1 August 2016

Trici Venola - Expat in Turkey

Trici Venola - Expat in Turkey

We’ve had the chance to talk to Ms. Trici Venola, 64, an American Expat living in the heart of Turkey, Istanbul. The first attempt to Turkey was not at all smooth for Ms. Venola, who had to battle a bone infection she had gotten in a Turkish hospital among other things. Nevertheless, as an artist, she eventually managed to earn a leaving and overcome communication barriers through her art pieces. While the cost of living is high and the rules in Turkey are erratic, Ms. Venola believes the rich culture and the constant inspiration she has gotten there is all worth it.

In her words, “This place reverberates for me; ages of blood and pain, mayhem and jubilation, all the great catastrophic procession of history, punctuated with miracles; overlaid with present-day tribal art, tea and smiles, and the more I learn, the more I love it.”

Ms. Venola now groups together with a group of English-speaking expats in Turkey. She recommends expats to pick up the language, just as she has been trying to do since she has moved in 2004.

Read more about Ms. Venola’s experiences as an expat in Turkey, in her full interview below.


Q: Where are you from originally?

A: Los Angeles, California, USA


Q: What made you move out of your home country?

A: I was all finished with that life. It was a success. It was time to do something else, but because I was about to turn fifty, I had thought that it was too late. It wasn’t.

Q: Where are you living now?

A: Istanbul, Turkey

Q: How did you come to choose this new country of residence?

A: I became besotted with Turkey on a visit in 1999. I was part of the MacEvangelist cultural upheaval, created art on a Mac for its first fifteen years. I’d forgotten how to draw with analog tools. I had been carrying a sketchbook through Europe, drawing everywhere, but I couldn’t get a decent line quality… in Turkey it just coalesced into something I was happy with. I’ve been drawing Turkey ever since.

Q: How long have you been living in Turkey?

A: Since 2004.

Q: What has been the most challenging experience you've had when you were new to Turkey?

A: Oh, that would be when I wound up broke and homeless on the street in an alien culture where I didn’t speak the language. I didn’t know what I was doing, there are terrible pitfalls for the unwary here, and I fell into many of them. A friend helped me get into a decent apartment with what was left of my furniture: a chair, a table, a stovetop range, a refrigerator, and a Mac. No bed, but two kittens. And a phone. It rang. It was an art job.

Q: Would you say that formalities like getting visas or work permits and international health insurance was especially difficult in Turkey? What was your experience with these?

A: Yes, it’s difficult, and the rules keep changing. I used to leave every three months and go to Plovdiv, Bulgaria, for a day, to renew my visa. That’s not possible now, but I’m able to afford residence etc. I pay someone to advise me and navigate my way through the bureaucracy. I miss those trips to Plovdiv, though. I have an entire book of drawings from there.

Q: Are you living alone or with your family?

A: Five cats. They are Turkish.

Q: Was it easy making friends and meeting people? Do you mainly socialise with other expats in Turkey? How did you manage to find a social circle there?

A: When I came here, I was not only in a foreign country, I was in the Country of the Poor. I neglected to mention the years I spent in and out of hospitals Stateside, recovering from a bone infection I got in a Turkish hospital the first time I tried to move here, in 2000. It cost everything I had to live in LA without being able to work during the recovery. By the time I moved to Turkey four years later, I was flat. I had to manifest everything from ground zero every month for years. But I did, and through my art, as a freelancer. In the course of this, I have met an astonishing range of people. That murky second beginning was like a shipwreck. You bond with the other survivors that you can communicate with. I had no Internet, no iPhone (they weren’t around yet) and no Turkish, but I made friends in the neighborhood. People here absolutely love my sketchbook. My work is not abstract; it is very clear that I’m drawing their country and themselves, and that speaks louder than fluent Turkish. The regular people everywhere here treat me like a beloved retarded person. Through my work I have met every social class in the country, from the highly educated, multi-lingual ultra-rich jet-setters, through all my friends who work in Tourism - hoteliers, restaurant owners, travel agents, shopowners - to the scarved squabbling housewives in the Old City neighborhoods I still frequent to draw. Expats abound here; I used to know everyone in the Sultanahmet, the Old City neighborhood where I used to live, but there are too many now. I belong to a group of English-speaking expats: PAWI (Professional American Women in Istanbul) but other than that, I have to think hard which of my friends are expats and which are simply Turks who are fluent in English.

Q: What are the best things to do in the area? Anything to recommend to future expats?

A: Yes, forget your romantic notions and listen to the people from your culture who actually live here. What I do with my time is walk all over this place drawing it and writing about it: The Drawing On Istanbul Project, which includes two published books and the blog where we met, all titled Drawing On Istanbul. It’s why I’m here. Everything else is window dressing. There are jazz clubs and great restaurants, there are wonderful bazaars and stunning historical sites and museums. A lot of people come here, fall in love, get married, and have kids. They drive from all over; some have houses in gated communities that look like California. That’s not why I moved across oceans and continents, but it’s certainly possible if that’s what you want.

Q: How does the cost of living in Turkey compared to your home?

A: I haven’t been home in ten years, how would I know? They say Istanbul is expensive. I’d have to agree to that.

  • How much is a cup of coffee?

         About nine lira, or $4.

  • How much is a meal in an inexpensive restaurant?

         12-30 lira or $5-12. Hard to find these in the tourist areas.

  • How much is a meal in an expensive restaurant?

         30-120 lira not counting alcohol. Of course, “expensive restaurant” can mean the sky’s the limit.

         There’s a nightclub on the Bosporus can cost a thousand dollars for the evening.

  • How much is a bottle of wine? How about a pack of cigarettes?

         Expensive. I don’t smoke or drink, but people complain. Everybody smokes roll-your-owns.


Q: What do you think about the locals?

A: Uh, some are friends, some are not.

Q: What do you think are the positive and negative sides of living in Turkey?

A: Turkey is an experience too complex to answer in a questionnaire. But anyone can watch the news. I’m from Los Angeles, a city where nothing is older than fifty, including the people. I love living in a place that has hosted so many ancient cultures. We Angelinos come here and we see a wall, an old wall, a real old wall: Visible History. In LA you can make a fake old wall for the movies, or you can have a real new wall, but you cannot see, anywhere in the US or most other places, a 1700-year-old wall that looks it. And there’s one right over here, up the street below the Hippodrome. The Byzantine ruins and monuments I so adore are among the newest, and they’re over a thousand years old, built on Greek sacred sites with columns from Pagan temples far older than Christianity. The Hittite stuff, it’s five millenniums old, and then there are the ancient cities. And out in the Southeast, in what was ancient Sumeria, they’re excavating Gobekli Tepe, a temple so ancient that the building of it may have necessitated the invention of farming, for God’s sake. Quantum Physics teaches that everything that ever happened is still happening. This place reverberates for me; ages of blood and pain, mayhem and jubilation, all the great catastrophic procession of history, punctuated with miracles; overlaid with present-day tribal art, tea and smiles, and the more I learn, the more I love it.

Q: Do you miss home and family sometimes?

A: Of course. But the LA I miss doesn’t exist anymore, and a lot of my friends and family are dead. I try to stay in the present.

Q: How do you cope with homesickness?

A: Movies. The Internet. Projects involving people at home. Skype.

Q: Do you have plans to move to a different country or back home in the future?

A: I don’t know where I will go, but I will go somewhere. I have no plans as yet. I trust that if I ever need to get out of here, the way and the means will be there.

Q: What has been the hardest aspect to your expat experience so far?

A: Not speaking the language. It’s improved, but I’m still unable to comprehend Turkish or become fluent enough to express myself outside of basic stuff. Many people are able to do this, but I haven’t. It’s like functioning with a large burlap bag over your head. On the other hand, I am immune to relentless Turkish advertising, insults, street smut and the like. My work protects me from a lot because people love it. And I try to speak Turkish, which they appreciate.

Q: What tips can you give other expats living in that country?

A: Try to learn the language. Bring plenty of money. Make it hard to access. Know that rules here are inconsistent.

Q: Do you have favourite websites or blogs about Turkey?

A: No. I just go on Facebook.