During my very first few days in Istanbul, it seemed that everyone I met could ‘help’ me in some way. Need a job? Need a place to stay? Need a carpet? Everyone offered up their assistance and if they couldn’t help, they had someone they would and did introduce me to. I heard that nearly 80% of Turks genuinely say they want to help you and then maybe about 20% of those actually do help you in some way. But, if nothing else, they will certainly sit down to share some Turkish tea with you. In my few weeks here, many opportunities seemed to materialize out of thin air and since this city isn’t cheap, I spontaneously decided it was time to ‘get local’ again, find myself some work, and become a temporary Istanbulite.
I’ve learned that word-of-mouth goes a long way here and Turkish life seems like a big game of “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” (by the way, I used to be just one degree—I met him and interviewed him at my former ABC job and now I’m two degrees because he lives in my friend Mark’s apartment complex in Los Angeles, which means you, dear reader, are now just three degrees from the “Footloose” king). Everyone knows someone who, if they can’t help you, ultimately introduces you to someone who can. It seems everything in Turkey is about relationships and who you know. While Americans like a ‘let’s get down to business’ attitude, me included, Turks want to take time to really get to know you as a person and develop a more personal connection. And they certainly aren’t shy about asking you the questions that, in America, would be downright rude. “How old are you? How much do you weigh? Can you send a picture with your resume?”
One of my very first nights in the touristy yet charming Sultanahmet, the old part of the city, I met a skinny, chain smoking, cute restaurant host with big brown eyes named Yusuf. Like many other Kurds from Eastern Turkey (near the Iran and Iraq borders), he had come to Istanbul for a better life and better work.
He was one of the few restaurant touts that let me actually ‘read’ the menu outside his restaurant instead of talking to me endlessly about what kind of food they serve, which ultimately would cause me to walk away because I never got a chance to actually read the menu. So I liked him already and ate at his place simply because of his ‘non-pestering’ ways. We chatted briefly on my way out and I mentioned maybe looking for work here. He immediately grabbed his mobile and called Steve, a New Yorker, who’s lived in Istanbul for about three years teaching English. An hour later I was sitting down for a cold Efes beer with Steve and Yusuf at a local bar just across the street.
Steve has several private students and teaches at Istanbul University. He seems pretty entrenched in Istanbul life—even if his “home” is actually a hotel. Steve was an easy going, soft spoken (for a New Yorker) middle-aged guy who enunciated every word and spoke slower than most Americans I know—probably a result of his day job. Like many I’ve met, he came for a short time and has simply never left. Istanbul seems to have that affect on people. Steve thought that with my background and TV experience I would have no trouble getting work here. English teachers, especially those from America and Canada, are highly regarded here—Steve is like a local celebrity in a way, and I can see why he hasn’t left.
Since then, we have become friends and he’s graciously passed my resume along, and in the last several weeks has introduced me to many people who could possibly help me or hire me. Through these people, I met other people and from there I seemed to have a new network of friends in just a few weeks. And as the old Breck commercial goes: and then ‘they told two friends, and so on, and so on:”
–>Neville—A funny, loveable Brit who owns and runs the school, ESP—English for Special Purposes. He’s like a thinner, much more British Drew Carey complete with glasses and buzz cut. He moved here six years ago, married a Turkish gal, and is ‘this close’ to becoming a bonafide Turkish citizen except for the fact that the government wants him to change his last name. It has a “W” in it, a letter that is not in the Turkish alphabet, therefore it is not ‘recognized’ by the Turkish Government. Of course, Neville sarcastically countered this with, ‘Okay, so I can change my name to Brad Pitt?’ and apparently that would be fine because all the letters are recognized. So while Mr. Pitt tries to find me work, he has hooked me up with:
–>Brigid–a hilarious, new-agey, spitfire Irish lass who has lived here more than 10 years. She has a huge sun-filled flat in the trendy Cihangir neighborhood full of café-lined streets where she lives with her two cats. I now live in this apartment with her two cats. She went away to Costa Rica for a month for an English teacher training course and needed a cool, world traveler/cat sitter/squatter to live here and watch her kitties while she is away. So, at least for now, I am a regular resident of Istanbul, living in my own apartment, cooking my own meals, and cleaning the litter box.
–>Mahmut—This president of an automotive company is a former student of Brigid’s. He was looking for a new English tutor. So, I’m now working with him on his business English twice a week. He is also building a brand new mansion on the Bosphorus and wants me to be a kind of consultant to help him decorate his new swanky pad. Now I’m a TV Producer/Cat-sitter/English teacher/Interior Designer. Apparently, there’s nothing I can’t do… at least in Turkey. Oh, and he wants one of our appointments to be for dinner once a week. So now, I’m a bit of an escort as well. Note to self: get new business cards.
–>Osmantan—This sunglasses wearing Turkish celeb with a permanent two day stubble produces and hosts Popstar AlaTurka, the Turkish version of American Idol. He is part owner of STR productions which also produced the Turkish version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. I sat down with him to chat about ways we could work together… or ways I could cat sit for him. He also said I could perhaps be a consultant or go-between with some of the English-speaking networks and production companies that he buys formats from. He gave me the email address of:
–>Dave Reid—The American General Manager of Turkey’s newest network, FOX-TV. We are set to meet sometime this week. He doesn’t speak Turkish either which I find quite odd considering he is running a network that is completely programmed in Turkish. So I thought maybe he needs some kind of assistant, who also speaks no Turkish, with whom he could at least share his frustration.
–>Cigdem & Ahmet—Ahmet was a former English student of Steve and a TV Promo writer. They are a warm and wonderful couple who have had me over to their modern and bright flat overlooking the Bosphorus several times. Ahmet had recently gotten in an accident while riding his motorcycle and broke his left leg. Then just after healing he was unbelievably struck by another motorcycle while crossing the street in his own neighborhood. Incredibly, both his arms were broken, as well as his left leg again. He is slowly on the mend, but is spending most of Turkey’s beautiful summer cooped up in their apartment unable to walk. His spirits are amazingly high and I’ve had many fun times with them.
–>Digiturk—Ahmet is a freelance writer for this ‘DirecTV-like’ Satellite Network in Turkey. I interviewed with the Promotions Director, Cenk, and got a tour of their surprisingly up-to-date HD, Digital facility. Seeing master control, the graphics department, and editing suites full of warm, humming AVIDS actually had me a bit nostalgic for TV and its similarities worldwide.
–>John: I cold-called this American newspaper editor on my own (although also a recommendation of ‘Super Steve’). Since I was quite unfamiliar with news in Turkey, I thought maybe I could be a proofreader/copy-editor for the English language Turkish Daily News. I met this throwback to Edward Morrow in a café. He was like a newsman from the 1940s—chain smoking, bitter, affected. It was a very surreal meeting. He spoke ‘at’ me through a veil of cigarette smoke and mumbled words. He rarely made eye contact, instead gazing off into the distance with a half-cocked head exhaling his whole career story for thirty minutes after I asked him the obligatory question of how he ended up in Istanbul. He had a pompous negative air about him telling his story with a strange sense of nonchalant arrogance, like he was above it all… He even told me about something he was trying to put into affect at the paper called the ‘Strategic Incompetence Strategy.’ It was some cruel tactic of eventually getting rid of employees in some long, torturous method. Needless to say, he didn’t have any work for me, but it was the lowest paying job of any other I had looked into. Basically the work was 6 days a week, 8 hours a day… and ended up being about $5/hour. I think this is less than working at McDonald’s and after meeting this man, I would much rather serve up McKebabs. So I had a news flash for him, ‘Goodnight…and good luck.’ But… he did introduce me to:
–>Nuri Colakoglu, Vice President, Dogan Group: The Dogan Group is the largest media conglomerate in all of Turkey. They own many TV stations including CNN Turk, (CNN Turk is the first international channel to broadcast with the CNN logo 24 hours a day in a , which is also produced outside CNN’s Atlanta headquarters) several newspapers, and other companies in tourism, energy, and insurance. He is on the board of nearly every big project going on in Turkey. This was basically like Michael Eisner calling me. Before he even met me, he’d hired me to proofread a presentation he was giving to land the World Expo of 2015 in Turkey. This was big stuff. I loved this project as they emailed it to me and after proofreading several pages, in a few hours, I would make several hundred Lira. Nice gig. When we finally met, he handed me an envelope of cash (always nice on a first meeting) and we discussed what other ways I could help him. This man was very important. He’d just returned from a business trip to San Francisco, Paris, and Venice. Maybe I could just be his travel aide. That would be nice. He is trying to find a niche for me and in the meantime introduced me to:
–>Mehmet Ali Birand—This man is seriously like the Tom Brokaw of Turkish TV News. When I mentioned his name to others, they were amazed that I was meeting him. Of course I had no idea who he was and found it quite difficult to even do research on him given the fact that most websites about him were in Turkish. We met at a hotel and our meeting basically took place in his car along with his driver and a smiling, quiet, yet hulking bodyguard-type goon who I shared the back seat with. Sadly, I was not frisked. We went for coffee and he dialed away on his mobile asking his many connections if the assistance of an English speaking producer was needed. Elections will be going on here at the end of the month and it will be big news so I’m hoping to be some sort of foreign press coordinator. (About ten years after I wrote this, sadly, Mehmet died)
–>Tahir: One rainy afternoon I was doing a little less than nothing… and then I met up with this hotel manager across the street from my old hotel who was nice to me last time I was here. He proceeded to call this Canadian girl who teaches English here… we met her for coffee to talk about jobs for me. She gave me some advice but didn’t have anything concrete. Suddenly her cell rang and this woman from a school that teaches business English to executives was calling. She needed a teacher right away. Canadian girl couldn’t do it so she handed her phone right to me… I had an interview with them the very next day. Right place, right time I guess. Through this company, I have since started tutoring a marketing manager at Arkas, one of Turkey’s largest shipping companies.
–>Plus One Productions—Ilker. I met this gaunt, balding Producer/Director literally on the roof of my hotel. He was perched on the roof next door doing a shoot. I ran over and struck up a conversation with him. He actually owns his own production company and we’ve since met for a beer to see how we can possibly work together on some projects. He also offered up his apartment to me after my cat sitting stint ends.
–>Telesine Productions–I met a producer here through another friend of Steve’s. They work on films, commercials, and some television.
After all of this, plus some interviews too boring to mention, my head was spinning and I had nothing too much really to speak of. I’d spent a lot of money schlepping all over Istanbul, from the tram to the funicular to the metro, to taxis (this city is well known for its limited, crowded, and often smelly public transportation system), for these various interviews, not to mention on a nice new pair of pants (trousers for the Brits!) and a few smart tops—the backpacker attire just wouldn’t have made the best impression. After many exhausting weeks of running around, a few things started to fall into place. I had four students taking private English lessons and had met a dozen or so TV big wigs who at least had my name in case they needed me. I also literally had about five offers to share housing in exchange for some English conversation each day.
So, here I am in this ‘referral city’ where there seem to be no dead ends, which is making it harder to just up and leave. I’m still going on interviews and have more next week. My fifteen years of television experience goes quite far here, the only problem? I don’t speak Turkish which is quite an obstacle considering all of the programming here is, oddly enough, in Turkish. In the meantime, I’m doing a few private English lessons each week. English teachers are highly regarded here and are compensated nicely. As this nation grows into its own identity and goes more global, English is seen as an important tool in this progress.
One sad note… I had to do something I’d avoided my whole trip until now. I caved in and got a much despised mobile phone. Turks live and die by their mobile phones—everyone has one and everyone wants to know your number. Especially when trying to make new contacts here it is just down right mandatory. In fact, when I told a few business folks that I did not have one–I think they looked at me like I was missing an arm or something.
But in friendly Turkish style… this was easier than I thought. Another wonderful new friend of mine, Murat, a carpet shop owner (they are not all scammers), I met while in Sultanahmet, basically just lent me his mobile. It turns out he had just got a new one, but wanted to keep his old one for sentimental reasons. He had recently been ‘forced’ to serve his mandatory fifteen month term in the huge Turkish army, something he’d avoided and dreaded, especially as a Kurd, for years. His cell was somewhat of a security blanket as he was away so he was keeping it as a bittersweet memento from his time in the armed forces.
Just today I realized I had already programmed 20 names into my new phone’s address book. These are 20 new friends in Istanbul in just a few weeks. That seems pretty incredible to me. I now see how easy it is to get sucked into living here… the kind and generous Turks certainly make it hard for you to leave.
Damn it—I’m officially living here, for now.