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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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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Crazy Christians!

When, last spring, I first thought of moving to Istanbul, I talked over the idea with Kate, who I’ve mentioned quite a few times in this blog. The logic went something like this: instead of moving back in with my parents while I figured out what I wanted to do with my life, I would move somewhere where the rent is cheap and maybe get to know a new part of the world. It sounded logical, she said. It even sounded like fun. We flirted with the idea of moving over together, but as our summers took us in different directions – her to work in Boston, me to China and the former Soviet Union – it looked more and more like she would be starting work in New York City and I would be arriving in Istanbul on my own.

Which is what happened, sort of. I arrived in Istanbul and started to look for work, and Kate enrolled in a job training course. Or at least I thought she had until she wrote me and told me she’d found a good fare and bought a ticket to Istanbul.

Inside one of hundreds of cave churches

I didn’t manage to keep her in the city for long. Armed with a sturdy backpack and a sense of adventure that makes me look like a hermit, she set off for Syria, Palestine, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Iran, Pakistan, India, and Nepal, or so was the plan last time I checked. But first she eased her way into life on the road by exploring Turkey.

It didn’t take more than a single entry on her blog to convince me to put my own pack back on. The fact that the correspondent I had been working with had decamped to Pakistan for an indeterminate period, and that flights to Capadoccia, where Kate was, were $30, sealed the deal. I left the next day.

Capadoccia, in central Turkey, has some of the most interesting geology on earth. Four volcanoes covered the region in lava a few millennia ago. Persistent winds wore the soft stone into cone-shaped towers, and rivers carved colorful gorges through layers of pink, white, and yellow lava.

From the 5th century onwards, Capadoccia became a refuge for early Christian sects deemed heretical by the orthodox church. They burrowed into the stone cones and, sometimes, underneath, digging subterranean cities with as many as eight stories. They eeked a living out of miniscule farms fertilized with pigeon droppings. To this day, it is said that a man won’t be taken seriously as a suitor unless he has a sizable flock of pigeons.

The most elaborate cave churches are covered in frescoes,
most of which date to the 11th century.

Many Capadoccia natives have capitalized on the exotic appeal of their homes by turning them into inns. I discovered Kate lounging on a bed of carpets on the deck of the excellent Kelebek Cave Hotel soon after I arrived. Though we were staying at the also excellent Kose Pension – on the roof, no less – she had, characteristically, already made friends in town. Ali, the innkeeper, was pouring wine liberally, and it was established that there was nothing that could possibly be done with the afternoon but watch the colors of the valley change as the sun set.

My second day, we turned to the serious business of exploring. Life in the underground cities could not have been much fun. The tunnels are tiny, designed so that attackers would be forced to move slowly and therefore killed easily. It may be a claustrophobe’s nightmare, but the little girl in me thought it was one of the coolest things I’d ever seen. Cowboys and Indians seem so quaint compared to cave-dwelling heretics and pagan/Muslim/Orthodox crusaders.

The Goreme ‘Open Air Museum’ – a series of remarkable churches in the most widely-visited town in the region.

We didn’t have to guess at what life would be like in the cone towers because Ali invited us to his friend Apo’s place for a barbecue. As the lamb was grilling, Apo showed us his sumptuous (well, for a cave) living room. It was covered in Turkish carpets and tapestries, which I had expected, and had a wireless router, which I had not. Ah, modernity.

Most of Apo’s friends didn’t speak English, but I bonded with one who was playing a saz, a six-stringed lute-like instrument that is common in Turkey. He showed me some basic chords and we began to sing together, no doubt to the horror of anyone who was listening.

I had trouble falling asleep on my overnight bus home. From the center to Istanbul in the northwest is a solid eleven hour drive through the Anatolian heartland. Occasionally the bus would shudder to a halt next to a roadside stand that had appeared, unannounced, out of the surrounding blackness. A small crowd, usually old women, was waiting at each, clutching small cloth satchels and huddled against the late October chill. They shuffled on board, taking the places of a handful of equally wizened old women who melted into the night outside, and then promptly fell asleep.

I did manage to drift off a little past two, but woke with a start just past three. A woman the color of dusty hills and at least as old had fallen asleep with her head on my chest. She was wearing the drop-seam pants that have recently become fashionable (‘genie pants’) but are in fact native to this region. The story behind their origin goes something like this: one early Christian sect believed the Messiah could be born again at any time, so they had their women wear drop-seam pants that would catch baby Jesus II when he popped out. The pants would also help hide the baby in case Herod II decided to come try to kill him. Evidently, no one is going to notice you walking around with a baby tucked in your pants.

When I woke up again in Istanbul, the old woman had disappeared back into the countryside, far from the skyscrapers and housing complexes of the city I now call home. Reflexively, I checked for my wallet, but I really didn’t need to. As a Turkish friend explained to me, Turks protect guests in their country – they use the word guest, not tourist – with almost religious passion. This is changing in the increasingly developed tourist hubs of Old Istanbul, Izmir, and Troy, but I still feel safer in Turkey than in, say, Paris or New York City. Kate, meanwhile, continues to defy anyone’s notion of what is safe for a small blonde woman by hitchhiking around the Middle East. If I could think of a single place in the ‘west’ where she’d be as safe doing that I’d feel slightly more charitable towards the people who have managed to convince conservative America – make that most of America – that the Muslim world is full of bloodthirsty fanatics.

Getting there: Fly into either Kayseri or Nevsehir on one of several cheap flights a day from Istanbul’s airports, then take a 20 lira one hour shuttle to Goreme. By bus or car, it’s an 10 to 11-hour ride from Istanbul or Izmir. You could stay in the slightly more upmarket Uchisar, but we recommend Goreme for its range of accommodation options and proximity to the best sites.

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Rise, traveller

(originally published in the Greenwich Citizen)

I first noticed him when he crossed the threshold into Hagia Sofia the wrong way. In Buddhist temples, you always enter with your right foot first and leave with your left foot. Since living in China, I’ve picked up the habit of watching how I enter religious spaces. He stepped in with his left foot first. I followed with my right.

Istanbul’s Hagia Sofia isn’t much of a religious space any more. The building has gone the way of the nation that surrounds it: an important seat of early Christianity, it converted to Islam and then a secular institution. The Cathedral turned Mosque turned Museum was one of the things that drew me to Istanbul, but I’d put off visiting once I arrived because I was suffering from the Lonely Traveler’s Blues. Three hundred and sixty days a year I am happy to explore all the world has to offer. The other five, I wonder why on earth I have left family and friends in all the places I’ve lived, and hate the idea of surrounding myself with strangers in a foreign city.

It usually passes in a day, sometimes less, but my first few days in Istanbul proved especially trying. It was my own fault, completely. I’d come to the city without a Plan, armed with only a few distant contacts and ghostly potential job leads, and about a hundred different impulses but no specific reason why I had decided to stop in this city, of all places.

It had taken a massive effort of will to get myself to Hagia Sofia, especially when I found out the entry price was 20 lira, or $13, which was my daily budget. It was this strange man stepping over the threshold the wrong way that drew me in as much as anything else.

We followed tandem paths around the building, looking at the same mosaics in different order. I took pictures across the sanctuary while he took pictures of the dome. He wandered over to a window and nudged it open. I had to stand on a ledge to see out. In between the ancient buttressing, you could see the mosque Sultan Ahmet had constructed at the beginning of the 17th century. Some say he built it as a challenge to the old Roman Emperor Justinian’s Hagia Sophia, a very visual demonstration that the Muslim Ottomans could match or outdo their 6th century Christian predecessors. But why, I thought, would he have built a structure that looks so similar? In my eyes, the two buildings look like brother and sister: one dressed in pink, one in blue, but obviously from the same family.

Muslims call Christians and Jews ‘people of the book,’ like themselves. All three faiths believe in one God, arguably the same God. Just as the Christian Bible incorporates the Hebrew Bible as its old testament, the Quran tells the story of Abraham, and Moses, and even Jesus. The view that dominates western media, intentionally or unintentionally – that Christians and Muslims are fundamentally different types of people – makes no sense to me. Over the last two months, every fear I harbored of the rise of militant Islam has been countered by acts of extraordinary generosity and friendship. For every jihadist who is profiled in the news, there must be a million peaceful men, women, and children whose stories never get told. I can’t blame the media, though: they have to write what sells, and what sells is and always seems to have been violence and fear.

I made my visit to Hagia Sofia long before I was qualified to make any sort of judgment on the country or the people around me. On that day, I was still nursing my inexplicable Lonely Traveler’s Blues, though something was pulling me out of it. Certainly most of the credit must go to the Hagia Sophia and Sultanahmet Mosque, two indescribable monuments to human achievement which cannot fail to inspire. But part of it, too, was my silent museum partner.

We ended up talking, finally, by one of the toppled columns that litter the garden around Hagia Sophia like fallen leaves. I asked if he was Italian. I’d based my guess on the fact that he was wearing the kind of pointed boots I have only ever seen on gay men and Italians. No, he said, he was German, here studying Turkish, and what was I doing in Istanbul?

I don’t remember which of my stable of answers I gave him – interest in the Islamic world/medieval history/contemporary EU politics, desire to travel, lower cost of living, love of kebabs – but it was enough to start a conversation that continued for the next four hours. We visited the blue mosque and strolled through the garden outside the Sultans’ old harem. As the sun set, we stopped for tea at a cafe looking over the Bosphorus, the bustling strait of water which divides Istanbul’s European half from its Asian.

We parted ways soon after that, each pleading dinner commitments, though I know I at least could have easily missed the dinner I had planned. It was better, I thought, to leave things as they were. We’d had a lucky meeting of minds in the heart of old Istanbul, but we had separate lives to return to in the world outside. He was heading back to Germany in five days, I was hoping to find a job that would support me in Istanbul until I went home for Thanksgiving. At the last minute, he gave me his email address, but when I waved goodbye from the bus I was pretty sure it was the last time I would ever see him.

As my bus trundled up the European side of the Bosphorus, I looked at Istanbul with new eyes. Pale mosques, lit by spotlights, glowed yellow, and their reflections danced in the water. There had been nothing particularly remarkable about our meeting, but it revived whatever had been laying dormant since my arrival in Istanbul, and I was finally ready for the city.

Istanbul had apparently decided she was ready for me as well. I found an internship with CNN’s correspondent in Istanbul the next day and moved into a fantastic apartment in the center of the city a week later. My neighbors offered to show me around, had me over for dinner, and one, a Greek, invited me to his niece’s Christening.

And so the traveler part of me has gone with the lonely blues, at least for now. A new friend of mine recently asked how long I’ll be living here. I think I surprised myself as much as her when I said I wasn’t sure I’d ever leave. I will live other places, I’m sure, and might never call Istanbul home. I’m not even positive I’ll be returning after Thanksgiving. But I will always pass through here, and always be looking forward to my next stay. This is not a place that can be visited once.

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Marooned in a Marathon

In nineteen years as a committed athlete, I never ran more than a mile and a half at a time. My bone density is nonexistent thanks to the years I spent swimming three hours a day instead of engaging in normal childhood activities like jumping rope. I’ve sprained each of my ankles twice and they still occasionally give out without warning. My shins ache for a week after I run any distance and I never feel like I’ve gotten a good workout (probably because I can never be bothered to go for longer than a mile and a half).

In other words, I loathe running. I hate it so much I would spend an extra forty-five minutes on the erg, that torture machine for rowers, when the rest of Radcliffe Crew was running the Arsenal loop.

Given the above, it may seem odd that I signed up to do the Istanbul mini-Marathon. But, like Britney Spears, I’ve stopped trying to justify myself with age… Except my version of growing up entails picking up running instead of unplanned pregnancy, head shaving, and making out with Madonna.

Luckily for my ankles, the start of the marathon was so crowded that running wasn’t an option. The huddled masses at the starting line didn’t break free until well into the course, and even then the human traffic was denser than your average New York rush hour sidewalk. I did try to run, honestly, but I’m pretty sure my mile and a half threshold still stands.

About a mile in, there was a particularly dense knot of people surrounding something moving low on the ground. My New England resentment of bottlenecking lost out to my burgeoning reporter instincts and I hustled to catch up with them. Turns out there were a pair of midgets (dwarves? I never know the correct term). They were taking three Lilliputian steps for every one of mine and I thought how torturous it must be to do an entire marathon with an ogling entourage. They weren’t even getting paid for their pains.

Two miles in, we reached the first bridge over the Bosphorus, the channel of water that divides Istanbul’s Asian side from its European. Part of the appeal of the marathon was the opportunity to run from one continent to another on a bridge that is at all other times closed to pedestrians (the one in the picture above). The sun came out just as I hit the crest of the bridge, turning the water hundreds of meters down a deep turquoise and making the pale stone of the minarets that carpet this city glow. This would be such a beautiful sight if I were not running, I thought.

The end of the bridge marked the halfway point of the run and I grew increasingly bored. I took turns eavesdropping on the people around me until I found some who spoke English.

They were a pair of girls about my age wearing headscarves and jeans. After exchanging the obvious pleasantries – ‘hey! you speak English too? Isn’t it cool to run over the Bosphorus bridge? What a pretty day!’ – we moved on to more pressing questions. Like, why are you doing a marathon in jeans? (why not? We’re just walking), Why did you decide to run the marathon? (it was our boyfriends’ idea, they’re running up ahead), Why do I never see women in headscarves on the street after dark? (blank stare). I didn’t feel comfortable asking them why they wore headscarves in the first place without establishing some kind of rapport, but just then we passed a Starbucks and I really needed to go to the bathroom so I nipped in.

I came out of the Starbucks just in time to see the midgets running by. Inspired, I jogged the rest of the way to the finish line.

When you finish a run, even if you walked most of the way AND stopped in Starbucks, you want to have some kind of celebration or recognition. I don’t know that many people here yet, though, and certainly noone well enough to expect a slap on the back and a post-marathon beer.

I picked my own poison by moving to a strange city where I didn’t know anyone, and lord knows I’ve moved enough to be used to this by now. But loneliness hits you at the strangest times. Standing just past the finish line, sweating, staring into the sun that shines on this incomparable city at the center of the world, I wondered for neither the first nor the last time what I am doing here.

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This is a boring one

One of my colleagues in Madrid last summer, Tom, used to work as a steward on a private airline that specialized in flying in and out of conflict zones. Their motto: ‘where bullets fly, we do too.’ I asked him why on earth he would choose to work for them instead of, say, Delta.

‘Simple. I never wanted to get stuck on the Des Moines-Minneapolis route. We were flying Paris to Sarajevo. Wouldn’t you rather have your layover in Paris?’

People keep on asking me why I wanted to move to Istanbul. I don’t really have an answer for them, but something along the lines of Tom’s makes sense. There is nothing wrong with the live-in-Brooklyn/Queens-commute-to-Manhattan life I so nearly embraced alongside three quarters of my graduating class. But for the time being, I want my layover in Paris.

Istanbul isn’t even a figurative bridge between East and West. Half the city is literally in Europe and the other half is in Asia. It is the city where the East tries to go West: immigrants have swelled the population of Istanbul from two million to twelve million in the last thirty years. They arrive, realize getting into Europe is not easy, or that Bulgaria and Romania don’t hold that much appeal, or that Istanbul is nice enough, and that it’s full of nice buildings abandoned in the mid-century purges of Greek and Armenian citizens; they pick the locks, set up camp and never leave.

Then there are the odd ones who come from West to East for all their various reasons. Maybe they want to see what life is like in the spicy and sweet melting-pot of the world. Maybe they want to see if Istanul’s latest renaissance will bring it back to the status of international prestige it has always had and lost. This was once Rome. Constantine the Great moved the capital of the empire here in 330 AD, and its rulers called themselves Romans, not Byzantines, until falling to Mehmet the Conqueror in 1453. I want to see if it is going to be Rome again.

In other news, because I’m horribly behind, please see Miss Kate Bloomer’s blog as she’s actually been writing a little about the day-to-day of my/our life over here.

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