Finding the Minu Hotel
It’s hot. Unsurprisingly. It is midday, mid-July, and this is Fethiye – a seaside, sun-baked town on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast. I am trying to find the Minu Hotel to interview its owner, Angie. My stomach is jumping – butterflies beating against the sides, continuous shocks of adrenaline. My first interview and I have never been to the hotel before, have only my scribbled google-map instructions to navigate by. Fethiye isn’t large, but the hotel is in the old town – streets coil around each other, there aren’t specific landmarks. People will happily give you directions, and my Turkish is good enough to understand them, but there is a less than fifty percent chance the person will actually know the place you are trying to get to. Which won’t stop them “helping.”
To my immense relief I find it easily. The hotel is exactly where google said it was. There is even a street sign. I locate the entrance, half hidden between a cafe and a tourist-tat trap, and follow the signs up the marble stairs. The reception is white and airy. I can hear the hum of activity from the old town but the room seems to float above it – cool, clean, modern but not stark. Angie is waiting for me.
I’ve known her for a year or two now. Known in the way that you do when your kids are at the same Turkish school and you are both expat mothers in the playground. We’ve chatted a time or two, compared notes while we watched our kids play at a Burger King birthday party, but we are both busy people. We haven’t ever socialised outside of our kids’ schedules. I am glad to have the opportunity now: Angie is one of those rare people who has managed to build up a successful business; who has integrated into the community without compromising herself or her values – I am immensely curious as to how she has done it.
She hands me an iced water and we sit at one of the scrubbed pine tables in the hotel’s lobby. The interview begins before I’ve uncapped my pen, before I’ve even asked a question. I quickly realise that Angie is one of those people who doesn’t just know how to talk, but how to communicate. She knows why we are here, what the Women in Turkey Project is about, and she is ready to tell me her story.
An expat with Turkish roots.
I knew she was half Turkish, but what I didn’t know was that her mother left Turkey when she was sixteen, married Angie’s British father when she was eighteen, and that Angie was born and raised in England.
“My mum isn’t really very Turkish – she never taught me Turkish” she says. “It might have been different if we’d lived in one of the big cities with a Turkish community, but we didn’t we lived in the South. I never fitted in.”
I’m surprised – Angie seems like one of those people who could fit in anywhere. After ten years in Turkey feeling the daily foreignness of being six feet tall, pale, and blonde, I have forgotten my own childhood. Where actually most people had the same colouring as me, even if they weren’t quite so tall. I have forgotten that the ‘Mediterranean look’ was not so common in the UK of twenty years ago.
“I was too dark.” She continues. “Back then I had to work really hard to make myself fit in, to be popular.”
Getting to know your Turkish neighbour.
Those early experiences are perhaps why she has managed to integrate so well into the community. Made her able to read people and what they need. I ask her about speaking Turkish, tell her I have never quite managed to get good enough to make jokes, to really connect with people over a shared joy of sarcasm.
“You don’t need to, you just think you do because you’re English, telling jokes is how we bond. It’s not like that here, I think the key is at least the first few times you meet someone to be really complimentary about stuff – hair, clothes, whatever. And that’s what lets you in,” she tells me. “It’s only in the last few years I’ve really got there, really understood all the grammar and that kind of thing. I think you need it to be part of the community. People don’t share as much here though. You keep things in the family. In the UK I had all sort of people I could talk to about anything but here it’s not quite like that. Now I can make jokes, but you just don’t it’s not how you communicate here.”
Opening your own business in Fethiye.
We move on to talk about her first business in Fethiye, a hugely popular cafe she opened with her Istanbulite husband back in 2004. I want to know what made them decide to be their own bosses
“My husband,” she tells me definitely. “He worked in Fiat for thirteen years and it was just a job that was going nowhere. When you work for other people here, especially back then, you just could never make enough. He was there for thirteen years, he was pretty much running the place, and he still only got one week of holiday a year and never a pay rise.
“We moved to Fethiye and that helped us a lot too because he’s not from here and neither am I, we didn’t have any pressure from either of our families. We were pretty much in a honeymoon period for the first three years of being here and that’s when we opened our cafe. I think working is hugely important for feeling part of the community. I’ve always worked, volunteering in between jobs, anything to make sure I get out of the house. I know some people over here who don’t work but it always seems like they’re looking for something.
“It was easy and it was hard. There was no red tape then, we decided to do it and within a day or two we were ready to open. I’m not a baker, but I like to eat, I knew what I liked and how to put a menu together. I think we were the first people in the town to have coronation chicken sandwiches on our menu,” she smiles.
I first heard about her cafe from numerous expat forum recommendations. It was widely known as the place to get a good cup of coffee.
“That’s true, but we never relied on expat business. I’d say about ninety percent of our customers were Turkish.” I shouldn’t be surprised by this – only ten percent of Fethiye’s population is foreign, clearly it’s better to rely on Turkish business – but I am.
“The expats here mostly seem to be counting the pennies a lot more.” She shrugs. “We were never expensive, when the economic crisis hit we kept the same prices for three years, but the only times we were asked for a discount was by expats.
“We never had that from Turkish people. And we were on people’s “safe lists” – you know there’s a lot of women whose husbands give them a list of cafes it’s okay to eat at we were always on those lists. Then parents knew we didn’t skimp on quality so they’d tell their kids to come to the cafe on their lunch break from school because they knew we were using real chicken and real meat.
So what was it that made the big difference? What made her cafe succeed where so many have closed their doors after a season or two?
“Success was so slow. We were right in the middle of Fethiye on the main street and even three or four years after opening we’d still have people wandering in, asking if we’d just opened. There was a lot of debt for the first few years, but we kept going
“Then of course I grew up in the EU – I had that mindset when I hired staff. People need to know when their day is going to end, when their holidays are, how much they are going to get paid. Most people had been working twelve hour days and I brought this whole new thing. It didn’t work for everyone. Some people just couldn’t handle it. They got too used to it and stopped working. But the ones who did stayed forever.”
The problem with being a woman in charge in Turkey.
Last time I chatted to Angie she’d been preparing to open something on the beach front in the nearby town of Oludeniz, I wonder how she ended up in central Fethiye instead.
She makes a little huff of frustration. “Big-business kyboshed that. It was a hotel restaurant and they wanted to go into partnership with us, have us run the restaurant and go fifty-fifty on the profits.
“We lasted about two months. They just couldn’t take orders from a woman. My husband, he finds the businesses, but I’m the one who makes them into something. Whenever there was a problem or a crisis the men just wouldn’t listen to me, they wanted to talk to my husband. He’d tell them I was the one in charge but it’s like… I think in times of stress a woman’s voice seems to be like nails on a blackboard to them.
“Now we’re doing this instead and it’s smaller but, thank God, it’s all our own. The restaurant business is just too expensive now. The price of everything has just gone up and up. Even a potato costs the earth. So we sold the cafe three weeks ago. We had so many offers over the years – people wanting to swap it for land, or a house, or a car, not many people have cash here. But it worked out.”
Finding life-satisfaction in Fethiye.
I have time for one more question. Angie has presence – she is confident without having to be pushy, definite about her opinions and her decisions. I wonder what she would consider her biggest achievement, if she has any regrets.
“I have to say, no regrets, really.” She meets my eyes. “Being able to have, financially a way of life together, to sustain a good standard of living. As employees we did it, as our own bosses we did it and hopefully it will carry on. I think it takes a while to get established here, probably six seven years to really feel safe as a business. But after that you do feel relaxed so – fingers crossed, touching wood – we’re able to have a really nice standard of living. Not luxurious but just our priorities are met.
“The children – happy. They’re in nice schools, swimming lessons, the things they want to do. We don’t go on holidays, but we live in a holiday place. Maybe in a few years we’ll be able to do that as well, but that’s not a huge priority for us.
“I love being able to eat outside, be outside, see people outside. I have the warmth from people as well as warmth from the weather.
“And I feel I have really brought something to Fethiye, that wasn’t here before. That’s something I never expected to do in my life. There are not many things you can do in the UK that haven’t already been done. Here I really feel I’ve made a difference in some way. I can see that standards have risen through some things I’ve done as an employer – and that makes me proud.”
It’s something to be proud of. Often the laws in Turkey are good, but the actual implementation of them can take a long time to realise. It’s down to the integrity of the business owner to uphold them. Ten years ago this was even more true, and Angie did it. It’s something pretty special to stick with your convictions and hold your nerve, especially when it will cost you a significant amount financially to do so.
I pack up my list of questions – we haven’t used them yet somehow we have managed to cover everything I wanted to ask. As I start to say goodbye a waft of fried food floats up from the restaurants below. Within seconds the windows are closed and the air conditioning is on. Instantly I can see why Angie makes businesses work – she has vision, she knows what makes a good atmosphere, how to create a welcoming place for her guests. For all the talking we have done, I think perhaps it is instincts like those that have made the key difference and made her a success.
You can find out more about the Minu hotel here and see lots of photos of the beautiful rooms.