Friday, December 11, 2009

Bringing up Multicultural Children in Turkey

Naturally, there is nothing more wonderful for a married couple than to hear that they are expecting a baby. “I wonder if our baby will look like me, with brown skin and a flat nose. Perhaps he or she will look like you, with fair skin and a pointed nose,” I smiled at my husband.

We wondered about our baby’s gender, of the little steps our baby would take and all the wonderful things that would come from welcoming that precious little person who would be the gem of our lives. My husband and I were no different.

The happiness was indescribable but then, whether we liked it or not, there were bound to be conflicts. I am Malaysian and was brought up in Malay society with the Malay way of life. My husband, on the other hand, is a Turk, brought up in a Turkish society with the Kayseri way on his mother’s side and the Rumelian way on his father’s side. We are two people who were brought up in two different cultures; there are so many differences in our cultural backgrounds. What were we as parents supposed to do? There were so many conflicts. We had to find a common ground. But where to start?

I, for one, have a rebellious soul. I hate rules and restrictions. I was happy enough to discover that my gynecologist, who also happens to be my brother-in-law’s sister, was a very open type kind of person. I was not given strict “dos” or “don’ts” which I expected to get from a doctor from my own country. Just imagine, I was allowed to drink coke, which was my favorite drink then during my pregnancy, and I was allowed to eat McDonald’s two days after giving birth. In Malaysia, that is almost unheard of! But deep down, despite my rebellious soul, did I crave to have the post-birth massage which we Malaysians traditionally have to make sure all the nerves in the body are corrected to their pre-birth state? Did I wish that my mother would be there to insist that I eat food cooked with lots of black pepper (to heat the body) as well as ginger (to decrease the gas in the body)? Did I dream of being forced into the traditional corset where meters of plain white cloth would be wrapped around my body to help me lose the fat around my tummy? Did I dream of being forced to drink “jamu,” the roots of various trees boiled in water and later drunk (which tastes extremely yucky) to repair and strengthen the inner parts of my body? Even though I would have rejected all these things were I to have given birth in Malaysia, being away from home made me crave them. But then, I was not living in Malaysia. I was and am living in İstanbul, and what İstanbul offered me as a new mother then was equally special in its own way.

Parental differences from the very beginning

Motherhood had introduced me to the deep level of over-protectiveness of the Turks. I had to undergo a C-section type of birth at the last minutes due to fetal distress. After the birth, at least for a week, I was not allowed to do anything. It was my mother-in-law (whom I called anne) who did everything. My job then was to rest, to recover my strength and to feed my baby. This over-protectiveness is truly evident in the way they dress their children. Take, for example, my daughter, Nur Hatice, and my son, Sabahaddin. The moment I was past the first trimester of pregnancy, the older people (my mother-in-law and my husband’s aunties) started to knit as many wool sweaters as they possibly could. Turks are very particular about keeping children warm. My daughter was a winter baby. When she was a newborn, I can remember how she was covered in layer after layer of clothing. “Keep the baby warm,” the elders kept advising me. As someone who came from a tropical country where we only see sun and rain, I naturally followed the ways of my Turkish family. When my children were older, I used to take them to a playground nearby. The over-protectiveness of the Turkish family was always evident when I saw foreign children there. The American and British kids, who used to frequent the playground, would be clothed in shorts and simple T-shirts at 14 to 20 degrees Celsius. But when I looked at my own kids and other Turkish kids, they would be covered in thick wooly sweaters with layer upon layer of clothing! It was obvious how different the upbringing of the American and British kids was from the Turkish kids. Turks simply over-clothe their children.

What about food? Would my kids grow up eating Turkish food or Malaysian food? That was a question that used to play in our minds as well. My husband had no objection to me feeding our kids Malaysian food. He himself loves some of my local dishes. But we live in İstanbul. Naturally, the ingredients available promote the preparation of Turkish food. Cooking Malaysian food is quite impossible here unless I can bring certain spices to Turkey, which is difficult. I remember feeding my daughter a very hot Tom Yam dish when she was just 5 months old. Surprisingly, she ate it with no complaint. But as she and her brother have grown up on Turkish food, the preference for Malaysian food is lost to them except for certain things like curries. Whenever we visit Malaysia, I have to cook special food for them or feed them Western fast food there. Luckily, the Indian food in Malaysia has certain similarities with Turkish food so I was feeding my kids Roti Canai for breakfast or Chapati or Nasi Kandar or Nasi Ayam for lunch or dinner most of the time. I don’t blame them. Food is an acquired taste. Your taste will always be synchronized with the food you grew up eating. Just as I will always crave Malaysian food, my husband and my half-Turkish children will always crave Turkish food.

The language dilemma

There was also this conflict in language in rearing our children. What language will they be speaking? I wanted them to be trilingual and speak Turkish, Malay and English as their native languages. Turkish is naturally vital as they live in Turkey and it is the medium of instruction here. Malay is my own language, which would be important for them to communicate with my family in Malaysia. As for English, it is a universal language which they can use everywhere they go. I believe that a child’s brain can comprehend all three languages in one go. Such a thought sounded logical to me, though not to my husband. The possessiveness of a person, namely my husband, over their language was evident when we had to face this issue. It reminded me of how the French are overprotective of the French language. My husband is no different. He insisted that our kids be taught only Turkish for the first five years of their lives. Only later, they should learn English and Malay. He didn’t want his children’s minds to be polluted by any other language; they should only learn his mother tongue as this is where they live. After a lot of heated discussions, it was finally agreed that they would be speaking Turkish as their mother tongue and that English and Malay would come later.

It was agreed upon. Be that as it may, there was also another challenge that accompanied this decision. As a bride in a new land, after our marriage, I had developed a resistance to learning Turkish. I subconsciously felt the threat of losing my own identity if I were to accept the Turkish language. I rejected the language, insisting that I would speak English forever. It was only after I got pregnant that I began to relax and somehow accepted opening up my mind and subconsciously learnt the language through the interactions of daily life. Just think, how was a mother who only has the most basic of Turkish (who refused to learn Turkish except through acquisition) and who spent 24/7 with her kids be expected to teach them Turkish properly? I mean, I practically learned Turkish together with my children. Even now, after 10 years of marriage, I still subconsciously refuse to learn the language properly. What hope do my kids have to be excellent speakers of Turkish? Fortunately, the Zaim family has a close knit relationship. When my late mother-in-law and father-in-law were alive, we used to go to their home almost every day. My kids learned their early speech there as their Uncle Kerim and their Auntie Mehveş were always there as well. The rest of the siblings and their families also often get together. It is at the times when the parents spend hours chatting and the 10 cousins play with each other that my kids improve on their communicative skills. Right now, my daughter is an excellent speaker of the language, while my son is expanding his ability particularly with the help of his teachers in school. Yes, their mother tongue is Turkish. English is their second language and Malay is in the process of being learnt.

My lack of knowledge of Turkish also led us to another test; my children’s schooling. Right now, my daughter is in the third grade, while my son is in second grade. They go to one of the Coşkun private schools, which is a Turkish school. I do confess that the hardest part for me is homework time. It was when my daughter was in second grade that I realized that except for English lessons, I could not help them with their homework anymore. My Turkish is limited, and I am unable to explain or help them solve many of the problems in their homework. How am I to answer the questions on the synonyms or antonyms of Turkish words? What would I know of mathematical terminology? Furthermore, they come from a school system different from mine. It is really heartbreaking for a mother when you cannot help your child when they need help. Whether I like it or not, that is my reality. My husband helps the kids whenever he is at home. During his absence, however, I have the advantage of my kids having a year’s gap between them. My daughter, for example, can explain many things to her brother, simply because she learned the same thing a year before. On things that she cannot understand or help with, I am lucky enough to have many sisters-in-law who are more than willing to help answer any enquiries by phone that my children may have regarding their homework. Our other option is to write notes on the things my kids could not do at home, and the hardworking teachers at school will usually explain the matter to them later in class. In short, my kids are fated to depend on themselves and others to help them academically because of the inefficiency of their mother.

Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Only time will tell. For now, I am truly grateful for any help I can get. What I see is this; The conflicts that occur in rearing our children in the Turkish environment are no doubt hard for me as an expat mother, as we have had to make so many compromises to reach a common ground. Yet, they are what make everything exciting as well as complicated. I think my children are growing up nicely mainly because my husband and I will always be there for them. And what we lack, we have in the support of our family, relatives, teachers and friends who are willing to help guide them in developing their potential.

Motherhood is a challenge as well as a blessing no matter who you marry or where you choose to live. It is how you choose to enjoy it.

11 December 2009, Friday

Friday, September 11, 2009

Ramadan welcome to the celebration

As I look at the wonderful spread of Turkish food on the table as it is almost time for iftar, the Turkish word for the fast-breaking meal during the month of Ramadan, my mind races back to yesteryear. I would be lying if I told you that I did not find İstanbul an interesting city.

I mean, look at its history and its architecture. It is a city in its own right, rich and diverse. And come Ramadan, well, festive and lively definitely are among the words that come to my mind. There is a change in the atmosphere in İstanbul that only comes with the appearance of the month where observant Muslims fast from dawn to dusk. A month I feel like none other.

Occasionally, I do ask myself, why is İstanbul different when Ramadan comes? Is it the fact that suddenly you see dates sold everywhere? Or is it because people suddenly flock to shops to buy cheese, olives, sucuk, salami and all the things that people like as a part of the iftar? Or is it the fact that there is always a long line at the bakery toward iftar time when people wait patiently to get the freshest and hottest pide, the bread usually eaten during iftar and which is normally produced only in this month? Or is it the fact that when iftar time arrives, you will suddenly see İstanbul traffic almost disappear and restaurants and homes full of people waiting to break their fast together, feasting on all the rich varieties of food that are unique to Turks? And, of course, güllaç is the dessert of the month. What about the sudden appearance of drummers called “davulcu,” with their big double-headed drums, who walk around neighborhoods very early in the morning while beating a variety of rhythms to wake people up for suhoor (the pre-dawn meal before fasting begins)?

Yes, these are among the simplest things that change the atmosphere of İstanbul when Ramadan comes. But what I love most is the fact that when I pass mosques, I see them illuminated by “mahya,” colored light bulbs strung between the minarets of mosques, shaped to form words like “Hoş geldin ya şehr-i Ramazan” (Welcome the holy month of Ramadan) or banners hung near the entrance of mosques that say “Oruç tut, sıhhat bul” (Fast and you will find health). Smaller mosques in residential areas may not have mahyas as part of their decoration. Still, they are wonderfully decorated with lights. The lights contrast magnificently with the darkness of the night, as if calling people to rejoice. The big mosques of İstanbul such as the Eyüp Mosque, the Fatih Mosque and the Sultanahmet Mosque (Blue Mosque) are always a sight to see during Ramadan. Such a sight is even more amazing when one is being lulled by the wonderful voice of the imam from the mosque reading the Quran, particularly toward iftar time. One feels so soothed listening to the lullaby of the Quran that one tends to forget the hunger and thirst one may be experiencing. I particularly love it when I see families, toting their youngsters along, going to mosques for the terawih prayer, a special prayer observed only during Ramadan, after the isha (yatsı) prayer. People are rushing to mosques to be closer to God and to be better Muslims and better people.

The fact that the İstanbul Metropolitan Municipality has also worked hard to turn the city into an entertainment center during Ramadan makes the month even more special than it already is. There are a lot of activities planned all over İstanbul to keep everyone of all ages entertained from iftar until suhoor. The three most festive areas are Eyüp, Fatih and Sultanahmet. People usually flock to these places in the thousands to enjoy puppet shows, games, food stalls, art, exhibitions, sales and even live performances that go late into the night. These places are always crowded. People want to be there when they break their fast. They want to pray at mosques and enjoy the upbeat delights. As a result, restaurants are filled with customers during iftar. People also usually bring their own food and mats and break their fast in the area surrounding mosques. On weekends in particular, people can barely find space to sit to enjoy the food they bring as people from outside of İstanbul also tend to flock to these places. That is why İstanbulites normally prefer to stay away from these places during weekends. Two Saturdays ago, my family and I went to the Eyüp area for an iftar. Just imagine, we reached Eyüp at 5 p.m., and the traffic was terrible. Everybody was trying to head toward Eyüp. The big parking lot at Feshane was almost full (that is almost three hours before iftar).The inside and the surrounding area of the Eyüp Mosque were totally overcrowded. We had to hold hands in a chain as we walked in order to avoid losing each other. If you talk about overcrowding in a positive way, then yes, Ramadan is the time when this happens continuously in these places. It is a month of carnivals, when families spend time together, worship at holy places and enjoy themselves celebrating in an enthusiastic mood.

Iftar tents throughout the city

Another prominent feature that shows Ramadan is here in İstanbul is when you see Ramadan tents (iftar çadırı) being set up to provide free meals to those who come. There is usually a very long line where people are given completely free, hot meals in containers. This is in line with the concept of fasting where giving and sharing is among the key concepts of the month. The tents are normally provided by various organizations including the municipal authority and charity organizations such as Kimse Yok Mu. This way, the less fortunate are given a hot meal during Ramadan. No one is to be left hungry. In addition, these organizations also generally help the less fortunate by distributing basic food rations such as rice, wheat, oil, sugar and salt in pre-packed boxes. Even supermarkets sell these food rations during Ramadan as there are individuals who want to buy and distribute the rations themselves to the underprivileged. This is the spirit of Ramadan. This is when the needy put smiles on their faces as they are showered with the basic necessities that make a big difference in their lives. It is a reason to be joyous.

But the change of atmosphere in İstanbul during Ramadan is not merely about giving and sharing with the less fortunate or how İstanbul is transformed into a festival of lights, sounds and action. The change is deeper than that. It is about the solidarity in spirit that people experience as they successfully complete their fasting and enjoy it with the people they love, be it inside their own homes or outside in a crowded space. It is also about every Muslim trying to be a better person as they continue with their fasting, trying not to succumb to their desires. It is also about how during this celebration of Ramadan, businesses flourish, which leads to a better economy for a better living and overall prosperity for everyone. Yes, this is Ramadan. Man or woman, old or young, privileged or underprivileged, this is a festival of life. So let's celebrate.

10 September 2009, Thursday



It was early December 2008 when I asked my kids, “Do you want to pick up your baba [father] from the airport?” Both shouted an excited yes.

The thing is, till then, I had never driven a car to the European side of İstanbul. I had no idea about the way. But since everybody in the family just said, “Go straight,” with the bravery I dreamt of possessing, I collected my inner strength and sat behind the wheel.

I drove straight without making any turns, thinking that I was driving toward the second bridge, but in truth, I was heading toward the first bridge. I was supposed to turn left before going straight ahead. When I reached Üsküdar, I knew straight away that I was going the wrong way. Going straight meant I was supposed to reach the bridge to the European side, but Üsküdar is definitely on the Asian side of İstanbul. Where is the bridge? I kept on driving, stopping at gas stations, asking for directions, not really knowing where I was heading, my head painfully throbbing from stress, especially with two kids in tow. Outwardly, I was trying to be calm. Finally, I saw a familiar place, the Capitol shopping center. Thank God. I drove to Polis Hastane nearby where I knew there was a taxi stop. I asked for directions from taxi drivers only to find myself more confused than ever. I finally decided to go home instead of going to the airport and paid a taxi driver TL 15 to lead the way toward my home with me tailing behind in my own car. Halfway, the taxi driver stopped somewhere and told me that he talked to his colleagues and that the traffic to the European side was clear. Not wanting to disappoint my kids who really wanted to pick up their baba from the airport, I again changed my direction and drove the car toward the bridge with the taxi driver showing me the turn to the Bosporus Bridge. We later parted ways. After almost 100 kilometers of driving, taking “wonderfully” wrong turns just to reach the bridge (not to mention wasting TL 15 along the way), the kids and I finally managed to reach the airport safe and sound.

Well, you may think what I did that day was funny. I mean who in their right mind would pay a taxi driver TL 15 as a guide home, eh? You may also sneer and think that I should not have driven at all, especially not knowing the road. Only a mad person would do that. Some of you may compliment my determination, though I did falter at a point. Finally being able to sit behind the wheel and drive on the scary roads of İstanbul is such a great memory. Yes, I was and am driving.

How ironic is it to think that when I wrote my first piece in Today's Zaman on Nov. 6, 2007, I had complained of the terrible traffic, narrow roads and the dangerous yet interesting way of driving in İstanbul. I vowed that I would never ever be in the driver's seat. But that is the thing, isn't it? One should never say “never” because you may have to eat your words. Well, I did.

I first got my driving license in Malaysia 17 years ago. I used to drive when I was back home, “kidnapping” my dad's car whenever possible. Unfortunately, İstanbul had actually killed my courage to drive. This fear had eaten me up on the inside, making me shameful of my inability to drive. It had followed me like a shadow, making me feel incomplete, my inner self battling to find the courage I lacked. It was only on a day when my husband had a kidney stone when we were at our summer house and had to drive himself to the hospital that I finally found the desire to drive, for emergency situations. And when he finally bought our first car (we used his auntie's car for years), I finally managed to fight the demons that had been eating me up on the inside.

The thing is, I do not think I am alone in this fear of driving, particularly among ladies, on the roads of İstanbul. I think subconsciously it has a lot to do with the stereotype that women are always considered bad drivers. When someone parks the car terribly or someone drives slowly compared to the rest or someone makes a sloppy U-turn, automatically someone will think that the driver is a woman. In İstanbul, many times I have witnessed that male drivers in particular will honk their horns at women drivers for what they perceive is slow driving. I, myself, once driving at 100 kilometers an hour in the slow lane, was honked at by a truck driver for slow driving (100 kilometers an hour is slow in the slow lane?). Not only that, you can also witness swearing by their male counterparts concerning the way women drive. It is as if there is no patience at all when it comes to driving. Ironically, I do not see people honking their horns when a male driver makes an illegal turn, which happens far too often on the roads of İstanbul. Curse the ladies, ignore the male wrongdoers. Is that fair?

Everybody needs to get somewhere. Reaching a place a little bit later will not harm anyone. To women who are still trying to get used to driving, being honked at or being cursed at can be very disheartening. This kind of stereotyping, whether one likes it or not, does damage women's self-esteem while driving. It also affects their driving skills. Recent studies show that women exposed to such stereotypes have a bigger risk of acting like “bad drivers,” thus contributing to a higher risk of accidents. Naturally, things are made even worse when one goes on the Internet and sees Web sites with pictures and videos of how bad women drive. They can be very degrading. The question is, isn't it bad enough for women in İstanbul who are starting to drive to have fear of the already frightening traffic and roads, with having to at the same time feel insecure over this stereotype?

Personally, I see myself as a competent and responsible driver. Admittedly, I need help with parking. In my mind, I know how to park perfectly, theories and all. But as a result of this stereotype, my self-esteem regarding my parking capabilities is not very high. On a busy road, I do not have enough confidence to park the car because I know I will park slowly, with waiting cars honking at me. I hate being honked at. Consequently, I usually go places where I can park easily. Fortunately, I have every intention of not being laughed at or honked at while trying to park. That is why whenever possible, I practice my parking slowly in the apartment's parking lot or at my kids' school. The stereotype may state that women are bad drivers, but women drivers do not have to be that way. We should not let a simple belief among society dictate the way we drive. We are not the atrocious drivers society in general wants us to believe we are.

It took me almost nine years to find the courage to drive again. It has been almost a year since I started driving on the roads of İstanbul. My personal finding is this: driving is just like learning to swim. It is not very hard. It is only after you have confidence and trust in yourself that you will be able to drive. It is actually less scary to be in the driver's seat than to sit next to the driver since you are the one controlling the car. You can see how narrow the road is, whether your car can pass another car. The control of the car is yours. Once you have gained that inner confidence, it does not matter where you are driving, be it İstanbul or even New York. One should always believe in oneself.

Encouragement from your loved ones definitely helps. When I first started to drive our then-new car, I asked my husband: “What if I hit something? What if I scratch the car? Won't you be sad?” His answer was: “If you hit something, then you hit something. So what? You can do it.” That boosted my confidence because he trusts me. That is why, if one can overcome one's fears, one will be all right.

Learning how to drive in the scary traffic in İstanbul, one also needs a lot of patience, in the sense that you know that some drivers (male or female) may turn to the left or right without signaling. You know that a minibus driver may sway to the left side or the right side of the road at a second's notice and perhaps no notice at all. You know that a minibus driver may also stop when you least expect it. You also know that there will always be some impatient drivers who will honk at you if you fail to move the car the second the traffic light turns green. There will always be those unexpected moments when a driver will make a turn where he or she should not. It is when you know what to expect from other drivers that you become a better driver since you know what to look for. You know what danger you may be in. You know what kind of irritation you may expect from others behind the wheel.

When you begin to drive, it helps of course to drive where the traffic is not too heavy. My route was from our summer house in the village of Mahmudiye, driving downhill toward Kırkpınar in Sapanca. I later expanded my driving from Sapanca to İstanbul and slowly around the Asian side and a few familiar routes on the European side. It is always wise to stick to familiar routes in the beginning because the roads in İstanbul can be very confusing. There are thousands of roads one can get lost on. Even the familiar roads can have a “no entry” sign one day and a “with entry” sign the next day. That is why it is my dream to have a global positioning system (GPS) in our car so that I will not get lost. That may have to stay a dream, but hey, I am a woman, and I am driving in İstanbul. So?

04 August 2009, Tuesday


Thursday, July 9, 2009

This force of nature!

Nature is a force to be reckoned with. It can be terribly horrifying and life threatening, but also beautiful and peaceful.

I felt as if I were transported back to my years of growing up on Langkawi Island in Malaysia, full of nature and beauty, of peace and tranquility. Gigantic trees tower over the ground while wilted brown-colored leaves cover mother earth. “Come, step on me,” I could sense them beckoning me. “Come wander to places I roam free,” they invited me. The sound of a gushing waterfall running freely toward the lake and the croaking of frogs accompanied birdsongs as fish swam freely in the lakes. Green all over, with very minimal signs of modernization and almost no noise coming from vehicles to pollute the beauty of the surroundings that mother nature provided us, untouched by human hands: heaven on earth.

I didn't expect to see what I saw that day. There we were, on the way back home to İstanbul after spending five days at the Asya Thermal Hotel in Kızılcahamam. The hotel was surrounded by mountains, producing an indescribable air of freshness. The view of nature during our 16 kilometer drive to the top of Soğuksu Milli Parkı (Soğuksu National Park) left my husband in awe of the view nature provided us, something very rare for İstanbulites.

It was with that wonder in his heart, as we rode to İstanbul, that my beloved suddenly suggested we go to Yedigöller Milli Parkı (Seven Lakes National Park) in northern Bolu. It was an unplanned visit, so we ended up having to stop many times to ask for directions to the park.

I would be lying if I said the 42-kilometer-long road up and down the hills did not scare me. Every time my husband tried to open the car window for some fresh air, our children, born and raised in İstanbul, continuously shrieked: “Baba, please close the window and turn on the A/C! The bees or other insects might come into the car!” Life was totally evident in the surroundings. Anything could have decided to say “hi” to us, be they the bees, the deer, the squirrels, the foxes, the jackals or even the cows! For kids who are not used to insects and life in nature, they felt scared. I, on the other hand, was more afraid of the not-so-smooth road, of the holes on the way, of the at times narrow road, of the possibilities of stones falling down onto the car. I have to agree with my beloved when he said: “I suppose they keep the road this terrible so that many people won't come. Only that way will nature not be destroyed.” What a pity, isn't it? Humans, whether deliberately or otherwise, tend to destroy beautiful things.

It took us one hour and 20 minutes to reach Seven Lakes. But despite my fear of the bumpy road, I could not fail to notice the stunning forest landscapes. Just imagine, the 550-hectare Yedigöller National Park is located on two plateaus. Basking in the beauty of majestic trees such as beech trees, oaks, hornbeams, alders and black pines along the way, I was stunned by how I had wasted almost 10 years without a sight like this. True, I was used to such things as I was growing up, but to find this gorgeous beauty here, not so far away from İstanbul? I was awed! Even my husband kept telling himself, “Maşallah, subhanallah,” when he looked at the landscape, not really believing this gift from God standing in front of his eyes. He encouraged the children and me to take as many deep breaths as possible, saying the air is fresh. This was nature at its best!

The name “Seven Lakes” comes from the seven lakes that form the park; namely, Büyükgöl, Deringöl, Seringöl, Nazlıgöl, Sazlıgöl, İncegöl and Küçükgöl. They are not located very far from one another and can be reached on foot or by car. I do not imagine that this place is accessible in the winter due to the rough road, but I assume the green summer will be followed by a fall providing a landscape of reds, yellows and all those glorious fall colors that come with the season. I simply find this place extremely charming!

We reached the lakes area at around 4:30 p.m. My scared-of-insects kids, upon seeing the place, started to open up to their nature-loving side. My son ran and led the way toward the small streams of waterfalls, soaking his feet in the freezing cold water with a huge grin on his face. He practically ran up along the preset trekking route while my beloved, my daughter and I followed as we kept reminding him to stop when he was out of sight, all fears evidently gone. Nature simply brought out the best in us. It also didn't matter that we only had Pringles, tea and cold water (we came unprepared, remember?) to munch on as we sat on the wooden table by the lake to watch the fish swim. We were far to engulfed by the beauty of this force of nature. We were enthralled by it.

It was also possible to stay a night or two in the area. There is a place reserved for camping where special stone stoves are provided by the authority for campers to cook. A clean toilet is also provided while there are water pipes taking water from the free-flowing stream feeding the waterfall to accommodate thirsty throats. I later discover that there are also small bungalows belonging to the Ministry of Environment and Forestry for those who wish to linger around for a longer period. Even though there is a trout production farm at Deringöl and one can buy and cook the fish in the nearby stoves, one has to come fully prepared as this is a place far away from everything. Civilization is not near, despite the fact that you can find a few village houses along the way. I strongly recommend you go with more than just Pringles and tea.

As we were running out of time, we left Seven Lakes at around 6:20 p.m. without seeing all seven lakes. After being engulfed by such beauty, the journey from the lake area to Bolu no longer seemed scary at all. Deep down, however, I envy those who came with four-wheel drive, but I know one thing for sure: Our hearts remain in Seven Lakes. God-willing, we will be back!

09 July 2009, Thursday

Ankara Orman Bölge Müdürlüğü (Ankara Forestry Directorate) Tel.: (312) 213 54 78, (312) 212 63 00

Timeshare vacation, anyone?

Oh, yes! Here comes the sun! A very hot one, I might add. The summer school holiday is upon us again, only this year there are 100 days of holiday -- much longer than in previous years, as the summer vacation period coincides with the end-of-Ramadan Eid al-Fitr celebrations (Şeker Bayramı in Turkish). More than three months of holiday? Hmm… That's a long time, I must say.
Until moving to Turkey, I never really bothered with the summer holidays. I actually felt weird with all the fuss that people made on TV about the holiday. I grew up in a place where every day of the year is practically summer. There is only sun and rain. There is no such thing as four seasons of weather conditions, and the longest school holiday is a maximum of one-and-a-half months at the end of the year.

My dad is a retired marine officer. He worked on his ship, away from home, for months at a time. Naturally, whenever he was at home, he preferred to stay home with his family. Going on vacations? I can't really remember going anywhere. Maybe that was because we generally lived on beautiful tourist-destination islands until my father retired. So there was really no need for him to take all six of his children on vacations: We were on vacation every day!

Turks, on the other hand, I find to be holiday-goers. When summer comes, families ask each other about their plans for the summer. It is the time of the year where everyone finds it only natural to get away somewhere. In fact, there is an unwritten need for a getaway, to escape the hustle and bustle of city life.

There are a few patterns I have observed over the last 10 years. For vacations, naturally the where, when and how depend on what a person can afford, both in terms of finances and time. In İstanbul for example, those who cannot afford a getaway simply spend their summer holiday visiting places within İstanbul itself. They go to places where they can spend less money while still allowing each member of the family to have an enjoyable time. Some people simply go back to their villages and spend time for a while where the cost of living is much cheaper, for a breath of fresh air. Of course, returning to family villages is an activity not limited to the less fortunate. People living in big cities find summer the best time to visit their respective villages and catch up with relatives, as the long holiday affords maximum time to enjoy the life, food and scenery of their villages. Many holiday-goers travel to places of their choice and stay at hotels for their vacation, flocking to popular tourist destinations like Antalya, Bodrum and many others. The more fortunate, who have their own summer homes, flock to their summer houses during the summer holidays. But there is another concept of vacation, one which has simply fascinated me from the beginning. It is the concept of the “timeshare,” or what the Türks refer to as “devre mülk”.

Understanding ‘devre mülk’

A timeshare is a form of ownership, more specifically the right to use a property for an allotted period of time each a year. In Turkey, it is normally two weeks, with the same timeshare date every year. However, the sharer does not actually own the property. The property developer owns the property. Your right is to stay at your timeshare unit during the specified time. It is basically a temporary ownership.

Timeshare properties, normally in apartment or condominium-style units, are usually designed to accommodate a family. For instance, one of the Zaim family's timeshare units, in Körfez, is designed to accommodate five people. There is a bedroom with a queen bed for two people, while there are enough sofa beds to accommodate three more people. It also has a bathroom (with a large tub) and a kitchen. The kitchen is equipped with enough utensils to accommodate all five people: five glasses, five plates, five forks, five knives, etc. Everything is designed for five people -- even the towels and blankets are sufficient for five people. Naturally there is also a television, air-conditioner and refrigerator. In other, fancier timeshare properties, I assume dishwashers are included as well.

Why does this timeshare concept fascinate me? Well, for a start, if one is to go on vacation and stay at a hotel every year, how long can an average middle class working family afford to stay there? The general answer, I assume, is roughly a week. For a larger family, the cost will be even higher. Yes, staying in a hotel is nice, but I personally do not find it very cost effective. Furthermore, when you stay at a hotel, by the end of the day, no matter how many stars the hotel has, it is still a room with a bed and a bathroom. Space is limited. There is simply not enough room to roam around.

In a timeshare, a person pays a certain amount of money depending on their agreement with the developer while the timeshare unit is constructed. However, once the unit is completed, I find the fee very affordable. Take, for example, our timeshare unit in Körfez. I remember that my late father-in-law paid a lot of money while it was under construction. Nonetheless, after that, for every year, we only pay once a year, when we come to stay at the timeshare unit. This year, for example, we paid TL 375, with an additional TL 8 since I “lost” a saucepan and we overused the electricity. Still, for two weeks of vacation, this is very cheap. The maintenance fee is included in the TL 375. Conversely, if one stays at a hotel, it can cost a minimum of TL 150 per room per night. Staying at a hotel for seven nights would cost at minimum TL 1050. I have two kids. Once they're a bit more grown up, we will need two hotel rooms, which will double hotel expenses. That is why a meager TL 375 for two weeks is, to me, basically a free holiday.

Stepping outside the city: summerhouses

What about summerhouses? Indeed, it is wonderful to have one. To spend one's holiday at one's own place, away from the city and free to do as one pleases for as long as one pleases. My sister-in-law's parents, for example, have a summerhouse on the Gulf of Saros. Spring comes, and they start abandoning their home in Istanbul to start planting vegetables and fruits in their summerhome garden. They love it there, as the sea is near and they are surrounded by their produce. Isn't that a great way to spend your holiday? For years our family (and the rest of the Zaim family) never failed to escape the heat of İstanbul at the family's summer home in Mahmudiye, Sapanca, where the house -- with a garden on top of the hill and a private swimming pool for the kids to splash in -- is the perfect summer getaway. Indeed, summer homes are a godsend -- but then, how many of us can afford our own summer home? This is why timeshares are an option holiday-goers should consider. I personally think that in the long run it is a much cheaper option for a vacation.

Each timeshare holder has a specific date in a year. What if you can't come on that date every year? What happens then? Luckily, one can ask the company to rent out your unit to others. Another possibility is to ask whether there is an empty unit, so you can go to at another date. For instance, our timeshare unit in Körfez is in September. This year, for example, due to Ramadan, we decided to not go on vacation then. Therefore, we asked whether there were any units available at another time. The answer was affirmative, and they found us a unit. Consequently, we vacationed there two weeks ago. Yes, we didn't stay at our own unit, but the units are almost identical. It didn't really matter. What matters is the fact that the exchange date option made it possible for us to go there. Another good thing about timeshares is that you pay only once. This time, for example, we could only stay for a week. There was one more week left. Anyone from the family (or even friends) can come and stay at the unit until the allocated period is over without having to pay. The payment is only made once. There is no restriction on who comes to stay there. That is a great advantage, indeed.

Of course, the concept of timeshares is not as widespread in Turkey as in America or in the rest of Europe. In Turkey, timeshare developers are scarce, but the concept is becoming an option for long-term vacation investments. Nonetheless, it all depends on the developers. Our Körfez unit, for example, is excellently maintained by the developer. The unit is in good shape even as it ages. There are other timeshare units in other places owned by the family which are not as well maintained. This is why the credibility of the units' developers and the future maintenance of the units should be taken into consideration. If you choose the right developer and the right location, I truly believe that timeshare-owning is the way to go. If one dislikes the timeshare location or the unit, there is also the option of selling your timeshare, despite not owning the property. One way or another, one does not lose much.

No matter how and where one chooses to spend one's time in the summer, it is always great to be able to go away somewhere, even for a day. Who wouldn't want to laze around and forget all their worries for a day or two, eh? Check in at a hotel, enjoy your summerhouse or even your timeshare unit; whatever you choose, the aim is always to relax. Still, summer is a long time to fill. Visit places of interest, go to the beach, swim at a swimming pool or simply stay at home and watch DVDs -- the options are countless. If you can't afford the time or the money to go to holiday resorts for a lazy getaway at the beach, there's no reason to fret. For several years now, the local authority in İstanbul has been cleaning the waterfront. There are public points, starting from Fenerbahçe (in Asia) and continuing all the way to Caddebostan and further, where the public can now soak themselves under the sun and swim in the sea. Who says you need to go somewhere far and costly to sunbathe? The answer to your prayers may be just a step away, and you won't even need to spend hundreds of lira. İstanbul has a lot to offer in every sense. In this time of economic crisis, staying put can be enjoyable, too. You just need to be creative and flexible.

Happy Holidays, everyone!

26 June 2009, Friday

Give me a place to have fun

The opening ceremony of the Sabahattin Zaim Youth and Culture Center, built in honor of Professor Sabahattin Zaim who was known as the teacher of teachers, took place in Ümraniye, İstanbul on Friday. When you practically live in box houses, where a garden of your own is simply a dream, your life revolves around your work and your studies and then it's back to the box house again.

You don't speak to strangers; you don't allow your kids to play outside your own box, since it is not safe to be out there. This is İstanbul, after all. And do we know our own neighbors? Usually not. So what is there that life in İstanbul can offer you except all work and no play? This society, where social solidarity as a whole was once taken for granted, is now being replaced by a society that is defined by only the surrounding of the immediate family or family friends and people we know at work or at school. I am sure our grandmothers and grandfathers would have gasped in shock over the present condition of our society. But such things are unavoidable. Where there is development, people flock. Overpopulation emerges and, along with it, the unavoidable change in living conditions.

Last Friday, my husband and I attended the Ümraniye Municipality's opening ceremony for the Sabahattin Zaim Youth and Culture Center in honor of my late father-in-law, Professor Sabahattin Zaim, also known as "Hocanın Hocası" (the teacher of teachers).

True, the Zaim family feels honored by such a gesture. However, what interests me most as an expat is the usefulness of such a center. It is not just a building. As you approach the center, you see beautiful stone steps going up toward the building. As you walk, the water feature accompanies your every step, alongside the newly planted baby pine trees. The youth can gather there. They can sit by the water feature and just hang around, chatting with their friends. There is a swing for the younger kids to play on. Your steps toward the white structure of the center itself can be made useful as your eyes feast on the beautiful scene.
The center consists of a library and a few rooms for activities and lessons, to be used by society and to cater to people's needs.

From what I saw of the center, which has been in use since Jan. 1, many people are benefiting from it. One room is equipped with computers and Internet so that the children in the area will have full access to the Internet, whether to surf the net for pleasure (games) or for academic purposes. Classes are conducted for those who don't know how to use a computer with friendly instructors to guide them through. Indirectly, this ensures that the society in the surrounding area is computer literate. But, most importantly, such a class will lead the young to utilize their time in a more beneficial way. Turkey, after all, has one of the youngest populations in the world, with about 20 million people under the age of 30. How do you protect them from experimenting with tobacco, alcohol, illicit drugs and sexual activity? This is where such centers play an important role. These centers can serve as protective factors against the risks of involvement in potentially problematic behaviors.

In another room, women were busy learning the arts of embroidery, cross-stitching and knitting. I think such classes are really vital to preserving the beauty of the Turkish people's embroidery culture. In terms of tourism, I think it is one of the best features of the people of this land. Such intricate handwork, such lively colors, such patience in the making of each embroidered work; this should be taught and promoted in order to ensure that such skills do not die out. It is also the best way of providing the women with skills that can be used for home-based businesses. And of course, such classes also provide a platform for social interaction that will lead to a more close-knit relationship between the people in society. Other types of classes, including English classes, are also on offer. These classes are selected based on the needs of society.

"I wish I could learn embroidery like these women," and, "I wish we had such a center near my home," were exactly my thoughts as I walked around the center. Because, you see, society will not be able to utilize these opportunities unless the path to them is made open for them. I truly think that centers such as this should be built throughout İstanbul. Every area needs a center where people can meet and do something together while getting to know each other. I find Turks a very caring and friendly lot, but what a pity that such caring and friendliness are generally contained within the family and not fostered in a more open way within the society. I truly believe such centers, backed by the local municipalities, can promote a more lively society. In Ümraniye alone, there are a total of 15 youth and culture centers that have been built in the past five years. But is that enough? What about other places? How many such places are there in total in İstanbul?

People need specific places and facilities to socialize as a society. The youth need programs that they consider "fun" to fill their time with. Centers like this may be the answer. But are there enough of them?

05 March 2009, Thursday

Monday, November 17, 2008


Individual financial suicide? That is truly an easy thing to do if you are not careful while living in Turkey. There are two dangerous patterns here: credit cards and easy bank loans.

There is no doubt that credit cards are a vital part of living here. It is not very surprising since, for years, Turkey was plagued by very high annual inflation rates. When I arrived in 1999, it was 64.9 percent.

At that time, even though I was happy to be able to hold my first million, it was a scary indication of how terrible the economy was since that million was only enough to buy a few loaves of bread. Carrying a large sum of cash to buy things with was not the smartest thing to do, so people had resorted to using credit cards in place of cash. At that time, the concept of buying your things using what Turks call “taksit” (monthly installments) was a very wise thing to do since prices increased almost every time you entered a store. That was why it was better to buy things before their prices increased and then divide the payments over several months. Türks got used to this concept.

As years went by, the concept of taksit kept on getting better. Originally just three or four monthly payments, business owners have now made deals with banks to allow their customers to extend their monthly payments over 12 months (or even more). It was indeed a good strategy to attract potential customers and encourage people to buy more.

However, the inflation rate has gotten much better, decreasing from 64.9 percent in 1999 to 9.8 percent in 2007, and prices do not increase as often as they used to. Therefore, the reason why installment plans became so popular nine years ago is no longer applicable. But the concept of buying on installments has been in society for so long that people, including myself, simply see it as a part of life. It is a good thing, too. If you need to buy a fridge, for example, but do not have enough cash, what do you do? Paying for the fridge on a monthly basis over 12 months is definitely the best way to go about it. How many people do you know who can afford to pay the lump sum?

Unfortunately, those who are not careful pay for everything -- from their groceries to their clothing to their household expenses -- in installments without budgeting. Buying one thing after another on credit, even though the amounts may be small, some people eventually find themselves in debt with their bank, barely able to make the monthly payments. As a result, some resort to making only the minimum monthly payment on their credit cards to make ends meet, but they continue paying for future purchases in installments and end up stuck in the trap of skyrocketing interest. This is a good thing for the bank, naturally, but it is definitely a bad situation for the credit card user. So how do you get out of this?

Ah, that is easy, people might say, get a bank loan. I just can’t believe how easily loans are given out to people here in Turkey. By just sending a message with Turkish ID numbers, for example, one can get an easy loan. Almost all banks are giving loans very easily to people, at times causing me to wonder, “Don’t Turkish people realize that these loans and these monthly payments are, after all, debt? Why go from one debt to another?”

Many have fallen into this financial trap. Easy monthly payments and easy loans are good only when you know how to budget your expenses. The fact that they are debt does not change, and in this global financial crisis, who can say that we will still be in the same financial situation we were a month ago? Will we be able to make all the payments in the future? We need to be careful. No matter how fascinating it is to make small monthly payments each month on things we buy, we still need to carefully consider what we can and cannot afford. We have to ask ourselves, “Do we really need to buy this?” Just be careful. Plan your needs to avoid ending up in a financial mess. Going bankrupt is not worth it.

14 November 2008, Friday