ll be paying for it. On weekends this venue becomes a nightclub a la Reina after dinner.
  • Lucca (Bebek)- I’ve never been sure why the who’s who decided that the viewless, always crowded Lucca is the place to be. Maybe it’s the amazing mojitos.
  • Angelique (Ortakoy) – Angelique is known as “little Reina”. Located in Ortakoy, a quaint neighborhood along the Bosphorus, before the first bridge. Similar crowd, but this year touted to be a bit young. The music is loud, but on the outdoor patio you can escape to look out across the Bosphorus and the picturesque Ortakoy Mosque. It makes a great alternative to the Golden Mile as you don’t have to contend with quite as much traffic, but don’t expect a quick journey here either.
  • Suada (Kurucesme) – Located beyond the Golden Mile, this man-made island between Europe and Asia harbors a multitude of treasures, including a floating pool (80-100TL/day entry). Several of the big-name Istanbul restaurants have their sister restaurants here, including 360 and Fish. You get to take a boat ride there – so what if it’s only 30 seconds long. At night the pool is lit up and there’s usually a line up of well-known Turkish DJs on weekends.
The Music
  • Babylon (Asmalimescit) – Probably Istanbul’s best known music venue, not far from Pera. Performances from world-famous artists as well as some local stars. Its Istanbul location closes in the summer as the crowds migrate to Cesme on the Aegean coast.
  • Ghetto (Galatasaray) – Nipping at Babylon’s heels is the cathedral-ceilinged Ghetto, located just off Istiklal by the British Consulate. The performers aren’t quite as well known as the ones who end up at Babylon but there are a few headliners every season. Local act Baba Zula***, an excellent Turkish psychadelic electronica group, performs here often (bellydancer included).
  • NuBlu (Asmalimescit) – Opened by Turkish jazz composer Ilhan Ersahin, who started Nublu in New York, his location on native soil is a great spot for jazz, and is located adjacent to Babylon.  Catering to a younger crowd it is a bit snazzy for a jazz club, and upstairs they often have a techno DJ.
  • Nardis (Galata) – Nardis is another local jazz spot, with nightly performances starring good local jazz musicians and the occasional international headliner. The venue is small but atmospheric and it’s a great place for some chill music and a glass of wine.
  • Atolye (Galata) *** – Next door to Nardis, this bar doesn’t seem to have a set schedule for its live music, but generally Thursday-Saturday will find an excellent local jazz group tuning up around 10pm. No cover, cheap but good quality food and drink, and a great location make this a favorite.
Upscale but Low-key Bars
  • Leb-i Derya (Istiklal/Asmalimescit) – This small restaurant/bar is a favorite among expats and locals. The food is excellent, as are the views. There are two venues, one in the Richmond Hotel (not nearly as atmospheric, though the ovular bar is quite cool) and the second on a side street off of Istiklal called Kumbaraci Yks, which is much nicer. You would hardly know it was there if you didn’t see the small green sign outside the door, and you walk into a rather grungy looking hallway, however, once you arrive on the top floor, you’ll be thrilled by the views.
  • 5 Kat*** (Cihangir) – This was once Istanbul’s local gay hangout and it remains one of the most fabulous places in town. The decor is wonderful – red walls, purple chairs and fantastic chandeliers inside, and an outdoor terrace with less exciting decor but stupendous views above (only open seasonally). I’d call it more campy than upscale, but it remains one of my favorite places in town, and the prices are more reasonable that some other similar venues.
  • White Mill*** (Cihangir) – One of few green places in Istanbul, this Cihangir garden is incredibly picturesque and a wonderful escape from the business of the city. The outdoor restaurant is set amongst trees and feels like someone’s well-landscaped back-yard. Also a great spot for brunch.
  • Litera (Galatasaray) – This rooftop restaurant is located above the Goethe Institute (the German Cultural Society) just past the Galatasary High school off Istiklal st. It has good space and is a nice spot for a more quiet drink, again with wonderful views out over the Golden Horn and the Asian side. Easily accessible but not well known, it’s quite ideal if you’re looking for something chic but quiet.
  • Mikla (Pera) – Located at the Marmara Pera hotel, Mikla has hands down the best view in Istanbul (even better from the rooftop pool!) It is also considered to be one of the best restaurants in the city. I would highly recommend checking this place out, if only for a soda water and the view, since you’ll be paying top dollar for the venue. The hotel is one of the high points (literally and figuratively) in the Beyoglu area and can be recognized for the rather unfortunate jumbotron which crowns the skyscraper.
  • The Pera Palace (Pera) – Next door to the Marmara Pera is the Pera Palace Hotel, an Ottoman building which has been lovingly restored, reviving its splendor if losing some of its charm. The Orient Bar has a lovely, old world atmosphere and feels like the perfect place for a scotch on the rocks.
Late Night

  • Kiki’s (Cihangir) – Kiki’s is a small club that tends to get moving around one o’clock. It has a nice patio and dance floor, but the DJ can sometimes be a bit lackluster and it tends to get very crowded. Still, if you are looking for something that keeps going til late hours, this is a good bet.
  • Mini Music Hall (Cihangir) – MMH is one of those places that gets moving at 3 and chucks people out around 7 when the sun comes up. The music is always pumping, the air filled with cigarette smoke, and the walls covered with the most bizarre collection of backlit photographs and mirrors. As one of the few venues that stays open so late, it is always crowded and they charge a 20TL cover (but only 10TL until 1AM, and free before midnight). Make sure to get a doner sandwich on your way to bed in the morning. Located below 5 Kat in Cihangir.
  • Machine – Machine is a seizure inducing combination of strobe lights and pumping techno beats. Open till 5AM, and dance-til-you-drop or get out before you have a chance to absorb what’s going on.
Hidden Gems

  • Balkon (Asmalimescit) – Another rooftop spot in Beyoglu that is popular with the young local crowd. Arguably the best caipirinhas in the city. The rooftop is a little shabby but has a lot of charm with colored lights and usually a decent selection of well-known tunes over which it can be difficult to have a decent conversation. Can get over-crowded and has no space to dance, but a popular spot to start off the evening.
  • Buyuk Londra*** (Pera) – The Buyuk Londra hotel is pure kitsch, and an absolute favorite. The bar on the first floor has a wonderful collection of wrought-iron stoves, pastel chandeliers, and bird cages, and it’s a cosy spot for a winter evening. But in the summer, make your way up to the rooftop for sunset: magnificent views made all the better because the price of drinks won’t send you over the edge.
  • Journey (Cihangir) – A streetside Cihangir bar with a 70’s ski-lodge atmosphere, and the best free cerez (nuts) in town. A little on the pricey side but recognized for delicious fare and the opportunity to watch the Cihangir locals sipping cocktails.
  • ***Kafe17 (Cihangir) – Located just around the corner from Kiki’s, this camp extravaganza has been recently discovered by us… and practically noone else. If you’ve got enough people to create your own party, chances are you can play your own music and have the place more or less to yourself. The owner, Jasmine Highheel, is exactly the kind of person you would expect to oversee a glitter/leopard print/disco balled party den. This place is moving in on the space previously reserved for the Buyuk Londra in our hearts. *Update: at last glance the place had been discovered by Erasmus students, thus ruining its appeal completely. 
Rough around the edges

  • Line Bar – Live cover bands perform here all the time, some better than others. Cheap drinks, but avoid the vinegary wine. Great for getting your dance on, and open late. Located off of Istiklal near Taksim Sq.
  • Thales – A small rock bar off the top of Istiklal (near Taksim Sq) with unbeatable prices on drinks. Rather grungy, but nice rooftop, usually inhabited by smokers.
  • Novo – Located in Asmali Mescit, a winding warren of bars and restaurants in Tunel, at the bottom of Istiklal. Despite being the size of an affordable studio apartment in New York, the place consistently draws a good crowd – sort of a pain in winter, when it’s too cold to be comfortable when you’re squeezed outside.

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Istanbul Tips, part II: Istanbul Pocket Guide

This is second in a five part series of ‘Istanbul Tips’: Planning a visitOrienting yourself on arrival (this one)Restaurant & Entertainment Highlights, Settling in for the longer term, and Getting a residence permit I wrote this in conjunction with the wonderful Kate Bloomer

This probably isn’t fun to digest in one sitting. I suggest printing this out and reading it on the plane ride over or keeping it as a reference to read when you’re stuck in traffic (because this is Istanbul, and you will be at some point). A concise version (no pictures) can be downloaded as a PDF here. Topics covered: 

Airport Arrival

Mosaics in Aya Sofya (Haghia Sophia)


  • Geography
  • Currency
  • Phone
  • Internet
  • What to wear
  • Language
Places to Go
  • Sights
  • Socializing
Getting Around
Turkish language basics
Exploring the rest of Turkey

Airport Arrival

  • Americans and Europeans will have to buy a visa on arrival – it’s just a sticker that you buy directly before you go through passport control. You’ll need $20 or 15 euro or 10 British pounds IN CASH handy to pay for the visa. Visitors from other countries will probably have to arrange a visa in advance.
  • There are a number of ATMs and exchange counters with near-market rates by baggage claim and after you exit customs, so no need to exchange money in advance. The currency is the Turkish Lira (TL).
  • Getting into the city will depend where you are staying (probably Sultanahmet or Beyoğlu/Taksim) and at which airport you arrive (Atatürk or Sabiha Gökçen).
    • Atatürk to Taksim
      • Fastest: a taxi will take 30-40 minutes barring traffic and should cost around 40 TL. ***Cabs are extremely unreliable, and love to take tourists on 100 TL+ joyrides around Istanbul instead of to their destinations. Make sure you know exactly where you’re going (a map printout would be useful) and discuss about how much it will cost beforehand.***
      • Easiest: Catch a Havaş/Havataş bus – these clean and comfortable coach buses are usually directly in front of you when you exit the terminal. It will take you to Taksim, the second and last stop, in about 40 minutes for 10 TL or 5€ or $8. From Taksim it’s easy to get anywhere in Beyoğlu.
      • Cheapest: You can take the metro to Zeytinburnu, catch the tram to Kabataş, and then the funicular to Taksim, for a grand total of 6 lira (you’ll have to buy a different 2 TL token for each stage of the journey). Unless you’re extremely tight on cash, paying an extra 4 lira for the Havataş bus is much more convenient.
    • Atatürk to Sultanahmet:
      • A cab shouldn’t cost more than 30 TL, though keep in mind the advice about cabs above.
      • Take the metro (2 TL) to Zeytinburnu and then the tram (2 TL) to whichever stop is closest to your hotel (probably Sultanahmet). You’ll have to buy a different token for each type of transport, so don’t bother getting two at the beginning. 
    • Sabiha Gökçen to Taksim:
      • Fastest & Easiest: Again the Havaş/Havataş bus, but it takes a little longer (about an hour) and costs 12TL/6€/$10. They run 25 minutes after the arrival of every plane.
      • Cheapest: E10 bus to Kadiköy and then a ferry to Kabatas for 4TL. This will not work if you are arriving at strange hours, but is pretty reliable outside of that.
      • A taxi will cost at least 70 TL, and possibly much more if you’re stuck in traffic. It’s no faster than the bus so I really wouldn’t recommend taking one.
    • Sabiha Gökçen to Sultanahmet:
      • Hotel shuttle is probably easiest – if it’s exorbitant take the Havaş to Taksim and cab it from there.

  •  Geography of Istanbul:
    Galata Tower
    • The Bosphorus runs roughly south-north between the Sea of Marmara (bottom) and the Black Sea (at the top). The Golden Horn, aka the Haliç, is a river/strait that intersects it at a right angle on the ‘European’ side and so divides the western half of Istanbul into Old Istanbul (also known as the Golden Horn, confusingly) in the south and modern Istanbul (Beyoğlu) above.  The main artery of modern Istanbul is a street called Istiklal Caddesi, which runs from Taksim Square southwest to the Galata Tower, near the southern tip of Beyoğlu. The Galata bridge takes you from the southern tip of Beyoğlu, across the Goldern Horn (body of water) to the Golden Horn (peninsula). From Taksim, a funicular will take you down to the edge of the Bosphorus at Kabataş, and the Taksim/Kabataş axis marks the top of Beyoglu. Further north, two bridges cross the Bosphorus to connect the European and Asian side, the Boğaz bridge and the Fatih Sultan Mehmet bridge – more commonly, less creatively, known as the First and Second Bosphorus bridge.
  • Currency
    • Roughly, $1 = 1.7 TL and 1€ = 2.3 TL and £1 = 2.8 TL
    • ATMs and money-exchange places are easy to find throughout the city – look for the sign saying ‘Doviz’ for the latter. Almost all of them have very fair rates – just look for something with less than 5 cents spread between the listed buy and sell price.
  • Phone
    • The country code is +90. Cell phone numbers start with (0)5 (drop the zero if calling from an international phone) and land lines in Istanbul start with (0)212 (European side) or (0)216 (Asian side)
    • It is difficult to pick up a Turkish SIM for a short stay – it takes about 24 hours to register, and then will stop working within a week (sometimes more, sometimes less) unless you go through an extensive registration process with your passport. SIM cards are also needlessly expensive (50 TL or more). If you have a phone with international roaming capabilities, it should work and is probably the easiest option.
  • Internet
    • There is free wireless in most cafes (though you may have to ask for the password).
  • What to wear:
    • You can dress exactly as you would in the US or Europe. You are a tourist, so you will be heckled no matter what you wear. 
    • To go into mosques, you must take off your shoes, so if you plan to do a lot of sightseeing you might want to bring something easy to slip on and off. Women need to cover their head, shoulders, and legs (leggings or skirts below the knee are almost always ok). Most mosques provide scarves and super attractive floor-length lab coats in case you come unprepared.
    • Istanbul is HILLY and has lots of cobblestone streets. Wear comfortable shoes!
    • The weather is pretty unpredictable – check before you travel to see if you’ll need rain gear, sweaters, or sunglasses.
  • Language
    • People in the major tourist areas generally speak English, but the majority of Istanbullus do not. This isn’t such a problem because Turks are incredibly friendly and will find you an English speaker if you need any help. See ‘Turkish Language Basics’ for a few key phrases.

 Places to go: In roughly descending order of our completely subjective preferences.

Sultanahmet, seen from Beyoglu: Aya Sofya to the left and the Blue Mosque to the right

  • Sights
  • Basilica Cistern
    • The blockbuster sights are almost all in the old city: Sultanahmet is the name of the area (and tram stop) where you will find the Aya Sofya (20 TL / $13), Blue Mosque (free of charge)Archaeological museum (10 TL / $6-7)  (located within the gardens of Topkapı Palace (30 TL for entrance, 15 TL for Harem entrance), and the Basilica Cistern (10 TL). Everything’s quite well marked in the area, and regardless everyone speaks English so you should have no trouble.  Aya Sofya is unmissable – be sure to make it up to the second floor for the mosaics! Depending on how much you care about the dent in your wallet, Topkapi palace and its Harem are impressive and tremendously important historically, though the lines can be tedious. The Archaeological Museum has quite simply the best classical sculptures I’ve ever seen – blows anything you can find in New York, London, Athens, or Cairo out of the water. The Basilica Cistern is quite a magical place and a nice respite from the hustle of the city streets.
    • The bazaars: The Grand Bazaar (within walking distance of Sultanahmet, or just two stops up the line at Beyazit station) and Spice Bazaar (located near the Yeni Cami or New Mosque at Eminonu tram stop) are just plain fun. If you’ve only got time for one, the Spice Bazaar has just about everything you’ve seen in the grand bazaar and a better vibe. Always haggle for the price – offer half what they ask for and meet somewhere in the middle (never pay more than ¾ of what they first asked).
    • You could spend a week (a lifetime?) in the alleyways off of Istiklal Caddesi. I especially like the ones towards the bottom around Galatasaray and Tunel. Go more than two avenues to the northwest (right, if you are walking from Taksim) of Istiklal and you will be in a fast gentrifying but still pretty gritty slum called Tarlabaşi – an interesting place to visit during the day. The alleys on the left (southeast) of Istiklal have interesting junk shops and galleries, those immediately to the right are more full of cafes. 
    • I lived in Cihangir, a lovely neighborhood renowned for its streetside cafes and bars. It is a picturesque residential area that gentrified about ten years ago and is full of journalists, diplomats, and Turkish soap opera stars. If you wander the back streets you’ll come across antique and second hand clothing stores. It’s a great place to spend an evening. Journey Cafe on Akarsu Yks. and White Mill on Susam Sk. are favorite haunts.
    • Istanbul has a fast-developing fine arts scene. Istanbul Modern (12 TL), at the Tophane tram stop, is worth a visit, especially if you can have a glass of wine at the cafe without a cruise ship blocking your view. The Pera Museum (10 TL) is towards the bottom of Istiklal Caddesi and tends to have excellent exhibitions and a good permanent collection of 16th-20th century art as well. Istiklal Caddesi also has a number of new top-notch galleries, with SALT Beyoglu and Arter (both on the southern half of the street) being particular favorites. Tophane is emerging as a gallery hub – start at GalleriNON and roam from there. 
    • Prince’s Islands: Büyükada, or Big Island, is the most popular, but you can get off at any of the four. A ferry from Kabataş to Büyükada takes 1.5 hours, which is very pleasant if the weather is good (and still only costs 3.5 TL on the municipal ferry! There are also a number of private ferry companies that do the same route for 4-7TL). There are no cars on the islands aside from emergency vehicles and there are lovely parks, so it’s a great escape for a nice day (as long as you don’t mind the omnipresent smell of horse). You can ride around in a horse-drawn phaeton or rent bikes or go hiking or just eat some fresh seafood.
    • Ortaköy: a nice district a little ways up the Bosphorus, right under the first bridge. There’s a beautiful little mosque, lots of cafes, and a place to hop on a Bosphorus cruise (if you haven’t caught one from Kabataş or Eminonu). It’s probably one of the most photographed locations in Istanbul. You can catch a bus from the shore road (take any that say ‘Ortaköy’ on the side) or take an hour-long walk north along the Bosphorus from Beyoğlu. Along the way from the city center, you can visit Dolmabahce Palace, just north of the Kabataş ferry stop- it is an opulent European-style place whose decoration more or less bankrupted the Ottoman Empire. If you have an International Student Identity card admission is 1TL, without it is 20 TL. You’re required to go through with a (usually excellent) guided tour, included in the price, so budget at least an hour and a half. Lines can be long during peak tourist season and on weekends, and it’s closed Monday and Thursday.
    • Rumeli Hisari: This uber impressive fortress in the Sariyer area was built in 1452 to prevent aid from coming down the Bosphorus from the Black Sea during the seige of Constantinople. Amazingly, it was completed in a record time of 4 months and 16 days. My favorite brunch spot in Istanbul, Kale,  is located here, under the towers, with breathtaking views of the Bosphorus, and the swanky crowd who tends to frequent the area on lazy Sundays (; Also nearby is the Sakip Sabanci Museum (10 TL) which maintains a wonderful permanent collection housed in a stately home on the Bosphorus, as well as an interesting mix of temporary exhibitions. The restaurant on the museum grounds, MuzedeChanga, is a great date spot but probably too out of the way for short-term visitors.
    • Kadikoy: If you’re looking for an excuse to “go to Asia,” this is a pleasant way to do it. There are ferries every 15 minutes from Kabatas and Karakoy (right below the Galata bridge, cost 1.65 TL). When you reach the other side, walk towards the tall flag and Ataturk monument, then continue straight across the main road and you’ll find your way to the fish market and Bahariye Caddesi, full of shops and cafes. Nearby the fish market is a lovely (although a bit pungent) and the popular local restaurant, Ciya (, is a perfect place for a leisurely lunch, and is very reasonably priced.
  • Socializing – this so depends on what you’re interested in and willing to spend – but here’s our take on the most well-known options. For more details, see the next blog post.
    • Sultanahmet is full of tourist traps and places with little character.
    • Taksim has two main areas for evening fun: Nevizade (about halfway down Istiklal) and Asmalimescit.
    • Nevizade is a narrow and bustling side street that runs parallel to Istiklal. For an authentic meyhane dinner (much like Greek meze or Spanish tapas), this is the easiest place to go. It can be noisy and crowded, but it is atmospheric and often they play live music.
    • Asmalimescit is right at the bottom of Istiklal (just up the hill from Galata, adjacent to Tunel and Pera). Slightly more trendy (and definitely more expensive) than Nevizade but much less hassle.
    • The Golden Mile is a string of very ritzy clubs along the Bosphorus just north of the first bridge. They’re beautiful and full of pretty people. The music is variable and the drinks exorbitant; face control is not that strict (don’t wear sneakers, but also don’t expect to have to wait in line very long). Expect to pay a 50 TL cover, even if you’re a pretty girl. Reina, Supper Club, and Angelique are the best known. Not worth it for my money but if you want to see how the Turkish riche party then by all means..

Getting around
Istanbul’s public transit is reliable, cheap, and comprehensive. Taxi drivers are often clueless and the most likely people outside the Grand Bazaar to try and scam you. Try to only take taxis if you know how to get where you’re going or are traveling with someone who does, or if your hotel arranges it for you. If you have GPS on your phone, insist that the driver follows it (he will probably try and tell you that because of traffic you must go another way. You will be in traffic no matter what. Follow the GPS).
You will need a token for the tram, metro, or ferry, but there are vending machines just by the entrance, so no need to provision in advance. If you haven’t gotten a token before getting on the bus, you can give anyone that looks like a resident 2 TL and they will pay for your journey with their Istanbulkart. If you’re going to be taking a lot of public transit, it’s worth buying an Akbil, recently rebranded as Istanbulkart (the names are interchangeable), the Metrocard/CharlieCard/Oystercard of Istanbul (6TL), as the fares are slightly lower.  There are kiosks selling Akbils/Istanbulkart at Taksim and Kabatas.
Useful public transit links:

  • Hands down the best way to get in/out of the old city from Beyoglu (other than walking if the weather’s good) is to take the tram. To the Golden Horn from Taksim/Beyoglu, go down to the Bosphorus (basically take any road down a hill in an easterly direction) and you will run into the tram. Head south (right) for the old city. Sultanahmet is the stop for Aya Sofya, Blue Mosque, Basilica Cistern, Gulhane for Topkapi Palace and the Archeological Museum and Cemberlitas for the Grand Bazaar and the wonderful Cemberlitas hamam. The northernmost stop is Kabataş, which is connected via funicular to Taksim and is also a key ferry terminal.
  • To go up the European Coast, go down to the Bosphorus and catch any bus that says ‘Ortaköy’ (charming district underneath the first bridge, Boğaz bridge), Bebek, Rumeli Hisarı, Istinye, Yeniköy. Lots of people say these districts are very pleasant – with the exception of Ortaköy I don’t think they’ve got much going on. Ortaköy has a beautiful, tiny mosque and lots of nice seaside cafes with shisha  and quaint, somewhat touristy shops.
  • To the Asian side/Prince’s Islands, go down to the Bosporus and walk north (left) until you hit Kabataş. There are a number of ferry terminals – go to someone official looking and say your destination (Uskuder or Kadiköy for the Asian side, Buyukada for the Prince’s Islands) and they will point you in the direction of the right one.

Language Basics
Turkish Pronunciation

C  = J so Cihangir = jee-hahn-gear and Cami (mosque) = jah-mee
İ = ee so İstanbul = Ee-stahn-bool
Ş = sh so beş (five) = besh
Ğ = not pronounced, so Beyoğlu = Beyohloo
ı = uh so Topkapı Sariyer (Topkapı Palace) is Tohp-kah-puh Sah-ree-yehr

Key phrases

Yes/no = evet/hayir
Teşek kurler = thank you
… nerede? = Where is ….?
Ne kadar? = how much?
1/2/3/4/5/10 = bir/iki/uç/dört/beş/on

Places to go outside the city: 

Turkey is a large, gorgeous, and SAFE country that is well worth exploring. Buses are usually the cheapest way to get around but flights can be cheaper (!) and are certainly a better bargain time-wise. More on this can be found in the doc linked at the top of this entry and will be written up soon…
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Istanbul Tips, part I: Planning a visit to Istanbul

This is the first in a five part series of ‘Istanbul Tips’: Planning a visit, Orienting yourself on arrivalRestaurant & Entertainment Highlights, Settling in for the longer term, and Getting a residence permit

I could write a book on why you should come and see Istanbul, but enough people already have. If you already know you’d like to visit, this should answer some questions you may have and provide some guidance on how to get here. If you decide to come, you can find the link to an even more detailed document at the end of this one. Topics covered:

Where to Stay
Getting Around
Getting Here
Domestic Travel in Turkey


  • Istanbul is not as cheap as many people anticipate, but it’s still a degree of magnitude less expensive than most of Europe – with the unfortunate exception of alcohol prices, which are on par with London/New York/Paris. Ho[s]tels at all price ranges ($15 and up) can be found through all the regular channels, and there’s a rich selection of places on AirBnb. The main attractions can cost up to 10€ each, though considering their historical significance this hardly seems unreasonable.Public transport, Turkish food, scarves and ceramics are very very cheap. A cheap meal will set you back 3-5€; there are lots of pleasant restaurants where lunch/dinner will cost 15-20€, and the high-end stuff will cost 50-100€ per person.
  • Roughly, $1 = 1.7 TL and 1€ = 2.5 TL and £1 = 2.8 TL
  • There are ATMs and money-exchange places all over the place, including the arrivals hall of the airport, so no need to exchange money in advance.
  • Domestic flights within Turkey are very reasonable, usually under $100 each way and often much less. The bus network is also very comprehensive and cheap. In my opinion, you can comfortably cover Istanbul’s top sights in four days, so if you’re planning to be here a week or more, I’d definitely recommend getting outside of Istanbul. There are plenty of great trips that can even be done within a day, if you get the flight timing right, or more pleasantly over two.

Where to Stay

  • I used to live in Cihangir, near Taksim Square, in what is one of the best locations for both visiting and living in Istanbul.

  • If you’re in town for a very short time, you might want to stay in Sultanahmet, where the bulk of the blockbuster tourist sights (Aya Sofya, Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, etc) are located. Everything from hostels to boutiques to five stars is an option.

  • However Sultanahmet gets old quickly and I’d recommend staying anywhere in Beyoglu, which is modern Istanbul’s historic downtown area. Taksim, Galata, Cihangir, Pera, and Cukurcuma are all good areas within Beyoglu, and again there are ho[s]tels in most all comfort and price ranges.

  • If you’re looking for luxury Ciragan Palace (Kempinski) and the Four Seasons on the Bosphorus just north of Beyoglu are the places to be. However, beware that the traffic between your hotel and almost all the sights will be pretty terrible, especially in the summer.


  • The amount of English spoken corresponds with how many foreigners tend to be in the area. In the tourist centers, you’ll be fine with zero Turkish. In Beyoglu, most people speak at least a bit of English. However, in most of Istanbul – and in Turkey as a whole – English is not widely understood. With about 5 minutes of effort, you can learn a few key phrases that will make navigation easy (all included in the document linked at the bottom of this one).


  • You shouldn’t have to change the way you dress. Shorts/short skirts will not be frowned upon except in the most conservative of areas (ones you probably won’t be going to anyway) and when visiting mosques.

  • To go into mosques, you must take off your shoes. Women need to cover their head, shoulders, and legs (leggings and skirts below the knee are usually ok). Men are expected to wear trousers, not shorts, though it’s not quite as strictly enforced. Most mosques provide scarfs and attractive floor-length lab coats in case you come unprepared.

  • Istanbul is not an overly dressy place and there are very, very few places that will turn you away based on what you’re wearing.

  • Istanbul makes San Francisco look like the Bolivian Salt flats. The hills are killer and there are lots of cobblestone streets. Comfortable shoes are a must.

Getting around

  • Public transport: Istanbul’s network of metro, tram, bus, minibus, shared taxi, and funiküler can seem confusing, but it is pretty comprehensive and very cheap.

  • Taxis are cheap IF you get an honest cabbie. Unfortunately, they are the exception rather than the rule. This is another incentive to stay in Beyoglu or Sultanahmet, where almost all of the sites will be within walking distance or easy public transport.

Getting here:

  • is reliable, but tends to have more options and allows you to search on flexible dates. It’s worth checking both.
  • Istanbul has two airports,
  • Atatürk and Sabiha Gökçen. Almost all discount flights go to/from Sabiha. No US carriers fly to Sabiha, but you could go there if you connect through Europe. Both have advantages and disadvantages:

    • Why Ataturk is better: closer to the city center (~40 minutes to Taksim vs 60-80 or more from Sabiha Gokcen)
    • Why Sabiha Gokcen is better: lines at passport control are usually shorter, airport as a whole is easier and quicker to navigate

  • From the US
  • Delta, United, and Turkish Airlines fly direct to Atatürk from
    New York, Chicago, DC, and SF, and dozens of airlines will give you connecting flights through Europe.
  • It may be much cheaper to buy a round trip to somewhere in Europe and then fly discount from there (see below).

  • From Europe:
  • England: Easyjet flies from Luton/Gatwick and is generally the cheapest. Turkish Airlines also sometimes has absurdly cheap fares, especially for students, and you get miles, aren’t charged for your baggage, and almost always arrive at Atatürk. British Air is the only other conventional airline to fly directly to Istanbul from London. Pegasus has a good Gatwick-Sabiha Gokcen line with competitive but not rock-bottom prices. Excellent Turkish carrier Atlasjet started a London Stansted-Istanbul Ataturk line in April 2012.
  • Sun Express is a reliable carrier from Germania (Germany, Austria, Switzerland). Condor flies from Germania, Sweden, London, and Barcelona. Pegasus is expanding quickly and has a great network of flights from Europe and also onwards to the middle east (Tel Aviv, Beirut).

  • Elsewhere:
  • Istanbul is a great hub for flights to/from the
    Middle East, Central, South and East Asia, and Africa. I hear the flights to/from India in particular are very very cheap.

Other Transport options

  • Seat61 is the best source of information on train journeys. I’ve taken the Bucharest-Istanbul and Sofia-Istanbul train with no hitches. Unfortunately the Thessaloniki-Istanbul line seems to be suspended until the Greek government has money again.
  • There are regular ferries from many places in Greece to the Turkish coast (Izmir, Canakkale) during the summer.
  • Dozens of overnight buses run from Sofia and they are generally quicker than the train.

Domestic Travel:

    There are many fabulous places to visit in Turkey, so if you’re coming all the way to Istanbul you might want to do some extra exploring.
  • Transport
  • Buses are cheap, comfortable, and comprehensive. They are usually the quickest ground transport between cities – you can get anywhere in Turkey in about 24 hours.
  • Trains are very slow (except the Istanbul-Ankara line) but can be scenic.
  • Domestic flights are absurdly cheap. Atlas Jet, Anadolu Jet, Onur Air, Turkish, Pegasus, and Sun Express will take you all over Turkey for $15-60 each way if booked in advance.
  • Where to go: oh, so many wonderful places to see. Check out Lonely Planet and see what appeals. The crowd-pleasers are generally Capadoccia and Ephesus, both of which I heartily recommend – though try to pick a season when Ephesus won’t be overrun with crowds. ** There are more elaborate descriptions in the document linked below, but a quick overview:** I’ve really enjoyed visiting the Mediterranean and Aegean coast (Olympos, Bergama, Afrodisias, and Pamukkale were highlights; Antalya was great out of season). Safranbolu, Amasra and Edirne were nice enough, but definitely second/third tier sights. The Syriac cities in the southeast (Mardin, Gazantiep, and Sanliurfa) sound fascinating. Ani on the Armenian border was my favorite site by far but there’s not much tourist infrastructure yet, so make sure you know at least some Turkish/have a phrasebook before you attempt this. 

  • Once you’ve decided you’re going to come for sure, you can find a lot more tips

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I recently met a photographer, Claudius Schulze, who shot a bewitching profile of journey carpenters or, as they’re known in his native Germany, Wandergesellen.

It made me wonder how Benedict, the carpenter I met when hiking the Great Wall, has gotten on in life. I had told Benedict about a friend of mine who got a Fulbright to go and build boats in Micronesia, and he said he liked the idea. I wonder if he ever made it to the Pacific. He doesn’t seem like the type to have a Facebook profile.
Claudius and his girlfriend ended up staying in my apartment when I was away on a business trip. They left one of the greatest host gifts I’ve ever received – a signed copy of his latest book on the island of Socotra and the following picture of the view from my roof: 
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More than half a decade ago (!), when I was living in Paris, I sang in a number of choirs. Like most adult extracurriculars, their real purpose was not to come together to pursue artistic/athletic excellence. They were simply convenient excuses for drinking. The post-practice pilgrimage to the bar was always at least as important as perfecting whatever Bach cantata we were working on.
Mascotte (view at right) was one of the favorite drinking spots. One evening, an older member of the group pulled me aside. He asked me why an eighteen year old like me was in Paris and not in university, what I was doing with my life, why I’d left the US. As usual, I didn’t have very convincing answers.

‘It’s interesting… I figured I should make some money before college… I have no idea what I want to do with my life…’

He didn’t respond for a second. Then ‘You’ – the way he said this implied an intimacy that seemed presumptuous at the time – ‘you’ll become an expatriate.’

Years later, when I read The Sun Also Rises, I had a sharp sense of déjà vu. What I remember of that conversation in Paris was eerily reminiscent of a conversation Hemingway stages between two of his main characters. This is hardly surprising – Paris breeds the type of people who will quote literature as if it were their own personal insight. In Hemingway’s words:

‘You – you may not know it now, but you’ve become an expatriate. Not just for a little bit, but maybe for life. First you’ll lose touch with the soil. Then you’ll get precious because fake European standards will ruin you. You’ll drink yourself to death and become obsessed by sex. You’ll spend all your time talking, not working…’


And he saved the direst prediction for last: ‘You’ll hang around in cafes.’

I can safely report, on the eve of my one-year anniversary of being a full-time expatriate, that only one of these predictions has come true (IMHO). I write this from a cafe – where I am neither drinking nor talking, but working, or was until I took a break to write this.

Hemingway, I discovered recently, was not the only member of the American Literary Canon to have less-than-pleasant things to say about expatriate life. Truman Capote is less predictive and more judgmental:
‘Among the planet’s most pathetic tribes, sadder than a huddle of homeless Eskimos starving through a winter night seven months long, are those Americans who elect, out of vanity, or for supposedly aesthetic reasons, or because of sexual or financial problems, to make a career of expatriation.’

Some of my favorite expats on a recent boat trip. Not so sad.
The quote, from Answered Prayers, aka the novel that earned Capote a top space on the list of Literature’s Bitchiest, is predictably hypocritical. Capote spent years living as an expat before returning to New York to die an untimely death brought on by drink (proving Hemingway’s quote might have a little bit more to it).
The fact that I am neither a literary genius nor a member of the bonne monde probably has something to do with the fact that neither of these descriptions of expatriate life mirror mine. Great books will never be written about my exploits. On the other hand, at least I make enough money to pay my own bills.

So, back to working in cafes. One of the great miracles of modern life, up there with genetic engineering and the near-worldwide availability of Chilean Malbecs, must be the ability to work remotely. With my Outlook files backed up on a custom work-tailored gmail account, my documents stored safely in Dropbox, and access to my company’s archives through our FTP server, I can work anywhere that has a decent internet connection. Which doesn’t happen to include my apartment, where I can only get internet if I hover, creepily, outside my landlady’s door to piggyback on her wireless (an action she sanctions, and charges me for).
Of course there are benefits to being in the office, and I am most of the time. However, on days like today – when a precious Indian summer is providing a break from the dreadful Black Sea winter weather which seems to have prematurely set in – heading to the eleventh floor of a skyscraper just doesn’t appeal.

The flexibility to work anywhere my company is active – Europe, Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and the Bahamas (?) – and my ongoing like-but-not-love affair with Istanbul (Chilean Malbecs present, but unnecessarily pricey) are combining to convince me that my days in this city may well be drawing to a close. Not before January, or likely even June, but I’m beginning to explore my options. These don’t, at the moment, include a return to the US. So, as I close my first full year of being an expatriate, it looks like it won’t be my last. 

Go ahead and tell me this makes me more pathetic than a huddle of homeless Eskimos starving through a winter night seven months long. I won’t believe you. I think I’m right where I belong looking for where I belong.
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All hail the benevolent dictator

Foreign Policy, the rag founded by Samuel P. Huntington, has become a lot more fun (and less dignified) recently. First there was the whole zombie thing. It started with the innocent use of the word zombie (ie, reanimated corpse) to describe the proposed three-state solution to the Israel-Palestine crisis that was being bandied around back in January 09. Then, in August, there was the first of many blog posts by Daniel Drezner: how international relations theorists would cope with zombie attacks, soon followed up with March’s Dawn of the Theories of International Politics and Zombies and June’s Night of the Living Wonks.

Another favorite topic, after the undead, is failed states. They make for interesting photo essays – from Postcards from Hell to The Worst of the Worst (subtitle: bad dude dictators and general coconut heads) to Planet War. The one that stuck with me most, however, is Lifestyles of the Rich and Tyrannical: a short exploration of the lavish real estate holdings of some of the aforementioned bad dude dictators.

Perhaps it just seems topical. I recently returned from Oman, home to the enigmatic Sultan Qaboos and his (estimated) twenty-four palaces. True, he’s had forty years to feather his nest, having deposed his father in 1970. And judging by the looks of his central palace in Muscat (left), I don’t blame him for trying again (and again, and again).

Oman is the second-largest country on the Arabian peninsula, and by most accounts its most beautiful. It’s remarkably peaceful, especially given it shares a land border with Yemen, is 21 miles from Iran, and hosts a large port in close proximity to Somalia.

I was there for two weeks on a business trip – long enough to learn three phrases in Arabic and meet two members of the royal family (one of which took the opportunity to extol, at length, the virtues of Russian hookers as opposed to Chinese ones).

Writing about economic development in the Gulf states, as I have since December, has been an eye-opening experience. With some notable exceptions, these countries were largely sand dunes populated by nomadic tribes until the middle part of the last century. What the Arabs have been able to produce in the last sixty years – albeit with a lot of help from guest workers – is nothing short of revolutionary. When His Excellency Sultan Qaboos came into power in 1970, less than a third of the country was literate, and its people either lived in a medieval-style fort or a tent (the remains of the former dot the capital’s craggy shoreline).

‘If you wanted to go outside at night, you had to carry a sword,’ my driver, Hashim, told me. He was born sometime in the fifties, though he’s not sure exactly when.

Today, 95% of the Omani population is literate and almost everyone speaks fluent English in addition to Arabic. The roads of the capital, Muscat, are wide and nearly traffic-free, there’s air conditioning everywhere, and the tap water is potable (which is more than you can say of Turkey). Life expectancy is in the 70s and the per capita income is $24k a year. Which, incidentally, is an order of magnitude greater than most of my American college-educated friends made last year.

There are two obvious reasons this kind of supercharged modernization was possible. First, the GCC’s rulers – absolute monarchs, or emirs, or sultans – have little need to pander to that pesky bourgeois notion of democracy, thanks to decades of oil-funded public largesse.

In true Maslowian fashion, the idea of democracy doesn’t hold much appeal to the generation who are experiencing life in a safe, stable country for the first time. I asked Hashim if he would like to vote:

‘Why would I do that?’ he said. ‘I live a good life.’

The only country in the region to make any concrete steps towards democratic rule is Kuwait, which formed its first elected National Assembly in 1963. The experiment has not been a smooth one. Critics blame the National Assembly for hamstringing Kuwait’s development through petty, corrupt, and/or incompetent governance. The decision in January to take over responsibility for all consumer loans – effectively, a bailout for some of the world’s least credit-worthy spenders – is only one example of how the short-term interests of politicians worried about reelection are trumping the long-term viability of the country.

I remember writing an essay about how democracy is self-evidently the best form of government back in sophomore year of college. It has since been lost to the sands of time (read: computer failure). I still believe it is, in theory. But subsequent courses back in the Ivory Tower – and, of course, being hit over the head with the disparity between the developing country I live in, a ‘democracy’, and places like Oman – have made me think a lot more about when and where democracy can be reasonably introduced.

Tocqueville thought democracy would lead us a future of equality and blandness. Robert D. Kaplan, in his excellent, if controversial piece on why democracy is bad for developing countries, has a slightly different vision. Kaplan believes our love of the bottom line will lead us to a globalized, and therefore anarchic, economy, which will necessitate tyrannical rule to restore stability. The tyrant will be The Corporation, or the Military-Industrial complex, as the problems of the world are too vast to be controlled by one bad dude dictator and/or coconut head.

In Oman, at least, the promise of democracy – the premise of democracy – is seen by many as dubious. The financial crisis has if anything strengthened the average Omani’s (and Oman-based expat’s) conviction that Sultan Qaboos’s measured approach to development is best for the country (the country continued to grow and saw a minimum or projects go on hold while neighbors like Dubai tanked). One man I talked to, the Dutch GM of a major oil company’s Oman operations, went so far as to call Qaboos ‘a philosopher king in the Platonic fashion.’

As an American raised by a Palin-loving ex-Marine (ex-Marine in the Palinic fashion?) on the good old fashioned values of hard work, industry, and disdain of the Washington establishment, I’m uncomfortable with Omani king-worship. And, for that matter, the docility of most of the people in the Gulf in the face of the abuses of their governments. Yet I also realize I grew up in a state that provided me free education, a childhood untouched by violent or arbitrary crime, and an environment where blog posts comparing politicians to soul-sucking zombies are laughed at and not censored.

I’m sure there are plenty of people doing fascinating work on human development. Some day when I don’t have 26,000 words of copy to write in a month I might have more time to get into it.

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A wise man once told me

September – my first ferry ride.

In the midst of spring (summer?) cleaning, I rediscovered a book that was part of the press kit at the IMF/WB conference here in October. It’s basically culture porn: close-ups of ancient sculpture, architectural marvels silhouetted in the sunset, rose-water-sweating baklava, the obligatory picture of blurry whirling dervishes. On the first page, an unattributed quote is printed in bright turquoise:

‘When you are far from it, you will search for it like a lover you cannot forget, a passion which leaves you wandering the crowded streets of other cities hoping, but never able, to find just a part of it…’

‘It’ is, of course, Istanbul, the city which I have now called home for nine months. The longer I stay here, the more puzzled I become at the corpus of literature dedicated to raving about this city. It’s gotten to the point where I don’t feel like I can open a newspaper without being reassured of just how lucky I am to live here.

Istanbul is by any objective measure a great place to live. The food is good, the weather better (at least nine months out of the year) and there’s plenty to do. There is a sense of excitement and edginess about this city that I can’t imagine exists other places, or at least not in the same form: where else can you live in such comfort while momentous political change is underway? (Beirut, or Tel Aviv, some might say, but those places are country clubs compared to Istanbul’s titanic sprawl.)

October: my first protest.

Yet despite all its charms, I haven’t fallen in love with Istanbul. Perhaps this is because love, like taxes, is something I’ve always assumed I’d figure out when I grow up.

But we have settled into a comfortable friendship, Istanbul and I. In recognition of my nine-month anniversary in this city, here’s a sampling of some favorite pictures from my first few months in Istanbul. Who knows, someday, I might even get around to writing about the story behind them. And, perhaps, realize that I’ve been in love with Istanbul all along. I think that’s how it usually happens in the movies.

December: my first visit to a church.

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The Cairo-Istanbul connection

Cairo is so hot right now. Three of my coworkers have taken vacation there in the last month, as has Jennie, one of my fellow-sufferers in Hakan‘s Turkish classes (yes, I fulfilled my New Year’s resolution to resume Turkish classes with my favorite quintolingual chainsmoker). And of course Kate was there in the fall, stealing the hearts of merchants and taking sublime pictures (scroll down for Cairo, Luxor, and Aswan), as she is wont to do.

The review from these highly respected sources runs something like Samuel Johnson’s assessment of Paradise Lost: ‘it is one of those books the reader admires and lays down, and forgets to take up again. No one ever wished it longer than it is.’

Cairo is one of the great cities of history, and the pyramids, like PL, deserve a chance to cast their spell on you. But no one I know seems to want to go back to Cairo. It is disorganised, overrun, filthy. In Kate’s words:

‘I felt cramped, claustrophobic, uncomfortable [in the Egyptian Museum]. In fact, this is how most of Cairo made me feel. It drew many similarities to feelings and experiences I had in Damascus. The same dirty grittiness of that comes from thousands of years of inhabitance. The same overwhelming numbers crowding streets and buses. You could feel the oppressiveness of the poverty. You could see the differentiation between wealth and the lack of it. You could taste the pollution; the smog hangs over the city like a hot summer haze.’

I visited Cairo in 1998, when I was gripped by an Egyptomania so severe I taught myself how to read hieroglyphs. My family fondly remembers how I would correct our clueless guide, Hani, when he botched the stories behind my favorite temples and archaeological sites.

For my part, I have blocked this aspect of my childhood – obnoxious smartassery – from my memory. What I do remember, though, is disappearing into the upper reaches of the bazaar with my brother Edward one day and being offered a fistful of marijuana for about $5. Even in my childhood innocence I could tell that was a good deal (we didn’t take it).

Cairo’s bazaar was the thing that bothered my friends the most. The constant heckling, fear of bag snatchers, and wildly inflated prices do not make for a relaxing vacation. Jennie, who returned last week, had plenty of horror stories about the street scene, and shared some during one of Hakan’s smoke breaks.

‘Cairo,’ she concluded, ‘makes Istanbul feel as clean and orderly as Copenhagen.’

Petri, a forty-something Dutch businessman who recently joined our class, shook his head. ‘If you could have seen Istanbul when I first came here in 1988! It made Cairo look – well, not clean and orderly, but – I suppose cosmopolitan. You couldn’t walk a foot in Istanbul with your wallet hanging out of your pocket. You couldn’t see the other side of the street for all the smoke. And the hecklers would loop their fingers through your belt loops until you bought something from them.’

I was surprised to hear this. I know Istanbul has gone through significant changes over the last 20-30 years: take, for example, the fact that the population has gone from 2 million to 20 million. But to my mind the Istanbul of 1988 was a relative backwater, a faded ghost town when compared to its past and future vitality. What, I wondered aloud, changed between then and now to make Istanbul the relatively clean, European city it is today? Was there some mayor who cleaned up the streets, Giuliani-style, locking up the crazies and making the peddlers buy permits?

‘It’s much simpler than that,’ said Hakan. ‘People got richer.’

Could it be that straightforward? True, Istanbul’s population boom corresponded with a massive increase in Turkey’s wealth: inflation-adjusted GDP grew from $90 billion to $270 billion in the ten years between 1988 and 1998, and to $734 billion by 2008, according to the World Bank. The structure of the economy changed as well, with more than 15% of the workforce shifting from blue-collar jobs in agriculture and manufacturing to white-collar service jobs.

Yet the World Bank statistics never take into account the black market, which in Turkey is generally estimated to account for 20-25% of all economic activity. Nor does it seem likely that all of Istanbul’s 18 million new residents have managed to find jobs more lucrative than begging, petty theft, and selling fake sunglasses. But take a walk down any street outside of Sultanahmet, Istanbul’s touristy center, and you’ll realize something must have worked. You’re more likely to be heckled in Harvard Square than on Istiklal Cd, Istanbul’s main shopping and nightlife artery.

Reason No. 25601 I’m glad I moved to Istanbul: it doesn’t fit the models I’m used to, and so is constantly intriguing. Reason No. 25602: I have too many pairs of fake Ray-Bans already.

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Back to Reality

The picture above, taken at a gallery opening we happened upon last Thursday, is taken from Kate’s latest facebook album. Kate the Intrepid has returned to Istanbul, having ridden through deserts with Bedouin, participated in a Muslim wedding, and guest starred in a Bollywood movie (well, as an extra), among innumerable other adventures. As she enjoys her (dwindling?) days of funemployment, she has more time to update her website, so I would urge anyone still reading this sorry excuse for a blog to check hers out instead.

I hope to be back soon, however, with tales of sprained ankles, the Romanian economy, and gypsy palaces.

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Why not? Part II

One of the joys of moving to a new city is the process of forming a social network. In my book, this joy is slightly greater than shots of antibiotics in painful places, and infinitely less than the joy of cooking.

Making new friends takes work. It involves treading a fine line between proactivity and stalkerville. Despite your best intentions, there’s a good chance that at least a few people you call or email – friends of friends, people you met out and about – will think you are nosy/presumptuous/offensive/annoying. Or hitting on them. But when the alternative is sitting alone at home, or going out with the delivery man who misinterpreted your friendly conversation as an unspoken invitation to ring your doorbell in the middle of the night, sending some awkward emails to people you barely know seems a small price to pay.

Especially when they so often yield great rewards. One recipient of one said awkward email has both become a good friend and pointed me in the direction of the Professional American Women of Istanbul, a networking group.

Despite a deep-seated mistrust of organised groups of women (borne out of a traumatic summer living in an all-girls cabin at band camp in my early adolescence), I decided to give PAWI a try. The first meeting I attended was at the Consul-General’s residence, a fortified mansion that looms over an innocent-looking little village a few miles north of the centre of town. I wasn’t sure what kind of people I would be meeting – ladies who lunch (here known by the code name ‘trailing spouse’)? Bra burning careerists? English teachers? – but took a cue from the name and tried to dress Professionally. The only problem was that I was still living out of the backpack I’d taken to China at that point, so the only Profession I could dress for was Starving Artist/Unemployed College Grad.

Thankfully this wasn’t an issue as the Professional American Women of Istanbul turned out to be an interesting, and forgiving, mix of the three professions I expected (trailing spouse, starving artists, English teachers), plus a healthy dose of lawyers, entrepreneurs, and executives. I also learned, to my surprise, that the Consul-General was a woman.

‘Her husband calls himself the trophy husband,’ one woman told me conspiratorially. ‘He’s quite the charmer.’

I didn’t know quite what to say to that and so made an excuse about being thirsty. In the line for tea, I found myself behind the only man in the room. Feeling friendly, I asked him, jokingly, if he was the trophy husband.

‘No, I’m not married to Sharon,’ the man said, without a trace of a smile.

‘Well, you don’t look like one of the caterers,’ I said. This too was intended as a joke.

‘No,’ again. He was not the greatest conversationalist.

‘So – what do you do here in Turkey?’

‘I’m the Ambassador,’ he said. Still no smile.

What kind of aspiring Turkey-based journalist does not recognize the US Ambassador? The answer is: a bad one. I attribute this bit of self-realization, and the career shifts it inspired, to PAWI.

I also have PAWI to thank for finally, finally finding a good answer for the question of why, for the moment, I choose to live abroad. Anyone who has lived abroad has had to contend with friends back at home who simply cannot understand why someone would choose to leave a country with stable democracy, free speech, and the best candy bar selection in the world (the case could be made for either the US or Britain in this respect). Truth be told, it’s a question many of us ask ourselves every day – see as evidence the fact that ‘Why Istanbul?‘ is one of the more popular tags in this blog.

To Maureen, who sat next to me at a PAWI networking dinner last week, the answer is simple. ‘The way I see it,’ she said, ‘is this: expats have a fundamentally different mindset to the rest of the world. While the vast majority of people exist in a world where ‘why’ is the most important and instructive question, we live in a world of ‘why not’. Why live abroad? Why not? Why Turkey? Why not?’

Maureen’s take on this question is not the first time I’ve noticed the usefulness of ‘why not’. Most memorably, it was the excuse a man named Giles gave me for moving to Gambia when I met him in the summer of 2008, which inspired me to declare 2008 my summer of ‘Why not?’ (see the blog I contributed to back then, complete with a ‘Why not?‘ post of its own, if you want more context). But Maureen’s explanation captures the zeitgeist of expatriate life in a way that has never occurred to me before, and which I will now never forget.

Photo: I walked down the street I used to live in last week and thought this cat had it pretty good. A spot in the sun, a sweet fur coat, a motorcycle: everything you need save opposable thumbs, really.

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Rest for the weary

There are a number of things I wished I’d known before I went to a hospital in Turkey.

First off, would it be too much to expect a hospital to have some saline solution, a contacts case, and a toothbrush and toothpaste if you end up staying the night? Apparently, yes.

Secondly, when given a thermometer, do not put it in your mouth. Doing so will invoke a string of expletives from the nurse, following which you will have to clean your own mouth out with soap. Thermometers go in your armpit. Or elsewhere.

Third, when you are told you are going septic, don’t sweat it. Back when I was on the crew team, the word ‘septic’ was the kiss of death. A rower traditionally goes septic when he or she has inadvertently allowed a blister to get severely infected. By the time you go septic, your body is in a state of shock and you have hours to live.

In Turkey, by contrast, when you are told you have septic tonsilitis, you have hours to live in the waiting room, at which point you will be admitted, hooked to an IV, and injected with antibiotics via an extremely painful shot in the butt. You will be then left to your own devices for about twelve hours until the nurse sees fit to send a round of antibiotics through the other butt cheek. In my case, this came at the rather unsociable hour of two am.

I woke up on the evening of my first day in the hospital without a fever and able to swallow for the first time in two days. By the time I finished dinner, I was feeling well enough to marvel at the bad taste of whoever decorated the hospital. My room was accessorized with a fainting couch and two Louis XV-meets-Saudi nouveau riche chairs, both upholstered in an executionary black and gold brocade (my friend Gregor was kind enough to volunteer his modeling talents to bring to you the photo at right).

My doctor came in soon after and I asked him what he thought could have caused my dramatic case of tonsilitis.

‘Did you have anything cold to drink on Monday?’ was his response.

I drink cold water every day, I responded. Was there anything else that might have made me sick?

‘I’m pretty sure it was the cold drink,’ he said.

(I am not the only person to encounter the Turkish phobia of ingesting cold things).

Diagnostic services aside, I found the level of care in the hospital comforting. It was certainly better than my only previous experience being hospitalized at Harvard. At the university with (arguably) the best medical school in the world, they routinely forgot to bring my meals, unless I surfaced from my delirium long enough to demand them. I’m pretty sure malnutrition might have had something to do with the fact that it took me twice as long to recover from a similar illness.

I’m mostly better now, though I still have to return to the hospital for injections and had to promise my boss that I would take it easy this weekend. Miraculously – or maybe it just seems miraculous to me – my $60 a month Turkish health plan covered the entire ordeal, something which I wouldn’t have been able to expect from my $500 a month US health insurance. All in all, a pretty painless process. Except for those shots of antibiotics. They were a real pain in the ass.

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Overheard in Georgia

I just returned from an eventful long weekend skiing in the Caucasus mountains with Laure and the rest of the Kiev crew. My lovely travel partner Anna W has saved me the trouble of actually having to write about this by giving a detailed blow-by-blow of the trip here.

In place of a coherent narrative, I will allow you, dear reader, to draw your own conclusions about the country based on a playlist of songs we heard on our six day misadventure.

Teeny weeny string bikini – Gunther & the Sunshine Girls (playing in the mashrutka (minibus) between Sarpi, the Georgian border town, and Batumi, Georgia’s main port on the Black Sea)

Oooh… you touch my tra-la-la – Gunther & the Sunshine Girls (man’s cell phone ring tone, at a roadside stop on the way to Tbilisi)

She’s Got Issues – Offspring (on the ski slope in Gudauri. One of my friends in middle school once
put this on a mix tape he titled ‘Gill in Song’. Teenagers can be blunt.)

Smooth – Santana (on the ski slope. Another song I haven’t heard since middle school)

Joy to the World (in the restaurant of the nice hotel where the Kievians were staying)

It’s the End of the World as we know it – REM (immediately after ‘Joy to the World’)

Oooh… you touch my tra-la-la – Gunther & the Sunshine Girls (on the ski slope, 2nd day)

F*** a dog in the ass – Blink 182 (on the ski slope, 2nd day)

In short, an extensive list of the late 90s pop-rock and the sexually explicit. I’m still trying to figure out how to craft this into a good metaphor for my time in the country.

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A beautiful day in the neighborhood

You never know what you’ll find when you walk out of an apartment in Istanbul. Outside my apartment it’s a pretty safe bet that Dirty, the overgrown puppy that someone in my building leaves food for, will be waiting for a quick scratch behind the ears.

Dirty is a stray and so you can’t fault him for living up to his name; neither can you resist petting him when he fixes his tan eyes on you. Thankfully, most mosques have outdoor sinks for washing up, and there are three mosques on my way to work.

Further down the street, I might run into the day’s catch being delivered to Meyra, a trendy restaurant recently reviewed in the NYTimes’ 36 hours in Istanbul (the picture above is from the associated slide show – and happens to be the top of my street). The fish coat the back floor of a van – no packaging, no ice – and the cook picks from the silvery, twitching mess by hand.

There’s a fruit stand right after Meyra with an owner who greets me with a gracious ‘Gunaydın’ (good morning) every day, even though I never buy from him. If I’m lucky, I’ll catch the moustachioed farmer with a donkey-cart full of vegetables at least once a week.

Next stop is the ATM, which dispenses money in four currencies. This is useful when you are paid in pounds, pay rent in euros, pay the credit card bill in dollars, and need Turkish lira for day-to-day expenses.

Last week, I came out of my apartment to find a tank and half a dozen policemen with automatic weapons. My first thought was: how did they get the tank up the steep streets of Cihangir? I’ve gotten used to the police and their fancy toys – the tanks are topped with water cannons instead of real ones, the automatic weapons often fire tear gas – but wasn’t used to finding them so close to home.

This morning the police were gone, but something else was different. It’s a cloudy day, like many this winter, and no warmer than usual, but the air has the unmistakable tang of spring in it. Here in Istanbul people associate seasonal weather with the seas which surround Turkey: Black Sea winters, bleak and rainy; Aegean springs and falls, with their calm and sweet-smelling breezes; and Mediterranean summers where the sun turns all the colors brilliant. The groundhog may have signalled another six weeks of winter back in the US, but we’re not waiting for the equinox here in Turkey – reason number 13,248 I’m glad I moved here.

Apologies for going radio silent. January is a dark, cold month not worth recording, save for an epic visit from my brother Robert and my friend Cory and the consequent road trip through southwestern Turkey, and a weekend trekking through slush with my favorite Romanian Greek English Parisian… but those are stories for another day.

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Hipsters, Conservatives, Defaulters (and anarchists!)

For someone who’s spent most of her spare time over the last five years traveling like a penniless bum, I’m very poorly read in the travel classics. I only recently got to Kerouac’s On the Road, that dated instruction manual for the would-be hipster. I liked it, I guess – who doesn’t like the escapism provided by reading about people more dissolute than you will ever be? – but it doesn’t make me long for America. The Road through Denver, New Orleans, New York, and Frisco sounds dull and sordid. Reading about how drunk they all are makes my head hurt. And the diet of apple pie and cheese sounds even less healthy than my current menu of kebabs and dark chocolate.

One thing I have been missing, however, is The Road. There’s just something about a change in the air and having everything I need in a backpack that I find intoxicating. It’s possible to get too much of it – I’d say I was drunk by the Ukraine and nursed my hangover for much of the beginning of my time in Istanbul – but the trip home for Thanksgiving was the equivalent of ibuprofen and a good night’s sleep. I’m ready to start drinking again.

That, and the pollution in Istanbul is getting to me. Artistic wealth, generous inhabitants, and baklava this city has in spades, but emissions controls not so much. My brother Robert is visiting and we spent much of Saturday walking through unexplored neighborhoods and hiking along the top of the 4th century Theodosian walls (the picture to the right is me talking to a dog in the slum next to the northern end of the city walls). Being able to wander aimlessly through centuries of history in a tank top in the middle of winter is a luxury I wouldn’t have even dreamed of in my four years of purgatory in freezing Cambridge. But, greedy as always, I would love to be able to spend the day outside and not feel like I smoked a pack of car-exhaust-flavored cigarettes at the end of it.
And so Saturday night Robert and I caught a bus to Edirne. The city was once the capital of the Ottoman Empire, the base from which Mehmet the Conqueror sent his army to take Constantinople in 1453. Today it is best known for being the border station to Greece and Bulgaria. Oh, and the annual oil-wrestling contests in which mostly naked men cover themselves in olive oil and grope each other. In the words of a friend who went last summer, ‘it’s like the WWF with lube and less clothing.’

The city that most travelers miss – because they are on their way to Istanbul or watching obese oily men perform their homoerotic ballet – has a lot to offer by day and not much by night. I’m taking the word of our hosts Batu and Mutlu (via Couchsurfing, once again) on the night part: there is only one club worth going to, they say, and even that is only really good because you can stop at this sweet kebab stand on your way out. We went. The club walls were covered in fake antiquities. Actually, given the archaeological wealth of this country, they may well have been real. As Eddie Izzard would say, ‘there’re a lot of them about…

By day, there are sublimely beautiful mosques to visit, immaculate streets bordered by crumbling houses to meander, and innumerable tea houses to sit at and discuss the future of Turkey. As a border city, it should come as no surprise that the West, and Turkey’s relation to it, dominates the conversation.

The general consensus among the Turks I’ve talked to is that the EU accession process is good for the country. Regardless of whether or not Turkey joins the EU, the process is stimulating reforms that have been a long time coming, such as a revision of the civil code to allow women to work without their spouse’s consent (passed in 2001) and reducing (though not eliminating) the amount of jail time you may serve for ‘insulting Turkishness’ (2002).

Mutlu, whose name translates as Happy, isn’t as overly enamored with Westernization as many of the Istanbullians I know. I imagine he appreciates the above reforms – we didn’t discuss them – but he thinks that Turkey is held back by the IMF debt it accumulated in 2001. Turkey can’t advance, he says, when it doesn’t have the money to invest in major projects. Turkey’s brave new future can only come about when it stands up to the Western institutions telling it how to spend its money. Presumably by defaulting on its debt.

As a fiscal conservative who relies on a sound financial system, I am obliged to say this is a horrible idea. A pragmatist, however, might say Mutlu’s take isn’t altogether crazy. Argentina, after all, massively defaulted on its IMF debt in 2001 – and then enjoyed an internally-financed growth rate of 8% a year from 2003 to 2007. Turkey’s GDP growth in the same period has hovered around 3% a year. A recent article in the NYT argues that ‘strategic default’ (granted, for homeowners, not countries) is beneficial not only for the defaulters, but for the economic system as a whole, because it encourages more strategic bartering.

It isn’t obvious to my brother, who has now been in Turkey for six days, that Turkey is a poor country. ‘This is confusing,’ he said as we walked through one of Istanbul’s lavish malls on Christmas day. ‘Isn’t this a developing country?’ The bus to Edirne, he noted, had better service than planes in America. A walk through some of Istanbul’s slums on Saturday might have tarnished the impression he was getting of Turkey if it hadn’t been the kind of rare gorgeous day that can make life in an uninsulated shack seem refreshingly simple, a la Walden Pond. Thoreau could have set up shop here, I found myself thinking, when we found a mattress inside one of the old watch-towers on the city walls.

I hardly have more cred than my brother when it comes to getting to know Turkey’s gritty side. The brushes with protestors around the IMF/WB meeting (‘A Tale of Two Tuesdays (and anarchists)’) were dramatic, to be sure, but it’s not the kind of stuff that happens every day. I live in chic Cihangir, the traditional haunt of journalists and gentrified artists. The closest I’ve come to Istanbul’s underbelly is a few tranny sightings on Istiklal Caddesi, the modern city’s main drag, and the uncannily perceptive photographs of Sevket Sahintas.

A major factor in my lack of social conscience is my continuing unmastery of the Turkish language. Therefore, in the spirit of this time of year, I am making my first New Year’s Resolutions since 2002: I will learn Turkish, and I will get off the familiar paths I’ve already carved through this city.

To that end, I just emailed Hakan to see if I can enroll in evening courses for January. If I’m going to learn this language and this country, I figure I might as well do it with a chain-smoking anarchist.

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