Maternal Care in the US, Turkey, and Germany: General Overview of Healthcare Systems and Parental Leave, Plus Statistics on C-Sections, Maternal and Infant Mortality, and Postpartum Depression/Anxiety

As I’ve previously mentioned, two big things have happened in my life recently: my husband and I moved to southwestern Germany at the end of 2017, and we are expecting our first child in May.  These are both pretty significant life developments and I feel like I’ve really hit the ground running this past month, between trying to settle into a new country/culture and suddenly panicking that the third trimester is right around the corner and I actually need to start, like, preparing to have and take care of this baby.

A big part of that has been figuring out the German healthcare system and learning what is available to me here, and how things are typically done.  This is an ongoing process that has involved some research on my part, talking to doctors and midwives, and asking tons of questions to women in the area (sometimes in person through meet-ups, and also through a local mom’s group I joined online).  It’s also made me more curious about maternal and infant care in general, so I’ve been asking my American and other foreign (ie, non-American and not-living-in-Germany) friends about their experiences too.

The answers I’m getting are incredibly interesting, and I’ve noticed one huge pattern specifically:

The vast majority of the women I talk to in Germany about their pregnancy, childbirth, and postpartum experience are incredibly positive about it.  Most talk about what a calm and wonderful experience it was, and how great their care was– before, during, and after birth.

The Americans I talk to, on the other hand, are all incredibly stressed out.  Most seem fairly neutral about the actual care they received in the hospital during delivery (there are exceptions to this– I have a few friends who had great experiences with their doctors, and a few friends who had absolutely horrible experiences) but money issues, insurance issues, lack of postpartum care, and issues with maternity leave make this period a really stressful time for almost everyone, it seems.

General Overview

Here is what I know about the various healthcare systems of the countries I’ve lived in, as they relate to maternal and infant care (disclaimer: I am not an expert by any means, and if any of this is incorrect, please feel free to let me know):

America: The US is infamously the only developed country that doesn’t require employers to provide paid maternity leave.  (As a personal example, the public high school where I taught in North Carolina before moving abroad offered zero paid maternity leave.)  New parents are entitled to twelve weeks unpaid leave via the FMLA (Family and Medical Leave Act) if they’ve been working at the company for more than one year, and if the company has at least 50 employees; otherwise, they are entitled to six weeks unpaid leave via FMLA.  You have a hospital bill you need to pay after insurance; people I’ve talked to have mentioned bills that were fairly low, to several thousand dollars.  Midwives don’t seem to be especially common (I think I know one person who has used one?, and I know several people who said they wanted one but their insurance didn’t cover it), postpartum care seems virtually nonexistent after the 2-3 days in the hospital, and follow-up postpartum appointments can be hard to get.

Turkey: You get four months of paid maternity leave, two weeks of which are required to take before your due date; however, you get paid this money at the end of the four months, not in monthly installments like you would your normal salary.  After that, you can take another eight months of “breastfeeding leave” where you work 3/4ths of your hours for full pay (so basically, part-time).  It seems like most employers let you take up to two years maternity leave unpaid, with job protection; I don’t know if this is a law or just common practice.

One thing that was not great about the Turkish system is that private health insurance won’t cover anything maternity-related until you’ve been on one specific plan for a minimum of one year.  I didn’t know this.  I had switched jobs and was only on my private insurance plan for either ten or eleven months when I got pregnant, therefore they wouldn’t cover any of my pregnancy care.  I could have used the public insurance to see a state doctor, but since I really wanted/needed someone who spoke English well and also wanted someone who was a proponent of vaginal births (the c-section rate in Turkey is astronomical), I chose a private doctor and we paid for my prenatal check-ups out of pocket.  It wasn’t cheap, but it was manageable (and significantly cheaper than non-insured, out-of-pocket care would be in the US).  That said, I really liked my doctor and was happy with the care I got there for the first half of my pregnancy.

I know the cost of birth there can differ dramatically depending on what hospital you give birth in, your doctor, and what kind of birth and care you have.  I don’t really know many details about this, but the top of the range seemed to be around $5,000 USD, with cheaper options available.  I’m not sure about midwife or postpartum care, but midwives seem more common than in the US.

Germany: You can have either public or private health insurance; either way, you pay one fee per month for your insurance and all care is covered 100%, meaning you don’t pay anything for prenatal check-ups or for giving birth.  You can choose either a public or private hospital regardless of which insurance you have.  (I have public insurance but will be giving birth in a private hospital.)  Midwives are common– it seems like everyone has them, and they check up on you for several weeks after birth with home visits.  Hospitals offer birthing and prenatal exercise classes when you’re pregnant, and postpartum classes for you and baby (including things like pelvic-floor-strengthening-class and baby yoga).  All of this is covered by insurance.

There is maternity leave (only available for the mother) at 100% pay that covers six weeks before birth and eight after.  On top of that, there is parental leave that can be taken either by the mother or father, or a combination, of up to fourteen months after birth at around 70% pay.  (So, the mom can take all fourteen months, the father can, or they can split it between themselves with one person taking, say, eight months, and the other taking six months.)  It also seems like you can take those fourteen months in three separate chunks during the first eight years of your child’s life– so if you know you’ll need to take some time off later, you can save some of those months.  However, I might be wrong about this, since it’s something that I’ve come across in my research but haven’t confirmed with anyone who’s done it.


C-section rates (source)
America: 32.8% as of 2012
Turkey: 47.5% as of 2011
Germany: 30.3% as of 2009

Maternal mortality rates as of 2015 (source)
America: 26.4 deaths/100,000 live births
Turkey: 15.8 deaths/100,000 live births
Germany: 9 deaths/100,000 live births

(I would be remiss here if I didn’t mention that maternal mortality rates in the US are sharply divided along racial lines, with Black women 2 to 6 times more likely to die during or shortly after childbirth, even when controlled for other factors like education, lifestyle, and income.)

Infant mortality rates (source)
America: 6.1 deaths/1,000 live births
Turkey: Not found
Germany: 3.4 deaths/1,000 live births.

Postpartum Depression and Anxiety

While thinking about all this, my mind turned to postpartum depression and anxiety.  I’m lucky in that I’ve had several women in my life who have been very open with their experiences with PPD/PPA, so I was aware of it long before getting pregnant, and a lot of these women have become advocates for better PPD/PPA care in the US since experiencing it themselves.  However, PPD/PPA is notoriously difficult to get properly diagnosed and treated in the US; if you need proof, read this story about Jessica Porten, who told a nurse at her first postpartum check-up (four months after giving birth, the first appointment she could get!) that she wanted to talk about treatment options for her PPD.  The nurse called the cops on Porten and she was taken to be involuntarily admitted to ER, held for ten hours, and then released without ever seeing a doctor or getting her PPD addressed.  (The link above is to an MSN article but you can read Porten’s original post there as well, and I recommend you do.)

It seems to me that the mere existence of better postpartum care, and of midwives doing frequent postpartum home visits, would really go a long way towards helping new mothers dealing with PPD/PPA.  Most of the women I know who experienced PPD/PPA did not have it properly diagnosed and treated until their babies were around five or six months old, and a lot of it came from feelings of being completely overwhelmed by taking care of a newborn or from some sort of specific issue they were having trouble with and didn’t know how to fix, like breastfeeding.

And if you have someone who is qualified stopping by to check in you regularly– a professional who can answer your questions, give advice and guidance, assure you that you’re doing a good job, and who is trained to look for signs of PPD/PPA– it has an enormous potential to alleviate a lot of the aforementioned feelings of being overwhelmed or anxious before they spiral into full-blown PPD/PPA.  Of course, preventative measures aren’t perfect, and having a good system in place for diagnosis and treatment is an important aspect, too.  (As is, OBVIOUSLY, not criminalizing or stigmatizing it; see above, re: what happened to Jessica Porten.)  I was very pleased recently when I picked up a packet of brochures in English at a birthing information session at a hospital and it mentioned PPD on the very second page of the first brochure.

Page 2 of the brochure packet from the hospital

So I got curious and looked up the PPD/PPA rates by country.  I couldn’t find a resource that listed PPD/PPA statistics by country, unfortunately (although this is is an interesting academic article from the NIH that talks about cultural factors that can engender PPD/PPA, with rates being significantly higher in Asian countries); however, digging around a bit, I did find individual statistics for countries.

According to the CDC, PPD rates in the United States are anywhere between 1 in 9 to 1 in 5 (so, between 11-20%).  This was corroborated by a few other sources I found, some of which averaged the range and landed on a rate around 15%.

According to the NIH, PPD rates in Turkey are around 21% in developed cities and 25% in developing areas, averaging out to about 23.8%.

In Germany, according to a 2008 study done at Heidelberg University, PPD rates were around 6.1% in and PPA rates were around 10.1% in the sample community.  However, the study self-reports the limitation that it was conducted in a predominantly middle class community.  This report by the NIH lists PPD rates as being around 3.6%, and their conclusion of the study was that there is a high acceptance of for the management of PPD from healthcare professionals.

Honestly I was surprised at how difficult it was to fine reliable statistics on postpartum depression.  Regardless of the country, this is obviously something that needs more attention.

As mentioned earlier in the post, I’m not a healthcare expert or a statistician; I’m just someone who finds this kind of stuff both interesting and important to understand.  I can’t claim with any sort of confidence that there is definitely a direct causation, rather than just correlation, between any of this.  But as a pregnant lady who has experienced all these systems, it’s information that I’m glad to know.









A Sunday Walk in Odenwald Forest

One thing that has taken some getting used to since moving to Germany is that everything shuts down on Sundays here.  All shops and malls, including grocery stores and little corner shops that sell essentials, close their doors for the day.  (I had a panicky moment the other week where I was terrified we would run out of toilet paper on Sunday and not be able to buy more– if nothing else, it’s a lesson in planning ahead!)  Literally everything but the occasional bakery or restaurant is closed, leaving the question: what do we do with ourselves?

Yesterday my husband and I decided to get outdoors for a bit.  One thing I really like about Germany is how easy it is to get some fresh air; there are walking and biking paths everywhere, through neighborhoods and random fields and alongside every major road.  Where we live is also surrounded by forests, so we did some Googling and headed out to Odenwald, found a random parking lot beside a twisty mountain road, and set off.

(This is where I feel like I have to mention that “wald” means forest in German, so saying Odenwald Forest is a bit redundant, like saying PIN number.  But, sometimes clarification is nice.)

The parking lot had five different trails branching off from it.  We didn’t have a map– and there were none around that we could see– and four of the trails went pretty steeply downhill over wet rocks; at six months pregnant, I decided I’d rather go for the fifth path that was wide, flat, and gently sloped uphill.

The scenery was stunning.  When we first started walking, the weather was a bit wet and misty but the path was clear, with fog hanging out in the trees on each side, and the woods were quiet.  The trees were so dense and dark that we both wondered out loud if we were in the Black Forest.  We looked it up when we got home and we weren’t, but the Black Forest is very close by, and I can see where the name most likely comes from.

Start of the hike

While walking, we passed many other people of all ages out doing the same thing, as well as many mountain bikers and– wait for it– mountain unicyclers.  Yes, you read that right.  We saw multiple people riding unicycles through the woods.  I can’t remember the last time I was that simultaneously amused and impressed, and all of my hobbies suddenly seem incredibly boring in comparison.

Also, we discovered that Germans are bit more interactive in the woods than in regular life.  The lack of eye contact/interaction with strangers is something that both of us are adjusting to, but towards the beginning of the hike, we passed a group of twentysomething guys on mountain bikes waiting beside the path, and they smiled and said hello to us.  This kind of thing never happens normally– when I use the walking paths in my neighborhood, the people who pass each other literally pretend the other one doesn’t exist– so we thought, “Huh, maybe this is a thing when hiking.”  I know in the US that it’s customary to greet other hikers in the woods, so we decided to at least make eye contact and nod or smile for the rest of the hike, and there was about a 75% success rate of people nodding or saying hello back.  Not too bad!

As mentioned, we didn’t have a map on us and didn’t know where the path led, so we walked uphill for maybe a mile before turning back.  The higher in elevation we got, the denser the fog became until it eventually shrouded the path.

Odenwald: a neighbor to the Black Forest.  You can see the condensation on the trees at this elevation.

At that elevation, dew was sticking to everything; even my husband’s mustache and beard suddenly had visible drops of condensation on them.  The occasional wind gusts that came through the treetops sounded like cars on a highway.  It truly felt like we were in another world.

We weren’t out for that long but it was a nice first foray into a local forest, and we will definitely go back.  In some ways, everything being closed on Sundays is nice because it forces you to take a breather and make some time for yourself, and hiking is a really nice way to do that.  It’s hard to beat the combination of fresh air and endorphins.



All in all, a really great Sunday, and I’m looking forward to the next one, hopefully this time with a map.


Turkey vs. Germany: Initial Impressions

An outsider’s perspective after 3.5 years in Istanbul and 1.5 weeks in southwestern Germany.

Interacting with cashiers

Turkey: Ah yes, here is an obviously foreign person, I shall talk to her with minimum expectations of her knowing Turkish.  Oh, she speaks some Turkish!  What a pleasant and unexpected surprise.  I will laugh gleefully in her face at how cute it is that she’s trying.

Germany: Here is a normal German person, I shall speak German to her… wait, what is she saying?  Is she trying to speak German?  Are the words coming out of her mouth a known human language? *narrows eyes* Is she foreign, or perhaps just very, very stupid?

Hard liquor in grocery stores

Turkey: There is one tiny shelf behind the cash register, please request what you want and then provide your life savings, dignity, and firstborn child’s soul as tender.

Germany: Feel free to peruse our aisles of booze at your leisure, or if you are pressed for time, grab one of the many travel-sized bottles located near the cash register for your convenience, that will be €1.79, enjoy 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂


Turkey: 45°F (7°C) and rainy

Germany: 45°F (7°C) and rainy

Passing strangers in the aisles of stores

Turkey: You in my space, BITCH?  YOU WANT SOME OF THIS? *takes off gloves, throws them on the ground, prepares for sparring and body checks*

Germany: No eye contact, ever

Saying goodbye

Turkey: Many Turkish phrases repeated several times, multitudes of cheek kissing and waving at the door

Germany: Awkward eye contact

Green spaces

Turkey: Oh, you want to keep your forests undeveloped?  Bwahahahahahaha!  You’re HILARIOUS.

Germany: YOU get a forest! And YOU get a forest!  EVERYBODY gets a forest!!!!

Windows in apartments

Turkey: Silky, draping, sumptuous curtains; fantastic for adding ambiance and elegance to your home

Germany: Very functional, industrial-style electronic blackout shades; fantastic for pretending you live in a cave


Turkey: Tuna Can and Ufuk are TOTALLY legit and normal names; also, let’s make the words for “bread” and “man” almost identical so foreigners can embarrass themselves by asking for fresh, hot men at the bakery

Germany: Let’s just go ahead and put the word “fahrt” on all our traffic and pedestrian signs






Seven Artists I’m Loving Right Now

(Quick note: generally whenever I use images in this blog, they are all pictures that I’ve taken and own the copyright to.  Obviously I don’t own the images in this post, but I do list sources for them and, when applicable, websites for the artists.  The cover painting for this post is Portrait of James Hamilton, Earl of Arran by Kehinde Wiley, which can be found here.)

I love art, I love art museums, and I love finding new artists to follow.  Below is a list of some of my current favorites, all of whom are contemporary working artists except for one.

Kehinde Wiley

Kehinde Wiley has been making well-deserved headlines lately, since Barack Obama chose him to paint his presidential portrait, and I couldn’t be more thrilled.  I discovered Kehinde Wiley several years ago by his re-imagining of Judith and Holofernes, which hangs in the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh, my old stomping grounds.  The NCMA is a great museum in general, but I literally stopped in my tracks when we got to Wiley’s painting.  There is something I love in the combination of his hyper-realistic portraits and brightly colored patterned backgrounds that I haven’t seen from any other artist (although his works do remind me a bit of this Vincent Van Gogh painting, which I also love).  He also provides a fresh take on many existing artworks, like the aforementioned Judith and Holofernes and the famous portrait of Napoleon.

You can find his website here.

(Image 1 Source, Image 2 Source, Image 3 Source)

Judith and Holofernes
Randerson Romualdo Cordeiro
Alexander I, Emperor of Russia

Monica Martino

Monica Martino is an artist living in Georgia who makes all sorts of hilarious, clever products like t-shirts, mugs, and paintings, all designed and drawn by her.  Basically, she does what Urban Outfitters does, but better, and as a small business.  I have several friends who have bought things from her Etsy shop and been thrilled with them, and they make fantastic gifts, in case you have anyone in your life that you’re still stumped on what to get them for Christmas.  Anyway, seeing her stuff always makes me laugh, and I have a bunch of things bookmarked on her Etsy page for future purchases.

You can find her Etsy shop here.

Perfect stocking stuffer for your grandma, no?

Ester Hernandez

Ester Hernandez is another artist I discovered via the North Carolina Museum of Art (no, really, it’s wonderful! go visit if you’re in the area!), where her painting La Ofrenda was part of a special exhibition of Chicanx artists.  Her work is part of permanent collections in the Smithsonian, the Library of Congress, and Stanford, and she also has permanent collections in Mexico City and London.

You can find her website here.

(Image 1 Source)

La Ofrenda


Clare Caufield

Clare Caufield is a British artist who does dynamic, dreamlike drawings and paintings of city scenes.  I found her while obsessively poring over Etsy, looking for art of my favorite cities.  It turns out that she has her own website as well where she posts her galleries, exhibitions, and art she has for sale.

You can find her website here.  All images were taken from her website.

View from the Rialto Bridge, Venice
Charles Bridge, Prague

Gustav Klimt

Okay, hear me out.  This one is obviously different from the other artists on the list because he’s both 1) dead and 2) super famous and firmly canonized.  But I think he’s worth putting on here because I didn’t really know much about his work until recently.  The only painting of his I knew was The Kiss, which honestly, is not my favorite work of art ever.  Maybe it’s been ruined for me because it’s so ubiquitous, and I associate it with, like, college dorm room posters and notebooks and stuff.  (But a lot of Van Gogh and Monet stuff fits into that description as well, and I still like them, so maybe not.)

Then I went to Vienna, Klimt’s hometown, in the summer of 2016, and it turns out that he’s actually a really amazing artist.  (Who could have guessed, right?)  His work was everywhere you turned in Vienna and so much of it was more interesting than The Kiss.  He’s worth looking into more if you don’t know much about him.

I don’t have a website where you can buy his stuff (obviously), but I do recommend that you check out the movie Woman in Gold, about one of his paintings that was stolen by the Nazis and starring Helen Mirren, based on a true story.

(Image 1 source, Image 2 source)

Dame Mit Faecher
Detail from ‘Medicine’

Hayv Kahraman

Hayv Kahraman is an Iraqi painter, illustrator, and sculptor who is based in Los Angeles.  I honestly don’t know much about her outside of her art, but her work seems to focus mainly on women and the Iraqi diaspora, and is both wonderful and, at times, harrowing.  She’s getting lots of attention both within the art world and from more mainstream media outlets, so she’s someone to watch for sure.

You can find her website here.

(Image 1 Source, Image 2 Source, Image 3 Source)

Leveled Leisure
Honor Killings

Ingrid Vermeer

Ingrid Vermeer is a Dutch artists who I found on… wait for it… Instagram.  She did a project where she drew portraits of people on Post-It notes every day for a year, and then switched to 100 days of drawing on found objects.  It doesn’t look like her stuff is available for order online, but I really enjoy following her.  Her art is just… fun.

She can be found on Instagram with the username studioyellowdays and her blog is 365 days of post it people.

(Image 1 Source, Image 2 Source, Image 3 Source)

Self-portrait on an old encyclopedia page
Some of her post-it people
Part of her 100 days of drawing on found stuff project


You Can Still Visit the Original Istanbul Train Station Where the Orient Express Began

This past weekend my husband and I went to go see the new Murder on the Orient Express movie.  It was about what I expected, based on reviews I’d read– the acting was fun, the costumes and scenery were fantastic, the story itself was enjoyable if a bit underwhelming.  It’s more a homage to the glamour of the 1930s than it is a riveting detective movie, even with Kenneth Branagh’s stellar performance as Hercule Poirot.

One thing I did like about it is that it’s perhaps the first movie I’ve seen that takes place in Istanbul (partially, for a brief bit at the beginning of the film) that didn’t make me want to tear my hair out.  Most Western movies use Istanbul through a heavy lens of orientalism— making Istanbul seem exotic just for the sake of being exotic, of attributing various aspects of Arab culture to the city that don’t even exist here (reminder: Turks and Arabs have distinct languages, religious denominations, and cultures), that sort of thing.  There was none of that in this movie, thankfully.

Something I didn’t know until last year is that you can still go to the train station in Istanbul that was one of the endpoints of the Orient Express, and I only found out because we happened to stumble across it while out in the city one day.  It’s a beautiful old building, and we wandered over to get a better look at it before realizing what it is.  It’s situated in the city’s historic peninsula, and is surrounded by bazaars and mosques and monuments that are hundreds and thousands of years old, so it’s kind of easy to miss even though it does have that old-school glamour that the time period is known for.

The front of Sirkeci Station

Sirkeci Station was built in 1888 by the Ottoman Empire, who decided that Istanbul needed to be connected to Europe after the Crimean War.  The station ran both local and international trains.  The train lines changed frequently over the years, and eventually a restaurant was added that became a popular spot for artists, writers, and journalists in the 1950s and 1960s.  The Orient Express line to Istanbul was shut down in 1977 (later, the other stations were shut down as well in other countries, ending the famous route), and all international lines were shut down from Sirkeci until just this past year.  Now, a few routes are running to cities in the Balkans.

Inside one of the waiting rooms of the station, looking out to the train platform

When we were at the station last spring, they were doing restoration on the facade of the building, and certain parts of the station were locked/unavailable for tourists.  Still, the architecture is beautiful, and it’s worth wandering into when you’re in the area– and if you’re a tourist in Istanbul, you’ll definitely be in the area, since it’s close to the Grand Bazaar, Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, and the Blue Mosque.  The restaurant still exists and you can sit down for lunch, or even just for tea and a snack.  The station was decently busy but not overly crowded when we were there, both with tourists and with locals, and at one point a group bike tour pedaled through.

And if you like this kind of architecture and the glamour from that time period, another place to visit is the Pera Palace Hotel and Museum— it’s where Agatha Christie used to hang out and write when she was in Istanbul.  It’s a beautiful building and one of my favorite art museums in Istanbul.  It’s not particularly close to Sirkeci Station– it’s across the Golden Horn, located just off the famous Istiklal Street.  Istiklal sadly has seen better days and is definitely not what it once was– nowadays, it’s mostly construction and empty storefronts– but the Pera Palace is still there and still stunning, and I definitely recommend it if you have a free afternoon.

Istanbul is such a diverse city, and sometimes you can find the most interesting bits of history when you look past the mosques and bazaar.

Rome: An Ode to Off-Season Travel

I’ve been to Rome twice: once as a 19-year-old study abroad student in 2005, and the other at age 30 in 2015.  The two trips, ten years apart, could not have been more different.

(Yes, this happened two years ago; a friend recently posted pictures of the Trevi fountain and it made me all nostalgic, so I’m finally writing about it.)

My first time, it was a weekend trip.  I was in Italy for the summer, living and studying in the small hilltop town of Orvieto, in Umbria.  (Google it!  It’s beautiful.)  I went to Rome for the weekend with some other girls from my American university who were also doing the summer study abroad program.

Fountain at the Vatican

My memories of the 2005 trip to Rome are hazy at this point, but I mostly remember it being hot, crowded, and overwhelming.  I’m sure there were things I liked about it, but the most vivid recollections I have are standing in the heat in front of St. Peter’s and trying to find drinkable water, getting lost at night trying to use public transportation, and climbing up the hill to the Vatican Museums only to see a note on the door that it was closed.  And did I mention that it was HOT?

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The Trevi Fountain

And I’m sure a large part of it was me, and my lack of experience; I was young, it was my first trip out of North America, and I wasn’t used to navigating big cities.  My only experience with life at that point was my tiny hometown and my quiet, small college campus.  Rome was a whole different beast.

Yet I hear others report similar experiences there when they go during the summer, at the height of tourist season– that it’s crowded, hot, chaotic, and with really long lines.  When everyone inundates the city for the summer, it turns into a rat race of trying to cram everything you want to see into a few days while fighting millions of other tourists to do it, all with scorching temperatures.

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Piazza Navona

My trip in 2015 was almost the exact opposite experience.  I’m a seasoned traveler by now, and have lived in big cities, and toured many more.  I’m not stressed out by them anymore.

But perhaps the biggest difference is that we went in fall, during the off-season.  And it was absolutely lovely.

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Have I mentioned the food yet? Drool.

My husband and I went for a long weekend (four or five days, I can’t remember) and the city seemed almost empty by comparison to my last trip.  Everything was calm, quiet.  This time my main memories are of wandering side streets and stumbling upon the most amazing architecture, visiting the Trevi Fountain at night, of drinking cheap carafes of wine with lunch, of walking right up to both the Vatican Museums and the Colosseum and buying tickets without any lines, and going right in.  The memories are of beautiful weather and candlelit dinners in restaurants near our hotel.

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Cheap (but good!) wine is 100% my favorite thing about Italy

It was such a nice, relaxing trip, and when I think about Rome now, I only think about how romantic it was, and how I’d love to go back again and again (…. but not in summer).  If you’d asked me before this trip if Rome would ever hold any special place in my heart, I’d probably have said no– before, it seemed mainly like one of those “go once and see everything, and that’s enough” cities.  But now, it feels like I’ve seen an entirely different side of it.

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In St. Peter’s Square– look how empty it is!

I guess the moral of the story is that most places deserve a second chance, because you never know how your experience will change– and that beating the summer crowds (or waiting for them to disappear) is worth more than just a cheaper plan ticket.


Things I Wish Americans Knew About the Middle East

Recently I went to a talk by an academic and journalist who specializes in Middle Eastern politics.  This journalist has spent the last decade living in the Middle East and as part of her research she interviews people from all over the spectrum in Middle Eastern politics– from activists involved in the Arab Spring and the Muslim Brotherhood to jihadists.  Her talk, which really was more of a discussion that invited questions and input from the small audience, delved into a lot of various issues in the Middle East right now, and I left the talk thinking, “This is the kind of information I wish everyone in America knew.”

Some of the things she mentioned were things I already knew.  Some were things I had never heard of, or had heard of but didn’t understand on any sort of deep level.  Here is a brief list of things that I think would be surprising to most Americans– some of them are things that came up in the talk, and others are things I’ve only learned myself in the past few years and wanted to pass along.

Many of the jihadists and people recruited by ISIS aren’t “good” or overly observant Muslims.  A lot of the jidahists that have emerged in Europe, especially, are petty criminals or people who do things like drink, take drugs, or sleep around that are “haram” (forbidden) in Islam.  They tend to be more driven by a desire for violence and revenge, or a search to belong to/be accepted into a group, than religious piousness.

The #1 indicator of whether or not a young Muslim man would become radicalized is whether or not he grew up in a Francophone (French-speaking) country.  Researchers think this is because of the strict secularism laws that exist on those countries, including a ban on headscarves, that has made some Muslims feel oppressed.

Only 2 countries have enforced headscarves/covering laws (Saudi Arabia and Iran).  However, 15 Muslim countries have had or currently have laws *against* headscarves.  Turkey is one of those countries– women covering their heads was not allowed in schools, universities, or public service positions until 2013.

The boundaries drawn in the Middle East are completely arbitrary and relatively new.  They were made France and Britain after WWI, when the Ottoman Empire (which controlled much of the Middle East at the time) lost the war.  The random splitting up of territories didn’t take into account how the locals felt about it, and ended up in a lot of the in-fighting between different ethnic groups and sects that we see now.

“Muslim” and “Arab” are not synonymous.  If someone is an Arab, it means they’re from one of the countries on the Arabian peninsula or Northern Africa.  There are lots of Arabs who aren’t Muslim– there are plenty of religious minorities living in those countries, including Christians.  Alternatively, there are lots of Muslim countries, and lots of Muslims, that aren’t Arab.  Fun fact: Indonesia is home to the largest percentage of Muslims in the world.

… Related, not all Muslims speak Arabic.  Turks speak Turkish.  Iranians speak Farsi.  Afghanis speaks Pashto and Dari.  Pakistanis speak Urdu.  Bangladeshis speak Bengali.  … And so on.  Also, this is not a complete list by any means; all of these countries have other languages and dialects as well.  But they definitely do NOT all speak Arabic.

There are no camels or deserts in Turkey.  When people learn that I live in Turkey, a lot of them seem to picture some sort of vaguely Arabic landscape that looks like Morocco or Saudi Arabia.  Nope.  Turkey has lots of different climates due to all the mountains in the country, but a lot of the country is very green and humid and fertile, and there is not a single desert to be seen anywhere.  Also, we don’t do our weekly grocery shopping at the Grand Bazaar.

It also snows in Turkey– this was the view out of my apartment window in Istanbul this past winter.

There has been a LOT of Western, especially American, meddling when it comes to Middle Eastern governments, leadership, and power struggles.  We had a hand in the Iranian Revolution in 1979.  We funded and armed the group that would become the Taliban (and are currently funding the weak Afghanistan government that is now fighting against the Taliban).  We are currently arming the Syrian rebels to fight against the Syrian government and the Kurds in Northern Iraq to fight against ISIS.  These are just a few brief examples, but basically the US has a long history of choosing a side that supports our own interests without really thinking of the long-term consequences or how it affects the people living in those countries.

There are different “levels” of devoutness for practicing (and non-practicing!) Muslims.  I don’t mean that there are set levels and they choose one, but Islam is the same as most any other religion, especially such a big one– some believers are very strict, some aren’t, and there’s everything in-between.  Some Muslim women dress modestly, some don’t; some Muslims don’t drink alcohol and some do; some fast during Ramadan and some don’t; some pray five times a day, and some don’t.  And there are also Muslims who consider that their cultural identity but who aren’t actively practicing.


And before I end, one more thing to perhaps challenge the perceptions you have of Islam: the picture I used for the cover photo of this post was taken in Spain, at the Alhambra Palace in Granada.