The wise aphorist once wrote, “I cannot say whether things will get better if we change; what I can say is they must change if they are to get better.”
French expat Marie-France Gilles has already made the saying hers, as she recently entered her fifth consecutive year in Turkey. The story of her Turkish journey is that of a love affair, a “spicy honeymoon” that began the day she set foot in this land of historic treasures and effervescent present.
Seven years ago Gilles was starting a career in the tourism sector. During a job interview in France, the recruiter’s office phone rang. After taking the call, the recruiter hung up and asked Gilles if she was ready to leave for Turkey within five days. She agreed and, a few days later, boarded a plane heading for the Aegean Coast. Gilles had signed a five-month contract as an activity leader at a holiday resort. Once there, Cupid’s arrow would hit her twice: She fell in love with the country and with one of the hotel’s guides.
The following year Gilles was about to sign a permanent contract in the south of France. But once again Turkey -- or destiny -- smiled upon her. An İstanbul family was looking for an au pair and Gilles accepted the offer. She felt there was something “waiting for her” there. She also thought that, if she moved in with her Turkish boyfriend someday, she would want to have experienced the country on her own.
Safer in İstanbul than Paris
Despite the hardships and relative loneliness of the first year, Gilles remained bold and stubborn and refused to give up. “I knew the experience would bear fruit and I waited,” she recalls. Her lucky star was not long in rising again. The father of the girls she was taking care of offered her an assistant position in the company he was about to launch. After a year of research the man started his business and Gilles started a new life -- without her Turkish boyfriend. “I had been learning Turkish and that was an opportunity to prove to myself that I had not done all that only for him. I needed to take up a challenge.”
In the second year Gilles’s social life started to develop. Her Turkish teacher had become her best friend and introduced her to Turks of her own age. She was doing a lot of sports and traveled more than before. “After all, the key to enjoying the country you live in is to have a social life there,” Gilles says. But there was something special to Turkey, too. “In short, I felt safer in İstanbul than in Paris,” Gilles notes. She explains: “People care more about each other. ... So it is pretty easy for a foreigner to live here, even for a female foreigner. As a woman, I actually feel more respected and safer in Turkey than in France, and I have never been annoyed by any man here.”
Gilles says she landed in Turkey with no pre-conceived prejudices. “I didn’t know much about the country back then. So I had no idea as to what to expect and was very neutral in my approach.” Turkey still sounded very exotic to her. Gilles, who has a background in art history, remembers the pleasure she felt upon discovering the beauty of Turkish historic sites and the hospitality of its people. “I had learned a lot about Greece at university but nothing about Turkey. I really fell in love with what I discovered.”
You cannot truly enjoy a country without learning its language. Gilles says she felt comfortable in daily life after just six months. “I learned Turkish out of frustration. I love to communicate; I wanted to ask questions but couldn’t,” Gilles notes. The first words of Turkish she heard were enough to know she would enjoy learning it. “It is a very melodious, musical language -- with many ‘ch’ and ‘sh’ sounds -- and at the same time a very logical, mathematical structure. And Turks are so encouraging.”
Gilles describes İstanbul, the city that has been her home for five years, as a bipolar city, one that you might love one day and hate the following day -- but one that never leaves anyone untouched. “I decided to stay so I apparently love it more than I hate it. There might be traffic jams or electricity breakdowns, but I see the Bosporus from my window every morning and I feel lucky in those moments.”
‘Growing up’ in Turkey
Her encounter with Turkey in her 20s helped Gilles develop her “adult personality.” She lists the aspects of her character that changed or emerged after she settled in İstanbul. “First, when you move to a foreign country, you cannot keep the attitude you often adopt in your home country, meaning to moan or complain all the time. You learn to be more humble by meeting people who are either much happier or much less happy than you.” Gilles cites some of her friends who are working as cleaning ladies for 10 hours a day and YTL 600 a month with a family to feed. “Yet they keep smiling, so how could I not smile and question myself?”
Gilles says she also became more fatalistic in Turkey. “Before, I was looking for answers to everything. Now I am cooler, as far as my future goes. People here have experienced earthquakes; they have seen destruction in front of their eyes and started reconstruction the following day. They have an amazing strength that is very inspirational.” In short, Turkey taught Gilles to feel less stressed about things she cannot control. “Carpe diem” is a motto she now follows more than ever before. “I really feel that Turks complain less. They are usually happy with what they have, although it can also be frustrating to see them not trying anything to improve their condition.” Turks, she says, might enjoy easier access to happiness than Westerners partly because family and friendship matter so much to them.
“My parents are divorced and that sense of family unity that spreads all over Turkey truly felt good when I came here, as well as Turks’ commitment to their friends.” Gilles notes that it is not unusual for her to feel at home within the Turkish families that welcome her. “Turkey also made me be less rigid in character, as I was feeling more surrounded and cared about. I used to plan my life carefully and feel disappointed when a plan was cancelled at the last moment. Now, again, I am cooler and cancel appointments myself.” These are not things that one can forget, Gilles adds, should she eventually return to France.
As if all this were not enough, Gilles is also thankful to Turkey for “restoring her creative power.” Over the past years Gilles has been writing a blog about her daily life in Turkey that now receives hundreds of visitors a day, called “Du mile aux épices” (From honey to spices). She has also found new inspiration for two of her dearest hobbies: writing and cooking. More recently Gilles started a second job as a personal shopper in Istanbul. “I am doing more things here than I would in France, partly out of the feeling that the future is so unpredictable. Who knows what tomorrow will bring and if I won’t have to leave Turkey earlier than expected.”
Asked about what she would miss the most if she were to leave Turkey tomorrow, Gilles cites her Turkish friends; the atmosphere in Istanbul (the noise, the call to prayer and the crowds); “All those things that make life easier in Turkey,” such as supermarkets or stores still open at 10 p.m.; and the Bosporus, which she never gets weary of.
On the other hand, she would not miss the cigarette smoke in public spaces or the uncertainty of her work status and salary. “In Turkey, everything functions but nothing works,” she smiles. “For example, electricity works but the plug is not in the right place. Many things seem illogical, but they make us laugh and maybe like Turkey even more. We get to realize that the road is not always a straight line and that life is more grey than it is black or white.”
Gilles, who recently moved into a new apartment, has no plans to leave Turkey in the coming years. Yet she is confident that she would be ready to settle in another country and start everything again from scratch. “I came to understand that leaving a friend means finding another one somewhere else; that closing a door means opening a new window of opportunity. But, wherever I go, I know my heart will stay in Turkey.”