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Christmas in Turkey – Expat Style!

After an amazing blowout Christmas where the whole family was together last year, this year I felt a little lonely and out of the Christmas spirit.  So, throughout the month of December, I did little things to mimic our family traditions as best as I could with limited resources and people in a non-Christmas country.

I spent an afternoon decorating my house, baking chocolate chip cookies, and listening to Christmas music via the (it also has a collection of Paul Harvey stories).

I started collecting Christmas decorations when I lived in a cold, modern apartment in Bahrain, another Muslim country, and it’s grown over the years.  Unfortunately, although I have a couple of small, decorative trees, I don’t have anything sized like I think “the tree” should be.  Even after I gave up the hope of finding a live tree in Ankara, I couldn’t even find a decent fake one this year and settled for a sad Charlie Brown “living room pine” that unfortunately was too weak to hold much in the way of ornamentation.  So to use the rest of the ornaments, I hung some kitchen twine on the dining room wall and tied a bunch of strings to it.  Now I realize that it would have been a lot more festive with colored ribbon, but I enjoy seeing the ornaments anyhow, and the wall looks so much better than it did empty.

Cookie baking wasn’t successful.  I’m still getting to know my oven, which reads temperature in Celsius.  In between each 50 degrees are 3 hashmarks, making choosing a temperature all the more challenging: 400 F is 204 C, so I turn the knob to slightly over the “2” and hope for the best.  I also discovered that American sized cookie sheets don’t fit into my European sized oven, and thereby learned forever more to check a pan or sheet for oven clearance before I load it with food!  I only have one rack in my oven – the other levels are basically pans that fit into the shelf tracks.  I used the couple half-sheets that I have, as well as a silpat liner right on the rack, which resulted in different types of cookies from each oven level.  Some cookies were so burnt that they went right into the trash, and others were so undercooked that they stayed in the oven almost twice as long.  In the end, I had about half as many cookies as the recipe intended.  I brought most of the good ones to share with my classmates.

This month I also joined an international women’s choir.  They mostly sing Turkish folk songs, so I thought it would be another way to learn the language and get to know the culture.  In December the choir had a couple of performances scheduled, though, so we added in some Christmas carols.  I can’t really sing, but nobody seems to care.  There’s a rumor that we might be on TV next month – I’ll definitely let you know how that goes!

I spent most of Christmas Eve practicing a presentation I had to give in class on Tuesday night, but I did take breaks to watch my two favorite Christmas movies: White Christmas and A Christmas Story, and to get a little religious.  Since my family always goes to Midnight Mass together, I came as close to this tradition as possible by attending the only Christmas Eve mass in Ankara at the Vatican Embassy’s chapel, which is right in my neighborhood.   This was a true expat celebration.  Starting with the carols before mass, everything was multilingual.  Although I couldn’t keep up with the Latin, French, and Tagalog verses of O Come All Ye Faithful, I joined the choir in the final verse for a strong English finish.  Everybody prayed the Our Father aloud in his or her native tongue; and each reading was in a different language.  Even for a Chreaster like me, the great thing about Catholic mass is that regardless of the language, the program and even the cadences are the same all over the world, so even if you don’t know what’s being said you have a pretty good idea of what’s going on – when you’re homesick it can be very comforting.  My favorite part of the mass was the offering procession: accompanied by an energetic, uplifting Kenyan song, the procession danced down to the altar instead of the normal grave advance.

On Christmas Day, I went to a friend’s home for a traditional Danish Christmas lunch with some Turks and a Mexican.  We all shared a few of our country’s holiday traditions, and although I’ve mastered Merry Christmas in Spanish (Feliz Navidad) and Turkish (Mutlu Noel), even one day later I can’t remember how to say it in Danish.  Some of the spread: chicken liver pate with bacon (a rare treat here) on top, traditional Danish rye bread, pork salami, pickled asparagus on smoked salmon, broccoli salad and a cabbage noodle dish.  After lunch, we played a Christmas gift game where you throw dice and keep stealing each other’s presents – kind of like the Yankee Swap but a little less fair.  I managed to hold on to one gift at the end – it’s a Danish Christmas craft kit.  Luckily there are pictures on the package to go along with the instructions in Danish.

For me, the biggest part of December 25th had nothing to do with Christmas at all.  I had to give a presentation in Turkish to my classmates on Masculinity and Power in two ancient books: Nizamülmülk’s Siyasetname (Political Treatises) and Narayan’s Hitopadeşa (I just realized that I never learned what that title means in English).  I think drinking a few glasses of wine at the Danish lunch put me in the right spirit to give the presentation, and then when a classmate who read my blog entry about milk gave me a tetra-pak of Turkish UHT milk as a Christmas present, I was so happy that I wasn’t nervous anymore.  Although I tripped over a few words, the presentation went a lot better than I thought it would.  I think my professor’s and classmates’ expectations are low, however, as I got a lot of applause and very few questions.  With the exception of robotically looking up from my script occasionally, I basically just read the class a ten-page paper.  Hopefully in the upcoming semester I’ll be a little more nuanced with my presentations.

On the way home from class, I saw a lot of New Year’s Trees standing proud in apartment windows, which I equated with my family’s post-mass Christmas-light viewing drive.  I was so happy to get home and start what turned into a marathon skyping session with my family – by the time I talked to everybody it was nearly 5 a.m.  Since this year we’re all over the world, however, it was worth it!

It’s starting to look a lot like … New Year’s?

If I didn’t know better, I would think that Turkey, an almost entirely Muslim country, was celebrating Christmas.  All the malls and shopping centers in Ankara are decorated like this:Image

Even though that’s Santa Claus, here in Turkey we’re actually celebrating New Year’s.  In the last week I’ve been to several New Year parties with predominantly red and green stuff everywhere.  We even sang Christmas carols at one, and got gifts from under the tree at another.  It takes an hour to find a parking spot at the mall, and every shop is offering holiday sales and pre-wrapped items.  On New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day, everybody gathers around the tree and opens presents.  Usually there are parties and family celebrations.Image

So what’s this all about? A Turkish friend told me that Turks love to decorate, so in order to have the tree and the lights they just adopted the non-religious aspects of the Western Christmas traditions and then Turkified it by doing it all in the name of a Happy New Year.

I think some people love to decorate, and some people just love to party.  Either way, it works for me!

this store is on a street with so many lights that I think it's brighter at night than during the day.

this store is on a street with so many lights that I think it’s brighter at night than during the day.

Istanbul at Night and Through the Fish-Eye

The sites along the Golden Horn

The sites along the Golden Horn

My sister and friends managed a layover in Istanbul on their way home from India so I met them there for the weekend.  For whatever reason I didn’t feel like schlepping around my real camera, so I thought it would be a fun weekend to play with some iPhone attachments lenses.  I got a macro, wide angle, and fish-eye lens, but the I think only the fish-eye is really worth carrying.  In other iPhone photography developments, since Google finally released a maps app, I upgraded my ios to the most recent one and finally got the panoramic setting for the iPhone’s camera.  It’s not as easy to use as you would think, but I did manage the shot above from the Galata Tower.


The square in the neighborhood where we stayed, looking down from the Galata Tower.

We stayed in the neighborhood of Beyoglu in another apartment I rented on  If you’re traveling and don’t want to spend a lot of money for a comfy place, check out this site!  I forgot to take pics of the apartment (oops) so here’s a quick description.  It had three really spacious bedrooms with wooden inlay ceilings.  The kitchen had a washer, which the India travelers were pretty thankful for, and a neat wavy brick inlay ceiling (I know, I really should have taken a few pictures).   The place was on the second floor in a building with tiled carpets in the public hallways.  I didn’t think you could drive on our windy cobblestone street, but sure enough every once in a while we had to skooch up against the walls to allow a car to pass.  We were right down the hill from the Galata Tower, down another hill from Istiklal Street (a huge mostly pedestrian entertainment strip) and smack in the middle of awesome shops, cafes, and restaurants.


Blue Mosque, from in front of Hagia Sofia

Since it was everybody else’s first trip to Istanbul, we did the standard tourist trek: Sultanhamet Square for Hagia Sofia, the Blue Mosque (which we walked by but didn’t enter), and Topkapi Palace.

And, of course, we walked through the Grand Bazaar, where everyone did an awesome job of bargaining!  Even though my visits to these spots are multiplying, on every return I find something else to marvel at.  This time, it was a really crooked column in Hagia Sofia – uh oh!!!


I recently linked to a NYT article about hamsi, or the special anchovies from the Black Sea.  I was pretty excited to try them, but it didn’t work out since my sis and her friends are vegetarian, and my friend’s fish restaurant where I planned to chow down had the following non-meat options: salad and bread.  It’s a small neighborhood place that mostly serves fish, so it wasn’t a big surprise.  Luckily since Turkey is so big on meze, or the small salads and appetizer plates that either start or comprise an entire meal, it was really easy to find food for everybody.  Personally, I never get tired of the eggplant dishes here, and no matter where I go there’s always a new-to-me variation served.  I’ll be back to my friend’s place in January before the hamsi go out of season – Turks really romanticize the glory of eating the anchovies and drinking the raki – I want to experience it firsthand.


Istanbul’s skyline from a terrace at Topkapi Palace. It never gets old!

Urfa, eastern Turkey: a food guide (From UK’s The Guardian)

Urfa, eastern Turkey: a food guide (From UK’s The Guardian)

I haven’t been to Urfa yet, but can’t wait.  This video is really just a slideshow and a little slow, but I got really hungry (and excited) watching it.

Hamsi (anchovies)

I’ve had hamsi a few times, but didn’t know the difference between those from the Black Sea and Marmara. I’m in Istanbul now (right between both seas) and will see what I can find. But doesn’t a road trip for anchovies sound awesome?

Chasing Anchovies on Turkey’s Black Sea Coast

Milk Expectations and Reality


A few examples of Turkish milk. Notice the picture of the goat on the corner of the far-left bottle – that’s really important!

The first time I was duped by Turkish milk, I blamed it on ignorance and my American upbringing.

When I poured this milk onto my cereal, I was surprised to see little white gel blobs plopping onto my Special K, followed by a mostly clear liquid.  “What is this stuff?” I asked myself.  I had just bought the milk that morning, and even checked the date, so I knew it was fresh.  Just to be sure, I checked the date again (they use the European/military style of date here, so 10/9/12 means 10 September, not 9 October).  Then I sniffed the bowl.  Besides the boxed cereal smell, there was nothing sour or rotten.  I tried stirring the cereal to some uniform consistency, but really couldn’t destroy or reshape the blobs.  I didn’t want to waste the bowl of cereal (they rarely have my faves at the commissary, and the Turkish version tastes like cardboard) so I dropped a spoonful of the weird looking gel/flake/water mixture into my mouth.  And then I spit it all out and threw away the milk carton – I didn’t know what was wrong, but I couldn’t keep eating it.

A veterinarian friend later told me that the milk was probably not homogenized, which is the process that keeps breaks down the milk fats so they remain suspended in the liquid for a uniform liquid consistency.  It’s also what allows for us to have all of our peculiar levels of fat in milk in America.  “Haven’t you seen old people shaking a gallon of milk before they pour it?” she asked me.  Before milk in America was always homogenized, you had to shake the milk bottle before pouring to get the palatable look.  Who knew?  I learned the Turkish word for homogenized (pretty easy, homojenize) and now look for it on the bottles, although it rarely shows up.  Annoyed at myself for throwing away a carton of good milk, I now routinely shake my milk too, no matter what the label states.

I did learn one brand that meets my American expectations – Günlük süt (which means daily milk) that is low-fat.  I think it’s the most popular brand, since its place on the shelf is frequently empty.  When it’s not available, I stare in bewilderment at the dairy aisle.  I’ve learned not to buy ayran, a salty yogurt/water drink that comes in bottles packaged deceptively like plain milk, or kefir, a fermented milk product similar to buttermilk.

On my last purchase, I wasn’t paying enough attention to the labels.  I bought a bottle of milk produced at the Ataturk Forest Farm, which is a farm and zoo right outside of Ankara.  I thought it was local and probably organic.  Once again I poured it on my cereal, and although it looked okay, there was an odd taste.  I did the date and smell checks again.  Although it definitely had a fresh scent, there was something a little off.  I tried another bite of the cereal, and once again couldn’t stomach the odd milk.  I thought it would be okay in coffee, since there clearly wasn’t anything wrong with the milk.  Even the coffee couldn’t overpower the slightly sour tinge though.

When I examined the bottle again, I saw the drawing of a goat, and read “keci,” which means goat, on the list of ingredients,.  I’m a compulsive reader, and will skip right over a cartoon to read the captions first – it’s no surprise I missed the obvious goat on the milk bottle.  So the weirdness could be attributed to goat milk, which I guess will do in a pinch, but tastes odd for an American raised on the cow stuff.

Having had to learn the lesson twice, I now know to read the labels of everything I buy in Turkey.

A harder pill to swallow is how easy life in America is, at least compared to most of the rest of the world.  Even 7-11 sells a variety of milks.  When a lactose-intolerant friend visited, we tried to find a dairy alternative, like soy or almond milk, with no success.  When I go abroad, although I usually drop expectations of American life, little things like this always remind me how lucky we are.

Hopefully the next food surprise will be pleasant.

Arguing is a way of life here.

Moving to a new place always requires adjustments.  No matter whether it’s a new neighborhood in your city, a new city in your state, a new state in your own country, or a different country altogether, there are simple systems that you’ve got to work out.  Thanks to the preponderance of national corporations and institutions, moving around America throughout the last 12 years has been pretty easy for me.  My biggest concerns are usually pretty trivial – where to get my hair cut, and where to buy fresh organic produce.   Most people would definitely consider these to be first world problems.

For everything else, in America getting something is as simple as visiting a website or making a phone call.  If I want to find out when a store is open, or how to order, I go to their website and get the information.  It’s that easy.  Most of the time, I can do it all via some app on my phone.

In Turkey, it’s not that easy.  Since my last post about paying the water bill, everything this week involved arguing.  When you don’t know how the system works, it’s much harder to navigate.  My brother in Hawaii just got his Internet turned on, and we were able to skype tonight (which was awesome!!!).  It reminded me of getting Internet activated at my current apartment in Ankara, which wasn’t hard, but required a whole lot of verbal fighting on my part.  First, I kept going to the wrong TurkSat branch offices (just like dealing with the banks).  I think each manager gets to decide which services they provide, or which customers they help.  Just like the banks, I finally found somebody to help me at Branch #3.  When they evaluated all of my documents, they determined that even though I had internet at my first apartment, it was illegally obtained, and they could not transfer it to my new location (this is due to my unique resident status as a NATO soldier in Turkey – that alone always requires at least an extra forty-five minutes).  As a stranger in a strange land, there is probably nothing more important than the internet.  Sure, I can go to a cafe and use the wifi, but reaching out to friends, family, and creditors in the comfort of your own home is key.   While typing this, I’m watching the Army-Navy game, chatting on facebook, researching a paper, and playing Scrabble with some guy in Minnesota.  Although feasible, simultaneously conducting all of these activities would be awkward at any cafe in Ankara.

At the TurkSat office, the clerk typed thousands of things into his computer program and determined that there was no legal way he could transfer my service (that I already paid for).  So I decided to go to Level 2 and raised my voice while threatening to cancel my account.  This would require a refund of the previously paid-for services, which I knew no one was about to give me (in my experience, refunds don’t happen in Turkey).  The guy asked his supervisor for help.  Then the supervisor had to call his supervisors, and so on, until finally, everybody agreed that I could indeed transfer my Internet service to my new address.   It’s amazing how this process always takes forty-five minutes and just about all of my patience.  Wow, thanks Turksat.

The following week, the techs showed up at my apartment and after a cursory look at my utility cabinet insisted that I had to get an electrician to pull the wire up to my floor, and then call them back to install the cable.  Luckily my neighbor happened to pop out of his door when they were trying to explain this to me, and came to my rescue by digging into my cabinet until he found the cable.  (Now I’m forever indebted, and paying off my indenture by constantly conversing with his son in English).  After the cable technicians were shown the cable, it took about 5 minutes to finish the job and provide me with cable and internet – yay!!!!

The good thing about having to argue with everything is that it improves your language skills.  The bad thing is that once you realize that only an argument will get you there, you’ve got to brace yourself for every transaction.  And you get really used to arguing.

Professionally, I used to accomplish a lot more by consensus building than by picking fights, but when I return to the naval community, who knows what I’ll do.  After six months of living in Turkey, I’ve probably become too accustomed to arguing on a regular basis.   Half the time, I don’t even realize it’s happening until I’ve been yelling for a few minutes.  Wow – how did that happen?

My most recent argument involves exercise.  Although I’ve occasionally gotten into running, I’ve never been a huge fitness nut.  But in order to enjoy all the Turkish food and keep anything like a figure, I’ve got to run.  Right across my street is this beautiful track in a Turkish Army housing area.


It’s pretty rare to see people running on the streets of Ankara.  Standby for a future post on driving in Turkey, but I’m pretty sure that it’s just as unsafe to run on the streets as it is to drive on them.

It seems that in Eastern Europe, and maybe all of Europe, working out in public is odd and unseemly.  As a friend in Romania described, running on the streets is akin to someone coming up to your cafe table and doing jumping jacks in front of you and all the other diners, nonstop.  So you have to go to a track, or a gym, to get your sweat on.

I thought since this place is across the street, and I’m military, it would be no problem to run there.  So I ran over there.  Even though you can go right up to all the housing units, the commissary, and the restaurant, two guards are posted at the track.  Closely resembling MWR employees in America (generally not the best and the brightest) they intervened when I tried just walking in.  I showed them my American and Turkish military cards but again was met with no success, no entry.  To run on this track, I need an “entry card.”  At least I think that’s what he said.  When I asked how to get one, he said to ask my Turkish boss.  Who else could I ask?  Well, I don’t know, he replies.  So I ask the other guy.  He has no idea either.  Then I try for the sympathy vote, and ask if they’ll let me on, just this one time.  Absolutely not…not without the mysterious but absolutely necessary “entry card.”  I kept asking, in as many different ways as I could think of, how to get a card, with pretty much the same answer – these guys really weren’t sure.   Now I know how it feels to be a civilian living near military bases in America.  I briefly considered hanging out at the entrance, and stalking people who do have access, to find out how to get my own.  Maybe another day – I couldn’t waste the mid-afternoon warmth.

When I finally gave up on the track, I ran over to the Presidential Complex and ran around it instead.  Once you cross the street, there are no stops, so it’s around 3.5 miles and hilly, making it a better workout than the track anyway.

The gray area is the presidential complex - easier to run than on regular, traffic-ridden streets.

The gray area is the presidential complex – easier to run than on regular, traffic-ridden streets.  The blue dot is where I live – no big deal.

I’m going to have to find some active duty Army friends to figure out how I can run on that track though – I don’t care about the fitness benefits anymore – now I just hate being told “No.”

Today the water company called to see if I was dead.

Today the water company called to see if I was dead.  They didn’t call me; they called my apartment building management.  After a year of unpaid bills, my apartment reached the company’s tolerance for giving free water.  Apparently they really don’t want to shut off the water, though, because they still make the last ditch effort to ensure that nobody needs it.

So when I walked into my building this afternoon, the security guard presented me with 6 months of water bills that my landlady had kindly dropped off, after they found my mailbox empty and guessed she probably had them.  She’s a little loopy – I’ve only lived in the apartment for three months!  Since I really value running water, however, I decided to just pay the bills, and then talk to her son, who is easier to deal with, and arrange to take it out of the rent.

Amazingly, 6 months of water for the apartment only added up to about $80.  The real cost was in time and patience wasted in trying to pay the bill.  On Turkish utility bills, a box at the bottom lists all the places where you can pay.

I had a tutor session this afternoon on one of the city’s busy streets, so I decided to start there.  At the first bank, Halkbank (Public Bank), after I took my number and waited 15 minutes for a teller, they told me I could only pay bills in the morning at this branch, before 11 a.m.   That’s nearly impossible for me, since I’m in class until 1 p.m.  I asked about other branches’ policies, but the teller said there was no way for her to know.

At Bank #2, Iş Bank (Business Bank), after repeating the number-taking and waiting process, I learned that that branch never takes bill payments.  I received a similar response at Bank #3, Akbank (possibly Pure Bank, but there are countless political meanings as well).  Luckily this teller was helpful, and said I could always pay my bill at the Post Office!

So while cursing the Turkish banking system and all of its branch fiefdoms, I walked further up the street to PTT, which is Turkey’s postal, telecom (kind of), and money transfer service.  I took another number, waited my turn, handed the cashier the bill, and then paid.  It was so easy!  So from now on, if it’s possible, I’m going to pay all bills at the post office – who knew!

Although this entire process took just over an hour and just about all of my fortitude, I’m glad for it.  Overcoming the simple challenges of daily life, like paying the water bill, while speaking a foreign language in a foreign country, is why I fought not to live in embassy housing, where they pay all of your bills for you.   It’s also a valuable part of the experience as an Olmsted Scholar.

A much-needed weekend in Ankara

Can you travel too much? Before I started the Olmsted experience, I would have responded with a definitive “No way!”  Now I’m not so sure.  Since arriving in Turkey I’ve been away from home (Ankara) more often than I’ve been in town.  I think was so excited by the travel trifecta of time, money, and friends to see that I went wherever I could as often as I could.

When somebody asked me where I liked to hang out in Ankara, my first thought was the airport.  I realized that instead of the desire to return that I feel about most places I visit, Ankara is a city that I truly enjoy leaving!  On Thanksgiving morning, however, when I woke up four hours after my plane took off, I realized that maybe I had gone overboard with all the travel.  After a string of international trips in August, I resolved to limit myself to one international trip a month, which I thought was still being very generous with myself.  But things came up, and I ended up doubling down on big trips each month.  So on Thanksgiving, mostly because I had some kind of flu, but also because I think the flu was probably aided by exhaustion, (I did get the flu shot), I cancelled my highly anticipated trip to Paris.   And then this weekend, when some friends missed their flight to Istanbul, I decided not to go as well.  I was almost relieved to spend a healthy weekend at home!

Since I’ve barely moved into my place, and haven’t had a normal weekend in Ankara, I decided this would be the weekend to do all those normal weekend things, and maybe get to know my city a little better.  So I organized, cleaned, worked out, read, and shopped.

Yesterday I had plans to go to an art exhibit and holiday bazaar, but I was a little late getting going, got lost, and then got stuck in hellacious traffic and missed everything.  In the process of driving all over the city trying to find the museum I did discover some new neighborhoods and pretty streets, so it wasn’t a total loss.  I also learned that driving through the city’s main drag on a Saturday afternoon is no quick feat.

Ayranci Market

Ayranci Market

Today I managed to find the farmer’s market, which is also an antiques (but really just used stuff) market once a month.  Since I’m still trying to get the place together, I didn’t buy any stuff, but enjoyed browsing the tables and furniture stands.  After a really hilarious transvestite lectured me on what produce to buy from what vendor I did manage to buy some groceries.

I also hit up the hardware store to buy a fake Christmas tree.  Unfortunately, although they had trees on display, they’re only to show lights and ornaments – you can’t actually buy a fake tree.  Apparently I could have if I had come in November, but they sold out, and nobody was sure if they were going to order more this year or not.  They absolutely would not sell me a display.  Although I left with a sad “living room pine” asking about all the possibilities was a great chance to practice my Turkish.

Finally I got home and decided to try and cook ayva, a Turkish fruit that I eventually learned is quince.  We bought some in Goreme when we thought we were going to miss breakfast.  It’s a good thing the innkeeper fed us early, because after biting into one fruit as if it was an apple I threw it out!  The first flavor that came to mind was crabapple, which we used to eat on dares as kids.  It’s not sweet, pretty sour, and really fibrous.  Since I still had two pieces left, I found a Turkish recipe for ayva tatlısı, or Quince Sweet/Quince Dessert.  Turkish food names are sometimes really lame.  Basically, you peel and core the quince, throw some spices and sugar in the hollow, put them in a pan with a little water, and cook them all day on very low heat.  I used a 100C oven, which I think is like 220F.  The transformation is really amazing – they go from nearly inedible yellow orbs to something like apple pie filling, but less sweet.  I ate mine with vanilla ice cream, but traditionally they’re served with kaymak, which is clotted cream from raw buffalo milk and frequently used as whipped cream in Turkey.

Hopefully I get similar results with the other unidentified vegetables that I bought today.

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