Istanbul stories: Thanksgiving in Turkey, where it’s hard to find a…turkey

As with most things having to do with expat life, there are two ways to look at celebrating typical American holidays when living abroad. You can think about how much you miss friends and family and the trappings and pomp of holidays at “home”, or, you can grab the opportunity to create your very own self-tailored holiday.

Because I am a confirmed Pollyanna, I lean toward the second choice.

My favorite Thanksgiving in my six years living in Istanbul was the Thanksgiving I forgot. I spent this particular sunny Thursday doing one of my favorite things: running around the backstreets of the Grand Bazaar with one old friend from Istanbul, one old friend visiting from my old neighborhood in Brooklyn and a few random tourists we picked up along the way. We had spent hours pawing through piles of possible treasure, and now, dirty, tired, and hungry, we claimed a table at a favorite restaurant in a courtyard inside the bazaar and dug into a hearty lunch. I remember thinking how great it was to be a be able sit outside in the sun without a coat in November. I was feeling thankful for what would probably be one of the last sunny days of the season when a waiter came up, whispered in my Turkish friend’s ear, and they both began clearing space in the center of the table.

Just minutes later two huge plates of one of my favorite Turkish foods, hamsi, appeared on the table. Hamsi are small fish which are usually lightly floured, pan-fried, and eaten whole (sans head, of course). They are addictive and I adore them, but those hamsi on that sunny day in November were the best hamsi I have ever eaten. Smaller than my little finger, they had been filleted. Filleted! I don’t even know how they did that to that huge pile of tiny fish. They were heaped on a plate and we started out politely eating with forks, but soon the whole tableful of us was eating those little fillets of goodness with our fingers.

It was somewhere in the middle of this hamsi frenzy that I realized that it was Thanksgiving. For a moment I thought about whether I should miss turkey and stuffing and cranberry sauce. And then I thought, “no”, and went back to silently and thankfully eating hamsi and enjoying the sunshine and company of friends.

IMG_6786My weird little Thanksgiving dinner this year: brussels sprouts, smoked eggplant, fried mussels, and cig kofte. All picked up on the way home from a long day. And the cig kofte was comped–just because. 

Happy Thanksgiving from Istanbul, and a reminder to, in the words of Teddy Roosevelt, “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”

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Istanbul stories: scraps, scribbles, and stamps–the glamorous life of the expat

I headed over to the dreaded main office of the foreigners’ bureau to renew my residence permit consumed with a mixture of fear, dread, and certainty that something was bound to go wrong.

In theory, I should be able to do this in the small neighborhood office nearest my home. In practice, it has become nearly impossible to get appointments, so we take what we can get where we can get it. My recent visit to the neighborhood office ended with me dissolving in tears and an angelic Georgian woman coming to my rescue and escorting me across town to a mysterious basement shop where, for fifteen lira, an efficient woman behind a xerox machine obtained an appointment on the online system (something I had been trying to do for weeks) and copied and assembled my documents for me.

My permit expired more than two months ago and the rule goes that as long as you have an appointment, you are legally allowed to stay. But still—it makes me nervous walking around with just a little scrap of paper to prove I’m allowed to be here, especially since the permit process has changed many, many times. There is a constant conversation among the expat community about the current process and the best ways to navigate it, which results in angst and uncertainty no matter how many times you’ve been through it.

IMG_5962These scraps and scribbles permit me to reside in Turkey

All this to say that I braced myself before heading over to the enormous Emniyet building. The place has a reputation as a bureaucratic zoo which strikes fear into the heart of even the most hardened expat. I myself have had some less-than-pleasant experiences there.

This trip was different.

Not only was getting through passport control a breeze, with orderly lines instead of the usual cattle-call, I was greeted with the Turkish equivalent of “welcome, madame”. After passing through the sunny courtyard I went upstairs to the floor where all my previous permit nightmares experiences had taken place. I was brusquely sent back downstairs and told to go “left”. Where all I saw was a cashier.

“Here we go”, I thought, “I can’t find the right office, I’m going to miss my appointment, I’m going to be kicked out of the country, who will take of my dog?” You know, all those completely rational thoughts that go through your head at moments like these.

Then I saw an innocuous looking door at the left which opened into a small room with 40 chairs, two banks of service windows, and a room full of families. Aha! This is where I belonged!

The digital board showed only 10 numbers to go until the number on my paperwork was called, so I sidled in and eventually worked my way across the room to a chair to wait, bracing myself for chaos, pushing, and drama.

Instead I saw the attendants patiently telling the nervous man trailing a wife and four high energy kids that he needed four photos for each family member. The man, not understanding Turkish and pointing at the single photos of each family member he had brought was kindly and quietly directed to the other side of the room, where a photographer was waiting. The man didn’t understand, but the worker explained gently and kindly where to go and then left the man’s number up while the family’s photos were taken—a slower process than in the past, but so much more humane than having to push your way back up to the window because they have moved on to the next applicant. The room waited patiently as the family went through their process.

After the photos and paperwork review the man had to go to the cashier and pay. While he was doing that, one of his sons, Hamid, wandered off. The attendants called for him—but they were behind glass partitions and he couldn’t hear so we all called, “Hamid, Hamid!” until he came back. The attendants engaged Hamid and his little brother in conversation and shook their hands through the opening in the glass wall, the old lady beside me nodding in approval and whispering “mashallah” under her breath.

After Hamid and his family were finished, the next number was called. A man came in and tried to jump the line, a maneuver that is usually successful here, but he was firmly pointed to the number on the wall and told to wait his turn.

A few more people were processed, the numbers on the board climbing calmly and slowly toward mine as I watched the friendly interactions in the room: the ladies in front of me making faces at the baby behind them; the photographer muddling the names of the people he called into his side room as the waiting crowd tried to help him with pronunciation.

I had come to the realization that my wait might be a long one since most numbers on the board represented families, each member of which had to be processed, when I noticed one of the attendants waving me toward the window although the board showed five numbers to go before mine was up. Apparently they took pity on me, or, for efficiency’s sake, decided to pull single me ahead of the groups. I gratefully handed them my paperwork which they began scrutinizing. I was asked the usual questions—how long have you been here? Seven years. Why are you here? Because I love Istanbul (true, and always accepted unquestioningly). After some consultation with his colleague–Why? What’s wrong?! Momentary panic on my part–I was sent to the cashier, where I was pleasantly surprised to find a smiling man behind a counter who quickly took my money, handed me a paper and sent me back to my window inside. A few stamps, a scrap of paper telling me when to come back to pick up my permit, and I was sent on my way.

I had arrived 45 minutes before my appointment and was through the process and out the door 5 minutes after my appointment time. Less than an hour, many smiling faces, and the only stress had been self-imposed. All I had to do now was contemplate what to do with the rest of my day.

I resisted the urge to go back to the mean neighborhood office which had reduced me to tears and wave my paperwork in their faces. Instead, I wandered back into the sunny day, grateful for the rare convergence of Turkish bureaucracy and Turkish hospitality.

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Ancient spaces, new art, old faces

Kucuk Mustafa Pasa Hamam Cibali, Fatih. Art exhibit.

This small side room of the hamam houses 150 kinds of water from Istanbul

As we watch ancient istanbul recede more and more into the shadows of a modern building boom, works like Angelo Bucarelli‘s “Water. Like Tears of Love” remind us the re-purposing of ancient sites for modern uses can enhance both those sites and the works they house.

This work has been installed in Kucuk Mustafa Pasa Hamami, part of a 15th century complex just inside the city’s Byzantine walls. The gorgeous light and gentle colors of the old hamam provide a beautiful setting for these new works which in some cases harmonize with and reflect the beauty of the ancient patina and in others provide a pleasing contrast. Having new works drawing visitors to lovely ancient spaces seems to me the best of all worlds. it would be great if this hamam and spaces like it could continue to be used as exhibition space.

IMG_5733The main room of the hamam

screenshotIn a world generally slanted toward the new and young we can never be reminded often enough of the value of the strong, experienced, old bones of the world. I am not against progress or technology. I love my shiny white iPhone and computer. But sometimes there is nothing as beautiful as that which has weathered time and experience. Recently, because I am an artist who loves to draw and paint and stare at interesting faces, I created a Pinterest board to capture the interesting faces I find floating around the internet. While there are young, beautiful faces there, it is the older ones who tend to draw my eye the most. It’s a cliche but it’s true: their experience is written on their faces and those who’ve lived long and interesting lives have fascinating old faces (click on the  image to see more).

I spend my days walking into shiny new buildings. The low ceilings, dreary colors, and lack of natural light make me feel small and weighed down. Slow and sluggish. But a beautiful space like the hamam expands you. There is space to be big. To grow. It lifts your chest and allows you to expand while reminding you that in the grand scheme of things you are small, life is short, and a little patina never hurt anyone.


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A glimpse of a haunting Istanbul Biennial exhibit


Walking into the Iaokimion Greek Girls’ School in Fener, Istanbul you can’t help feeling that the abandoned building is as much a part of this biennial exhibit as the sculptures themselves. The space is gorgeous, with high ceilings and ethereal light pouring in generous windows. The sense of the people who have disappeared from the beautifully decaying space is as strong as the artworks that are temporarily inhabiting it. From the moment you walk into the building you are surrounded by the presence of children; the recorded sounds of children laughing, learning, playing reverberates through the spacious hallways and classrooms emphasizing the life that used to fill this abandoned space and the emptiness that now reigns here.

I found the figures on display here to be at once eerie, strange, and beautiful. They are soft and vulnerable but not innocent, which keeps them from becoming cartoon-like. Gorgeously crafted and lifelike, they inspire empathy. They seem to belong in this space.

Composed of fish, rabbits, deer, chickens, these animal-women have inherited a world where, historically, they have been prey. The young children have disappeared from this place and all that remains are the sacrificial figures at the front of the classrooms. Held up as cautionary examples, they seem slated for extinction; the sacrifice of the female, the innocent, perhaps reason itself. You can’t help but wonder—who’s next?







From the website of the artist, Kalliopi Lemos:

I Am I Between Worlds and Between Shadows
Ioakimion Greek Girls’ School
Tevkii Cafer Mektep Sok. No:16 Fener-Fatih

12 September – 10 November 2013
Tuesday – Sunday 11am-6pm

The exhibition is realized in scope of the 13th Istanbul Biennial Parallel Events Programme

Set in the Ioakimion Greek Girls’ School in Fener, Istanbul (founded in 1879), the exhibition is explicitly conceived for the ongoing global consideration of the status of women and children and the upholding of their self-respect and human dignity. The artist delves into a world of alchemy, myth and dream to conjure up sculptural figures and a sound installation that invite us to re-evaluate our understanding of the world, the womens place in it and their representation within it.

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Exploring self. Creating art. Bridging cultures.

As my partner in crime creativity Melissa Dinwiddie and I plot the return of Playing Around Workshops to Istanbul, we thought you might like a few peeks into our last creative immersion workshop.

In this workshop we devote equal time to exploring our artistic sides and delving into the historic and modern arts, crafts, architecture and culture that feed the diversity of Istanbul. You will shed your inhibitions, try out new techniques, and learn to inject your unique personality into your art, writing, and creative crafts in our morning arts workshops before heading out to explore fabulous Istanbul in the afternoon.

Our motto is, “Exploring self. Creating Art. Bridging Cultures.” And everything we do leads back to those three things.

Below is a little eye candy from last year’s workshop to help you picture our world:

Exploring Self

…Forgotten pleasures
…Turning points
…Innovation, inspiration, and accident




Creating Art

You will feel inspired, enlightened, and energized as we focus on expression and playful ways to tap into your creativity. You don’t have to be an expert to participate and, contrary to the myth of the suffering artist, creating doesn’t have to be painful.

…Make a creative mess
…Learn to leap fearlessly onto the empty page
…Experiment with creative play, intuitive painting, collage, automatic writing, and book arts
…Explore media and modes of expression

IMG_2142 4.36.07 PM


Bridging Cultures

We will explore the nooks and crannies of old Istanbul, meet artists and craftspeople in their studios (and even try our hands at some of their techniques), and visit the mosques and historic sites that make Istanbul a sought-after vacation destination. And since this is my adopted hometown, I will take you to visit my secret “back doors” that most tourists never see!



Join us for the Creative Adventure of a Lifetime!

Immerse yourself in the art and culture of one of the most inspirational and artistically vibrant cities in the world and pour that inspiration into your own artistic exploration and expression. You will come out of the workshop feeling:

…Confident in your creative abilities
…Excited about what you have accomplished
…Infused with the muse and ready to do more!

So, what do you think–do you want to join us? Comments and questions welcome below. Go here to find out more and sign up!

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Creative collaboration + creating in community

Finding my Playing Around Istanbul partner Melissa Dinwiddie was one of the best things to happen in my creative life. You can read the details here, but in a nutshell, we “met” online and a casual comment led to an email exchange which led to more correspondence and, just like that, a creative alliance was formed.

We quickly dubbed ourselves the “Poobahs of Play” and had many enthusiastic (read: loud/screaming-with-laughter) Skype calls. We met weekly for months, leading a twelve-week online workshop together and planning our dream creativity workshop in Istanbul. We have remarkably similar goals when it comes to leading a group and, thankfully, we have different strengths, so how to divvy up our workload is usually a no-brainer.

But—as of four days before our Istanbul workshop began we had never met.

Sometimes you have to take a leap.

I’ll admit to some trepidation as I met Melissa at the airport. What if we didn’t like each other in person? But in all honesty, I wasn’t really that nervous. We had spent so much time preparing and our goals for our group were so aligned that my instincts told me this was going to be a blast. And those instincts were right; we had just as much fun in person as we had online. We hit the ground running. There were bumps, big ones, before the workshop even started, but because we had done our legwork up front and were able to depend on each other we handled them.

Here are Melissa and I in one of our workshop meeting spaces shortly after we finally met in person.

Here are Melissa and I in one of our workshop meeting spaces shortly after we finally met in person.


As cliche as it is to say it’s important to follow your instincts, it’s easier said than done. We are both busy with other projects, but we persisted in our conversations with each other and dared to hope that we could pull off this workshop in Istanbul. We worked hard and consistently to put it together. We each learned not to be afraid to share our dreams with a stranger and that being brave enough to share them can lead to a great and productive friendship and the fulfillment of those dreams.

The Poobahs of Play in Little Aya Sophia, Istanbul.

The Poobahs of Play in Little Aya Sophia

One of the aims of our workshop was to create a space where our participants could feel that same sense of safety, support, and collaboration that Melissa and I have working together. A space where there is no pressure, and it’s OK to ask questions and experiment. A small creative community that comes together temporarily to explore our creative urges, experiment with different media and be inspired by the magnificent culture of Istanbul and the wonderful artists and artisans at work here. We use the inspiration of this great city as a jumping off point for our own creativity and this time as a respite from our everyday lives when we can immerse ourselves in art, culture, creativity and FUN. And hopefully to share half as much laughter as Melissa and I did planning the workshop!


Below is a photo of our small creative community on the last night of the first Playing Around Istanbul workshop. Looking at these happy faces, I feel like we succeeded!


We are excitedly planning our next workshop in March 2014 now. I’ll be sharing more details about last year’s workshop here so you can get the full flavor of what happens in a Playing Around Istanbul workshop. We hope you’ll join our creative community for the workshop in March!

Join us for our next workshop in amazing Istanbul, where we will make art, meet artists and artisans, explore the city, and drink wine and tea. Our focus is on expression and playful ways to tap into your creativity: you don’t have to be an expert to participate, everyone is welcome! For more information about (and to sign up for!) the amazing Playing Around Istanbul creativity workshop / arts and culture immersion vacation beginning March 23, 2014 click here.

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Culture of connection: in Turkey, everyone is famous

Spider Web

In Turkey everyone is famous.

If you go to a shop or restaurant once, they might remember you. Twice, they will probably remember you. Three times, if they don’t remember you, well, that’s just willful neglect.

I like this tendency toward creating connection. I’ve learned the benefits of introducing myself as the new komşu (neighbor) when I move to a new neighborhood and go into local shops for the first time. Recently, I went to dinner with a friend who moved to Istanbul a few months ago. We went to a restaurant around the corner from his new flat, and when the waiter came and asked where we were from we told him America and Australia, but then I pointed at my friend and told the waiter my friend was a new neighbor. The waiter brightened, asked a few more questions, then left and my friend looked at me questioningly. I told him he needs to tell everyone he lives here—they’ll remember and be helpful and it’s always good to know your neighbors. When I saw my friend a few days later he laughingly told me that next time he walked through the square the waiters ran to get him a table and chair and out came the tea. Pleased with myself I told him, “There. Now when you need a plumber or to get your shoes fixed you know who to ask.”

I do still roll my eyes when someone introduces themselves to me saying, “I am famous”. I’ve stopped Googling them or asking my Turkish friends if they’ve ever heard of them because the answer is always no. But, in a way I understand the claim. It CAN feel like you’re famous, as you walk around town with everyone smiling, waving, and calling you by name.

It feels this way because the web of connections is strong, wide, and deep. Introductions are important here, discovering who you both know is a must when you meet someone new. People introduce you to friends who can help you or who “you should know” much more so than in America or, I suspect, most other places in the world. It DOES begin to seem like you and many of your friends are famous because these webs of people and networks tend to collide and merge and are constantly extending. Interpersonal connections are never static—it is almost impossible NOT to meet new people constantly.

In fact, I have one acquaintance—but then again, I’m not actually sure what to call him. He is a friend of many, many of my friends and people are constantly saying, “Well, you know S, he…” No, I don’t know S, but every one of my Istanbul friends does. We have so much in common that at one point he messaged me saying, “Isn’t it weird we’ve never met? We know all of each others’ friends!” I’ve starting answering “kind of” when people ask me if I know him because it feels like I DO know him through my friends. We just haven’t met yet.

This connectedness has become so normal to me that I’ve forgotten what it’s like not to have it. A few months ago I was showing a visiting friend-of-a-friend around town, and at the end of the day, as we sat down to a warm welcome at one of my favorite small restaurants she looked at me, mystified, and asked, “Why does everyone love you so much?” The answer is one of those things that makes it possible to deal with all the inconveniences of living in Istanbul: because we take the small amount of time necessary to look at each other, know each other, and remember. Because, for us, here, it’s important.

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Playing Around Istanbul: creating in community

Workshoppers compare notes during a visit to a mosque on one of our afternoon excursions.

Workshoppers compare notes during a visit to a mosque on one of our afternoon excursions.

Being foreign and removed from your usual routine is liberating. As an expat in Istanbul I used to try to fit in and do things the Turkish way, and I still try to follow the rules of my adopted home. But I no longer try so hard to blend in. I embrace my foreignness.

In the Playing Around Istanbul Workshops I give with my business partner Melissa Dinwiddie, you get to try on being foreign. You are expected to be mystified and amazed. No matter how much you prepare, I guarantee Istanbul will surprise you, whether it is your first visit or your fifth. In this workshop you are plopped down in a culture you likely know little about. You will definitely be working with people you never met before.

We aim to give you a happy mix of being the stranger who gets to ask questions and be amazed, while still holding a safe place for you in our group. You may make some lifelong friends. We’re willing to bet you’ll at least make some new friends for the week.

Playful experimentation is encouraged!

Playful experimentation is encouraged!

You will also have plenty of time to experiment and recharge at your own speed in your own time. This is no frantic tour, but an opportunity to devote some time to playing with new materials and techniques.

Join us! There is nothing quite like exploring your creative side in community.




Join us for our next workshop in amazing Istanbul, where we will make art, meet artists and artisans, explore the city, and drink wine and tea. Our focus is on expression and playful ways to tap into your creativity: you don’t have to be an expert to participate, everyone is welcome! For more information about (and to sign up for!) the amazing Playing Around Istanbul creativity workshop / arts and culture immersion vacation beginning March 23, 2014 click here.

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Turkey tales: spouting, sprouting, shouting


Know your audience: it’s a time-tested truism that takes on new meaning in Turkey.

Today, I needed to buy pots for my newly-sprouted basil. Because my neighbors have complained in the past that when I water my plants the water drips down onto their freshly washed windows, I wanted over-sized water trays; carrying all the pots to the sink every time I water has gotten old.

So I went to my neighborhood home supply shop around the corner where I am well-known as that “yabanci” (foreigner) who likes to come in and browse.

I carefully chose my new pots and then picked out water trays at least one size larger than normal and off I went to the register. Where the lovely girls at the counter explained to me that no, I couldn’t have the square trays (which would fit so nicely on my window sills) because they go with the square pots. And no, I couldn’t have the big round trays, because they go with the big pots.

I explained that I know the smaller trays fit the pots I chose, but they aren’t big enough to hold the water overflow. They patiently explained that I could water by filling the trays, but I know that with the recent hot, sunny weather, those small trays just won’t cut it. We went round and round, them thinking that I didn’t understand because of the language barrier, and me just knowing that if I persisted I would likely get my way eventually.

Finally, when I was sure they understood what I wanted, I put on my saddest face and explained that my neighbors are very unhappy with me when I water my plants, and they complain. The girls looked at each other, shrugged, and off one of them trotted to replace my square trays with big round ones. I decided to give up on the square tray fight and be content with the over-sized round ones.

Here in Turkey when discussing how to overcome life’s little problems, it’s very common be advised to “just cry”. While I used to just roll my eyes at this advice and think it was manipulative I have come to feel differently. In reality, I was sad that I couldn’t got those damn big trays. I don’t want to drip on my neighbors windows (Turks are obsessive about their clean windows), and I don’t want to spend my evenings hauling my potted plants around my flat. So I just revealed some of the honest emotion that we tend to bottle up in my native culture. And I know my audience well enough to know that it would be obvious to them that I couldn’t continue to drip on my neighbor’s windows and that they would want to help me solve that problem, so I told them exactly what the problem was.

Living in another culture is a constant challenge not just to your language acquisition skills (mine appear to be atrocious) but also to your culture acquisition skills (where I like to think I excel). What you are communicating is important, but how you communicate it may be even more so, and for this it’s crucial that you understand the culture of your audience.

In Turkey, shouting at someone is an indication of strong emotion, but it’s not necessarily an indication of a big problem; they shout at each other, then quickly move on and may be laughing together five minutes later. In America shouting is more likely a last resort or indication of extreme anger and the relationship does not return to equilibrium so easily. Maybe it’s actually healthier to reveal our emotions, and not manipulative but more honest as well. In any case, it’s definitely more effective in Turkey, where emotions are the necessary punctuation in every conversation.

Tomorrow I will test my cultural communication skills at one of the government offices. Wish me luck and strong emotions!

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Finding the thread: storytelling

The Way It Is 

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among 

things that change. But it doesn’t change. 

People wonder about what you are pursuing. 

You have to explain about the thread. 

But it is hard for others to see. 

While you hold it you can’t get lost. 

Tragedies happen; people get hurt 

or die; and you suffer and get old. 

Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding. 

You don’t ever let go of the thread. 


~ William Stafford ~

The thread is the answer to the problematic question, “Why are you here?”, which I am asked constantly as a foreigner who has chosen to live in Istanbul, not for love or work, but because I want to. Moving here was not so much a choice as the next right step for me. Frankly, it is difficult for me to answer this question I hear over and over. It would be so much easier if I could say that I moved here for a job or a man, but that’s not the truth. I moved here because my thread pulled me here in no uncertain terms. It’s clear to me but very difficult to verbalize for others in a sound bite how and why I ended up in Istanbul.

Stafford says its hard for others to see your thread, and it’s my experience that sometimes they can’t and never will. And that’s not important. What is important is that you keep your eye on your own thread.

But sometimes it’s hard for us to find the threads, they are so buried in the fabric of our lives. It took me a long time to find the connection between all the disparate interests I have pursued in my life, to figure out why I liked those jobs that didn’t seem to make sense for me. Finally I came to the realization that the freedom to learn things just because I’m interested (something not always encouraged in today’s workplace) and especially a conscious, constant pursuit of creativity are absolutely essential for me.

There’s a sense of relief that comes when you grab hold of the elusive, ephemeral rope that is drawing you on. It becomes easier to surrender to those seemingly random urges. It’s easier to choose between the options presented to you and even to stumble forward when you’re not sure what to do next. The thread is your safety line when life buffets you, your fixed rope when you are pulling yourself over the next mountaintop, and the swing that lifts you when you find yourself in just the right place.

Recently, I began searching again for the connection at the heart of my creative pursuits, the strongest strand that weaves throughout. Storytelling is the link that compels me as people reveal themselves through their art and their actions in the world. The stories they tell with their mouths, bodies, and choices fascinate. This is my new obsession, a continuation of the old and way forward into new ground. I’ll be dropping bread crumbs here along the way. I hope you’ll follow them.

Your turn!

  • What are the threads that guide your life and choices? Please share them in the comments, I’d love to hear your guiding principles, threads, and stories.
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