Five Years Abroad
Today, I’ve been in Istanbul for half a decade.
Five years ago, when I boarded an airplane on a snowy Boston night and definitively fled that chapter of my life, I imagined I would stay abroad for a year. I would teach English and write my blog and travel around this fascinating region. That first summer, I went on a six-week-long backpacking trip through Georgia, Armenia, eastern Turkey, Serbia, and Montenegro, because I thought summer 2013 would be my only summer abroad and I wanted to see as much as possible.
Clearly, I was wrong. At the end of year one, I was teaching at a kindergarten. At the end of year two, I’d just started working in travel. The end of year three felt like I was settling into my life here and the end of year four laughed at the idea— that year, nothing felt stable.
And yet here I am, at the end of year five, a year full of professional accomplishment and personal equilibrium. I gave up guessing when I’ll leave this city. For now, I’m here, and I’m happy.
Best Of The Year
The best part of this whole year was easily my May trip to Tunisia. My friend Danielle and I hoped to do stories about a Jewish pilgrimage on a tiny island called Djerba, located off the southern coat of Tunisia. We also planned to spend time in Tunis at the beginning and end of the trip. But as our departure approached, my story still hadn’t been picked up. And I was anxious about spending two weeks joined at the hip with a friend who I’d never traveled with— what if we ate each other alive?
I was foolish to worry. Danielle and I had a terrific time traveling and working together in Tunisia; it made our friendship so much stronger. My story got picked up by The Independent, and since the trip I’ve written a few other Tunisia stories for other outlets. And Tunisia! It was a revelation. Tunis was a city where I immediately felt at ease. We got lost in the labyrinthine medina, visited the ancient ruins of Carthage perched on the turquoise Mediterranean, and ate our weight in brik, a flaky fried pastry stuffed with tuna and a runny egg. I haven’t written much about Tunisia on the blog because I’ve been working on pitching my stories elsewhere, but I will eventually, because I really think everyone should visit Tunisia. And the pilgrimage itself was an intense and wonderful three-day experience. Tunisia was so rewarding in so many ways, and feels like the trip that defined my year.
A girls weekend in Macedonia.
My long weekend away with my friend Simone packed more joy into four days than I ever thought possible. We split the time between Skopje and Lake Ohrid, and though I loved the wacky concrete mishmash of Skopje and the calm magnetic beauty of Ohrid, it wasn’t the places alone that made the trip special. Most of it was Simone.
We travel together so well and always seemed to be on the same wavelength— whether that meant hiking through Matka Canyon in brightly-colored miniskirts, waking up at dawn to watch the cotton candy clouds at Ohrid, or spontaneously hopping on a boat for a quick cruise on the cerulean lake. It activated something inside me that I’d fallen out of touch with— pure, delicious joy. After that trip, I felt more like myself than I had in months. And Simone and I decided that we’re going to make these long weekend adventures a regular tradition.
Hiking in the Albanian Alps.
My trip in Albania with my friend Will was two weeks long and covered most of the major tourist destinations in the country. And it was all great! But nothing on that trip was quite as spectacular as the few days we spent hiking around Valbona, in the Albanian Alps. There, the weather was comfortable and cool (unlike the oven-like temperatures we encountered everywhere else), the nature was unreal (clear turquoise rivers, snow-capped mountains, lush green paths lined with purple thistles), and the place we stayed was rustic and welcoming. I could have lingered here so much longer, hiking all day, eating fresh baked bread and drinking beer at sunset, chatting away with new friends under a sky sparkling with stars. Albania was great, but nothing else could really compare with that splendid beginning.
The bay at Apperlae.
In September, I attempted to hike another part of the Lycian Way with my friend and constant hiking companion Patrizia. Unfortunately, it was nearly 95° every day, much too hot to hike. We did one full day but otherwise decided we’d stop around lunch whenever that we could. Which is how we ended up with an unplanned afternoon and evening in Apperlae.
The hill down to Apperlae’s bay is dotted with ancient Lycian tombs, all the way past the water’s edge. The bay is quiet and mostly isolated, with clear emerald water. We spent the afternoon swimming, reading, napping, swimming again. We probably went down to the bay three separate times to watch the way the light shifted on the water. Dancing on the shore at sunset after hours of leisure time wasn’t exactly what I envisioned when we planned this hike, but it ended up being so much better.
A winter trip to Kiev.
In the very beginning of this year— just days after my four-years-abroad-iversary— I took a much-needed trip outside of Turkey with my friend Lorena. We ended up in Kiev, partially because I had friends there and partially because Lorena had never been to Ukraine (or anywhere post-Communist). It ended up being more interesting and a little more complicated than anticipated. First, we realized after we bought the tickets that Lorena, who is Mexican, would need a visa to Ukraine. Then when we arrived, it was freezing cold and icy. And I LOVED IT. I bought a rabbit-fur hat and wore my winter boots and consumed a lot of vodka and borscht. It reminded me of the dry, sharp cold of Boston winters, and the contrast from Istanbul’s shivering wetness was welcome and a little nostalgic. Lorena did not have any nostalgia and didn’t love the cold quite as much as I did. No matter. We really solidified our friendship on this trip, holding each other up while slipping and sliding through the grimy streets of Kiev.
A commitment to house plants, yoga, and dance class.
So many of my highlights from this year are drawn from trips outside of Istanbul, but most of my life is spent in the city and it’s full of joy. This year, I made a real commitment to buying house plants, which filled my house with growing things and filled my heart with happiness. It’s become an obsession. I watched my orchid completely re-bloom in all its magenta splendor, and was gifted two more orchids by two sweet friends. I also got into a regular routine of going to yoga classes and swing dance classes, both of which continue to make my Istanbul days happy. It’s these little things that make a good life, for me.
A very nice relationship.
I purposefully don’t talk about my love life on this blog, so forgive me for remaining cryptic as I sort of break my rules, but: I spent a lot of this year in a very nice relationship with a very nice man, and it was very nice.
Worst Of The Year
Stuck in the woods after dark.
I wanted to hike before my birthday this year, especially because April is one of the nicest months to hike the Lycian Way. Two friends were eager to join and we set out through the villages of Finike and Adrasan and Cirali.
We left Cirali and headed to Tekirova, anticipating an 8-hour hike with a bit of climbing, but nothing too tough. After those eight hours, however, we still weren’t in Tekirova. On we went, and an hour later, Jen saw a yellow Lycian Way sign and scurried ahead to read it. She came back looking stricken. According to the sign, we were three hours away from Tekirova. The sun would set in one hour. We were on top of a giant hill, far away from any road or village. After a moment of panic, we set off.
We ended up hiking in the dark for two hours, picking out the path by the light of a weak flashlight and our dying iPhones. It was terrifying. When we finally stumbled into civilization, we inhaled a table full of kebabs and started laughing hysterically— I think we were all deeply relieved to be out of the woods.
This summer, I spent two weeks in the US, two weeks in Tunisia, two weeks in Albania, plus two additional trips in Turkey. By mid-August, I was completely wiped out. I didn’t leave Turkey between August and November, and I didn’t leave Istanbul after mid-September. Honestly I was just so tired and I wanted to get back to my routines, and make weekend plans without the caveat of potential travel. I also needed the space and time to re-focus on my work. One goal for this year is find a better travel-work balance. It’s tricky as a freelancer!
Money stress in Albania.
I planned to go to Albania months before the trip. By the time I actually went, I was way more stressed about money than I wanted to be. Albania is fairly cheap, but we rented a car for a week and ate out, and I found it very hard to fit in my work. This made me much more of a stress ball than I wanted to be, and affected my ability to just let go and enjoy the trip. Of course it ended up being fine, but I didn’t know it would at the time.
I got a new computer at the end of 2016, and it made so much of my life easier. It was smaller, easier to carry around, and faster; since all my work in online, it was a necessary upgrade.
In July, however, a few keys (including the letter A) stopped working. Over the next month, they would sporadically work; by mid-August, they’d stopped completely. I brought the computer in to an officially recommended shop in Istanbul.
A few weeks later, my backup drive broke.
I panicked and started the tedious process of trying to retrieve the computer, fixed or not. When I got it back after a month and a half, the keys weren’t fixed… and the computer’s hard drive had been completely wiped.
I went home to California a month later and finally got both the computer and the backup drive fixed, but I spent almost half the year with a non-functioning computer and a few months without access to any of my files, and it was pretty awful.
My Year Of Podcasts
Usually I note the best book I read this year, and while there were so many great ones (like A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara and Notes on a Foreign Country by Suzy Hansen), more of the stories that stuck with me this year came from podcasts. Initially I added podcasts to my audio diet so that I could avoid the news, but they quickly became a huge part of my day-to-day routine.
There were the limited-run podcasts that spun out contained stories, like Heaven’s Gate, Dirty John, S-Town, and Slow Burn, or the ones that used a finite number of episodes of explore an idea, like Ways of Hearing. There was one limited-run show, The Polybius Conspiracy, that made me so angry with the show itself— and yet I still find myself thinking about it. There are shows like Ear Hustle that take me places— in this case, San Quentin Prison— that are unknown to me; there are shows that educate me about my own country, like More Perfect and What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law. And then there are two of the earliest I started listening to: 99% Invisible, which helps me look at the world in a different way, and You Must Remember This, which tells fascinating stories of old Hollywood that often feel sill-relevant today.
Podcasts have brought so many stories into my life this year, and for that I am so grateful.
My Year of Earworms
Since I note the songs I loved most every month, it’s nice to put together a playlist of my musical year. As I listen to my 2017 jams, I am transported through each month—that’s how I felt in April! Or June! Or October! One of the benefits of a really lovely year is that every song carries happy memories. I hope you enjoy it.
My fifth year abroad was the steady and calm stretch I needed to reset from the tumultuous heartaches of 2016. I feel refreshed, happy, and eager for what’s to come. As I ease into my sixth year (with an appropriate amount of shock that I’ve been in Istanbul that long), I look forward to love and adventure and surprise—all the things that have kept me here, and keep me going.