Tag Archives: Turkey

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.

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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.

Getting from Point A to Point B in Style

As I described in the post Cold Call: Take Two, I was the happy recipient of an offer of summer employment from Bogazici University that included, along with housing and a modest salary, one round-trip air ticket from Minneapolis to Istanbul.  When I sent e-mail accepting their offer I asked my hosts to purchase a ticket leaving one week earlier than their proposed date of June 7th, just prior to the start of summer classes, and to route me via Athens rather than on a non-stop flight from New York to Istanbul as they had planned. Since neither of these changes increased their costs they were happy to comply.  Then, after receiving the ticket in the mail (this was before the days of e-tickets), I contacted the airline and, for a modest fee, extended my layover in Greece from four hours to seven days!

Beaches on the Greek Island of Paros Where We Spent A Leisurely Couple of Days on Our Way To Istanbul

A great way to turn your working vacation into an even more enjoyable low-cost holiday is to take that free ticket from A (your home) to B (your destination) and convert it into a free or “almost-free” ticket from A to C to B, where C is any destination along the way that you would enjoy visiting. Essentially, you are converting your no-cost working vacation airline ticket into a “twofer” by adding a second stop.  My wife and I spent a glorious week in Athens, Thessaloniki, and the lovely island of Paros before continuing on to Istanbul to start teaching.

Beachcomber Island, Fiji Where We Spent Time on A No-Cost Stopover on the Way to Australia

We repeated this gambit on a number of subsequent working vacations, including Zimbabwe (via Lisbon, Portugal; and Cape Town, South Africa), Mauritius (via Mumbai, India), Australia (via the Fiji Islands) and Mongolia (via Beijing, China). This coming October I will be working in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia with a three-week layover in Tokyo, Japan added to the end of the stay. In all cases the charge for extending my time in the stopover city was either zero or quite small compared to the cost of purchasing a full-fare air ticket from Minneapolis to that same destination. Even today’s $100 to $150 fee for modifying an existing reservation is a small price to pay for a holiday in Beijing, a week in Athens, or nine days in the Fiji Islands!

When planning air travel to a host country don’t search only non-stop flights, unless you are traveling with children and that is the most important consideration. Instead, determine which airlines fly to your ultimate destination, where they stop, and what the cost would be to extend your time in a stopover city on the way there or upon your return. Then inquire if your hosts would be willing to purchase an air ticket with an extended layover, either with them picking up any additional costs or having you cover the difference. You might be surprised to discover that, since the host institution has already committed to spending thousands of dollars on transportation, salary, and housing expenses, a $50 or $100 fee added to the air ticket will be of little or no concern to them–as was the case with my upcoming trip to KL.  And the end result is that you get to spend a few days, perhaps even a week or more, in some exotic getaway–an attractive perk added to your already attractive working vacation experience.

Cold Call: Take Two!

I subscribe to the Woody Hayes philosophy of life. Hayes, a legendary football coach at Ohio State University, would start each game by sending his best running back directly into the middle of the line. If the opponents stopped him for little or no gain, he would try something different. If, however, they couldn’t halt his progress, Hayes would run the same play over and over again until they proved they could. His reasoning was eminently logical­—why change a winning strategy?   My first attempt at a cold call to the University of Nairobi resulted in a hugely successful, once-in-a-lifetime East African experience. So, as Woody would say, why change?

In spring 1991 I sent unsolicited, “out-of-the-blue” emails to the computer science chairs at three universities with English-based curricula relating my desire to work in Istanbul, become a part of Turkish society, and experience its rich history and culture.  I attached a current resume, the names of professional references, some courses I could teach, and the titles and abstracts of talks I could present to faculty and students.  Although two of the three schools quickly sent polite rejections, within two weeks of my initial inquiry I received an e-mail offer of summer employment from Bogazici University–my arguments in support of cold calling described in A Little Mathematics Maestro were holding up quite well.  Furthermore, to show you this success is absolutely not unique to me, when I returned from Turkey I sent the names and email addresses of the people I worked with to a professional colleague at San Jose State University in California.  The following summer he and his wife were comfortably ensconced in Istanbul enjoying an identical three-month working vacation experience.

View of the Bosphorus from the Bogazici University Campus Located In the Lovely Neighborhood of Bebek

In his reply the chair proposed I teach one ten-week summer school class and give a series of weekly talks on new developments in the computer science curriculum.  In exchange I would receive a single round-trip air ticket from Minneapolis to Istanbul, no-cost on-campus accommodations for my wife and me, and a modest cash allowance. Modest, I might add, in terms of purchasing power, not in absolute amount. My wife and I were to become “Turkish millionaires,” receiving a monthly stipend of 1,200,000 Turkish lira, the local unit of currency. With lira then trading at 2,400 to the dollar, that three-inch thick wad of bills I collected and stuffed into my pockets each month amounted to just $500. However, when the Bogazici salary and free housing were added to my Macalester paycheck (spread out over 12-months even though I was on a 9-month contract) and monies from the rental of my house in Minneapolis, it was enough for Ruth and I to live quite well in Istanbul, a city with a modest cost of living.  In fact, there were sufficient funds remaining to support weekend and school holiday sojourns to Ephesus, Bodrum, Pamukkale, and Cappadocia.

By this fifth overseas working vacation I was coming to understand that these terms—one round-trip air ticket, on-campus housing (sometimes free, sometimes at a nominal cost), and a small food and living allowance—were pretty much the norm and roughly what you might expect to receive on your own working vacation.  One of the realities of negotiating with an overseas institution is that there may be little or no “wiggle room” regarding the financial terms of the offer. Pay scales are often set by the university administration or central government, not the dean or department head, leaving little room to maneuver. However, while salaries are often inflexible there may be room for negotiation with regard to workload. Don’t be surprised if the host institution initially proposes a heavy course load, dozens of public lectures, or consulting with a multitude of groups, since the director, department chair, or dean will want to squeeze as much valuable work out of your visit as possible.  The same admonition applies to other disciplines–a doctor may be asked to see hundreds of patients; the engineer may be assigned a six or six-and-a half-day work week; the consultant may be asked to meet with dozens of agencies. Don’t be afraid to respond that this is too great a workload for you to do a quality job, and it needs to be lowered to a more manageable level. Then discuss a compromise acceptable to both you and the host institution. You may not be able to negotiate the amount they are paying you, but you may be able to negotiate the amount of work you must do to earn that pay.

So, once again, on May 30, 1991 Ruth and I made our way to the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport to begin a three-month summer working vacation in Istanbul, Turkey but this time, with an interesting, no-cost diversion included on the way.

(Sidebar:  Some people have commented that my blog is getting quite large, making it difficult to find specific topic material. Sad but true! I am not much of a designer, but I did make a couple of changes to make it more useful, especially to new readers who may have missed some earlier posts.

Change 1: I added categories to each post specifying what kind of helpful travel advice is contained in each article. There are currently sixteen categories included under the heading “Working Vacation” with many more to come as new posts are added and new topics are addressed.

Change 2: If you look in the right-hand column you will see a listing of these categories. If you are interested, for example, in the issue of housing in a host country, then simply click on the category “housing”and you  will get a list of all posts that have anything to do with that topic.

Change 3: I added a brand new page entitled Table of Contents. It lists, in chronological order, every post I have put up, along with its date and first few lines to give you a brief idea of what it is about. There is also a link (the word more…) to the full post.

I hope you find these changes helpful, and I would love to receive more suggestions about how to make this blog more useful . Thanks so much.)

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.