Imagine being a person that grew up in a small town lost all alone in a city of 6 million with a dead cellphone battery and no local currency. Scary huh? That is exactly the position I found myself in on the 10th of September 2011, exactly a day after I moved from Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina (population around 150 000 at best, including cats) to Ankara, Turkey (population 6 million excluding students). I will probably never forget that evening. One moment I thought I knew exactly where I was and how to get home, and the next I could have sworn was that the metro station was right there but it wasn’t, and I very vaguely remembered the name of the station where I was supposed to get off the train. I remember sitting in the main square, looking around myself and thinking for some reason that I would see a familiar face. In a city that big, seeing someone you know is next to impossible, especially when you know a total of three people including the security guard at your dorm. However, I did come across a group of Korean students on a city tour. Eventually, they helped me go back to my dormitory. I remember wondering why I haven’t had a group a city tour with friends? Had that been the case, I wouldn’t have gotten lost trying to buy some towels.
As of September this year, I’ve been living in Ankara for 5 years and my chances of getting lost are very low at this point. Also, I bought a power bank to solve my cell phone battery issues and have access to Google Maps at all times. I generally go about my day as any local would – I speak fluent Turkish and I became very accustomed to local culture and traditions. However, it wasn’t always this easy.
Moving abroad is one of those things that seem incredibly hard and scary until you actually do them. The rest is a waterslide. After one moves abroad, the first couple of weeks are what I’d call “the honeymoon period” – you’re trying to meet the country and culture, have a drink in every corner and eat a sandwich in every deli. However, after a few weeks, inevitably the reality hits you.
For me, the honeymoon officially ended after I had to go to the immigration office on my own three days in a row with no knowledge of Turkish except for a few Tarkan’s songs from the 90s. I couldn’t even understand why the officer wanted me to come back “tomorrow again, tomorrow again, please lady”, and my puzzled expression only urged him to repeat what he was telling me louder in Turkish as if that would make me magically understand his pleas. I remember very well how I questioned my decision to move with every tiny unpleasant event I went through. I even checked plane ticket prices to go back home! But eventually, it all got easier. So how do you go from “Where the hell am I?” to “I love this place and I never want to leave”? Well, there is no universal formula that works for everyone, but I have a few suggestions for you.
First and foremost, find some friends. Even if you get hopelessly lost as I did, at least get lost with someone you can talk to. If you are one of the lucky few, you moved together with a friend. Please do not let these people stay the only friends you have during your stay! Let yourself explore and meet other, different people. Remember that getting out of your comfort zone is necessary for growing as a person. Don’t be scared. If you came alone, get moving! In case you are an international student, look for the international student’s office. Contacting your embassy can be very beneficial (and you should do it anyway for your safety). Ask for any events they may have upcoming – think free drinks and food! Remember, even if you are an introvert or very shy, odds are that people at these types of events are also there to socialize and make friends. Relax!
You should get a local friend or two as well. Many students and expats often skip this step. Thanks to globalization, international communities are dynamic and high in numbers so many of us never get to meet local people. I would strongly recommend you not to be this person. Meeting and spending time with local people will teach you more about the country you are visiting than any travel blog. I find my Turkish friends to be very helpful in finding great baklava and getting boring administrative things done fast, as everybody has a friend of their aunt’s daughter whose mom happens to work in the very place where I’m stuck. You can meet people anywhere – in class, at work, at exhibitions and concerts, in bars… Chances and places are countless. Also think practically: if they stay and you leave, you can always come back for a visit!
If you made a few local friends, learning the language is the next logical step. This is generally not terribly necessary as universities and working communities are mostly highly international and everyone can speak English. Nevertheless, showing a little effort is always nice. When I first moved to Ankara, I had the luxury of spending a whole year learning Turkish in an intensive university-level course. Most probably you will not be able to do this. However, there are many (free!) language courses offered by embassies, universities, workplaces, etc. In case you cannot commit to classes, there are always online courses, flashcards, pocket dictionaries and mobile apps. In the age of smartphone technology, you really have little to no excuse. When you try forming sentences in conversation, they will probably be wrong – that doesn’t matter! Try not to be shy when you speak. Even if you get laughed at here and there, your accent is probably adorable and everyone definitely thinks you’re super cute. Try relaxing – you don’t have to speak perfectly. Making an effort is what counts.
Having said that, please beware that settling anywhere in the world is a lot of work. You will probably get frustrated or lonely. You will probably question your decision many times. Adapting to a new environment does not come naturally to everyone – we all need to show different amounts of effort. Give yourself time to soak in and embrace the new air. If everyone speaks in a language you don’t understand, you are left alone with your thoughts. Moments of silence or loneliness in an unknown place make us listen closer to our minds. Try to lower your pace. Our bodies and souls go through a lot of stress when we move, give yourself time to heal and make room for love for your new surroundings. You are at the beginning of an amazing adventure!
Contributed by Emina Hasanagic
Edited by Dimitar Chatleski