Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Full bloom

Until I moved to Turkey in 1999, I didn’t fully realize that a person could have more than one home, more than one country, more than one culture. That we don’t have to choose.  Having a personal connection to multiple cultures is the best way we’ll learn to get along with each other on this planet.

Living in Istanbul, we all know the cliche about this city and the country of Turkey being a bridge between East and West. For the year of 2010, to celebrate Istanbul’s status as a European Capital of Culture, there’ve been big banners on the Galata Bridge in Turkish and English proclaiming that Istanbul is “building bridges between the cultures.”

 I’m working to bridge cultures creatively, a passion that I’ve long had, but which has only recently come fully into focus. And largely thanks to that ambiguous, magical catalyst called Istanbul.

The bridge metaphor makes sense to me. But I also like how my friend Tara Agacayak talked about the indefinable Turkey in her post on Turquoise Poppy:

The cliché about Turkey is that it is east and it is west. It is old and new. It is modern and ancient. Europe and Asia.  Religious and secular. The juxtapositions are numerous but they demonstrate something. They show that a place can be both, it just depends on where you choose to draw the line.

She goes on to write that line is imaginary – we can draw it anywhere we chose. And in 2010, I chose to draw it in Istanbul, where all my passions intersect. I can create a life that combines them all: creativity, culture, fiber arts, language, community and of course, love.

The tagline on Tara’s blog is Bloom Where You’re Planted. I’m a late bloomer because it wasn’t until I moved to Turkey in 1999 that I really challenged myself well across all lines, proved to myself that being a hybrid of multiple cultures can only make me stronger. Let me tell you how I got here.

I grew up in a California beach town, Santa Barbara, before it was overrun with celebrities from Hollywood. It was a lovely environment, with whitewashed, red tiled buildings that were required by code to reflect the Moorish, Islamic decorative architecture of Andalusian Spain. But the residents were a little homogenous, a mostly white population, though at least 30% of the residents were of Mexican ancestry. I identified with that Hispanic culture, never thinking it was a separate culture from my own.

When I went off to Los Angeles to study textile and clothing design, I got a taste of what it was really like to live in a multicultural city. My third job as a clothing designer in my mid-twenties launched me headfirst into global business travel, when the president of the company I’d just joined publicly fired the head designer at the first sales meeting I attended, then announced to me and the audience of maybe 100 that I’d be going to Hong Kong in the morning to head up the young menswear division.

Working in the clothing industry was a great lesson in trial-by-fire living, a constant test to prove myself since I was only as good as the success of my latest collection. A designer must constantly reinvent herself, be able to turn trends into something that reflects her customer. Learning that the only thing constant is change truly prepared me for expat life, for living in a global world.

10 years on, after living in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Portland Oregon, working in about 20 countries and traveling for pleasure to at least 25 more, I returned to UCLA to study interior design and architecture.  These fields still allowed me to work with my three favorite design elements: color, texture and pattern. Those three elements form a universal language to me, whether you’re creating embroideries, mosaic tiles, carpets or stair railings. Understand the language they speak, and you can design almost anything.

But I also learned that just designing something was not enough. You had to know how to build it. The loveliest of environments could live in my head, but if I did not have the skills to make it real, it was only a dream. While I was successful in creating items and environments that suited the needs of my buyers and clients, I’d yet to create a life for myself outside of business that truly suited me.  It took a random trip back to Istanbul in 1998 for me to realize that I could create any kind of life I wanted.  A life whose seeds were planted in Turkey a decade ago.  A life coming into full bloom the spring of 2011.


  1. Catherine, I know you talk of blooming and building bridges, but as I read through this whole post, the image I got was of you flying! I think you'll find that things start to pick up speed as your passions intersect in the work that you do. It's a joy to watch it all happen.

  2. Great imagery, Tara, though sometimes I feel more like a whirling dervish! But it is all coming together...thanks for being an important part of that process.

  3. Another word I see being used for this ability to be more than one thing and to bridge the spans: heterodox. It's what Fareed Zakaria at TIME calls his position, and explains how he can take one position and then another, and then another. "Im heterodox because life is heterodox.",8599,2024094,00.html

    Good luck with your winter plan-making for this big spring bloom, Catherine!

  4. Powerful word, Anastasia - you've given me two great ones to ponder this week! Interesting too that the synonyms of 'heterodox' are so extreme: "heretical", "dissenting", "contrary to accepted belief". As Zakaria says, the world IS grey, not black and white. This ability to morph opinions, to see the other side, is essential to bridge building, no matter what type of spans we're crossing.

    Thanks for your good wishes!

  5. It is the second time I will say to you that you are a real inspiration to me. I love the way you write and even more so what you write! You are amazing!
    I will do my best to come to Istambul to your workshop!

  6. Thank you Hagar. I look forward to your visit, because I know that you'll be the one inspiring me. We'll have to do some creating together, don't you think?