Ankara, Turkey Report of what it's like to live there - 10/11/18
Personal Experiences from Ankara, Turkey
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
I've lived in several cities in Eastern Europe and in the former Soviet Union prior to Ankara.
2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?
From the DC metro area, it is about a 20 hour trip on the USG Fly America routing (United via Munich). Turkish Air has several direct flights to the U.S. from Istanbul, so those on personal travel could probably shorten that timeline, although you'd still have to take the 40-minute flight from Istanbul to Ankara following arrival.
3. How long have you lived here?
Three years, from summer 2015 to summer 2018.
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
U.S. diplomatic mission.
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
Embassy housing is generally clustered in large, modern apartment complexes. The size of assigned housing varied, but only slightly; we didn't see an apartment of fewer than 3-4 bedrooms even for junior officers or singles. Apartments had European-sized ovens and small, European stackable washer/dryer units, which caused some frustration.
We loved our location, with easy walking access to the Panora mall (food court, modern cinema, Kipa supermarket and more) as well as free access to an on-site gym and pool. Commute times were generally 20 minutes. Housing in Park Oran provides the easiest access to the highway that takes one to both the Balgat Air Force Base (DoDEA school, commissary, BX) and to the location of the new embassy, which is slated to open around 2020.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
The Embassy community is granted access to the facilities on the Balgat AFB, to include its commissary and BX. We generally did our comprehensive weekly grocery shopping at that American supermarket (U.S. products at U.S. prices), augmenting in particular our produce purchases through the Turkish supermarket chain Kipa at the Panora mall or at the Thursday farmers market in a neighborhood near Park Oran.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
The commissary was generally well-stocked with all that we needed, with variety across the board. The loss of the ability to ship liquids through the DPO during our time there might promote one to plan ahead more carefully in a pack-out if you are particularly keen about a novelty product. The several Turkish grocery chains (e.g. Kipa, Migros) are well-stocked with the usual American junk food favorites; you may need to alter brand allegiance to something locally or European produced for cleaning supplies and things like spaghetti sauce.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
Ever seen six restaurants in a row all offering the same menu? That is the Ankara food scene in a nutshell for me. Great, fast, cheap Turkish food on every corner. American pizza franchises (Dominoes, Papa Johns) are around, although they taste really nothing like their U.S. namesakes. Lots of U.S. fast food chains (e.g. McDonalds, Burger King, Popeyes, Arbys, Sbarra, Subway) of comparable cost and taste (though not quite the same) to U.S. franchises.
There was a decent local burger joint and Chinese restaurant not far from the U.S. Embassy. Krispy Kreme was in Istanbul, but to our chagrin not in Ankara. The malls also have things like Sushi Co. if you traveled to Turkey for a California roll. Most places deliver, even in the worst weather. Most folks ordered delivery via website or app, whose pictures were great for non-Turkish speakers.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
We had none in the apartment, although we had a hard time keeping pigeons from nesting on our small balcony.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
The Embassy has both DPO and pouch service. We received a letter from a friend in Eastern Europe once; it took about a month to travel the distance of a 60-minute Turkish Air flight from Istanbul.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
We didn't hire help, but know many who did. None seemed to have trouble finding household help. English is not at all widely spoken in Ankara, so those that didn't speak much Turkish hired helpers that appeared to be originally from Asia. Since embassy housing is clustered, it was common for families to split the services of part-time household help.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
We had access to a gym and pool gratis through our residence. If you are a swimmer, you must use a swim cap. There are other gyms around, but I can't speak to pricing. The embassy had a small weight room, mostly used by our U.S. and local guard force. It is unclear to me whether the new embassy facility will have dedicated gym space for staff or not.
4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?
We used cash in most cases, but used credit cards for larger purchases (e.g. doctors' bills) on the local economy and at the commissary. ATMs are everywhere, and were used by most to access funds from their local bank account established after arrival to pay bills and receive quarterly VAT refunds.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
There is a non-denominational service on the Balgat AFB.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
I was surprised how little English knowledge exists, even in school-age children. We found some locals with German-language ability from their time working in Germany. Turkey's tourism industry around Antalya caters to Russian-language tourists arriving via charter flights. You can find Turkish language courses on the local economy. The embassy offered courses, but my impression was they fizzled out due to uneven attendance.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Ankara is quite hilly, with steep inclines throughout. It would be difficult to manage without assistance. Some sidewalks, however, had lanes with raised grooves that, I was told, allowed the vision impaired to more easily follow the path of the sidewalk by walking on those grooves. A few modern buildings have automatic front doors which open upon approach, although these appeared more aesthetic than purposeful to assist the disabled. Most malls, for example, have revolving doors as their main entrance/egress points.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
We used public transportation without issue. There are two bus companies augmented by passenger vans (dolmuÅŸ) that you flag down along specific routes. Each bus company has its own user/fare card. You pay the dolmuÅŸ driver under 1 USD to run all or part of the route. Regular yellow taxis are also everywhere, run off meter, and were very affordable. They were also very honest, providing change essentially to the penny as a matter of routine. Tipping, while appreciated, is still not widely practiced to Western levels in Turkey.
2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?
Anything with all-weather tires would be fine on Ankara's modern roads. We enjoyed having our Honda CRV for greater clearance/visibility and to better handle Ankara's roads in weather. Turkey's roads are world class, but their asphalt appears to have a higher content of marble in them than U.S. or European counterparts, so they are generally slicker even in dry conditions. When accelerating from a stopped position even up a slight grade, for example, my front-wheel drive tires would often spin a bit before gaining traction.
Rain and snow reduced standard traction quickly and significantly. Salt is not widely used on roads in winter, and instead the city put down sand or a sand blend to defeat ice on roads. Ankara is also shaped like a tea-cup, with the Embassy at the bottom of the cup, meaning steep roads. Many folks, and most locals, went to winter tires early in the season to help with traction.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
For USG personnel, you can work with management staff to have internet installed prior to arrival. These details are in the welcome material you receive from post prior to arrival. Internet was generally good, and we streamed via Apple TV. Cost for a mid-range package was perhaps $30 a month. Cable tv was also pretty good, with the family package providing several English language channels (sports, news, entertainment) for about $20 a month. You got bills electronically, and it is important you retain your original installation paperwork to establish an auto payment arrangement from your Turkish bank account to pay your monthly bills. There is a branch of Garanti Bank at the embassy through which we established our EFTs.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
USG officials are provided a phone for official business. You can bring an unlocked phone and choose from many cell phone plans available locally. We also bought a phone and plan while there. Again, English language ability was almost non-existent in Ankara; to include among the young, so you may need to enlist language support from a learned colleague to sort through the paperwork.
You also needed to show your passport, for some reason, even if you already had your local diplomatic ID (kimlik), to establish an account. You got bills electronically, and it is important you retain your original paperwork to establish a auto payment arrangement from your Turkish bank account to pay your monthly bills. There is a branch of Garanti Bank at the embassy.
1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?
We don't own pets, but most of my colleagues did. There appeared to be no quarantine requirements upon entry. There are pet stores and vet clinics around. Some folks had no issues with their vets, others thought advanced care options were limited.
Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:
1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?
The Embassy has a number of full and part-time positions for family members. Anything beyond that would require native-level Turkish. With the massive fall in value of the Turkish Lira relative to the U.S. dollar (and subsequent volatility), I don't know how financially rewarding holding a job on the local economy would be. Given Turkey's good internet, some folks teleworked (or tele-studied).
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
Many folks volunteered in support of UN or other charity organizations assisting the millions of Syrian refugees in Turkey.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
At the Embassy, it was business casual to business, depending on the weather and the meeting you were heading to. Formal dress was rarely required, unless perhaps at a wedding or Marine Ball.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Although there were many terrorist incidents, a coup attempt, and anti-Americanism is generally high, we personally never felt threatened. Personal awareness and attention to events happening around the city (e.g., election rallies) are musts when moving about. A healthy deployment of common street sense sufficed.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Since Ankara sits at the bottom of a valley, smog tends to hover over the city until washed away by rain. We found medical care top notch, and many children were born in Ankara to embassy families. Dental and orthopedic work was also prevalent within the community. The Embassy works principally with two hospitals with Western or U.S. trained doctors. Our eye doctor at the Acibadem hospital, for example, earned his medical degree from Michigan State University. Acibadem is near the Park Oran apartment complex and accepts the FSBP health insurance as an in-network provider, meaning almost no paperwork for us.
3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?
Ankara can see a high degree of particulate matter hover over the city during spells without rain. Very few folks we knew were impacted.
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
Turkish food preparation, while hygienic, does not appear to be sensitive to the needs of those with food allergies. The same utensils, vessels, cutting boards, and the like are used for everything.
5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?
The July 2016 coup attempt and its aftermath seemed to greatly impact the community. While some issues have been worked through, the negative mental impact still seems to remain.
6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Ankara has four distinct seasons. Summers touch 95 degrees Fahrenheit while it is cold and snowy in the winter. Spring and fall are pleasant!
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
There are several school options. Many folks looking for a more traditional U.S. school experience place their children in the DoDEA school on the grounds of Balgat AFB. The school welcomes students from NATO and NATO PFP countries, so it has a diverse student body. Teachers and administrators were generally excellent. Oasis, which migrated to new, larger facility recently, was also a popular choice. Bilkent and the British school were other options.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
I wasn't familiar with children with special needs. Best to inquire at each school.
3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?
Many families put their little ones in Turkish day care facilities. There were several near Park Oran. Reviews seemed generally positive in terms of pricing and services.
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
There are many opportunities, although you may need to seek advice from locals on more exotic interests. Activities located on the Balgat AFB on weekends were the staples, including seasonal sports (soccer, basketball) and scouts. We had a piano teacher come to the house, enrolled in gymnastics at a gym across the street from our residence, and took riding lessons at the stable located at the German Embassy. Most major malls have cinemas and expansive video game arcades.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
For smaller countries, Ankara serves as a regional diplomatic hub, providing coverage into Central Asia and the Middle East. There thus appears to be more embassies present than in other similarly-sized countries. Across the international community, morale seemed to drop and physical safety concerns seemed to increase following the July 2016 coup attempt. It seems to have slowly rebounded, as it's my understanding that many missions downsized personnel and removed families. The considerable decline in the value of the Turkish Lira over the last six months has not seemed to boost confidence. The UN is well represented in Turkey.
2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
Around whom you lived and to what school your kids went seemed to be the most important factors in determining your social groups. Turkey has so much going on that you really don't need to look very far to find something of interest to attend or visit. The Embassy has its own travel agency, which is well-experienced generating day trips or weekend excursions around Turkey.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
We enjoyed the multitude of travel opportunities around Turkey. Turkish Air (and Pegasus) flies domestically almost everywhere from Ankara for under $100 a seat round trip. The flight to Northern Cyprus is considered and priced as a domestic flight. Daily cheap, fast trains travel from Ankara to Istanbul (3.5 hours), Konya (2 hours), and EskiÅŸehir (80 minutes). Singles seemed to have no trouble finding watering holes or eateries at which to gather. Turkish language ability is often necessary if not doing a guided tour.
4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
Ankara is a cosmopolitan city relative to more traditional areas in Turkey's south or southeast. While there were same-sex couples within the international community that I knew, caution is merited; there were reported instances of violence against LGBT Turks, even in Istanbul.
5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Men seem to have more authority than women. There are some religious differences, but do not seem to impact day-to-day life.
6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
The food and opportunities to travel to see the natural wonders and history of Turkey (really civilization) were the highlights. We took trips over several long weekends to the coast to enjoy the sun and all-inclusive resorts. We enjoyed seeing Troy's ruins, the beautiful marble remains of Ephesus, and the battlefields of Gallipoli.
7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Ankara is far from a sterile, administrative capital city. It is well placed to see lots of Turkey's best historical sites. It has great museums; a visit to Ataturk's mausoleum (Anitkabir) is a must.
8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
There are great things to buy, e.g., rugs, ceramics, glasswork, wood furniture. Most head to Istanbul for shopping sprees.
9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
After many years living in more difficult places, we enjoyed the modernity and amenities of Ankara. Rush-hour traffic seemed very humane!
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
There are few international flights from the West that directly service Ankara. A couple of exceptions are Munich (Lufthansa), Amman (Pegasus), and Doha (Qatar Air). It seemed you almost always need to transit Istanbul to catch flights out of Turkey. While flights between Ankara and Istanbul occur at least hourly, this tends to add hours to your itinerary. It remains to be seen how Turkey opening a new airport this fall, to combine the two current airports into this one platform, will impact international air travel.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Absolutely. We loved our time in Ankara and would go back.
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
American-sized baking sheets. Bathroom scale, as you will probably put on a few pounds courtesy of donor kebabs, pide, and baklava.
4. But don't forget your:
English-Turkish dictionary. All-weather and winter tires. VPN subscription. Swim cap. Love of exploring historical sites. Compassion for a people still traumatized by the July 2016 coup attempt.