Bridging The Divide: Talking Expat Life And Meaningful Travel with Julia Bayne from Istanbul Place Apartments
This week I talk to Julia Bayne - life juggler, serial plane catcher and co-owner of Istanbul Place Apartments, a collection of stylish, historic, short-stay apartments based in the heart of Istanbul. Just the thought of Istanbul instantly transports you to a magical place where East meets West in a collision of Ottoman and Byzantine architecture, bustling bazaars and a labyrinth of culture. Julia's story is so inspiring. It's the tale of an expat, juggling a family and business across two countries. Through her business, Julia along with her husband Tarkan, offers authentic, meaningful travel experiences that bridge cultural divides with a sprinkling of Turkish hospitality.
What inspired you to move to Istanbul and set up your business Istanbul Place Apartments?
The business in Istanbul was created while we were living in Singapore, which seemed to make perfect sense at the time! My husband Tarkan and I had met seven years earlier in Istanbul, his home city, where we lived together for three years. We then moved to England, my own country, for four years. We had wanted to try some domestic ‘neutral territory’ with Singapore, yet we knew we needed to keep strong ties with our home countries and families there. We also had a son by then and were consciously trying to raise him with both cultures, so in many ways we did it for him. On a deeper level, those seven years directly followed 9/11. At the time I was a heavily pregnant English girl living in a majority Muslim country, so over those years it felt increasingly important to do whatever we could to bring people together across the perceived divide.
Istanbul is a culturally vibrant city, what’s it like to live there as an expat?
This depends a great deal on where you live and work in the bonkers mega-city. Our eleven apartments are in the historic neighbourhood of Galata, overlooking the Golden Horn which has been multi-cultural for hundreds of years and is still a creative, fairly bohemian neighbourhood. There are world-class restaurants, galleries and museums a wander away, plus layer upon layer of history and incredible architecture in every direction you turn. Every neighbourhood has its own character and you can have a deeply fascinating, contemporary expat life in many of them. However, the last ten years have seen a political shift to more conservative Islamic values in some of the population, which may make for a different experience if you’re based in one of the less international parts of the city. Public transport is good though, so if you have the time to explore there are always adventures to be had. A strong community of expat women can be found through several city-wide organisations, for example the IWI (International Women of Istanbul) and PAWI (Professional American Women of Istanbul) which can be really helpful for support and inspiration, particularly in your early days.
Dividing your time between Istanbul and the UK sounds so exciting! Where’s home in the UK and what challenges do you face with living in two places?
In England we live by accident in Worcester, where our son is at school and just took his GCSEs. Time flies! We do too, mostly from nearby Birmingham airport which has a frequent and hassle-free connection to Istanbul, four hours a way. We have a wonderful property manager in Galata, Taşkın, who handles most of the day-to-day issues for us. My husband Tarkan travels back and forth for a few days every couple of months and I do so rather less often these days, now that all the apartments are well-established. In school holidays we all go together whenever possible to spend time with Tarkan’s family as well as the business. From wherever we are, we handle bookings, finances, marketing, PR and press in digital nomad style. We make quite a few business decisions via WhatsApp! I’d say the main challenge is planning family time together, particularly committing to making bookings or attending events, as we’re often not in the same place at the same time.
Tell me about Istanbul Place Apartments. What’s your vision for the business?
We wanted to bring together the best that our two cultures and backgrounds could offer, to help travellers from every direction fall in love with Istanbul. Galata’s full of fabulous 19th Century architecture with European influences, for which I felt an unspoken understanding from the beginning. I was able to respond to neglected buildings and bring apartments back to feeling ‘well-loved’ with our renovation work and creative flair. As an insider, Tarkan could communicate well with property owners, authorities and trades, also to project manage within tight deadlines. Turkish hospitality is legendary and we’re consistently thrilled to be able to offer it in stylish historic accommodation with unusual attention to detail. We hope to carry on carrying on and always improving.
You're keen to bridge the gap between cultures, how do you think your son will benefit from a more diverse upbringing?
Turkish and English cultures are fascinatingly different from one another. Sentence structure is reversed and logic is often opposite. Our son has grown up with these very different influences around the dinner table and in the language-related parts of his brain. Hopefully, as a result, his neurons are wired to cope with the unexpected! On a more practical level, he's experienced 'belonging' in different lifestyles and situations, so fingers-crossed, inshallah he'll feel adaptable as he matures.
It seems that Istanbul Place Apartments is almost a metaphor for inclusivity, a place where people come together. Do you feel you're breaking down barriers and stereotypes by doing this?
Our guests quickly become part of neighbourhood life in all its colour. Local shopkeepers and tradespeople are very friendly and tourism hasn't distorted these relationships in the way that it has in other parts of the city. Turkey has always struggled with its reputation in the West and we do enjoy the surprise that some guests feel and the repeat stays that often result. Apartment rentals are becoming more popular as a way of experiencing travel more authentically.
How do you create more of a local experience for your guests?
The apartments themselves are full of location-specific bygone era character, which we try to emphasise with interior design, books and furnishing. One of us always welcomes our guests in person to introduce their Istanbul home, neighbourhood and to be as helpful as possible with settling in. We’re all then on hand for the whole visit via WhatsApp, phone or text as little or as much as required. We also offer walking tours with one of our well-educated, intuitive female guides. These can be an introductory orientation walk or a more in-depth experience. There’s an ‘Artisan’ option, visiting the ateliers and workshops of craftspeople we know, or a ‘Foodie’ experience to sample rich and diverse Turkish cuisine that can otherwise be hard to access.
How do you create an immersive, memorable experience for those on short trips? What do you offer business guests?
Each of the apartments has its own historic character as well as offering speedy wifi, ample electric sockets and lots of workspace. You can choose to work from your own dining table or a comfy living room chair, perhaps with an interesting street view and definitely with a drink just the way you like it. A private kitchen gives the option of eating to your own schedule or dietary needs and having so many characterful restaurants and cafés on the doorstep makes it easy to have quick culture-fixes in your own time. If you stay in one of the Petraki Place apartments, the iconic sweeping view from the roof-terrace is always there for you - take work, drinks or meals up whenever you like for an unbeatable reminder of exactly where you are. We’ll always help with any requests or problems, so you’ll feel well-supported whatever the reason for your visit.
How much is being eco-conscious important to you and what part does it play in the everyday running of your business?
My previous chapter in life was as a Bristol-based professional photographer, specialising in the environment sector, so the issues are close to my heart and consciously addressed by us both. During renovations we’re conservation obsessed and use reclaimed or locally sourced materials materials whenever possible. We support neighbourhood trades whenever we can and have loved commissioning kitchens and furnishing from traditional craftspeople and workshops a street or two away. We do as much as we can by public transport, yet we have to accept that too many flight miles are involved. In an attempt to offset, for every confirmed booking we arrange a tree to be planted in Turkey with the NGO TEMA and invite guests to easily add more during their booking process. We’ve pioneered the concept of re-usable bags in the neighbourhood by providing them for guests to use for their local grocery shopping. But of course there’s always more to be done.
What are your 5 favourite things to do in Istanbul?
* Jump on a ferry across the Bosphorus with little or no plan for the other side.
* Share a sunset drink on the Petraki Place rooftop, to the sound of the muezzins across the city calling for prayer.
* Wander around Topkapı Palace and gardens on a Sunday.
* Treasure hunt in the antique bazaars of Üsküdar or Kadiköy.
* Spend time over a meal with Tarkan’s lovely family, either in their home or a lively neighbourhood meyhane restaurant with rakı and roving musicians.
What do you love most about Turkish culture and hospitality?
In my experience Turkish people have a lot of love for life, with all its flaws, that's infectious and inclusive. The generosity, both material and in spirit, seeps into you as a traveller and you leave as a bigger-hearted, better person. Your waistline doesn't usually escape the growth either!
Describe your style and has it been influenced by your travels?
That's an interesting question. It’s definitely not at all flamboyant, which might come from the desire to fit in wherever I might be. So I’d say simple, natural shapes and colours with well-tailored linen in warm climates, where - just like Istanbul's imperfections - the creases tell subtle tales of adventures past!
For more information visit www.istanbulplace.com