This post is about the things that helped us survive our first year in Kayseri. These things might not be specific to Kayseri, Turkey, although as a smaller conservative town it has its challenges. The difficulties we faced were also to do with our jobs – the jobs which we love but are still hard when you do them day in day out. Winter time wasn’t great either – even though it’s not that cold, especially compared to Russia, the early sunset and coal pollution rule out outdoor activities. As my friend Jenny says, you need something like Netflix to weather the winter here, but just how many Grey’s Anatomy episodes can you watch before you get cabin fever? (Very very many if you are me).
So here are the rules to surviving Kayseri according to me:
1. Learn to love local food. Or learn to cook noodles/butter chicken/sushi/insert something you crave here. As expats, we`ve all been there – talking about all the foods we miss and going to another city just to eat foreign food (yes, I`m talking about the time my two friends and I drove to Ankara to shop in Ikea and eat sushi) . But while there’s no Chinese takeout, or indeed, ANY Chinese, a lot of ethnic foods can be cooked at home. In addition, there are so many cheap seasonal ingredients here, it’s a shame not to use them. This is not to say that I`m not looking forward to my next trip to Istanbul so that I can hit a sushi restaurant and that great Chinese restaurant I found just off Istiklal, or that I don’t sympathize with Frank from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia as he shouts, “RUM HAAAAAAM”, but we did learn to cook quite a few dishes from world cuisine – from sweet and sour chicken to saag paneer. Here’s my friend Peggy’s famous dragon noodles:
Mike and I also try to go to our weekly pazar (market) which comes to our neighborhood on Thursdays. Armed with backpacks and “grandma” trolley, we come back loaded with fresh produce bought at very reasonable prices:
2. Take up a hobby/sport. It’s great for busting stress and reminding you there’s a world outside your workplace. I joined a gym whose sign on the door promised that it worked from 6.00 to 24.00, although when I came there at 7.30 I found that in reality it didn’t open until 8 “because nobody ever came earlier than that”. For Ramadan they started opening at 12 so I quietly let my membership expire and we bought an elliptical trainer to use at home.
I`ve also been cycling to work, or at least I WAS cycling until July came and brought the average temperature of +35C and cycling while wearing a bike helmet became unbearable and I don’t dare ride without one. There’s no bike lanes as such here in Kayseri, but I`ve been using what I assume is a bus lane. It’s mostly empty although sometimes I encounter pedestrians walking down the lane, often in the opposite directions – when there’s a perfectly good empty sidewalk right next to them!!!
It’s quite common to see men riding bikes here – sometimes it’s middle-aged men on old-fashioned bikes with a bag of fresh bread on the handlebars and sometimes it`s a young guy wearing cycling shorts and a helmet on a newer bike, but it’s less common for women to cycle around, so being a woman and a foreigner at that I attract quite a few stares, which happens all the time anyway, even if I`m just walking down the street with my husband, and it gets even crazier when I’m with my girlfriends. Men rarely harass us, although they’ve approached us more often when we are in a group than when we are alone, possibly because they hear us speak English, but the amount of staring and double-take is astounding. A couple of times I was seriously worried about people’s safety – like when a guy riding a scooter passed us and kept looking at us and not the road for another 20 meters or so. But on the other hand, people are very kind and patient with foreigners and are appreciative of our attempt to speak Turkish, unlike in Russia where Michael’s attempts to communicate in Russian were met with annoyance and disdain.
Returning to the subject of sport/hobbies, I`ve also started doing yoga for the first time in my life and I`ve been enjoying it immensely, especially since we started having classes with our wonderful yoga teacher Asli.
In addition, there’s a tennis court on our campus so we`ve been playing tennis, but similarly to cycling, it got too hot to play in July.
3. Say yes to opportunities to socialize with people – locals and expats alike. And try to surround yourself with positive people – we all need to vent now and then and a fellow expat will know exactly what you are talking about, but it’s easy to fall into a habit of continuously complaining about everything and talking about how different things are back home. Even if you can`t embrace some elements of local culture and traditions (I will not touch all loaves of bread before I buy one or use a communal tasting spoon in shops), you can learn to appreciate that different doesn’t mean bad. You don’t have to fast during Ramadan, but you can be respectful and tactful by not eating and drinking in public.
Speaking of socializing, I am very lucky to work in a place where there are a lot of social activities going on – from a whole-prep-school outing to this-breakfast-is-only-for-girls type of thing. For instance, some time in May all female teachers of our prep school went out to breakfast (I mentioned before that breakfast is a very common occasion for socializing in Turkey) to a wonderful place with a garden, horse stables and a duck pond. For some of us the highlight of the breakfast was a fluffy white dog that let us pet itself into a sleepy puddle on the lawn, while others kept their respectful/frightened distance from the “giant beast”.
4. Adding to the previous piece of advice to surround yourself with positive people, learn to go with the flow. Sometimes things here are illogical or take forever. It’s OK. As my friend said, “Burasi Türkiye“, which simply means “This is Turkey”. If things go wrong, repeat this as a mantra. It has to be said lightheartedly and not sarcastically or it won’t work.
There’s one annoying thing that’s been consistently happening to us here – disintegrating door handles. So far 3 door handles fell off in our apartment, resulting in some awkwardness during an otherwise great party where a missing bathroom door handle meant that those wishing to visit the bathroom had to either leave the door ajar or lock the door and make arrangements with other people to come and let them out some time later. There was also the time I got locked in our spare room and Mike was napping and didn’t hear me and I had to climb out of the window onto the balcony and from there to the kitchen. Things aren’t much better at work where once a colleague got locked in his office after work after a key snapped in the lock. Now that was a fun occasion for everyone except the guy who got locked in. As we waited for someone to come and rescue him we hung around under pretense of keeping him company and teased him mercilessly.
5. Get to know your local services. Especially useful if your Turkish isn’t perfect. After you`ve ordered a takeaway pide a few times, they`ll know your address and the only thing you`ll have to worry about is your order. Not that it’s necessarily easy – one time ordering pizza I was unsuccessfully trying to remember how to say ‘with minced meat’ and saying random words that I thought sounded right (they didn’t). After 5 minutes of this, the person from the restaurant hopefully asked, “Margarita?” and, all out of pronunciation ideas, I agreed.
We also have two taxi companies that we use regularly. Taxis aren’t cheap here, but in the absence of a car they are sometimes a necessary evil. But they are far from evil, with friendly and helpful taxi drivers who tend to remember you and where you live. Most taxi drivers working at the local malls know the three locations where clusters of expats live (residences of the 3 largest universities in Kayseri) and usually make accurate guesses about which one you need to go to and our regular taxi driver sometimes doesn’t even ask where we are going – if I call him early in the morning when it’s particularly rainy, he takes me to work, and if I call late in the evening from a friend’s house, he wordlessly drives me home, sometime confirming when we are almost there, “Eve gidiyor musunuz?” (Are you going home?).
6. Don’t afraid to be a tourist. Kayseri is an ancient city and there are a lot of things to see in the centre, not the least a medieval castle.
Then there was the time when I got lured into a carpet shop. Kayseri, I so didn’t expect this from you. Istanbul, yes, but here you are never accosted by sellers so that’s why I fell for it. But I decide not to waste an opportunity to take some photos, however indignant I might have felt towards the tricky shop owner:
In addition, there’s Erciyes mountain with a skiing resort and Ali mountain around/up which you can hike. Then there’s a beautiful part of the district we live in called Talas. We live in the newer part, surrounded by almost identical high rises, but less than 30 minutes away, on a hill there is an ancient underground city and a restored historical street. We went on some walks there several times now and enjoyed every minute of it.
We live down there – you can definitely tell the difference between the old and the new Talas!
The view from our building just before the sunset
Another source of interest is local wildlife: I`ve been seeing these guys on the way to work every day and while I`m not exactly sure what they are, I suspect they might be ground squirrels. While I was taking pictures of them, I also saw a fox! Speaking of wildlife, this praying mantice has a great timing – it came in just as the call of prayer started.
We don’t always follow our own advice – the other day we found ourselves bored, and it was too hot to go outside, so we found ourselves doing what local teenagers do – heading to a shopping mall to entertain ourselves. Except that we felt we were too old to aimlessly hang around the food court so we walked around the shops desperately trying to think of things we might need (“Are you sure we don`t need any toilet paper? What about cotton buds? Anything?”). Even our attempt to see the new Planet of Apes was unsuccessful when I confused screen 6 with screen 9 and we saw The Purge: Anarchy instead, not realizing we were watching the wrong movie until it was too late to switch. Even from the name, this is not the movie I would have chosen to watch, but it was kind of fun. Incidentally, here in Turkey films are often shown in English with Turkish subtitles, although major blockbusters and kids’ films get dubbed into Turkish. So here’s another fun thing to do, especially in the winter – go to a surprisingly uncrowded cinema and don’t be alarmed when the film is stopped halfway through and all the lights go on – it’s only a smoking break!
6. Make good friends. They`ll make everything better. You will miss the family and friends you left behind and you will also want to share your experiences with other people. I`m not alone here in Turkey – I came here with my husband Mike, but there were times when I needed my friends’ support and they were here for me and it made things more bearable. Sometimes people are reluctant to make friends knowing they or the other people will be leaving in a 6 months/a year etc., but this is not a good reason not to let people into your life. Also, if your friends’ names are Colin, CeAnn, Jackie, Steve, Luna or Anna, they`ll bring you delicious things when you need nutrition, cheering up or just because. If you are reading this guys, I’m not in it for the food – I just love you all.
7. Love your job. Whether it’s your career and your calling or just something you are doing to make some money, it’s something you spend a lot of time doing, so it helps if you take it seriously and try to enjoy at least some aspects of it. I am fortunate to have found my calling in teaching English (although I miss my second calling, interpreting). It’s easy to get lost in the minutiae of day-to-day work and forget why you love your job, so it’s important to keep a perspective and try to grow professionally. Many workplaces offer such opportunities and our university is not an exception. A few months ago we had an interesting presentation given by Michael McCarthy, a prominent ESL author and researcher. After a busy workday, there’s definitely a temptation to head for home, wolf down your dinner and settle into bed with a good book, but a few minutes into the presentation I forgot all about my Kindle and started thinking about how I could apply what I learned to my lessons.
It also helps if you have good colleagues. I have learned so much from my fellow teachers in the last year! And then there are times when it’s not about work, but about fun at work. Take this Who Wants to Be a Millionaire type game our colleague organized at one of our general meetings. We had to guess names of our colleagues based on facts about them or their childhood photos. Incidentally, this is my childhood photo and because it’s black and white, everyone thought it was our older colleague meaning this picture would have been taken at least 50 years ago. No, just 30 years ago and no, we didn’t have color film readily available in the Soviet Union when I was growing up.
Even at work, sometimes it’s ok to just be silly. April Fool’s day was just such an occasion when a colleague gave all ladies in the office mustaches and in return had his entire workstation wrapped in foil (my idea) and pranked on the phone about having to pay a huge fine (that sort of stole our thunder).
While I don’t urge you to go pranking your colleagues (and of you do, you didn’t hear it from me), laughter IS the best medicine – against homesickness, a stressful day or a case of “Burası Türkiye”. So smile, my friends, smile and carry on!
P.S. In Turkish, “Smile!” is “Gülümse”
P. P. S. Think I missed something or left important things out? Comment below and let me know what you think!