It has now been a week. It doesn’t seem to be getting any easier. If anything it feels jut a bit harder everytime I return. This time though is perhaps a bit more difficult. Being an expat means that every so often you have to endure the loss of those you have become close to and even rely on as friends. So when they decide it’s time to make new plans and move on, even if not immediate, it does take its toll and inevitably make you think of home once again, or moving on yourself.
This blog is perhaps harder to write, in part because I have a close friend who is currently having to make a decision about whether to embark on the whole expat life herself for a while. I have tried to be encouraging, but fear that my dislike of it may colour her view. The trouble is, for me at least, is that I fell into all this by accident rather than design. I never planned to come here, and when I did it was only supposed to be temporary and anyone who knows me also knows that my reasons for staying could not have been further from the love of this place. I very much doubt that I’m alone in this regard. While there are many expats, both here and in other parts of the world, who make the decision for a whole host of reasons, or who are sent out as part of diplomatic missions or other work, there are a good number of people who find themselves far away from home and less than enamoured with their host country.
For a lot of people the thought of living somewhere other than the country of their birth, is exotic or desirable. The thing is that many people think that being away from home is automatically going to be somehow better. That’s fine and fair enough for those who come and find themselves better off than they would be back home, all too often though that really isn’t the case. Even in Ankara, a capital city full of diplomatic expats, the vast majority of us simply do not live that life. In my experience being foreign often means that people automatically assume that you are rich (probably the opposite back in the UK), but not all of us have grace and favour apartments paid for by our employer, can afford nannies, housekeepers, cleaners etc, or many of the other perks that can go with that type of expat life. Even that’s not all it’s cracked up to be because all too often those expats are extremely limited in their dealings with the host population, and those that they do meet tend to be the richer end of society. And though I do not wish to tar them all with the same brush, many I’ve met are rather cliquey even to the extent of looking down on us ‘plebs’ who are here living pretty ordinary lives.
The constant turnaround of people coming and going is not the only thing that makes sustainable friendships hard. In fact solid friendships are frequently maintained these days after people have left, in part because of better communication and transport. I am the first to admit that I have hermit like tendencies and am usually happy pottering about alone, but that doesn’t mean I crave loneliness or do not need good friendships. I’ve never been one for masses of friends, mainly because I wouldn’t know how to maintain true relationships with a large number of people, back in university I saw those with large groups of friends often had to split themselves in two and most of their friends saw them rarely or fleetingly. But it doesn’t alter the fact that being an expat can make the whole friendship thing harder. I’ve often been chatting to someone who then comes out with the classic line, ‘oh I know so and so, she’s/he’s English you can be friends’ thus assuming that our mutual Englishness will ensure friendship–yeah, that works. The thing is though, that you do learn to compromise in your choice of friendships more, and perhaps accept offers more readily from people that you may normally think twice about, possibly because of a need to communicate in your own language. The advantage of being English in this case is that with it being a more global language these days the choice tends to be broader, but more than language perhaps cultural familiarity plays a role, and means that the feeling of treading on tip toes is less of an issue.
The reality is that friends or not, similar culture or not, when homesickness bites it can bite really hard. I never used to feel it, and certainly didn’t know what all the fuss was about. I may not have been in a country I really chose to be in or particularly liked for that matter, but I can honestly say I never craved to be back home. I had a job (that was OK not really a career maker), a place of my own, a partner, and probably a better quality of life (at that time at least) than back home because it was just at the end of the 90’s recession and unemployment was hitting both new and existing graduates hard. That doesn’t mean that I was totally fulfilled or wouldn’t have preferred to be somewhere else doing something else with more prospects, but since career ambition had never really been my strong point, where I was at was OK and seemingly worth staying for. Having kids soon changed all that. After having Smelly and coming back here, I cried solid for two weeks. It was the first time I’d ever REALLY missed my family, and I suddenly felt completely isolated. I didn’t really know anyone here with kids, I knew of no groups, and getting out of the house seemed so hard. What I did discover was that most of the groups were organised by the richer expats, and that most Turks don’t seem to go out, let alone have mother and baby groups in the same way.
For most people they seem to have a vision of how their live will be, or at least how they would like it to be. That never happened with me, but as soon as I had kids, the vision for the kind of life I wanted them to have kicked in full force. I soon realised that my vision didn’t match up to the reality I was living, and that in this country to have anything anywhere close to what I wanted for them would either require shed loads of money, or more pessimistically the realisation that it wouldn’t be here. That tends to put a strain on a relationship when the other half thinks you’ve agreed to spend the rest of your life in his country, despite you’re reservations. I know I’m not alone in this feeling, especially as a Turkish friend back in the UK seems to have gone through the same thing after having her first child. The difference is her other half is Turkish and so recently their thoughts have begun to turn towards returning home as a family. For me, I’m only 8 months into the 5 year plan and finding sticking to it incredibly hard.
Perhaps part of the problem this time round is that I returned after an abscence of two years. Returning to a place that you never had great affection for is always going to be an uphill struggle. It didn’t help that when I left it was almost with a bad taste in my mouth, things were really tense politically and it could be felt at work, even to the point of some colleagues and even some supposedly close foreign friends finding it acceptable to insult me partly due to who I was married to, and partly down to a failure to understand that as an educated woman I could have views in my own right, or be married to a person I didn’t wholeheartedly agree with. I know that I am not totally blameless and that in my time have been insensitive and insulting, but I had learnt to hold my tongue at work, to keep my head down and just do the job and go home, keeping the two very separate. Even so, the heightened tension meant that by the time I left I knew that returning would be the hardest thing to do.
Was it because I stayed away longer than originally planned? Or because this time I was returning with two kids? Or, possibly because I’d enjoyed life back home so much and it had almost lived up to the vision of what I wanted for my kids as they grew up? Or even that one of the kids was now school age and that opened up a whole kettle of different fish? Whatever the reasons, and they are probably far more complex than the above questions suggest, this time is harder and not only that it seems to be fraught with far more worries and possibly disappointments. I convinced myself that it was only 5 years and that in itself was a victory hard won from Husband. Thing is, 5 years is really quite a long time and the homesickness makes it feel even longer.
I know that I am being very negative, and that there are advantages to being here, it’s not all negative for the kids,but on black days I do have to fight to see them. For example, I always said that I didn’t want children having two passports but not the two cultures that go with them, they’ll certainly get the culture. Plus kids are kept kids here for longer, they don’t have to be faced with all the stuff that UK kids have thrown at them and forced to become young adults well before they are ready, but on the flip side they can be kept young for a bit too long and often my experience as a university teacher here led to frustration at some of the student’s needs to be babied rather than acting as independent, adults. Another upside is that they are kept away from the drinking culture that has become so hideous in the UK, but then they are still very young for that to be seen and as someone who hates it, I think that I’d be able to teach them the stupidity of that type of behaviour.
But surely there should be more than that, otherwise are those things really impossible for them to learn if they weren’t here? Besides they are not pressing daily concerns, they aren’t the things that are keeping me awake at night. I struggle each day with the fact that we are paying for Smelly’s education and I am really not happy with the standard of it but even affording that is a strain. Back home it would be free, and while many here would argue why I don’t send him to a Turkish state school, and even feel insulted that I don’t want him to go there, I find it ironic that many wealthy Turks (who by the way are often ardently nationalist) are also extremely keen to get their kids into non Turkish schools where possible. I struggle with the fact that green spaces are not given priority here, and that any patch of land must instantly be developed or those that do exist either belong to the army or are a significant car drive away. It broke my heart to have to tell Smelly that what he assumed was a park because of it’s vast stretch of green was in fact a military installation and not publically accessible. I struggle with the fact that the local play areas are often poorly maintained if not downright dangerous, unless of course we are willing to pay extra to live in a ‘site’ with it’s own play area. I struggle with the fact that activities I only had to pay a few pounds for are so expensive here, ie swimming lessons, and sports, things that Smelly was doing and now is taking a step backwards because we can’t afford to send him. I struggle with the fact that things are so expensive here generally now, and get especially annoyed that I can buy things like clothes and socks, which are made here, much cheaper in the UK. I struggled for years with the fact that everything is taxed to the hilt and that while working, not only did the real value of my salary go down but the actual amount I got each month was less due to a stupid cumulative taxation system.
I admit, I am in a very black place at the moment, having just returned from a lovely trip home and seeing all the things and people I miss. I do try to look at the positive side, but the reality is this is neither the life I want or, more importantly the life I want for them. I suppose I always envisaged them being able to play in their own garden, walk to school, have lots of green open places to explore, do lots of sports/exercise. What we have here is a nice flat with plenty of room but it’s still only a flat. The terrace is not the real substitute for a garden and these days you only get one of those if you have lots of money, or live in a village. Yes the view is nice, according to all those who see it, but for me looking out over mounds on concrete blocks, roads and shopping centres that make up this culturally void city is no substitute for a view of trees or other such greenery. No matter how I look at it, this just isn’t home and so it would seem homesickness is just something I’ll have to live with for the next few years.