Monday, January 31, 2011


Günlük süt, or 'daily' milk as the non-UHT milk so widely available here in Turkey is called, is something I couldn't get at the store in Tarsus or Adana. If I wanted fresh milk, I had to find someone with a cow. Seriously. Once, only once, I managed to be in the right place at the right time and was able to flag down a man on a moped with a 10-gallon container of fresh milk between his feet, had him wait outside while I ran back upstairs to fetch a saucepan, and had him fill it up. I then brought it to an almost boil and simmered it for ten minutes, an art I learned from my mother-in-law. Let it boil and it not only spills over, making an incredible mess, but it scalds.

But since moving to Istanbul, I've only been buying fresh milk, since my local Migros supermarket carries it, as does the neighbourhood bakal, or corner store. And assuming I can be nostalgic for something older than me, I love the fact that the milk I buy (SEK brand) comes in glass bottles!

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Going Native

Palm Treo 750 in handImage by via FlickrIt's one thing to bring in a child car seat from Canada that isn't available here in Turkey (I didn't do this, but a friend did), or to stock up on pantry items (liquid vanilla, peanut butter, grains!) and Lululemon when you're home visiting. Some specialty items really are cheaper and better in North America; and who can argue that a little taste of home now and again in the midst of your expat life isn't good for the soul?

But I regret having bought a phone that isn't widely available in Turkey. Now, I have to interrupt my story here to say, I was not trying to be different, as my husband teasingly keeps insisting. But I absolutely wanted a phone with Windows Mobile, and my options here weren't great. I could either choose to spend a lot more than I knew I would for the same product back in Canada (Blackberry or a high-end Nokia), or buy an HTC, a brand I didn't know much about. Besides, I had loved my Palm Pilot years earlier, and felt a loyalty towards the brand. And then I found an inexpensive unlocked one in Canada.

Now that my Palm phone isn't working, however, there is only one place (in the whole country!) that I can bring it. Luckily it's relatively near to where we live. Still, two lessons learned: no matter how I justify it to myself or anyone else, it is high-maintenance of me to insist on buying certain things abroad. Two: going without a phone for a while will be a useful exercise in being unplugged.

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Saturday, January 29, 2011

Maybe you can take the city out of the girl ...

I've been struggling for months now with the sheer size of Istanbul. Perhaps it's not the size, though, but the insufficient, inefficient infrastructure, particularly when it comes to transportation.

I know that in order to exist comfortably in a big city, one needs to live close to work and in a neighbourhood that meets one's needs. And we do. But in a city with as much to offer as Istanbul, there are things beyond my neighbourhood that beckon me. And that's when I start to question whether four years in Tarsus/Adana have rubbed off on me.

Last week, I went to a book club meeting with some fellow North American women for the first time. We were meeting in Taksim, a fairly central location, and I suspect closer to where I live than many of the other women there. Still, I had to consider whether to take a bus, taxi plus Metro, or just taxi. Obviously price is a consideration, but so are time and comfort.

Let's look at option one, the most practical and economical: one bus, from my doorstep to the doorstep of the cafe in Taksim. Easy, right? And cheap. But it would take about an hour, and the bus would be crowded; chances are, I'd have to stand the whole way. Also, the direct bus to Taksim doesn't come by all that frequently, and I might have to wait for it.

And so there's option 1b: take any of the buses passing by my doorstep, and then transfer to the funiculaire.

Now let's look at option two, which is considerably more pricey, but a lot more comfortable. For about ten Lira, a taxi will take you to the nearest Metro, from where you ride underground and emerge in Taksim 5-10 minutes later. Door-to-door, you're there in half-an-hour. If only we lived closer to the Metro!

Option three: taxi all the way. A little pricey at close to 20 Lira, and not always advisable, even in the greatest hurry, since if there's a match or it's rush hour, even the best cabbie can't avoid the traffic and you'll be en route for an hour.

I wasn't even going to mention option four, since I never consider it: drive myself. Between the traffic and the scarcity of parking spots, never mind the fact that I haven't yet even learned the best route to take, I'm far too intimidated to drive to Taksim. My husband recently drove to Taksim at 7:30 in the morning on a weekday, though, and got there in under fifteen minutes.

I wish Istanbul were a city with a bicycle culture.

Anyway, all this takes me back to my original question: did the relative quiet of Adana, a city of 1.5 million, suit me better? While I lived there, I cursed its provincial aspect and lamented the absence of museums, galleries and gourmet restaurants almost daily. But now that I'm here in Istanbul, with the latter at my doorstep, how often do I venture out into the big city and actually take advantage of them? Far too seldom, I'm afraid. I find myself too tired, or too lazy, and prefer to take walks in the neighbourhood and take Baby to the local park.

Which begs the question: if that's the kind of life I'm living in the big city, wouldn't I perhaps be better off back in Adana?

Unless I resolve to start really living in Istanbul.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Reading Again

I haven't been writing much; blame it on the nanny adventure, being sick, being busy ... But I have managed to finish reading a book, which is quite amazing -- it's been months since I actually read one to the end!

I read Ann Patchett's memoir Truth & Beauty: A Friendship as an example of my new favourite genre, creative non-fiction. Back in October I wrote that I had bought several books that had been recommended as part of a writing course I'd taken; this is one of those books. And while I wouldn't exactly recommend it, it was an interesting read, if not least as a writing lesson.

I've abandoned Elif Shafak's The Forty Rules of Love, but may pick it up again as a book club I've just joined has it listed as their book for February.

I've abandoned The Elegance of the Hedgehog although it still sits on my night table. I don't know why I stopped reading that one; it's brilliant. I will go back to it.

The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work by Alain de Botton likewise lies unfinished on my nightstand; I'll go back to it as well ... I'm a huge fan, even if his work needs a break.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

New and Old Comfort Foods

Food. A recurring subject of mine. Let me sum up in one sentence everything I've ever written about food: good food makes me very, very happy; while the absence of it, especially over a prolonged period of time, almost always sinks me into depression.

Yesterday I received a package from Mom, and more than the enclosed gift for Baby, more than the chocolate marzipan she made herself from scratch, more than anything else, I was delighted to receive the box of PC Macaroni and White Cheddar Cheese.

I cooked it immediately, and savoured every delicious, creamy, melting-in-my-mouth bite. I paired it with another perfect taste, çig köfte, one of the few Turkish foods I truly love, each spoonful of the mac and cheese extinguishing the flames of the spicy köfte I'd popped into my mouth a moment earlier.

I was very, very happy.

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Nanny Agency

What comes to mind when you hear the words 'nanny' and 'agency?' Let me tell you what I understand by the phrase: a company that, for a price, will introduce prospective clients to several nanny candidates whose references and credentials have been checked; and who have presumably been successfully placed by the agency in the past.

Well, it turns out that most Istanbul nanny agencies simply scour the want-ads for nannies' names and telephone numbers, file them, and then call them when needed. And based on my own experience, it seems the nannies advertising in the papers are the ones who couldn't get work by word-of-mouth.

Apparently until recently, agents would take a month's salary from the nanny and the equivalent from the client; in return, they would help both parties if the nanny-family match broke up within six months. It has been made illegal to take money from the nannies, so now agents want a fee equivalent of two months' nanny salary from the family, and have reduced their 'guarantee' to three months. Which would seem reasonable, if they were actually doing more than facilitating introductions!

I'd been entertaining the idea of starting my own agency, purely out of frustration, when I stumbled across one that seemed to operate the way I thought agencies should. And I was not disappointed -- until I learned that they were way out of my league. This agency finds professional, educated nannies (i.e. educated in early childhood education, child development, speech, etc.) whose salaries exceed my own!

Perhaps I'm in the wrong field?

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Return of the Nanny Diaries

I had been hoping after the last nanny debacle never again to have to write about childcare. But alas, two weeks ago, we had to fire our nanny.

The worst part is that I held on to her for months longer than I wanted to; within a few weeks of her starting with us four months ago, I knew things weren't perfect. Almost everything she did drove me crazy.

But she was taking good care of Baby; in fact within a few days of her starting with us, he'd made advances in language and general comprehension that I'd never thought possible. So I wrote off my complaints as petty and brushed them aside; I figured I was just projecting my own guilt about choosing to work and not stay home with my son.

Eventually it became clear that it wasn't just me, though; even my husband, who hardly ever saw the nanny, agreed she was crossing the line of professionalism and taking too much ownership of Baby and our household.

But nannies -- or rather good nannies -- are hard to find in Istanbul. Uneducated Turkish mothers whose families suddenly find themselves in need of additional income will often look for work as a nanny because their only other option is house keeping; illegal workers from Russia, Uzbekistan and Moldovia often work as nannies; as do Filipina women. As a mother, I've had to consider safety (do I accept someone who's in the country illegally?), language (what effect will broken English or broken Turkish have on my son?), and of course personality (what psychological effect will someone with obvious emotional baggage have on Baby?). And then there's principle: what percentage of my salary am I willing to pay for peace of mind? All of it? 75% of it? 50%? Considering the high unemployment rate and low wages for even educated people in this country, nannies ask a lot. They also want you to pay their transportation to and from work each day in addition to whatever monthly salary you agree on.

The general consensus is that the Filipinas are the best; but they are also the most expensive. The general consensus is that the Turkish women are the worst (even though not the cheapest); but wasn't our beloved nanny S back in Tarsus Turkish? And don't I feel at least a little patriotic to these adopted country-women of mine, to want to support them? The general consensus is that finding a good nanny is like playing the lottery; you have to try and try and try until you luck out. I have colleagues who have fired almost thirty nannies!

All this to justify why I, the perfectionist, put up with less than perfection for months -- I didn't want to deal with finding someone else!

But the day I came home and found my son's bangs chopped up to his hairline and looking like a monk, I knew Istanbul Nanny #2 had to go. She'd asked me that morning whether she could straighten the trim I'd given him, but I'd clearly said no; my own bad job would tie him over until the weekend when he and Daddy would go to the barber for the first time together. I'd just wanted to get his hair out of his eyes. And besides, his crooked fringe had a cute punky pixie look which I was kind of enjoying.

"But didn't I tell you not to touch his hair?" I asked in horror that evening?

"But it needed to be done!" was her only reply, as if it were up to her to decide.


"Because I straightened out his hair?"


"If I'd known you were going to make such a big deal of this, I wouldn't have cut his hair."