Things slow down in winter: people travel less and to much warmer places than Istanbul. I do fewer food walks and cooking classes. Short days tempt you to do less and think more, or even better stare at the enchanting fireplace to the howling sound of the wind outside.
In between doing what you used to do and thinking what you can be doing there is the third state of being – experimenting. Usually rather risky affair calling for time to run the trial-and-error and yet not promising a certain outcome experimenting sounds very right to do off season.
I have looked around for the playgrounds. My business venture, my kitchen, my relationships – anything that makes my world. Or maybe something that does not yet. It is surprisingly easy to feel settled – following daily routines, applying knowledge you have, socializing with the people you know. And in winter .. as you nearly hibernate you want to rely on the customary ways more than ever. They are your warm blanket, book and fireplace. And a glass of hot wine.
Yet just as rewarding it is to get outside on a cold day, freeze your nose and yet make that snowman it makes good sense to stop doing what you used to and thinking what you can be doing – and experiment.
1. Experiment with .. how you learn
When doing food tours and cooking classes I constantly learn – from the customers, my vendors and my own observations. And my cooking classes are a great creativity outlet as I experiment depending on season, available ingredients and my mood. But still once I’ve figured the winning formula it’s too tempting not to go along with it.
So off the tourist season I become a tourist myself to explore more of Istanbul food: I plan my sallies around the areas and places which have some gastronomic interest. With my camera and notepad. To document and share my experiences I started doing reviews of the Istanbul restaurants and cafes.
And I cook. I find lots of pleasure in spending hours for creating something as elaborate as anchovy rice for two or composing a quick fix such as red lentil soup for nine of us in Sapanca.
I am obsessed with making sense of the thickets leeks, freshest spinach, largest cabbages, ripest quinces and most orange pumpkins I have ever seen. I go around numerous greengrocer stalls to examine the offerings. I read at least a dozen of recipes of a single dish to get an idea of variations. I handle large quantities of assorted ingredients on the regular basis, I ask for feedback from the people I cook this food for. And this is how I learn.
2. Experiment with .. your priorities
Photography is something which has been among my favorite things to do. I grew up being photographed by my dad who like most of Soviet dads took great portraits which he developed at the own fully-equiped dark room. I was fascinated by the magic of the chemical reactions behind transforming a photo roll into a print. Fortunately things got easier with the development of the technology and ever since I got my first point-and-shot camera in 2004 I was complimented on my photos.
I often times entertained the idea of selling some of my food and travel photos but have not really took any serious steps to do so. A friend of mine calls such aspirations “why-would-I-not” and honestly most of us have a couple of those: things we kind of want but never really set out mind to actively pursue. Until you make it a priority.
I did after a few events taking place one after another. Seeing book cover with the photo I sold to the publishing house was definitely encouraging. And then Yasemin, a friend of mine working on a travel book covering 50 most interesting foods of Turkey has invited to join the endeavor and take photos for that book. And then I got an invitation from the Getty Images to license my photos through their partnership with Flickr! Now I could ignore the opportunities but I have chosen to give it a try and see what comes out of it.
3. Experiment with .. how you meet people
In between my tours and cooking classes in Istanbul and trying to set up my life in Sapanca I have been miserable in networking. My pool of acquaintances has bee growing by meeting friends of Özgür and his family which makes for a great socializing but does not necessarily help build my own network. Sapanca is a safe heaven for me as much as it is a “maiden tower”. Sometimes I get out of touch with the world beyond our little farm on purpose because I refuse to admit it exists and I do not live it the fullest by not being present there.
But I know I thrive on meeting new people, people who inspire me, people with whom I can share a happy moment or two. I particularly get energized by connecting to other women – positive-thinking, open minded and energetic. I believe in comfort derived in sharing stories and sentiments – mostly achieved by being around other women. So I went discovering.
I have found two great venues in Istanbul for meeting such people – Turkish Women’s International Network (Turkish WIN) and International Women of Istanbul (IWI). TurkishWIN brings together women with professional family, cultural or professional ties to Turkey. Bimonthly they organize events for broader public where you can listen to speakers with really diverse backgrounds and then network with other participants. No wonder such format gets together a bunch of interesting and talented women with even more diverse backgrounds and the conversations you can have with them are brilliant!
IWI is a space for foreign women or Turkish women married to foreigners to get together via assorted interest groups and activities. I have found the group of professional women have been most interesting. So what? I have met a few dozens of women and listened to their stories of coming to Turkey and organizing their life here. Which gives me opportunity to reflect, compare, decide…
I have also discovered though that being open to meeting people sometimes does not mean looking for opportunities to meet them. Because they come to you. And this is how I’ve met two wonderful Russian-speaking ladies who came with their families as guests to our farmhouse in Sapanca.
4. Experiment with .. relationships
I have been stumbling a lot in this arena. I am obsessed with being a part but also having space to be what I want to be and do what I want to do. Which is not always the case in the family context. Especially in Turkey.
The whole summer and fall I was that good but kind of strange girlfriend of the son who comes and goes. Who is in Istanbul most of the time and even when here – then mostly in her room doing God-knows-what. How to be a part and yet to be a whole-self? I believe in making first step and took the off-season time to probe.
So one Sunday morning I came down to the kitchen at 7 am about the time the Sunday breakfast preparation kicks off. “You are early today,” Özgür’s mom noted. It was kind of odd to be around her at the kitchen because she is very self-reliant and honestly able to do anything without any help. If you stay besides her watching over and over again how she puts together borek you are kind of useless.
So I started create tasks for myself: I was observing her and thinking forward – what she will need next? A clean working surface after she has finished the dough? A greased tray to lay out the pastry? A cutting board and cheese knives to prepare a cheese platter?
Sunday by Sunday until she has announced today at the kitchen that “Olga has been the best assistant to her up to now”. Now, that was flattering but what was more important to that is while assisting her we could chat, she could share her concerns and I should have my opinions. And to me – these are solidifying relationships with my mother-in-law.
5. Experiment with .. a new skill
On my recent trip to Ukraine I revived the memories of the yarn dolls which mesmerized me when I first saw them a couple of years ago. Western Ukraine is a fascinating depository of pre-Soviet traditions including religious holidays celebrations and many crafts. They still make those dolls – no scissors, no needles and no facial features.
You simply reel threads to make a sacred cross on the doll’s face and then reel pieces of little fabric to make and dress the doll. When I lived in Ukraine I attended a workshop to learn making the dolls and since that I could not forget the feeling of utter satisfaction: I have realized the joy of being a woman, power to create and share and ability to commune with the wisdom of my forefathers.. and all through a simple ritual of making dolls.
So just like my grand-grand-grand-mothers spinning wool on long winter evenings I got back to the idea of making dolls. Partly, to keep me sane – I would make a doll every time I am frustrated. Partly, to feel connected with my roots – a need I feel much more acute living in a foreign country. Partly.. because as I read I have discovered endless techniques which I could not wait to master. And partly because I love the smiles of people looking at my dolls, joy of those who got them as a gift. I think that Özgür’s immediate intention to sell them is little premature… you truly never know where developing a new skill or any other experiment can take you to.