The Turks say their country is like a man running west on a train heading east. They are referring to the dichotomies you’ll experience in this vibrant culture. Turkey is a land of dramatic contrasts: mosques on the European side of Istanbul and western style suburbs on the Asian side; western economic systems in a traditional Islamic society; dynamic industrialisation next door to Byzantine buildings and Ottoman architecture; landscapes ranging from Mediterranean coasts to jagged mountains. Best of all, the Turkish people have a well-deserved reputation for friendliness and hospitality, not to mention some of the finest cuisine in the world.
As an AFSer, you’ll live with a host family while studying Turkish and attending a local high school. Schools in Turkey are demanding, with students specialising in either mathematics and sciences or social studies, depending on their skills and background.
While Turkish is the primary language, English, French, German and Italian are spoken by many people around the country.
The ability to speak Turkish is not a prerequisite for the program, but we strongly suggest that you learn as much as possible prior to departure.
You will have the opportunity to participate in language lessons at the week-long Mid-Stay Orientation, and local volunteers may help arrange independent language study for you during your first months in Turkey.
Host Family & Community
Students can be placed throughout Turkey, though most placements are in or near one of three main cities: Izmir, Istanbul or Ankara.
Host families in Turkey, like all AFS host families worldwide, are volunteers and are not paid. They open their homes to students in order to share their community and culture as well as to enrich their own family lives.
Many aspects of Turkish culture are a blend of traditional and modern ways, of conservative courtly customs and cheerful expressions of friendship. Manners are generally formal, especially in the presence of older people. This doesn’t mean they hesitate to express their feelings; they generally use their hands a lot, adding meaning and emphasis to their conversations. They also love to laugh. Family members and friends often shake hands and kiss on both cheeks when meeting. The family is an important institution in Turkish society and is usually close-knit.
Turkish customs generally have a lot to do with social courtesies that are highly valued and deeply bound with the Islamic conventions observed by many. Hospitality, for example, is an integral part of Turkish culture. Friends, relatives, and neighbours often visit each other, sometimes without notice. Tradition dictates that visitors are always offered tea or coffee and invited to share a meal. It is impolite to decline the offer, and your hosts will do everything possible to make you feel comfortable.
Soccer is the most popular sport in Turkey, both to watch and to play. People in Turkey also enjoy volleyball, basketball, bicycling, swimming and picnics. Teens like to get together at friends’ homes or go to the movies. Many customs are respected among young people such as deference towards older people and those with higher status and avoiding public displays of affection.
Turkish cuisine is some of the finest in the world: “Bring your belly to Turkey—it will thank you,” as they say. Dishes combine Mediterranean and Middle Eastern styles and are quite rich and varied.
Eggplant is the number one vegetable and is paired with many things including the shish kebab. Food is cooked mostly with olive oil, and can be very spicy in the eastern part of Turkey. Lamb and rice are common dishes and seafood is abundant on the coast.
For their typical breakfast, families will eat bread with white cheese, butter, eggs, marmalade or honey, and olives, all accompanied by Turkish tea or yogurt.
Lunch is an important meal at midday, but the main meal of the day is eaten in the evening when the family generally expects to sit down together. These two meals consist of at least two main courses such as vegetable or meat dishes and rice, cracked wheat or macaroni, soup, salad and cold olive oil dishes, dessert or fruit and lots of bread.
Table manners require that young people wait until the older people start eating, and no one leaves the table until the eldest gets up.
Vegetarians are extremely difficult to place because the cuisine is fairly meat-heavy, and vegetarians have a difficult time maintaining a balanced diet.
You’ll probably be placed in 10th or 11th grade at a public Anatolian high school, which is based on the German “Gymnasium” system and prepares students for good universities. Sometimes AFSers are placed in private high schools.
A typical school day in Turkey is 7-8 hours of classes. Students stay in one classroom, while the teachers move from class to class.
Boys need to have their hair cut very short for school, and visible piercings and coloured hair for both boys and girls are not allowed.
Orientations & Activities
In addition to the orientations that you will participate in domestically (the locally held Pre-Departure Orientation, the Culture Trek online orientation, and the national Gateway Orientation), you and your fellow AFSers will have several orientations while abroad.
These required orientations are intended to help you maximise your AFS experience, reduce culture shock and to gain knowledge, skills and a global understanding.
In addition to the orientations, many local chapters organise activities for students and host families throughout the year. These will vary from chapter to chapter but may include get-togethers or excursions to other cities or regions in Turkey. Unlike the orientations, these activities are optional and are not included in tuition.