At 24 years old, I received a scholarship for graduate school that would fulfill a dream I had since I was 11 years old. I was moving to the US. Having attended an American school in Turkey from grade 6 to 12, I was confident in my decision, perhaps more so than my parents who thought I was too young to live alone on the other side of the Atlantic. Now having two kids of my own, I understand why.
I held on tight to my dream and saw it unfold before my very eyes as I boarded a plane to leave my home country and loved ones to start a new life in a place I’ve never been to before.
Colorado was not my first choice. I had no idea where and what Colorado was when I arrived. Well, that’s not completely true. I knew the cowboy movies my dad watched on Sunday morning TV had most likely taken place in Colorado. I wondered, “Will I see cowboys? Are they only in movies?” When I saw the Rocky Mountains from the plane window they looked cold and unforgiving. I remember asking myself, “What was I thinking when I applied to the University of Colorado?!”
Born and raised on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey, I had never seen snow before moving to Istanbul for college. Even that hardly counts because we were lucky to see a few flurries once a year which melted as soon they hit the ground.
Before arriving in the US, my mind raced with questions... Would I live in city or a village? Would Boulder have any of the nightlife I enjoyed through college in Istanbul? Was I moving to the mountains? Would there be skyscrapers? What I knew about America was from the movies and I feared life as I knew it was over.
When I finally deplaned at the enormous Denver airport, the first thing that struck me was how organized everything was compared to Turkey. I was excited! My first full day in Boulder, I woke up, dressed in what I thought was nice, but casual wear, ready to impress and met my graduate student coordinator. I soon realized dressing up is not necessary in Boulder. A pair of shorts, t-shirt, and flip-flops are fine for anywhere you go. That was quite a change from how we did things back home in Turkey!
As I walked around campus I felt people were looking at me. Everyone was so nice, even strangers would say hello. It scared me at first. Casual contact with strangers was not a thing we did in Turkey. When a couple who looked like they were from the late 50s said “Hi” to me, I stopped and questioned if I knew them. Why would they say hi to me? I kept a straight face and did not respond. If I don’t know them we shouldn’t speak, right? I also noticed no one was wearing any make-up and there I was fully made up at 10 in the morning! People who know Boulder can imagine how much I stood out.
In July, I started to wonder why it was so hot. Aren’t we in the mountains? I did not bring any shorts so I had to go shopping. As a student, Target saved my life! A couple pairs of shorts and t-shirts later, I felt like I could fit in around Boulder better than before.
When someone in Boulder asks what you do, they probably aren’t asking about your job...they want to know which of the many outdoor activities you do. Do you ski? Of course not! I hadn’t even seen real snow yet. Do I rock climb? What does that mean? My mom would flip if she heard that.
I’ve made many friends and they all do tons of stuff outdoors. One of the funniest first experiences was when I was asked if I liked to camp. Well, my family in Turkey liked to be comfortable. Did they mean rent a house in the mountains? Why would one go to the mountains? What do you do there? There are bears and other animals, right? Sounded scary.
If I wanted to hang out with my new friends though, I had to pick up some of these hobbies. I already loved to swim and bike but I thought backpacking and camping were the same things and it seemed easy enough to learn. When I was invited to a backpacking trip, I decided to go even though I didn’t know what kind of gear I would need.
My friends lent me their extra gear and I tried to prepare food for the trip. I made sandwiches with tomatoes and cheese and brought chips and soda for everyone. Sounded like a great dinner to me! Before we left for the trip, a friend came by to check out what I had packed. He told me that I cannot take these sandwiches because they will smoosh before we even get there and soda was probably too heavy to carry in a backpack. I asked if we were setting up a grill and if should I take steak or chicken with me instead. To me, it all sounded like we are going up the mountains and going to have a bbq and come back. My friend told me it was really a sightseeing and hiking trip, so food was not the focal point. Do you blame me? Food was absolutely the focal point in my hometown!
We drove to the trailhead at Rocky Mountain National Park and parked the car at the entrance. We put our gear on our back and started hiking, which I could do well since I was young and in shape. I was able to keep pace even in the high altitude. After we walked for about five hours (FIVE HOURS!) we made it to our campsite. We had to hurry and set up the tents before dark. I needed help with every single step. I had no idea how to set anything up.
We put our sleeping bags and mats in the tents and then prepared our dinner of Pasta-Roni. It was quiet and relaxing up to this point and I found everything interesting. It was 8:30ish by the time I checked my watch and we had been chatting by the fire for a while. Everyone began to feel tired and talked about going to bed. I was sitting there thinking, “Wow, it is only 8:30! If I were in Istanbul, what would I be doing at 8:30 on a Saturday night? It would be too early to even start getting dressed up to go out at night.”
This Saturday outdoors nightlife was very different from what I was used to. Here I was, getting ready to go to bed probably for the first time at 8:30 pm! I have to admit though, looking up at the stars and listening to babbling creek nearby was amazing. It was so gorgeous. My last thought was, “I think I can get used to this.” I might like this new life in Boulder.
Azra Bilgin graduated from the Universtiy of Colorado in 2003 with a Ph.D. in Environmental Science and Engineering. Originally from Turkey, she and her family now call Boulder home.
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