Becoming a Tea-Holic

This week marked three months since my arrival in Turkey, and I finally feel that I’ve adjusted to life in Izmir. I understand and speak enough Turkish to get by (but that’s about it so far…), I know my way around the city, and most importantly, I feel comfortable here. My schedule has been getting busier, so I haven’t had the chance to write as much as I would like recently, but I promise that I’ll keep updating this blog!  

One part of life in Izmir that I love most is the slow pace. Especially coming from the East Coast and a hectic summer job, I’ve really come to appreciate the culture here. I know that this isn’t necessarily Turkish culture — Izmir locals will never miss a chance to insult the general craziness and hustle and bustle of Istanbul — but at least in Izmir there’s a noticeably relaxed vibe. Maybe it’s the nearby sea and the (usually) warm weather or maybe something else entirely, but people here just aren’t in that much of a hurry.

From my observations, part of what it comes down to is a shared national addiction: tea. There is tea (in Turkish, cay) everywhere you look. Just about every restaurant offers you a glass of tea at the end of a meal, store-owners brew it daily (my barber insists I drink it!), and there are even traveling tea-sellers who walk around parks and busy streets. There is also never a bad time to drink it. From morning to late at night, Turkish people (and now me…) are downing the stuff. Though Turkish coffee is more well-known, it’s not as popular as tea here (but it’s also delicious). In fact, Turkey can boast that it drinks way more tea per capita than any other country. I love it and I would say at this point I’m drinking quite a few cups a day!

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Tea is served in these small glasses. One is never enough!

To go with this caffeine culture, there are countless cafes and restaurants here, all with outdoor seating (I’m in one right now, as I write this!). Even during the coldest nights you can sit outside under the electric heaters and fleece blankets provided by the cafe. Unlike our American on-the-go coffee culture, here it’s common to sit and enjoy a tea or coffee for a long time, whether over good conversation or games of tavla (backgammon/shesh-besh). Even on weekdays, these places are open until late. For an over-caffeinated place, Izmir is pretty relaxed.

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Am I Turkish yet?

This mentality transfers over to daily errands. In many cases there are different stores here for different needs — a fruit and vegetable shop, a fish store, a butcher shop, a store for nuts and coffee beans, etc. Though there are supermarkets, it’s still common to see people taking their time and visiting a number of stores to fill their shopping needs. If you can’t carry everything home in one trip, it’s perfectly normal to do two shopping trips back to back.

From a professional point of view, time here is more flexible as well. If you are a few minutes late to a meeting it’s just fine. Meeting times also aren’t set in stone and they can even change the day of, if necessary. There’s a sense of mutual understanding that everything will still get done, and it does. Though people here are serious about what they do, I don’t sense the same levels of stress as I did in America.

In case you couldn’t tell, I’m a big fan of the way of life here so far. There is more to come, but for now I’m off to drink more tea! 

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Come to Izmir, We have McDonald’s

I just finished reading Fast Food Nation, by Eric Schlosser and I’d highly recommend it to anyone interested in American culture, history, or who has ever eaten at a fast food restaurant (unless you want to keep leading a fast-food-eating life in blissful ignorance, that is).

Schlosser digs into what makes the American fast food industry tick. He details the history of fast food restaurants, from the success of the original McDonald’s hamburger stand in California to the chain’s expansion across the planet. He investigates every gruesome step of food production. We learn about the death of the idyllic American family farms and the rise of the corporate-owned monstrosities that replaced them. We see the disgusting sanitary conditions at many slaughterhouses and we hear from workers subject to unfair labor practices. We meet the scientists at the laboratories and factories along the New Jersey Turnpike where artificial flavors are designed and produced before they are injected into the fast “food.” It’s an intriguing and horrifying piece of investigative journalism.

What interested me most was the last third of the book, where Schlosser deals with the rapid rise of fast food around the world. During the second half of the twentieth century fast food spread everywhere. According to Schlosser, the McDonald’s golden arches are now the most recognized brand on the planet, more widely known than the Christian cross! In fact, the logo even spawned a new political peace theory. In one of of my countless American Studies classes, we read (fellow Brandeis alum) Thomas Friedman’s The Lexus and the Olive Tree, in which he explains what he calls the Golden Arches Theory: No two countries that both have McDonald’s had fought a war against each other since each opened their McDonald’s. Though this claim has been disputed, it still goes to show just how much globalization has changed the way the world works and which values are emphasized. 

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On one of Izmir’s main streets, but could easily be anywhere else in the world. I always get a kick out of where it says “Louisiana Kitchen” — just feels so out of context!

While reading this part of the book, I was struck by how true it is in my everyday life. In the center of Izmir there’s a McDonald’s, Burger King, Popeye’s, Subway, multiple Starbucks, and even a Caribou Coffee (which we don’t even have in New York or Massachusetts. Also, how many Turkish people even know what a Caribou is?!). It’s common to see people walking around on the street wearing t-shirts in English or with obvious American references. These shirts can be pretty ridiculous too; yesterday I saw a man wearing a shirt that said “Eastern Iowa” on it in big purple letters. Shirts with unknown American sports teams like the Boston Tigers (which may exist in one league or another, but that I’ve never heard of) are very popular, though I doubt that any of the people wearing them have ever been to the US. Radio stations play Top 40 hits and the vast majority of theaters show Hollywood films with Turkish subtitles. One of the most popular language schools in Izmir is called the American Culture School. Even in a country that doesn’t have the best relationship with America right now, American cultural influences are everywhere. Of course, Izmir is not representative of the rest of Turkey, especially not smaller towns and villages, but I was still surprised by just how far the influence goes.

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At the hobby store just down the street from my apartment there’s this mural on the wall. About as American as it gets — the plane even says the Spirit of St. Louis on it!

Seeing all this really makes me realize that globalization is just a code word for Americanization. While in any city — Izmir included — there are countless cultural influences, it seems to me that only American culture makes it to just about everywhere. 

Is our mass-produced American culture slowly conquering the world? Will diverse local cultures eventually fade away? Though it’s easy to take a pessimistic view, I think that most places will be able to hold onto many portions of their cultural identities. New and old cultures don’t have to clash. For example, it strikes me as funny and strange to hear the call to prayer while sitting at Starbucks — combining two things that take up very different spots in my mind — but for Turkish people it’s completely normal. At the same time, I feel that some form Americanization is inevitable in just about every corner of the world. There’s a pressure on countries to westernize or conform and despite all the benefits that may come with it, something special is lost in the process.

This topic fascinates me and as I travel over the course of the year I’ll stay on the lookout for different cultural influences in the different places I visit. I’d also love to hear other people’s points of view. What are your experiences? Do you enjoy having the familiarity of home available when traveling? Do you think that Americanization is beneficial or are we just exporting empty culture and health issues to the rest of the world? Let me know in the comments and stay posted for more! 

Blending In

Before I left for Turkey, I was advised to try to blend in as much as possible with the locals. With the combination of living in an urban environment and in a country that’s dealing with an ongoing security situation, this made perfect sense. There’s no need to attract unwanted attention.

The good news is that I didn’t have to do much.

For the past few years I’ve always sported a little stubble, but after hearing that I’d be living in Turkey, I made sure to take it up a few notches. This summer I grew a bigger beard than I ever had before and even entered into an unofficial intercontinental beard war with my brother (I think I’m winning!). After arriving, I saw that what I suspected turned out to be true; facial hair is huge in Turkey. Many of the younger men here grow beards while the older men sport well-groomed mustaches that are the style, but as I learned can also convey political affiliations. With my summer tan and (partially) Middle Eastern heritage added to the mix, I thought I really looked the part. The locals agreed.

Ever since arriving here, I’ve had to deal with the daily struggle of people thinking I’m Turkish. Customers at the supermarket checkout line try to make small talk with me. Restaurant waiters rattle off menu items and wait for my response. People on the street even approach me and ask for directions. All these people think I’m Turkish…until I open my mouth. When they find out that I’m a yabanci, or foreigner, they can’t believe it. Their faces always have the same look of incredulity. They ask where I’m from and when I answer with New York they strengthen their line of questioning, convinced that I must have Turkish blood in me somewhere.

These experiences got me thinking about whether blending in while abroad is beneficial. On the one hand, because I look the part I don’t get stopped or gawked at on the street just because I look out of place. When I visited Iceland last November — a month not particularly known for it’s tourism in a country just south of the Arctic Circle — it was so obvious just from looking at me that I wasn’t local (a girl in Reykjavik even asked if she could feel my hair because it isn’t blonde or straight). In Izmir, some things are definitely easier because I blend in with the crowd. I feel comfortable going for a run in the local park or sitting at a cafe; I know that as long as I don’t speak I won’t be treated any differently than those around me.

On the other hand, I wonder if sticking out just a little would be helpful. I think that locals anywhere tend to be more understanding and accepting of mistakes when they know that the people they are dealing with are foreigners who have no idea what’s going on. I know I would benefit from people speaking to me in English (and hopefully soon rudimentary Turkish) and I’m sure that just looking different would allow me to meet new people who otherwise would walk right past me. Of course, I’m not advocating walking around a foreign country wearing a Hawaiian shirt and fanny pack, but I’m curious about how people who are obviously not Turkish are treated in day to day life (aside from probably being ripped off while shopping).

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. What are you experiences while traveling or living overseas? Did you blend in or stick out? How did that affect your daily life? Do you have any questions about Turkey?

I’m starting Turkish classes tomorrow, and hopefully soon I won’t just physically blend in but will also be able to get by with actual conversation and not just my current vocabulary that’s limited to a few words, phrases, and pointing (though you’d be surprised how easy it is to communicate without a shared language.) Oh, and hopefully I’ll be posting here more often. Stay tuned! 

I’m in Izmir!

It was just over two weeks ago. After a few hours of frenzied last minute packing, I finally zipped up my suitcase. I threw a couple more pairs of underwear into my backpack (you can never have too many, right?), grabbed a banana and some granola bars (I’m never not hungry), and hoisted my 55 pound monstrosity of a suitcase into the trunk of my mom’s Honda Odyssey (huge shout out to the Lufthansa check-in guy for letting the overweight luggage through!). This was it. It was time.

All summer I’d been thinking about this day, not sure what to expect. Now the day was here. I was starting one of the craziest things I’ve ever done. I was embarking on what I hope will be the journey of a lifetime.

Fast forward a couple of hours through the drive to JFK and the long goodbyes and I’m sitting at the airport gate waiting to board. “I’m moving to Turkey,” I found myself telling the the guy sitting next to me. The words just tumbled out. I couldn’t believe what I was saying. And if you fast forward two weeks later, it’s still hard for me to believe that I live here now!

So where exactly am I?

That’s a great question. For roughly the next year I’ll be living in Izmir, Turkey. If you haven’t heard of it that’s okay — until a few months ago I hadn’t either!

Izmir is the third largest city in Turkey. It’s south of Istanbul on Turkey’s Aegean coast. Instead of putting you to sleep with a geography lecture, here are some maps.

Turkey and the rest of Europe:

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It’s a big country. Izmir is in the far western part of Turkey, circled in red:

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If you want to get a feel of how big Turkey is, here you go. From east to west it’s the equivalent of New York City to west of St. Louis:

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What the maps don’t show is the beauty of the city — formerly known as Smyrna — and its thousands of years of history. It’s rumored that the Greek poet Homer was born here (that is, if he really existed). Herodotus, the so-called Father of History, described the city in the following way: “They have founded the city under the most beautiful sky and the best climate that we know on Earth.” Smyrna is mentioned multiple times in the New Testament and was the location of one of the Seven Churches of Revelation. And when Mark Twain stopped in Izmir on his Euro-trip on the way to the Holy Land, he wrote (among other, less flattering things) that “Smyrna today wears her crown of life, and is a great city, with a great commerce and full of energy.” (As a side note, for some reason “Izmir was Smyrna” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it as “Istanbul was Constantinople.”)

I agree with what they wrote about this city. Izmir so far is absolutely stunning and brimming with life. The city wraps around the bay and offers plenty of green space with walking and biking by the water. Cafes, bars, and restaurants line the streets. I can pretty much see picture-perfect sunsets like the photo I posted above just about every evening. Jealous yet?

If you’re wondering what my daily life is like here, then you’re in luck!  Over the coming months I’ll be posting my experiences, struggles, funny stories, travel adventures, and other random things on this blog…hopefully fairly regularly. Stay tuned!