How to do the Turkey Trot and Cavort in Catalunya: An Expat’s Tips on Living Abroad

By: Caroline N. Simpson - Also see author's expat blog listing

While moving from Barcelona to Izmir this past summer with my excessive excess baggage, the cashier at the airport bookstore asked me for my city of residence. When I paused and looked up at the ceiling for the answer, he laughed at me, and then I at myself. Whenever someone asks where I’m from, I can’t immediately answer. I mull over that word “from.”

From the small Rocky Mountain ski town of Whitefish, Montana, I first expatriated to the capital city of Turkey in 2008. I worked in Ankara for three years as an English literature teacher at an international high school, then moved to Barcelona, Spain to do the same for one year. Most recently, I find myself back in Turkey, but this time in the smaller Aegean city of Izmir.

What I’ve done by moving between countries and cultures that are not my own, is so confused my internal compass in terms of which direction my spells of “homesickness” face. When I am down, do I miss the green summer landscape of Montana, my Mom’s comfortable suburban home in New Jersey, a cup of tea at my favorite cafe near the fortress in Ankara, a night walk through the neighborhood of Gracia in Barcelona? Sometimes I just plain don’t know.

But what’s come of this muddle is a dedication to the present. Since expatriating four years ago, the trajectory beginning with “from” and ending with “to” has come to resemble a spiderweb. As my sense of home now resides in several places, my “to” and “from” have become one and the same. The web covers the globe like a blanket, and I take comfort in the feeling that I am a citizen of the world and that I simply belong wherever I am. This mindset did not occur overnight, however.

To say I’ve changed since moving abroad connotes a switch from one state to another. True, I’ve gotten skinnier as travel bugs have flushed weight out of me (particularly the Thai and Turkish species), but spiritually, I’ve gotten larger as exposure to new cultures has brought out in me values and perceptions unused before. I’ve come to know myself better than ever. When I moved to Turkey, I anticipated learning about another culture, not that the majority of my learning would be about my own. Living abroad stimulates a wider expanse of your soul like sudoku puzzles stimulate the resting brain synapses of the elderly. It’s like peeling the layers of an onion. The result is that I feel more awake than ever, the pungent smells of my newly exposed layers pervading my awakened senses.

For example, I have discovered through interacting with people from all different cultures that the U.S. has bred in me a unique positivity and optimism that surely has come from a culture steeped for decades in the American Dream. I’ve decided that I like that about myself a whole lot, and embrace it often during adversity. Conversely, I can say that I’ve also softened some of my stereotypically American edges. Through seeing the way other cultures do things, I’ve learned that a lot of what we do is on autopilot simply because everyone else does them that way in my home culture, when actually, such behaviors or perceptions are simply options. For example, here’s a lesson I learned early on in Turkey:

Taking Care of Those You Care For = Taking Care of Yourself

I learned that it is not The Way but The American Way to worry about one’s own needs in the morning. These needs revolve around caffeine, personal space and silence. We plug up our orifices to create people-free bubbles around us by listening to radio news in our car commute, or reading a book and listening to our iPod on our subway commute. When we first get to work, we have a routine for consuming coffee and Muesli and reading email in silence at our desks alone. We say “hello” as we walk by our colleagues, but not until all of our needs have been met, do we embark upon a meaningful exchange. We are never as routined, rigid, and selfish as we are in the first hour of our day.

On an average morning at my school in Ankara, while I was worrying about my own needs being met, my Turkish colleague and friend, Rukiye, was at her home making coffee and preparing a morning snack for me. When she arrived at school, as my hallway neighbor, she came by my room every morning to say “Gunaydin,” (Good morning), give me a hug or kiss, ask how I was and how I spent the last evening. Then she would unload from a paper bag a cup of freshly made Turkish coffee and a handful of nuts carefully wrapped in a paper towel. Similarly, on my routine walk to my pigeonhole to check for mail, I would often find with the morning announcements a piece of homemade cherry-walnut bread wrapped in tinfoil. This meant my Turkish friend, Kivanc, had baked the night before.

Why had I been worrying about myself all morning when someone had already been taking care of me? Rather, I could have spent my morning thoughts thinking of how to give to my friends, and the results would have been the same. All our needs would have been met.

The Little Prince said that once you tame something, you are forever responsible for it. Isn’t it a lovelier world when friends are responsible for caring for one another by anticipating each other’s needs, rather than everyone anticipating his own needs? The result is the same, so why not take the path of love, of caring for others before yourself? After three years of starting off my mornings with small gift exchanges and genuine conversations between friends, my mornings transformed into delight.

Can I pass on many more lessons like this to someone thinking of moving abroad? Of course, but they won’t have the same impact on you as they did on me. They were my lessons to learn through firsthand experiences. Your personal discoveries while living abroad await you and you alone. However, what I can share with anyone wishing to expatriate are some of the general tricks to a happy expatriate existence: the mindsets that I have discovered to be effective over the past four years.

1. Throw yourself into the culture.

Do this when when you’re feeling the most frustrated towards the differences. Go to a place where mundane daily activities occur, and embark upon a goofy experience where you have to speak the language or ask a local for help. Interact. Try new things. Smile. Laugh when you can’t communicate clearly enough. For me, this magical “go to” place is the market. In Ankara, there was a Saturday open-air market in the nearby suburb of Umitkoy where I would go as often as possible. Interacting with “My Nut Men” as I called them, the two gentlemen who sold their nuts and dried fruit with alacrity, could lighten my spirit on any day. From a distance, they would see me coming and wave me over. Once there, the Tea Man would drop by and give me a cup of tea while My Nut Men gave me samples of walnuts inside apricots, and freshly-dried figs. Back home in Montana, going to the grocery store was something I dreaded and I would shop as efficiently as possible so I could check this chore off my to-do list. But in another country, going to the market is magical. All the best aspects of a culture come out around the selling of local foods: hospitality, pride, passion, friendliness, humor. In these seemingly minor daily exchanges, you discover aspects of yourself that were never teased out in your home country where life was so comfortable that much of your spirit was on autopilot. Which brings me to...

2. Let a new place bring out new aspects of you.

Don’t clutch to the old. Keep your eyes and heart open to what newly interests you. For me, Ankara brought out dance and theatre. I became a tanguero, a dancer of Argentine tango, and began acting again for the first time since high school in community theatre produced by the Turkish American Association. Barcelona brought out in me art and plays. I frequented the museums of Picasso, Dali, Miro, Gaudi, and took my sketchpad with me wherever I traveled. There, I watched Anglophone theatre for the first time in years, and began writing a play. Izmir brought out my bike. In this city, I seek out long rides along the Aegean Sea and through orchards, or adventure-city riding alongside chaotic Turkish traffic.

Be patient for a new place to strike the right chord in you. If you hit resistance when seeking out your old way of life, listen. Let go of old pleasures and remain open to new possibilities. For example, I am currently learning that some of my old hobbies are not panning out in Izmir as they did in Barcelona or Ankara. Despite my efforts, I am not finding a tango studio with a teacher I like or lesson times I can make, and there seems to be no indoor climbing gym in Izmir. So I am waiting and listening for the something “other” this city will bring out in me, and saying “yes” to whatever opportunity arises.

3. Be a friend to a local.

This is different than “make local friends” as all the expat sites will recommend. This is about giving back. People love to be accommodated and taken care of as guests in another country. It’s especially magical in a country like Turkey to revel in the hospitality. However, the richest relationships involve an exchange. Give to that friendship your own care and share your own culture as well. For example:

Making Yaprak Sarma with Rukiye

In Ankara, my Turkish friend, Rukiye, had me over one rainy Saturday to teach me her family’s way of making yaprak sarma. Yaprak sarma is one of my favorite Turkish foods. It's grape leaves wrapped around a rice mixture topped with yogurt and maybe tomato sauce depending on the region of Turkey you're in. Rukiye had planned for us to roll about 100 of these little guys, a tedious process, but like any Turkish tradition, there were lots of breaks to drink tea, eat sweets, and chat.

Rukiye is a Turkish Literature teacher, and her English at the time was about as good as my Turkish. If anyone were to watch us spend time together, they would have laughed, because I spoke in Turkish and she spoke in English so we could both practice. We were never speaking the same language at the same time, and to boot, we were each speaking at a four-year-old's level in the language in which the other taught Literature!!

At one point, when Rukiye noticed I was tiring of rolling the yaprak sarma, she suggested I read aloud to her a children's picture book called "The Polar Bear," because she was working on reading it, and wanted to listen to it in English. I started to read it earnestly, and then we both suddenly caught the giggles at the ridiculousness of two grown women sitting across from each other at the kitchen table, the Turkish woman rolling yaprak sarma while the American woman read aloud a children's picture book.

I cannot express to you the richness of my feelings for this woman stemming from two people who love to share their languages, favorite literature, cultural foods and, yet, can barely use language to express themselves to each other. Laughter always fills the spaces where our language abilities fall short.

4. Take care of yourself.

Most likely, you are not a trustifarian, a hippie traveling on an inherited trust fund, and you have expatriated to a new country for a full time job. This is not the same as being a tourist on holiday. You will never be able to maintain the life of a tourist for a considerable length of time while also fulfilling the requirements of a full time job. You are adjusting to a world where everything is new. Imagine all the new stimuli your nervous system is processing all the time, from the sound of the imam’s call to prayer five times a day, to the distance people stand from one another in the ATM line, to figuring out which knob to press on the laundry machine written in Turkish, to the wild dogs and cats that roam the streets. Your nervous system is overworked. And you have to work full time, to boot! Make an allowance for this. Continue to do the things you normally need to do to decompress - alone time, exercise, escaping to a movie, journaling, joining a gym, yoga. Most importantly, don’t harshly judge yourself if you are tired or can’t keep up. Listen to your body, and be kind to yourself. Which brings me to the challenges of living abroad...

5. Have patience.

Along with the extreme peaks of joy and excitement you experience while living abroad, you will also experience extreme dips of frustration, feelings that nothing is working out, that things are completely falling apart. It often feels like everything takes longer in a foreign country. Perhaps it does compared to North American efficiency, but perhaps your sense of time is warped due to a heightened anxiety for everything to be in place. It’s worth pointing out that everything does take longer when you don’t have the language nor the similar values to understand the protocols or procedures. For example, with every task where your money or your communication with home is involved, such as setting up wireless internet in your apartment or international wire transfers with your home bank, there is always always a point where everything looks like it’s F.U.B.A.R. (Fu*!ed Up Beyond All Recognition). If you were in your home country and such a moment occurred, you would panic that the situation was irreparable. However, in my experience of living in three foreign cities now, I have learned that things have to go through that stage, it seems, before they can come together again.

Through living in Turkey, I’ve been learning about Rumi, the poet and founder of the whirling dervish sect of Sufism. I’ve embraced an aphorism his teacher Shams taught him: If you don’t give yourself up to a thing totally, that thing looks hard and difficult. In other words, the feeling that something is not working out is only the appearance you give the situation because you have not yet thrown up your hands and surrendered to the process, whatever it may be. When I feel myself getting frustrated, I remind myself to surrender and just let go. If it hasn’t worked out yet, it must not be the end after all.

6. The little things = the big things.

Some days are just gonna be awful. Sometimes you simply feel stuck in an unwanted situation for which the only way out is to endure. Sometimes we have a timed commitment we need to honor despite feeling like a place or a job is not a good match. Though easier to fall into thought patterns of negativity, especially if those around you exhibit these, the rarer virtue is positivity. Some ways to help your spirit in times like these include fostering gratitude for the little things. They’re so plentiful that when you start to take stock of all of them, your heart will feel like exploding. For example:

Start a Friday morning ritual with a friend.

Every Friday morning in Barcelona, my friend, Sharon, and I would meet for coffee at a cafe near our work. It opened at 7:30am and we would get there just as the barista unlocked the door. He would smile at us, and we would take our usual booth, the first ones there, while he went behind the counter to begin making our usuals, a Cafe con Leche and an Americano. We stayed for one hour, drinking coffee, chatting. The cafe would become louder and more crowded, and by the time we left, the sun would have come up and the streets and pedestrian paths would be crowded with people.

We were celebrating the end of another week survived; she was just as miserable at her job. We were celebrating the beginning of the weekend. We were celebrating friendship.

Beyond the time with each other, the relationship we had with the barista and the space had become equally important. That he knew me, and that I walked into a familiar neutral space once a week became important to me, too. Creating positive rituals involving other human beings melts away some of the isolation and loneliness felt when bearing a burden alone.

7. Take your newly peeled self and go “home.”

When you travel “home” to the place from which you initially began your expatriate journey, your eyes will be wide open in a way they never were before. If you’re like me, you’ll have lots of stories that begin with, “One time in Turkey...” but also comments that start with, “I noticed in the U.S. that...” The first time I returned home after living abroad was after two years of being away. I was nervous about reverse culture shock, but I never experienced any of the negative feelings attributed to readjusting to something I no longer fit into perfectly, perhaps because I was only visiting and not moving back, or perhaps because of my mindset. Instead, my experience of my homes- both where I spent my childhood in New Jersey and my adulthood in Montana- was in technicolor. The greens of New Jersey’s deciduous forests seemed extra bright, and the smells of a lodgepole pine forest in Montana extra pungent.

So go “home” and enjoy your heightened awareness of what made you you and what will always be a part of you. Enjoy the comfort of familiarity, of being surrounded by people who are of the same stock as you. It’s a rush. And when the rush subsides, you also have to enjoy your exoticness and the something “other” you have to share. As I travel back and forth across the Atlantic visiting my different homes, I feel comforted knowing my sense of home resides in several places which will always welcome me in technicolor upon return.

About the author:

I am an international English Literature teacher currently working in Izmir, Turkey. I expatriated four years ago from Montana, U.S.A., and in that time have lived and taught in Ankara, Turkey and Barcelona, Spain. Beyond traveling, I am a writer, an outdoor enthusiast, and a tanguero (amateur Argentine tango dancer).
Blog address:
Vote for this:

Contest Comments » There are 26 comments

Anke Karsten wrote 11 years ago:

I really enjoyed reading the essay esspecially as I am as the ex flat mate part of the expat experience. You brought really good up mood swings you have while living abroad. From everything is perfect on a sunny Sunday at the beach to nothing is working when the easiest things working in your home country seem impossible working out abroad. Thanks for reflecting and sharing. Makes me feel part of a community who is experiencing similiar things.

Sarah wrote 11 years ago:

What an insightful look at the different cultures and experiences you've been a part of over the years! I've visited many other countries but didn't stay longer than 5 weeks, so got a taste of this, yet never the full version you would as a resident. Hoping you continue to enjoy your experiences abroad and everyone else continues to benefit from hearing about them! Wishing you all the best.

John Miller wrote 11 years ago:

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. I really liked the idea of how the article played with the abstract concept of “home.” In what ways are our actions habitual, no matter where we live? Living abroad has a way of pushing one outside of oneself and into the larger world of culture, politics, and the strange emotional landscape of being a foreigner. This article explores that topic very eloquently. Carrie’s description of how people will care for the foreigner and take him or her into their care really resonated with my own experience. I find that being an outsider in a particular place really opens doors for the expat. People are excited to show a foreigner the best side of their culture, and this comes through in daily interactions with local people, whether it is a smile or a frequent gift of homecooked food. At the same time though, the expat will get a richer experience if they attempt to serve while abroad. Even if it is through small daily acts, the expat can be a positive liason between his or her home country and the chosen place of residence. Overall, living abroad can be a difficult and alienating task. The suggestions on this blog about how to suck the marrow out of the experience are insightful and well put!

Wowie Delos Reyes wrote 11 years ago:

The first time I read Carrie's blog I bookmarked it because I like her writing style and I think she has a special natural ability at taking photos. Every time I read her blog I find more reasons for following it. I became a big fan! In this article I like the way she articulates how locals show the best side of their culture and at the same time how expats can do the same. I always gain insights from her reflection and they have been very helpful to expats like me. This is an awesome piece, Carrie!

Sarah Langlois wrote 11 years ago:

I love this essay! You expressed both the joys of all the new, exciting things about learning a new culture while also positively highlighting the struggles. I completely agree with the uniquely American optimism. I learned the same lesson while living overseas, and though there were many things I did not take pride in about US culture, this is one aspect where I can say I'm so thankful to have that perspective. Thanks for sharing!

Arva Ahmed wrote 11 years ago:

Your article is phenomenal, and really resonates with me. I can especially identify with your thoughts on surrendering to the process. So, so true. I live that point every single day as an expat trying to work around legalities to set up a venture in a foreign country. But you've articulated in a way that's made a lesson out of it for me. Thank you.

Shabari wrote 11 years ago:

This essay gave me the chills. You have expressed so much of what I felt about living in Spain, but being a Math/Science person, I could never really express it as perfectly as you just did! This has stirred the adventurer in me, and I'm confident that I will live abroad again, and you have reminded me of why it is such as amazing experience!

Melis Atalar wrote 11 years ago:

It is so great to read this essay! What you are doing is very inspirational, especially since not many people have the courage to move somewhere completely new on their own. I am very glad that you took the risk and moved to Turkey to teach at our school, and am even more glad that you took the time to write about your experiences. Though, as your homeroom student, I only knew about your positive and cheerful side, it is great to read about all of your thoughts -both positive and negative- and tips about living abroad. Thank you for sharing! :)

Jordan Bailey wrote 11 years ago:

Here, here! Well written, Carrie. Its interesting to read about your perspective and find so many parallels in my own. Thank you for sharing and helping to provide some much needed articulation to the emotions of living in a foreign land.

Katrina wrote 11 years ago:

I love Carrie's reflections on her time abroad, especially the personal stories that illustrated the lessons she learned. Knowing Carrie her whole life, it's particularly interesting to see the ways in which her adult life has taken shape and been influenced by the cultures and experiences she's had abroad. Great piece!

Briana Samuelson wrote 11 years ago:

I have been following Carrie's blog for awhile, but I love how she focused on her travels from a "would be" expat's point of view. I find her insight and honesty so true to my own experiences thus far in Turkey. I'd recommend her blog to anyone thinking of living and working abroad. Well done!

Casey wrote 11 years ago:

Carrie, I think that this essay comes across as humble, funny, articulate and inspiring. Your personal stories are wonderful examples of the your expatriate evolution. I can just picture you laughing over a children's story while your friend made her Turkish dish!! Thanks for sharing.

Alanna Marohnic wrote 11 years ago:

Carrie, I appreciate this essay for its gentle call for an elegant understanding and generousity of spirit to oneself and others as one encounters all the newness that can enchant and bombard a person when beginning to live abroad. You speak of the thrilling adventure of it all while also giving a nod to the less-than-fun challenges one will indeed face from time to time. But, as you make so abundantly clear, living abroad with an open heart brings unimagined richness to the very fabric of one's life and it is an adventure well worth taking!!

Katy Bingham wrote 11 years ago:

A beautifully written piece Carrie, with so many elements of truth woven throughout it. I found my own experience within your writing. Thank you for opening yourself up and sharing your experience with us all.

Erin H wrote 11 years ago:

Perfectly accurate. Thank you for putting to words many things I've felt the need to express lately and just can't find the time. Or the words, quite like you. Much love to you, soul sister.

Lisa Boland wrote 11 years ago:

A wonderful read. In, How to do the Turkey Trot and Cavort in Cataluyna, I hear a poignant voice filled with appreciation and love for travel. I read each trick, lesson, and mindful discovery with pleasure and friendship. Thank you Carrie!

Sandie wrote 11 years ago:

I love the easy expressiveness of your writing style, which resonates with your enthusiastic personality, your love of life, where ever you may be. Reading the examples of friends in different countries that you have shared everyday activities and adventures with over the past years makes me realize that you will never be alone! Remember from Mema, "She's a Beato!" Love you! M.

Lorraine Graves wrote 11 years ago:

Beautifully written. The author has a way with words as she expresses some very valuable life lessons, whether one is travelling or not. A pure delight to read,and I'd like to read more....

Susan wrote 11 years ago:

Carrie's thoughts and insights are beautifully expressed. So many important ideas here. I am sure that many ex-pats will appreciate what she has to say, but I also think it's very important for us, part-time-travellers-mostly-stay-at-home folks to think about as well. It is SO easy to autopilot through a day! Thanks, Carrie.

Emily wrote 11 years ago:

This is a lovely essay about the experience of expat, and I can say that I relate to a lot of the lessons learned. Although I have only lived abroad once,it was such a great experience to learn about another culture, and, ultimately, about myself. It was very interesting to read Carrie's impressions of the meaning of a home or place one is from, and a great source of information for people considerning the life of an expat. It's not always easy, but it's always worth it.

Lisa Monkus wrote 11 years ago:

This will be my tenth year living abroad and the part of the essay that really resonated with me was the suggestion to let a new place bring out new aspects in you, There are sometimes many reasons we choose to leave home and it is easy to forget them when we feel uncomfortable or put out because our host country doesn't offer us the same comforts of home. We must create new habits and rituals, find new pleasures. We must look within and open ourselves up to the new world around us and be willing to try new things. In my experience, the expat friends I have made who found this difficult usually became unbearably miserable to be around! Don't forgot why you chose to leave home! Great essay, Carrie!

Sara wrote 11 years ago:

So inspiring for someone who has never left My home country. Sometimes you have to travel far to come home to yourself.

Janet M wrote 11 years ago:

What a wonderful attitude you have about both your new experiences and the old and familiar! You seem to approach each new situation with an open mind and find the best parts to make your own. Thanks for sharing.

Angela wrote 11 years ago:

Excellently written and o true to my own experiences! I've been an expat for 14 years nd have been BLESSED to live in and enjoy 5 different out tries and their cultures, so I completely agree with and understand the where are you from confusion.... But I love it. Your writing is beautiful, Carrie. I'm grateful to have known you in Ankara and to have read your blogs!

Sharon Kemble wrote 11 years ago:

As usual Carrie, your writing is full of wit and beauty. With each sentence, I am finding myself wish that I had said it that way...could have said it that way! Your insight is amazing and I cherish these words as I continue on my journey through life. And it is my deepest hope, that one day soon we can share stories in person once more.

Barbara Kimball wrote 11 years ago:

Carrie's essay is reflective of who she is as a human being. I was amazed by her energy when I knew her in Turkey. She will take on the unknown with a verve I could only envy--joining community theater in Turkey with players from both Turkish and English speakers, taking on the IB program at school with little experience, learning Turkish fearlessly, spending as many weekends as possible exploring, and always, always practicing her writing.

Leave a great comment and help to WIN a prize:

Your Name *
Email * (not published, needs verification one time only)
Website (NOT required - include http://)

IMPORTANT: Rules for comments to be accepted:
- Positive in nature - If you haven't got anything nice to say... you know!
- More than 10 words - We're not looking for simply "Great post!" etc, make it meaningful please :)
- Verify your email address - One time only, we'll send you a verification email (CHECK SPAM FOLDER!)
Comments that fall outside of these guidelines won't be published!
Please note that there MAY BE A DELAY BEFORE PUBLISHING comments, so don't worry!

Your Comment: *
  • Facebook
  • Follow us on Twitter
  • RSS feed
  • Facebook

Contest Entries by Destination

Latest Headlines

3270 Expat Blogs By Destination

Submit your blog for inclusion!