How Turkey Transformed Me

How Turkey Transformed Me

As a young woman I was adventurous, at one point choosing to live for a year and a half in Yemen. During my time there I struggled with electricity outages, uncertain water, and a lack of support for development work. But the Yemenis went out of their way to be hospitable, their country had majestic scenery and architecture, and I became conversant in Arabic. Overall, the experience was a success.

Years later, when our two children were young, my husband, Sankar’s, company transferred us to Costa Rica. To my surprise, even though that country was vastly more comfortable and modern than Yemen, and I arrived with ample Spanish skills, life in an executive enclave turned out to be isolating, and the locals were less than welcoming. After we moved back to Minnesota, Sankar continued to travel overseas for work, but I rarely accompanied him.

My globe-trotting days seemed to have ended, but that was okay. I launched our children into adulthood and enjoyed books (often travel tales), movies, teaching, and a lively circle of friends.

Then, in December of 2009, we found out that Sankar’s employer was moving us again. This time it would be to Istanbul, Turkey.

My first reaction was negative. I didn’t yearn for more isolation and lack of productivity, and I was afraid that any discontentment due to being uprooted would hurt our marriage. “I don’t want to give up my Minnesota life,” I told my daughter.

Her reply jolted me. “Mom, all you do is read books and watch Project Runway reruns.”

Whoa! Was this what I had become? Maybe I needed to shake things up a little. I bought myself a Turkey guidebook and began to warm to the idea of the move. I vowed to bring a positive attitude to Asia Minor, and resolved to use all the resources I could to find meaningful activities there.

Adjusting my mindset was a good move, but the big surprise was that Turkey itself did much of the work: dazzling—and then transforming me. The country awakened my curiosity with half-forgotten names—Byzantium, Topkapi, The Whirling Dervishes—from my childhood. I learned that Turkish history is astoundingly relevant to Americans. For a thousand years Turkey was the site of the largest church in Christianity. All of the apostles visited Turkey, and the country produced Abraham, St. Nicholas, Aladdin, King Croesus, and Troy.

I found myself immersed in a glorious array of historical sites, regularly strolling into the crown jewel of Byzantium, the 5th century Hagia Sophia; and dropping by Nicea, home of the Nicene Creed I’d recited as a churchgoing child. I drove along the azure Euphrates River in eastern Turkey, and toured Troy, gazing across the Aegean at the island of Tenedos, where the Ancient Greeks had hidden their ships.

The little church in Iznik (Nicea) where the Nicene Creed was written

And the Turkish people were magnificent. Friends and strangers alike were unfailingly generous and welcoming. A Kurdish family we chatted with alongside the pool of Abraham in Sanliurfa invited us to his house for dinner. A pious old Turkish man rushed to help our daughter when her sandal fell apart in an area crowded with tourists. A Turkish man offered us their prepaid toll card when we foolishly drove on a tollway without paying. And a Turkish couple drove a half hour out of their way to guide us out when we got lost in western Turkey. Mary Lee Settle, in her novel Turkish Reflections, sums it up better than I can:

“I found there the greatest capacity for friendship I have ever known. It was in the genes and in the  past of the Turkish people, so deep and so beyond individual choice that I have wondered ever since about its sources.”

This Kurdish family in Sanliurfa invited us to their home for dinner

My experiences in Yemen had been similar, but over the thirty plus years since I lived there, I’d started to doubt my conclusions. Now I was sure. What I was seeing was Islam.

Thanks to Turkey’s dazzling sites and exceptional people–and thanks to a tough, but rewarding year spent teaching English there–my time there was one of personal and professional renewal.

I’ve written about this transformation in Sue’s Turkish Adventures, and now I’ve gathered my tales together into a book whose working title is, The Call: Three Years in Turkey. I’m hoping it will gain a wider audience. In the meantime, I am sending lots of love to what is, IMHO, the best foreign country in the entire world!

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