An Unexpected Introduction to Istanbul


I swallowed hard with an expression that was no doubt a mixture of delight and annoyance as I suppressed that small lump clawing its way up into my throat as the airplane descended the final few thousand feet before bouncing down onto the runway. The view out the window was unusual.  What I had initially thought to be part of the city’s sprawl clarified into a veritable armada of dozens of merchant vessels all anchored in line, waiting their turn to traverse the Bosphorus.

Before long the thick rubber tires of the Turkish Airways flight were rumbling along the tarmac soon to be replaced by the high pitched squeak of my shoes on the polished marble tiles of Ataturk International Airport.  Laden with my front and back packs – in total weighing just under 15kg – I wound my way through the airport’s serpentine complex of tunnels, halls, and checkpoints in search of the metro.  It was relatively late. My flight landed just after 9:30PM. Darkness had long since fallen.  I was experiencing that familiar feeling of slight anxiety over finding my way to my hostel, at night, through one of the world’s largest cities.  As usual, I hadn’t bothered to pick up a guide book or a map.  I softly chided myself and wondered – as I often do – if it had been a mistake.  No time to dwell, I eventually found a metro map and paused just long enough to trace my route and take a photo on my phone.  With a map to reference it was time to take the escalator down and into the nearly abandoned metro station.

I didn’t know what to expect.  In a conversation earlier on the flight I’d learned that contrary to the 8-13 million person population I had expected via Wikipedia, the locals all placed the actual figure closer to 19/20 Million.  Nearly double the size.  Guides, tweets, and other travelers had warned me that locals were friendly, but could also be obnoxiously pushy sales people and were prone to running scams.  I had a mental image of the Hollywood versions of the markets in Morocco or Mumbai, filled with in-your-face sales people, large throngs of humanity and more pick-pockets than tourists.    I was on my guard.  Shoulders rolled forward. Thumbs stuck in my front pockets.  I didn’t expect trouble, but I was also dead set on making sure I didn’t find any.

As I waited for the train on the largely deserted platform, I repeatedly checked the map trying to figure out which side would take me in the right direction.  Most metro systems are similar, but there are always subtle differences that take a while to figure out.  Is it a zone system or does it work on a per-line ticket basis?  Does the train stop at midnight or run 24 hours?  How are the signs laid out?  Do they announce stops on the train or do you have to watch each station carefully?  As I worked to figure out each of these key pieces of information, I eventually approached a lone man standing near me and asked to confirm that I was in the right spot, for the right line, in the correct direction.

Luckily he spoke English and was eager to strike up a conversation while we waited, answering my questions and gesturing that we should sit down.  The seats were in one of the darker parts of the station, towards the end of the metro line’s tracks. He chatted away cheerfully and asked me questions about my visit. He seemed friendly and open.  I wasn’t.  I was cautious and guarded, though still striving to be friendly.  But, I followed him the 10 steps or so to the benches and then stood making sure I had an easy route out and away if I needed it. I didn’t.  As we chatted more and I got a better read on him, I grew more comfortable and eventually sat down – still paying close attention to my surroundings.

Eventually the metro arrived and we boarded. He asked me again where I was going and I gave him the general station and route suggested to me by the hostel.  He asked what hostel.  I told him I didn’t remember.  My notes said to transfer a few stations in.  He suggested taking the metro with him to the end of the line, then walking about 150 meters to the tram and mentioned it would cut about 20 minutes off my trip.  I glanced at the metro map.  Both seemed to make sense.  He had been helpful and friendly so far – so I agreed.

We chatted about travel, women, and a taste of politics. All the while I stared out the windows taking in a late night view of Istanbul’s strange mishmash of modern, semi-modern, and ancient architecture.  While my concern over being robbed or mugged had subsided he seemed a bit too friendly and too helpful.  In retrospect, I have to say my perception and reality had been poisoned by the stories I had heard before my trip that biased my expectations.   My new concern was that he’d approach me for money or a tip in exchange for helping me get where I was going. An annoying routine I’ve run into all over the globe.  So, with this concern in mind, as we reached the end of the metro line, and he offered to show me along to the tram station/my hostel if I needed help I resisted saying I was fine and could find it/didn’t want to be an inconvenience.

He insisted on walking me to the tram station at the very least, told me we were in his neighborhood and asked if I wanted to get any food or a beer. I thank him and told him I’d eaten and needed to check into my hostel as soon as possible, as it was already nearly 11:30PM.  As we walked through the snow he gave me his number and told me to give him a call if I had any issues or wanted to connect for a tour around the city.

As we came up on the street tram he explained how it worked.  I expected that this was when he’d hit me up for some sort of tip, as he asked me one more time if I was comfortable finding my way the last leg to the hostel.  I nodded and thanked him graciously for all his help and the delightful conversation, and then fumbled in my pocket for one of the tram tokens I’d purchased at the airport. Before I could find it, and to my complete shock and surprise, he pulled out his metro pass and swiped it for me, and motioned for me to enter.  I was stunned.  Not only had I not been hassled and hit up for money, my first encounter with a local was friendly, engaging, and helpful in every way. I was grinning from ear to ear.

This wonderful experience confirmed once again why it is important to always travel with an open mind…to be friendly to the people you meet and evaluate each situation on its own merits. For my part, I’ll strive to pay his kindness forward and return the favor as I see other travelers struggling or in need of a helping hand.   Remember, you always hear horror stores about a destination, its people, or the experiences you might expect to encounter but, the reality is often vastly different.  For many of us, the nature of our experiences is based on a self-fulfilling prophesy.  Choose to give people the opportunity to surprise you, and quite often they will in wonderful ways.

The remainder of my trip to my hostel was uneventful.  I arrived a bit after midnight with a smile on my face and with my perception of what to expect from the Turks completely re-set and re-framed. Despite the snow falling outside, my mood was as bright as a summer day.  Istanbul and adventure called…but first, I needed a good night’s rest.

Five Major Differences Between Long-Term and Short-Term Study Abroad Programs

The Round Tower - Copenhagen, Denmark

It sounds simple but if you’re like me, you probably view all study abroad programs as essentially the same, and you probably view most international students similarly as a result.  Hold your horses!  The two are actually vastly different.

I’ve participated in the two extremes of study abroad.  My first introduction was the summer after my Freshman year of College at Arizona State University.  I attended a six and a half week study abroad program through the Barrett Honors College which spent three weeks in London, ten days in Dublin and twelve days in Edinburgh. We traveled, we explored, we took two courses, and it was a great intro to international travel.  In the 7 years since I completed that program I used it, movies, and conversations as a general way of relating to all of the international students I met.  While it helped some, I now realize I made a lot of mistaken assumptions.

Just over three weeks ago I arrived in Copenhagen, Denmark where I’ll be spending the next two years pursuing a masters in Communication and Cognition at the University of Copenhagen. An experience which I’ll be documenting here on VirtualWayfarer.  My formal studies start in less than three weeks and without even beginning the academic portion of the experience I’ve already realized that long-term study abroad and short-term study abroad are vastly different.

To clarify terminology – when I say short-term study abroad I’m talking about trips which last less than 7 months but longer than 5 days.  When I say long-term study abroad I’m including year long programs but mainly focusing on complete degree undergraduate and graduate programs.

Here are five of the key differences:

Preikestolen "The Preacher's Pulpit" - Norway

1. Commitment

As scary and challenging as short-term study abroad programs can be, you never truly have to commit to leaving.  The study abroad trip is an adventure, sometimes a relatively long one, but always experienced with a set perception of your native country as home.  You know that you’ll be going back at the end of that program and even if that program is 6 months long, you’ll always be in a social/passing through phase.  While you may become a participant in the local culture, you’ll never find yourself striving to become a truly active member or to go native.

In a long-term study abroad program you have to go all in.  You’ve committed to something more than just an extended visit and are literally moving to your destination country.  You operate on the realization that in the 1 to 6 years you’ll be gone that everything will change drastically, that you as an individual will be completely different, and that you are re-locating your home.  There is a realization that to not only enjoy, but to survive the experience you have to make an effort to go native.  That you will be changing far more than just where you sleep and study, but also how you eat, how you socialize, and perhaps even some of your core assumptions and values.

Warehouse Row in the Old Harbor - Bergen, Norway

2. Support

One of the best parts about a short-term study abroad program is that almost everything is taken care of for you by the partner schools, program coordinators and chaperones.  You’re told exactly what to do to engage in the process, where to be, and what to expect. Things like housing, transport, and course registration are handled, and most programs have you experience the trip as part of a group of people from your University or home country.  For my first trip this consisted of  two courses taught by faculty from my home University and our group was made almost entirely up of students from Arizona State’s Communication and Honors colleges.

While the experience may vary, I’ve found that long-term study abroad comes with significantly less support.  Especially for international students who are completing entire degree programs.  As a full program international student you’re not engaging in a study abroad program, so much as you are opting to study abroad.  The subtle difference is that while one is a program, the other is standard application and acceptance in a University that just happens to be international.  That means that virtually nothing is taken care of for you, though most Universities offer international programs offices which try and provide some guidance and limited help. At a basic level, however, consider all of the things that go into applying for College or Graduate school as a student attending an out of state school (housing, strange fees, long distance phone calls, different time zones, different banks, paperwork, transcripts, moving your possessions etc.) and then consider doing those internationally across thousands of miles.  Things like visa processing and paperwork, language barriers, international time zones, and vastly different education system structures all come together to create a very challenging and daunting experience.    Believe me, trying to complete the housing and visa process alone with minimal guidance or support is an incredible challenge and one that has left me with more than one sleepless night.

Candy and Scale - Copenhagen, Denmark

3. Different Educational Systems

While most people know this, I don’t think people truly internalize the fact that school systems around the world differ greatly. American educational systems are vastly different than European systems which are completely different than Asian systems.

I mentioned earlier that for my short-term study abroad experience we brought our own teachers with us.  You’ll find that in most short-term study abroad programs the academic coursework and structure remain largely the same as the country of origin.  This makes sense as switching back and forth for a few weeks/month-long program would be messy and confusing.  It also goes back to the experience as a visitor vs. participant/member.

Long-term study abroad programs, however, are done in the local educational system.  Remember – you’re just a regular student who happens to be from abroad.  As a participant this means figuring out and learning vastly different registration, course schedule, course load, teaching style and testing systems.  Even the little things like how course hours are credited can be vastly different.  For example while US schools operate on a credit hour basis, University of Copenhagen and most of Europe uses the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS).

Street Music - Copenhagen, Denmark

4. Social Restart

I mentioned earlier that short-term study abroad programs tend to set you up with, or travel in packs.  Even though you probably didn’t know most of the people before the trip began, you’re put with a group that automatically forms into a new peer group/group of friends. Some will become great friends, some you’ll tolerate because, hey, it’s only a few weeks or months, and one or two you’ll probably absolutely detest.  Ultimately though, this becomes your social network while traveling and fills in for your family and friends back home.

While there is some of this in long-term study abroad the nature of the program makes it significantly more difficult. There’s a huge sensation of loss as you realize that you’re not returning to your regular social group and good friends in a couple of weeks or months, but that it will likely be years. Years during which they may get married, move elsewhere, or change drastically as people.  As a long-term student you also have to effectively start over from ground zero.  One of the biggest frustrations I hear from people who did long-term study abroad programs and had negative experiences was that they never managed to meet new people or establish a new network.   It’s tough, and it takes an active willingness and investment in meeting, connecting, and generating friendships in a way most of us haven’t done actively in close to a decade.

There is no fall-back social group, or core-social group that you can always spend time with or call up to go grab a coffee, see a movie, or grab a beer. That sense of initial isolation is where I’m at right now, and while I feel very positive about the people I am meeting and my ability to build a new social network here in Denmark, it can be rough at times.  A lot of that will also change as the other international students starting my program arrive in town and courses start giving us an easy common thread to network through.  Still, that in and of itself poses another challenge as I know that if I’m going to be here for two years I need to do more than just hang out with other international students. That means going outside of my comfort zone and doing things that are far less comfortable for an international student – it means committing myself to the culture.

I’ve met some great people in the three weeks I’ve been here, and as orientation starts up I know I’ll meet a wealth of new ones. Despite that, it has definitely been a vastly different experience than traditional short-term study abroad.

Dad and I

5. Family

I always wondered how my international friends, roommates, and acquaintances dealt with being away from family. I come from a very close family where my parents, brother and I talk regularly, travel well together, and have an incredible relationship as peers.  For a long-time I wondered what long-term student’s relationships with their families were like that they were comfortable and able to leave their family for years at a time.  I think at a certain level, though I’m a bit ashamed of myself for it, I assumed that their relationships with their families must not have been incredibly close which made it easier to spend time away.  I’m happy to say I had no idea what I was talking about.  Leaving family behind and knowing that visiting and communicating will be much more challenging is easily one of the toughest things about long-term study abroad, but it in no way reflects the strength of the relationships between an international student and their siblings/parents.

As I write this I’m engaged in a two year program which may extend into a PhD and has the potential to lead just as easily to an expat scenario as a return stateside at the end of my two year program.  Two days before I flew over to Denmark my brother flew to Africa with the US Peace Corps for a two year deployment to Zambia.  Moving thousands of miles away, after spending most of our lives less than an hour away from our folks and each other was an incredibly difficult decision. But it was one that was made possible largely BECAUSE of how close our family is.  Their support, encouragement, and constant wisdom made the move a reality.  So, I encourage you all not to make the same mistake I did.

Are you thinking about studying abroad, or have you done a short or long-term program?  I’d love to hear your thoughts, observations and answer any questions you may have!

An American in Europe

As I prepared to leave for Europe a lot of people had questions about the trip. After “Have you seen the movie Hostel? Aren’t you scared!”…the second most common question had to do with how I felt and what I expected given the current political and social tensions between the US and Europe.

We have all heard the travel horror stories brought back by Americans traveling abroad. Recounting the abuse, horrible service and even occasional fight that they got into while traveling overseas because of cultural tension. For many people those stories have led to increased levels of anxiety when traveling and even, in some cases, discouraged people from taking the trip at all. It’s an issue often discussed, but despite that I still feel like I may have something to contribute.

For me, it has never really been an issue. It might be due to the extensive traveling I’ve already done or tied to my personality as a mediator – either way I’ve often found it to be a null issue. My experiences in 2004 when I participated in a study abroad trip to the British Isles were largely similar to my experiences during my most recent 3 month trip throughout Europe.

It’s an odd paradox, on one hand I noticed an enormous American cultural presence in Europe, especially countries like Croatia and Greece. On the other hand there is without a doubt a certain animosity and disgust which has infiltrated these cultures leaving their populations with mixed, sometimes hypocritical stances. Most of the Europeans I encountered made an important distinction between the politics of the current administration and the American people. Despite that however, there was also general disbelief and a sense of incredulity that the American people would/could allow the administration to continue without at least some level of endorsement. It’s a subject that people are eager to discuss with travelers, in part because it’s such a universal issue that it’s an easy conversation piece. For that reason, before undertaking a trip, the biggest piece of advice I can suggest is not to pretend you’re Canadian or dress differently, but rather spend some time and educate yourself about the current political situation.

For me, the political issue was actually more of a boon than a negative. It’s no secret that I have major issues with the current administration or that I’m extremely patriotic. I’ve opposed the Bush administration since the 2000 election. I spend a lot of time researching my position and keeping up with current events, especially those that CNN and FOX might otherwise skip over. To that end, when I encountered people who wanted to discuss politics or who were eager to make derogatory statements about the U.S., I was more than willing to engage with them. In most situations the discussion quickly turned into an educational lecture and even in the situations where we disagreed, by offering detailed explanations for my stance and acknowledging failings where they existed, just about every conversation ended on a positive note. I really want to take a moment to clarify as well that in these discussions I was not attacking the U.S. – quite to the contrary. However, I also wasn’t blindly defending everything we do.

Without getting too sidetracked – I’ll give you an example of a potentially touchy issue that still, when properly discussed, left my European companions nodding thoughtfully. On the issue of Imperialism I’m a firm believer that the U.S. is unique in a historical context. When one compares all of the previous world superpowers e.g. the Ottoman, Roman, British etc. empires to the U.S. there is a distinct difference in behavior. Where it’s predecessors expanded their empires by conquest and domination until over extended they collapsed, the U.S. has (after a brief period of expansion) been content to merely meddle in foreign governments, with no major attempts to bring new territory into the Union. As you can imagine, this stance wasn’t always incredibly well recieved, but when explained and presented in a detailed way it was accepted without animosity or ill will.

In the last few years it seems as though there has been a movement in the U.S. which has left many Americans ashamed to declare themselves as Americans while abroad. An image that has partially been reinforced by other english-speaking traveler’s efforts to declare themselves as non-Americans. Most of the Canadian backpackers and some of the Australian and New Zealanders I met were sporting the infamous Canadian/Aussie/Kiwi flag badge on their packs. For some it’s a simple declaration of country and their pride there in. For most, however, it was intended as a blaring “Don’t mistake me for an American”. To be honest, these really started to bug me after a while. In most of the culturally insensitive situations I witnessed it wasn’t Americans that were acting stupid – but rather those same Canadians/Aussies/Kiwis who when caught, questioned or even observed…suddenly claimed they were American or were automatically assumed to be.

Don’t get me wrong, Americans abroad can be culturally insensitive, arrogant travelers but even there we’re not nearly as bad as our reputation. Ironically enough, the group I observed to be the worst/most disliked were the Italians. I was shocked at the level of dislike some of the locals/tourist establishments/bars etc. held toward them. I also noticed a big difference between the three different types of American travelers I encountered. The first and most common was of course my fellow backpackers, the 2nd group were students studying abroad and traveling and the 3rd group consisted of elderly/retirees. The vast majority of the American backpackers I met were incredibly culturally sensitive, friendly and open. The students I encountered were usually slightly less adjusted but still far from the classic stereotypical American. The least adjusted were typically the retirees. These individuals usually stuck out like sore thumbs, could be heard in loud accented voices complaining about small cultural differences and fit the classic American stereotypes the best.

In fact, on multiple occasions I had fellow backpackers comment on the fact that the Americans they had met on the road were nothing like what they had expected. That they were often some of the most friendly, social travelers. At the same time though, it was also usually pretty obvious when there were a lot of Americans around. With our distinctive accents and loud behavior we are without a doubt pretty easily identified.

I mentioned earlier that I didn’t make any secret of the fact that I was American. That said, my standard dress however, was not distinctly American. In fact, towards the end in Greece I found it interesting that most of the restaurant street promoters and other sales people I encountered initially seemed to think I was German, french or Italian. Despite wearing faded bluejeans, a polo, my North Face vest and Marmot jacket…I think my old newsy-style hat and scarf are what confused them…especially toward the end when I grew a small goatee/mustache.

Though I usually corrected their misperception pretty quickly, I usually didn’t notice a significant change in their behavior or treatment. American or German they were equally eager to engage and talk to me.

Before I let my thoughts wander too much further I’ll leave you with several general tips:

  • Do your research. Six hours spent researching US/Global politics will go a long way toward diffusing any political discussion you get into. Especially if you can ask them about their native political situation and issues.
  • Don’t be afraid to be yourself, but consider the culture. Girls: if it’s a more conservative culture don’t wander the streets in a miniskirt and haltertop unless you want to be whistled at and treated like a whore. Guys: if you’re interested in blending in trade the baseball cap out for a different type of hat. Don’t be afraid to toss on a scarf and leave the Abercrombie and Hollister shirts at home.
  • Ask people questions about their culture/what they would suggest and then be willing to try it. I regularly gave my waiter a price range and then asked him/her to pick a cultural plate for me and to surprise me with it.
  • Remind yourself constantly that you’re not in the states and that part of the benefit is that things are different. Even if you prefer the way we do it, acknowledge the merits of how they do things.
  • Keep in mind that most Europeans speak English. Be aware of your surroundings.
  • Don’t shout or raise your voice while using baby talk with foreign speakers. If they don’t understand you immediately slow down your statement and try to use hand/facial motions to make your point. Remember 85% of conversation is non-verbal.

Other thoughts or tips? Post them here.