A Life-Altering Cup of Coffee

In a previous post, I wrote about some of my Frequently Asked Questions, all of which focused on my life in Istanbul. One of the questions that I almost always give the abbreviated version to is how I met my husband. Although I had previously touched on this in another post, I’ve decided to tell the full story here.

My first day in Istanbul was a cold and gray January day, there was even the occasional snow flurry in the air. It seemed that my friend and I may have been the only tourists in the area, because as we made our way to the center of the historic district, we found ourselves surrounded by a number of men—each of them simultaneously asking us to join them for tea. Having previously traveled around Italy—a country notorious for their “romantic” ways—I immediately assumed that they were all trying to pick us up. Needless to say, we were completely freaked out. We somehow extricated ourselves from this group of men, grabbed a quick bite to eat, and then hurried back to our hotel to regroup and plan on how we were going to spend our next ten days in Istanbul.

The next morning, I chose not to shower or brush my hair, and without a scrap of makeup on, we headed out. It was a beautiful day—cold but sunny—and the entire atmosphere of the old city had changed. We found a small park in which to sit so that we could look at a map to get our bearings. Within a few minutes, a young man walked up to us, and asked if were from the United States. He spoke English with an American accent, he was young—our age, twenty-two or so—and was incredibly charming. After talking for a few minutes, he invited us into a nearby rug store for a cup of coffee. Having never turned down a cup of coffee before, we decided to go.

For the next hour or so, we talked about traveling, what brought us to Turkey, and where we were headed next. During that time, I noticed another young man repeatedly walking up and down the stairs. After his second trip back down the stairs, he was invited to join us. He struck me as possibly shy and very serious, and although we attempted to have a conversation with him, I wasn’t sure if he was actually interested in talking with us. As it grew later, the two of them asked us if we’d like to have dinner. We agreed to meet at a nearby restaurant an hour later, giving us just enough time to shower and change our clothes.

When we met them at the restaurant, I noticed right away that the serious one couldn’t stop staring at me. It actually made me a little uncomfortable, which led me to talking incessantly—trying to cover up my discomfort. I found out during dinner that he was a University student, studying English Literature and Linguistics. In addition to that, he was also studying to get his Guidance License under the Ministry of Tourism. When he spoke about his desire to travel around the country, showing it’s many wonders to foreign visitors, his face lit up and he became animated in a way I hadn’t seen all evening.

I was suddenly struck by how handsome has was, and my discomfort over his intense gaze turned into one of nervousness.

After finishing dinner, they asked if we wanted to go to a nearby bar to listen to music and dance. We were having such an enjoyable evening, and although this was my first full day in Istanbul—and my mother’s voice in my head was saying something about going out with men in a foreign country—we said yes.

Sitting together in "My Way" bar (a few months later)

When we arrived at a bar called My Way (after the Frank Sinatra song), I once again became very uncomfortable when he asked me to dance. I said no—multiple times. This didn’t stop him from dancing, however, and for the next hour, I watched him with some other friends dancing to traditional Turkish music, laughing, and enjoying himself immensely. I will admit that I couldn’t take my eyes off him as he danced. When a slow song started, he once again asked me to dance—this time I said “yes.” The song was “Careless Whisper” by Wham!, and when it ended, I knew that I would dance with him for the rest of the evening.

When I arrived back at the hotel, my mind was a jumbled mix of emotion, but the strongest one was a pure excitement at the thought of seeing him the next day—he had agreed to take us on a tour. I’m not sure when I actually decided to stay in Istanbul. At first when I mentioned leaving, he simply asked me to just stay a little longer. One week turned into two, and then three, and suddenly I found it impossible to imagine leaving.

Sitting together outside the rug store (in front of the park)

Four months later, walking home from an evening out with him, I had a sudden vision of our lives together—and I knew that my life was meant to be with him. I felt it with a certainty I hadn’t previously experienced. It’s been almost fifteen years since I first saw my husband walking up and down the stairs in that rug store, and I am still thankful for the events that brought me there.

In my life, I have found that many of the small decisions I have made—like sitting on a park bench or agreeing to a cup of coffee—have ultimately lead me toward life-altering changes. My advice to my daughter is to live her life looking at each decision as an opportunity that might bring her to new experiences, all of which may ultimately change her life forever.

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Frequently Asked Questions: Istanbul Life

I’m a chatty person. I am known to easily strike up conversation with random strangers, and for some reason, elderly people seem to love me. Most of the time, these conversations come out of my dread of uncomfortable silences. The problem is, most of the time, these simple conversations often become longer—much more time consuming—discussions about my life.

Although they usually begin innocently enough, with simple questions that are quick and easy to answer: what do you do for a living? where do you live? how old are your children? These questions inevitably lead to others that require a back story. It doesn’t matter if I am standing in line at the bank and the person talking to me is a complete stranger—some people have a way of getting right to the personal. In moments like these, I have often wished that with all of the apps on all of the smart phones out there, why there isn’t an F.A.Q. app for precisely this scenario. It would make life so much easier if I could just send the answers to a person’s email address at the first hint of one of these questions getting ready to be asked. This app would instantly eradicate the need to answer these types of questions, and would therefore allow me to hold onto the precious few moments I may have with another adult in which I can talk about anything else.

So, in lieu of having this app, I am going to use this space to try to answer some of my Frequently Asked Questions, but because there are so many, I’ll focus on the ones that relate to my life in Istanbul—or at least the events that led up to it.

Q: What’s your full name?

A: Erin Rehill-Seker [Okay, most people don’t actually ask me this question, but I needed to start somewhere, especially since I am asked the following question at least once a week.]

Q: Can you repeat that? How exactly do you pronounce your last name?

A: It’s Seker pronounced SHEH kehr. It’s Turkish. The S is actually pronounced SH. It means “sugar” in Turkish. [I don’t know why I always say this last part, it may just be out of habit, or because it’s still an interesting fact to me.]

Q: Is your husband Turkish?

A: Yes.

Q: How did you meet your husband?

A: We met in Istanbul, in Turkey. [I usually add the country, just in case the person is left wondering where on Earth Istanbul is located—it’s happened.]

Q: What were you doing in Turkey?

[I need to pause here. I have two answers to this question depending on who is asking, where I am when I’m being asked, and generally how much time I have to talk about this.]

A (abridged version): I was teaching English to Turkish middle school and high school students. [This answer doesn’t usually lead to many further questions about my life in Turkey.]

A (real story): I went to Turkey after graduating from college. [This is my attempt at a short answer, but 9 times out of 10 it always leads to the next few questions.]

Q: How did you end up in Turkey?

A: I wanted to travel around after college. I went to Europe with a friend, and while visiting some of my friends in England, we decided to narrow our trip down to just a few countries. We both wanted to spend time in Greece and Italy, so we pulled out a map to see which countries were near by that we should visit. There was Turkey, right next to Greece! So, the next day we bought a ticket and two days later we were on plane headed to Istanbul. [Since this is a blog, I can easily link to the post where I write about this in more depth, which I am going to do right here.]

[Depending on the age of  the person asking, this question usually follows.]

Q: What did your mother say when you told her you were in Turkey?

A: At first, she told me not to “meet” anyone. I already had, so I decided to hold off on that piece of information. As the weeks, then months, went by and I was still in Istanbul, her only question was whether I was ever  coming home. After I came home, and then turned around and told her I was moving back, she completely supported me. [The real answer is even longer than this, but because I already wrote about it in a previous post, here is the link.]

Q: Did you ever make it to Greece and Italy?

A: Nope. Although, I did go to both countries when I was a student in England, so I didn’t really need to see them again.

[Up until compiling this list, I don’t think I have ever realized how many questions I am asked to answer on a regular basis. This is just a sampling. For this reason, I’ve decided to create additional F.A.Q.’s about the other areas of my life—at a later time. Check back, and maybe then I’ll have some advice for my daughter about her own F.A.Q.’s.]

Thanks to Mama Kat for the wonderful blog suggestion!

Lovelinks

 

An Unplanned Life

It seems that the most important decisions I have made in my life were made without any planning, and were for the most part made out of necessity. The first—and most significant—of these was actually one that was made for us:  becoming parents. The impact of this life-altering news did more than just turn us into an instant family, it changed everything we knew about our lives.

It was early August 1999, and I had just come home from Istanbul to finalize a few of the details for our wedding—confirming the band, securing a photographer, choosing the food, sending out invitations . . . My then-fiancée was to fly out in mid-September, marry me, and together we would head back to Istanbul at the beginning of October. This was the plan. A few days after arriving at my mother’s, at 8:02 pm on August 17th a devastating earthquake struck Istanbul. It was a magnitude 7.6, and it brought destruction to much of the city I loved, killing approximately 30,000 people and injuring even more. I spent the next seven hours methodically dialing and re-dialing my fiancée’s cell phone, only to have it go straight to voicemail. My mother sat with me all night, taking turns pressing redial, supporting me as I struggled through a flood of emotions. There were so many thoughts ripping through my mind, but the one that struck me without warning—the one that came straight out of an inner part of myself—was “What would I do without him? How could I raise a baby all by myself?” This thought frightened me not just because I feared something terrible had happened to him, but because I didn’t actually know I was pregnant. Although I was about ten days late, I hadn’t taken a test, but instead had dismissed the lateness as being caused by a change in location and the stress of planning the wedding. I finally got through to him some time in the morning—he was in a city outside of Istanbul—and although he had felt the earthquake, he was safe and I no longer had reason to worry.

Once the relief of knowing that he was not in any danger had passed, I found myself in a complete daze, unable to think about anything at all. That is until another ten days had passed—and I was really late—that knew I had to take a test. It was positive. This single, monumental event brought about the next significant change in our lives—we moved from Turkey to the United States. This decision was made over the phone, in a brief conversation between the two of us, one that involved only limited details—pack up the apartment, put things in storage, bring me my clothes. The list of things that we didn’t discuss was much longer: how to find jobs, where to live, how to start over.

So, without any plan in place, we found ourselves living in New Jersey, pregnant, without jobs, and initially even without a home of our own. The strangest thing, however, was that throughout all of this, I had the persistent feeling that everything was going to be okay. It may have just been the pregnancy hormones, but this feeling of optimism helped me get through a very challenging period in our lives. In time, we found an apartment, I found a job, and as soon as the INS approved my husband’s immigrant status, he starting working. When our daughter was born in April 2000, I knew all of our “choices” in life were worth it. She gave my life a new sense of purpose. For the next six months, each morning I woke up feeling the excitement of Christmas as I crept into her room to find this amazing gift staring up at me from her crib.  My life was now filled with the wonder I had for this tiny, helpless creature. During this time, I didn’t work, so we had just enough money to pay our rent and bills, and yet we were content with all we had.

This period of time taught me a lot about life and what it means to make plans. Although on a daily-basis I am most definitely a “planner”—my family would probably even accuse me of micro-managing at times—I also know what it means to take risks, to have trust in the power of change. My advice to my daughter is to never fear change, even when it seems to be bigger than you can handle. Life is full of things that come at us without warning, so it is important to be strong in the face of these challenges—to have faith in yourself—and to know that you will be better off on the other side of it.

Twenty-three

Every time I am asked my age, I have to stop and think for a moment. Am I really just a couple of weeks away from turning thirty-seven? I mean, my life looks like that of a thirty-seven year old: I have worked for the same company for almost eleven years, I have been married for twelve, I have two children in elementary school, my husband and I have had our own business for more than eight years, and I even found a couple of gray hairs last month. All of these facts add up to a person who should be at least thirty-seven, but inside, I honestly feel like I’m still twenty-three.

At twenty-three, many of the people I went to college with were either working in their first job, or were still looking for the “perfect” career opportunity. Many still lived at home, and instead of rent, their paychecks were spent on clothing and going out with friends. For me, twenty-three was a defining age. It is the age I was when I moved to Istanbul to start my new life. It was how old I was when I knew that I wanted to share my life with another person. It was also how old I was when I learned what it meant to be responsible for someone other than myself.

A few months after moving in with my future-husband, he told me about his brother, a boy of thirteen, who was miserable at home and who desperately wanted to move to Istanbul to live with his older brother. I could see how consumed with worry he was over his brother’s fate, and it moved me to seriously consider what it would mean if he were to come live with us: we would need to move to a new apartment with a second bedroom; our evenings would no longer be spent going out to bars until all hours; we would no longer eat all of our meals in restaurants; and I would definitely need to learn to cook. Life as we knew it would change drastically. All of those reasons aside, the thought that kept running through my mind was “It isn’t about me”—a thought I had never had before.

I remember the day he was due to arrive, I was so nervous—he didn’t know about me—he thought he was coming to live with his brother, not with his brother’s American girlfriend. Yet, I will never forget what I felt when I saw him for the first time—he was so much younger than I had imagined, looking more like a boy of ten or eleven, as he barely reached my shoulder when standing next to me. I suddenly found myself feeling unbelievably protective of another person, and all I wanted was to give him a new life, one that included a room of his own—something he had never had before—along with whatever else he needed to make him feel like he belonged with us. So, at twenty-three, I went from being like most people my age to being a full-fledged adult with responsibilities and people who depended upon me—and I couldn’t have been happier.

For the next two years, the bond between us grew, and at times our relationship resembled that of a mother and son—I gave him an allowance for doing chores around the house, I made sure he did his homework each day, and I was even forced to ground him once for going out without telling me. In many ways, though, we were more than a mother and son, we were a sister and a brother, we were friends. We spent most of our time together, sometimes going to the movies, other times just hanging out at home watching television or talking about life. Even then, it was incredible to me that a teenager would share his personal thoughts and feelings with me, and I knew that this was something to be treasured.

When I became an actual parent three years later, I wouldn’t say that this experience somehow made me more prepared than other new moms: I still didn’t know how to give a baby a bath, I needed advice on how to get the baby to sleep, and I knew nothing about feeding schedules. What I did gain was knowledge of what an ideal relationship with a teenager could be like—something that I still think about as my own daughter approaches the teen years. So, although I am almost thirty-seven, I don’t feel any older than I was then, when—at the age of twenty-three—a young boy entered my life and taught me what it is to be a parent. I wouldn’t change anything about the choices I have made in my life, so as I think about the advice I would give my daughter, the main thing I want her to know is that sometimes being selfless has its own rewards. I was given a chance to change the life of another person, and if she ever finds a time when she has the opportunity to put the needs of others before her own—at whatever age—I hope she chooses to do the same for it will change her for the better.

My Journey Continued: Moving to Istanbul

When I returned home from England—during my last year of college—the only thing I could think about was when I would leave again. I didn’t want to be back in Allentown, PA, learning about the world—I wanted to see the world. I wanted to be on the Underground in London, or walking through a cemetery in Paris, even getting kicked off of a train outside of Venice would have been better than being back at a school that suddenly felt so foreign to me. This desire to leave was so strong that when I met another student who had the same urge to travel, I immediately started to draft a plan: we wouldn’t look for real jobs after graduation, instead we would work to save money—I would waitress, she would work in a store—until the end of the year, then in January we would be off. For the next six months, every time we were together, we would discuss our plan, refining the details, working through the logistics, until it seemed we had figured everything out. We would arrive in England to visit with friends, then we would head to Scotland and Ireland, from there we would be off to see the rest of Europe, especially Greece and Italy where we wanted to spend the majority of our time. We figured we would have enough money to be gone for at least four months—four who-cares-about-what-comes-next months—and when the money was gone, we could come back—back to the realities of life and whatever would come next.

The next six months flew by, and come January after graduation, we were suddenly on a plane headed for London. As with most plans, however, arriving in England was the first and last part of our plan that went according to how we had imagined it. A few days into our journey, we decided to skip seeing the majority of Europe—both of us had traveled there before—and instead decided to spend most of our time in Greece, Italy, and Turkey. Before we knew it, we were on a plane bound for Istanbul—guidebooks in hand, suddenly a little intimidated to be flying to a country we knew nothing about.

Istanbul is a city comprised of incredible details—mosques with intricately carved minarets adorn each corner, a thousand year old wall surrounds a large portion of the city, a picturesque waterway divides the two continents—there are more wonders than I can describe in this limited space. But, it wasn’t the exotic sites, the mouth-watering food, or the rich history of the city that made me want to stay there for longer than the ten days we had allocated it—it was a young college student that I met while drinking coffee in a small rug store. Yes, I met a boy in Turkey, a boy who would unknowingly change my entire future. He was like no one I had ever met before—he was mature beyond his twenty-one years, he was serious while still being sensitive, and he was both smart and well-spoken. I was completely captivated by him, and when he asked me to stay longer than our ten days, I readily—and happily—changed my plans once again. Over the course of the next four months, it became harder and harder to leave, until I finally accepted that my journey around the Mediterranean would be limited to visiting Turkey, and I would willingly stay there for as long as I could. Before I knew it, the ten days turned into five months—it was the end of May—and all of my money was gone. It was finally time to go home. Leaving was one of the hardest things I had ever had to do, and even though I had promised to be back after summer, it was hard to shake the feeling that my new life was coming to an end. That same feeling stayed with me as I traveled home, it was the same feeling I had as I hugged my mother as she welcomed me home, and the same feeling I had when I went to sleep each night. I felt as if my life had already begun on the other side of the world, and for some unfathomable reason, I had put it on hold in order to come back to a place that no longer felt like home. For all of these reasons, I decided to return to Istanbul as soon as I could—which turned out to be about four weeks later—which is how long it took for me to sell my car, enroll in a teaching program, and find a flight back.

In so many ways, this story has continued on for the last fourteen years—for the boy I met is now my husband and the father to our two children. I wish I could say that the advice for my daughter is to follow your heart, but that is honestly a very frightening thought for me. This story is a fundamental part of who I am—and therefore who she is—and yet it scares me to think that she will someday do as I did—leave me to move to a country half-way around the world. Instead, the advice must once again be for me. My advice to myself is to remember how my mother looked at me on the morning that I told her that my life was no longer with her, but instead was in a city on the other side of the world. Although I know she was sad, she never showed it. She told me she loved me—that she trusted me to do what was best—and that she would support me no matter what I chose to do in life. I hope to be as strong and supportive as my own mother on the day that my daughter comes to me to tell me she is leaving, wherever she decides to go.

To read how my journey started, read “My Journey.”