A man-made law

It was 2007 and I was in Cappadocia (central Anatolia) with my parents. It was spring and hot, we had taken a walk through a valley and ended up in a small village, Ibrahimpasa. We went to the cafe on the town square for a drink. My dad, not yet a regular Turkey visitor at the time, sat down on the small terrace, sighed, wiped the sweat off his forehead and said: ‘I’ll have a beer.’

Five minutes later, we were having hot tea and cold water. Of course, beer wasn’t available there. That’s very normal in Turkey: in the great majority of restaurants and sidewalk cafes, alcohol is not served. Not in the small towns in Anatolia, and also not in Istanbul. (You know that too, Hugh 😉 And a Spanish journalist who is surprised about not being able to order wine in a lunch restaurant in Istanbul reveals more about his lack of knowledge of the local customs than about the extent of Islamization of the city.)

In general, people in Turkey drink tea. I remember sitting outside at a cafe in Kadiköy, Istanbul, where alcohol was available and I was having a beer, but young and modern people around me were having tea. On a sunny weekend afternoon. Turkey just doesn’t have a drinking culture. When you want to have alcohol with your lunch or dinner, you need to ask if that’s possible when you enter the restaurant. If not, you’ll need to go somewhere else.

Red or white?

That’s totally different to the situation in the country I come from, the Netherlands, as in any other European country. There, drinking is almost automatic. Alcohol is available in practically every restaurant, also for lunch. When you sit down in an outdoor cafe in summer in the afternoon or evening, beer or wine is what you have. When I visit friends in my home country, the question is usually not which drink I would like, but ‘Red or white?’ – white, please. When I visit my parents, I can count on dad having put a bottle of white wine in the fridge beforehand.

Now Turkey is in an uproar because the AKP government has changed the laws concerning alcohol. Part of the package is that retailers cannot sell alcohol anymore between 10pm and 6am (cafes, hotels and restaurants still can) and that alcohol cannot be sold anymore within a hundred meters of a mosque or a school. Alcohol ban! some people shout.

Sorry, but that’s not an alcohol ban. Even stronger: with the time limitation, in practice nothing much changes from the current situation. Supermarkets are usually already closed around that time, and you would have to search for any small specialized alcohol sales point (Tekel) that’s still open.

Some hotels, bars and restaurants will probably be affected by the 100 metre rule, but there is also a good chance there will be exceptions for tourist areas. Not only to support businesses, but also to support the incumbent AKP local government in many tourist areas. You see, there are local elections scheduled for the beginning of 2014. Both the new alcohol law (AKP voters are against drinking) and the expected exceptions to it will serve the AKP, the party that loves power more than God.

Centuries ago

For many people, even foreign observers, this alcohol law is the proof that the AKP is actually ‘Islamizing’ Turkey. I find that intriguing. I think Turkey, or the land we call Turkey now, was already Islamized centuries ago. Just as the part of the world where I come from was Christianized centuries ago. I know of course that what people mean when they say ‘Islamizing’ is that the AKP wants to impose its Islamic values on society. But my point is: Islamic values are already ruling this society, just as Christian values are ruling the Netherlands.

The criteria are: does the AKP limit other people’s choice to drink? They do when it comes to the hundred metre rule. Not selling alcohol around schools though, is actually not the worst idea ever. Not around mosques? Now on that particular point, the new law directly touches religion, is definitely inspired by Islam and should be cancelled.

Still, I think alcohol has become only more available since the AKP has been in power. Look at the very conservative city where I live, Diyarbakir. Within walking distance from my house in Baglar (I tell you, that’s not a modern part of town) there are two ultra modern shopping malls where I can buy all the alcohol I (think I) need. No way was it like that ten years ago. Thanks to AKP’s friends in the construction business, shopping malls with Migros and Carrefour (two of the big markets that sell alcohol) are still expanding all over the country.

Not a healthy product

The other details of the law aren’t necessarily ‘Islamizing’. I for sure support harsh punishment for driving under the influence of alcohol. That advertising alcohol will be restricted is bad news for the alcohol producers but not such a strange policy. Don’t forget (as I sometimes tend to do) that alcohol is not a healthy product.

Which doesn’t mean that I think it makes any sense whatsoever to introduce stricter alcohol laws in Turkey. PM Erdogan and some AKP MP’s say many EU countries have similar laws and Russia tries to limit alcohol use too – which made me laugh out loud, because the social problems caused by alcohol in the EU and definitely in Russia are uncomparable to the situation in Turkey.

Like I said, these lands were Islamized centuries ago. The alcohol consumption in Turkey is very low. Turkey has no alcohol problem and people don’t need a man-made law to not touch alcoholic drinks. It’s true what PM Erdogan said some weeks ago: the yoghurt drink ayran is Turkey’s national drink. He said it himself, so why on earth restrict alcohol? Well, that’s where the previously mentioned local elections come in.

Underage marriage

If Erdogan was really concerned about the people’s health and the welfare of the family and of Turkey’s youth – the reasons he claims to have for the new alcohol rules – I have some ideas.

Please, please urgently draft (and implement!) a serious policy against domestic violence, sexual abuse and underage marriage. Launch a campaign to inform the public about the dangers of smoking, and especially of smoking in the presence of children. Reduce the places where you can buy cigarettes, raise the prices a lot and implement rules that ban children from buying tobacco products. (There are new tabacco rules to come, let’s see what they contain.)

And who is going to tell people in this country about the biggest health risk every single Turks inflicts upon himself? I’m talking about sugar. Putting three or four sugar cubes in ten to twenty cups of tea a day (thats 210 to 560 cubes a week!), and accustoming children to that from a very young age, is very hazardous to your health.

But don’t expect too much from the AKP in these fields. You don’t want to estrange the voters from you, do you?

Oh electricity

After a few months in Diyarbakir, I’m flying back to Istanbul later today. I’m not sure for how long, but I hope to be back in my new base camp Diyarbakir very soon. What gives me no choice but to leave now is the totally deplorable electricity situation here, which makes it impossible to write the first chapter of my book. Luckily though, the situation has been rather educational too.

How bad is it? Very bad. The electricity is off several times a day, up to fifteen times, for shorter (2 minutes) or longer (hours) periods of time. I depend on electricity not only for light (and it gets dark at 4pm) and my internet connection, but also for my shower and for heating. I remember a few weeks ago I spent half the day in bed just to stay warm – the electricity was off from when I woke up till about 3pm for two or three consecutive days.

A follower on twitter offered me this drawing of hers to publish in this post. I totally love it, both the drawing and the offer! Copyright: Storiesbyster, find her on twitter as @Yekbuns. Click to enlarge.

I tried to deal with it, for example by working at night because then the situation is usually better, but to no avail. It exhausted me, made me sleep till noon or later and at 4 it turns dark again – very depressing. Besides, the outages are so unpredictable that you can never plan to do anything at all, from having a few straight hours of work to something as simple as taking a shower. More than once I found myself suddenly under a cold shower in the total dark when I had of course just shampooed my hair. Stay warm by the heater? Think again. And don’t laugh!

“What causes these very frequent power cuts?” I asked the public relations office at the local branch of the state electricity company this week, when I went there to pay the bill. They asked me where I live. I named the neighbourhood, and their answer was ready: ‘There are road constructions going on around there as you know, and this causes some trouble now and then. The good news is: this all ends today, so starting tomorrow everything is fine again!’

I didn’t buy that, and of course it wasn’t true. Road constructions don’t cause ten electricity cuts in three hours. I asked: ‘Does it have to do with people stealing energy?’ They said they really couldn’t go into that.

I know it has a lot to do with the people in my neighbourhood stealing electricity. Recently an inspection was made and I heard from my next-door neighbour that a lot of people were fined for illegal electricity use. She said it can cost up to 2000tl (some €900) and if you can’t pay, you can spend a few days in jail instead. Tampering with the electricity meter is usually done by professional electricians, who ask 300 to 400tl to do the job.

My neighbourhood is ‘medium’

I’m not a power station expert so I don’t know exactly how it works, but the distribution stations just cannot cope with all this pilfering and it leads to outages all the time. That this must be part of the problem is also shown by the fact that poorer neighbourhoods, where more stealing is done, have outages more often. Two friends who live in Diclekent, a richer part of the city, hardly ever experience this problem. My neighbourhood is ‘medium’, and in Baglar, the poorest district, the power situation is the poorest too. I can imagine it’s the distribution stations themselves too that are part of the problem: old ones in Baglar that are not fit to serve the growing population, brand new and modern ones in much newer Diclekent.

Turks often get hot headed about the stealing of energy in the South-east of Turkey. Because all this energy has to be paid for and the richer parts of the country end up taking care of the bills. Of course, that’s not nice, and stealing is wrong. And now I’m going to do a ‘but’.

But, face it, people are poor here. The unemployment rate is around 60%, a local AKP politician recently told me. And if you have a job, the payment is often not enough to support a family, especially not in the more expensive winter months. Please also take a look at the background of people in Diyarbakir. How did this city get so big in the first place? Migration from the villages in the region. In the nineteen nineties, when the army burned down hundreds of villages and took people’s homes and lives away, confiscated their lands and animals and forced them to go to the city. In the villages they didn’t have the burden of paying for housing, they were often self-sufficient, life was cheap. By comparison Diyarbakir is incredibly expensive. Of course, part of these migrants did manage to build a life here, but many struggle to stay alive. Stealing energy is a way to make ends meet.

The little money I spend

But one of my friends in Diclekent told me it’s not only poor people who steal energy: ‘Some people can pay the bill, but have their meters tampered with anyway. They are angry at the state and want to get back at it or just be a nuisance to it. I don’t blame them, even though stealing is against Islam. What the state has done to these people is against Islam too, isn’t it?’

Still, the stealing is, as far as I can see, not the only cause. Part of the problem is that Turkey can’t produce enough energy for the whole country. For bigger cities which contribute more to Turkey’s economy, electricity cuts are considered more harmful, so electricity is directed there, instead of to Diyarbakir. Which causes a viscious circle of course: the power outages hamper Diyarbakir’s economic growth. As if the ongoing Kurdish issue isn’t doing enough of that already.*)

I too am now taking the little money I spend to Istanbul. That saddens me – I would have loved to spend it here. Luckily it’s only temporary: in the spring, when electricity usage goes down again, the situation will improve. I’ll be back in less than two months. Just in time for Newroz, the celebration of returning light!

*) Want to read a blog post about the negotiations between the PKK and the state, the topic everybody talks about in Turkey? You can, on my site Kurdish Matters, in English, Kurdish and Turkish!

Tea tears

Can you imagine breaking down in tears when somebody pours you a cup of tea? I almost did, last week. I just couldn’t take it anymore. The joke that tea only becomes lethal after the 99th cup on a single day, could hardly make me smile again. All I could do was get up, murmur an apology and leave the room.

Five weeks of travelling in the south-eastern provinces of Diyarbakir, Mardin and Şırnak was totally wonderful and inspiring and educational, but at times also difficult. I only spent one night in a hotel, the rest of the time I was in villages, staying with families. That was of course a conscious choice. I was looking for stories for my book and trying to get a glimpse of daily life in the Kurdish region, and this was a good way to do it.

I have been really touched by the willingness of people to open their homes to me. In one village, somebody arranged for me to stay with the local politician. Which I of course didn’t want: if you want to get to know average people at an average (read: hardly existent) income in an average house, the local politician’s house is the last one you want to stay in. When I explained what I came for, other arrangements were quickly made. We went to a large family who lived in a group of four houses, talked to the pater familias and he gave permission for me to stay in the house of his young widowed sister-in-law and her five children. We went to meet her, and I was accepted. I could stay as long as I wanted. In the eight days that I stayed, many other people in the village invited me to stay in their house too.


In Turkey, and maybe even more so in the south-east, this is nothing really remarkable, but seen from a Dutch point of view, it most certainly is. My mind often wandered off to some imaginary Turkish correspondent, wanting to know village life in the Netherlands and setting of to some remote province, hoping someone would be hospitable to him. The local politician would open the door, but he would have to get into a meeting first with his party to see what he could do. Just walk around in the village and see where you end up? Even if you found people on the street, they wouldn’t easily start talking to the foreigner. And people in their homes, would they open the door? In my imagination, I see curtains being pushed aside just a little bit, to look at the stranger with worrisome eyes, and then quickly closed again when he came too close.

We Dutch, we like our privacy. We can be on our own, either with our own small family or really alone, like the way I live in Istanbul, with my social live evolving mainly outside my house. People asked me if I missed Istanbul while on my trip. No, not at all. It was the lack of time alone that hit me in the end. Time to just sit, read a book, drink coffee by the window and watch life outside, sip wine, write a bit, think and be alone with my thoughts.


That evening, the evening the tea almost made me cry, was a confrontation with the fact that tea represents the non-individual way society in Turkey is organized. The group is most important; it is in the group that life takes place: tea is what the day starts with, continues with and ends with. Refusing tea and leaving the room to be by myself felt like taking a little bit of my individuality back after these few weeks. Ridiculous, in a way, because if anybody in the end was in control of my trip, it was me. But still, that’s how it felt.

It’s funny though, that this happened only after already being part of Kurdish group life for more than four weeks. That must be thanks to the way I was welcomed in houses. I was part of the group and could hardly escape it, but life was natural, nobody kept up any appearance, people shared their stories, their food, their space, their lives. That has touched me and I am very grateful for it. My special thanks go to friend V. with whom I stayed in Diyarbakir. He offered the perfect balance between togetherness and time alone (and no tea!) the last days before flying home to Istanbul. I will be back!


Some time ago I was in a bar in Istanbul with some Dutch people and some Turks. One of the Turkish women started to talk about some family affair, in which supernatural powers played a big role. Call me unfriendly, but I just can’t let that pass easily, especially after two, three glasses of wine. At some point, I just can’t help asking: ‘But haven’t you considered for one second that supernatural powers had nothing to do with it? That the whole course of events was just coincidence and had nothing to do with a curse?’

The answer was a plain ‘No’. So I thought, okay, me and my big mouth, I’ll just shut up – which I managed to do. Forgive me, dear readers, but I didn’t grow up with this kind of stuff. I’m from Hengelo, a small city in the east of the Netherlands, and believe me, there is not much supernatural, spiritual or poetic about it. Not even religion was an important issue in the family I grew up in.

The funny thing is, one year before me, in that very same town, Nazmiye Oral was born. She grew up to be a pretty well known author, columnist, playwright and actress in the Netherlands and lives in Amsterdam now. Last year, her first novel was published, called ‘Zehra’. Nazmiye sent it to me and I finished reading it this weekend. It’s a beautifully written story impregnated with the supernatural. I was a bit hesitant at first, but Nazmiye has a way of choosing beautiful words and of writing down supernatural events very naturally – I just couldn’t stop reading.

Beautiful experiences

Not for one second did I think, as would be my natural reaction: please, this is just too much! These things just don’t happen! There is a perfectly logical explanation for all this! Somehow, Nazmiye managed to convince me with her sad but beautiful story about the young girl Zehra, to convince me that the supernatural is just sometimes very natural in Turkey, where the story takes place.

I live in this country, but I never give any attention to that side of society here. I don’t open myself to it, and as a journalist I can’t check it, so in short, I don’t feel connected to it in any way. That’s where my reaction in the bar a few months ago came from. Now I wish I could do that conversation all over again, put my prejudice beside and ask the woman more about it. How do these things work according to her? How did she learn about it? Are these things mainly scary – as they were in her story – or does she have beautiful experiences with them too?


The great thing is, it was officially announced today that ‘Zehra’ has been nominated for a Dutch cultural prize, called the E. du Perron Prize. It is awarded every year to an artist who manages to break down walls between different cultural groups that live in the Netherlands. At first sight, you might wonder how ‘Zehra’ is doing that. But when I see the effect it has on me, even after finishing it just a few hours ago, I totally understand how this book can build a bridge.

A bridge between the very logical, non spiritual Dutch society, and the supernatural that has a solid place in Turkish culture. So funny, that Nazmiye grew up with this side of life in that small city that I only know as boring, polished, with no spiritual touch whatsoever. I’ll take this from Hengelo to Istanbul and whereever I go in Turkey, and you might find it back in a story of mine one day. Who wins the E. de Perron Prize will be announced on 12 May, I hope I can congratulate Nazmiye that day!

He went for a computer

(I went to Gülyazi this week, one of the villages in the Uludere district where 35 villagers got killed in an airstrike of the Turkish army. Read this news agency article I wrote about it here, and a blog post here.)

In the old days, says one of the smugglers, there were no stones at the border. Now there are, every hundred metres. On one side is written IRAQ, on the other side TURKEY. These stones, he says, mean nothing to us. This, he says, is just all our land, the land of our ancestors.

It’s about six kilometres walk from Gülyazi to a village on the other side of the border. A two hours walk over rugged mountainous terrain, climbing and descending. They call the villagers on the other side of the stones beforehand and tell them what is needed. Sugar, petrol, tea, cigarettes. Then they set off. It’s smuggling, of course, and they know it, but to them it hardly feels like doing something illegal. They just get cheap stuff from close by, some of the smugglers even have family over the border. Then back in Turkey, they sell the goods and earn some money. It’s been done like that for generations, it’s just a very normal part of life.

When I ask if they also smuggle weapons, they sigh. No, of course not. That’s not part of life for these smugglers. They don’t do anything illegal – well, not illegal in that way. They are not connected to the PKK. The PKK also never ever uses the trails the smugglers use, because everybody knows there are too many soldiers around. The first PKK camps, they say, are around 100 kilometres away. They smuggle daily goods that everybody needs, no guns. And I have no reason not to believe them.


Then I talk to a 19 year old boy, and I realize even more how totally normal the smuggling is in the life of many villagers along the border. He is studying tourism at the university in Gaziantep and goes smuggling during his holidays. To contribute to the family income, and to pay for his studies. His younger brother was killed in the bombing, but that doesn’t stop him from crossing the border again for smuggling. He needs the money, and smuggling is the way. When we visit the graves of the victims, the 19 year old takes me to one of them to show me a note left on it. It says: ‘He went for a computer’. With smuggling, you can earn 50 lira a night, and if you want to save money for a computer, smuggling is the way.

I think back to when I was a teenager. I earned some extra money by delivering papers every Wednesday after school, and during my studies at journalism academy I earned some money in a supermarket and by writing for a local newspaper. What the boys and young men in Gülyazi do is as normal for them as my supermarket job was for me. The difference is: for them, it’s out of pure necessity to go earn some money, and they don’t have safer job options to turn to.

Two coats that don’t fit

And there I found myself, in a café in Istanbul with a book in my hands and tears in my eyes. It was the banned book by Ahmet Şık. I just bought it and really, really wanted to read it. But the first two pages not only took me an hour, they also drove me nuts: I didn’t understand most of it. That frustrated me to tears. I took a deep breath to get a grip, but hardly managed. I felt stupid, even more so because I bought another book as well: a Turkish-Kurdish dictionary. Yes, I started learning Kurdish, Kurmanci to be precise, the Kurdish most spoken in Turkey. What am I thinking? I can’t even get my Turkish right, and now I start another language? 

Why is this language learning so important to me, and why does it frustrate me to tears in public when I feel inadequate? Thinking about that, something a Dutch friend said to me a few weeks ago came to mind. He has been coming to Turkey for decades, speaks fluent Turkish and has been living here for years. He said: ‘You are really screwing yourself into Turkey, aren’t you?’ I liked that image of what I am doing here: trying to get to know the country and the people better, trying to dig deeper, trying to learn more, trying to take root here solidly.

Dutch coat

Why? Turkey suits me, to start with. But also, I have been here for five years this month, and I have reached a point of being in between countries, or, you could say, in between identities. Changing coats is a suitable metaphor for that. When living in the Netherlands, I wore my Dutch coat: it fitted just right – I lived there and my identity matched my surroundings. Then I moved to Turkey. I tried (and managed!) to build a life here, and that naturally means that the Dutch coat doesn’t fit so comfortably anymore. But throwing it away, just like that, is not possible. My new, Turkish coat is unfinished, it hasn’t shaped fully yet so it’s also not comfortable. I am wearing two coats that don’t fit.

It’s not nice to wear an uncomfortable coat. I, like every human being, need to belong somewhere, to fit in. I don’t have a family of my own and at the moment not even a partner to belong with, and the people who know me best and who are the closest to my heart, are far away. So I need to try to belong in another way. My Dutch coat will, I think, never be fully comfortable anymore. Even if I return to my home country one day, living abroad has changed me and that can never be undone. For now, though, I have no intention of returning to the Netherlands. I want to stay here. So if I want to have a comfortable Turkish coat to wear, I have to shape myself further. And for me, language is one of the keys.


The book I was reading in the café last night is symbolic of the situation I’m in. As a journalist for the Dutch press, I could very well stick to reading about the book and the reactions to it, and follow the developments: will it be freely available now, or will it be confiscated, and will the people who edited and published it get into trouble? But for me, that’s just not enough. I am not just a journalist in this country anymore. I live here, I want to be part of this society. So I want to read the book and fully understand it.

Wanting to learn Kurdish is just as symbolic. As a journalist for the Dutch press, it would be enough to read about Kurds and see how all the issues involving Kurds in this country develop, but for me, this is just not sufficient. Kurmanci is the second language of this country. Learning Kurmanci is an essential part of shaping myself for living in this country. For a coat I can comfortably wear in Turkey. (I have to add learning Kurmanci is a bit of a statement too. Forbidding and surpressing a language for decades doesn’t make it go away.)

Dutch lining

When I heard the metaphor of the coats for the first time, some 5 years ago, it scared me. Having no comfortable coat, the horror! But I knew that if I stayed in Turkey, I would inevitably find myself in the coatless situation one day. And here I am. The confrontation with that fact last night was disturbing. But there is only one way out of this situation, and that is, of course, forward. One day, I will have a comfortable coat. The lining of it will be Dutch, to keep me extra warm.

Desperate in a hazelnut train

‘One more hour?’, I asked in despair. ‘Are you sure? This can’t be! I need to get out of this train! I boarded in Diyarbakir, please, it’s enough!’

The train was going very slow, and almost arriving at a station, but again not the station of Adapazari, the destination I had in mind. The time: 1am. I desperately wanted to get off, but what was I going to do? Get a hotel in Arifiye, the small town we were about to enter? Probably, the conductor and some fellow passengers said, Arifiye doesn’t even have a hotel. They said, you better wait till we are in Adapazari, there are plenty of places to stay there. ‘But I’m a woman alone’, I said even more desperate, ‘Am I supposed to wander around there at 2 at night to find a hotel? What am I going to do? What am I going to do?’

A train trip can never last too long

And it all started so easy peasy. Thursday night, I took a plane to Diyarbakir in South-East Turkey, for the sole purpose of boarding the ‘fındık treni’, the hazelnut train, the next morning. The real name is the ‘Southern Express’, and it goes from Diyarbakir to Istanbul, about a thousand kilometers. At the end of July and the beginning of August, it’s called ‘hazelnut train’, because families from South-East Turkey take it to go to Adapazari, from where they can reach the hazelnut fields in the North of Turkey to earn money in the harvesting season.
I wanted to meet with these families and if possible join them to the fields. For a (long term) project I’m working on, to sell a story or two about it and of course because I love training (yes, that’s a verb). I knew the trip would take long – officially from 11.45am till 7pm the next day – but hey, a train trip can never last too long. Really, I was that naive when I boarded.

The biggest difficulty was not that I couldn’t get a compartment to myself anymore because they were all booked. I wanted to meet people, and I thought for just one night sleeping in a chair would be okay, I do that often in long distance busses too. The airconditioning turned out to be broken, now that was a problem. In Diyarbakir it was 40 degrees Celcius, and a train is of course not ever in the shadow on the Anatolian plains. The windows couldn’t be opened, or only a little bit. It was hot, so hot, and no way to cool down.

People were opening the doors while the train was riding, and I joined them in the hallway. We caught some wind, but the wind was hot, very hot, and hardly refreshing. Actually, worse than that: in the Southern provinces, there was a lot of desert sand in the air, coming from sand storms in Syria, people claimed. So besides very hot and sweaty, I also got dirty. As icing on the cake my digestive system gave up and I had to go to the toilet every hour. Once I almost fell into my own (fill in the missing word) when the train suddenly stopped just as I kneeled down.

During sunset we passed the Euphrates

I tried all this not to break my good mood. The scenery was fantastic, and even unreal sometimes. I remember we passed lake Hazar, Elazig province. The huge lake was deserted but for a few people playing in it, it was hot, but the sky was filled with sand so no sun came through. Magical, mysterious, unreal. During sunset we passed the Euphrates, which was stunning; the river is very wide, the banks are rough and empty, only here and there a small village. And these highlights are part of a bigger beautiful experience: hundreds and hundreds of kilometers through slowly changing landscapes of rough planes and green valleys, plus the agricultural richeness of Turkey, going from apricots and melons to corn, grain, sunflowers and hazelnuts. All accompanied by the sound of the train.

I got in touch with a ‘hazelnut family’ too. They were travelling with nineteen people, and just transferred their household to the train. They took a propane cooker too, and invited me to share their vegetable stew with them, and fresh tea. Later, I will visit them in the fields. I couldn’t join them immediately, because they were not sure yet where they were going to end up.

So, lots of wonderful things, but it turns out I do have my limits. One night in a bus, sleeping in a chair, is something else than spending the whole previous and next day in the same chair, even when you can walk around. Especially when the circumstances are bad. And when the train gets more and more delayed along the way. At the end of the afternoon the prediction was that we would be in Adapazari around 11pm. Imagine: at 1 am we were still at least an hour from there! So that’s when I couldn’t keep it up anymore. As soon as I let a bit of my despair out, it all came.

Will I ever take a train again in Turkey?

The train conductor saw my desperation – guess it was hard to miss. ‘Wait’, he said. We stopped at Arifiye, and he started to make calls, and talk to police men at the platform. He came back and said to me: ‘Get your things, we can arrange something here.’ Another passenger helped me, and on the platform the train conductor introduced me to a police guy. ‘There is a hotel here, see, there, right across the station. This police man will help you.’ Police man took my suitcase and carried it off the stairs. Outside the station, a few men were chatting and having tea. The hotel looked dark, so the police man asked the guys if they knew if that hotel was open. ‘Yes, it’s open and it’s mine’, said one of the guys. ‘Come!’.

So, about fifteen minutes after my desperation attack in the train, I was in a reasonable hotel having a fresh shower. And right after that falling into a coma on a good bed. Will I ever take a train again in Turkey? Of course I will. But if it’s such a long journey, I’ll make sure I have a compartment to myself, and I won’t do it again in summer. But in the end, I wouldn’t have want to miss this journey either.

One day, when more investments are made in the railway network in Turkey (Insjallah) and the high speed train from Diyarbakir to Istanbul takes only six hours, I can say: ‘I took it once back in the days when it went 27,7 kilometers per hour. And I’ll never forget it.’

The most difficult thing about living abroad

Of course people often ask me if I miss my home country the Netherlands. No, not the country, but I do miss people. Not the Dutch people in general (even less since I’ve come to know them better from a distance), but the people close to me. My family, who has known me for fourty years. Friends since my teenage years, and friends since ten, fifteen years. People who really know me well.

In Turkey, nobody knows me longer than the time I’ve been here, which is 4,5 years now. Most people know me even much shorter. Besides that, Turks of course don’t automatically understand my background, shaped by where I come from. So when I meet new people, we mutually have quite some figuring out to do. Which is nice, but also difficult. And can go dramatically wrong sometimes.

Well, dramatically… Sometimes it’s not so dramatic. Some weeks ago, I had some misunderstandings with someone I haven’t known for long, and I think a young possible friendship ended. It wasn’t so painful, it was okay actually, but still, at the time I felt it rather deeply: now she thinks I’m a hysterical person. I’m not, really, but from her perspective it could very well be she thinks I am. It made me feel not known. That’s not a nice feeling, especially when there are no people directly around to go to, who know you better and where you can be your total self, with all your mistakes.

This week, something happened again. Again with somebody I haven’t known for long, but with a person who in this short time became rather important to me. I wasn’t that much aware of that fact, until we were a night out together and I made some stupid mistakes. I’m not going to get into the details (sorry ;-)), but later, he expressed his anger and disappointment. I liked that in itself – better to talk than to get silent – but it hurts terribly. I could be exaggerating, but I feel I’ve destroyed a young and good friendship. He must be thinking I’m just not a nice person, a woman he totally misjudged.

Why is this more difficult when living abroad? Because you have no common ground to begin with with the people you meet. You are an outsider already, and situations like these make you feel like an alien. Unseen, unknown, not part of the country you chose to live in. I can blame only myself (and the circumstances a bit) for my mistake, but I miss it that I have no automatic mutual understanding with anybody here. It makes (potential) friendships so fragile. I wish I could shout around: I make my mistakes, I’m not perfect, but really, I’m okay. But I don’t even know which words to choose to make my message come across in Turkish, nor if they can ever be really understood.

I came back Sunday from twelve days in the Netherlands. And I miss the common ground and the people who really know me deeply.

Language mate

‘Are there any tea wanters?’ That’s the example sentence I often use when explaining how different the structure of Turkish sentences is from West Germanic languages, like Dutch. The sentence is a literal translation of how Turks ask whether anybody wants tea. Years ago I didn’t know that and would build some rudimentary sentence myself in such a situation. Turks would understand me because I used Turkish words, but good Turkish, no, it wasn’t that.

And still my Turkish consists of Turkish words used in grammatical structures from Turkish, Dutch and English. I am sure making progress, of course, but when I hear myself talk, I know I could say things in such a more beautiful and ‘higher’ Turkish. And since yesterday, I know I’m finally going to take it to that level. I found a language mate. A Turkish medical student who returned from Amsterdam two months ago after doing his hospital training course there. His Dutch was at an amazing level, but he was afraid he’d forget it and offered to meet me regularly to talk: one hour Dutch, one hour Turkish. Good idea!

On the street, it’s hard to take your language a level higher. You just don’t have an advanced discussion about language with people you meet in daily life, at work and on the street. With Turkish friends I sometimes do, but not like yesterday, when I conversed with my language mate for the first time. Two hours of great language talk. If we keep doing this for a few months, I’m sure I can finally turn around the button in my head and take my Turkish to the next level.

And then what? Then I will start with a new language. For years I’ve been thinking about learning Kurmanji, the Kurdish dialect that is spoken by most of the Kurds in Turkey. In order not to drive myself crazy I didn’t want to start before my Turkish was at an acceptable level. Now it almost is. It’s almost time to start a brand new beginner’s course!


‘Spring has started, you don’t need wood for the heater anymore, do you?’ I asked my neighbour when I saw her chopping wood. I knew what she was chopping it for, I just needed to start the conversation. ‘It’s for the barbecue, why don’t you come and join us!’

The first real spring weekend in Istanbul seemed a good occasion to join the neighbours barbecue. Well, it takes place in the neighbour’s garden, but many passers-by call in, kids from several families play around the house and take a bite to eat, so it’s more of a neighbourhood barbecue. And it’s a good example of why Turkey suits me. Neighbourhood barbecues in Turkey are kind of rough – like the hamam, which you can read about here.

The barbeque is built out of stones arranged in a rectangle on the ground, with one side left open. The grilling mesh is put on top. It’s not very level, so you have to be careful. Yes, the accident happened: pieces of chicken meat fell on the ground and got covered in sand and lumps of charcoal. No problem, rinse them with water and they can be put back on. Well, why not?

The table was not covered with a cloth, but with newspapers. Besides chicken, there was a big bowl of salad, and a lot of bread, of course. For the kids, the meat was stuffed in a piece of bread, along with some salad – all pushed in with the thumbs. I got a plastic plate with 2 pieces of chicken and a pile of salad. And a huge plastic cup with Cola Turka. I hate cola, but now I found it somehow okay. One of the kids accidentally bumped her cup of cola and it fell, the cola spilling over her trousers a bit. Not a word was said about it, no hurrying to clean the table or the trousers, she just got a new cup. Her clothes were incredibly dirty: she had just been playing in the sand, apparently kneeling down in some charcoal that blew out of the barbecue and by the way, her face was dirty too. But all the kids’ hands were washed before eating, with water from a huge bottle.

A basket was hung out of the window in the second floor of the house. Somebody put some chicken wrapped in newspaper in it and a piece of bread and it was pulled up again. Passing neighbours also got pieces of chicken wrapped in paper. The kids just shouted ‘Et!’ (Meat!) if they wanted more. I of course modified the cry when I wanted some more salad, and just shouted ‘Salata!’ (Kidding.) One of the neighbours came by with home made helva (a sweet made from sesame seed) and really, that was the best helva I ever had. The left-overs of the meat were just thrown anywhere in the garden, and some cats and seagulls quickly came to pick it all up. Then there was tea – what else?

At the end of it all the plastic cups, plates and forks were wrapped in the partly cola-soaked paper, and the whole huge ball of rubbish was put on the barbecue, and immediately lit with a few matches. Everybody took what was hers – I took a grilling mesh – and went home. Soon afterwards the rubbish fire went out. No traces of barbecue left.