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What Readers Are Saying
"An American family's Turkish life and travels – intelligent and well researched stuff with a wry humour. Excellent." – Karen, a British writer based in Kusadasi, Turkey.
“The born traveler -- the man who is without prejudices, who sets out wanting to learn rather than to criticize, who is stimulated by oddity, who recognizes that every man is his brother, however strange and ludicrous he may be in dress and appearance -- has always been comparatively rare.” –Hugh and Pauline Massingham (The Englishman Abroad).
When the American Economy Collapsed, We Found Jobs Abroad
With the American economy in freefall, 2009 was the winter of our discontent. Both my wife Lucia and I lost nearly half our incomes. Based on the East Coast of the U.S., she was an English teacher . I was a communications consultant. Suddenly, with little warning, several of our clients could no longer afford our services. Others dramatically scaled back or delayed payments weeks or months. For four harrowing months, we tapped into savings and knew not what would happen next. Companies were laying off workers right and left; the U.S. job market was bleak, and the unemployment rate was climbing rapidly.
Then Lucia had an idea: Why not apply for jobs overseas?
There are still plentiful jobs in some international markets, especially those with expanding populations, she noted. My own internet survey of world economies pinpointed economic growth in Turkey, Poland, Germany, India, Brazil, Colombia, Peru, China, Australia, Singapore, Costa Rica, Canada, Taiwan, Indonesia, Scandinavia, Australia , New Zealand, and the Gulf States.
A Fantastic Alternative to Underemployment
In 2010, when US unemployment was well above 9.5 percent, US companies created 1.4 million jobs overseas, according to the Economic Policy Institute. "Companies will go where there are fast-growing markets and big profits," Jeffrey Sachs, globalization expert and economist at Columbia University, told the Associated Press. "What's changed is that companies today are getting top talent in emerging economies, and the U.S. has to really watch out."
Caterpillar, DuPont, and Coca-Cola were just a few of the U.S.-based companies that investing more in overseas markets than in the US, according to the AP.
Exporting labor or luring retirees abroad will probably never be a large-scale solution to the world’s economic problems. Too much immigration and dislocation cause alienation and social turmoil. But on a smaller scale, for internationally-oriented, open-minded citizens, especially those hungry for adventure, living abroad could be a fantastic alternative to dead-end jobs, declining wages, long-term unemployment, or retirement blues.
Intimidated By Saudi Reputation
Shortly after emailing her resume, Lucia was immediately accepted by a university in Saudi Arabia. The salary offer was low, so she replied that she would consider it only if the salary was doubled. The university immediately agreed to do so.
A military family we met at a Haw River landing outside our home near Chapel Hill, NC had just returned from Saudi, and they regaled us with tales of the harsh life there. Celebrating Christmas is officially illegal, they said. Department store attendants might unofficially guide Americans back into store rooms where Christmas items could be found, but public displays were forbidden. This family also told us that driving toward Mecca , the highway divides, with signs instructing "good Muslims" to continue on a well-maintained road, while "infidels" were sent down bumpy, dusty roads full of potholes.
The more we researched Saudi Arabia, where women, even foreign women, we read, were forced to wear veils in public and could not drive , it just seemed like too radical a lifestyle change. Banishing ourselves back several centuries did not have much appeal.
A few days later, when Lucia received a job offer from Meliksah University in central Turkey, Kayseri to be exact -- a city of a million people -- we were intrigued. Nearly everything we heard about Turkey, a secular Muslim country, was positive. The university offered to pay roundtrip flights for the entire family, including our 12-year-old son, Alex. Housing in a modern apartment complex was included.
Health insurance for the family—something we worried about, since our premiums had gone through the roof, more than $1,500 a month for a family of three—was also included.
Venturing Outside One’s Comfort Zone
We both had dreamed of living, working and traveling abroad. I often quoted an old aphorism: "He who doesn't travel thinks his mother's soup is the best." He thinks his own country is best at everything. He also tends to be less open-minded, less creative, a more rigid thinker, less able to negotiate, and more likely to make judgments based on prejudice, theory and dogma rather than observation and experience. Indeed, a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found a link between open-mindedness, creativity, ability to negotiate, and living abroad. Expats, the study concluded, have a creative edge.
My older son Matthew absorbed this lesson well. From his college graduation in 2004 through 2011, he worked for cruise lines as a sound engineer in the entertainment division. By age 27, he had seen far more of the world than his parents had, while saving thousands of dollars a month because he didn’t have to purchase or maintain an automobile, pay for food or rent an apartment in the states. He found he could spend a couple of months a year on vacation in Eastern Europe or the Philippines, where costs are far lower than in the U.S., and live like a king.
But to live overseas successfully, you have to have the right mindset of flexibility and adaptability. Complaining loudly as you walk down the street in a foreign country, as I saw one American do , that “these people do not speak English,” is just not cool.
And even if you’re willing to learn a language or put up with language barriers, living abroad is a bit of a crapshoot, requiring willingness to risk. Things might not work out. You might end up back at home, unemployed, living with relatives, feeling defeated, tail between your legs and less money than you left with. You’ve got to be willing to venture outside your comfort zone, and see if you can, over time, make the uncomfortable feel reasonably comfortable.
Good travelers strive to get out of their comfort zone. And the hallmark of a great travel experience is that "when a trip does get us out of our comfort zone... we actually find ourselves in it,” wrote veteran travel writer and PBS host Rick Steves, on his blog as he concluded his 2011 trip to Turkey. “When we travel, like that balloon lifting off a wild Anatolian field, we are — at least for a while — free from the bonds of our culture and ready to experience our world with a different perspective. What becomes of that freedom and perspective after our balloon touches down is up to each of us."
Know Your Limits
I’m not sure I could be happy cruising the world for seven years like my son Matthew. I accompanied him on an 18-day cruise of the Mediterranean (free for family members), and by the end of the trip, after three consecutive sea days due to inclement weather, I felt a bit like a rat in a trap. I’d wake up in the morning mostly looking forward to eating and drinking the day away. “If I had your job, I think I would be a very fat alcoholic,” I said to Matthew. “I admire you for having so much self-control.”
On trips overseas, I’ve met Americans who became homesick a week or two after their arrival. “I miss driving to Walmart,” one young American whined. “I don’t like living without a car and depending on public transportation,” said another. “I miss watching Monday Night (American) football,” was a third complaint. Some have become so homesick they abort their professional or academic commitments and return to the states after a few months, preferring unemployment at home to working or studying abroad.
This, if at all possible, you do not want to do. Before you commit and embark, do a searching personal inventory of what you think will be right for you, and make a commitment to it for at least six months, unless your safety and well-being are at risk.
Fear, Disorientation and Sheer Panic
Traveling in countries where you don't know the language or the customs or the money, especially if you're not part of a cruise or tour group, can induce very real and appropriate anxiety, if not fear and disorientation. Suppose I get lost and no one speaks my language? Suppose I'm robbed or run out of money in a place where no one speaks English?
As our departure date for Turkey approached, I began to get cold feet. This was a blind leap into the unknown. I felt like I was about to leap blindly off a tall bridge, not knowing what awaited me below. I did not want to move somewhere I'd be a cultural illiterate. Just as I was experiencing sheer panic at the idea of diving off a proverbial high dive into the unknown, anticipating a radical change in lifestyle and becoming a cultural illiterate in Turkey, I heard Dick Gordon's public radio interview with Korean American Johann Choian. He sold all his earthly possessions in California to join his girl friend in South Korea. As he arrived at the airport in Seoul, noting that he couldn't understand a word of the language, going to the ATM and realizing he had no idea how to withdraw money from a machine whose instructions in Korean he could not understand, he experienced an overwhelming moment of sheer panic.
"What have I done?? What kind of fool have I been?" he asked himself. "I am a complete illiterate in this country."
Pulling himself together emotionally, he mustered the courage to ask a Korean who understood English if he could help him operate the ATM. He had no choice but to trust the honesty of this stranger. In America, he would be in an absolute panic about asking a total stranger to help him with the ATM, for fear of being robbed. But the Korean citizen was glad to help, and averted his eyes when the bank pin number was typed in. From then on, Choian reported, he felt that he was treated like an absolute king by the South Koreans, even though he was a stranger in a strange land.
Allure of International Travel and Adventure
Both Lucia and I had previous experiences in foreign countries to allay our fears. Independent travel adventures as a young person – not just as part of tours -- really help to lay the foundation for independent travel adventures later in life. As a college student, Lucia spent four months as an exchange student in France. When I was in my early twenties, I quit a good job, withdrew $3,000 from my savings account, and set out to discover the world abroad. Why did I do it? In 23 years, I had never made a decision that was entirely my own. I had followed everything according to parental and societal expectation -- 16 years of school, and then a professional job as a newspaper reporter. Each phase was a natural progression into the next. Yet, I was in no hurry to tackle the NEXT phase of the conventional middle-class existence: marrying, settling into a split-level house in the suburbs, and planning a family of 1.5 children.
There was a value to risk, I thought. Even if it didn't work out for the best -- if I had to endure a long period of unemployment upon my return or take a job much less interesting than the one I left -- it was worth the risk, I thought . I was making a decision for myself; it was my decision alone.
As it turned out, I didn't see the world, only a small portion of it. In 80 days and 13 countries, traveling from the flat plains of Moscow in the east to the hills of Ireland in the west, from the white nights of Helsinki in the north to the majestic peaks of Bavarian Germany in the South, I experienced sensory overload. It took YEARS to absorb it all, to put it all in context. I learned more and lived more fully in those two and a half months than I possibly could have in a year of graduate school. And for considerably less expense! My mind was packed with so many new experiences that years later I would find myself recalling an anecdote for the first time. For years afterward, I would read books because my curiosity had been sparked on that trip. There is nothing like travel to make history and culture and civilizations come alive.
Inspired by the fresh beauty of my surroundings, I recorded many of my experiences in a journal. I made no claim that my journal entries were definitive portraits of the places I visited. My impressions were undoubtedly colored by my own limitations and by the circumstances of time and itinerary. But world travel most definitely made me a better writer.
That summer was one of the longest, most mind-boggling and utterly stimulating periods of my life. I felt so alive. I yearned to have similar travel experiences again. The risk proved to be well worth it -- not only did I enrich my life, but within a month after returning from Europe, I had another good job lined up.
Back then, in my twenties, it all worked out for me fine. But now, well into middle age, with a family and a mortgage to contend with, I was more risk-averse. I was more likely to ask such practical questions as, "What if we can't rent our house?" and "How would our son get educated in a conservative Muslim town in central Turkey?"
I had to take a leap of faith. Yes, somehow, even in a deep recession, our house would eventually rent. Yes, somehow, for a year or two, we could home-school 12-year-old Alex with online resources and find tutors from the university. If I could continue to work over the Internet with American clients, we could save some money and have enough to explore Turkey, Europe and maybe even the Middle East.
What did we have to lose? At the least, even if it didn't work out work-wise, we'd get a free trip to Turkey.
First Thoughts of Turkey Turn to Old Horror Film
The movie, I learned online, was quite inaccurate in its portrayal of Turks, and the young man who was imprisoned, Billy Hayes, actually has a positive impression of Turks and escaped with the help of Turks.
The interviews with Billy Hayes, on whom the movie was based, are also eye-opening. Click for video.
Giving Myself A Crash Course: Introduction to Turkey 101
Confession: before we started planning to move to Turkey, I couldn't name the capital of Turkey. Can you? Hint. I thought it was Istanbul, and I was incorrect.
I knew enough not to call a Turk an Arab, but many of my friends did not know this. They had a very vague sense of where Turkey was on the map. For myself, I certainly could not name the eight countries that border Turkey. On a good day, I might have been able to name the seas that surround Turkey, but I couldn't name its major rivers, the Bosporus and the Dardanelles. I certainly could not name the seven geographical regions of Turkey, nor the eight major empires that Turkey was a part of since antiquity. I didn't know about the Turkish war of independence, nor when the modern Turkish state was established. I'm ashamed to say I had only a vague idea who Mustafa Kemel Ataturk was.
The Turks I later met found it impossible to believe that "educated" Americans like myself could really be this ignorant of a major country like Turkey, but the longer I lived abroad, the more I realized how insular the United States is.
In preparation for the trip, I spent hours each day online learning about Turkey; I checked out a stack of books and videos from the library, and started reading everything I could find about my soon to be "home."
First stop was Wikipedia's page on Turkey and the links within.
Next stop was an NBC Today Show in 2008 devoted to Turkey, in which Matt Lauer offered a great, "live" introduction to Istanbul, and to Turkey in general. Watch the first clip on Youtube.com, "Where in the World is Matt Lauer?"
In the second clip, he took a whirlwind tour of Istanbul.
Then Matt stood in Sultanamet Square, and broadcast live from there, next to Aya Sofia and the Blue Mosque.
And interviewed two American women on what it's like to live in Turkey.
Next Matt entered the famous Blue Mosque in Istanbul, bringing the cameras with him.
Then he sampled the food.
NBC correspondent Lester Holt joined Matt to talk about his grand tour of numerous Turkish tourist destinations, including Bodrum, Parmakkale, Cappadocia, and Ephesus. Matt added a brief tour of the Topkapi Palace, home of the sultans of the Ottoman Empire.
Lastly, he answered viewers' emails and went shopping for gifts.
Watching this show got me very excited about the delights that awaited us.
Visiting the Turkish Embassy in Washington to get some documents attested and to apply for work permits got us more excited. There, Lucia and Alex posed for a picture in front of a dynamic statue of Ataturk, the founder of modern, secular Turkey. I vowed to learn more about him.
Picking up our new passports at the US State Department increased our sense of anticipation. The passports, redesigned in 2007 for the first time since 1993, included all sorts of colorful icons -- clipper ships, Mount Rushmore, a long-horn cattle drive, and 13 inspirational quotes, such as:
"Oh say, does that star spangled banner yet wave," scrawled in Frances Scott Key's cursive.
"What a glorious morning for our country." -- Samuel Adams
"We live in a world that is lit by lightning. So much is changing and will change, but so much endures and transcends time. -- Ronald Reagan.
As I thumbed through the passport for the first time, I felt a surge of patriotism. I was proud to be an American and felt like I personally would be an ambassor for my country. I told Alex, 12, that he also was a personal representative of America, and ought to consider it with a sense of responsibility to behave well in foreign places.
Then I wondered if maybe the new passport design was over the top, evoking images of brash, wealthy " 'Mericans" with a superiority complex loudly asking "feriners" if they can "speaka-de-English." I read that border guards in poorer countries assume that the colorful American passports are expensive symbols of our country's wealth in comparison to the rest of the world. Already, by virtue of the document I carried, I was a bit wary of being pegged and stereotyped and deemed "different" because of my nationality.
Next came unexpected delays in the approval of Lucia's work permit. Supposedly, once a work contract was signed, sealed and delivered, there's a six-week waiting period before airline tickets could be issued. But we also heard of people getting tickets within one week of accepting a job. A friend asked if maybe we needed to offer some baksheesh to "grease their palms." Had he read too many old novels of life in the Ottoman Empire or is this still the way things are still done in the modern nation of Turkey?
I didn't know. The visas were being handled for us, so we could only hurry up and wait. It was out of our hands and we didn't even know who to contact. Knowing the truth of Murphy's Law, as soon as we re-enrolled Alex in another year at his local school in North Carolina and he settled in, as soon as I got re-involved in work in the states, making new appointments and getting new projects, the airline tickets to Turkey would come through. Sigh.
American friends told us that in traveling abroad, we would come to appreciate American efficiency, and not just take it for granted. We might as well chalk these delays up as learning experiences. A greater awareness of the strengths and weaknesses of one's own culture is one of the benefits of world travel.
Sure enough, with all of three days' notice, Lucia's airline ticket arrived in late August. She made a mad dash to pack for a year abroad, and luckily left me to pack up the house, store or give away our earthly belongings that could not fit in two suitcases, get rid of the car and the animals. She was braver than I -- she would scout out Kayseri and determine if Alex and I should follow along in a month or so and try to make a life in a "conservative Muslim city."
Her first dispatch began thusly:
Subject: Made it Safely! First Impressions
Never, ever wear red shorts downtown in a Muslim country! I was stared at and cackled at lıke an escapee from a freak show. (Jım - dont wear shorts ın Kayserı. It's ok ın tourıst cıtıes like Istanbul and Ankara, but not here. It's ok for Alex to wear hıs long shorts - kıds do, adults dont. Men do not wear shorts here, even when they are working out at the gym, no matter how hot it is.)
This is shaping up to be a very good situation. Apartment is small but new and light-filled. Wooden floors, wooden counters. We're on the 5th floor. There are many kids here, so Alex should have lots of friends to play with. There's an elevator, an exercise room, pool tables, ping pong. Basketball nearby, park.
The apartment maıd wıll vacuum my floors, then wash all the floors, then do the dustıng, kıtchen, bathroom, and wash all the wındows for 13 bucks and 20 cents, plus she ıs a good cleaner. She gave me a free cleaning because I'm new. I need to get another one because ı left the wındows open and all thıs dry dırt came ın from the steppes. It would be ınterestıng for alex to send me some ınfo on clımate and topography ın a steppes environment. There's very little grass so the dırt ıs not as fırmly rooted so ıt blows around, even downtown.
It's early September, and there's already a nip ın the air ın the mornıngs.
From my lıvıng room wındow, when I look past the hıgh rıse constructıon canyon where I lıve, I see these 2 hılls that are actually very, very close to town....At 6 or 6:30 most evenıngs, I see 2 or 3 hangglıders/parasaılers doıng theır thıng. My assıgnment to myself for thıs weekend ıs to go out to the mountaın and check out the recreatıonal facılıtıes. It would be nice if we could go cross-country skiing or snowboarding on Saturdays on Mt. Erciyes.
Everything is very dusty in this suburb due to all the new construction. A village has been overtaken by the very new university with high rises sprouting everywhere for faculty and staff housing, etc.
Work looks like it is going to be good. Sınce the real unıversıty doesn't open untıl next year, only those needed to pass the Englısh profıcıency test are comıng to the hazerlık (my program) thıs year. Only 170 students are startıng out, so that will mean smaller class sizes and less stress at the onset. However, ın November more students wıll come to enter the Economıc and Admınıstratıon and the Arts and Scıences Facultıes.
The unıversıty ıs clearly a well-supported endeavor. Teachers are quıte sharp. yesterday I was workıng wıth a guy who went to the US on a Fulbrıght ın hıs senıor year of undergrad.
The call to prayer in the evening is hauntingly beautiful. At 3 am, loud drums are beaten - the type used in marching bands, but also has a Native American feel to it. I found that rather cool and interesting, believe it or not, even at 3 AM!
We stand out! Virtually no tourists in the city center of Kayseri. There's a big old castle and a bunch of mosques and sarcophagi that go back 800-1,000 years ago. Fascinating.
Many women are scarfed. Eileen says the conservatism of Kayseri doesn't affect her. She and my other colleagues have lived all over the world and they have incredible stories to tell. They are encouraging and inspiring me to be a bıg gırl today and get myself around town as I learn to be ındependent.
A very dear Turkısh woman, Serpıl, took me shoppıng for haırcut (went to Hılton whıch ıs the only 5 star hotel ın Kayserı - haırcut, eyebrows, and tıp totaled 14 lıra where at the Fearrıngton Vıllage Haır, ıt would run the equıvalent of 100 lıra), athletıc shoes, and cell phone. For some unknown reason untıl we have Turkısh resıdency permıts, a Turkısh person has to sıgn off on our cell phone purchases. Serpıl can do 2 more, so she saıd she would get cell phones for you and Alex.
Gawd I mıss you guys and want you to be here.
Her next dispatch a day later was addressed to 12-year-old Alex, in hopes of persuading him that leaving his friends and moving to Turkey wouldn't be so bad.
Subj: The Food: Burger King Delivers. Easy Access to Fresh Vegetables. Teachers in Highest Income Bracket
The food here in Kayseri, Turkey seems mostly to consist of meats and bread. Maybe you wıll lıke ıt. I am losıng weıght because there really ısn't prefab food lıke ın the States, plus a lot of the food seems heavy and not appealing to me. That won't be a bad thing if I am able to lose weight. I already have. Plates, bowls, and glasses are smaller because they dont take bıg Amerıcan-sıze portıons. The American lifestyle of generally poor access to public transportation, driving everywhere, little time for exercise, and huge portions served at meals makes it so much more difficult to lose weight.
There ıs Burger King delıvery to the apt, however. Alex, I'm waıtıng for you to try that.
Fruıts and veggıes come from the local farms and haven't been embalmed lıke the ones sold ın the US. There are a lot of pastry shops whıch I'm sure wıll be ınterestıng to you.
I was ın one pastry shop wıth other teachers who were buyıng bread. I was amazed to see the customers paw through the loaves, squeezıng them wıth theır bare hands whıle flıes were ınvestıgatıng other loaves. For some strange reason, I came down wıth bıg, bıg food poısonıng the next day - maybe from observıng behavıor ın that bakery.The water seems to be fıne. I drınk ıt from our taps all the tıme and nothıng happens.
Trip to the grocery store blew my mınd. We were gıven these pre-prınted forms to fıll out so we could get a savıngs card. there were 5 or 6 salary brackets and ı was ın the hıghest! Not used to that.
It seemed lıke 20 dollars got me pretty much what I would expect to get ın Chapel Hill.
I love you boy and I am mıssıng you whıle you are away from me. Cant waıt to see you...
Her next email suggested that "conservative Muslim Kayseri" might not be as strict and culturally isolating as we might imagine:
Aaargh. I'm sıttıng ın thıs Internet Cafe and that song, "What Is Love?" from "Nıght at the Roxbury" starts playıng - the one where Wıll Ferrell and Chrıs Kattan do that funny thıng wıth theır heads. Tell Alexy Im thinkıng of him and laughing and missıng you guys as I listen to the song!!
Our stereotypes were about to be challenged.
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