Almost five years later….My biriyani opus is back..

I know.  I can’t believe it.  It’s been so long.  What started off as a real labour of love quickly got lost in the minutiae of daily life.  In the last few years the following has happened:

  1. We left Mexico and moved to Istanbul
  2. We got married
  3. I achieved my MEd whilst working full-time
  4. I published three text books
  5. I lost my father after a year-long battle with cancer

So, due to the myriad demands on my time, the blog lost.  It got pushed to the back and left to hibernate whilst I rushed between Scotland, Istanbul and Mexico.  Finally, after two years and a really rough transition I am starting to finally feel the calm that comes when you start to feel that life is under your control again.

The move from Mexico to Istanbul was difficult (hah – understatement).  I knew it had to be done.  Professionally, I was too comfortable.  I needed to challenge myself, push myself out of my comfort zone and really consider what teaching looked like in the 21st century.  This all sounds very highbrow and worthwhile but the decision wasn’t taken lightly.  We were happy in Mexico.  We had a very safe and easy life, amazing friends and I genuinely loved my school and my work colleagues.  So why was I leaving something that I knew was working?  The tell-tale signs of a restless soul I guess.

When I become too comfortable I panic.  I feel like I am following a path that leads to stagnation of the spirit and the claustrophobia of a check-box life.  The idea of being  normal terrifies me because for some bizarre reason I equate it with a life half-lived.  I’m not going to try to defend my feelings because they are just that, MY feelings (even though I have enough objectivity to recognise that they are slightly mental).

After we made the decision to move the rat race of updating CVs, applying for jobs, Skype interviews and job fairs started.  As a fairly experienced teacher and head of department I thought I had the pick of jobs.  How wrong I was.  The lovely sheltered existence in my little school was rudely blown apart as I tentatively re-entered the world of international teaching.  Procuring my first job was easier as I was young, inexperienced, single so for an international school, remarkably cheap.  Now I was experienced and had a YM in tow.  This, coupled with the fact that YM wanted to be closer to Europe meant looking for a school that was less than six hours flight from Edinburgh but also gave us the taste of the exotic we so craved (and the international teacher benefits we needed!).

Istanbul seemed to fit the bill.  A beautiful, chaotic, ancient city.  A true culture clash with the bureaucracy and the wealth of the West slamming headfirst into the more lackadaisical,  romantic East.  Where mosques rubbed shoulders with churches, internet banking was a thing (the fact you can pay bills online is truly a luxury) and most shopping is still done at the local market.  It seemed to tick all the boxes.

The school itself was a technological marvel, a Google school, a 1-2-1 Mac school, a school pioneering self-directed learning and a child based curriculum.  So many acronyms, plaudits and publicity.  How could I fail to improve?  My experience of living in the Middle East made me feel that I could easily handle anything that Turkey had to throw at me.  I shrugged off the words of warning from my wise ex-Head that these big top-tier schools are not all they are cracked up to be.  Istanbul here we come.

Due to the nature of YMs’ work, he had to stay behind in Mexico to finish his contracts and shut down his business.  Therefore I would move over halfway through July and get myself settled.  He would come and join me at the end of October.  Summer 2014 consisted of being proposed to on our favourite beach in Mexico (hurrah!), long and tearful goodbyes with my amazing friends and one of the hottest summers on record in Scotland. Eventually, with three suitcases and a bike box I landed on a sweaty, sultry evening in Istanbul.  As soon as my feet hit the tarmac at the airport I was transported to the country of my youth, Bahrain.  The same smells of unwashed armpit and cloying heavy perfume, the thick layer of moisture coating everything and everyone in the humid summer night, the frantic sounds of thousands of passengers shouting in French, Turkish, English German, Arabic, ki-Swahili.  I had truly arrived at the centre of the world.

The first few weeks passed in a haze of heat, loneliness and information overload.  Although on the surface Istanbul seems modern and organised, at its heart it is still a seething mass of humanity not reporting to rhyme nor reason.  The pace of life was set on fast forward and the sheer density of people made one feel simultaneously isolated but also suffocated.  It was definitely not the friendly, laid back, green and spacious city DF was.  In fact, it was entirely the opposite.  A rude, frenetic, cramped concrete jungle with people stuffed into every possible nook and cranny.

The narrow streets and steep cobbled hills meant that taking my bike out was a chore instead of a pleasure.  Cycling was my exercise, my stress relief, my reflection time, my opportunity to process my world and my life.  Not being able to cycle as freely or abundantly as I did in Mexico started to impact on my mental well-being.  As did the inability to swim.  I joined a gym with a swimming pool but the gym was half an hour in the wrong direction and the pool was small and cold.  I had gone from swimming three times a week in a 50m 10 lane outdoor heated pool with a friendly and sociable swim team to a few lengths up and down what was essentially a bath tub, my teeth usually chittering with cold.

For the first time in my life, I felt truly out of my depth. Incredible. I thought I was the girl who was unfazed by anything.  Up until now, life was always a big adventure which I jumped into feet first into at any opportunity.  No problem was unsolveable and somehow,  I had always come out on top.  Now, for the first time in my life, I was completely overwhelmed.  I thought I was experienced and professionally capable but the educational model that the school used was so different to anything I had ever done before.  I was a rank outsider in my everyday environment and it felt like I was a probationer again.  This new school was a behemoth in my eyes with over 100 mostly North American faculty, a far cry of the small, friendly and informal British schools I was used to working in.

My slipping confidence coupled with a bullying head teacher  and an under-resourced and disorganised department lead to frustration, tears and self-pity.  At this new school, I sound different, I think differently, I even look different.  Instead of celebrating my uniqueness, I punished myself for it.  I just couldn’t understand why I wasn’t being accepted as a professional,  as an asset, as a person.  Of course, I was wallowing in my drama to some extent, but the atmosphere was so alien to me I had no idea had to understand it never mind flourish in it.

My days fell into a pattern.  Early rising, over an hour on a bus, stumbling my way through classes, working after school on preparing resources, another hour and a half in a bus and then, if I had any energy left, the gym.  I was normally getting home about half past eight at night.  Just enough time to order a takeaway and either work on my Masters assignments, continue proofreading or editing the textbooks I was writing or getting stuck into wedding planning.

Wedding planning was something I had been looking forward to. Trying to plan a wedding in a country that’s not your own (we were getting married in Yorkshire the following summer) from another country (Turkey) whilst your fiancée is sitting in a third (Mexico) leaves a lot to be desired.  Who cares if you have a band or a DJ?  I couldn’t even go dress shopping.  I had nowhere to go and no friends to do it with.  In short, I found myself withdrawing.  Withdrawing from work, withdrawing from life and withdrawing into myself.

I was desperately unhappy.  Of course, I was doing too much.  One of the many things I was trying to juggle, moving country, starting a new job, planning a wedding, or doing a Masters , would have been stressful enough.  I was trying to do all.  And be successful. And then berating myself up for failing to do it well.  Eventually YM moved over which made things a little better but not enough to make a difference.

Year one went on into year two.  We did end up having a beautiful wedding (you can read about it here) and a fantastic honeymoon.  My books were published and I completed my first solo cycle tour in Turkey.  Then, just to show that life hadn’t finished messing with me, to ensure I didn’t get too cocky thinking there may be light at the end of the tunnel, my father was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer.

This last year was like riding on top of a bullet train, holding on tight with my fingertips, knowing if I relaxed for even a second, I would go flying off and be unable to get back on top again.  Every holiday and long weekend was used to fly home.  Over the course of thirteen months I saw my father shrivel from a strong, intelligent and proud man to a wizened, scared and helpless body.  The summer was spent in a chair watching over him whilst writing my dissertation.  When I left to go back to school, I knew it was the last time I would see him.  Three weeks later, a week before I was due to go home for Eid, he died.  A week later, I found out I passed my MEd and was now allowed to call myself a Master of Education.  He would have been very proud.

So my third year in Istanbul has started somewhat shakily but for the first time in two years, I am starting to feel more like the girl I left behind in Mexico.  Although I can’t cycle and swim and haven’t quite achieved a social life, I feel more centred and confident about my place in this city.  The landscape at work has changed dramatically, most notably due to the bullying head leaving and a rather dramatic breakdown in my end of year appraisal giving me a chance to air my grievances.

As a result, I have started a new school year with a new HoD, most of my classes in the same room, new colleagues and a timetable that mirrors last year (which cuts down dramatically on the time I need to spend on resourcing courses).  Instead of waking up in a cold sweat and spending the morning commute anticipating what new fresh hell would be unleashed upon me, I am now planning on how to enrich my classes and how to make more of an impact on the school community through my participation in after school activities.

As for my non-work life, I can now officially pronounce it a work-in-progress.  Although I can’t cycle around as easily anymore I have now taken to planning large summer tours which keep me (and my bank balance!) happy.  As a substitute, we’ve started taking advantage of the incredibly affordable domestic flights to discover the Turkey outside Istanbul and I’m happy to say that so far, it’s awesome.  I’ve found a new gym on the way home from work with a decent sized swimming pool and I feel more motivated to bring fitness back into my life.  I’ve even spent weekends working at a refugee centre which has allowed me to meet people outside work and rediscover my personality a little at a time (so apparently I used to have a sense of humour – who knew).

Finally, food.  Yes, my passion for cooking and exploring restaurants is beginning to seep its way back.  I have to partially thank YM for this.  As I have retreated from the kitchen he has bustled forward to fill my culinary shoes.  A couple of weeks ago he decided he was going to make his own kimchi.  He bought the ingredients, Googled the recipes and then…he did it.  The end result was three kilos of gently fermenting kimchi residing in ALL of our Tupperware.  I think this was the stimulus I needed to get back into cooking and eating.  Googling new recipes? Trying them?  That has been MY job for the last seven years!  I definitely felt territorial which spurred me onto picking up my knife and thinking about food again.

So there you have it.  An unnecessarily long and unexpectedly personal explanation for my absence for the last few years.  Strangely, charting this journey has been cathartic in its own way.  I feel refreshed and ready to face what the next couple of years in Turkey have left for me.  Obstacles that would have overwhelmed now seem achievable and every day I wake up feeling a little more positive about the world and my place in it.  This all leads to the resurrection of My Biriyani Opus (MBO).  Yes, I will be trying and tasting recipes again.  Using food as a way to reflect on my past helps me to recognise and celebrate my strengths and learn from the challenges that will inevitably shape my future.  However, MBO v.II  will also be a platform to highlight some of the other things I enjoy in life.  Travel, cycling, adventuring or sometimes, just writing.   So yes, I’m back.  Same site, different goals.

Enough blethering.   Let’s get cooking.




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