From Texas to Turkey and Back Once
from the Galata Bridge, Istanbul, Turkey.
Most expats I’ve met eventually
run into the same problem: They’ve left a lifetime
of family and friends behind, moved seemingly (sometimes
literally) across the planet, and have fallen off the radar.
We’ve lost touch with our roots, often by choice,
and our loved ones grow more and more distant both geographically
and emotionally. Despite several goodbye parties in which
friends and relatives cooed over the prospect of visiting,
hardly anyone, if anyone, has come to visit.
Such was never the case with my father.
He wished me all the best, a slightly confused look on his
face as if to say, "How in the hell did he get
a job in Korea," and basically told me he’d
see me when I returned. There was never any, "No
way you’ll get me over there eating that food," or "I
love America too much for that." It was just inferred.
I’d made him try sushi in a Japanese restaurant in
suburban Houston and for him that was close enough to Korea.
What neither of us realized at the time
was that I wasn’t coming home. The stay in South Korea
was supposed to last one year and turned into two and a
half. I met a punky little British girl who made me even
more liberal, to my father’s chagrin, than I already
was. After that, visiting “home” was split between
the U.S. and England. Following South Korea, I moved to
Guatemala. After Guatemala, and nearly three years later
with only two trips back to the U.S., I headed to Turkey.
Background Checks for Us All
The funny thing
about leaving home, even if you are happy to be
gone, is that you grow in your love of the things
that define a place, upon reflection—perhaps
to a fault. Nothing says Louisiana like Mardi Gras.
I grew up in Louisiana. My father has
since moved to Texas where he finished out his career working
at the ExxonMobil headquarters. Most of my family and most
of their friends supported George W. Bush’s "War
on Terror" until his final day in office, have weaponry
strewn about the house, and would only protest if it was
regarding the release of Michael Moore’s next film.
They are my family and welcome me with a brand of hospitality
I’ve only ever experienced in the South, but a global
world not modeled after a conservative America just seems
wrong to them.
Turkey is over 90% Muslim, but unlike
many Middle Eastern countries, it is secular. In the 1920s
Kemal Ataturk, the first Turkish president—so revered
it’s illegal to speak negatively of him and all classrooms
must have his portrait hanging in them—strove to make
the country more European. During the Iraq wars, Turkey
was instrumental in giving the U.S. a second stronghold
in the Middle East, a next-door launching base. Turkey has
never been communist, and it has always had beer and churches.
Even so, it was still probably not high on my father’s
list of places for me to go.
My dad actually lived in the Middle
East—Iran—as a child. My grandfather, also an
oilman, had packed up the wife, three boys, and a girl and
moved them abroad for two years so that he could bag big
bucks on a new project in the Middle East. Throughout my
childhood, my father spoke fondly of life there: climbing
date trees to steal a snack, running away from the principal
at school until they called my grandfather to come catch
him, or drinking unlimited cold drinks at the restaurant
near their house. He also loves to tell how, as a seven-year-old
on the way back from Iran, he ordered and received a beer
in Germany. However, the fondness of those memories never
inspired him to take an around-the-world trip or even another
jaunt over the border.
play such a vital role in any culture. Without
a doubt, they are part of what makes each place
unique, special, and unforgettable. It was certainly
that way for my father, who also fondly remembered
the flatbreads he’d eaten as a child.
I credit my father’s wife, Melanie,
for what then happened. In fact, I didn’t have to
do too much of anything, and my father had barely even mentioned
Turkey as an option. Melanie had gone ahead and purchased
their tickets, researched Istanbul, and prepped my dad for
leaving the country after so long. When he went to renew
his passport, he actually brought in his last one, the one
from the 1960s received as a little boy heading to Iran.
Though he did shave his puffy white beard, my dad still
looked relatively close to his age: about 60. He told the
woman he wanted a renewal. For some reason, she needed a
more recent ID. In the end, the government decided to issue
him a new one.
Exciting Times Haven’t Changed
All That Much
They say that culture shock has specific
stages, the first of which is the honeymoon phase, when
all things foreign are inexhaustibly fascinating. Usually,
this cultural high lasts approximately three months after
which the redundancy of ordering the same three dishes,
looking at the same collection of regionally flavored souvenirs,
and not becoming instantly fluent with language wears thin.
Though they were no longer newlyweds, Melanie and especially
my father might as well have been on their honeymoon. I’d
not seen him so excited…anywhere.
lemonade, often with fresh sprigs of mint, is a
favorite refreshment in Turkey, and every time
I visited Sultanhamet in Istanbul, I felt the urge
to stop by this café. My dad liked it, too.
On the flight over, he’d revisited
his childhood when the in-flight meal included individually
wrapped, candied dates. It was not exactly like climbing
the trees to pick them, but I don’t think he’d
eaten dates since Iran (They aren’t exactly Texas-Louisiana
delicacies.), and they were every bit as delicious as he
remembered. On their first night, we took them to Babi-Ali,
our favorite local bar, and introduced my father to 700ml
beers (the equivalent to U.S.’s 40 oz.), and taught
him to play tavla, a.k.a. backgammon, found at
any good bar in Turkey. “This is neat,” he kept
repeating. Our one-bedroom apartment, our street in Tarlabasha,
Istanbul’s infamous Kurdish ghetto, our toaster oven
and only oven—all were neat to my father.
My father had arrived in the evening,
after the stifling heat of July in Istanbul had dissipated
a little. The bar we’d taken him to was only a couple
of blocks away from the apartment. The mugs at this particular
spot, and only this one in my experience of Istanbul, come
in Texas-sized glasses that border on novelty. My wife Emma—the
punky, little British girl—had to use both hands to
lift them for a sip. The walk home had been all downhill,
and I showed him the nighttime view from the balcony of
our apartment. Things had gone so impossibly well I was
thinking they were neat.
There are streets in San Francisco that
seem impossibly steep, where driving uphill requires a hand
on the emergency break while never shifting out of first
gear. There are streets in Istanbul with a similar gradient
but completely pedestrian. My father—too polite to
insult my lack of a car, an unthinkable absence in his world,
or even to doubt my thriftiness in regards to taxis—seemed
to be cursing me in between heaving breaths, his face glowing.
The amount of sweat would have suggested a marathon. We
were about halfway up the hill when he officially stopped
As if it weren’t
enough of an uphill battle to get my father out
of the US, into a culture with which he—to be honest—was
uncomfortable, every day there seemed to be another
uphill battle for him to conquer.
I regretted not showing him the funicular
going up from the Galata Bridge to Istiklal Street, the
second oldest subway in the world that was ticking along
beneath his feet as he overheated. I wonder if that principal
who chased him around the pool in Iran ever flashed through
his brain during those heart-pounding, hard-breathing moments.
Each time the school officials had come close to catching
him—my father would boast with a laugh—he’d
dive in the pool and swim to the other side. At that moment,
he could’ve really used that pool again.
What the United States Has That
I Did Not
Texas, like Turkey, is hot, but there
are some massive differences. No lie, my father’s
house is so cold in the Texas summer that I periodically
go outside to warm up. In Turkey, the buildings are constructed
in such a way that is comfortable during the heat, but not
frigid. We didn’t have an A/C in our apartment, nor
did any restaurant, supermarket, or tourist attraction.
My father, to his credit, sucked it up and laid on our living
room floor which we’d stylishly furnished with big
pillows rather than a sofa or chairs, remarking at how reasonably
comfortable we had made the space. Unfortunately, he never
fully recovered from that walk
and showed little interest in seeing more of Istanbul than
we’d seen the first evening.
As much as my father’s life is
centered on beating the heat, there is nothing he loves
better than a Dr. Pepper in a gigantic glass that has been
filled with crushed, not cubed, ice. He also likes cherry-flavored
stuff, so I was excited to show him my favorite local drink:
cherry soda water. Cherry soda water is wildly popular and
comes in these little green 4-ounce bottles. He’d
liked it, but it was kind the equivalent of giving a drunk
a shot of beer—not exactly going to quench his thirst.
Instead, as we sat in the natural coolness of a café-bar,
he ordered a 7-Up, and another, and another, undeterred
by drinks not being bottomless in Turkey, or anywhere outside
Watching my father struggle, I was acutely
aware of the sacrifices he was making. Our one-bedroom apartment,
a two-story design with the bed and bath up top, had no
doors. Even though Emma and I were sleeping on the living
room pillows, we still betrayed his privacy with every midnight
bathroom trip or snore expelled. Nor did we have a satellite
or even a big screen TV to blurt out the seemingly endless
loop that is Fox News in digital surround sound as is the
case in my father’s house, as well as in his architecturally
planned “man cave” garage with no cars. Instead,
he was reduced to watching to my 14” computer screen
and a collection of pirated movies from an external hard
One of the most
satisfying aspects about having a visitor is being
able to show them around a place beyond the major
tourist thoroughfares, so it was fantastic to reveal
to my father sides of Istanbul regular vacationers
probably don’t see.
I cannot stress enough the fact that
he never once complained. Not even when squeezed into the
overflowing tram service in Sultanahmet, or when taking
an overnight bus to reach Efes, or at the Turkish restaurant
where the waitress had delivered him a plate of strange
cheeses, something yogurt-y with herbs in it, a boiled egg,
and mystery slush of sauces with baskets of French bread—for
breakfast. It had been my recommendation. He was accepting,
tolerant, patient, hungry, and thirsty but obligingly open
to just about everything I’d thrown his way, just
as he had been in that sushi restaurant years before.
Pushing Boundaries and Crossing
When I found out my father was coming
to see me, I wanted to make the most of getting him out
of the country. Rather than just settling for Turkey, I
decided to arrange for us all to go for a long weekend in
Cairo. The Great Pyramids of Giza seemed an obvious crowd-pleaser
and an experience my father would easily be able to take
home with a sense of accomplishment. Being a little mischievous,
I booked us all into a hostel rather than deluxe hotel,
wanting my 60-year-old father to experience the life I’d
grown accustomed to—that of a backpacking vagabond.
(In retrospect, doing so was largely
unfair of me considering that I had years to adopt and
adapt to this style of living. Like my father, I had
once been a maestro of air conditioning. I had spent
entire days flipping between ESPN and ESPN2 the way he
does with Fox News and whatever the other associated
network channel is called. I had never tasted Arabic
coffee, which he tried, and would have likely been largely
put off by the idea. He was being a good sport, going
along with what I believe was turning out to be a long
vacation for him, and in my wiser, current version would
not have pulled this stunt with my father, or any of
my family members for that matter.)
Cairo, as a city, actually was rather
disappointing, even for me, at least where we stayed. It
seemed dirty and ugly. Despite the fact that it was a short
walk to the Nile River and right around the corner from
The Egyptian Museum of Antiquities, there was a noticeable
lack of restaurants, few shops, no bars, and only non-alcoholic
beer. The whole experience sucked. The hostel was even shabby.
On the fourth floor of a derelict building, the hostel had
a clicking, clanking elevator and an entranceway that brought
to mind the love motels in Korea. I also wasn’t entirely
comfortable walking around the neighborhood.
help but wonder what my father was thinking as
we drove through some of the impoverished areas
in and around Cairo, the types of places to which
I’ve long grown accustomed but that he had
never seen. He never said much about it.
The low point of the trip was when my
father climbed the north face of the Red Pyramid and descended
the long narrow tunnel (roughly 3 feet, by 4 feet and 200
feet long) inside. Egypt, without a doubt, is hotter than
Turkey, even hotter inside a poorly ventilated pyramid tomb,
and even hotter when crouched over with no option to stand,
with a long way to descend to the end and an even more taxing
route to ascend back to the entrance. After that, my dad
was done with Egypt. He explored Cairo with me only sparingly
in the days following, but for the most part, he wanted
to stay in the hostel room, which by some act of some God
had a window unit air conditioner.
(A close second to the Red Pyramid
as a woesome experience occurred when my father had to
shower in the shared bathroom of our hostel. It was perhaps
the smallest shower I’ve ever seen and a tight
fit for my 180-pound frame. My dad is 250, a bit germ
phobic, and insanely hygienic. In between uncontrollable
laughter at the thought of it, I truly felt for him,
and whatever desire I’d had to test his resolve
slinked away down that shower’s drain. Luckily,
he’s much more mild-mannered than he was 30 years
ago. Not only did he not get angry with me, he even shared
a weary chuckle about it.)
On our last night in Egypt, I wisely
relented and offered my father a type of tourist experience
designed for comfort: A nighttime buffet cruise on the Nile.
There was crappy Las Vegas lounge-style entertainment with
Cairo twists, such as belly dancing and a performance-based
(not religious) whirling dervish who had a tear-away outfit
that he twirled above his head. However, there was expensive
beer to be had, the cool night air was flowing over the
ship’s deck, and for a moment my father was genuinely
able to enjoy himself. I wished then that I’d tried
less to share my experience of life abroad and showed
him a good time more suited to his tastes.
Going Home a Changed Man
I don’t know if my father went
home a changed man. If anything, I think he was only pushed
further into his resolve that there is no reason to leave
the U.S.A. Moreover, he hasn’t left the country since,
something for which I at least partially blame myself. In
fact, he now has only moved deeper into Texas, the rural
nothingness and strip malls of the land between Dallas and
Houston, over an hour away from any international airport.
He has built a thickly insulated house with a grossly oversized
air-conditioning unit and plenty of floor space and bedroom
doors. His neighbors, also retired, ride around in fancy
golf carts with little lapdogs and stop by for quick chats.
He lives comfortably and happily, not a financial concern
in the world, something he worked for his entire life.
When I go home now, I must go to a place
that means nothing to me in a town (Kerens) where, though
people are friendly in a rural Texas way, they like showing
you a gun collection or making slightly off-color jokes.
I don’t know a soul, and it’s a 30-minute drive
to the nearest supermarket (forget the bazaars of Istanbul).
Last time I visited, I’d been working at a remote
mountain hostel for six months, embracing the opportunity
to sport a high-standing Mohawk and, in Texas, what was
somewhat lovingly referred to as an Osama beard. It was
a look that made no sense in Kerens (pronounced Kurns,
not Karens). My dad still seemed to appreciate
its humor. At least, he still took me to places and introduced
me as his son.
my father-in-law (a Brit) is obsessed with American
history and especially the West, so it was an eye-opening
moment to see him bedazzled in the boots and buckles
of Texas. He’s visited twice now and hopes for
a third time… in Kerens?
Being in Kerens is much like I imagine
Turkey was for my father; it is a peculiar delicacy of culture
for which I have no desire to develop in my appreciation.
This land deep in Texas is a puzzle wherein, despite all
the open spaces, there is not enough vacancy for all the
pieces that make up my identity. I’ve learned much
from my father's lone visit in my near decade of living
abroad, and equally from visits to see him. I know my father
is very content being who and where he is, and no amount
of hostels, pyramids, or kebabs are going to change his
reality. I know I am the one who returned the changed man.
I know the world is a vast and varied place and
finds ways to welcome everyone wherever they so choose to
be, whether in Texas or Turkey, and also that a welcome
doesn’t always equate to home.
I know that my father, much like
the overwhelming majority of my friends and family who once
doted over the thought of visiting me abroad, will likely
never come to my house again, and that is something I’m
still learning to carry with me.
Engels, has been
an expat since 2005, just after he earned
an MFA in creative writing and promptly
rejected a life teaching freshman composition.
He has lived, worked and/or volunteered
in seven different countries, traveling
his way through nearly 40 countries between
them. For more, check out Jonathon
Engels: A Life Abroad or visit The