Duty Calls

Growing up, the phone in our house often rang at 2 a.m. My mother spent much of her career delivering babies, thus we spent much of our childhood hearing (and generally ignoring) middle of the night phone calls. They were as routine and unremarkable to me as any other phone call. It wasn’t until I was in college that I realized that calls after bedtime were out of the ordinary for most people.

My revelation came when, after getting a call from a drunk friend at 1 a.m., I found my roommate standing transfixed at the end of my bed.

“Who died?” she mouthed to me.

“What??” I said (probably too loudly and no doubt looking at her incredulously). “Why would someone have died?”

It turned out, according to my roommate, and somewhat surprisingly to me, that apparently for most people any call after 10 p.m. automatically portends some level of doom.

As the years have gone by I’ve thought a lot about how something as unremarkable as a phone call can be experienced so differently by two people. I’ve also realized that my roommate was right and middle of the night calls are not normal for most people.

But, like many things in Foreign Service life – at least overseas – what is normal for “most people” is not normal for us. I have gotten used to middle of the night calls once again, because every six months (and in some posts much more frequently) almost every officer at every post in the world gets to be The Duty Officer.

The Duty Officer is the de facto “on call” person after-hours at every U.S. Embassy and Consulate on earth. Bottom line – if you are an American citizen in trouble – no matter where you are outside of the U.S. – you can call the closest Embassy or Consulate and someone will answer the phone. 24 hours a day. 7 days a week. 365 days a year. Every evening (usually after 5), every weekend and every holiday, the person who answers the phone will be the Duty Officer.

B and I had back-to-back “Duty Weeks” recently – his over a holiday weekend – so we were treated to the unmistakable duty phone ring (loud and insistent) several times every night – and multiple times, day and night, during every weekend/holiday – for two weeks. It made me not only appreciate the dedication my mother had in accepting middle of the night calls for almost 30 years, but also the State Department for providing us, and all our fellow U.S. citizens, a human being at the end of the line 24 hours a day, every day, during times of crisis, trouble or, sometimes, just inconvenience.

The calls we get range from Americans who have lost their passports, to being denied boarding on a flight (this has been especially common during COVID times), to reporting a loved one missing. Sometimes the calls are, in fact, because someone has died. Sometimes they are because someone has been arrested. Occasionally they are calls from someone in the U.S. who is traveling to Turkey next month and “is just wondering what the situation there is right now?” Needless to say, these can be particularly frustrating and it’s difficult not to say “Well, the situation here is that we are 7 hours ahead of you, so you are waking me up at 3 a.m. to ask this very much “non-emergency” question, but otherwise all is well – enjoy your trip!” Tempting as that is, however, we simply answer the question and wish the caller well.

And, while I’m pretty sure many Americans have no idea that the duty phone exists, or who is answering the line if they call the “emergency” number at a Consulate or Embassy (or what time it is there), even fewer understand how limited our ability to help can be. Because the calls we receive are generally from Americans who are in Turkey, it can take some time and effort to remind them that they are in a sovereign nation that controls its own immigration, customs, visas, and all other laws and regulations. Likewise, we don’t have control over private companies (US or Turkish), so if Turkish Airlines decides not to board a passenger, our most useful guidance is usually “continue to work with Turkish Airlines.” That sort of “non” help can be extremely annoying to our callers, but in truth it is the best we can do in most circumstances.

As anyone who has braved international travel during the pandemic knows, things can – and do – change rapidly and significantly, so these types of issues occur daily now. B and I even found ourselves at the wrong end of the head spinning travel advisory flip-flops this summer. We were supposed to fly from Spain to Bulgaria to visit friends, but, the day before our scheduled travel, Bulgaria decided that Spain’s COVID numbers were too high and Spain went from being an “orange” country to a “red” one. No Bulgaria for us! But as we learned – and as we routinely tell our duty phone callers – such is life when you choose to fly during a global pandemic.

Regular (right) and EPDP (left)

It is also eye opening to realize how many things about international travel that we take for granted are mysteries to people who are less used to customs and immigration regulations. We routinely talk to Americans who didn’t realize that American citizens are required to exit and enter the United States with a U.S. passport. Because the U.S. has no consistent exit controls (as opposed to, say, Turkey, where your passport is stamped not only every time you enter the country, but also every time you exit) many dual citizens leave the U.S. on their foreign passports (not having obtained a U.S. passport) and then find that they cannot return home without getting an emergency U.S. passport while they are overseas. Every day my colleagues and I process at least one (and sometimes as many as 5) “EPDP” (Emergency Photo Digitized Passport) for someone who has arrived in Turkey without a U.S. passport, or has had their passport lost or stolen. At least once a week we have someone who has recently been naturalized who believed they could travel with just their new Naturalization Certificate.

Sometimes the duty calls are really difficult – parents whose children have been taken by the other parent, families calling because a loved one has died in Turkey, people who are searching for friends or relatives they cannot reach and who they believe to be in trouble. Twice in the time I’ve been working in “ACS” (American Citizen Services) we’ve had elderly Americans who have been stranded in the “transit” area of the Istanbul Airport because they missed their onward flight. One woman spent almost a week lost in the airport. Her family (and I – through them) knew she was there because she was going twice a day to the same snack stand and getting herself some food and coffee with her credit card, but beyond that no one could get in touch with her. Because of COVID we are not allowed into the airport at all – and we are never allowed beyond passport control. Without knowing where this woman could be found we could not convince the Turkish airport authorities to look for her. Eventually, one of her children flew to Istanbul from the U.S., then had to buy an onward ticket to an other destination so that she could enter the transit area. She found her mother and got her home, but it was a very stressful week for everyone.

From the FTC scam information website

We also get a lot of calls from victims of scams. Most are romance scams and many are incredibly elaborate. The caller usually believes that his/her finance (even occasionally “spouse”) has been transiting Istanbul when they have been involved in an accident, or have been pulled over by security/the police/customs because they are carrying large amounts of money/gold/medical equipment. They tend to follow a similar story line – the person is believed to have been working for the UN or NATO or the U.S. Military in a war zone (Syria most often) or on an oil rig in the Black Sea – and, after being paid with cash/gold, they are on their way home to reunite and marry the caller. The victims often have copies of a passport or ID card that they send to us as “proof” that the person exists, but, inevitably, we can see at a glance that the passport has been tampered with electronically. It can be heartbreaking to try and convince someone who believes they are in love – and are often older individuals who appear to be really lonely – that the person who has been wooing them – and to whom they have often sent thousands of dollars – is not real. According to the FTC, romance scams cost people a total of $301 billion in 2020 – yes that’s a B! Sadly, often the victims have been duped so effectively that nothing we say or do seems to help and we routinely have people who continue to email us begging us to help their stranded American “fiancee” even after multiple calls and emails from us confirming that the person is not a U.S. citizen.

Being the Duty Officer is never high on anyone’s list of fun things to do, but it is one very tangible way that those of us living and serving overseas get to see how our work can directly impact – and sometimes help – American citizens. I have noticed in the weeks since B and I finished our most recent Duty Officer service that we both jump any time we are out and about and someone happens to have the same ring on their phone as is programmed into the Duty Phone. Luckily, that only happens during the day and our nights are back to being phone call free – that is, I suppose, until the next time one of us is the Duty Officer.

The very hungry FSOs…

When C was a baby we, like many (many) parents often read “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” by Eric Carle to her. To this day, one of my favorite “Baby C” words (which she still sometimes trips over) is “calipitter” which we heard again and again as “Read calipitter!” We are LONG past that book (we’re more into Percy Jackson and Wings of Fire now), but the lessons of making our way through apples, pears, plums, oranges, strawberries, chocolate cake, ice cream, a pickle, Swiss cheese, salami, lollipops, cherry pie, sausage, cupcakes, and watermelon (we’ll skip the leaves, thanks) seems to be the story of our lives lately.

The epidemic and its “knock on effect” for a lot of people, including us, has been to spend more time baking at home, cooking at home and, not surprisingly, eating at home. We had one glorious weekend early in our time in Istanbul when we joined a visiting friend of ours at a couple of scrumptious restaurants (one of which was a “gerçek” (real) American” BBQ place called The Rusty Fork – baby back ribs, pulled pork and bacon – a rare and wonderful treat in a predominantly Muslim country). We also joined her on a food tour in the back alleys near the famed Istanbul Spice Bazaar where we were treated to dürüm – a Turkish wrap usually filled with kebab meat – and pide – a “sort of” Turkish pizza (but not really) – in local haunts that we would never have found on our own.

On that tour, we also tried roasted chestnuts from a street vendor, a traditional pumpkin dessert with a tahini dressing (not so sure we’ll be tasting that again…) and we had a çay (tea) at pretty much every place we went. The Turks love that C drinks tea and she loves that they make sure to always give her lots of sugar cubes to go with it. It was all (except that pumpkin thing) delicious.

Eventually we wound our way back to the Spice Market and I bought WAY too much fennel seed (you’d think I would be adept at using the metric system after 2 years in Australia and 18 or so years in Canada, but alas…) while C was treated to various candies and sweets by the vendors lining the historic covered alleys.

In retrospect, we have been desperately glad that we had that opportunity to do some “outside” eating, because, since then, we’ve been pretty much confined to our apartment for meals. We are very (very) lucky to have a small café in the complex from which we can order pretty good food to be delivered directly to our front door, as well as the myriad of apps in Istanbul that will deliver food to you faster than I sometimes think possible. The delivery from “Getir” is so fast that last week I realized I had forgotten to buy pasta for dinner (spaghetti, so somewhat necessary) and Getir delivered it to me before the noddle water had boiled.

This easy access to ingredients – both from Getir and, every Thursday, from our local bazaar – has fueled our eating/cooking frenzy in the last few weeks (the hours of bingeing on The Great British Bake Off might have had some influence as well…). I’ve made challah several times with our upstairs neighbor, and since my recipe makes two loaves, I’ve also make challah cinnamon rolls several times. Last weekend B decided he was going to master puff pastry – from scratch – so we’ve had two straight weekends with sweet and puffy palmiers for breakfast. I’m working on perfecting my homemade dill pickles, bagels, hummus, ice cream, and chimichurri, and I’ve made it my mission to try to make every type of cake I can find and figure out which one is best. So far I’ve managed angel food, a butter cake, a genoise and a classic “sponge.” Next on my list is a chiffon – but I’ve got to take a bit of a break lest I have to buy a whole new wardrobe for me and B.

All this cooking and eating has been a respite – and joy – in the midst of what continues to be for us – and so many people – increasingly difficult and sad days away from our families and friends. The vaccine for COVID has been a light at the end of the tunnel, but with the new variants causing chaos in so many places, it feels a bit as if the train has stopped moving with that pinpoint of light still unreachable in the distance.

Luckily, today I received a copy of Modern French Culinary Art in the mail which, apparently, is the bible of French cooking – so I’ve got a whole new crop of recipes to try. I’m not sure how many of the savory dishes I’ll attempt (open faced pickled tongue sandwiches or chicken mousseline forcemeat (!?) anyone?). But I’m willing to stay home just a little while longer to try out apple (charlotte), pear (à l’Imperiale), plum (pudding), orange (tart), strawberry (chantilly cream), chocolate cake and all the others right through to watermelon (cocktail with wine). With any luck by the time I make it through all the sweet things I want to try we will be able to emerge from this COVID cocoon and our “calipitter” days will be behind us.

Kediler ve Köpekler (Cats and Dogs…)

I am not a cat person. Or, at least, I have spent most of my life professing not to be a cat person.

This is, in part, because I’m basically deathly allergic to cats. Within minutes of coming in contact with them my eyes start itching, I sneeze uncontrollably, and, most troubling of all, it becomes difficult to breathe. As a result, I have become pretty good at avoiding cats over the years.

However, Turkey is testing my cat avoidance resolve because, well, you just can’t avoid them. Around every corner in Istanbul you are likely to run into a cat – or several cats. Most are wild – although I hesitate to say “feral” since they are fed and cared for by pretty much everyone – and no one in particular.

There are wild dogs too – though they are HUGE and intimidating, and don’t lend themselves to “petting” and fawning over. Some of them seem friendly enough, and most just ignore me as I walk past them, but I’ve had a couple of encounters where I’ve been barked at by a street dog, and, on one occasion, I unexpectedly came face to face with an entire pack (ok, well, maybe 5 dogs…) coming out of some brush as I walked up a road. They left me alone, but I’m not going to lie when I say it took a lot of effort not to high-tail it in the opposite direction.

My observation is that the cats are better treated than the dogs, but overall they are all treated well given that they don’t belong to anyone. Mahatma Ghandi once allegedly said that the “greatness of a nation can be judged by the way its animals are treated,” and if that is true, then Turkey can be judged pretty highly. All along the streets – both main thoroughfares and alleyways – you see bowls filled with fresh water and small piles of food. Feeding the animals from your table at a restaurant does not seem to be frowned upon and old ladies in the street always look at me fondly when I speak to the cats as I’m walking to and from work.

What’s amazing is that it is not just food and water that are provided. There are cat beds and dog houses in front of the grocery store and in nooks and crannies throughout the city. Cats lounge on the chairs set outside for guests at restaurants – and even those that are for sale outside of our local hardware store. Rather than shoo them away, people stop and pet them and offer them treats. And on our taxi rides around the city I’ve noticed that there is usually at least one ginormous dog sleeping peacefully in the middle of every sidewalk (or sometimes the middle of the street). We’ve also been told that vets do not charge to spay/neuter or take care of injured street cats, which is pretty remarkable to me.

The legends of why cats rule Istanbul (cause basically they do) are varied. One claims that Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, would return as a cat. However, since no one knows which cat, they must all taken care of and well treated. Another story holds that Atatürk said “his successor would be bitten on the ankle by an odd-eyed white cat,” so everyone is on the lookout for a crazy looking white cat.


In Islamic culture cats are also highly regarded and are the only animal allowed to enter the Great Mosque of Mecca. The Prophet Muhammad, in particular, was said to be very fond of cats and, by one account, opted to cut off one of his sleeves so he could rise from his prayers, rather than disturb a cat that had fallen asleep on his robe while he was praying. Another story claims that Muhammad was saved from a snake attack by cat, and that, as a reward, he blessed cats with the ability to always land on their feet. Then again, it may just be that cats keep to themselves and kill rats and mice – a pretty decent reason to keep them around a city with 15 million people.

Even our very private, very enclosed apartment complex can’t avoid Istanbul’s “kedi” life.

When we first arrived there were three kittens (the mother was around, but very good at hiding when anyone came to call) that the children on the complex basically adopted. The kittens were all given names (Ash, Scotch and Bandit) and there were daily excursions to visit them. One of the families took it upon themselves to take all three for shots and to get them bathed/treated for fleas.

As is my habit, I avoided them as much as possible for several weeks. Then one day I met a friend of mine at the “adults only” pool (which sounds much more risqué than it is – it’s really just the quiet pool without screaming children) and one of them, Ash, came and sat in my lap.

I didn’t realize until I sat there, with this sweet, soft, purring kitten in my lap how much I missed the companionship of an animal. The quiet, uncomplicated, unconditional love – even just for that moment – that they give.

This is the first time, in almost my entire life, that I’ve been without an animal. It’s hard to believe but we’re coming up on a year since Miller died, and we’ve vowed not to get a new dog until we finish our tour here. Thinking about that empty place in our lives, in that moment, sitting in the sunshine with that happy kitten in my lap, I wanted to scoop him up and take him back to our apartment and figure out a way to make that feeling last – without the accompanying wheezing and sneezing.

And then, two days later, as I was continuing to work through the logistics of how I could convince B, and not die in the process, the kittens were gone. Their carry case, their bowls and them – gone.

I asked the guard at the gate what happened to them and he told me that some people in the complex don’t like the cats, so they had them taken to a local park. Given that this is Turkey and there a 15 million (minus apparently some scrooge in my apartment complex) cat loving inhabitants in Istanbul I truly believe that the kittens really are in a park as opposed to this being the Turkish equivalent of “we sent the dog to live on a nice farm…” But I have been unexpectedly sad about their departure.

On my many walks around the neighborhood in the last couple of weeks, I’ve insisted on popping into all the local parks and gardens to see if I could find the kittens and confirm they are ok, but so far I haven’t had any luck. Hopefully, someone else is enjoying their cuddles and treating them as Mohammed would have treated them. In the meantime, we found some other cute kittens to love on our adventures this weekend. Only time will tell whether my allergies (and B) win out, or whether we’ll have a kedi in tow when we leave Istanbul in 2023.

By the way, if you want to learn more about the cats – and dogs – of Istanbul – check out these films.

Istanbuldayim (I am in Istanbul)

I made it to Istanbul.

In even more exciting news – I have now made it out of my 14-day “self-isolation” unscathed and without COVID, so we are now free (sort of) to explore.

We still have to wear a mask everywhere we go in public (or risk a 900TL (Turkish Lira) – approximately $130 – fine), but that didn’t stop us from taking full advantage of a long weekend.

My first impressions of Istanbul were definitely tainted by our new reality – the airport was basically empty when I arrived, and B and C were not allowed to pick me up, so a Consulate driver took me straight to our residence with no sight-seeing detours (we detoured to see kangaroos when we arrived in Canberra!), and I then spent the next two weeks enjoying the view from our balcony (which, while lovely, mostly overlooks other apartments).

But since our “escape” from the balcony, we have taken full advantage of starting the process of exploring this amazing city. By Sunday morning it was clear to me that there is no way 3 years will be enough time to do Istanbul justice, but we’ll do our best to get to as many places as we can – both in the city – and throughout Turkey.

On Saturday morning we met up with a couple of Consulate folks and headed down to an area called Dolapdere in search of a butcher.

Now, there are a LOT of butchers in Istanbul. Just in the little area near us, we pass one or two “kasaps” (butchers) every block or two – so why travel 20 minutes by taxi to visit a butcher?

Because, according to an article B read, this is the last butcher in Istanbul who sells pork. In many respects, it is not hugely obvious that we are living in a Muslim country – Istanbul in particular is pretty secular, but pork is still not easy to come by, so, for us, a butcher shop with a possible bacon connection was worth the drive.

We ended up buying a couple of pork chops, some prosciutto – and, of course, some bacon. We had BLTs for dinner last night – and the bacon did not disappoint. We’ll try the pork chops later this week and see how that goes, but I have high hopes.  In the meantime, I also just placed an order with an online pork store called IstHAMbul (ha!) – and hopefully in the next couple of days we’ll have more bacon, some chorizo and some pork loin to test. Notwithstanding the ease of ordering online though, I enjoyed visiting the local store and patronizing this “last pork store standing.” 

After leaving Dolapdere, we wandered into Beyoğlu – one of the more touristy areas of Istanbul – and meandered along cobblestone streets checking out the mix of traditional places (carts selling roasted chestnuts, made-to-order fruit juice or simit (basically a Turkish bagel)) and modern stores (H&M, Pandora, Shake Shack). It’s an eclectic area and I am looking forward to going back – for more wandering and some shopping – soon.


We also got sucked into a little antique shop on a side road and squeezed our way through tables full of silver, old Edison phonographs, and several huge gold colored busts of Ataturk. Our new friends also introduced us to a couple of art stores – where B and I conceded that our plan to *not* buy more art will likely soon be out the window.

Finally, we ended up at a restaurant called Anemon Galata that was on the 5th floor of a boutique hotel and overlooked the Golden Horn of the Bosphorus on one side, and the Galata Tower (built in 1348 – more about some of the historical things later) on the other. It was amazing to walk out and see views that are quintessential Istanbul – and the food was great too.

On Sunday we joined a group of new friends and went out into the Bosphorus on a yacht. We had a huge Turkish “kahvalti” (breakfast) and then just enjoyed the breeze, the views and – for some of us – the water. It was magical.

So it turns out I probably won’t have a problem finding things to write about during our tour in Turkey. My bigger problem may be finding the time to write in between all our exploring. Next weekend we hope to check out Taksim Square – and the Grand Bazaar (and some carpets!) – but in the meantime, we’ll enjoy the breeze from the balcony and work on planning our next “escape.”