Learning New Byzantium

By: Sarah Metzker Erdemir - Also see author's expat blog listing

Last week, I was contacted by a woman from a Facebook page for expat women like me, muddling through Istanbul. She's been here for three months, has a small child, and is overwhelmed and depressed and pissed off in a way I totally get, but also can only imagine. I came here single and childless 10 years ago, more than happy to suck up the grand adventure that was my new life. The idea of having a child here was one of the things that fed my frequent insomnia, along with, “What if the big earthquake comes?” and “What if I were a rock star?” and “If I went back in time to 1530 Europe, how would I save myself?”

It was an interesting conversation with this woman, because I'd forgotten what it's like to feel that way. Helpless, at times. Amused, at times. Amazed a lot of the time. And fucking frustrated about how the whole world was conspiring against me all the time to make my life more difficult.

Maybe it's an Istanbul thing. Or a Turkey thing, Or an expat thing. I wouldn't know, because Istanbul is the only place I've ever been an expat. Even though there are these moments where some astounding bit of history bitch-slaps you into pure bliss, and even though there are people who do things that pull the reality-rug from beneath your feet and show you what pure grace looks like, there are so many other times when the best you can do is clench your teeth and power through the day. Eat the frustrations because all the things that are wrong have nothing to do with you. Swallow your own self because no one gives a shit about the autonomous and extraordinary woman you were before you came here.

Sometimes it's nigh on impossible to make myself leave the house.

It's so impossibly hard at first, when you move to a new country. Where do I find the toothpaste I like? Ipana is grainy and makes my gums sore. What do I do when my electricity goes off for three days? Ah, it's just the neighbor kids shutting it off at the main for a laugh. No worries, now that I know where the switch is, I can check it each time I come home. You hear there might be peanut butter in this one place on the Asian side where all the people with money live. You might know the words to ask, “Where is my house?” but you can't understand the directions someone is giving you, even when you're holding a map with your house marked on it. You know the word for the meat you want, but you have no idea how much you want in grams so you show the butcher with your hands and hope he's feeling cheerful and patient that day. You know it freaks out the water delivery guys when you carry your empty bottle to the shop to get more water, but you know you have no chance of ordering the water by phone like normal people do. The water guys give you tea and ask you sweetly naive questions about America and Jennifer Lopez (no, I've never met her) and Russian prostitutes. They insist on carrying the new water bottle back to your house while all the housewives look on and think things about you that you never imagined. The guy at the liquor store has started giving you dirty looks for all the beer you buy. You decide to find another liquor store, preferably one run by an Alevi who shares your coolness about booze.

But then all that stuff gets easier. You figure out what was going wrong and how you have to do things. Your language gets confident enough that you aren't such a pain in the ass to communicate with. You forget what those early days were like because, for the most part, it was mostly a great deal of fun not knowing what the hell was going on half the time.

It got so unbelievably harder to live here after I had my son. Mothers in their home countries struggle with all kinds of guilt in any case. When you live abroad,you try to tell yourself you're giving your kid this fantastic experience of being bi-cultural but then you beat yourself up because there's no Desitin for his butt rash and the local creams are useless, and also that you're planning to lie to him about when Christmas is, because you're going to be working Christmas Day. You want him to have all the stuff your at-home friends on Facebook have-- baby music classes, wooden toys, baby yoga, low-intervention pediatricians (or even the same pediatrician all the time, for that matter), baby judo, private schools that are worth the money, sippy cups with that plastic that doesn't kill you, organic baby food, clean grass to play in...

But then my son escapes the house out onto the street to play with all the other kids running around out there. Most of the time they let him join and sometimes they don't and he cries a bit, but either way, I could never let my kid run loose on the street at home, learning the ways of kid-world like that. If he falls down, five other women are cuddling him and kissing his owie before I've even found my shoes and made it down the stairs. When a strange man in a restaurant swoops him up to have a look at the kitchen, I just take it as a chance to enjoy my meal and I don't freak out about child predators. People give him stuff, like flowers and candy and small toys, just to see him smile. They offer him a lap on the bus. He switches between two languages like water, with the hand gestures to match. He has a bunch of people in his life who would do anything for him, whether I like the meddling or not. He seems to know damn well who he is, most of time.

And he needs me to be the person who can fix things even when I can't, even when it terrifies me to figure out how. I sort out doctors and social security and make sure we don't get too wicked lost when we're in a new place. I put food on our table and a roof over our heads. The other day, I managed to get a refund for something we'd been overcharged on, and he and I left the mall hand-in-hand singing, “We got 13 lira! We got 13 lira!” Even though he doesn't know, as I do, what a mental feat it was for me to get the 13 lira, he knows I came through for us. He has no idea that 13 lira is about 7 dollars because he's 5.

You always hear that you need to be flexible when you live in a new country. And patient. And of course, everyone always tells you to keep your sense of humor. Here's what they don't tell you: flexible is something that changes year by year. Flexible will get you through a few unpleasantnesses, but eventually you'll get mad you're doing all the bending and breaking and no one is the least bit impressed. Patience is groovy but finite, and you'll run out of it in spades. Working and living abroad is more a matter of resetting your bearings and normal and standards every day. The sense of humor part is laughing about where your bearings and normal and standards have gone.

And then laughing about it again when most of your fiercely-clutched beliefs also turned out to be pretty fluid, too.

It was easy for me to blame the foreign country for everything that was going wrong in my life, and I spent hours fuming about how damn wrong and fucked up everything is. But that approach isn't going to work for long. Eventually, I worked it out that the problem is me. I was the one doing everything wrong. I was the one who was fucked up.

It got better after that.

This week was Kurban Bayram, or Eid, the holiday where people sacrifice a bull or ram and go to Mecca if they can. My kid woke me early in the morning because he heard a strange sound outside. It turned out to be the lowing of a little bull in the downstairs garden. When I got up later, he was all, “Hey, Mama, look! They killed a cow outside!” The cow was lying on the concrete with its head cut off. My son was completely unsurprised and not the least bit upset. He wondered what we'd be having for breakfast and expressed his hope for bacon. I obliged, dipping from the small bacon stash left over from our last visit home.

The next day, we were out on the street spray painting some stuff to make our own Halloween decorations for a party next week. It's gotten easier over the years to find stuff like glitter and spray paint and Styrofoam balls. People were walking home from Bayram visiting carrying plastic bags full of meat. The people stopped to stare at us painting, mouths open in surprise, because you don't see people painting Styrofoam balls and pipe cleaners in the street every day. Their dripping bags left spreading red puddles at their feet. All around us, piles of meat and offal were purpling in the unseasonable sunshine. Even the dogs and cats had grown tired of meat. A dog scampered by with a hunk of heart in his mouth. There was an unholy stench in the hallway that day, like maybe someone was treating hides or wool in the kitchen. The friend we were painting with is relatively new here. It was only because of her surprise that I noticed the dripping bags or the heart.

Last year, people were scraping cowhides for tanning in the street. I stopped to watch and they eyed me warily, like I was going to go all foreigner on them and think them barbarians for their sacrifice. I complimented the hides, how it was cleanly cut and nicely marked. Then I asked about how they planned to process the hides and they were thrilled to bits, falling all over each other explaining how to do it. I understood about half of what they were saying, but knowing how to tan a hide wasn't the point.

We're making Halloween this year. We sometimes make Thanksgiving. I try to make Christmas every year, as best as I can. At work the other day, I was talking to someone about how the exam schedule might be tooled a bit so the foreigners can have Christmas off as we've had every year. A snide co-worker, a fellow who has been here for years and can barely manage a proper sentence in Turkish, started going to other people's desks saying, “Christmas! We came to Turkey for Christmas!” like that was the stupidest thing on Earth. And the way he was saying it made it seem stupid.

But you have to do stuff like that, I think, find ways to have your little traditions, whatever they might be. Especially if you have kids. You have to find the shreds of your home culture and preserve them, even nurture them a little because for the most part, if you want to live somewhere that isn't home, you can be sure you'll be giving up just about everything else, or finding a new way to do it just to keep some sense of pride and sanity and self and dignity. Make Christmas. Pay way too much for good coffee. Eat bacon for breakfast. Haul the toothpaste you like from home. Whatever it takes to not become bitter and isolated, or the sort of person who would make fun of someone for wanting to make Christmas for a kid.

Why did I come here? Why did I stay? Did I ever imagine this would be my life? Do I even imagine what my life will be like tomorrow or the next day or the next? To be honest, I'm not much of a planner, and the things I imagine have more to do with being a rock star or trying to keep my head in 1530s Europe. I rarely think things through. I just do them and go with whatever happens. I don't really think much about the course of my life.

Yesterday, a Roma woman approached me wanting to read my fortune. I admit an affinity for horoscopes, and I've always wanted my fortune told by a Gypsy. But I told her “No, thanks.” She asked for a cigarette and I gave her one.

I hoped she would ask me why I didn't want my fortune read. I wanted to tell her it's because I don't want to know what my future is.

About the author:

I came to Istanbul almost 10 years ago, back when there were no garbage cans on the streets because of terrorist bombs, and beer cost about 50 cents. I've spent much of my time here as an English teacher in private language courses and in university English preparation programs. I took a few years off outside work to birth and look after my little boy, now 5 1/2. He's mostly into superheroes and having a Big Day, every day. Now we have garbage cans on the streets, beer is way more expensive, and somehow, despite my best efforts, this insane, gorgeous place has become home to me.
Blog address: http://istanbuls-stranger.blogspot.co.uk/
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Contest Comments » There are 12 comments

Blake wrote 8 years ago:

What a wonderful, insightful story from a perspective much under-represented! :)

Catherine Bayar wrote 8 years ago:

Lovely piece Sarah! It's so interesting how much we forget of the difficulties adjusting over time. 14 years here for me, but Istanbul and life in Turkey will never be commonplace, though much easier now. Thanks for giving everyone such a great glimpse into this world!

Bill Metzker wrote 8 years ago:

Honestly, this is pretty much I imagined how it would be.

Lara wrote 8 years ago:

You are an amazing writer, and everything you say rings so incredibly true!

Ayak wrote 8 years ago:

This blogger writes so honestly. She expresses so well those feelings of fear of the unknown that we all get from time to time. A very well written piece.

Martha Sutter wrote 8 years ago:

I can empathize with most everything in this article. It is extremely well written and expresses the frustrations, challenges and also the joy of living in a place far away from home. In the process, this country becomes another place to call home.

MaryAnne Oxendale wrote 8 years ago:

Eloquently put! I think we arrived in Turkey at the same time, though I only ended up staying 6 years. What you wrote was so freaking spot on! Everything rang true, sometimes bringing back some pretty fierce memories of the early struggles. I do miss those moments of transcendence though-- for some reason, Shanghai just hasn't got the horrific lows and stunning highs that Istanbul did.

Jen wrote 8 years ago:

Thank you for this well written, honest take on expat living in Istanbul!

M. Howell wrote 8 years ago:

An extremely well-written piece. Captures not only the feel and stink and colors of the city, but especially the heady rush of ignorance and opportunity that make a new place so exciting. I WISH I could provide some constructive criticism, but honestly - I don't think the piece could have been better done. It's honest, engaging, well-written.

Joy wrote 8 years ago:

After 2+ years, I still like to live in that world where it's "a great deal of fun not knowing what the hell was going on half the time." I understand half of the Turkish that's said to me and generally it's enough to do what I need to do. Thanks for sharing your honest views about being an expat here in Istanbul.

Caterina wrote 8 years ago:

True, true, true, true......everything I experience (d) in my 7 plus years here in the "Bul. I love reading your blog and I always giggle as it's everything I wish I could say and more.

Nur wrote 8 years ago:

Can relate to these feelings (I have been an expat for the last 12 years of my life in four different countries) but you can make you life much easier if you do a bit more search and ask around for help. As for the things you say you can't find there in Istanbul, I am surprised as many of them are easy to find/ just need to know where to look at I guess? Baby music classes ( Are you sure there aren't any? For example. Gymboree has branches in Istanbul) Wooden Toys (Any big toy shop would have these, e.g you can find Melissa and Doug Brand) Baby Yoga (just type Anne Bebek Yogasi in google, there are places in Istanbul that offer this) low-intervention pediatricians (or even the same pediatrician all the time, for that matter) Do you have private insurance? If so, quality of healthcare you get in Istanbul is WAY BETTER than UK, SPAIN and ITALY (know by first hand experience). If you rely on public system, that's a different story. Can't comment on the schools, but suspect that would be an issue wherever you would go as curriculum requirements are very different across countries. Baby judo??? YEP, here is what I found after a quick google search http://www.shibumidojo.com/ Buy your sippy cups from well trusted brands such as Chicco, Mothercare etc.. and you will get BPA free stuff. organic baby food- Have you heard of Milupa brand? Just go to a supermarket-and look for Milupa Organik clean grass to play in... Now that is a problem as Istanbul definitely lacks good parks/ play areas in the city center but still there are some good parks scattered around the city or you can try to go for weekend trips/ even daily trips. There are tons of interesting places to visit within reasonable distance to the city. E.g. try going to Polonezkoy, Agva, Sile, etc. Hop on to a plane and visit rest of Turkey:)

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