Moving to Istanbul is perhaps the greatist decision I have ever made. The moment the plane landed, I immediately exhaled with an ethereal sense of having come “home”. Cheesy, sure, but it was just what I was looking for—a new home. And there is something to be said of the health implications of feeling at ease with your surroundings. To feel at home is to breathe better, stand taller and smile wider.
But the move did not involve any frills and fancies. The first month or two of settling in has been nothing but a load of bureaucratic bull’—yep, lots of bull’ in the ‘bul. Lots of paperwork, lots of suspicious, menial fees, lots of having every single form but the one form the office spontaneously decides it wants, and lots of lost-in-translation moments. Logic has not been a common theme these days; instead, it’s a lot of blind acceptance and a sigh of “that’s just the way it is”. Awesome stuff, really.
But in the end, I managed to find a great job, open a bank account, move into my own apartment and establish myself as a legal Istanbul resident rather than just a girl from that remote village along the Black Sea (as my citizenship card unapologetically reveals). And Istanbul is one magical place, as anyone who has ever visited will probably say. There’s no other way to describe it. Perhaps it’s the beating heart of the once flourishing Byzantine and Ottoman empires, which are largely left undiscovered and palpitate under the city’s streets (damn those harems). It could also be the encircling Bosphorus waters, visible from almost every area of the city by virtue of the hills upon hills of winding road, paired with the inescapable prominence and visibility of the moon, which seems to reach just a bit closer to Turkey than anywhere else. Lots of water + big moon = an inexplicable, “crazy” bunch of people (although most would contend it’s just the women, given their reputation). I just find it all very mysterious, romantic and soulful. Then, as you overlook Asia from your perch on a rooftop terrace in Europe, the hazan (call for prayer) recording echoes from every mosque in the city, a reminder that where you are is more than what you see and you feel a renewed sense of curiosity, excitement and pleasure. Home sweet home.
One thing that has not been easy is staying healthy. Health isn’t well-understood here. Meat, dairy and white bread are diet mainstays and while the country boasts decadently fresh, accessible fruits and vegetables, most traditional dishes involve too much breading, frying, olive-oiling, buttering, and dousing in animal fat to make them remotely figure-friendly and health-facilitating. In actuality, being healthy here, like anywhere else, is easy if you commit to it—just eat the plentiful local fruits and vegetables, cook for yourself and you’re all set. But in a society that doesn’t understand the mere initiative to be healthy, without the implication that it’s a weight-loss effort, such a lifestyle somehow becomes a social-parlayed-to-internal struggle.
When I was living in New York, all my girlfriends were on relative “diets”, excited to check out the latest and greatest vegan/vegetarian restaurant that uses organic produce, and it’s nothing out of the ordinary. We love our fro-yo, take advantage of 30-day Bikram yoga trials, frequent the Whole Foods salad bar, and paste a cutout picture of our face on the latest Self magazine cover model. Being fit and healthy in New York is being chic and with it. Being healthy in Turkey, on the other hand, isolates you from family at the dinner table, makes you stand out from friends during a 5-hour, infinite-course Sunday brunch and deems you lonely in a gym while everyone else “working out” (I call it loitering by the dumbbell station) takes an hour jaunt to the garden for (a) post-cardio cig(s) and a boisterous cell phone call. But then, as a whole, Turks are a markedly happier bunch and seem to be fulfilled with their lives and laid-back even among the east-meets-west cultural confusion, incessant noise and overall disorganization. It’s all just so beautiful in a weird, deeply gratifying way. Perhaps they have the lifestyle secret, and we New Yorkers are just existentially hopeless and looking blindly in all the wrong places for personal development. I can’t believe I just called myself a New Yorker. Scratch that.
While I am of the ilk who believes you can eat anything and everything, and if you do it with a smile on your face and devoid of guilt or self-deprecation, even a burger can go down like a piece of lettuce, I’m too culturally domesticated to conform to that. Health is health and fitness is fitness. There’s no caveat in my world. I push myself to wake up early every day to make the trek to the gym before work, try to eat high-raw, vegetable/fruit heavy meals in an office space where ordering in McDonald’s is a daily “duh”, and try to avoid the bad stuff when I’m on my own, so I can eat what I want when in a social situation without thinking twice. But that’s the framework, not necessarily what is applied to perfection day in and day out. It’s a balancing act and something that has become easier as I get all my Turkish food cravings out of the way (you have no idea how good THIS tastes) and realize the phenomenal benefits of a higher quality of life.
Eating well and not straying from your dietary lifestyle while abroad comes down to discipline and practice. With a new context, new stimulation and a new cuisine, it’s easy to walk off the beaten path, and in an unforgiving way (especially if summer is encroaching and your new home isn’t far from many a topless beach). I think it’s important to stray on short vacations, because having rich experiences most definitely overrides the satisfaction of having adhered to your ways. On longer stays abroad, flexibility is a good idea in the beginning, just so you know what you are missing out on, and then it just comes down to repositioning yourself in your new world for the long run, with new ingredients, new stimuli and new people. You have to recreate, not copy-paste.
But it’s impossible not to let this all happen naturally, as it will pull you with it even if you resist. In Istanbul, it’s happening right before me. I am healthier here, and not because of my diet or my fitness or any one conscious element that I have control over, because being the greatist means being the greatest version of yourself and unknowingly fulfilling that happiness quota, which probably weighs a little heavier than the others. You have to position yourself for it and let the rest take care of itself. So, yeah, hopping on that plane was a good idea.