Life is a fleeting experience, and nobody is more aware of that than an expat

15th, 2011
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Always the transient
Life is a fleeting experience, and nobody is more aware of that than an expat: Sonja Ring, who is Finnish, is just about to move from Antalya back to İstanbul again, and shares her thoughts about living in Turkey and expat life in general.
Unexpected new direction
No matter how quietly we try to live our lives, there are outside events that touch us in some way: for Sonja it was Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait that put her on the path that brought her to Turkey. She has not looked back since.
“I had originally planned to work for an airline that flew out of Copenhagen but because of the situation in Kuwait they decided not to hire anybody else that year,” she explains. “I took a temporary job in Antalya in 1991 and then from 1991/1992 onwards I was the guest relations executive for a well-known hotel in Dubai. I did, however, come back to Antalya, but I moved to İstanbul in 1994. I was cabin crewmember for Pegasus Airlines in Turkey and then marketing executive for British Airways in Turkey. I moved back to Antalya in 2001.”
Sonja did not know anything about Turkey and its culture when she got here. “At the time, most people thought it was an exotic and mysterious place,” she underlines. “I had a very positive surprise, though: After having travelled in both the Middle and Far East I can honestly say I have not met such genuinely hospitable and friendly people anywhere else but in Turkey, especially those from the Anatolian villages who make you part of their families. I am really pleased İstanbul is now ‘on the map,’ so to speak; that is to say foreigners are starting to realize how much the city has to offer. I feel very proud when friends and family come and discover what a wonderful country this is.”
She has spent the better part of her adult life abroad: She left Finland when she was 22 and recently turned 40 in Turkey. She thinks she has changed a lot for the better. “I am more thankful for everyday experiences. I really appreciate the little details now and take less for granted. I am also much stronger than I was, no longer wide-eyed and innocent. That said, my personal values have not changed: I am still the same girl who loves animals and nature and values truth and sincerity over dishonesty.”
So does she miss anything about Finland? “Mid-summer and the midnight sun,” she highlights. “At this time of year everyone goes to their summer houses and spends time with friends and family. I also miss the silence, the color of the sky at this time and unpolluted nature. What I do not miss, however, is the people’s attitude. Unlike many in the world, the Finnish people have everything they need yet they still complain. I also do not miss the cold, dark and snowy winters when the sun is only visible for two hours a day. When I was a child, instead of telling people what I wanted to be when I grew up, I told them I would leave one day to get away from the winter.”
Putting down roots is worth the risk
Getting used to living somewhere is a process which takes time and effort, and to then move elsewhere after all that groundwork could be very frustrating. Sonja, however, has been lucky: She has lived in Antalya twice and is soon returning to İstanbul.
She is more than happy to be going back. “Whenever the plane lands there, I feel as if I have come home,” she highlights and notes: “I have really missed the spirit of İstanbul: its smells, sights and sounds, cultural life and history. It is also much easier to travel from there. I know that, to a large extent, I will be able to pick up my life from where I left off. I have not lost that groundwork. Even the shopkeepers at my favorite shops still remember me.”
Having lived in both İstanbul and Antalya, Sonja has seen both places evolve and change. When she returned to Antalya from Istanbul in 2001 she had trouble recognizing the place. “I have seen Antalya change a great deal. It used to smell of orange blossom and there were nice gardens everywhere but now it is too built up and the city, the beaches and the sea are getting more and more polluted. It was a very small city with a busy city centre and tourism was on the outskirts, along the coast; it was a locals’ place. Tourism has created employment but at the same it also means Antalya has seen an influx of migrants from all over Turkey, changing the city’s social dynamics. Antalya has been a good place to bring up a small child, it has a great climate and the mountains are spectacular, but now it is time to move on.”
Making friends again
Expats are aware that forming friendships is a leap of faith. Since Sonja left Finland 18 years ago, she has lived in Spain, Dubai and Turkey, each time having to make new friends and try and stay in contact with old ones.
“It is emotionally challenging having to make friends over and over,” she explains. “People tend to assume you will instantly make friends with people from the same country who speak the same language. That is not the case as everywhere you move there is a random selection of people, it is like a lottery. Through some unfortunate experiences, I have learned not to be so trusting as there are no checks and balances, we do not know who we are dealing with and people can, and, for whatever reason, do try to pretend to be someone they are not. You have to be very careful about who you let into your life and how much you let them in, especially when you have a child. Another consideration is that expat circles, especially in smaller places, can become very intense as you are likely to come across the same people quite often.”
Having said that, Sonja is far from alone and is still friends with people she knew at school and others she has met during her travels. “When I left home there was no Internet, Skype or Facebook, and we relied on letters to keep in touch. It could take 20 days for a letter to get to Finland, but it was worth writing and very exciting to get a reply. I have also enjoyed discovering that nationality, language and religion are not barriers to friendship; it is amazing that you can make friends with someone from Sri Lanka, for example, but have nothing in common with someone who is also from northern Europe.”
So does Sonja have any advice for people thinking of moving abroad? “Above all, you should learn the language, either before you go or when you get there,” she recommends. “That will make your life much easier, give you more independence and help you integrate. It is also very, very important to talk to and listen to foreigners who are already there: There is a difference between visiting somewhere and going on holiday. Otherwise, you could end regretting living in a beautiful villa half way up a mountainside that you bought in the summer time. Out of season, life can be very different, such as when it is pouring with rain and the nearest shop is in the practically empty holiday town below.”
As for her future, Sonja envisages herself retiring to a traditional stonewalled house in an Aegean village and tending a garden, surrounded by her cats and dogs.
Resource: Today’s Zaman

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