26 January 2008

2303) Istanbul's New Greek Faces

1) So much to love in Istanbul
2) A country of opportunities and varieties
3) ‘Turks enjoy themselves like Greeks
Mutual trust conquers taboos
An accidental journey . .

Stella Papakonstantinou, 26, is the administrative assistant in the Credit Department at Finansbank and a master's student in Bilgi University's Turkish-Greek Studies program.

She has always loved Turkey, as her grandfather is from Izmir, and she made many Turkish friends during her studies in London. "After completing my master's degree I decided to come to Istanbul to improve my Turkish," she said. She has been living in Cihangir since May 2007.

"I have to use Turkish with my colleagues and this has improved my communication skills," she said. "However, it is my dream to be able to communicate fluently so I am trying really hard."

Transitioning to life here has not been difficult for Papakonstantinou. There are so many things she loves about Istanbul. "The sea view, the small back streets when all the laundry is hung up to dry from window to window, the call to prayer, children playing outside, the small horse carriage that comes every Saturday to sell fruit and vegetables on my street," she said.

With so many sights to see, she wonders why Turks ask her why she chose to live here.

The key to Greek-Turkish relations is "just normal inter-personal communication. No prejudices or biases," said Papakonstantinou.

Anthi Mara, 32, is a French professor at Istanbul's St. Benoit Lycee.
She has lived in Istanbul for four years, one year on the Asian side, and three on the European side in Beyoglu's Galata district. Living in Turkey right now makes sense for her professionally, socially and geographically, she said. "In Turkey there are still some good professional opportunities for individuals with a university education," she said. "Istanbul is alive with various attractions and people, making it an interesting place to live." It is also very close to her home in Greece. "It just takes an hour to fly to Athens," she said.

What has struck her most about Istanbul has been the diversity of people, the various walks of life and opinions, and above all the amount of tolerance people show to each other.

At the end of the day, that is what she sees as the formula for better Greek-Turkish relations. "There needs to be tolerance and we shouldn't assume only one side is right or wrong," said Mara. "We shouldn't be absolute." As for political relations, she thinks that states should seek win-win solutions in a peaceful context.

The most frequent question Turks ask her when they meet her is, "A Greek person teaching French at a French-Turkish school in Istanbul" How can this be?

Antonis Mouzas, 43, is deputy general manager of Millennium Bank Turkey. Mouzas' move to Turkey was a natural step for someone who works for a multinational bank, he said. Millennium Bank operates in many countries in Europe and in the United States. The bank has 18 branches in Turkey. He moved here in November 2006 after the bank, which he worked for in Athens, proposed he moved to Istanbul. He considers Turkey a growing country with high potential.

After a year in Turkey, Mouzas is happy about his decision. "I like Istanbul very much, the Turkish food, there are a lot of beautiful places here and people go out very often and enjoy themselves like in Greece," he said. "Turks' behavior resembles that of Greeks sometimes," he said.

"I think the feelings between Turkish and Greek people in general are very positive," said Mouzas. "I have spoken many times with simple people like taxi drivers, people I meet accidentally, and most of them feel like "komsu," neighbors, since they used to live together and they want to find a way of better communication, to increase business and relationships in general," he explained. "Many people in Greece feel the same, especially people who have visited Turkey."

His Turkish, for now, allows him to get by and he can "communicate to cover basic issues and needs like in restaurants, finding a place, shopping and basic discussions."

Most of the Turks he meets ask him for advice on what places they should visit in Greece. They also ask him to compare Greece and Turkey.

Vassilis Petropoulos, 44, is general manager at Gelal Çorap, one of the biggest sock manufacturers in Turkey. Petropoulos came to Istanbul in 2004, attracted by the possibility to "be a key player in the sector in Europe, with a potential for further growth," he said. This, he explained, was an ideal opportunity for a committed career executive to lead an already healthy and reputable organization to a dominant position in the global marketplace. He has many good Turkish family friends and his Turkish is improving by the day, thanks to the common vocabulary. "Turkish has so many common words with the Greek language, which makes it much easier," he said. He lives with his wife and two sons in Florya and most enjoys living among Istanbul's historical heritage. He finds the lifestyle almost the same between Turkey and Greece, he said. "In any case, Greeks and Turks have more things in common to bring us together than contradicting things to force us apart," he said, referring to Greek-Turkish relations. "When it comes to work or business-related issues, the common efforts to reach targeted results and the mutual trust and qualities of inter-personal relations between the cooperating parties dominate any emotions or taboos," he said.

Irene Banias is an assistant professor of political science and international relations at Bogazici University. Her connection with Turkey began rather "accidentally" eight years ago, when she was working on a legal reform project in Romania. "Despite my proximity to Turkey and particularly Istanbul, it never occurred to me visit this city," she said. "It took the persistence of a close friend who was visiting her family in Istanbul to finally overcome my resistance." She felt a strange mixture of apprehension and excitement about visiting, Banias said. "During the 40-minute taxi ride from Ataturk airport to Bebek, my apprehension grew, as I felt completely vulnerable, not speaking a word of Turkish and having no idea of the direction of my destination," she said. But the uncertainties faded when she finally saw the smiling faces of her friends. "Unwittingly I had begun the slow journey of revisiting the impressions and conclusions of my youth that continued to dominate my adult view of the world I had just entered," she explained. "For several summers after my first visit I returned to Istanbul to teach summer school and reconnect with friends but mostly to gain some clarity about the clashing but also overlapping impressions and judgments that I inherited and what I was living."

January 25, 2008 TDN

Greek students, professionals make their home in Turkey
January 25, 2008
In the last five years an increasing number of Greeks are choosing Turkey as a place to work and live. While a few decades ago this would seem strange, now thanks to warming ties between the countries and the geographical proximity, being a Greek living in Istanbul makes sense

Twenty years ago no one could imagine a Greek choosing to live in Turkey, but in the last five years Istanbul in particular has seen a significant increase in Greeks who choose to work and live in Turkey.

From Istanbul's posh club Reina by the Bosporus to Kabataş trams traveling to Zeytinburnu, Greeks living here told the Turkish Daily News that they run into their compatriots all the time. Anthi Mara describes laughing how once at Reina one of her Greek friends accidentally stepped on a woman. The “victim” turned to the “perpetrator” and said in Greek “take it easy.” Mara said it was hard to believe a Greek stepped on another Greek in Istanbul.

Over the years, there are some posts traditionally filled by Greeks, such as diplomats, correspondents, clergy or teachers appointed to the Rum community in Istanbul. This community is made up of Turks of Greek heritage who can trace their roots back to the Byzantine empire. But without counting the individuals and their families in these traditional posts as well as university students, an informal TDN count found nearly 100 Greeks working and living here. The Greek Consulate staff estimate them to be above 800.

For Şukru Ilıcak, 36, a Harvard graduate student who lived for three years in Athens, the increase is noticeable and logical.“The increase in Greeks moving here is obvious and one of the most important reasons is couples,” said Ilıcak. He explains that there is an increase in Turkish-Greek couples – married or not – moving to Turkey. “The other reason is the financial situation in Greece. Youth are looking for a future outside of Greece where it's hard to find jobs,” he says. As they look beyond their border, one of the more attractive places has become Turkey. Ilıcak said he has about 20 Greek friends who live in Turkey and at a recent gathering he met five women aged 20-23 all of who came to Turkey to find a job. “They were all fed up from the situation in Greece and were looking for jobs here,” he said.

Kostas Zaimis, a Greek working at the Organization of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation in Istanbul for the last two years also credits a globalizing world in which students travel to get a university education at U.S. or European institutions. There he explained Greeks and Turks often forge life-lasting friendships, as he did. From London to Boston, Greeks and Turks find that they share more similarities with each other than differences. “Some of us were lucky to keep in touch with them and find them 20 years later in Istanbul,” he said. “The melting point was our studies in France, England or the United States.”

Hava Baba

As Greek students and professionals are discovering and living in Istanbul, they have also started forging informal networks and groups with each other and their Turkish friends regardless of their knowledge of the Greek language. Nikos Lymberopoulos, 47, is a Greek who works at the International Center for Hydrogen Energy Technologies (ICHET) in Istanbul. He and some of his Greek, Rum and Turkish friends have formed a group called Hava Baba. The name may sound nonsensical, but the group thought it sounded catchy. “A few Greeks working in Istanbul started the Hava Baba club and it aims to make the most of their stay in this city, in terms of meeting other Greeks, mixing in with the locals and enjoying the Istanbul culture and food,” he said.

An actress from neighboring Greece
January 25, 2008
Greek actress Katerina Moutsatsos stars in a show 'Yabancı Damat' that became popular in both Greece and Turkey as it helped bring the two nations closer. She performs in some of the most successful Turkish productions

People say that art transcends borders and brings people from different countries and cultures closer.

This idea finds authentic representation in Greek actress Katerina Moutsatsos, one of the stars of a Turkish TV series called “Yabancı Damat” – the Foreign Groom. The show, which became popular in both Greece and Turkey, told the love story of a Greek man and a Turkish woman and their adventures. But in many ways, Moutsatsos' artistic presence in the Turkish film industry started much earlier than the show that aired from 2004 to 2007.

Even before the 1999 earthquakes in Turkey and Greece and the subsequent “rapprochement,” Moutsatsos took a significant step toward the cooperation of Turkish and Greek actors, by acting in Kayıkçı (The Boatman) in 1998.

“This was my first work and my first visit to Turkey,” she said. “We entered Turkey crossing from Chios Island to Çeşme.” Moutsatsos said her first memories of Turkey are still very fresh in her mind. She said she remembers contemplating the seagulls while crossing from Chios to neighboring Çeşme on the Turkish coast. “I was wondering why we cannot freely fly from one place to the other,” she said. When she arrived, she tried to mix with the locals using her handful of Turkish words.

“I was familiar with the people and we communicated through the language of gestures,” she said. “As all Greeks who visit Turkey for the first time, I went through culture shock when I started realizing how many common words we have,” she said. Take for instance “tavan,” ceiling in Turkish and “tavani” which means the same in Greek. Or “karpuz” in Turkish and “karpuzi” in Greek, which means watermelon in both languages, she said. While in Çeşme she recalled that when she was a 6-year-old at a French school in Greece, she had a Turkish friend who used to send her postcards from her grandmother's house in Çeşme. “I did not mind that she was Turkish. Our common ground was France,” she said. “We met in Paris again when we were university students and we are still friends.”

‘The earthquakes changed everything'

After her first film in Turkey, Moutsatsos followed an enviable carrier in Turkey, by artistic standards. She took part in some of the most successful Turkish series, such as “Yılan Hikayesi” in 2001, “Yabancı Damat” in 2006 and “Tutkunum Sana” the same year. In 2005 she was also one of the main presenters on “Kalimerhaba,” a TV show presenting Turkish and Greek culture, which was brought to life by guests from both countries. “I remember the first program of Kalimerhaba, when our guests were Kadir Topaş, the mayor of Istanbul, and Dora Bakoyannis, foreign minister of Greece,” she said. “This was a fantastic experience, as I had my first political interview.”

Moutsatsos, who has lived in Turkey for a total of two years since 1998, commented on the change that occurred in Turkish-Greek relations after the earthquakes of 1999. “The earthquakes changed everything. The media changed their attitude. Especially, the Greek media,” she said. “The first time that I was in Turkey, I was impressed that the Turkish media would not refer to Greece all the time, as it was the case in Greece.” She explained that the media started to show the human aspect.

Apart from the earthquakes, Moutsatsos argues that TV programs, such as Yabancı Damat, helped bring the two nations closer. “It definitely contributed to it (better relations),” she said of the popular series. “It focused on the human factor and generally this series was a clever idea, since it was about the love of a Greek man for a Turkish woman and for that reason the series was easier to be accepted by Greek society. Turks are more open on these issues.” When the film “Kayıkçı” was presented to the Greek public in 1999, it did not have the same success, because it was about the love between a Greek woman (Moutsatsos) and a Turkish man.

The actress will also not forget the displays of love by both Greeks and Turks while she played in Yabancı Damat and recalls a humorous interaction she had in an elevator in Athens. “I got in the elevator, and a woman turned to me and asked me in amazement ‘You were in Antep! How come you are in my apartment building?”

‘Istanbul is my New York'

When asked whether she would like to return to Istanbul either to work or to visit she said, “I always return to Turkey. I come to see my friends. Istanbul is my New York.” Of all the areas in Istanbul she described her favorite area to be by the Golden Horn. “I like very much the crossing from Şirkeci to Karaköy at the Galata bridge, where one can see Aya Sofia, the Galata Tower and fishermen,” she said. “I also like Bebek, because it is a nice place to live and it is glamorous. It combines wealth and history. On the Asian side, I really like Çengelköy, because it is scenic and quaint.” For the last six months Moutsatsos has been living in Los Angeles where she is taking courses in producing and dancing. “I like big life changes. From the East I went to the West and I am planning to stay eight more months.”

To wrap up, Moutsatsos sent a message to her Turkish friends: “Çok selam söyle komşularıma,” Give my regards to my neighbors.