Inside Out in Istanbul

Dr. Jessie Voigts's picture

It must be known by all and sundry by now – I’m in love with Turkey. A recent trip highlighted to me what many of my friends and family already know – that Turkey is an amazing country to explore, and that Istanbul is just as magical as one can imagine. 

Shopping for unmentionables. Inside out in Istanbul
Shopping for Unmentionables

So imagine my happiness when I found Lisa Morrow (a friend of a dear friend) who is an expat in Istanbul, is an educator, AND has a site all about Istanbul! Called Inside Out in Istanbul, it’s a site like no other – one that truly delves into living in Istanbul. Of course, I had to ask her about her site, experiences, books (check back - we’ll be reviewing them and doing author interviews!), and life as an academic expat in Istanbul.

Get ready to fall in love – with Turkey, and with Lisa’s words and experiences. I encourage you to delve into her site – you’ll be glad you did.

Gallivanting around Galata, Istanbul
Gallivanting around Galata

Lisa notes: “I grew up in a family of educators and vowed early on it wasn’t for me. My mother, sister and two cousins were all teachers. The long hours, constant changes and demanding nature of the work definitely didn’t appeal. After finishing high school I went to university but couldn’t find my niche. I dropped out and in the following years I worked in various jobs, including as a public servant, cleaner, sales assistant, waitress, bar maid and car counter, before going overseas. On my return I completed a degree in sociology. An academic career beckoned, but I had discovered that not only did I like teaching, I was good at it. My desire to seek out knowledge and to understand the world communicates itself to my students in the belief that nothing is impossible if you are brave enough to try. Now I educate through my writing on Turkey. I’m particularly interested in the way tradition and modernity clash so that Turkish culture and society are constantly being redefined. I think I’m lucky because I can write about things that interest me, topics that make me angry, and subjects about which I am passionate.”

Lisa Morrow - Inside Out in Istanbul

Lisa in Istanbul

Please tell us about your site, Inside Out in Istanbul...

I want to introduce people to the Istanbul and Turkey I have come to love. There are a lot of commercial travel sites about Istanbul and Turkey and great blogs on travelling the country and the food, but few about everyday life. A lot of what is available focuses on easy to recognise cultural markers, such as religion, dress styles, and tradition. Consequently most only skim the surface of this very complex culture, unfortunately resulting in misrepresentation and stereotyping. As a sociologist and a teacher, I notice the subtle differences in social interactions and cultural norms and try to unpack their meanings. This country and its people are undergoing enormous change as they embrace the future while at the same time clinging firmly to their roots. Turkish society is in constant flux due to this ongoing clash between tradition and modernity, and that is what I write about on Inside Out In Istanbul.

Interior of the Üsküdar Surp Garabed Armenian Church, Istanbul
Interior of the Üsküdar Surp Garabed Armenian Church

What was the genesis of your site?

I’ve been writing long detailed letters and emails to my family and friends around the world about my travels in general and my life in Turkey in particular, for more than twenty years. In 2013 I released a collection of stories using some of this material, which I called Inside Out In Istanbul: Making Sense of the City. I chose the title because as a foreigner, no matter how long you live here and how much you think you know about the place, you can never be truly inside it. You are always on the outside in some way, but I like that. It means I can participate in daily Turkish life and at the same time stand back and observe. I found I had more to say than that contained in my first collection of essays, so I started a website of the same name to explore and share these new ideas. Over time my observations have become more personal, and resulted in a second collection of essays, called Exploring Turkish Landscapes: Crossing Inner Boundaries. Judging by the feedback I’ve received on my website and books, my insights into Turkish life resonate meaningfully with both Turkish and non-Turkish readers alike. 

Ankara simits for sale in Karaköy, Istanbul
Ankara simits for sale in Karaköy 

What might readers be surprised to learn about living in Istanbul?

I think your readers might be surprised to learn that living in Istanbul is not like living in the Middle East. In many ways life here is just like anywhere else. I work, shop, chat to my colleagues and friends, go to the movies, for a drink, out to dinner or dancing. The differences appear in the less obvious things, how we think about logic, approach decision making, plan for the future and so on. A lot of writers automatically refer to Islam and the hijab when they write about Turkey, but there is so much more to the country. Islam does play a huge role in people’s lives here, but like any religions, there are degrees of piety. Most tourists who come to Istanbul stay in Sultanahmet or Taksim. One of the first things they notice are the large number of women wearing head-to-toe black, known in Arabic as hijab. This is the correct word to use in this instance because most of those women are tourists from neighbouring Arabic countries. Granted, many Turkish women cover too, but this can range from a fashionable headscarf which draws attention to their beauty to a full black cover known in Turkish as a çarşaf, simply meaning a sheet. If you define what you see using popular stereotypes you will never really get beyond them to understand modern Turkish life. It takes a long time to see the true cultural differences, and consequently I still have more to learn.

When writing crosses borders - in Istanbul
When Writing Crosses Borders

What is it like to be an expat here?

Turkish society is very rigid when it comes to how one should behave and there is an expectation that everybody knows how to act and what procedures to follow. Most Turkish people outside of the tourism industry have very little contact with foreigners and almost no understanding of what it is like not to be Turkish. When I have to ask for explanations people are often quite puzzled because they think everybody is born knowing the answers. As a result life here can be quite hard at times. That said, being an expat means I can get away with making mistakes and am forgiven for asking the same questions over and over again until I properly understand. Not only has this helped me to improve my Turkish, more importantly it has allowed me to gain a better understanding of Turkish culture.

The Other Karaköy - Istanbul
The Other Karaköy

What are your top tips for visiting Istanbul?

The first thing visitors should realise is that Istanbul is a huge, sprawling city. It offers a myriad of delights for any type of traveller, but it really is enormous. Don’t expect to make sense of the city in just one visit, because it’s impossible. I’ve lived here almost eight years and I still have more questions to ask.

I know it is very popular these days to travel off the beaten track and to eschew traditional tourist sites in search of a more authentic experience. However, the main sites of Istanbul, easily accessible from Sultanahmet, are well worth the visit. In order to understand the country you need to know the history, a large amount of which is contained in the Blue Mosque, the Haghia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, and Dolmabahçe Palace, just to name a few.

That said, make time to visit one of the many up and coming bohemian areas spilling out from Taksim such as Cihangir, Galata, or Tophane. Then venture over to my side of town by ferry and lose yourself in what Turkish people think is a pretty normal suburb. I’m referring to Kadıköy with its supermarkets, bookshops, stationers, cafes, fish markets, gypsy flower sellers, street musicians, shoe shiners, dancing men, fortune telling rabbits, and much, much more.

A Short Stroll through Rasımpaşa, Kadıköy, Istanbul
A Short Stroll through Rasımpaşa, Kadıköy

The last piece of advice I would give is when the bustling, cacophonous life of Istanbul threatens to overwhelm you, take time out. Stop for a tea or an ice cream, or just sit and people watch for a while. This is when you’re most likely to experience the real Istanbul you’ve been looking for.

Spices, Istanbul
A Touch of Spice

What's up next for you?

Living in a country where planning isn’t part of most people’s vocabulary, this is a hard question to answer! I write everyday and my notebook is brimful with ideas. I have just completed a manuscript called Waiting for the Tulips to Bloom, which I want to see published. There’s a lot of Turkish literature I would like to be able to read but can’t because it isn’t in English. My Turkish is good but not that good, so I’m thinking of taking a certificate course in Turkish with the aim of becoming a translator in the future. Other than these plans I want to do more travelling and just enjoy what life offers.

Language learning in Istanbul
Afiyet and all the olsuns




All photos courtesy and copyright Lisa Morrow, Inside Out in Istanbul