When a hotel in Istanbul’s Old City was seeking an owner, Gaye Reeves decided to seize the day – and sign the lease.
Tucked away in a charming back street in Istanbul is where you’ll find the 19th century Ayasofya
Hotel, a cream-painted wooden building in the Ottoman style, with windows jutting out at all angles. If you glance up at the right window you might catch a glimpse of Gaye Reeves, sipping her early morning coffee and enjoying the passing parade, or talking in fractured Turkish to the tradesmen putting the final touches to refurbishing the hotel’s 22 rooms.
Owning a boutique hotel in Turkey is a far cry from 61-year-old Gaye’s first intention when she retired from her job in Australia in 2007, after working in the same family company for 30 years. Her original plan was to travel the world for two years and then, as she suggested to one friend, “settle down to some voluntary or part-time work.” However, after Yemen, Ethiopia and the Middle East, her travels took her to Istanbul, a city she had often visited before and loved for its many delights, including the Ayasofya Hotel.
“I had often walked past the hotel and admired it,” Gaye explains, “so when my friend Nevsat said it was available for lease, I was stunned.” Not too stunned, however, to walk inside and lose her heart to the opportunity confronting her.
“When I went through the door, up three steps and into the travertine marble foyer, I knew I was heading down a path of either foolishness and ruin, or entering an exciting new life which would be lived out in this city of my heart.”
Later Gaye says, “It just came along, it felt right, and everything fell into place” – but first there were challenging decisions to be made. These included sinking most of her Australian retirement savings into making the move to Turkey, borrowing the first year’s rent for the hotel – and currently taking no salary. But although people often tell her, “You are so courageous”, her response is, “I was a bit scared to let go of the security of my nice life in Australia, but I didn’t really think too much about it. It was the right time in my life to do it, and I just did it” – or as she wrote in her journal, “It seems that all recent roads have led me to this moment.”
Having first returned to Australia to say “au revoir” to family friends and sort out her finances, Gaye took over the lease of Hotel Ayasofya on April Fool’s Day, 2009. At the time, she wondered if the date was an omen, but six months later, she’s thoroughly enjoying her new working life.
“I try to come to the hotel early every day – sometimes I pick up newly baked borek (cheese and spinach pastry) on the way, so our guests have a treat for breakfast. In the morning I often spend time in reception, helping guests to plan their sightseeing or explaining how the local transport system works.
“One thing that can be a challenge is communication; I need to be fluent in Turkish, but at the moment I’m just like a pigeon, pecking away at it! My staff are very patient with me and my mistakes, but things do get lost in translation.
“Explaining what and how you want things done can be difficult, and you also need to understand and accept different attitudes to work. Relationships between boss and employee are much more casual in Australia. To have your boss getting her own tea and working hands on is very different for my Turkish staff.
“But we are adjusting to each other – they are getting to know my crazy ways and I am understanding the sense in their patient and unplanned way of doing things. That’s another difference – Australians are much more organised and plan ahead, whereas here people take things as they come each day.
“Do I love what I’m doing? Indeed I do. I love this city: I love coming here everyday and looking at enchanting old buildings. I love living in Sultanahmet, which is a little pocket of the Old City not far from the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia (in Turkish, Ayasofya) from which the hotel takes its name.
“I also really enjoy meeting people from all over the world and being able to make their time in Istanbul truly memorable. Sometimes they are here for a special occasion – a special birthday, a family reunion, celebrating their anniversary or meeting a lover.
“I love to watch them as they discover the amazing sites of Old Istanbul and a different culture. It reminds me of how awestruck I was the first time I came here, and keeps it new for me.”
In making her decision to take on the hotel, Gaye says she pretty much kept her own counsel. “I think most of my peers thought I was a bit crazy – and, of course, I was. I did talk to my children, my best friend and my wonderful exboss, but I really didn’t talk to anyone about the decision itself.”
Having taken the leap, she’s truly grateful for the support she’s had from friends and family, particularly her daughter Michele (pictured with her below), who lives in Morocco and joined Gaye for her first three months in the hotel. Then there were her two best friends in Istanbul, Nevsat and Ceyhun: “They help me with translation, held my hand on contract-signing day and helped with a thousand other things – I wouldn’t be here without them!”
Now she has the business “more or less under control” (as she puts it), is she looking to the future and perhaps planning for retirement in the next five, six, 10 years? An emphatic “No!” is Gaye’s answer.
“I thought that I had done my best work,and then discovered work was such an integral part of my life that not having it was a bit boring,” she says. “Now I thinkthe hardest and most rewarding part of my working life might lie ahead of me.”