Sunday, September 27, 2009

Oh Canada!

Don't feel too sorry for me when I whine about missing food from home; thanks to a few thoughtful friends, I do have a few favourite foods that are otherwise unavailable in this part of Turkey stocked in my freezer and pantry. And this Sunday I pulled out two of them from the dark corners of my pantry and freezer respectively and cooked 'em up.

For breakfast I made whole wheat pancakes with real maple syrup I had a Turkish friend bring back from Canada. (He brought President's Choice brand; I think I love PC products even more than I love maple syrup! I miss Loblaws!) My husband enjoyed the pancakes too, although did question the simplicity of the meal: ''You mean, Canadians just have pancakes and syrup for breakfast?'' I was stumped; I had served ours with a side serving of fresh banana and peaches and lovely hot coffee (PC again!), but I don't really know what else one would serve with pancakes. Unless you're eating at a real diner and are indulging in bacon, sausages, eggs and pancakes, all at once!

Around 2pm I realized I was starving, and quickly pulled some bacon out of the freezer. I gently heated it up in a skillet, drained the fat off and put the strips on a paper towel to absorb the remaining fat. Meanwhile, I prepared a wonderful whole grain toast, spread it with whole grain mustard (I had no mayo in the house), layered that with a thin slice of eski kaşar, which almost tastes like old cheddar, and a few slices of heirloom tomatoes, and topped it off with some fresh spinach leaves (I had no lettuce). And there was my version of a BLT! Another perfect Canadian meal.

Dinner couldn't have been more Turkish, though: grilled sea bass accompanied by arugula salad, grilled eggplant salad, rakı and pide.

Friday, September 25, 2009


Risotto. Who would have thought that one little word could make me this happy, that one small (well, not that small) bowl of mushy rice could warm my soul for several days.

Possibly the single most difficult thing for me living as an expat in a provincial Turkish city (i.e. not Istanbul, Izmir or Ankara), is the food. Or rather lack thereof, depending how you look at it. Don't get me wrong, there's no shortage of food; Turks love to eat! And the beautiful seasonal produce spilling off the counters and available for pennies at every manav and pazar is any westerner's dream.

But as much as I miss my friends and family; as much as it hurts to see my young nieces and nephews only once a year and to miss all the weekly and monthly milestones; as much as I miss bookstores and foreign films, it seems to be food I miss the most. There's something about a perfect meal that satisfies me in a way that touches my soul, inspires me, makes me excited about life.

What I'm hungering for is that perfect medley of tastes that only professional cuisine can put together: a beautiful piece of meat cooked in white wine; a cream sauce with truffle oil; anything with exotic mushrooms infusing their flavour throughout the dish. I admit I'm spoiled in this regard; coming from a large cosmopolitan city, I had the world's cuisine at my doorstep and could eat anything I wanted any time. Now, the closest I come is watching Top Chef and reading food books, like Kathleen Flinn's memoir, The Sharper the Knife, the Less you Cry.

It's not like I've left behind a life where I ate in hot and hip restaurants several times a week; nor am I a great cook. But I can follow a recipe, and I did so well enough, often enough and adventurously enough to consider cooking a hobby. But most recipes I'm interested in have at least two or three ingredients far too exotic for my local Migros supermarket, whose clientele is indifferent about new foods to say the least. I've brought back enough miso, black beans and fish sauce to last a few months, but how much food can I stuff in my suitcase before I feel ridiculous? And how could I have predicted I'd need xanthan gum, coconut oil, agave nectar and arrowroot, just a few of the latest exotic ingredients needed to make the recipes featured in Gwyneth Paltrow's GOOP newsletter?

It's the lack of variety that really gets me. Tomatoes, cucumbers and green peppers appear at breakfast, lunch and supper -- raw in the morning, cooked at lunch, and in a salad (again raw) at dinner. Turkish cuisine boasts thousands of dishes, but all are really just variations of the same ingredients: tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant. Interestingly, those are all members of the nightshade family, forbidden by detox programs and to macrobiotics.

Restaurants abound, but no one is a professional chef. This means that every restaurant either serves Turkish food with the above ingredients, or from-a-box versions of world favourites like an Italian pasta dish. Which inevitably end up tasting Turkish.

Which brings me back to the risotto. The other night we had dinner at the Hilton Hotel, which had just put out its fall menu. I could hardly believe it when I saw risotto with assorted wild mushrooms, truffle oil, white wine and parmesan. As I waited for my plate to arrive, I didn't dare get my hopes up; I've learned from countless disappointments, albeit at other restaurants. But the dish was indeed perfect, and I would not be exaggerating to say it affected my entire state of well-being.

Remember Under the Tuscan Sun? Or any film that shows people in the South of France or Tuscany sitting at a wooden table under an olive tree enjoying hearty meals made entirely of local fresh ingredients? I often try to look at my Mediterranean expat life from the outside, hoping that if I see what others see, I may appreciate it more. Or perhaps I'd feel the same way in Tuscany or France; perhaps their appeal to foreigners, and indeed Turkey's, is that they're just one of hundreds of choices big city diners have.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Decorating the Nursery with ''Adult Art''

Over a year ago, when my current pregnant state was still just a distant prospect, I fell in love with and bought an Iranian folk art rug that I knew would make a perfect wall hanging in a baby's bedroom. The oddly-shaped and disproportionate animals, people, trees and buildings, the mountains, stream and green fields would provide hours of stimulating imaginative play for my child.

Earlier this week I made my second non-baby purchase for baby, and realized I much prefer ''adult art'' to purpose-specific nursery decor. In Istanbul for a few days over the Ramadan holiday earlier this week, we stumbled across an arts and crafts fair sponsored by the Beyoğlu municipal government. A stand of brightly painted two-dimensional marionette-type figures caught my eye. Painted in intricate detail on animal hide, these were true works of art.

The artist had hung several of them from the ceiling by a thread, and their transluscent nature allowed light to shine through, bringing the colours to life. I immediately thought two or three of them hung at different heights would make an excellent alternative to the traditional mobile. Other figures had been framed between two panes of glass, which I thought I'd have done once this and babies to follow outgrow their mobile.

Overwhelmed by the selection, I thought the two main characters, Karagöz and Hacivat, would be a good start. I did a little research and learned that these shadow play characters had been popular during Ottoman times. Karagöz was an illiterate but intelligent man, while Hacivat represented the educated class. Much to the delight of audiences, the latter was usually outwitted by the former.

I think that's probably enough ''adult art'' for the nursery, but will certainly balance the cute teddy bear bedding I've bought.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009


We've been house-hunting unsuccessfully for a few years now, and every time I visit Istanbul, I'm painfully reminded of what the problem is: the city where we currently live is lacking both the architectural history and a sufficient element of urban culture I want to balance the provincial charms of our Mediterranean home. I'm fully aware of Istanbul's faults, most notably the traffic and the high cost of living. I'm likewise aware of the advantages our 1.5-million-population city, most notably the lack of traffic and the inexpensive cost of living. Jokes aside, our little city is safe, life is simpler, and the sun shines 360 days a year.

Nevertheless, every visit to Istanbul pulls on my heartstrings in a way I can almost physically feel. I am at once overwhelmed by all it has to offer, and left hungering for more. More of the beautiful architecture, so much of it badly wanting restoration, its potential teasing me; more of the modern art, seemingly proliferating by the minute; more of the Ottoman culture, which I hope to tastefully integrate into our modern dream home, when we do finally find it.

My reason dissipates as I find myself thinking of how fit I'll be, carrying baby, stroller, and groceries up several flights of stairs a few times each day. I will have boundless energy, just like all those New Yorkers who live in Brownstone walkups and don't own cars. I imagine our romantic evenings at Leb-i Derya or 5. Kat, sipping 20-Lira Whisky Sours and watching the sunset over the Bosphorus, the Hagia Sophia in the distance. Of course we'll be able to afford the babysitter in a city where we have no family; of course my husband will have more energy after work than he does now, pre-traffic, pre-baby.

Each time I board the one-hour flight back east, I feel the visit to Istanbul was too short, I accomplished so little. Yet I am restored, as if the photography exhibit at the Istanbul Modern, the Thai food I had for dinner one night in Beyoğlu, and the new ceramic serving dish I'm bringing home to add to my kitchen have given me a good dose of art and culture to tie me over for a little while.

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Residence Permit/A Near Misadventure/Turkish Punctuality

Every year my residence permit expires, and every year it is renewed for me by my employer, no small advantage to working for an organization used to dealing with foreigners. Or rather, used to dealing with the Turkish bureaucracy involved in hiring foreigners. Before I started this job, my then-boyfriend (now my husband) and I had to fend for ourselves in this regard. But that’s another story. Suffice to say that it is so worth it to find a job that takes care of work visas, residence permits, etc.

The one hassle that my employer has not been able to take out of the equation is my having to go in person to pick up the new permit. So yesterday a small group of us hopped into one of the service vehicles and were chauffeured to the closest Emniyet Müdürlüğü, or police station, with a department for foreigners. The 35-kilometre drive should take about half an hour, and leaving at 4pm should have gotten us there comfortably before closing time at 5. But I was a little late getting to the van, realizing suddenly my unborn child was famished and I would miss my third lunch of the day unless I stopped at the canteen to pick up a sandwich; but there was a little extra traffic, being so close to the end of the working day; but it turned out that one is supposed to arrive at least fifteen minutes before closing.

I should add here that Turks, especially along the Mediterranean, are extremely relaxed about opening and closing times. This, coupled with their culture of hospitality and their discomfort in refusing the requests of others , means that latecomers are never turned away. (I'll have to write about the creative passive-agressive measures invented to evade saying no another time; perhaps I'll title that piece, ''How to Know When You've Been Told No.'')
I was therefore shocked when the last remaining officer in the foreigner's department grumpily said, at 4:55pm, ''It's 5pm, you'll have to come back tomorrow.''

Remember the sandwich I'd hastily bought before getting into the service bus? It'd been a kaşarlı tost, a grilled cheese on awful white bread, a desperate last resort to staving off hunger. For the second time that day. I'd also been quite thirsty, so had downed a can of Iced Tea, a sugary treat bought on impulse -- I never drink soft drinks or even fruit juices unless they're no-sugar-added. Well, I guess my stomach (or my baby?) decided to rebel, because for the first time in four months, I found myself overcome by nausea of the car sickness variety, as our driver ungracefully accelerated and braked his way all the way to Mersin. I'd gotten out of the van weak-kneed and just barely dragged myself up the three flights of stairs to the foreigners' affairs department, and now the police officer was telling me I'd have to come back tomorrow!

I protested in the undiplomatic manner that's unfortunately become quite normal for me since the start of this pregnancy, and he reluctantly began to exchange our signatures for our residence permits. One of my colleagues' permits had expired a day earlier, and he told her she'd have to pay an 8-Lira fine. Feeling feisty, I told him we were just there to pick up the permits; our employer takes care of all those kinds of things; after all, it was our employer's fault that my colleague's permit renewal application had been submitted late.

Me and my big mouth! The officer, whose daily dealings with foreigners had perhaps rubbed off on him, clapped his folder shut and said that in that case, we'd deal with our permits tomorrow after all. No, no, no! That's not the way the game works! I'd seen my husband do it thousands of times: you argue a little, you banter, you blow off a little steam, and in the end everyone gets what they want and parts as friends!

It turns out the officer was worried about missing his own service bus, and once he saw that it was still waiting outside, he relaxed and finished handing us our little booklets. In my case, it was a brand new shiny one, since I'd filled up the old one with previous renewals.

But there were no friendly goodbyes, no joking warnings to arrive earlier next time. I endured another forty minutes of nausea but returned home knowing my 'ordeal' could have been much worse, and that I wouldn't have to deal with my resident permit for another year. Now I just have to modify my overstated claims of Turkish disregard for punctuality. And learn a few subtleties of Turkish diplomacy.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

You Can Take the Girl out of her Climate, but You Can't Take the Climate out of the Girl

I woke up this morning to a less-than-perfectly-sunny day, and my heart skipped a beat -- might it actually rain? The sky was gray and there was a heaviness in the air. But I didn't dare hope in case I jinxed it, and told myself the sky would be blue in no time. That's after all what happened yesterday, and what usually happens in this part of Turkey.

But by 9am I heard thunder, and soon afterwards rain. I turned off the air conditioning and opened all the windows and balcony doors, and basked in the day's weather. The silence (everyone was staying indoors); the sound of an occasional car on the wet road -- different from the sound cars usually make; the fresh smell of the wet air.
This is the first time I've seen rain in Turkey since I've been pregnant, so at least six months. I realize how much I miss the climate of Northern Europe and Canada.

A Few of my Favourite Things (or Making Peace with an Impossible Situation)

I recently complained about all the maternity clothes I couldn't get here in Turkey, and unfortunately, that's just one small part of the bigger crisis I call ''my frustrated inner consumer.''

I love cool design and innovation, and often suspect I'm in the wrong line of work. When Oprah and her various gurus talk about finding and then doing what you were meant to do, I feel this passion of mine is a clue towards figuring out the magic answer. (I especially love life coach Martha Beck. If you haven't already, you must read Finding Your Own North Star.) But I know I'm not a designer; and I doubt buying-all-the-cool-stuff-I-love is a viable key to happiness. So perhaps the consumer wasteland in which I currently find myself is a blessing in disguise? An obstacle that will only serve to push me towards finding a more creative way to incorporate my passion into my life?

I do know that I'm bored of my own grumbling about my lack of access to the stuff I want, and so will complain no further. Instead, I thought I'd simply sing the praises of two of the new, amazing cool companies out there. At least I'll get some joy out of writing about them! (Warning to fellow expats: the first is available only in Istanbul -- at Nest by Mozaik -- the second doesn't ship outside of the USA -- I contacted Oeuf and was snootily told to contact the stores that carry their products; I did, but regretfully none ship to Turkey ''at this time.'')

Everything Stokke designs is unlike anything I've ever seen before, but extremely appealing to my taste, as well as functional and of seemingly excellent quality. I first stumbled across their Tripp Trapp highchair on the Gap website. The unique design, huge selection of colours and the versatility of the product alone got me all excited! I read on and learned that it was made of wood, just like the highchairs my mother used with us,
and my nostalgia kicked in -- I was in love!

Browsing the Stokke website, I was further struck by the changing table, which not only allows you to change your baby's diaper while facing your little one, but can later be used as a child's desk or a shelf in another part of your home! The crib likewise converts from a bassinet to a crib to a bed to an interesting sofa-esque piece of play furniture for older children. All of which look slightly pod-like and outer-spacey. In a good way, of course.

I actually bought the Oeuf baby lounger while back in Toronto this summer. Intrigued, I later learned more about the company from their website and found many more cool things. Although I found the products generally overpriced, and not all of them pleasing to my aesthetic (the furniture!), I was taken by their mission, dedication to the environment, and the fact that it's a family business. In other words, they had me by their company profile. Brilliant marketing.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Fashion Sense

I seem to be dressing my burgeoning body better than I was pre-baby bump. I find myself putting more thought than I used to into what I wear, planning outfits the night before -- down to the jewellery! -- and looking forward to getting dressed in the morning. I suspect all this has something to do with feeling the need to compensate for my lack of what society considers fit.

Lucky for me, pregnant is in! Last week's Project Runway (season 6, episode 2) had the designers making maternity outfits for Rebecca Romijn; the current wave of celebrity pregnancies is getting lots of tabloid time; and new maternity fashion lines seem to be appearing daily!

Except in Turkey. Or at least not outside the hippest parts of Istanbul. At least not where I live. Mainstream shops like Gap and Benetton don't sell their maternity lines in Adana or Mersin; local stores dedicated to maternity wear are selling things my mother wore when she was pregnant with me. 35 years ago. Down to the polyester fabric.
I spent hours window shopping online, ogling the clever designs of Boob and sleek outfits at Isabella Oliver, with whose Wrap Around Top ''As Seen on Gwen Stefani'' I fell so in love with, I was willing to spend 85 Euro on it! But in the end, my fear of buying something without being able to try it on got the better of me. Note that it wasn't logic or practicality that got the better of me, just fear.

I did find an outlet store in town, Kuzens, that carries some maternity clothes. Selection and size availability is completely random, but I managed to buy two pairs of great jeans for about 20 Lira each, and a sundress by Old Navy! And while thrilled with my purchases, the sting of the irony soured my joy somewhat: while Turkey manufactures all the items I bought, they're all destined for export and not available to locals! There must have been some kind of a flaw in each of the pieces I bought. The rest of my current pregnancy wardrobe consists of great empire waist tops and oversize women's shirt/tunics, which all my favourite Turkish shops seem to be carrying this season.

Even though I haven't been comfortable in heels for months, and I've never been one to sacrifice comfort for the sake of fashion, today's outfit just wouldn't have been complete without these old favourites:

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Endings and Beginnings

I've always dreaded endings -- the end of a holiday, the end of my supply of a certain type of food, the end of a car or train ride. Much to the detriment of my enjoyment. What can I say; I've always had trouble 'living in the moment.'

On the flip side, looking forward to the future is something I therefore do extremely well. I'm an excellent planner, and will plan or dream about a future event exhaustively. And while this is hardly a problem in that it's enjoyable, it too prevents me from truly enjoying what I've got when I've got it.

Finding the balance between these two, I suspect, will add something to the quality of my life. I've often found, for example, that looking forward to what comes next helps ease the pain of an impending ending. Take my current pregnancy, for example. It has made me more aware of my need to live more in the moment, and I am using it as a valuable exercise in learning to do just that in all aspects of my life.

I am enjoying this pregnancy, and as excited as I am for baby to arrive, I realized the other day that I will miss this time of leisurely anticipation. During the past six months I've been able to indulge in lots of me-time, something I know will soon become scarce. So, while I'm happy to say I have no regrets about how I've spent the past six months, I've made a point of being even more mindful of each amazing change throughout the next three months, to savour my third trimester.

This means I'll have to temper my obsessive baby product research and make purchasing decisions more quickly; it means getting out more with girlfriends and with C while feeding times and nap times are still an abstract concept, instead of nesting at home. But it also means continuing to write in my pregnancy journal, take pictures of my growing belly, and doing my pre-natal yoga. I'll even savour the few minutes I spend rubbing Palmer's stretch mark cream all over myself, instead of seeing it as a tedious added step in my morning routine.

And you know what? I feel relieved, knowing I don't need to read up on newborn care quite to the extent I was feeling I should; there will be plenty of time for that in the weeks before the birth. And of course once baby's arrived, with less time on my hands for indulging in thorough research, I'm sure I'll become three times as efficient with my time, learning everything I need to very quickly. I've also heard that once baby is born, all my priorities will shift, superfluous things will melt away into the distant periphery of my attention, and I'll find it easy to focus on what's important in the moment.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Little Things That Make Me Happy

I need to always remind myself to notice the good things about life here in Turkey, since it's so easy to focus on my frustrations. So I wanted to take a few minutes and appreciate the public health system. Ok, let me rephrase that, since as any foreigner who's ever visited a Turkish public hospital, clinic or doctor knows, it's crowded, hot, involves waiting for hours, and seems to be governed by an organizational system that is so complex, I have yet to see the logic. I am afraid I cannot say I appreciate this part of the public health system.

But I appreciate the drug plan. I just got back from my local eczane with a two-month supply of prenatal multivitamins, iron supplements and heartburn medicine, and spent a mere 5 Lira, the equivalent of about $3.50cdn. I LOVE the Turkish public drug plan!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Eating Out or Menu Assumptions

Turkish, like no doubt so many other languages, has appropriated foreign words, most notably French. However, the meaning of the Turkish word is often somewhat different than the original, leading to confusion. Take for example food, where what I think I've ordered is so often is not what I get.

Being pregnant and hungry all the time, I've lately found myself needing to grab something quick while out and about town. Three years ago when I was new in Turkey, I quickly discovered how difficult it was to find something healthy, let alone vegetarian. Favourite go-to snacks of the locals include simit (a smaller, tougher, denser bagel) and doner (extremely oily meat sliced from a spit and eaten between one of a few types of bread). There is no Subway Sandwiches; no falafels or salads; no Starbucks Vivanno or other healthy smoothie one can just grab and eat on the go. No one eats whole wheat bread and no one is a vegetarian.

My solution at the time was ayran, a buttermilk-like salted yogurt drink. While not low-fat, it gave me a serving of protein and calcium, while also filling my tummy and tying me over until the next meal. Now, however, with a hungry baby growing in my belly, ayran isn't enough. The other day, I ordered tost (toast), only to remember after receiving my two pieces of toasted white bread with a generous layer of melted cheese between them, that in Turkish, toast means toast-with-cheese.

Sugar is likewise apparently not considered an added ingredient. Recently out for a walk one evening with my husband, we stopped at a juice vendor for some strawberry juice, which I'd somehow never tasted in three years of living here. I immediately suspected it contained sugar, and asked the man behind the counter what was in the juice. Just strawberries, he assured me. It's natural, my husband added, just strawberries and maybe some water. I reluctantly let my husband order me my own glass; I would have been content just to taste his, but I was thirsty and a whole glass of crushed strawberries was of course a healthy snack!

Delicious and cold, I unelegantly chugged back half of the huge glass' contents immediately. My husband, who actually stopped to taste his, commented between sips that it seemed a little too sweet to him. The vendor defensively replied that he had to sweeted it, or else it wouldn't taste good.

Wait -- what? There's sugar in here?

Of course, replied the man matter-of-factly. If there's a Turkish version of duh, I'm sure he was thinking it then.

But why didn't you say so?!

Because clearly sugar isn't an added ingredient, but rather a spice, the way salt and pepper are added to soups and stews but not mentioned on menus.