One long-stay expat emphasized the importance of having a decent support network in place, whether in the form of good yabancı (foreigner) friends or even virtual “friends” such as expat websites, newspapers and bulletin boards. That’s not to downplay the importance of having good Turkish friends, too, but there are always going to be times when what you most need is to talk to someone who has been through the same things and with whom you share a cultural underpinning.
I well remember a friend who had lived in Cappadocia for 26 years but who recently returned to the UK telling me about her first few months in the village. Her Turkish had been extremely limited then, and there were no other resident foreigners for her to confide in. At that time there was no satellite television, no foreign newspapers shipped in one day late and no Facebook with instant access to help and advice. “I used to go up to the hills and cry,” she admitted, as she struggled to find a way to fit in.
These days, few people need feel as isolated as that, although it’s not unknown for those who’re working, especially in the tourism industry, to put in such long hours that there’s little time left to build up a social life. When I first came here I was lucky that I already had two particular yabancı friends who had been living in Turkey for more than a decade and whom I thought of as the bookends holding up my new life. They were the ones I ran to when I didn’t understand what had happened. They were the ones I turned to when I needed advice on how to handle a new situation. And theirs were the shoulders I cried on when things went pear-shaped as, inevitably, they sometimes did.
Of course it takes time to establish a support network, and ironically it can sometimes be harder to do this in a big city than in somewhere smaller where everyone knows everyone else. For example, one friend who had been the mainstay of expat life in Göreme struggled at first when she moved to İstanbul and found herself living in a suburb and spending long and isolating hours commuting to work.
On the other hand in big cities there are more organized ways to meet like-minded souls including groups such as the International Women of İstanbul (IWİ), the Professional Women of İstanbul (PAWİ) and InterNations. There are gyms to join, book exchanges to haunt and all sorts of sporting opportunities that don’t exist elsewhere. My friend eventually found a mothers and babies group that helped her stay sane although another young mum, living and working in Sultanahmet, found no such comfort close at hand.
The converse of all this is that people are sometimes so anxious to feel part of things that they rush into relationships with people that they later need to unfriend. Today’s last words of advice come from “Perking the Pansies” author Jack Scott: “Don’t be in a hurry to develop instant, life-sapping friendships with other expats. Think emotional resilience, and choose carefully.”
Charlotte McPherson is away.