If you haven't already heard, InterNations (IN) is a global community of expats all around the world and they've got a chapter in Istanbul. I've written about IN before as part of a list of social networking sites for newcomers to Turkey, and recently chatted with the IN Istanbul ambassador, Gundula Strittmatter, about the expat community in Istanbul.
I moved to Istanbul in August 2005. It was only three months after my first visit ever to this amazing city. Before coming to Istanbul I lived in Beijing, China for a couple of years. My husband, who is a journalist, used to be the China correspondent for a German newspaper. After having been there for almost eight years he thought it was time for a change. And we were lucky as his newspaper offered him to become their Turkey correspondent. From the first minute on I was very excited about moving here as I had heard so many great things about Istanbul. It was a whole new world for us and we were thrilled that we got the chance to live here and explore the city.
What do you do for a living in Istanbul?
In Beijing I worked as a producer for an American-Chinese TV production company and I was in charge of a program on China Central Television (CCTV). I was just about to look for a new job in Istanbul when -- only ten days after our move here -- I found out that I was pregnant! I am currently a full-time mom of two wonderful boys (ages 2 and 4). In my spare time I do some voluntary work for IN like planning future get-togethers.
What do you think are the best and most difficult parts of life as an expat in Istanbul?
In my opinion the best part of being an expat is the privilege of being given the chance to explore a new country as one of its residents: its culture, its people, its food, etc. I think it really changes your life and you also start seeing your own country from another perspective. That is a big plus and it is especially true for Germans coming to Turkey as there are 3 million Turks living in Germany now without the Germans really knowing them. There are many clichés about Turkey and the Turks circulating in Germany which urgently need correction.
The most difficult part for me is definitely the language: I have been struggling for such a long time already working on my Turkish. Compared to other languages (and I speak Chinese) it is such a difficult language and it took me months until I could finally order my food in Turkish… But it sure is worth all the effort!
When was the Istanbul IN community founded?
IN was founded in September 2007. I organized the first IN Istanbul get-together in March 2008 at Leb-i Derya. 30 members showed up and I was happy to finally meet them offline and make so many good friends right away.
How did you come to be the Istanbul IN Ambassador?
My brother, Malte Zeeck, is one of the three founders of IN. I was able to follow the development of IN from the very first idea on to its realization, and I was one of the first people to sign up because I believe in its concept of reaching out to people. Malte asked me if I wanted to take the position of local Ambassador because I had been living in Istanbul for over three years already and I've also been an expat in China before coming here. Being a full-time mother, I was happy about the opportunity to meet other people from all walks of life and not only other mothers in playgroups.
What kinds of benefits are offered to Istanbul members?
Together with my Co-Ambassador I organize monthly get-togethers for our Istanbul community. We always meet at different locations so that our members are getting to know new places at the same time. Currently around 250 people attend these events every month.
IN also has an informative online Istanbul guide where members can look for recommended restaurants, schools, hotels, shops, etc or add their own favorite places in town. Furthermore our members can exchange their experiences finding housing, schools, getting work permits etc. in the forum. We have an event calendar that shows highlights of the coming days and weeks. IN members can also add their own events here.
Recently new IN groups have been opened by some of our members: For example there is the “Nightlife Istanbul” group. The group moderator sends us weekly updates of what’s going on in town and arranges special discounts at popular nightclubs for us. Then there is the “Ethnic Cuisine Group Istanbul”. They organize regular dinners at selected restaurants serving “the real stuff”, for example Thai, Palestinian, Japanese etc. I am running the “Parents in Istanbul” group. So there are plenty of ways for our Istanbul community to meet and to network.
What do you hope that IN members in Istanbul get out of joining the organization?
We all know how hard it can be if you are planning to move to a new country. There are so many questions we need to solve: In which area should we look for housing? How do we find the ideal school for our kids? How can we find a helper or a nanny? IN members can easily ask these questions in the forum or directly address our Istanbul scouts and get answers. So even before they actually arrive here there are able to make contacts with people living here that might develop into real friendships once they are here.
At the same time many of our members have been living here for several years already and still attend our events as they enjoy meeting people representing more than 30 nationalities. I have heard so many positive stories of our members already, how they found a job or a house through IN, met the ideal flatmate or made wonderful friends. I enjoy giving our members a platform to meet online or offline in a casual and relaxed atmosphere over drinks and pleasant conversations. I want to help people settling in and connect them with each other and thus letting them enjoy their life in Istanbul even more.
How can expats living in other areas of Turkey get involved with IN?
There is an Ankara community already. Also one of our members has recently set up an “IN Southern Turkey” group. She will start organising monthly IN get-togethers in Bodrum this summer, once IN headquarters have completely installed this new local community. Until then everybody is always welcome to take part in the forum discussions, be it the local or the world forum. And as there are more than 250 local communities worldwide, it is always fun to see what IN members in New York, Reykjavik, Madrid, Toronto, Rome or Dubai etc are talking about at the moment.
What advice do you have for people who are thinking about moving to Istanbul?
Hos geldiniz! Don't hesitate, come! Istanbul is an amazing city and you will love it here! Sign up for IN (basic membership is free) and start connecting with other people living here now.