Expat Life in Istanbul

Expat life in Istanbul

In January 2016 I decided to move out from my comfort zone, after quitting my job and leaving everything behind. I had a very stable life for a lot of years and I reached the point where I could not stand it any longer. I wanted to change my way of living so I moved to Istanbul to be an au pair and teach Spanish. The initial plan was to spend 2-3 months in Turkey, but finally, I lived there for almost 3 years.

I have the feeling people from Western countries have a different idea of how is the life in Istanbul. Since I moved back to my homeland this summer, most of my friends have been quite curious on how my life was in Turkey. I have been asked questions like: do you have to cover your hair? How do you feel spending your time in a Muslim country? Isn’t it hard to live in Turkey? How do you make friends in Istanbul?
There is a lot of misinformation on how is the life in Istanbul. After spending a week in the city for work, I got the inspiration to write about this topic. I would love to put aside the prejudices we have against this chaotic and beautiful place in the world.

1. Istanbul is one of the most beautiful cities in the world (in my humble opinion)

Istanbul is the only city in the world located in Asia and Europe. The city itself is gorgeous: the architecture and buildings, the sunsets while crossing the Bosphorus, the streets, the people, the vibe… everything! You can get lost in any neighbor and for sure you will live a new experience, discover a new magic spot or even meet new friends (who can be cats or people!).

Expat life in Istanbul
View of Istanbul from the roof of Büyük Valide Han (Eminönü), a building used to host merchants following the Silk Road.

2. It is impossible to get bored in Istanbul

There are always activities going on: concerts or events for any kind of public. From art exhibitions, performances, markets, concerts to festivals, you will always find an activity that matches your needs. Here I would like to talk about parties and music events, as some of my friends were asking about this. Yes, Istanbul is a party place! Of course it is not Berlin or Barcelona, but there are lot of things going on. Did you know that Sonar Festival takes place in Istanbul? Yeah! Since 2017, this festival is spreading around the world and also it is happening in Istanbul. While I was living there I saw DJ’s like Moderat, Fatboy Slim and also I attended a great performance by Asian Dub Foundation.

 

3. Turkish food is simply amazing

Food in Turkey is just amazing… I gained like 7-8 kg in my first year in there. Should I say something else? One of my favorite food in Istanbul is çiköfte (my friends in there can assure this. The best çikofte I have found so far is Yiyelim Çiköfte, in Akaretler, Beşiktaş). Some typical food you can try if you visit the city are pides (Turkish Pizza), sweets like Baklava or Künefe, çay (tea), Mezes (Turkish Tapas), Ayran (sour yogurt for drinking) and also, don’t miss the Turkish breakfast (khavaltı)! In general, it is easy to find cheap food in Istanbul, especially in local restaurants known as Lokantas.

Turkish Breakfast for expat life in istanbul
Turkish Breakfast by the Bosphorus.

4. Making friends in Istanbul

I feel I am a very social person and for me is not very difficult to make new friends anywhere I go. In Istanbul I met people who became part of my family, the family I am creating while I am traveling around the world. I have heard about expats who have a lot of difficulties to meet new friends in Istanbul, in particular, the ones who moved to Istanbul because of love or work. Turkish people have a Mediterranean soul and they are very warm and welcoming. From my experience I can tell Turkish people are social, kind and very nice. If you have a Turkish friend, you have a very special jewel in your life!

On the other hand, inhabitants of Turkey are known for being passionate and, sometimes (a little bit too) dramatic. To me, this is too intense, and I did not like that part of the society there. Sometimes, you see couples arguing, screaming and crying in the middle of a restaurant and it seems they love that drama. But, at the end, we all attract people similar to our personalities and the real friends I keep in this country are even chiller than me.

 

5. Dealing with paperwork in Turkey

Dealing with paperwork in Turkey is my favorite activity! Bureaucracy is horrible almost everywhere in the world and this country is not an exception.

For example, you need a Turkish bank account to get your residency permit but, to open a bank account, you need to have issued your Ikamet (the residency permit). Also, having to fill tons of papers to get the extension of your visa and wait for hours in an old Government building without understanding what is going on there…

If you plan to start your life in Istanbul and stay there for a while, get ready to deal with it.

Here I would like to add it is very useful to know a little of the Turksih to deal with all the paperwork and daily life (or, at least, have a local friend who can translate).

Also, if you are planning spend over 6 months in Turkey and you bring a phone from abroad, you must register it and pay a tax. If you don’t do it, the phone stops working completely…

6. Working in Istanbul

Finding a job in Turkey can be easy if you are willing to be a foreign language teacher. You can get a good salary, holidays and benefits. On the other hand, it is difficult to find other positions, but as I like to think, everything is possible in this life. In my case, I started collaborating with a Turkish company more than a year ago and I am thrilled to still be doing this job.

Here I need to add that the working culture is quite demanding; working hours can be very long and sometimes the company has unreal expectations. There is a culture of spending all day at work, so better find a job with nice coworkers and you will have a great time!

 

7. Traveling around Turkey

Turkey is a beautiful country with a lot of landscapes and contrasts. If you ever have the possibility to be living in Istanbul or you travel there, I would recommend spending some of your spare time to visit places like Kapadokya, the southern coast with turquoise sea water and places like Kabak Valley, take the train to the border with Armenia or visit the area of Kurdistan. Here I want to mention one of the most breathtaking places I have been: Mount Nemrut. As it happens to me every now and then, I see a photo of a place and then I get the call and I must go. This also happened with Nemrut Dağı, the tomb of a King of the Commanege empire located on the top of a mountain not that far from Syria.

Expat Life in Istanbul visits in Turkey
Alexandra and me in Mount Nemrut, the tomb of the King Antiochus I Theos of Commagene.

8. Terrorism and fear

I left this point for the last as I wasn’t sure to write about it. I moved to Istanbul just three days after a bomb in Sultanhamet killed 10 people. Besides, in 2016 there were about 6 terrorist attacks and in July 2017 I found myself in the middle of a military coup. As I wrote in my blog post about traveling and terrorism, I had never the feeling I had to go away from the city or it was dangerous to roam around the streets but the instability of the first years conditioned my life a little. I loved Istanbul, and I knew I wanted to be there, that’s why I stayed whether some expats or foreigners were leaving to “safer” countries. Anything can happen anywhere, and we shouldn’t let fear take over us. 

 

With this article, I just wanted to share my experience on how can anyone’s life be in Istanbul as a yabangee. I would like to add this information comes from my personal experience, so I understand people will share different points of view. Istanbul is a huge city and every person who moves there will live a very different adventure. To me, 3 years of living in Istanbul have been amazing and I have such a great memory of this chapter of my life.

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