10 Years Abroad

Part 1: 1001 Turkish Nights (or more like 1750 to be exact)

On 16 September 2010 I took the afternoon flight from Düsseldorf to Istanbul. A Thursday. I had waited for weeks for my German service passport with the visa for Turkey to be issued. I stayed in my empty apartment, mostly waiting. Since most of my belongings were already on a truck to be transported to my new home, I valued the toilet seat as my only sitting possibility. I missed the introductory week at my new school – my first job after teaching training. Eventually, I received the passport and booked a flight for the next day. I still remember that my seatmate on the plane accidentally poured her salad over my sweater. I don’t recall anymore how I got from the airport into the city, but I spent the first night in my then principal’s guest room.

The next day he took me to school and I got a short version of the introduction. I also moved into my own apartment that I had already rented when I had first visited Istanbul in July 2010. For the next eight weeks I would sleep on a borrowed air mattress. The three big rooms and the balcony would stay empty until my furniture and all other things finally arrived (having spent quite a bit of time stuck at customs).

I moved to Istanbul even though I had never been to Turkey even once before. But I was 26, felt grown-up and invincible. Looking back I think it was exactly this mix of courage and recklessness that had me hurl myself into this fabulous adventure. Well, and ten-year-old me’s dream to move abroad.

Life then felt like a whirlwind. I made new friends and went out a lot. I learned a bit of Turkish. I tried so many new things, scuba diving for instance. I found Canavar and we lived happily ever after (well, until 2020 hit). We lived in three different apartments over the course of five years. I constantly traveled and explored all parts of Turkey. I also worked hard and moved up the ladder.

View at the Bosphorus from my first apartment in Istanbul

Just after I had moved to Istanbul in 2010

Tiny Canavar and me on our first encounter in September 2011

The two of us in 2013

Part 2: The American Dream

Five years later, in July 2015, I packed all my belongings again, took my wonderful cat Canavar and boarded an airplane to Boston. Istanbul had become a little sour after a painful breakup and a quickly deteriorating political situation. But the U.S. seemed to still offer the American Dream. That was before I knew how expensive living here really was and how little the profession of a teacher is regarded. That summer Rihanna was singing “Breathe out, breathe in/American oxygen/Every breath I breathe/Chasin’ this American Dream/We sweat for a nickel and a dime/Turn it into an empire/Breathe in, this feeling/American, American oxygen”. I was 31 and still excited about the U.S. So excited indeed that I didn’t even mind giving up my beautiful giant two bedroom apartment for a small, not renovated in forever two bedroom apartment that I shared with a roommate. And my own washing machine. And my dishwasher.

It took me a very long time to settle in the U.S. I think what helped me mostly was my belief in destiny. That there was a reason why I ended up here. Like finding Rich and knowing he is an amazing man (and I put a ring on it, hehe). And the fact that during my first job as a teacher here I earned so little money that I couldn’t really afford moving back to Europe. At least not with all my belongings. Whereas my personal situation is excellent at this point, I obviously imagined things very differently when I moved to New York City last year. But Coronavirus has the country at bay. The current political situation is gruesome.

Don’t get me wrong. I voluntarily and with my eyes open moved to the U.S. There are plenty of things I like, like New York City (before Covid), fall in New England, the idea of freedom, and so much more. But the five years here also disillusioned me and I see the country’s problems starkly: starting with racism over its outdated system that hasn’t any real separation of powers to everyday problems like underpaid (waiters, teachers) and overpaid (electricians, doctors) professions, too high rents, hardly any social security.

Just after I had moved to Boston in 2015

Halloween 2019 in New York City

So, 10 years abroad. What did that do for me? 10 insights:

  1. I always wanted to move abroad so this has been a dream come true. One that everybody laughed at when I first said it when I was ten. And also because I am from a poor rural part in northeast Germany where esp. in the 1990s you were not supposed to have crazy ideas.
  2. I strongly identify with Turkey and its culture. My adult socialisation basically happened there. I had my first proper job. My first living together with a boyfriend. I adopted Canavar. I also really liked who I was when I lived in Istanbul.
  3. I have never really missed Germany. While I absolutely love to teach the German language, literature and culture, I am not very attached to the country itself. Obviously, I miss aspects like certain foods, my family, friends, punctuality, sitting in front of the TV from 8 p.m. on, but over time all that has become generally less important. I also think that Germany has changed during the last 10 years and I simply don’t know what it really is like these days. Maybe people just watch Netflix and co. as well and nobody cares about the 8 p.m. news and the movies starting afterwards anymore?!
  4. The Turkish culture is much closer to the German one than the U.S. American to the German. I believe that this is something people don’t expect, but just us sharing a language origin and a predominant religion doesn’t make us more similar. At this point I think that Turkey and Germany share much more recent history with each other, our cultures are much more interwoven, and our values more similar – examples are that we don’t carry guns around, that both countries abolished the death penalty, but have universal healthcare, that we know how to chill and enjoy life (without working a bazillion hours every week for life).
  5. Given the choice, I wouldn’t think twice and move immediately back to Istanbul. I am aware that the political situation in Turkey isn’t great either, but in my opinion the difference is that the country admits this openly.
  6. All is not gold that glitters. Turkey was also awesome for me because I earned much money and was able to afford an affluent lifestyle. But there are plenty of problems with the freedom of opinion and even women’s rights. The same applies to the U.S., too. It promises the American Dream, but that disappeared years ago. Nowadays a good education and/or hard work doesn’t make many people as rich as heritage. Yes, I live in Midtown Manhattan, but I can only afford this because I have a husband with a well-paid job. There isn’t the one perfect country in the world and you need to live with the downsides if you want to feel at home, even if only for a while.
  7. The older I become the harder I find it to start all over again. Every time I move cities or countries, I need to find my way, make new friends, figure out new regulations … I am more prone to say that I am ready to settle down for good, although …
  8. … I also have ants in my pants. At this point I have lived longer in the U.S. than in Turkey and it itches me a tiny little bit to pack my suitcase and just move on to some new adventure. Maybe I have an inner clock that tells me to move on every five years. Who knows.
  9. Living abroad taught me a lot about myself. That I love to travel and explore new places, but hate paperwork and madness of bureaucracy. That I enjoy to be independent and dislike social constraints (can’t always avoid them though). That I am highly interested in politics and absolutely hate injustice – even when it doesn’t affect me directly. That is also why I  have participated in protests both in Turkey and the U.S. even though other people try to tell me that, because I am German, this isn’t my fight.
  10. After all, living abroad is still one big adventure for me. I am slowly (very very slowly) pushing 40 and wonder how I will feel about this in a few years. Where will we live. Or even in many years from now. With a partner that has a regulated profession and his own mind, I have to accept certain limits to my many ideas. I never saw myself being married to a U.S. American (or even to a tiny extent getting married for the sake of a residence permit), but so far that has been the best part of coming to this country. So I am quite sure that life has many more positive surprises in store for me.

© janavar

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1 thought on “10 Years Abroad”

  1. Jana, I enjoyed reading a lot, made me realizing and thinking of my own insights into this topic. And, we share the love to Istanbul. My favorite place there has been Tarabya. Best of luck for your next adventure!

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