I have no idea what’s going on.

5 minutes ago I had just poured myself a cup of coffee and sat down with a contented sigh in the staff room, flipping open my laptop to get some much-needed Internet time (due to my horny estate agent being a disorganised twit – don’t even get me started).

How is it, I find myself wondering, that I am now perched on a step on the dirty floor of a minibus hurtling along dusty back roads,  possibly to the theatre (if the Turkish word for theatre happens to be similar to the English one) with a bus driver whose general beauty does not make up for the speed at which he’s driving, and 20 unseatbelted children dancing most enthusiastically to the loud music he’s playing?

 Welcome to my life in Turkey.

That journey of growth and character-building I found myself on in Korea was clearly a series of training exercises to prepare me for working in a Turkish school. It is, in a word, chaotic. “Mental” would be another word I find myself reaching for on occasion.

There is none of the awed reverence for foreigners here. Gone is my celebrity status as the white girl in the quiet little neighbourhood in Daejeon. Gone is the elevated status I enjoyed as a native English speaker in my school, which made me one of the most important people there. Gone is my ability to shrug helplessly and expect my director to help me out with the day-to-day challenges of life in a foreign country.

 The attitude here presents a much harsher reality. Do your job, figure things out fast, and learn the language immediately. Which is fair enough, you know. Why should I be coddled just because I have no idea what I’m doing? You move to a different country, you learn the language, and you work out how things are done, or you get out. Korea was just a special case, I think. There were still difficulties to overcome, of course, but for the most part I was taken care of. It was a gentle introduction to ex-pat life.

 I could not have done this if I hadn’t already lived elsewhere as a foreigner. It has been a very stressful month, and I’m still not entirely in control of things, but I’m enjoying the challenge and tying to freak out as little as possible. If I was the same person I was when I first left NI on my travels, I would have run home trembling long before now, too shy and nervous to cope. As it is, I’m having my moments of panic but mostly just keeping my head down, trying my best to work out what people are trying to tell me, shaking off sex-crazed men, and sitting on bus steps in varying states of bemusement, clinging on for dear life as I’m flung around, with no idea what’s going on or where I’m going.

On the plus side, I’m probably (read: hopefully) going to be able to speak Turkish a lot better than I was able to speak Korean!

Let’s (not) talk about sex, baby.

You know I mentioned my estate agent? I begin confidentially, as I set my lunch tray down next to a colleague’s in the school cafeteria. Friendly guy, very kind, very helpful. She nods, noting my flustered expression as I sit down.

He’s trying to sleep with you now, I suppose? is all she says.

That instinctive response pretty much sums up my experience of male-female relations since I’ve been here. I’ve never encountered anything like Turkish men in my life. As soon as they meet a foreign woman, they automatically try to have sex with her. I was rather flattered at first, not being someone who tends to get hit on a lot, but within just a few days I had already heard the same lines so many times that I knew they were meaningless.

These men, for some reason I have yet to establish, desperately want sex with a foreign woman. Any foreign woman. Looks unimportant, personality not required, no conversation necessary. I honestly believe I could have open, oozing sores on my face, a bad case of pinkeye, rotting teeth, and nothing to talk about but the colour of the wallpaper, and men would latch on to me as soon as they heard my exotic accent. Their goal is simple: sex with a foreign woman.

I have met one or two exceptions to this rule, and I am increasingly keen to build good friendships with them as I discover how unlikely that is to happen with the majority of Turkish men I meet. The majority have no desire to chat and be friends, as helpful and generous as they are – the conversation can only go so far before they swamp it in tired, meaningless lines. You have the most beautiful eyes I have ever seen. Your lips look so soft. You are very beautiful. Are all people from your country as nice as you? I want to spend all my time with you.

I’m learning to roll my eyes and make a polite escape at the first opportunity, because they really, really mean that last one. I went for dinner with the guy I met on my first day here, the one who approached me on the bridge and showed me to the fish boats. He was nothing but chivalrous, insisting on paying for everything we did, and showering me with compliments, and I was admittedly enjoying the attention. Within about 2 hours of meeting me, however, he was trying to hold my hand as if we were an established, smitten couple. TWO HOURS!

I agreed to see him again, but found myself suddenly besieged by messages from him in the meantime. What are you doing? Where are you? Why didn’t you reply earlier? Did you meet another guy? I don’t want to lose you. Lose me?! I wasn’t even sure I’d recognise him next time I saw him. Seriously unimpressed, I decided to keep my word about meeting him again, but cunningly invited him to join me at a Couchsurfers’ party in a crowded bar. I’m going there to meet people, I told him. He seemed to have no concept of this. I will go only to be with you, he said devotedly.

When he arrived, he pulled me aside to a table in a dark corner, where we sat in total silence, surrounded by chatting groups of people who would never approach us because we looked like a couple having a bad date. Every attempt I made at conversation was met with a nod or the briefest of brief replies. I don’t understand it, I exclaimed to a friend a few days later. They become obsessive and clingy, and yet when they’ve got you there they seem to have no desire to talk to you. It makes no sense!

Eventually, I made the excuse of going to the bar for another drink, and tried to get lost in the crowd, whereupon two of the lovely, rare, genuinely friendly guys I mentioned earlier asked me to join them. Upon seeing me having a light-hearted conversation with them, Saygin slammed his drink down on the bar and stormed out without a word. It was like a whole relationship, marriage, and divorce in the space of 72 hours, and I don’t think he even asked me a single thing about myself. Unbelievable – and totally the norm, from what I can tell.

I don’t know if it’s that Turkish women are less outgoing, or that foreign women have a reputation for being easy, or what. I am on a mission to discover the mentality of the men here. Gorgeous, dreamily handsome, attractive men whose eyes would make you melt if the effect wasn’t spoiled by the frivolous words that accompany them – and often shameless groping or other unnecessary physical contact. Why do they do it?! They must know they’re ruining their chances. They must realise that they could easily get a girl if they behaved more appropriately. I’ve heard more than one woman say that if the latest guy had just chatted with her and asked her out on a date, she would have said yes. If he’d just been… you know, normal. A nice, friendly guy showing a sane amount of interest in a woman. I had one man follow me for about an hour without ever approaching me, and another one refusing to leave me alone as I walked down the street, despite the fact that we didn’t speak a word of each other’s language.

And now my estate agent is trying to seduce me. It is mental, I’m telling you. The thing is, I do like him, I confide to my colleague. He’s very reliable and generous, and I actually enjoy talking to him despite the monotony of constantly steering the conversation away from sex. He’s likable, in a cheeky charmer sort of way. But…

But if you try to be friends with him, he’ll see it as a challenge to bed you? laughs my colleague.

I stretch out my hands, exasperated. It’s ridiculous! I thought he was a safe bet because he’s married. But nooooo…. as soon as the wife’s out of sight…

I used to be envious of the slim, beautiful, glamorous, confident girls who complain about wolf-whistling and constant flirting. That’s not something I’ve ever had to deal with, and I always wistfully thought it must be nice to have such incessant male attention. Well, to any wallflower like me who feels the way I did, I say this: move to Turkey and I give you a week before you change your mind. It’s exhausting, and extremely annoying once the novelty wears off and you’d just love to have a decent conversation with a man.

I have set myself a rule. I will refuse to meet up with any Turkish man unless he can tell me at least 5 things he knows about me (other than the ridiculous, empty, recycled chat-up lines, of course…. yeah, sure, my eyes are beautiful, but what colour are they, huh, and what’s my favourite TV show at the moment?!).

Apart from the estate agent, because I actually need him. I do have fly swatters that I use for flashcard games with the kids, though. Might take one home with me.

Turkishly Delightful

Searching for a flat in Istanbul, as a foreigner who knows neither the city or the language, is like reading through a telephone directory in the hope of finding a person whose surname you’ve forgotten.

Most places are unfurnished, for a start. Shelling out a fortune for a load of crappy, mismatched, secondhand furniture is not an appealing option for someone who never tends to stay in one place for long enough to make it a worthwhile investment – and it’s a whole load of hassle and stress when you’re a newbie foreigner, too. Not only that, but by far the most common option for foreigners is to share a flat in order to pay dirt-cheap rent, so practically all the English ads are of the “roommate wanted” variety, and I seriously wouldn’t ever go there again after my previous experiences of cohabitation (with the exception of my sister, but really, how likely is it that I’d end up sharing with someone genetically programmed to be my ideal roommate?). No, I’ve known for years now that I am not a flat-sharing kind of girl. I can CouchSurf, I can have guests, and I can cheerfully fall asleep in my best friend’s bed after a night of high-spirited partying makes going home seem far too difficult, but I need to have a place to call my own, where I can be completely on my own whenever I need to be. I’ll accept that I have to pay double the rent for that.

Which is why I’ve spent the past week or two tearing my hair out as I realised that only pure chance would ever lead me to such a place in Istanbul. Happily enough, that chance occurred yesterday, when I responded to an email from an unknown stranger, offering to show me an apartment that was “wonderful child-friendly” and “all of the modern furnices for the women”. Eh? I ignored the majority of the email, and ended up dubiously meeting an independent estate agent named Kermal. My doubts vanished after about 5 minutes in his company.

Ah, these Turkish men.

Kermal was a good 20 years older than me, no longer meltingly dreamy, but still Turkishly delightful, and ridiculously charming, as all good salesmen should be. He showed me around a few areas near to my work, chatting away all the while and keeping me entertained. He took me to meet his non-English-speaking wife, who hastened to provide a traditional meal for me and is now sending me sweet Google-translated messages asking me when I can come over for my first Turkish lesson, which is to include a tutorial on how to make the perfect cup of Turkish coffee. Then he took me for a walk on the nearest beach, and his son let me fly his model plane. I never thought flat hunting could be so much fun!

After seeing a few flats, which I turned down (too big… too small… too old… too expensive…), he declared that he now knew exactly what I wanted, and that when I saw it I would say instantly, “Kermal, I want this one, please, and immediately!””. Grinning but somewhat resigned to the belief that I was going to have to share in order to afford something that I liked, I went along to a residence with him.

Residences seem to be quite the thing here. They’re like hotels, really, only with apartments instead of rooms behind all the doors. You enter a fancy lobby with a reception desk and a security guard, and you have to get clearance or swipe your key card to get through to the lifts. Residents of the building have access to loads of facilities, such as a swimming pool, sauna, gym, and a residents’ ‘social area’ involving a cafe/restaurant/bar, regular live music, and room service if you can’t be bothered cooking or stepping into the lift and going up a few floors for your dinner.

We stepped inside the vacant, fully-furnished (from the washing machine and dishwasher (yesssss!) down to the cutlery and cleaning products) flat, and I walked to the far end of it and then looked back.

“Kermal, I want this one, please, and immediately!” I said meekly.

A few hours later, I had the keys. For me, it’s worth an estate agent’s commission fee to have someone take care of all the stress for you. Throughout negotiations with the landlord and any issues with the building management, I just had to idly sit there looking out of the window and planning my early morning pre-work swims, the stream of indecipherable Turkish flying smoothly over my head as the agent dealt with everything that would otherwise have baffled, frustrated, and stressed me. I am looking around approximately every 20 seconds in glee. It’s small, but it’s bigger than my previous flats, and infinitely more cheerful and modern than the dump I was living in in Prague. I actually want to make friends with random strangers in my neighbourhood just so I can invite them round for dinner and drinks, as opposed to being terrified one of my colleagues would knock at my door and see the hovel I called home.

Kermal and his wife seem to want to be my big brother and sister, so even when the confusions of dealing with practical issues come up, all I have to do is call him and pass the phone to the security guard or the landlord or the maintenance man. In order to grasp exactly how incredibly liberating that thought is, you might have to have lived as an expat in a country where you don’t speak the language, but I assure you it’s a wonderful feeling!

So: new city, new job, new home. Now to start seeing what life’s like in this part of the world, eh?

What’s happening?!

One of my new colleagues smiled at me as I sank down next to her on the bus at 5pm, possibly looking about half as shattered and shell-shocked as I felt. First day teaching Turkish kids… so, how badly do you want to drink right now?

I wondered if she meant on a scale of 1 to Lindsay Lohan.

I started my new job on Friday, with the briefest of perfunctory orientations (here are the books, there are the classrooms), and started teaching my new charges today.

On the plus side, I am now much closer to what I actually want to be doing than I was in Prague. I’m a full-time member of staff at a proper school, rather than a travelling mouth who drops into a dozen different schools once a week to sing nursery rhymes. I’m the English teacher for half of the first grade: three classes of 6-year-olds I’ll be seeing every day. I have much more authority over what and how I teach. It’s definitely a step in the right direction!

However, no amount of warning from friends who’ve taught Turkish children could have prepared me for my first class. I think I’m still in a state of shock now, although things did improve throughout the day as I adjusted my tactics and reassessed everything I ever believed about classroom management skills being 60% of the job. Here, it’s more like 90%, and the next few weeks are going to be an exhausting maze of reward systems, naughty chairs, sad face vs. smiley face charts, all to the backing track of “1, 2, 3, eyes on me – 1, 2, eyes on you!”. My head hurts. But not as much as my throat.

Of course, that’s all exacerbated by the usual “I have no idea what’s going on around me” chaos that goes hand-in-hand with relocating to an unfamiliar country. There was nothing particularly unusual or remarkable about my life in the Czech Republic, other than the Happy Chef punching the occasional hole in a door. Adjusting to Turkey has therefore been a series of alarming flashbacks to my first few months in Korea. Going to work is like spending my day in one of those haunted houses where something will jump out at you around every corner. Even though you’re prepared for it after the first couple of times, you have no idea what’s coming next, and it still makes you jump and go “what the hell was THAT?!”. I really think that if this was my first experience of living abroad, I would be requiring medical attention by now.

I was actually feeling rather accomplished by the time I started my third class of the day and noted that not only were 20 out of 23 children sitting on their chairs, but 16 of them actually had their books open at the right page, and only one child was crawling around under the desks. Absolutely none of them were climbing up the bookshelves, curtains, or doorframe.

Suddenly, the door was flung open and a woman came in with a stack of chef hats made out of paper, with the school’s logo on them. She proceeded to go around my class plonking one on each child’s head, babbling away in loud and excited Turkish. Bedlam ensued once again, and I looked on in dismay, all my hard work undone. I made eye contact with the stranger who had interrupted my class in this most perplexing manner, and pointed at the timetable in confusion. Am I here at the wrong time?

Do you speak Turkish? she asked, and then shrugged in a “well, then I can’t explain” way when I shook my head. Next thing I knew, the principal appeared and proceeded to march my students out of the room, leaving me standing there in utter bewilderment, the farmyard animal flashcards still in my hands.

I stuck my head out into the corridor, and glimpsed a colleague. What’s happening? I asked helplessly, and he rolled his eyes, unconcerned, in the manner of one who has seen it all before. I’ve no idea. Something about the kitchen. I’m going out for a smoke. 

I floated around in the empty corridor for a while, and then ventured up to the school dining hall, which I found after 10 minutes of getting horribly lost in a different wing of the school. Sitting at the long rows of tables were all of the first and second grade, wearing their paper chef hats and making an unholy racket as various teachers tried to quieten them down, at which point the music teacher appeared with his guitar, looking very important and proud and excited, and led them all in singing a song that I didn’t understand. When it came to the chorus (which to my ears sounded like an excited, rousing chant of “ya, ya, ya!”), in leapt a well-groomed, somewhat flamboyant middle-aged lady, singing along and jumping around exuberantly while the adults snapped photos and thrust bouquets at her, and the kids cheered and sang and clapped.

I sidled up to a Turkish-speaking colleague in utter bemusement. What’s happening? I asked cluelessly, again, for about the millionth time since my arrival in Istanbul.

It turned out that my students had been taken out of class and dressed up as chefs in order to have a cooking lesson from a famous TV personality who presents a cookery show every morning on Turkish national television. I think the song they sang must be her theme tune.

Little Chefs

Little Chefs

Rolling pastry with the rich and famous

Rolling pastry with the rich and famous

Of course it's easy when you can speak the same language!

Of course it’s easy when you can speak the same language!

And no, I have no idea whatsoever how or why she came to be in our school cafeteria, producing baked goods, in the middle of my English class.

So, that was my Monday. How was yours?!

Gaahhhhhgrrrrrnnnnghhhh!!! Or, “How I feel about bureaucracy: an illustrative tale.”

I have despaired on many occasions about the frustrating, maddening  process that is dealing with all the red tape bullshit when moving to a foreign country. I almost gave up before I even left for Korea, so irritated was I by the mystery shrouding the exact nature of the documents required for my visa. In the Czech Republic, the process of gathering all the necessary documentation lasted for weeks – sometimes involving me waiting in one building for hours on end, for something that ended up taking no more than a couple of minutes once my number was actually called.

Never have I experienced anything like today though. My main gripe with bureaucracy is all the unnecessary faffing around. I become more and more frustrated when no one ever seems to be able to tell me exactly what is required of me – and really, that’s all I want. I’ll pay what needs to be paid, I’ll go where I need to go, I’ll get the forms I need to get, and I’ll apply for all the permits I need to apply for. But surely if they are so strict about what they need from me, they should at least be fecking prepared to fecking tell me what they fecking need from me?! As I said in my annoyed pre-Korea post:

If someone would just tell me, “you need document X, which you can get from Y by sending a cheque for Z to this address”, that would be fine. It would be wonderful. But no. I am floundering around knee-deep in bureaucracy, and I still have no idea what I’m looking for.

Thus, today.

In order to be able to use my foreign phone in Turkey, I have to ‘register’ it with the government. I think this is because phones are really expensive here, so they want to discourage foreigners from bringing their cheaper phones from abroad. They do this by (a) demanding that we pay a registration fee of 115 lira (about 30 GBP) within a month of our arrival, or else our phones will be locked, never again to be used in Turkey, and then  (b) making it so utterly fecking impossible to get all the paperwork necessary for making said payment that we will just crumple in self-loathing despair and defeat, and buy an expensive Turkish phone after all.

I knew before I set out that it was going to be a nightmare, from reading about other people’s experiences, and from being completely unable to find any official instructions whatsoever. Apparently the rules change often in this country; a little quirk which I may one day see as endearing, but which today put me as close  as I have ever been to “murderous” on the anger scale.

I set out to the tax office mentioned by several expats in their blog posts about this wild goose chase of an experience. I found it easily enough, and showed my phone and my passport to the girl at the desk, who looked at me like I had two heads. Like the reliable Boy Scout, I was prepared for such an event, and had written down the Turkish phrase for what I needed – which, when shown to the girl, was then passed all around the office, garnering an impresssive collection of shrugs and blank looks. This is not where you do this, said the girl, as if I must be completely insane to have thought such a thing (despite the fact that it was where many foreigners before me had successfully done so, before the rules were evidently changed once more). You need to go to İş Bank.

I left, somewhat uncertainly as I was pretty sure that I needed some sort of paperwork from the tax office before I could make a payment to the bank, but deciding to let optimism reign. Sure wasn’t it a nice sunny day and wasn’t I getting in a lot of lovely walking around Istanbul? I found an İş Bank and presented my phone-waving self at a counter. We can do this, said the bank girl. Hurrah! Do you have your passport? Check! Do you have your IMEI number? Check! Do you have residence permit? No, it takes weeks and I only just – Do you have your foreign identity  number? Errrr…

Some time and confusion later, with many helpful suggestions and much added confusion from various bank staff members, I left clutching a piece of paper on which there was scribbled a bunch of illegible Turkish words and an address for a civil registration office. I wandered around in a clueless search for a taxi, as I had no idea how to get there, but it turned out that the taxi driver I asked had no idea either. He did, however, direct me to a bus for the general area. A helpful man at the bus stop saw me squinting hopelessly at the list of buses, and ushered me on to the right one – bless him, he then beckoned to me when we reached the right stop, got out with me, and accompanied me down a maze of streets before pointing me in the right direction along a long, straight road and telling me to walk for about 10 minutes. Thank you! I said earnestly and confusedly in three languages before finally remembering the Turkish word.

I thought he said 10 minutes, but it was nearly an hour later when I stumbled up to a police station on that long, empty road, wandered around helplessly in the maze of corridors, and finally asked a policeman if this was where I was meant to be. He looked at my paper and said I was almost there – another hundred metres down the road, says he.

There is clearly a serious problem with judging distance here, but anyway, half an hour later I reached the elusive civil registry office, spent another half hour bumbling around in the empty corridors, and then reached the room I was apparently supposed to be in. No one here spoke any English, and my current small bank of Turkish vocab simply wasn’t going to cut it. The girl at the desk phoned her friend to translate, and passed me the phone. She say you cannot get the foreign identity number until you have document from police saying you are in Turkey, said the cheery voice on the other end.

But I’m sitting right here, she can see me! I groaned in disbelief, and he laughed. It’s OK – there is police station very near you now… you go there and get document, then you bring back. 

For feck sake!!! Back to the police station I trudged. By now I was fecking starving, and my feet were killing me, and I had basically spent the entire day thus far going from one location to the next and accumulating scraps of paper containing directions to yet another place, like some kind of confused and increasingly miserable Anneka Rice. I was absolutely no further forward than I had been when I left the flat, and was instead moving backwards along the necessary chain of events in order to discover where the start might be.

wild goose chase

I finally got back to the police station and spent a good 15 minutes trying to find out where one might go to obtain a document to prove one’s existence. I dare you to try to convey that without the existence of a shared language. I finally ended up being given a form by an uninterested officer who was clearly winding down for the day and didn’t want to do any more work.

I looked at the form.

It was all in Turkish.

A kind stranger, perhaps seeing the life seeping out of me, offered to help me fill in my form when he was finished with his. Before he left, he told me to give it back to the police officer, with my passport, and I would then be given the mysterious, unknown piece of paper I possibly wanted.

The police officer, sadly, berated me in Turkish. It took me a few minutes of confused questions in extremely broken Turkish, but I finally worked out that she need a photocopy of my passport. Even though I had my passport in my hand. And she was standing right next to a photocopier. What. The actual. Feck.

Casting my mind back over the long and empty road I had walked to reach this place, I knew there was no way I would find a photocopying place and be back before the office closed. Tomorrow, she kept saying impatiently, the only word I could pick out in the otherwise impossible torrent of words, putting on her coat and waving me away.

I turned and left, my fists clenched, and tears of utter frustration sliding down my cheeks. A man outside looked distressed and tried to help me, but I was through with humanity by that stage, and my anger and frustration and tiredness were multiplied by gnawing hunger and the realisation that I had no idea how to get back to an area I recognised. And as my phone won’t fecking work, I no longer have the luxury of search engines and Google Maps when I’m lost.

Gahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.

I am no further forward. I need to get a passport photocopy and take it to the police station, to get a paper to take to the registry office, to get a number to take to the bank, to make a payment to get a certificate, to take to the phone shop to register my phone…

Nope. It is not worth it. I shall have to go back to life without a smartphone.

It will be like a daring recreation of prehistoric life.

Asia and friends and food, oh my!

After a week of exploring the city by myself, I was happy to welcome home one of the two friends whose flat I’ve been staying in. Yay, company! With a couple of her friends, we took off to the Asian side of the city for the day, which was quite a novelty to me.

Istanbul is divided by the Bosphorus strait (connecting the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara), which forms part of the continental border and therefore puts some of the city  in Europe and the rest in Asia. You can hop continents quickly and easily, and the view as you cross the water is spectacular. I wasn’t able to take any photos as I was clinging on for dear life on the metrobus while wedged under someone’s armpit at the time, but maybe I’ll get some next time, when I intend to take a leisurely ferry ride across instead.

There’s not really anything ‘touristy’ to see on the Asian side, but that’s kind of what I liked most about it. The place is a maze of narrow cobbled streets, interesting shops, cool bars, and unique cafes, and full of local people taking life at a more laid-back pace than over on the generally chaotic European side. We wandered for a while, pottered around a few shops, went to a few bars, and returned to Europe for dinner and some mild poisoning and asphyxiation by tear gas (apparently there was a wee bit of rioting just before we got back).

I have so much I could write about, but I’m choosing – quelle surprise! – the food. As suspected, having more experienced Istanbul residents with me opened up my options quite considerably! We had an absolutely delicious Turkish breakfast in a quaint little cafe in Kadıköy (Asia) and a tasty and filling dinner in the riot police-filled Taksim Square (Europe). I have now experienced much more than kebabs. Hurrah!

Breakfast involved ordering several dishes and sharing them, so I got to try loads of different delicacies. There was a basket full of soft, fresh bread, a delicious scrambled egg mixture involving peppers and tomatoes, a pan of fried eggs over a minced beef concoction, lots of tiny dishes of olives, cucumbers, tomatoes, cheeses, and so on, and a few olive-based pastes that tasted absolutely divine with the bread. Beats a bowl of cornflakes if you ask me!

Later, as we started making our way back to the European side for dinner, we stopped at a street vendor’s cart to stave off the cold and hunger pangs, and each got a paper cup filled with hot, buttery, salty sweetcorn, which we ate with plastic spoons as we walked. So simple, but seriously satisfying… and costing next to nothing, too.

Back in Taksim, we escaped the aftermath of the riots – with much choking and sneezing – by piling into a warm, richly scented restaurant. I ordered a bowl of thick, comforting lentil soup, and some pide – a long piece of flat bread which can be eaten with any variety of toppings, kind of like a pizza.

pide

Each choice had been recommended to me by a different person, and both were delicious. I washed them down with a large, frothy cup of ayran, which the Turks seem to drink with everything. It’s a bitter-tasting yoghurt drink (but with the consistency of milk) mixed – somewhat bizarrely – with salt. I won’t start proclaiming my love for it any time soon, but it was nice to have a meal that was traditional right down to the drink, and I finished my cup. Odd to my taste buds, but not unpleasant.

ayran and soup

ayran

My first week in Istanbul has slowly wound down, and despite my uncertainty about what the next few weeks have in store, I know without a shadow of doubt that I absolutely made the right decision when I decided to quit my job and leave Prague. Life is too short to spend it counting down the days. There are friendships to be formed, places to explore, other jobs to apply for, foods to be tasted, drinks to be tried, sights to be dazzled by, streets to be wandered, and adventures to be had. What a waste to put it all off because you made a wrong choice and feel obliged to see it through!

image-5

Just… wheesht, will ye?!

Kebabs and Turkish Delight. That was all I knew about Turkish food before I came here.

To be perfectly honest, I don’t know a whole lot more now, because I have been a bit shy about trying new foods so far. This is not really like me. As you may recall, I am the one who will try the spiciest stews, the most mysterious parcels of pastry, the most unappetising-looking concoctions, and the still-writhing octopus tentacles clinging to the ends of the chopsticks.

It’s not a lack of desire to try the food that is holding me back. It’s the feeling of being completely overwhelmed by the eagerness of the restaurant staff and street food vendors to entice me to choose their establishment.

Much as I truly am loving the friendliness here, I really don’t cope well with being watched. In Korea, I hated having to go into a shop other than a supermarket, because the assistants there would instantly begin following me. They’re trying to be helpful, of course, and their attentiveness seems to be appreciated by the local people, but as soon as I felt them hovering behind me and knew they were staring at me, I became so flustered and self-conscious that I couldn’t think straight, much less contemplate the wares.  I wanted to politely ask them to leave me alone and tell them I would ask if I needed help, but was always too scared of causing offence.

Thankfully, this rarely happened in restaurants. I was allowed to stop at a street vendor’s stall and peer curiously into the pots, and squint at the menu in silence as I tried to figure out what everything might be. If the vendor did try to banter me into buying, I’d smile nervously and scuttle away. If they left me alone, I’d generally work through the options and then stay to eat.

I think it’s an introvert thing. It’s not just that the banter and hollering and “you try, you try!” makes me uncomfortable; it’s that it drowns out the quiet mindset I need to be able to process new information and work things out in my head. I can’t even read/pronounce half the stuff on menus here, much less identify them or know what they are. I just want a couple of minutes to stand there in silence, possibly looking at pictures and matching them to food names, maybe even googling something on my phone before I choose. Hey, food’s important, don’t judge me!

It’s practically impossible here, though. I suppose the people in the food industry feel the pressure to draw in customers, given that every street in even the more residential areas is lined with food options. Every single one, from large, fancy, tourist-trap restaurants to plain old food carts and hole-in-the-wall fast food hatches, has someone employed to linger around the entrance shouting at passers-by. The second they see you slowing your walk to glance at the menu, they pounce. Perhaps a more confident person would engage them in conversation (and indeed, I do think that’s probably what I’ll have to do if I actually want to eat while I’m here!), but I just shrug helplessly, shake my head nervously, and scurry on to the next one. And repeat.

It’s very frustrating when you’re hungry and dying to try some amazing, unfamiliar foreign food. I paused at one today which had nobody outside it, and had the luxury of about 30 seconds to look at the menu. Another minute or so and I would probably have gotten my bearings and entered the restaurant… but alas, someone inside saw me looking, and pointed me out to someone else, and suddenly I felt about half a dozen pairs of eyes on me, and knew I probably had a maximum of 5 seconds alone time left. I hastily walked off.

For this reason, I have so far stuck entirely to foods I already know, or ones bought from places selling only that one thing. Kebabs, fish sandwiches, simit (an ubiquitous sesame bagely-bread thingy), and more kebabs. This definitely has to stop, or I will be too heavy to walk by springtime.

doner

However, I will just add that finding oneself temporarily restricted to authentic Turkish doner kebabs and sandwiches made with fresh bread and fish caught about 10 seconds ago is really not all that dire, as tragedies go. I am surviving. Don’t you worry about me. ;)