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Interview with Barbara – an American expat in Izmir, Turkey

Updated 8 Feb 2010

Barbara Isenberg is a freelance writer specialising in travel, food and culture about Istanbul and Turkey. She moved to Izmir with her husband after buying a one-way ticket to Istanbul in August 2007 and now lives a life of leisure and contemplation on the Aegean.

About Barbara

Q: Where are you originally from?

A: I am originally from central Pennsylvania and consider the city of Philadelphia to be my home in the US.

Q: Where are you living now?

A: I live in the city of Izmir, Turkey, which is along the Aegean coast and about 8 hours south of Istanbul by car.

Q: How long you have you lived here?

A: My husband and I moved to Izmir in August 2009. Before that, we lived in Istanbul for two years.

Q: Did you move with a spouse/children?

A  I moved with my husband and two cats to Istanbul in August 2007; by the time we moved to Izmir last summer, we had two more cats.

Q: Why did you move; what do you do?

A: We moved to Istanbul because we wanted to live and work overseas. As I had been an exchange student in high school and lived in Istanbul from 1999-2000 and had always wanted to come back, Turkey was an obvious choice for us. We sold all our belongings, packed a couple of suitcases and our two cats, and bought a one-way plane ticket to Istanbul. My husband found a job teaching English at a private university and several months later I took work as a full-time editor. Two years later, in August 2009, we moved to Izmir, where my husband found a better job teaching literature; I continue to work as an editor and writer.

About Izmir

Q: What do you enjoy most about your host city, how’s the quality of life?

A: What I enjoy most about Izmir is the ease of life here. Compared to Istanbul, where we were previously, there is little to no traffic in Izmir, the cost of living is much lower, and the “hustle and bustle” factor is minimal. Living in Izmir also means we are very close to some lovely spots on the Aegean such as Cesme, Foca and Kusadasi.

Q: Any negatives? What do you miss most about home?

A: I would characterise life in Izmir as comfortable and relaxing, which is a lovely change of pace from Istanbul. That said, Izmir lacks the majesty and dynamism of Istanbul. Also, Izmir is not a very international city and very few people speak English here (which is okay for me because I speak some Turkish, but may not be for many other expats). I don’t miss much about the US, but in Izmir I very much miss eating Mexican, Italian and Indian food the way I could in Istanbul.

Q: Is the city safe?

A: While there are the usual precautions to take in large cities – watching your wallet, etc – Izmir, like most Turkish cities, is quite safe.

About living in Izmir

Q: Which are the best places/suburbs to live in the city as an expat?

A: There are a couple of places to live in Izmir that are quite nice. Alsancak is the city’s heart: it is home to its theatres, best bars and restaurants, clubs and shopping districts. Rents there are a bit higher than elsewhere, but nowhere near what you would pay for a comparable district in Istanbul (or New York for that matter). The Karsiyaka neighbourhood, where I live, is a bit quieter and more family-friendly. It’s home to lots of pazars (daily markets) where you can stock up on inexpensive fresh produce, textiles, shoes, clothes and the like. Since Izmir is a relatively small city (at about 4 million people), getting around is easy, so if you choose to live in one area, getting to another is a piece of cake.

Q: How do you rate the standard of accommodation?

A: Nice! Izmir apartments are much nicer than many I have seen in Istanbul and at better prices too. Most accommodation here includes 2 bedrooms or more, but it is possible to find smaller, one-bedroom flats. 

Q: What’s the cost of living compared to home? What is cheap or expensive in particular?

A: The cost of living in Izmir is low compared to many worldwide cities. Rent, groceries and transportation are cheaper than Istanbul and certainly much cheaper than a city like New York or London. What is expensive in Izmir is the same that is expensive elsewhere in Turkey: alcohol, electronics such as cell phones and televisions, and anything that is imported. If you continue to eat and drink like you do at home, i.e. by buying pork, drinking wine and eating Italian pasta, you will find that your grocery bills will be quite high because all of those products are expensive and subject to high import tax. If, however, you adopt habits that are more conducive with the local culture – that is, you buy rice in bulk, do your shopping at the local market instead of the big chain grocery store – you’ll find that your costs can be much cheaper.

Q: What are the locals like; do you mix mainly with other expats?

A: I do not mix with many other expats at all. I have not sought them out as of yet. The locals are friendly, though many don’t speak English, which can sometimes be a hurdle because my Turkish is not exactly fluent.

Q: Was it easy meeting people and making friends?

A: No, not easy at all. I find people to in Izmir to be less friendly than those in Istanbul and am having a harder time meeting people here than there. Slowly, slowly, I am making friends, but it is taking longer than it did for me in Istanbul.

About working in Izmir

Q: Did you have a problem getting a work visa/permit?

A:  My husband got his work visa easily through his employer. Most legitimate places of employment will take care of obtaining your work visa and residence permit for you.

Q: What’s the economic climate like in the city, is there plenty of work?

A:  This is an excellent question, and one that unfortunately I do not know the answer to. I have yet to learn what the big industries are in Izmir (other than tourism).

Q: How does the work culture differ from home?

A: The work culture in Turkey in general is much different than that in the US. There is a lot of talk in the media about how much Americans work compared to Europeans, but they never take Turks into account when they talk about Europe. Turks generally work 6, sometimes 7, days a week from 9 am to 7 or 8 pm. Turkish employers expect a lot from their employees and generally don’t give a lot in return in the way that I would expect, such as through health benefits, vacation time or a good salary. That said, most expats in Turkey don’t work for a Turkish company; they work for an international one, and that means their standard of living is much better: they’re paid more, only work 5 days a week and are much more respected.

Q: Did a relocation company help you with your move?

A: No. Relocation companies are far too expensive. We asked around and found a reliable and reasonable local moving company to move us from Istanbul to Izmir. When we moved to Istanbul from the US, we only brought 4 suitcases and 2 cats.

Family and children in Izmir

Q: Did your spouse or partner have problems adjusting to their new home?

A: Living overseas includes a lot of major and minor surprises, and two and a half years after being in Turkey, I think we are both still adjusting to life abroad.

Q: How would you rate the healthcare?
A: My husband and I have just signed up for SSK, the national health care system, but we have not had a chance to use it yet, so I cannot say yet whether it is good or bad. However, private insurance is definitely the way to go in Turkey. It’s not cheap, but the prices are probably comparable to those in the West. Private hospitals provide excellent service (we’ve had many experiences with them in Istanbul) and you definitely need private health insurance to cover their costs.

And finally…

Q: Is there any other advice you like to offer new expat arrivals?

A: My advice would be to prepare yourself as much as possible before arriving, but understand that there are going to be many, many things that surprise and shock you, things that you can’t possibly anticipate. Come knowing that not everything is going to go as you expect or as planned and adjust your expectations likewise. On the more practical side, take a basic Turkish class; it will come in handy.

► Interviewed February 2010

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