Somewhere between Louisiana and Istanbul

By Robert Mann

Regular readers of this blog know well my former student and dear friend Aly Neel. I’ve written about her on several occasions, but most recently in this post just before she returned to Louisiana after living more than two years in Istanbul.

English: Ortaköy Mosque, along the Bosphorus, ...

Ortaköy Mosque, along the Bosphorus, in Istanbul, Turkey. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I can’t tell you how much I love having Aly nearby again, even though she’s soon to once more depart Louisiana — this time for graduate school at Princeton.

Since she’s been home, we’ve talked a great deal about her readjustment to life in the United States. As you might imagine, it’s not been a flawless re-entry, but it’s getting better.

So, I invited her to share a little about her experiences and perspectives upon her return to the U.S.

Somewhere between Louisiana and Istanbul
By Alyson Neel

I had a tiny, fuzzy photo of a man I had never met taped into my notebook. His name was Osman, and he was to pick me up at the airport.

Very little else was certain.

When I touched ground in Istanbul two and a half years ago, what exactly I’d do still was a mystery to me.

I knew not one soul in the entire country and, at most, a dozen Turkish words.  My understanding of the culture came from guidebooks and history tomes, not people or experience.

And yet coming home to Louisiana has been, in many ways, more of a culture shock than moving to a foreign country.

My third day back, I spoke Turkish to a Quiznos employee.  I didn’t realize until my younger sister nudged me. “That wasn’t English, “ she whispered. “Try again.” The other day, I paused a moment too long when someone knocked on the bathroom stall at a café.

What do we usually say?

“Full,” I responded, knowing it didn’t sound right. Someone’s in here,

I remembered. That’s what we say. (In Turkey, you’d say “dolu,” or “full” in English.)

That, for the most part, has gotten better. But I’m also afraid I’ll lose the language I’ve worked so hard to learn, so I continue to scan the Turkish press every morning.

If you look inside my wallet, you’ll find dollars mixed in with lira, quarters beside kurus. I still carry my U.S. passport and Turkish residence permit with me. And I still go in for the traditional double-kiss, making greetings a tad confusing.

When I moved to Turkey, I expected my life and everything around me to be very different and challenging. But returning to Louisiana — where I was born, raised, and educated and am surrounded by a close-knit community of friends and family — should have been easy, right?

Instead, I felt alone and out-of-place, like I had one foot in Covington, Louisiana, and the other in Istanbul. And I didn’t belong in either.

Going from a sprawling metropolis of roughly 13 million (documented) to a leafy suburb of 8,800 (for years, I thought I grew up in a moderately sized city), where I am car-less and living back at home, didn’t make the adjustment easier.

And then that seemingly simple but impossibly overwhelming question I keep hearing now that I’m home: “How was Turkey?”

I honestly wasn’t prepared the first time. How do I sum up the last 2.5 years of my life, and the most transformative at that? How do I wrap up the daily frustrations of street harassment, the joy of discovering my passion for journalism and feminism, and the beauty of learning a foreign culture and people aren’t so foreign after all? I think I said, “Great” or “Life-changing,” but what I should have said is, “Do you have an hour?”

So I did some research, and apparently “reverse culture shock” is real:

“Reverse Culture Shock, or ‘re-entry’, is a term associated with the phenomenon of returning to one’s own country and culture.

Very similar to culture shock, a person entering into their home environment will have to make adjustments to reacquaint themselves with their surroundings. Unlike culture shock, most do not anticipate feeling like a foreigner in their own home. However, it should be expected. If you have made any cultural adjustments while abroad, you will have to readjust once back home.”

Eureka! I then turned to friends who have lived or traveled extensively abroad:

“I was a total mess after coming back from Burundi. I remember seeing someone throw away a whole sandwich made me bawl. I couldn’t believe myself. It’s like your head is telling you, It’s fine, that’s how things are here, but then there is a gut reaction that’s completely involuntary.”

“My re-entries from Egypt were always somewhat jarring. I suspect you may be feeling like you are in alternative universes.  Everything is the same yet strikingly brilliant and different.”

That last statement especially resonated with me.

Driving through campus and then downtown Covington (I haven’t been behind the wheel in 1.5 years), I realized little had changed except for the LSU Bookstore moving across the street and a Winos & Tacos popping up where Sorelli’s Pizza had been. Nick and Paul still know our order at St. John’s Coffeehouse, where my sisters and I, donning our matching pleated skirts, visited everyday after school.

When The Times-Picayune does come these days, mom and I still read it while drinking our morning coffee on the front porch. And the first week I was home, my good friend and mentor, Bob Mann, and I had breakfast at Louie’s. He laughed when I ordered my usual at the greasy diner — oatmeal. I find all of this extremely comforting.

Yet everything is different somehow. Has Louisiana always been this green? It’s as if someone took a marker and colored the entire state. Or how about this quiet? Sitting on my porch this morning, I heard no thumping of a nearby nightclub interrupted by the double-honk of a taxi. No, just the chirping of birds, the whooshing of the wind through the trees, and the occasional blasting of country music from a passing truck. I am struck by the lack of cars and the number of children playing and strangers chatting it up in the street. I feel like I stepped into a Disney movie or perhaps a children’s book.

Still, I’m having Istanbul withdrawals. Lingering over massive breakfasts spreads of jams, cheeses and flaky börek for hours with friends. Being served tea during every business transaction, enjoying 15-minute intermission breaks at the movie theater and escaping at times into the anonymity of a big city. I even miss slogging through the daily challenges of living in a foreign country.

But after being home for nearly a month, I find the transition becoming less bumpy.

At times I still feel lost, but embracing the sense of community here and taking time for myself really help. I’m channeling my energy into writing, planning road trips, reconnecting with old friends, and working on projects like launching a standardized self-defense course in Turkey. I’ve even begun waving and smiling at strangers in the street.

And you know what, it feels good.

Turkey will always be a part of me, and the more I come to accept that and stop trying to “move  on,” the more at peace I feel. Plus, something tells me I’ll be back soon enough.

Now, on to the next adventure — pursuing my master’s in public affairs this Fall at Princeton!

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5 Responses to Somewhere between Louisiana and Istanbul

  1. Fredster says:

    It may have been mentioned in the previous post about your stay there, but how were you treated in Turkey as a woman Alyson?


    • Aly says:

      Hm. Excellent question. To be a woman in Turkey is incredibly hard, and foreigners and Turks alike will attest to that. Here’s something I blogged for the Washington Post re: street harassment I experienced in Istanbul. The reaction of Turkish press to this single blog post was astounding. Of course, gender inequality is not an issue exclusive to Turkey…


      • Fredster says:

        Thanks for the reply Aly. I was curious because I had understood that the country had moved from a more moderate stance and had turned more to a more religious.Muslim society. IOW, making the religion more of a part of their society.

        Of course, gender inequality is not an issue exclusive to Turkey…

        No indeed! I read a number of womens/feminist blogs and we do a pretty good job of that ourselves!


  2. m.a.s sternberg says:

    Aly–I know you made the most of your extraordinary experience and it will influence who you are for the rest of your life in the most valuable ways. Onward and upward!
    Mary Ann Sternberg


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