My Experience as an Introvert Traveler in Small-Town Turkey
I have been living in a small conservative town at the halfway point between Istanbul and Ankara in the western part of Turkey for a little under a year now. I originally moved here as an English teacher in a private Western Languages center with the intent of only staying one year before heading back to the States. But after just two months I began making arrangements to stay, indefinitely.
Almost every day that I am here, I get the question, “Why would you choose this city?” or “Why Turkey?” or “Oh, I didn’t know you weren’t German!” (My blonde hair and blue eyes combination is the Texan in me, not the German.) But try and explain that to people and they will begin quoting from the TV show Dallas and asking me even more questions but these ones directed at “Where is your gun?” or “Are you married to a cowboy?”
Even though I get these questions almost as often and as scheduled as my alarm clock every morning, they still catch me by surprise.
After I graduated from university with degrees in Farsi and international politics, I knew I needed to get abroad, live abroad, work abroad, do it all – just somewhere new and different. I had been thinking about this plan for quite some time, but I couldn’t decide where I wanted to move.
When I finally chose Turkey, I had two job offers: one in the center of Istanbul and the other in a small conservative town about two hours to the east. There were a few things that made the decision a bit difficult, but the biggest one was the fact that I am a huge introvert. Don’t get me wrong. I love to talk, I’m a regular chatty Kathy, and I go out to bars and cafes with friends all the time. But doing things that involve confrontations for the first time, even as simple as walking into a new grocery store, scare me to pieces. I’m always the one who thinks she is being a burden when hanging out, or one that is too afraid to ask a sales clerk where the shampoo is.
But if I was ever going to get a job abroad, I had to be, well, abroad.
Istanbul is the largest city in Turkey and home to about 14 million people, officially, but in reality that number is much higher. Even though Istanbul is the focal point for culture and history, it is also one of the top tourist attractions in the world, making it impossible to go a day without hearing English or seeing a busload of foreigners pass by you every five minutes. With all those people, it is a no brainer that the traffic is terrible, the rents are high, and safety is a comedian’s bad punch line.
When I made the move to Turkey, I was coming alone, but I was sure to do extensive research about my new surroundings. However it wasn’t until later that I realized I had no idea what I was really in for. But one thing I did know was that I would be swallowed whole in a city like Istanbul. I decided to get my bearings first in a smaller, more remote town, before really diving into the cultural center of the region. While for me this was an obvious choice, it continues to baffle those around me.
After arriving in Turkey for the first time and being shuttled to my small town, I knew that I had made the right decision. Even though the city is not famous in any sense and the only tourist attraction is a small house in the center of the city where Ataturk was claimed to live during a small unnamed battle in the Republic’s early years, it was the Turkey that not everyone gets to see.
Turkey is a secular country but also claims that 99 percent of its citizens are Muslim. When you go to the major tourist cities of Istanbul, Bodrum, or Cappadocia, you don’t see that. You see a Turkey that has been molded by its guests. If I had moved to Istanbul and lived there for the year, I wouldn’t have understood as much as I do now how central family is to the every Turkish person, or how delicious Çig Köfte is, or really how incredibly genuine people are, to name just a few discoveries. It would take me more than one year to dig that deep in a big city, whereas in small towns it is thrust onto you the moment you kick off your shoes and join someone for tea.
Now that having been said, there are some drawbacks. An up-close look at the realities of culture opens many doors, but also causes very curious, and sometimes harmful attention. I’ve grown accustomed to people practically breaking their necks as they turn to watch me walk by, or those who find it funny to mock my English when I get the chance to speak in public, and I have also had my fair share of stalkers.
I am not the likes of a Victoria’s Secret model, nor am I really anything more than a Plain Jane, but I still attract attention. Most days I can handle it, other days I wrap my hair up in a bun, put on huge sunglasses and try to avoid the attention like the plague.
To be honest, it wasn’t until I got to Turkey that I really understood my introvert personality. If I try to explain it to some people, they usually laugh and tell me it is impossible for me to be an introvert and still move abroad. But it is possible.
Moving, traveling, or working abroad is not a cookie-cutter experience. It is what you make of it. I use it to challenge my confidence everyday. Just because you travel doesn’t mean you have to go the route that everyone else chooses, or the ones that the travel books pick for you. You have to explore to find what it is you are looking for.