Residing in Ankara is a marker of pride in Bishkek – it separates out those who come from better, cultured, educated families from the mass of Turkish quasi-mafia businessmen, most of whom are from the villages of Eastern Turkey even if their families have re-located in Istanbul over the past generation. Ankara is a solid pin, less romantic and holding less nostalgia than Istanbul. A solid, middle class history sure of its foothold in History.
I think E is wrestling with whether to ever return and live here.hes asked me what I think of Ankara, and whether I think it would be a good place to live at least five times since our arrival. It’s his hometown, it’s a solid place with solid jobs and solid infrastructure and the means to live a solid life. But at the same time work here is stressful, the hours are long, and most people spend too much time in gridlocked traffic transversing the sprawling city (in terms of spread, Ankara is not so unlike LA, with multiple urban centers). Salaries are similar with Bishkek – if not a little lower – and most of his friends are in debt. Housing, hotels, Turkish grocery items and solid consumer goods are cheaper. Cars, gas, meat, electronics and alcohol are far more expensive (all but meat due to high import and ‘sin’ taxes). One of his friends recently married is now thinking of moving to Bishkek – he and his wife selling their cars to pay off their debt and working for a few years to save up some money and become fiscally solvent again. They were amazed that we not only save – but are also on vacation without using credit cards, and doing this on the same salary.
In Turkey there are a thousand different sub-demographics of the population. And because the country is still in the process of modernizing (or islamizing, depending on which angle you stand) the differences can be as grand as those between Appalachian grannies and manhattan fashionistas in the states. Whenever you hear people of a country painted this way or that – just remember the variety there is in America. For every kind of Turk E has warned me about or described or I have seen I can think of an exact counterpart in my home country, from conservative fundamentalists to rude rednecks to hipster girls who roll their own loose leaf tobacco cigarettes while sitting in ironically clashing cafes.
Most of E’s friends and extended family members are university-educated liberal white-collar urban professionals who talk about politics and kids and enjoy going out or having dinner parties in the evenings and spending the summers at the sea. What E noted however is that most people he knows in this segment of the population are heavily in debt from credit cards and bank loans – debt racked up from buying houses and cars, taking vacations, and just living off of more than they earn, spending a little loosely or carelessly. In short, using credit to buy a standard of life that they can’t actually afford, a disparity between salary and expected lifestyle. What struck me about this is how similar this situation is to the US where, last time I checked, the average American was $15,000 in debt from similar excess – partially from big-ticket items like buying houses and cars, but more generally just from everyday credit card use, being a little careless, expecting a certain type of lifestyle as their due.
You would never know, for example, that E’s friends who want to move to Bishkek are in debt. They live in a beautiful wood house in the suburbs, both drive decent cars, and hosted a family and friends dinner party for eight on Monday eve. Their house alone makes me want to move to Ankara. It’s located in a small, older development with winding roads and yards full of mature fruit trees and prowling neighborhood cats fattened off of barbecue leftovers. The houses are narrow and tall, which means that each room is light filled. On the first floor, a living room leading out to a patio, step up to a dining area and kitchen separated by just a counter. Out front there is a little covered glass porch for shoes or just sitting. The second floor has three bedrooms and a bath – and two of the bedrooms open onto glassed-in balconies, one overlooking the street,and one the shade-dappled yard. Winding wooden steps take you up to the third floor, which is a simple dormer room and front balcony full of morning sunlight. They pay $650 a month in rent.
We spent Monday afternoon in Panora, the Dubai of Ankara’s malls – all glass and glitz. Malls in Turkey seem split between affordability and luxury. Half the shops are covered in red and white signs screaming of sales; the other half are quite pricey, mostly too-brand European imports. Like in most places, foreign brands are a bit more expensive, due to import tax, and thus hold a semi-luxury status. I’ve never bought anything from Zara because I think their women’s clothes are cheaply made – and yet there isn’t a shirt in the shop for under $75. Most of the businesses taking up floor space are clothing retailers, followed by electronics, child/parenting stores, cosmetics and pharmacies, household goods and appliances (tons of kitchen stores…), and usually two cellphone stores, one book store, and a giant grocery store complimented by a dozen fresh juice stands. All malls have food courts, but restaurants and cafes predominate – places where you sit down in peace and the cuisine is good enough to rival a street cafe. So the emphasis in the malls seems to be on personal appearance and grooming, home and family, modern electronics, and food. Pretty reflective of values in modern Ankara.
After doing our annual stock-up shopping we met up with E’s friend in the fashionable downtown cafe-university district of Kizilay for a cup of tea and a short rest before driving over to his new home. We wound through the spaghetti junctions of downtown and shot out of the city, bare dry scrub on one shoulder, burgeoning sky scrapers on the other. 70% of land in Turkey is owned by the state, and there are large military zones outside many cities, both of which lead to the presence of empty spaces not far from city proper and halt a lot of city sprawl. Twenty minutes later we turned away from the dry scrub,and and found ourselves by yet another giant mall surrounded by private houses, small businesses, and a few towering apartment complexes.
Compared to the crowds and noise of downtown their neighborhood was serene and green. We sat on the patio until family members began arriving, a good-humored father and mother in a blond bobbed cut and warm glow from the sun and sands of their recent holiday in Marmarais, the friends older brother and his two children and wife, an engineer at Kumtor/Centerra Gold – which also happens to operate a mine in Kyrgyzstan. We talked about her business trip to Colorado and her (business) perspective on the current Kyrgyz government, which currently owns a share in the company. Snapper was stuffed with thyme,the men lit up the grill and heated coals with the help of a hair dryer on an extension cord, salad was prepared, plates were set, and we sat down to dinner under the blackened night sky, encircled by prowling neighborhood cats waiting for us to toss the fish heads.
One major change for me is the expectation that women will be professionals. Every female in Erdem’s family or circle of friends has a university degree and a professional career. Many of them work in science – his oldest sister is a mining engineer (and her eighteen-year-old daughter just started college on the same track), as was the friend’s brother’s wife. His friend’s wife is currently completing her PhD in Physics and Astronomy while working for a family medical research supply company. Last night I was talking to a petit girl who works as a computer Engineer. The question here is always “What do you do?” or, “What are you doing in a Bishkek?”, which is something I’m never asked – something women are never asked generally – in Kyrgyzstan. It’s also a question that I have a very hard time answering and generally involves me explaining how I started a PhD (and how I ended up in Kyrgyzstan studying Russian and language he among border minorities in the first place), why I turned away from an academic career in America, and that I don’t really have a job in Bishkek or a certain career I’m assigned to, and that there basically are no jobs in Bishkek, so I’ve done assignments and decided to create my own. I taught at the university for a bit, I did some consulting work for an iNGO, I’m setting up an online college guidance counseling/academic and business editing company, and I’ve written twenty chapters out of thirty of an Adult Elementary English Grammar and Conversation book that I hope to get published in Turkey by the end of this year. Not having a definite job here is a little odd. The women here keep telling me I can get a good job working in a university or international organization or teaching when I come to Turkey. But having once been a future academic – a career that involves researching, editing, translating, writing essays, archive organization, consulting, advising, conference organizing, administration, lesson planning and teaching – it’s a little hard to define exactly what one thing I ought to do.