Friday, November 4, 2011

Remembering my first day in Turkey

Granted, whilst my first ever day in Turkey lies many years in the past, I nevertheless chose the topic for today's article as I can imagine that expatriates old and new will, hopefully, fondly remember how things -- and themselves -- progressed after touchdown in this great location and may wish to compare how they had felt on day number one with a fellow expatriate's memories.
If we agree that there is love at first sight with regards to adult relationships and that there is perhaps a similar kind of chemistry between a city and the newcomer, it might be a fascinating undertaking to relate our first day impressions with our long-term evaluation: fallen in love straight away, eventually or not as of yet?

Flying with ‘political' baggage

Not surprisingly, political commentators travel with more than spare clothes. In my case I had arrived via London's Gatwick Airport and had thought I was rather well prepared for my first journey to Turkey. This was of course greatly facilitated by my wife, who originally hails from Ankara. We had regularly met with Turkish friends who had come to visit us in London, and in general terms closely followed economic and political events as they were unfolding right after the massive financial crisis that had affected Turkey early in the new millennium.

I had studied about the country, too, but had begun to wonder whether what we saw on TV or read in books was really true. For example, Turkish language books featured black-and-white photos of alleyways and side streets where obscure looking people ply their supposedly even more obscure trade. The publicly portrayed image of Turkey early in the new millennium was one of doom and gloom. The pictures could easily have been taken 30 or 40 years ago; as a matter of fact, I do wonder whether they were and had been re-used again and again.

What I did not know back then was what I know today -- not only had European media cleverly manipulated its readers with regards to showing off a “poor, mainly Muslim state and its 70 million people” far away from Europe's roads seemingly paved with gold (once more, in the age of bailouts, a completely reversed image), but certain pro-status quo circles from within Turkey were apparently rather satisfied, enjoying the champagne lifestyle thanks to military and other forms of tutelage, while their “second class” fellow citizens were left in the cold.

A number of articles written by Turkish colleagues I had read right after arrival in Turkey did just the same -- when talking about Turkey, most articles began with the insulting words, “Turkey, a poor et cetera country of 70 million people or so et cetera mainly located in Asia et cetera.” How can we blame the European man or woman on the street when all he or she saw about Turkey was not just in black and white, but above all else the wrong version of what was really happening in Turkey?

Clean, green, charming Ankara

My first “outing” in the Turkish capital upon arrival was at a coffee shop close to the impressive city library. My wife had thought we should take in the late summer mid-morning sun and enjoy sitting outside instead. As this was her former and soon-to-be-again hometown she remembered a place that looked very inviting and spacious, with comfortable cushioned chairs and its menu favorably comparing with that of a three-star restaurant anywhere else, including central London.

The adjoining high street was, albeit located in Turkey, a replica of what one would expect in Milan or Lyon -- brand name chain stores, most banks and more restaurants. Well-dressed pedestrians, modern automobiles.

Above all else the neighborhood was leafy, green and spotlessly clean. My first morning was about to develop into something that over time would turn into a love affair of sorts between visitor-cum-resident and metropolis.

After a stopover in our new home, we continued sightseeing by walking to the nearest underground station. Taking the convenient Ankaray subway line from Beşevler station to Kızılay -- Ankara's major shopping and commercial center -- I begin to feel at home. Having arrived from the United Kingdom, and London in particular, one feels tempted to start a comparison in the sense of “what would I have done on a similar day in London? Where would I have taken a visitor or my partner? How would we have reached our destination?” In Ankara my initial reaction on the way to Kızılay was an oft-repeated “wow.” Anything, I had thought I would know about Ankara and Turkey after endless conversations with my wife and me learning about Turkish current affairs -- albeit from abroad -- for over a decade was turned upside down. Was I in for a shock or a positive surprise?

Getting used to the Turkish way of life

Either I had arrived on a parallel planet or a time machine had transported me into the future; one thing became clear already on my first day in this country: Whatever the image we had gotten used to in Europe, it was wrong, totally wrong. Walking around Kızılay, and except for the signs outside the department stores and shops, visitors could have been forgiven for forgetting that they were supposed to be in a “poor, 70 million+ nation state located somewhere in Asia” -- with reference to my previous quotations. On the contrary, where they were was in one of Europe's up-and-coming emerging markets, in a city filled with history, modernity, feel-good factor, commerce and pride. Yes, mainly Muslim, of course. Yes, at that time just over 70 million inhabitants, too. Anything else they thought they knew would have been rewritten right on their first day if only they would walk around with open eyes.

Later that noon we decided to sit in a café-bar in one of Ankara's pedestrian zones and take in the atmosphere. Young and old, men and women enjoyed their lunch break, sitting outside and sipping on a drink of whatever their fancy had told them to order.

Only one regret!

Retrospectively summing up my first day, my only regret would be not having come to Turkey sooner! But as I began my article with a reference to my profession, we have to be honest, too. There were times in this modern country's history where the above-mentioned black-and-white images may have resembled the truth, when the political system was far from stable and democracy all but in its infant stages. Back then, decades ago there was hardly anything to do for foreigners except to work as a language teacher or being employed in the diplomatic corps. More Turkish citizen moved abroad than foreigners moved here.

Please do not misunderstand me -- I am not saying that I was a fair-weather pseudo-friend of Turkey, and I am fully aware of the fact that Ankara and the relative wealth of its peoples is not as yet a mirror image of each and every town and city across the nation; much more economic prosperity has to arrive in order to establish a strong Turkish middle class. Yet, as so many fellow commentators, both Turkish and foreign, who in particularly over the last two or three years have begun to criticize the very same reform efforts they had so vehemently asked for nine years ago, I have become even more steadfast and an ever more confident supporter of this country's seemingly never-ending drive towards reform -- a look at the process to finally adopting a civilian constitution further underlines my assumption!

Ankara afterthoughts

If one is lucky enough to combine individual political interest with the chance to make a living from it and in another country, too, and above all else find friends and colleagues and raise a family, the one thing I and fellow expatriates -- in case we share the same emotions about this place -- should endeavor once (and if) the time has come to go back home is to help to portray Turkey in all its colors and no longer in black and white. It is a massive undertaking, but one that will bear fruit.

I hope you have had, or are about to have, a simply great first day in Turkey, too!



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