How to thrive during the holidays (even in a foreign land)

It's that time of year again...


A time of joyful gatherings, the smell of baking cookies, and—oh yeah—STRESS.

One of the things I love about being an expat is that, when you live in a predominantly Muslim country like Turkey, where most people don't celebrate or even know for sure when Christmas is, you get to decide how, when, and if you will celebrate.

It frees you to create your own traditions and rituals. Some years I have completely ignored holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas, and I've been perfectly happy to do so. No crazy last-minute shopping or late nights baking cookies which were fun and festive for the first few batches but became drudgery after that.

But this year, for some reason, I'm feeling especially festive. So I put in for a vacation day on December 25th (because, yeah, that's not a holiday here), and proceeded to plot my holiday shenanigans.

Like many people, that means working the preparations in around work and other obligations. Now, I like the IDEA of baking cookies, but frankly, I get bored after a few batches. And there's no way I'm dedicating a whole day or even a whole evening to baking. So here's my messy little work around:


Last night I took a few minutes to mix up the ingredients I could ahead of time, and set out the recipe and any other tools I might need. Then this morning, while my coffee was brewing, I turned on the mixer, dumped what needed dumping into the mix and put the finished dough into the fridge to chill. After that it's a simple matter of finding the 10-15 minutes you need to bake a batch, either as a break from your day if you work at home, or you can pop them into the oven and have a finished batch in the time it takes you to change into your lounging clothes after work (you know we all do that, right?)

Pro tip! I choose snickerdoodles because: 

  1. they have very few ingredients which cuts down on shopping, measuring, etc. time
  2. everyone likes the cinnamony goodness
  3. it's fun to teach your Turkish friends to say "snickerdoodle".

Now, I'm not suggesting everyone needs to bake snickerdoodles or anything else. Some of my other plans this year include low-key gift exchanges and what I expect to turn into some very high-spirited Christmas day celebrating at a festive hotel brunch with friends, overlooking the Bosphorus.

I know some friends who normally celebrate are just not in the mood this year and so are having a low-key day at home. 

And that's the point:

You get to choose how you celebrate. 

You don't have to move halfway around the world to have the holidays you want. It's entirely up to you if, when, and how you celebrate.

So here's my challenge to you: stop doing that thing you dread doing this season. I promise the world won't come to an end, and maybe, just maybe, it will give you the time and energy to replace it with something more fun. Like teaching an unsuspecting foreign friend how to say a completely ridiculous cookie name.

PS: I'd love to hear from you. What holiday traditions do you struggle with? Hit reply to let me know. 

Why you should take a break: life is happening

  The entrance to my favorite coffee break, Quo Coffee, Besiktas

The entrance to my favorite coffee break, Quo Coffee, Besiktas

Around 10:30am, I walk out the back door of the office tower and down a cobblestone street to my favorite coffee place. I say hi to the owner, and he makes my coffee without me placing an order, since I get the same flat white every day. Sometimes we talk about the weather, which in Istanbul has been quite dramatic lately—a morning flash flood that carried away the ice cream freezer next door to my apartment building and an evening hail storm that smashed my balcony furniture and broke car windows.

I take my to-go cup and wander back to the office, stopping to pat my favorite street cat, a mouthy, lazy, white thing who lives on this hidden backstreet, then ride the elevator up to my floor, with its unnatural lighting and sterile, every-office decor.

I repeat this 15 minute routine at mid-afternoon, often, not because I want the coffee, but because I need to get up and move and also gain some perspective.

I find many people think taking breaks is a luxury, and that if your job is truly busy or important you don’t have time for such things. But I believe taking breaks is not a luxury, but an important time management tool. It energizes me and puts things in perspective. I am more focused when I return and my priorities seem more clear. I am more productive, not because of the caffeine (although that helps with my afternoon slump), but because I have taken a step back. This has a few positive effects:

  1. I am always more productive when I’m well-rested, and that doesn’t just mean getting enough sleep. If I power through a day without a break, I get less done with less focus. I more than make up for those two fifteen minute breaks, because when I get back to my desk I am wide awake, reenergized, and work more quickly and with more clarity. Experiments show even mild exercise aids memory and attention.

  2. Even on days when I’m not busy I often arrive back at my desk with new insight into a problem or a new idea.

  3. You just may gain some perspective: that crash of glass as a cart toppled over is probably just as important to the street vendor you passed on the way to the cafe as your frustration with a colleague or process, maybe even more so.

Whenever I find myself struggling to focus I stand up. I look for somewhere to walk, which, granted, is not always easy in an office environment. I’ve been known to ride the elevator downstairs, walk across the street, look at the park, and walk back.

Methinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow.
— Henry David Thoreau

Aside from the fact that moving your body gets your brain working differently, going outside can help put things into perspective. Deadlines are important, but they aren't the only things of importance happening in the world. And somehow that knowledge shakes me loose from any frustration or sense of lethargy, so I can take my seat and get on with it.

What do you do when you feel bored or restless in your work?


Meet the Writer: Nina Willner's "Forty Autumns"

 Nina Willner. Photo by Julia Forsman.

Nina Willner. Photo by Julia Forsman.

One of the greatest things about living in Istanbul is that you meet so many fascinating people. I don't know why that is—it's such a cliche that Istanbul is a crossroads, the "bridge between East and West", that those of us who live here roll our eyes every time someone says it.

It IS a crossroads, which is why so many interesting people pass through, but that doesn't explain why it's so ridiculously easy to meet some of them. I lived in New York for about the same amount of time I've lived in Istanbul, but it took me ten years in New York to meet the same number of people there that I meet here each month.

One such person is Nina Willner. When a call went out from PAWI for a meetup with this writer, I jumped at it.

Nina was generous and self-effacing when sharing how she came to write her book. The daughter of two remarkable survivors, she is a first-generation American who grew up to become a US army intelligence officer serving in Berlin during the Cold War. Wanting to know more about her extended family and fascinated by their story, her book is the result of her search for their history and her wish to honor it.

From her website:

"Twenty-five years after the fall of communism in Europe comes a true, inspiring story and a testament to the spirit of family bond in a story of five women in one family caught up in a Cold War drama: Sisters, mothers, daughters, cousins, separated by the Iron Curtain and a brutal regime that kept them apart. Against a historical backdrop, this is their story about their lives, their struggles and their unwavering efforts to sustain family ties in an environment that was anything but normal...

Set against one of the most dramatic periods of the twentieth century, Forty Autumns is a story of one family's courage, resilience and quiet defiance in the face of a bizarre totalitarian regime that kept its citizens isolated from the free world."

It's a fascinating story, and has gotten rave reviews. Available now in hardcover, as an audiobook, and on Kindle, the paperback version comes out on August 15th. It's next up on my reading list!