Beyond the kebab: Foodie blog Istanbul Eats now in print

Last night in Istanbul, a side street in the Galata neighborhood on the European side of town was packed with people eating Turkish street food such as çiğ köfte, salted cucumbers, and börek pastries, and drinking cold Efes beers and Turkish wines. The occasion was the publication of the book Istanbul Eats: Exploring the Culinary Backstreets,
a compilation of food and restaurant recommendations from the blog of the same name. So full of local foodies and fans of the blog that the event was broken up early by the Turkish police unaccustomed to boisterous Tuesday block parties.

Started by American expats Ansel Mullins and Yigal Schleifer last spring, Istanbul Eats is billed as “a serious eater’s guide to the city.” You won’t find any five-star restaurants, international chains, or tourist traps on Istanbul Eats; the blog focuses on small, traditional eateries; street carts; and mom-and-pop shops. Many of the establishments are only open for lunch, serve no alcohol, and take no credit cards. What you will find is authentic, often surprising, and always satisfying food. The pocket-sized book combines reviews with mouth-watering photography and visitor-friendly maps and info.

For now, the book is only available for sale online and in shops in Turkey, but is a must-read for anyone visiting Istanbul and looking to take home a taste of Turkey. If you want to read up on the culinary scene before your trip, the blog has a full archive of restaurant reviews, round-ups, and features on local favorite dishes. Afiyet Olsun!

Weekending: Beirut

One of the best things about life as an expat in Turkey is easy access to Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, with many previously far-flung destinations only a few hours’ flight away. I might not plan a week-long vacation in, say, Kosovo, but if I can be there for Friday happy hour and home Monday morning, why not? My main criteria for choosing weekend trips are easy access, no advance visa required, and access to sights and culture I won’t find in Istanbul. Other than that, I pore over the Turkish Airlines timetable like a Stieg Larsson novel, choose a destination, and start planning.

The place: Beirut, Lebanon

All the travel mags have recently hyped Beirut as the “Paris of the Middle East,” a title the city has long boasted but only recently regained after the 2006 bombings. Now it’s *the* place for nightlife in the Middle East, a hot bed of new construction with luxury hotels opening like the Four Seasons and Le Gray, and a diverse mix of culture (Lebanon has 18 official religions, representing Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and the Islamic Druze sect), where you can often hear church bells and the mosque’s call to prayer on the same corner. The downtown district has been beautifully restored, though it lacks a little soul; the Corniche waterfront is pleasant for strolling among Muslim families and locals drinking tea and smoking nargileh pipes; and the university area of Hamra is dotted with cozy pubs and cafes.


  • As the summer gets more oppressively hot in Turkey, I find myself in search of a beach and despite the fact that Istanbul is surrounded by water, options are slim and expensive. Beirut offers many options for refreshment in the form of beach clubs (really a glorified pool complex with restaurants), where you can also take in the daytime social scene with young Lebanese chatting each other up in the pool with a cocktail in one hand and a cigarette in the other (smoking is pretty much the national sport of Lebanon, so be warned). If you’re not wearing stilettos and a bejeweled, designer bikini that probably shouldn’t come into contact with liquid, you’re probably under dressed.
  • The shopping scene downtown has the usual gang of international brands, but nearby Saifi Village has cool boutiques with local, up-and-coming designers. Even more interesting is the Sunday Souq el Ahad flea market, with everything from live chickens to bootleg DVDs to antique clocks, with nary a souvenir or fanny pack in sight. Try saying that about the Grand Bazaar.
  • Expat ease: English is widely spoken and US dollars are used everywhere in addition to Lebanese lira, though getting change in two currencies requires some finely honed math skills. Alcohol is quite readily available and cheaper than in Turkey, with particularly good local wine and laughably cheap duty free prices.


  • With all the hotel openings, the cost of accommodation is pretty steep, with few hotels under $200 in high season and a dearth of good budget options. Looking for a hotel with a pool (a must in summer), I ended up at the Riviera Hotel, where the main draw was the attached beach club and quick walk to Hamra, for $165 a night. Beirut could use a chain like Istanbul’s House Hotels, which has converted historic buildings in trendy neighborhoods into chic and cheap accommodation.
  • As sprawling and inconvenient as Istanbul’s public transportation is, Beirut is even worse with a confusing and rundown bus system and taxi cabs which have no meters (tricky to agree to a price in advance when you don’t speak Arabic or understand what price you should pay). Service taxis are shared cars most locals use to get around, but they are virtually indistinguishable from private taxis and difficult to navigate, as you have to ask where they are going.
  • Beirut has a handful of good museums and good access to day trips, but otherwise your sightseeing can be done in a day or two, which can leave you for more time for people watching at the beach or at a cafe. Contrasted with Istanbul’s endless array of palaces, museums, historical sights, and markets, Beirut works best as a stop on a larger trip or as a relaxation and nightlife-centric getaway.

Getting there

Beirut International Airport is served by flights from Europe and the Middle East; budget carriers Air Baltic and Pegasus connect with most of Europe, and bmi flies from 7 cities in the US via London. Most countries get a free 1-month visa on arrival. There’s no public transit from the airport; arrange a taxi pickup with your hotel, or try to bargain to around $30 – 40. Along with Syria and a dozen other countries, Lebanon will not allow entry to anyone with an Israeli passport stamp, but you shouldn’t have many problems going into Israel with a Lebanese stamp.

Make it a week

Beirut is an exciting, sad, glamorous, and hopeful city, all at the same time and depending on your perspective. It would be worthwhile to extend your trip to explore more of Lebanon or combine with a visit to Syria (also a “go there before it gets discovered” destination but requires you apply for a visa in advance).

Finding the expat community and what travelers can learn from them

No matter how well-traveled you are, moving to a foreign country and living as an expat is a whole new ballgame. Your priorities and standards change, and hours that you may have spent as a traveler in a museum or wandering a beach are now spent in as an expat search of an alarm clock or trying to distinguish between eight types of yogurt. You become like a child again: unable to speak in complete sentences, easily confused and lost, and constantly asking questions.

Enter the experienced expats who can help navigate visa issues, teach you dirty words in foreign languages, and tell you where to buy pork in a Muslim country. Finding the local expat community is not about refusing to integrate or assimilate in your new country, but rather meeting a group of like-minded people who understand what you are going through and can provide a bridge to the local community and culture.

So what can the traveler learn from an expat? How about where to buy souvenirs that are actually made nearby and well priced, restaurants not mentioned in any guidebooks, bizarre-but-true stories behind local places and rituals, and inside perspectives on community news and events? And those are just the Istanbul bloggers.

Read on for tips on finding the blogs and a few of the must-reads for travelers.Where to find the expats:

  • Expat forums such as ExpatFocus, InterNations, and Expat Blog are good starting points for finding and connecting with expats, though some forums may be more active than others.
  • Local English-language publications: Many big cities have a Time Out magazine in English and local language, often with frequently-updated blogs or links to other sites. In Istanbul, the newspaper Today’s Zaman has an “expat zone” full of useful articles.
  • Guidebook writers are often current or former expats, so if you read a helpful guide or travel article, it’s worth a Google search to find if they have a blog or Twitter account.

Some stellar expat bloggers around the globe:

  • Carpetblogger: sarcastic, insightful blogger based in Istanbul but with lots of coverage on Central Asia, the Caucasus, and Indonesia. Stand-out post: expat guide to duty free shopping.
  • Miss Expatria: prolific writer and instantly-loveable American in Rome, a joy to read even if you have no plans to visit Italy, but you might find yourself buying tickets after reading about her life. Stand-out post: Italian idioms.
  • CNNGo: great round-up of finds in Asia from Bangkok to Tokyo with everything from restaurant reviews to a look at Tokyo’s elevator ladies. Stand-out post: Japan’s oddest vending machines, a favorite topic of Mike Barish, who has chronicled some of the vending machine beverages for your reading pleasure..
  • Bermuda Shorts: Enviable (and crushworthy, too) travel writer David LaHuta covers all the goings-on in Bermuda and all things Dark n Stormy-related. Stand-out post: name suggestions for new Indiana Jones movie set in Bermuda Triangle.
  • Fly Brother: Series of funny and poignant misadventures in Brazil and around the world from the African American perspective. Stand-out post: how an afternoon of seemingly simple errands can take up to seven hours.

The next time you plan a trip abroad, consider reaching out to a fellow American (or Canadian, Brit, etc.) for some advice or even a coffee meeting (assuming you aren’t a total psycho). I, for one, am happy to offer Istanbul tips and tricks, and I’d be even more amenable to helping a traveler who comes bearing Boar’s Head bacon.

Any expat blogs you follow or travel tips you’ve learned from them? Expat bloggers want to share your websites and your insights for travelers? Leave a note in the comments below.

Somaliland: building a nation

The most interesting thing about traveling in Somaliland is that you get to see a country in the process of creating itself.

When it achieved independence from the rest of Somalia in 1991, there wasn’t much to work with. The capital had been destroyed, a large number of people were homeless and without work, and the country wasn’t recognized by the outside world. Recognition still hasn’t come, but Somalilanders are slowly building their nation.

Buildings are going up everywhere, thanks to the investment from local Somalis and expats. This second group is important. In the Seventies and Eighties many educated Somalis fled dictatorship and civil war to other parts of the world. Some did very well for themselves, and when Somaliland stabilized they saw an opportunity for investment.

One modest example is a Somali man I met who works as a crane operator in Germany. He makes a good salary, but is far from rich by European standards. Yet in Somaliland he’s able to own a beachside home in Berbera and recently bought property in Hargeisa that he’s planning to build on. This, of course, will bring another contract to one of the local construction companies and more work for its employees.

Further up the economic ladder is Hassan Ahmed Hussein, owner of the Hadhwanaag Hotel and Restaurant in Hargeisa. He lived for many years in Virginia before moving back two years ago. Hassan’s hotel mostly serves Somalis although he’s interested in expanding into the developing tourist trade as well. The main draw of his place is the restaurant, which quickly became a favorite local hangout. The goat and camel meat his chefs cook for three hours in a clay oven is simply the best meal you’ll eat in Somaliland, and judging from the number of Somalis who show up for lunch and dinner this isn’t just an outsider’s opinion. The hotel part of his operation is good value too, with little bungalows surrounding a pleasant garden.

%Gallery-93563%One of Somaliland’s most successful businessmen is Abdirashid Duale, CEO of Dahabshiil, a major money transfer company with headquarters in the UK, Dubai, and Somaliland. Since remittances from foreign workers are a major source of hard currency in this part of the world, money transfer is big business. Unlike many Somalis I met, Abdirashid thinks Somaliland’s unrecognized status has a positive side.

“I do believe a lot of things can be done without recognition, look at Taiwan,” he says. “The focus on the private sector will have long-term benefits. We want people to be self-sufficient. Without so many NGOs coming in with their own ideas and their own agendas, we have to do things ourselves.”

Somalis are doing more than just opening businesses, they’re fixing social problems as well. Dahabshiil donates a lot of money to hospitals and universities, and individuals have set up their own NGOs since most foreign ones won’t come to Somaliland. Any foreigner visiting Somaliland will be invited to see several.

The Hargeisa Rehabilitation Centre helps people with physical disabilities. There’s an orthopedic workshop that makes artificial legs, wheelchairs, and crutches. It’s so productive, in fact, that it exports to Somalis living in Ethiopia, Djibouti, Puntland, and Somalia. Doctors offer physiotherapy to patients for as little as $2 a month, and many come from the war-torn regions of Somalia to be treated. Dr. Abdullah, the head of pediatrics, told me they have anywhere from 15 to 25 child patients at any one time, mostly suffering from cerebral palsy, clubfoot, malnutrition, and injuries.

He and his small staff work long hours with limited, antiquated equipment. Because Somaliland isn’t recognized, it’s hard to attract foreign aid or foreign volunteers. It’s also difficult for him and his fellow doctors to get visas to go to medical conventions abroad. Despite these troubles the center is a pleasant place, with a quiet garden and a dedicated staff doing the best they can.

Another homemade project is the Gandi Public Library, named after a former minister of education and founded by his son in 1999. Housed in a small building next to the empty shell of the central post office (Somaliland has no postal service since it’s not recognized by the Universal Postal Union), it’s the only public library in the country. While local residents eagerly read the small collection of books, there are no new ones coming in. The library hasn’t received a donation in ten years. The biggest demand is for textbooks on medicine, economics, community development, law, and other practical subjects.

Not far away is the Sancaani Technical Institute, which offers free training 700 students in computer science, electronics, journalism, and media. Founded in 2002, it helps disabled people, the disadvantaged, and those from non-Isaaq clans. The Isaaq are the largest clan in Somaliland and many people complain that members of minority clans don’t have equal opportunities. When I visited, one class was learning how to use Microsoft Access, while another practiced fixing mobile phones.

Noor Mohammed, an IT lecturer, told me there’s a huge waiting list for the free classes and not nearly enough funding to take all applicants.

“We can change the lives of thousands of the poor, but right now we are working at the limits of our capability. The children here, their interest level is very high,” he says. “We have just 16 computers and 200 students waiting to use them.”

While I only made brief visits to other towns, I got the impression, confirmed by several Somalis I spoke with, that the vast majority of investment and development is in the capital. The government still hasn’t fully asserted its authority in all areas of Somaliland and this is slowing the rush of investment. The port at Berbera, for example, needs improvement. A company from Dubai is discussing leasing the port and this might help improve the city in the next few years.

It’s hard to predict where Somaliland is heading. Development will continue, and as infrastructure improves the economy will too, fueling more investment. It’s an exciting time for this portion of the Horn of Africa, and it’s exciting for a traveler to be able to witness it.

Don’t miss the rest of my series on travel in Somaliland.

Coming up next: Some thoughts on travel in Somaliland.

Dealing with reverse culture shock

You’re returning home after living overseas. Perhaps you’ve been gone only a few months… or perhaps you’ve lived in a foreign culture for a number of years. It’s possible that you became fully immersed into that host country and culture. Now, you’re facing repatriation back to your home culture.

Sometimes, people experience what is known as Reverse Culture Shock when returning to their original homeland: it’s a surprising mixture of bewilderment, loss, isolation and confusion. Your home country may no longer feel like home, and you may not feel like you belong there. Preparing for successful “re-entry” often depends upon applying skills of adaptability, change, and flexibility to ease transition back into one’s home culture.

Recognize that you are a different, new person.
You’ve probably changed significantly by living overseas. Viewing our old home from an international perspective may reveal new — sometimes scary — insights into our home culture, other societies, and ourselves. Your new attitudes, cultural sensitivities, global awareness, and broader viewpoints may or may not be in sync with the folks’ ideas back home.

Maybe you’re not even sure where home is anymore, or maybe you feel more connected to your host country. It’s ok to feel confused. Another name for this feeling is “personal growth,” and this is just a growing pain.

Remember that your home country has changed, too.
Changes — big and small — happened while you were away. If you were back for home leave or a short visit, you may have already observed some changes. But even tiny alterations in fashions, products, advertising, customer service approaches, bank fees, and political attitudes may combine to create an entirely new, strange environment.
The longer an expatriate is away, the more potential there is for shock upon returning. Changes that become subtly integrated in society while you were away can contribute to a feeling of surprise and unfamiliarity. Again, it’s ok to feel confused. Remember that, in the same way you may have struggled in your host culture for a while, you may struggle in your home culture for a period of time, too.

Jump right in, socially.

When people do ask about your travels, keep it positive and share a few key details to start.

Get involved in new things as quickly as possible. Join new clubs, take courses, visit a church, and meet new people even though you may feel foreign. Although difficult to find, seek out activities with other expats — people like yourself who have repatriated. Reach out to foreign nationals who are now experiencing life as an expat in the USA. Don’t dwell on the old days. It’s fine to think about them, but avoid mooning over them for extended periods.

Pro-actively reconnect with old friends.
You may not have too much in common any more, but it’s worth a try. Rebuilding an old friendship can be worth the effort, especially when loneliness or alienation come to call. Hopefully, you maintained some contact with old friends, even if just through Christmas cards or the occasional email. Now it’s time to find out what they’ve been up to. Invite them for lunch to catch up on their activities. Pick up the phone; don’t wait for a call. Often these reconnections aren’t exactly equal give and take; it may be up to you to offer much more “give.”

It’s somewhat counterintuitive, but while it’s tempting to share all your exciting experiences with someone, your old friends may view you as different (which you are, and they are too). This is a good time to utilize those broadened people skills you’ve acquired overseas, and be a good listener even if you can’t relate to some of the conversation. Also: be flexible — if invited, go along to a friend’s reading group or quilt-making meeting, for example. After all, maybe this will be part of your new, home culture.

Save detailed accounts of your overseas adventures for only your closest family/friends.
This stems from the tip above. Tread lightly in recounting too much detail and sharing photos of your travels, especially with new acquaintances. Even if they ask, many people may be quick to lose interest in your adventures.

When people do ask — keep it positive and share a few key details to start. Many expats learn to deflect questions about international travels before they even arise.

Make your old house into a new home.
If you’re moving back into your same old house, it’s only sort of like being back home again. Neighbors may have remarried or moved. Maybe the kids are in high school or have moved on; perhaps the yard’s play gym is no longer necessary. Consider new plants or a garden. If a renter lived in your house, new paint, carpet and curtains can do wonders.

Your memories from life before overseas are a good starting point, but adjust your lifestyle and expectations to your new needs. A good way to help remember and embrace The New You is to hang some art or photos from your host culture in your old house. Familiar things can make tough adjustments smoother.

Rent before you buy a house in an unfamiliar neighborhood.
Alternatively, if you plan to buy a house and are moving to an unfamiliar town, give yourself a few months to learn about the local real estate market before buying. Many companies will pay to store your household goods for a period of time before delivery to a new home. If you have to pay a couple extra months’ storage out of pocket, to give yourself time to really learn about the new area, it could be a wise investment.

If you get a house-hunting trip to the new location prior to the move, use this trip to find a furnished, short-term rental — and to get started photographing and thinking about potential schools, homes, Main Streets. This gives you the flexible option of easing into a new place before committing to buy.

Expect “Retail Overload.”
Maybe you’ve been living in a place where you bargained for food in open-air markets, or in a country with canned goods in different languages. Shopping in a western grocery store again can be an overwhelming experience for the expat. Western goods, availability, quantity, variety and choices can be daunting.

Take rice, for example. In your overseas host country, perhaps someone weighed out a pound of rice on a time-honored scale in an open market, and off you would go with a neat little package in some recycled paper. Contrast that to the myriad shelves of rice selections — white or brown? Jasmine or Basmati? Wild, long-grain, instant, long-cooking… hundreds of brands and products, all colorful and screaming out, invite you to pick them up… where to start? There’s no bargaining, just confusing price variations… And this is just rice. One way an expat can ease this overload is to visit smaller grocery stores. Initially, it may be smart to avoid mega-warehouses, like Sam’s or Costco. People in the midst of repatriation re-entry have been known to flee mega-stores in tears — and empty-handed.

Finally, allow yourself the cultural confusion.
Understand and acknowledge the unique nature of what you’re feeling. Give yourself transition time. Try to appreciate that your perspectives are in metamorphosis, and your brain is trying to create a new sense of normal.

It may be tough to avoid altogether, but Reverse Culture Shock can be enlightening — or at least broadening — in itself. Through anticipation, utilizing transition skills from earlier moves, and by adapting to local challenges, one’s repatriation re-entry can evolve into a fresh, new definition of “being home.”

For further information about reverse culture shock, consider reading Homeward Bound by Robin Pascoe, and The Art of Coming Home by Craig Storti.

[Image credits: Luke Robinson, FriskoDude, and (flicts)]