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April 15, 2012, Sunday

Watch those words

A flexible attitude. A readiness to learn the language. A good support network. These are suggestions that have come up time and again in my ongoing straw poll of the characteristics that might help someone make a success of a new life in Turkey.

Other suggestions have been more specific. For example, “Try to find out the sensitivities in Turkish culture. Avoid talking about sensitive or taboo issues when you meet Turkish people for the first time; only discuss them with your best Turkish friends, and even then be careful,” says Dutch writer Marc Guillet. “Turks are very proud and nationalistic and they don’t like to be criticized (or have the feeling to be criticized) by a foreigner. Those sensitive/taboo issues/words are: Ataturk, Armenian genocide, PKK, terrorism, politics.”

Wise words, but to Guillet that doesn’t mean that there aren’t plenty of safe topics with which to engage new friends: “Talk in general about issues that Turks are passionate about, like football, soaps, Turkish food, music, movies, fashion, the beauty of their women, cars, traffic, your favorite places in İstanbul and Turkey.”

What could be easier and more sensible? After all, every country has its sensitive subjects. In the UK of my childhood, for example, it might not have been especially wise for a newcomer to start laying down the law about the Irish problem in the aftermath of some dreadful atrocity, and visitors to Germany are probably wise to skirt around the subject of the Nazis unless they know who they’re talking to. Much better, always, to look for common-ground topics, at least in the early days.

Others have emphasized the need to come to grips with Turkish culture rather than sticking with what feels familiar. “Be prepared for culture shock and show some respect for the country you have chosen to move to,” says “Perking the Pansies” author Jack Scott, who settled in Bodrum. “Do what you can to integrate. Understand where you are. Learn a little history and read the English language newspapers.” author Duke Dillard more or less echoes those sentiments but adds another thought about Turkish culture: “One mistake expats often make when they arrive in Istanbul or Ankara is to assume that Turks think like they do. The cities are well developed with the latest technology and shopping malls and nice cars, so Turks must think like Europeans. However, most of Turkey is in Asia and the worldview of the average Turk is not European. That is not a negative. I am not making a judgment here, but expats who understand this idea, have a better experience in Turkey and are able to relate to their Turkish friends on a deeper level.” Others have commented that exploring Turkey will help a newcomer understand it better. “Bridge the gap between you and your new home, learn about the food, culture and see different places within Turkey,” suggests Natalie Sayin, author of

In the end, though, I’m leaving the last word to Jack Scott. What characteristics do you need to make a go of it as an expat here? “The wisdom of Solomon and the patience of a saint.” Which, when you come to think of it, are probably the characteristics you need to make a go of life anywhere in the world.

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