‘Ukraine was getting boring; Turkey made me feel alive’
A famous Ukrainian proverb advises to “let something bad happen, as long as it is something new.” Raised in southeastern Ukraine, the blond-haired, blue-eyed Cathy Ryzha moved to Turkey as she was just coming of age at 18 years old...
A famous Ukrainian proverb advises to “let something bad happen, as long as it is something new.”
The folk saying is an ironic hint at the boredom often experienced in village life; at least, this was the way Cathy Ryzha understood the witty wisdom of her ancestors. Raised in the city of Alchevsk, 120,000 souls in southeastern Ukraine, the blond-haired, blue-eyed Ryzha moved to Turkey as she was just coming of age at 18 years old.
Despite her young age, Ryzha was not navigating in unfamiliar territory. Back in the days of her childhood, she had followed her mother on a three-month job assignment in Marmaris. At age 17, she spent a few more months under the Turkish sun working in a summer camp. The following year, as she was preparing for her second year at a Ukrainian university, Ryzha heard about a job offer in İzmir. “Let something bad happen, as long as it is something new,” she must have thought, as she boarded a plane heading to the western coast of Turkey.
Four or five months passed and Ryzha got a second offer from the Russian Consulate in İzmir. At that time, the 18-year-old Ukrainian was enrolled in a distance-learning program and spoke Russian and English, in addition to her mother tongue. Little did she know back then that she would spend the next five years in İzmir. “I didn’t plan anything,” Ryzha recalls. “But that job offer came and I couldn’t find any good reason to refuse.”
Ryzha, 25, is now a resident of İstanbul. She moved to Turkey’s economic and culture capital a year ago after a trading company hired her as assistant to the CEO. “Life brings up opportunities and it is up to us to see them and grasp them,” Ryzha says. “The first time I came on my own, I never planned to stay for so long. But then it just lasted and lasted and now I realize I have spent about a third of my life in Turkey.”
Ukraine, to her, meant living with the family and “going back to basics, so to speak.” İzmir, conversely, meant new experience and independence. “The city is so beautiful and relaxing -- much more than Alchevsk,” Ryzha recalls. “Ukraine was not depressing, but boring. Plus, almost all my friends who stayed there are married with a child, sometimes two; some of them got divorced already.” That was a future Ryzha refused to envisage for herself in the short run. “In Turkey, I don’t feel such a pressure to settle in life as I would in Ukraine, with relatives reminding me that I am 25 and not married yet.”
Of course, life in a foreign country has its own hardships. “İzmir was quiet, relaxed. I liked my job and I had a lot of Russian friends there. I was surrounded by the culture I was used to, from books to food to celebrations and so on,” Ryzha notes. “But when I moved to İstanbul, I had no one here. I am a sociable person and I had to build my social life all over again.”
Ryzha, who now speaks fluent Turkish, says the short flight of only an hour that separates Turkey from Ukraine contrasts with the “mentality gaps” between the two countries. “For example, Turkish people open themselves to strangers very quickly. They can be very warm from the first moment they see you,” she says. “Our people are a bit colder -- they have to know you to be friendly and warm to you. Turks, however, can get distant very quickly, too, while Ukrainians stay warm once they know you well.”
She also laments that Turkish people do not seem to have a “breakfast culture” the way Ukrainians do. “On Saturdays or Sundays, many Turks don’t mind getting up late to go for a walk on the seaside. They sit there for two or three hours, drink some tea, read the newspapers and slowly proceed to lunch. On weekends, Ukrainians enjoy a long breakfast with their families and don’t go out that much.”
From her experience at the Russian Consulate in İzmir, Ryzha remembers her displeasure with Turkish men’s jealousy. “I have seen many men who wouldn’t let their Russian spouse register on our lists or make a step outside without their permission,” she recalls. “And when it’s not jealousy, it’s overprotection -- which also annoys me terribly.” Similarly, as much as she understands Turkey’s European ambitions, Ryzha notes that the “unending debates about the so-called türban or the persistence of honor killings in certain regions clearly have nothing to do with Europe.”
In seven years of living in Turkey, Ryzha has found time to explore some of the country’s landmarks. She confesses a particular fondness for Ephesus and the house of the Virgin Mary and longs for a future trip to Cappadocia. “I got to realize how diverse the country is. Istanbul itself is a personification of that. Here you can find whatever you want, from Turkish culture to Western culture to breathtaking historical sites in the middle of the urban landscape.”
Turkey, Ryzha says, did not “change” her in any way. “But because I have been here for seven years, starting right after my teenage years, I think I grew up in Turkey. I am now an adult, not a Turkish adult, not a Ukrainian adult, just an adult.” And while it is never easy to cross borders, change countries or live on one’s own, Ryzha says her Ukrainian breeding might have been of some help. “In Ukraine, for some reason, we get used to responsibilities at a very early age. Maybe that is why it was not that hard for me, just as for the Ukrainians I met here, to handle life in a new country.”
Ryzha, who confirms she has never had any long-term plan in mind, describes herself as open to opportunities and ready for new experiences. “But as of now, I am actually enjoying Istanbul,” she concludes. “There are still many places I want to explore and the city changes all the time. I like all the hustle and bustle that so many people complain about. That dynamic makes me feel alive.”