Expat lesson learned: there’s a Turk for that

The most striking thing I’ve found about living in Turkey is not so much the east-meets-west cliche, but the fact that the modern world and the old school of doing things coexist. While I can order food delivery online, you still see many Turks lowering baskets into the streets and getting passersby to go on a beer run (okay, more likely an Ayran run) for them. I can shop or eat at nearly any multi-national chain, though there are also tons of tea houses women haven’t entered in decades and shops that have probably have been running in the red for as many years. I’ve also learned that nearly any task or errand can and will be performed by a specialist with a job description that you may not find anywhere else. No matter what you need done, chances are, there’s a Turk for that.

Labor in Turkey must be cheap, because I’m constantly amazed at how many people are employed to do various jobs. Our trash is collected every single day by a truckload of men, and I’m told some neighborhoods have pick-up TWICE a day! There isn’t official recycling in most of the city, but if you see the various men, women, and children carrying large carts around, you’ll see that the unofficial system works quite efficiently. Many cafes have more waiters than customers, and most shops have enough staffers to hover around you continuously (a subject for another post and a major pet peeve of mine). The other day at the supermarket, I was greeted by a guy whose sole job was to help me select and bag my produce. Granted it was a fancy Macrocenter supermarket, but a very Turkish job. My street isn’t very busy, but there are always dozens of tea-drinking fabric store “salesmen” (I use quotes as they don’t seem to do much selling), half a dozen or so police guarding the synagogue, and at least three valets to service the one parking garage and one private bar you have to ring to enter. I’m sure many are paid under the table and healthcare is provided by the state, but I’m still amazed at the myriad of employment opportunities here. And that doesn’t even cover the thousands of eskici guys who collect junk, the horse-drawn carts selling fruit, brooms, popcorn and various other items, the shoe-shine guys and the flower ladies, etc, etc.

Back in December, we wanted to take a trip over Christmas and New Year out of Turkey. H wanted a beach vacation, I wanted something quaint and European, so somehow we settled on Russia. As I wrote about on Gadling, it made sense as a newly-pregnant lady: the flights were short, there was no chance of getting malaria or food poisoning from food spoiled in the sun, and I had my very own Russian translator to help out. As American citizens with Turkish residency, we still needed to apply for visas (H being Russian-born doesn’t help us as he’s a naturalized American), and didn’t fancy the idea of sending our precious passports overseas. I asked around on the expat forums and discovered there were several agencies off Istiklal near the Russian consulate who could help facilitate.

A week before our theoretical trip (we waited to buy tickets until we knew we could get visas), I visited one of the agencies to ask about the visa process. He didn’t speak English. My Turkish is poor. I offered to have H call, but he didn’t speak Russian either. Eventually I was able to gather this: for $350 USD each, most of it for taxes, he could procure 15-day tourist visas in a few days. The fees might seem steep, but it’s similar to what you’d pay in the US for help with visas, and you might still have to go wait in line at the consulate. I went and withdrew the required dollars and left the guy with both of our passports, residence permits, and a few hundred dollars. My “receipt” was scribbled on the back of a business card. While I slightly feared I’d end up trying to get asylum at the US embassy with no papers, I’ve learned to trust the Turks. A day or two before, I used a 100 TL note to pay for two drinks at a bar (juice for me) but they had no change. No worries, said the Turks. One of their friends was going out to the store to buy a few supplies, and he would get me change. Sure enough, he came back a few minutes later with more juice and every last kuru of my change.

The day after leaving all of my identification with the visa guy, he called me and told me to come back in, where I filled out the forms provided by the US. I had many questions: there wasn’t enough space to list the countries I’d visited in 6 months let alone 6 years, I had no invitation letter, did they really need the phone number of my husband’s boss two jobs ago? All of them were waived away with atamam, just write what I wanted. I returned again the next day to pick up our visas, just 48 hours after I first visited the agency. It was a Monday when I applied, we left for Russia on Friday. We later realized the day the visas were ready was a day the consulate isn’t even open, and still have no idea how the process works. Now, anytime I hear of someone wondering how to get a visa to another country while in Istanbul, I tell them there is inevitably a guy who can sort it out.

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2 responses to “Expat lesson learned: there’s a Turk for that

  1. Mary Greene

    This is wonderful! Interesting, insightful, funny, well-written. Thanks!

  2. I’m so glad to have found your blog! I visited Istanbul last summer and fell in love. I’m thinking about spending some time there teaching English next year. It’s great to hear an honest perspective about life in Turkey. I’d love to hear any advice you have for a 20something girl thinking about making the big move!

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