A few weeks ago I was asked to give a short talk at a dinner for visiting university students from the US. They were here as part of a summer cultural tour that had taken them all over Europe. When asked to speak, the leader of the group asked that I talk about how I chose a life abroad.
While it seems like a simple question, for me it caused a reflection on things I hadn’t thought about in years. Over the past nine years that I have lived in Istanbul, I have come across expats who have called Turkey home for a variety of reasons. Many are posted here for work, some because they married a Turkish spouse. A few are escaping from some other life, and looking to start anew.
For me personally, I am kind of in the grey area, having been in almost all of these expat categories at one time or another. My journey started as a third year university student back in my native state of Michigan. I started dating a fellow Turkish student, and he brought me back to Turkey to meet his family and his country. At that time, I had never even been to New York City, much less out of the country. The minute the plane landed I felt something exhilarating about Turkey. The airport was brand new at the time, not the third world place I expected it to be at all. This first visit was only a few months after the big earthquake in 1999, and two of the people I had sat next to on the plane were involved in some kind of aid work to help the victims in the stricken area. I didn’t sleep a wink the whole flight, listening to all of the conversations going on around me in languages I didn’t know. In my carry-on I had my entire CD collection, over 120 CDs that for some reason I felt the need to bring on a two-week trip. My luggage was full of stuff like this, and I still blush with embarrassment when I remember how poorly I packed my suitcases in those days.
That first visit was a whirlwind trip visiting many popular sites in Turkey. I also met many people, one of whom became my closest friend later. My trip back to the US was really tough. I had felt something in Turkey that was totally unrelated to my relationship with my fiancé. I hated leaving, and knew that I belonged in Turkey. Six months later I went back for another visit, and this only enhanced the urge to move there permanently. I went back to the US and finished my degree, but broke up with my fiancé the week I graduated. The family issues were just too tough, and I think we were both too young to deal with all of the pressure. While getting over the failed relationship was rough, it was even harder for me to let go of Turkey. By this time I had many friends there, and they all urged me to come back and try living in Istanbul for a year. Just when I decided to move, the Sept. 11 attacks happened. Everything for me was halted. It took another two years before I was able to gain the confidence to move. By then, I had lived or spent significant time in San Francisco, Boston, Los Angeles and New York. I wasn’t the same naïve girl who had visited Turkey four years earlier. I was better prepared to move.
This trip to Turkey I was not met at the airport. I was going to see if I would still love Turkey even though my relationship was over. The answer to that question I thought I knew, but wanted to move to Istanbul for at least year to make sure. Would I still love it when I wasn’t on vacation? I enrolled in a CELTA course and spent the first five weeks going to class to get my certificate. I immediately found a job at a private kindergarten. Usually shy, I had struck up a conversation with anther American girl who rode the dolmuş (shared taxi) with me to Kadıköy one afternoon. In the span of two minutes she told me that her school was looking for an English teacher, and I had the job the next day. Everything seemed to happen so quickly and smoothly, it seemed meant to be.
Many people act surprised when they hear that I lived alone for the first five years I lived in Istanbul. I found and still find Istanbul to be safe city for women, as long as you are careful and aware of your surroundings. In general, I was harassed much more when I was in other cities in the US, then I have ever been here in Istanbul. The five years I lived on my own taught me so much. I learned how to navigate this city and how to be independent. Of course I had friends willing to help me with bureaucracy, but in general it was up to me. I learned most of my Turkish hands on, outside of the classroom with real life experience. After my failed relationship, I did not want to marry or date a Turkish man, but one should never say never. Can came into my life at the right time, and we eventually married. I then joined the league of expat women who had married Turkish men, and all of those adventures have been recorded in this column. After the birth of my son, Eren, I then joined the expat groups with children. Each one of these milestones taught me more about the country I call home and myself. I am forever thankful for the time I spent on my own in Istanbul, as it has really helped me cope and manage almost any situation that comes my way, without relying on my husband to solve everything. Knowing how I was when I first came to Turkey, I would have so easily leaned on my significant other to handle every detail -- and then resented him for it. Independence in a foreign country is crucial, in my opinion, to successful living abroad.
As I told my story to the students, one asked me how I knew that Turkey was “the one.” That’s a hard question to answer, as it was just this feeling that I had the minute the plane landed. Even though my route changed course many times since then, the destination was still the same. There have been difficulties, as in any relationship. I am happy that my journey as a foreigner living in Turkey has been so varied, and I feel that it gives me a unique perspective on life in Turkey. Things have changed a lot in the twelve years since my initial visit, and I feel that the country has gone through growth that has mirrored my own personal growth. Here, I have found my voice, which I didn’t realize was stifled in my life back in the US. I built up a supportive community of close friends and we all helped each other through our journey. I gained the courage to try new things, and revel in being different. It hasn’t always been smooth sailing, but it continues to be enriching.
*Elle Loftis is an American expat, writer and mother living in İstanbul. Reach her at [email protected] for comments or questions.