Photo: franz12/Shutterstock

A Day in the Life of an Expat in Istanbul, Turkey

by Anne Merritt Nov 25, 2009
Waking up and going to bed to the rhythm of prayer calls.

The first call to prayer of the day. The nearest mosque is one block away, and on nights of restless sleep, it wakes me up. It’s a reminder that slowly, slowly, the city is waking up too.


I leave the apartment to catch the service bus that will take me to work. The private high school where I teach English should be a twenty minute drive away. With Istanbul traffic, it can take up to an hour.

At the bus stop, I chat sleepily with the physics teacher. She tells me about her boyfriend who is in his compulsory two years of army service. Her stories are on the lighter side; how she hates his regulation haircut, how he couldn’t even wash a dish in his pre-army days. She misses him.

8:00 a.m

Once at school, the teachers crowd into the neighboring bakery, Bum, whose name always has me giggling like an 8-year-old boy. Turks are highly social folk, and though the teachers are all still sleepy, they flock to the cafe tables to plan lessons and chat over tea and breakfast. The pastry is inexpensive and fresh from the oven. I buy a warm, buttery peynirli poagca (a bun with white cheese) and orange juice.


In the school, students are buzzing about. Their uniforms are maroon and blue, the colors (so it’s said) of the principal’s favorite football team. Between lessons, the pop English of TV and music trumps the classroom stuff any day, and I’ll hear the odd catchphrase of, “legendary!” or “it’s all good.”

A group of girls are singing “come on Barbie, let’s go party,” and they see me cracking a grin. “Miss Anne, do you know Barbie Girl?” I find myself starting a sentence with “when I was your age…” It’s something I’ve never said before, but these students have an odd interest in 90s music.

Here, if the importance of English is stressed, it’s being done lightly. The students seem to pursue English for their own motives. Some are dying to learn English in order to study abroad, work for international companies, or marry Robert Pattinson. Some are slackers whose obsession with pop culture has them turning up to my class just to chat about Lady Gaga lyrics.

In my beginners class, we talk about home vocabulary. “How many rooms are in your house?” I ask. One student puts up her hand. “I talk about my apartment or my house, or my villa?” she asks. Hoo boy.


Lunchtime in the cafeteria. On my meal tray, the white carbs are bountiful and the meat is unidentifiable. Here, spaghetti is served with a great dollop of yogurt. Lemon juice is as common a table condiment as salt. The juice boxes contain apricot or black cherry nectar. It seems no one has ever heard of a nut allergy. We’re not in Ontario anymore.


The homeward commute goes by in a haze, and I’m happy to breathe some clean air as I walk home from the bus stop. I pass the mosque whose garden is always full of cats. Even in the cool autumn, the vendors on my street will set up plastic tables and chairs on the sidewalk, between parked cars, anywhere they can squeeze a few seats.

They’ll sit and chat over tea and cigarettes, jumping up when a customer enters their store. I wave hellos to the Turkcell clerk, the brothers who run the greengrocer stand, the bored salesman in the camera shop. The always-cheery deli vendor waves me in to sample a new batch of olives; green ones stuffed with white cheese, floating in oil with chili flakes and lemon slices. I buy an enormous bagful. The cost? Just under three lira ($2USD).


My boyfriend and I get dinner at the restaurant known amongst our friends as “the homecooked place.” It has a name, but none of us know it. A small buffet of creamy desserts and vegetable-heavy dishes are displayed, and we point and choose our favorites.

The restaurant is run by a chatty family, but the dining room is cozy and always quiet. The mother-daughter team in the open kitchen always pause from their cooking to say a warm hello and bring us bread. Our plates are piled high with tangy potato salad, spinach pastry, bulgur patties and eggplant stew.


After dinner, we pop into the convenience store beside our building for beer. We buy an Efes and Efes Dark, one of each, and the clerk patiently engages in our Turkish textbook small talk. I’m told that locals refer to a basic grasp of the language as “Tarzan Turkish.”

It’s an apt description for our simple sentences; “Me go cinema today.” “You happy?” “What is your girl-child name?” It’s probably painful to the ears, but our clerk kindly plays along as he packages the beer in a black plastic bag.

At home, we sip our beers on the couch and chat. I’ll write, he’ll play music, or we’ll watch a movie together. When it’s warm, we move our chairs onto the balcony, where the breeze is refreshing and the view of the mosque is perfect. At half past ten, we hear the final call to prayer, usually as we’re brushing our teeth or washing dishes, or else lying in bed with our books in hand. Slowly, slowly, the day is ending.

Community Connection

If you like these windows into expat lives, take a look at A Day in the Life of An Expat in Copenhagen, Denmark, A Day in the Life of A Writer in Zagreb, Croatia and A Day in the Life of An Expat in Oaxaca, Mexico.

And remember, Matador Abroad is still accepting submissions for the Day in the Life of An Expat series – if you’re interested in submitting a day in the life story, send it with “A Day In The Life of An Expat in….” in the subject line to

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