Tag Archives: Istanbul

Official Confirmation

While working in Turkey I received e-mail from a colleague, a Classics professor who travels annually to Greece for his research. This year he wanted to add a stopover in Turkey to view its many historic landmarks—Ephesus, Troy, the Temple of Aphrodite—but he and his wife were somewhat hesitant, scared off by the misguided perception of Turkey as unclean, dangerous, even somewhat sinister–perhaps they had seen the movie Midnight Express. When they learned that Ruth and I were living in Istanbul they wrote to ask if we might consider being their guides to the city, helping them avoid the problems experienced by naive travelers visiting a strange, new place. We were more than happy to accommodate, and I made arrangements for someone to pick them up at the airport and take them to a nice downtown hotel.

A Typical Street Front Cafe in Istanbul.

For three busy days the four of us walked the old city, saw the sights, sipped strong coffee at outdoor cafes, ate at local restaurants without getting sick—one of their nagging worries—and went to my favorite clubs to listen to superb Middle Eastern music. Their fears soon dissipated, and my colleague realized how silly he had been to wait so long before visiting this magical, not sinister, city. (He has returned many times since.) Before departing he thanked us profusely for being such excellent hosts and making him feel safe and relaxed in an unfamiliar place.

For us this was “official confirmation” that Ruth and I had completed the transformation from working-vacation newcomers to experienced, knowledgeable travelers. Here was a Classics professor, whose area of study is the Eastern Mediterranean, including Turkey, asking a computer scientist (of all people) for help in seeing the country and navigating its social and cultural maze. From the “Nervous Nellie” in My London Epiphany frightened by the mere idea of moving to England, by the completion of this sixth working vacation (England, Israel, Australia, Kenya, Japan, and Turkey) I had gained the confidence needed not only to live and work overseas but to guide others through the orientation process needed to feel comfortable in a strange, new culture.  Creating that same sense of self-confidence in my readers is exactly what I want to accomplish in this blog and with the upcoming publication of my travel memoir and how-to book “On The Other Guy’s Dime.”

The Ubiquitous Simit Salesman, Found on Virtually Every Street at Every Hour of the Day

As September 1, our departure date, approached Ruth and I reflected on how much Istanbul reminded us of New York City, not in terms of history, ethnicity, or architecture, but in terms of scale, vibrancy, and its citizens unbridled enjoyment of life. It is a city that never sleeps. Two in the morning is prime time for the thousands of people enjoying the Taksim music scene; the cars, taxis, and buses clogging city streets; street vendors hawking simit, Turkish bagels, and döner kebabs. It is a city where you can spend countless hours shopping, eating, and drinking apple tea while strolling the hundreds of neighborhoods that sprawl over this massive urban area. During our three-month stay we explored perhaps one-tenth of this fascinating city. I can’t imagine how little you would drink in given only one or two weeks.

Cities like Istanbul demand time, lots and lots of time, to understand and appreciate their many religious, historical, and cultural riches. A working vacation is the perfect way to get that time without having to burn your housing, employment, and family bridges behind you.

Staying Healthy; Staying Solvent

In Istanbul we had our first encounter with something my wife and I had previously overlooked—the issue of overseas health care. Ruth came down with a mild ear infection, but one still serious enough to warrant a doctor’s visit and a prescription for antibiotics. Fortunately the problem cleared up in a week or so, and the resulting out-of-pocket costs were not too great.  However, it was sufficiently unnerving to make us realize how foolish we had been to ignore this concern and to purchase international health insurance policies on all our future working vacations–something we should have done from the outset.  (I guess we really weren’t as street-savvy world travelers as we had imagined.)

On the second page of every American passport the U.S. State Department prints the following stern warning:

Medical costs abroad can be extremely expensive. Does your insurance apply overseas, including medical evacuation, payment to the overseas hospital or doctor, or reimbursement to you later?

You are then referred to their brochure, “Medical Information for Americans Abroad” on the U.S. State Department website. It is an excellent document to read before starting on any overseas adventure.

When planning a working vacation it is absolutely critical to check with your local health-care provider to determine exactly what they do and do not cover when living and working abroad, including restrictions on injuries and illnesses, maximum length of stay, and exclusions for the country of residence. If you are one of the lucky few whose health policy includes full international coverage, then no more need be done.  (Note:  Some international exchange programs, such as Fulbright grants, include health coverage in their benefits.) However, the majority of policies contain significant restrictions or come to a complete and crashing halt at our national borders. In these cases you need to consider purchasing supplemental health-care coverage for you and your family, and a good place to start is HTH Worldwide. Click on their link Travel Medical and International Health Insurance Basics for an excellent introductory tutorial.

There are two types of policies: Travel Health Insurance pays for such basics as emergency medical needs, ambulance services, hospital costs, doctor bills, and prescription medicines. In the event of a serious injury or illness requiring specialized treatment, Emergency Evacuation Insurance covers the cost of airlifting you to your home in the United States or to the nearest full-service, first-world medical center, a cost that can run tens of thousands of dollars. You should purchase both types to avoid facing a catastrophically large expense.

Some other issues to keep in mind are: 1) Duration. Some policies are capped at thirty, sixty, or ninety days at which point they terminate.  Make sure a policy lasts at least as long as your appointment. 2) Primary/secondary coverage. A primary-care policy pays all medical expenses regardless of what other insurance you may have while a secondary policy only covers costs in excess of the amount you will be reimbursed from your existing policies. Primary coverage is an unnecessary luxury if your current insurer will pay a portion of the expenses.     3) Deductibles and co-pays. Like most policies, the more you are willing to pay the cheaper the cost will be. Determine how much you are willing to risk while overseas and then purchase a health policy with the appropriate deductible.

The exact cost of a joint travel health/emergency evacuation health policy will vary greatly based on duration, coverage type, and deductibles, as well as your age, family size, and host country. But, as one example, the cost of a policy providing health-care and emergency-evacuation coverage for a forty-something adult living and working in Istanbul, Turkey, is $130-300 per month, depending on deductibles and policy limits. This is not a lot to pay for an important aspect of any working vacation—peace of mind!  So, before heading out to Italy, India, or Indonesia, make sure you are fully covered if misfortune does befall.  Without it, your “Other Guy’s Dime” working vacation may end up costing you a huge percentage of your own savings.

Yogurt To Die For!

Our three-month working vacation in Istanbul resulted in yet another thoroughly enjoyably social, cultural and professional experience. We made close friends among the faculty as many had studied in the U.S. and were eager to renew professional contacts with American academics. We spent a good deal of time with Albert and the other summer school TAs who let us join them on excursions to local bars and music clubs.

The World Famous Kanlica Yogurt

Since I taught in the morning, afternoons were free for trips to tourist sites such as Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sophia, and the Blue Mosque, as well as more leisurely activities like riverboat excursions to the Black Sea, meetings with members of the Turkish Jewish community (courtesy of Albert), and a visit to the small village of Kanlica on the Asian side of the Bosporus. According to colleagues Kanlica is famous for making the world’s richest, creamiest, and most delicious yogurt. After traveling there by water taxi and enjoying a bowlful at a local restaurant, we could only agree. Our “yogurt outing” is typical of the delightful, off-the-beaten-path day trips you can take when given adequate time. Kanlica would certainly not be part of the typical four-day/three night “Highlights of Istanbul” packaged tour.

Since I did not teach on Friday (I asked the chair to schedule my classes between  Monday and Thursday) Ruth and I had time for three-day weekend jaunts to sights farther afield, such as the three thousand-year-old archeological ruins of Ephesus, the volcanic cave homes of Cappadocia, and the beach resort of Bodrum. These tours were purchased from a local travel agent after our arrival and paid for in lira, making them quite inexpensive.

The Riverside Terrace of the Bebek Hotel Near Campus Where We Spent Many A Pleasant Evening.

Many days we would not go into the central city but, instead, sit on the lovely outdoor terrace of the Bebek Hotel, walking distance from campus and overlooking the Bosporus. We would sip coffee (in the morning) or enjoy a glass of wine and a plate of meze (in the evening) watching river traffic sail by and the setting sun illuminate the Asian side of the straits.

To learn about a country and its people most visitors, ourselves included, head off to museums, historical sites, churches, mosques, and parks. Food, however, is an important component of culture, and a cooking class can be an entrée into a different aspect of a country’s history and traditions. Turkish food, although not as well-known to American palates as French, Italian, or Chinese, has influenced eating habits throughout the Mediterranean. My wife and I signed up for a cooking class that included not only cooking instruction—and eating, of course—but also an introduction to local agriculture, shopping habits, and Turkish mealtime rituals.

When thinking about how to use the extended time provided by a working vacation, consider not only the sites listed in The Lonely Planet but also some less well-known introductions into the traditions, habits, and customs of your host country. This includes not only cooking classes, but courses on language, dress, music, and traditional crafts; visits to people’s homes; sporting events; involvement with a local religious community; volunteering at a neighborhood school; or assisting at a community center or senior citizen home. It is difficult to participate in these types of activities on a tightly scheduled packaged tour, but they fit quite comfortably into a working vacation whose duration is measured in months not days. Colleagues and neighbors, as well as the Web, are good sources of information on how to locate and sign up for classes, home visits, community activities, and volunteer opportunities.   And finally, when deciding what kind of cultural experience you might wish to have, be adventurous and thoroughly unconventional, like my wife who signed up for one of the more unusual aspects of Turkish culture–at the Serap Su Belly Dancing Academy of Istanbul!

Our Elegant Georgian Colonial on the Bosphorus

After a week of eating well, reveling in Greek history, and swimming in the turquoise-blue water of the Aegean, we flew to Istanbul where my teaching assistant, Mr. Albert Levy, met us at the airport. Yes, that is his real name. Albert is a fourth-generation Turkish Jew, and he was our entrée into the 500-year old Jewish community of Istanbul. The school did not assign him to me for that reason, and he was as surprised as me to discover that we shared the same faith.

Albert drove the forty miles from the airport to the school while I sat back and took in the horizon-to-horizon sprawl of this massive city. As we drove, visions of our “modest” Nairobi apartment raced through my head (see Doubts and Fears), while I played guessing games about what our on-campus housing might look like this time. Bare light bulbs dangling from the ceiling? Maybe. Western toilet? Hopefully. Comfortable mattresses? Doubtful. Hot shower? No way.  Reminding myself of the enjoyment we had on that Kenyan working vacation in spite of the less than plush accommodations (see Sharing The Secrets), I decided I could make do with whatever lodging the school might provide. Fortunately, my fears were unfounded. That summer my wife and I lived like an upper-middle class American couple, comfortably ensconced in a leafy, well-to-do suburban neighborhood.

Bogazici University, originally called Roberts College, was founded in 1863 by two American educators from New England. They purchased a large, wooded plot on a steep hill overlooking the Bosphorus and set about creating a university where English was the medium of instruction, admission was open to students of all races and religions, and the curriculum would be modeled on the American university system. In 1912, John Stewart Kennedy, a trustee and wealthy donor, gave the college money to build six homes as the academic traditions of the time dictated that senior professors live on campus to be near their students. Since the school was founded by New Englanders, these stately homes were set on acres of forested land and constructed in classic Georgian colonial style, complete with chimneys, porticos, white wooden siding, and black shutters. These dwellings would not be out of place in the better sections of Boston, Hartford, or Providence, but they certainly looked strange plopped down in the middle of Istanbul on the border between Europe and Asia.

The Walkway to our Georgian Colonial in the Middle of Istanbul.

Today, these large, comfortable homes are no longer allocated to individual senior faculty but are used to house visitors coming to the university for short stays. Two, three, or even four families might share a single house, depending on family size and length of stay. However, since this was summertime, when there were far fewer visitors, we were its sole residents. We ended up with a beautiful colonial home on five-plus acres of forested land in the middle of a densely packed urban area of thirteen million. The only comparison I can offer is to imagine yourself living in an elegant New York City residence situated smack in the middle of Central Park. Some Turkish visitors to our home jokingly commented we were living as well as, perhaps slightly better than, the president of the country. While a bit of hyperbole, there is no doubt our housing that summer was superb and totally unexpected. We unpacked our suitcases with very large smiles on our faces!

When a school chooses to provide on-campus housing, rather than have you locate it for yourself, it can fall anywhere on the spectrum from minimally acceptable, as in Kenya, to off-the-scale luxurious, as was the case that summer in Turkey. All you can do is hope for the latter but be willing either to accept the former or to say to your hosts “Thank you, but no.” and then find and pay for your own accommodations.

I Speak A Little Bit of Japanese, But Not Very Much Turkish!

In early 1991, three and a half years after our Kenyan adventures, Ruth began suffering the initial pangs of travel withdrawal since she had not joined me in Japan–the only time we traveled apart.  We started throwing out options for where we might live and work, and it was my wife who suggested Istanbul, a destination she had dreamed about visiting for years.  (Thank God she had not seen the 1978 Oscar-winning movie Midnight Express describing the experiences of an American tourist thrown into a nightmarish Turkish jail. That movie single-handedly killed Turkish tourism for years.)

However, a working vacation in Istanbul posed a new and potentially fatal problem:  Like Japan, Turkey is a nation where English is neither an official language, as in England, Australia, and Kenya, nor a semi-official language, as in Israel. I could no more assume to walk into a classroom and begin teaching in English than a Ph.D. from China could arrive in the U.S. and start lecturing in Mandarin.  Sure, I could (and did) learn enough Turkish to greet friends, go to the bathroom, and order a shish kebob, but that still left me a long, long way from standing in front of a class lecturing on computer science.

I visited my school library to do a little research on Turkish universities and, to my utter surprise, discovered that the catalog for Bogazici University, the premier technical university in Turkey—essentially, their MIT—stated right on page one:  “The medium of instruction at Bogazici University is English.   Applicants must either have a TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) score of 550 or they need to sign up for an English language proficiency class.”   Yet another “flashbulbs and trumpets” moment—that one paragraph guaranteed there was at least one school in the country where I could apply.  When I then scanned the catalog of Bilkent University, their second best technical school, I found an identical disclaimer:  “Proficiency in English language for non-native speakers is a must in admission since all departments, except for Turkish Language and Literature, use English as the language of education.”   This fortuitous circumstance repeated itself in virtually all the college and universities catalogs I perused.

The Blue Mosque Built Around 1600. It Is One of Dozens of Superb Sights In The Istanbul Area

One of the unexpected but pleasant surprises encountered during my overseas job hunting is how rapidly English is becoming a global medium of instruction for tertiary (college and university) instruction. This is particularly true in technical fields such as the physical sciences, natural sciences, earth sciences, engineering, mathematics, and medicine, but it is also becoming more widespread in other quantitative fields such as management, finance, architecture, pharmacy, and urban planning. In addition to Turkey I have lectured in English in Mongolia, Nepal, and Vietnam—none of which have English as an official language.  In Malaysia I attended a graduation address by then Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir bin Mohamad on the role of English as the lingua franca of science, technology, and international business.  On our drive to the Ngorongoro Crater, described in the post The Most Beautiful Place in the World, I stopped at a remote Rift Valley gas station where a Masai warrior in flowing red robe had set up a souvenir table. I was interested in buying his hunting spear so I dug out my phrase book and uttered in grammatically butchered Swahili, “Nini gharama mkuki?” meaning “What price spear?” He smiled and replied in perfect New Yorkese, “No sweat, man, I speak English. It’s how I do business.”

I don’t share these stories because of any Anglophone chauvinism or deep devotion to my mother tongue. It is simply to convince you not to immediately abandon hope for that dream working vacation in Surinam, Sarawak, Senegal, or Sri Lanka because of any perceived language inadequacy.  Yes, there will be times when the medium of classroom instruction is some utterly incomprehensible tongue.  But there will also be times when English speaking and writing skills work in your favor as overseas schools look to hire native speakers to improve their students’ proficiency. In addition, if your spouse has ESL credentials, he or she should be able to find a teaching or private tutoring position, and might even wind up being more in demand than you!

So, with the language issue essentially resolved, all I needed to do now was find a job.