Guide to Expat Living in Turkey

What is it like living in Turkey? I get asked this all the time. I am not entirely sure what people imagine life in Turkey to be like but I have been asked all sorts of questions including, and I’m not joking, ‘do they have electricity in Turkey?’

Turkey is an enormous country with vastly differing standards of living, sadly, depending upon the location. Generally speaking life in large towns and cities is pretty comfortable. The more rural you go the more basic, or few and far between, the amenities become, like most places really.

My Turkish home was Fethiye, a decent sized town accommodating what was basically a farming community. Fethiye has embraced tourism over the past ten years though and has expanded enormously.

Fethiye, South West Turkey

There is definitely electricity, although the supply is peppered with powercuts to keep things interesting. I certainly learnt Not to over stock my freezer, put it that way. Returning home from a night away in August to find my cat confusedly pawing the inch of water that had leaked out of the powerless freezer and flooded my kitchen is not one of my better memories. Whilst I’m on the subject, there was a plentiful water supply too. I used to drink tap water in Fethiye. The potability of Turkish tap water varies though, so check with locals before you upset your tummy. Plumbing on the other hand is generally a disaster and putting toilet paper in the toilet can lead to all kinds of trouble, so it is always better to use a bin.

Homes in the South West of Turkey are geared towards the summer temperatures and don’t feature central heating or double-glazing. In the cooler months people heat their homes with wood-burning stoves (for which there is often a circular hole in an external wall) or the warm cycle on their air-conditioning. Things are different elsewhere though. My friends in Istanbul have central heating. People tend to remove their shoes on entering someone’s home (which provided my naughty dog with endless shoe-collecting fun…) making it easy to notice that it is very common in Turkish housing to have a raised plinth in the doorway to each room, which takes a while (and a few stubbed toes) to get used to.

My hallway, complete with raised marble plinthes in each doorway

Mobile phones are a national obsessions and SIM cards are easy to get hold of cheaply. Navigating the Turkish top-up messages can be tricky initially but you quickly learn which numbers to press. Mail is another matter and one I found quite hit and miss. Turkish addresses are descriptive, so for a while my address was “2nd floor, pink block, Babadag road” despite there being a few pink buildings (and my flat actually being on the 1st floor, the ground floor being considered the 1st floor in Turkey). I ended up getting a Post Office box in Fethiye which was far more reliable.

Although Turkey is a secular state, the majority of the population is Muslim, so there are mosques everywhere. Even the tiniest villages have a mosque. The call to prayer sounds from the mosque five times a day, every day. I love the sound, but it can be a love-hate relationship initially if it keeps waking you at stupid o’clock. If you are lucky your local mosque will have an imam calling the locals to prayer. You may be less lucky though and have a tape played over spitting, crackling loud speakers.

Village Mosque, Turkey

A respect for Islam, which requires at least a basic knowledge about the religion, is sensitive. Offending the locals at every turn will not help you integrate. Don’t worry about making the odd mistake though. From my experience, Turks are some of the most tolerant people I have ever met.

Women should cover their hair when visiting mosques, Turkey
Ho Ho Ho
Christmas, of course, is not traditionally celebrated in Turkey. In rural areas it is unlikely to get a mention, but in larger more cosmopolitan cities and in tourist resorts Christmas paraphernalia is often available and people (especially expats) tend to get together to celebrate, if they have not gone elsewhere to spend the festive season with family in other countries.

Oink Oink!
If you love pork Turkey may not be for you. About ten years ago pork products were simply not available and it was common to be asked to smuggle a packet of bacon in your suitcase when visiting. With the recent tourist boom however and the increase of British and German expats in Turkey’s South West the Turks noticed a gap in the market and started a pig farm. Supermarkets in Fethiye now stock (astoundingly expensive) bacon. Pork products aside though, most things that you would find in European supermarkets are available in Turkish supermarkets, with significantly more shelf space set aside for rice, olive oil and yoghurt. If you can’t cook – learn! Frozen ready meals have started to appear in resort supermarkets but are by no means standard.

Expat dinner gathering

What’s on the TV?
Turkish television does not show foreign channels but Turkish satellite provider Digiturk has an English channel that shows Eastenders, vintage Casualty and the occasional old BBC comedy such as The Good Life, amongst other things. If you’re a movie fan, the cinema may be more your thing. Movies tend to be shown in their original language (usually English – phew!) with subtitles in Turkish.

Unfortunately Turkey is a country prone to earthquakes. I never experienced any serious quakes during my time in Turkey (in various locations) but the 1999 quake in Izmit, near Istanbul, was very bad. In Fethiye, small tremors became part of life and my photos on the wall in my house would rattle occasionally. Friends told me that they would often notice the water level of their pool had dropped a bit if there had been a rumble. I lived with these tremors hoping that they signaled a pressure release, meaning there wouldn’t be a horrific quake anytime soon. I used to keep a few bottles of water in my bedroom though, just in case my cat and I had to dive beneath the bed in the night. How I planned to drink from a 1.5L bottle whilst lying on my stomach under the bed, I had not given so much thought to. Fortunately I never needed to.

Turkish Village Life

Is that a spider?
Creepy-crawly-wise Turkey is pretty easy going. There are some small scorpions to watch out for, jumping spiders (their chief weapon is surprise!) some massive ants and the mosquitoes are a pain in summer, but these creatures keep to themselves for the most part. The Turks take full force action against the mosquitoes though and a chap I used to refer to as the ‘Sinek Man’ (sinek meaning mosquito in Turkish) regularly toured neighbourhoods during summer, blowing great plumes of dense and toxic smoke everywhere. This, very effectively, killed any mosquitoes in the area, and well, pretty much everything else too. It was always a mad dash to close all the windows when you heard him coming.

A friend's garden in Bodrum

Smoking is a national hobby in Turkey and just about everybody smokes. As a non-smoker it was fine in summer as everyone is outdoors most of the time, but in winter it got pretty nasty in some of the less well ventilated bars!

Turkey is a friendly and fascinating country. There are many differences with Europe, some good and some annoying, but I had a wonderful time living there and feel really lucky to have once called it home.

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