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The Traveller Next Door: My Friend Carol - Expert on Turkey and Greece, (2)

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5. You also spent a significant amount of time in Turkey. Please tell us where and how did that come about?

The first time I visited Turkey was July of 1978. My travel companions were two gay friends, one from Jordan and one from Britain. We took various buses to Jordan from Athens and stopped in Turkey and Syria on the way. What a trip! It was the year "Midnight Express" came out, a movie that didn't show Turkey in a favourable light at all, and Turkey did not seem the most desirable country to go to.

I knew nothing of Turkey, and imagined a country of "swarthy mustached barbarians", the typical stereotype. How wrong I was!

Back in Canada I eventually became a highschool math teacher. After 4 years I had enough and quit. I wanted to work in Greece for a year, but there was a problem with work permits. A friend phoned me in March of 1989 and told me he saw an ad in the Globe and Mail for English and Math teachers in Istanbul. I applied because I figured it was close to Greece. I was hired and off I went to Istanbul with 13 other Canadians to work in a private high school. Little did I know that it was in the far suburbs of Istanbul.

We were given apartments by the sea, with a view of the Princes' Islands. But we were isolated, no TV, no telephone, no English newspapers in our suburb. Work was difficult: 38 students in each of our 6 classes. And nothing to do at night.

I almost came home in March of 1990. But I started to be enamored with Istanbul during that summer and decided to come back and work in the center of the city. After one year back in Canada I did just that and stayed until December of 1998.

6. What was it like living and working in Turkey?

Living in Turkey was hard at first because of the language barrier. It became easier once we found our way around and learned some Turkish. I discovered many of the teenagers did speak English. And then it became very easy, because the Turks were so helpful. I never worried about finding my way. If I asked there was always a Turk to show me or take me where I wanted to go. Even when I didn't ask and looked lost. Turks really like foreigners. My neighbour sometimes looked at me as if I were from outer space. But my last neighbours were the best I ever had, so generous and kind.

Because I couldn't afford expensive apartments I lived many times without central heat. I wasn't used to being so cold in the winter. Now though many apartments have gas heating. Also in 1993, there was a water shortage for 400 days! More than a year! Our water was shut off most of the time, except every second evening and morning, and was never on during the weekend. We had to save water in containers. I had a lot of watermelon, hot dogs and pizza.

Electricity cuts were also quite common. One day we went for 3 days straight without any electricity. All the food in the freezers got spoiled.

A lot of things didn't work right, but a lot things did. It was easy to get anything fixed, for example. There were repair shops everywhere since the poor couldn't afford to buy new things.

Istanbul had a few malls, and lots of stores, but I bought many things from the vendors on the streets, trains and ferries. There was action everywhere. There were few beggars, the very poor held shoe-shining jobs, sold tissues, balloons, chicklets, lemonade, cold water, cucumber pieces, watermelon - anything to make a buck. I especially liked the pickle vendors.

You could also shop from your home, on the street a different vendor would walk by and utter a special call announcing his arrival, for example the plumber, the guys who collected old metal, the yoghurt man, the tomato and vegetable man, the used furniture man, the potato and onion man who came in a horse and cart, a man who sold a special millet drink in the winter. His call sounded like the word "boze", which he sang in a special melody, which I loved.

Another thing I loved were the movers. If you needed a pick-up truck, you just went to the intersection where they congregated and bargained a price, no booking ahead required.

Teaching in Turkey was a bit different than teaching in Canada, for the first years we only taught 3 days of the week. This was fantastic. Then the Turks got "smart" and realized no other country did this.

I found teenagers to be the same everywhere. The students were no different really than here. The 11 year olds - my favourite group - were "younger" in maturity than here, which was nice to see. They seemed to grow up more slowly there. No drugs in high school. Many schools had a system where the students did an extra year after Grade 6 to learn English intensively for a year. Now they learn from kindergarten.

The system of testing was a bit different and more bureaucratic. Each class had 6 big common tests per course, which were taken during the regular school time. One thing I thought was very strange, was that the foreign teachers had to go to the general meetings which were held in Turkish.

I taught in 3 different high schools, my second was a charity-funded boarding school for children without fathers - wonderful kids. My last school was in the center of Istanbul and I had the privilege of working with an excellent team of English teachers, both foreign and Turkish, of which many have become friends. I was there 4 years, it was hard to leave then, but I visit now every year.

7. What can you tell us about the mentality of people in Turkey?

The mentality of the Turks is a whole topic within itself. Most Turks are poor, although there is a slowly rising middle class. They must work hard to survive, there is not much time for play. Turks tend to live for the moment because of this. When they are asked to do something, they tend to say what they think will make you happy, whether it is true or not. That took me a long time to get used to. Eventually they do get things done, but not at "your" time.

They are not a country to protest, I guess because of their politics. They are a quiet people who spend a lot of time waiting or lining up for things. It seems they have resigned themselves that if they are vocal still nothing will happen. One exception to this is their love of honking when driving. But still nothing much happens. My head of department waited 14 years for his home telephone. Now that's patience! That was a long time ago though and the world of technology has changed. Ironically Istanbul had way more bank machines than Toronto in 1989. And now everyone has a cell phone.

Because it is a poor country, my wallet was stolen 4 times and my TV and pay-TV decoder were stolen once from my house while I was sleeping. If you plan on visiting, watch your wallet.

About the author:

Susanne Pacher is the publisher of http://www.travelandtransitions.com. It deals with travel to foreign countries and is chock full of advice, tips, real life travel experiences, interviews with travellers, insights, cross-cultural issues, and many other features. Participate in our travel story contest http://www.travelandtransitions.com/contests.htm and win great prizes, a fabulous cruise to the Amazon. Life is a Journey - Explore New Horizons.


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