Reading: Inside Out in Istanbul

by Dr. Jessie Voigts /
Dr. Jessie Voigts's picture
Jul 11, 2015 / 0 comments

Everyone in the whole world knows by now that I am in love with Turkey. Whilst I was there, my schedule was too hectic to meet a new friend, Lisa Morrow, who lives and teaches in Istanbul. My loss – and next time! Isn’t it crazy, how life goes like that? Lisa is a longtime resident of Turkey, and a thoughtful intercultural analyst. I love her website, Inside Out in Istanbul, and I love her book of the same name. She’s a noticer, one who sees more than just the surface – and has the writing chops to describe it so well that we feel as if we are there with her. Not only do I avidly read her website, but when her book arrived in the mail, I dove in without taking a breath. And what a book!

Inside out in Istanbul

One of the things I love most about travel and living abroad is the opportunity to truly experience another culture. When we aren’t able to do this ourselves (and really, who can dig deep into all the cultures of the world? We would need many, many lifetimes!), books like Lisa’s Inside Out in Istanbul give us access to a new culture, life abroad, being an expat, and the joys and challenges of living with cultural difference. She is one of the best writers on intercultural living I’ve ever read, and I highly recommend this book. It’s a joy to learn about Turkey, Istanbul, and Istanbulites from an insider – it’s a wonderful glimpse into another world.

We were lucky enough to catch up with Lisa, and ask her about her book, inspiration, living in Turkey, teaching and the higher education system, and more. Here’s what she had to say...

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

Inside Out In Istanbul is my first collection of essays about life in modern Turkey. I wanted my readers to feel what it’s like to live here, to hear the noises in the street, to smell the scents wafting by on the breeze and taste the very air of the city. Istanbul has a majestic history, but for me what really makes it unique are the little, everyday traditions mixed in with present-day life. Water men, itinerant musicians, people selling fruit, simit, and boza, and collectors of old wares pass by my house everyday. My neighbours shop at outdoor markets, go to Turkish baths, celebrate weddings with henna and dancing and sit together for hours to eat and talk and dream. Our hopes and aspirations are the same, but our language, culture and traditions are different. As a result, even if I immerse myself fully, I will always be on the outside looking in, and thus needing to describe, explain and understand what I see. Inside Out in Istanbul takes people on a journey through the Istanbul in which I live, far away from the tourist centres but every bit as exotic and foreign.

Milkman in Istanbul
Milkman in Istanbul

What inspired you to write this book?

Some time ago, I wrote a manuscript based on the two years I spent living and working in Kayseri, in central Turkey. In the process of trying to get it published, I started to correspond with the English author William Dalrymple, whom I greatly admire. When I lived in Sydney, he toured there with a troupe of Indian musicians and story tellers. I was lucky enough to meet with him and talk about my writing. He suggested I start writing short pieces about my life in Turkey...and I did. That first manuscript was really too undeveloped to publish, but it started me writing about my life in Turkey. Inside Out In Istanbul is the result.

Simits in Istanbul
Simit display, Istanbul

One of the things I love most about this book is how you bring Turkey to life - with people, stories, and events. What do you love most about living in Turkey?

Just before I sat down to answer this question, I read your piece about finding unexpected joy in Turkey. You wrote that the people you met here told you more about the country than any famous monument or demonstration of traditional crafts, and those memories are the ones that stay with you. Like you, the people are what I love most about living in Turkey. Just as the history is rich and complex, and the landscape varied and majestic, the people are warm, funny, intriguing and engaging. Not a single day goes by that I don’t talk with someone new, crack a joke in my less than perfect Turkish, laugh over something silly, or come home with a fascinating story to tell. 

It can be difficult to be an expat - what were some of the intercultural challenges and joys you face, in living in Turkey?

When you first come to Turkey you get a lot of attention simply because you’re foreign. You’ll also be forgiven if you make a cultural faux pas. However, this initial attention doesn’t always develop into full blown friendships. Family is very important in Turkey and forms the basis of many people’s social life. Consequently, it takes a long time to make really good friends who think of you as family too. Once they do however, nothing is too much to ask of them. Sometimes I’m so busy with my friends on the weekends it’s almost a relief to go back to work and have a rest! Enjoyable as it is, I always have to remember to adhere to cultural norms. Showing displeasure or being direct about solving problems is considered negative, because many Turks would prefer to lose a friendship rather than suffer disharmony. It can be hard to adapt and is quite frustrating at times, but has led to the pleasure of new friendships and a better understanding of myself.

Lisa Morrow in Istanbul

Lisa Morrow in Istanbul

You work as an educator there - what is the higher education system like in Turkey?

In order explain the higher education system, I need to give a bit of political background. Prior to the current government, Turkey was mainly ruled by coalitions, or governments that only stayed in for one term or under military rule. Consequently, the education system was frequently reconfigured. Nothing had time to gel and there were a lot of inconsistencies in teaching practices. 

Although things are more stable now, the education system continues to undergo change. Preschools are still not that common, and until two years ago, kids didn’t start school until they were seven. Children now start at age five and have to attain twelve years of education to be eligible to enter university. This brings Turkey in line with most other countries, but in previous decades the requirements were lower. Another difference is the way students are assessed. In general most exams are multiple choice, and achieving high grades in mathematics is held up as the best indicator of academic ability. Rote learning continues to be popular and teachers are expected to fill the board with information for students to copy. In state schools classes are very large so there is almost no opportunity to encourage student initiative and creativity.

The higher education system offers the full range of subjects you’d expect, but the predominant method of assessment is also multiple choice exams. A student of history, for example, is not expected to write an essay analysing world events. They are examined on their ability to memorise facts, as are most students, including those planning to study for a Masters or PhD degree. As a teacher of English as a Second Language using a student based approach, this can be challenging. The majority of students are wary of new learning methods and you have to exhibit a lot of patience and persistence before they trust you. It’s up to you to convince them you can provide a safe environment in which they can learn through their mistakes. When they do let go of their doubts and take risks it’s fabulous to experience their joy when English suddenly makes sense and they have access to a whole new world.

English prep school buildings, Turkey

English Prep school buildings

What's up next for you?

I’ve recently completed a manuscript called Waiting for the Tulips to Bloom: Living in Istanbul, lost in Constantinople, about my move to Istanbul five years ago and subsequent roller coaster life here. I’d like to find a publisher for this because I know that what I chose to do will resonate with a lot of people. That’s my short term goal. In the long term, I’d like to write more about Turkish society and visit America to promote my work and foster better understandings of Turkey, its people, and culture.

Drinking tea in Üsküdar.

Drinking tea in Üsküdar

Is there anything else you'd like to share?

Yes, there is. In my wanderings around the Byzantine maze that is Istanbul, I sometimes meet American tourists. They’ve all told me their friends and family think they’re crazy to be here. Most of them admit they were a bit nervous about what to expect, but within days of arriving they quickly realise their fears were unfounded. I just wanted to say that if you’re undecided about coming to Turkey, don’t be. Istanbul and Turkey have a lot to offer and whether you’re a backpacker or lover of luxury, travelling independently, or in an organized group, you’ll find an unexpected joy here which stays with you forever.

Fortune telling with Turkish coffee

Fortune telling with Turkish coffee

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Feature photo: The Other Karaköy

All photos courtesy and copyright Lisa Morrow

Note: we received a review copy from the author - thank you!