I’ve been home for a about a week. My month in Istanbul now seems an almost-distant memory. But I am left with an overall impression of Turkey and Turkish people that I hope to never forget: it is a beautiful, fascinating country, and they are beautiful people.
I am pretty sure that I would find this to be true in every corner of the world.
A few things that I learned from my travels:
1) English is the language everybody knows.
There were people from countries all over the world in our tour groups – and they seemed to know at least two languages: their native tongue and English.
That, along with English signage in international airports and the apps available on smart phones, makes it pretty easy to communicate, even if you know very little of the language.
(Although, knowing a few phrases in the native language goes a long way. In Istanbul, the locals appreciate your efforts in trying to speak Turkish)
2) Most people are kind, goodhearted people
– not the thieves and murderers and rapists that fill the nightly news broadcasts. They are living their lives the best they know how, working hard, and finding opportunities to laugh and love – just like us.
There was never a time when I didn’t feel safe. It was nice. It made me more excited to travel to other places.
3) What we see on the news doesn’t necessarily reflect reality.
I arrived in Istanbul May 29th. On May 31st the Taksim Square Protest was international headlines. We watched the news from our 5th floor apartment in the “Old City.” The same violent clips were shown, over and over, on a dozen different news channels, for days. It looked the the whole city was in turmoil.
Yet people everywhere in the city – tourists, locals, business owners, and families – went about their normal, everyday lives. The most popular tourist spots were still crowded. The trams and Metros were full of commuters and travelers. The businesses and vendors were busy trying to sells their wares.
Taksim Square protesters were limited to a small area.
According to the Freedom Press Index, out of 179 countries ranked, Turkey is 154 (described as a “very difficult situation”). The media reports only what the government allows.
Freedom of the press is a high ideal – but it’s not the reality. (Not even in America. There are restrictions to what we get to see – as well as biased, slanted reporting (I know – really??!) )
4) Turkey is pretty average – pretty normal.
When I told people that I was going to Turkey, I sometimes got a response like this: ” Why would you want to go to that dangerous, violent, scary place?”
I admit that when Wesley suggested Istanbul, it wasn’t on my “Top Ten” list of places to go. Then I started learning about the country. It not only changed my mind, but it became the Number One place to go.
I had a stereotypical idea of Turkey before I had considered visiting there. Much of it came from what I have learned from news sources. And it wasn’t good. After all, people going about their everyday lives doesn’t make the news – sensational events do. And most of what I knew about Turkey was not favorable.
I came away with this: Turkey is interesting but not outrageous. It’s a perfectly wonderful place to visit!
5) It’s okay to say I am from America.
I had the impression that Americans are hated everywhere – but I didn’t get that response in Turkey.
I was often asked where I was from. When I said, “America” the response was usually a big smile, sometimes accompanied by a short anecdote in broken English: “My English teacher was from Manhattan.” “I went on an Alaskan cruise with my family four years ago.” “I was in New York for two weeks.”
The American Dream is alive and well.
6) Few Americans travel.
I thought Americans would make up the bulk of tourists – the people who travel the world. But in group tours, we were typically the only Americans. There were dozens of countries represented. Australia, Germany, Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Canada, Sweden, Japan, Russia, China, Italy, Pakistan, Syria – these are just some of the countries represented in our tours.
7) Turkey isn’t some backwards, undeveloped country.
It’s 2013 in Turkey, too – so why was I surprised that everywhere I looked, people were on their smartphones? Satellite dishes crowd the rooftops. Internet access was everywhere. Men and women alike (even women who wear headdresses and burqas) dress quite fashionably. And Istanbul is full of skyscrapers, modern transportation, and freeways – like any other large city.
8) Turks are proud people – proud of their heritage, and proud of their country.
Turkish people long for the same thing that we long for in America – the same thing that people all over the world long for:
9) It’s culturally acceptable for men to show affection for each other.
I love how the men greet each other with a kiss on each cheek. Well – it may not actually be a kiss – but a cheek-to-cheek greeting. Every day, all day long, you see men reach out to each other and shake hands, and then draw close and and do the cheek-to-cheek greeting.
I also noticed that the men seemed to take good care of their mothers and grandmothers – always making sure there was a seat for them on the tram and leading them by the hand down the street.
10) The food is delicious and fresh
Turks don’t eat a lot of processed foods. They serve and eat what is in season. If you are a meat-lover, you won’t be disappointed – there’s lots of fish, lamb, beef, and chicken. And it’s also very easy to be a vegetarian in Turkey.
A full turkish meal usually starts with soup (the lentil soup is amazing) followed by mezes (appetizers) of cheeses, breads, olives, and dips. The main staples are familiar foods: beans, rice, onions, garlic, cucumbers, eggplant, tomatoes, breads, fruits – but it is the abundance of spices that make it different and delicious.
11) Most people want to help.
If you are standing at the corner looking lost, strangers are more than willing ( in their own language, often) to help you. They give you directions, using short phrases, hand gestures, and smiles. Then you go off in the direction that you understood, and sometimes end up farther from your destination…
I hope that we are as friendly and helpful to strangers.
12) Drivers do NOT wait for pedestrians.
In fact, if it says “go” on a particular street, you better GO quickly. The split second that drivers have the green light, they gun it. It doesn’t matter if you are still crossing the street – you’d better get out of the way, and fast.
13) It’s okay to ignore street vendors’ pleas to buy.
It’s not rude. Well, even if it is rude, if your first inclination is to smile and say sweetly, “no thank you!” they will interpret that as a “Yes! Of course I am interested! How many can I buy?”
The best way to shop is to look, but not comment – unless you are interested – and even then, don’t act too interested. Negotiation is all part of the game. The asking price is only a suggestion – it’s up to you to negotiate a lower price. It’s expected.
14) Ice is a precious commodity.
It’s rarely used. Asking for ice in drinks gets you two cubes. In fact, a Turk would probably feel like it was a rip-off if served a soft drink that was full of ice.
15) Tea and coffee are served in tiny little cups.
Big men and little women use these same, tiny cups. No big, steaming mugs of coffee or tea.
16) Everybody smokes.
Everywhere. Except on Turkish television. If someone is smoking on a television show or movie, they block out the cigarette.
17) Turks know how to keep their white clothes sparkling white.
How do they do it? I’ve got to learn their secret!
18) 94% of the country is Muslim.
But I saw no one pause or stop what they were doing when the “call to prayer” sounded during the day. I learned that they call themselves Muslim, but few practice it. Or they practice different forms of it.
And this is what the Turks expect in a democracy. Freedom to practice their religion or not to practice it.
It’s no different from what we expect in America. Freedom to practice our religion or not to practice it.
19) All of the honking is not necessarily angry-honking.
Istanbul is a noisy city. Horn-honking is continual. Using the horn is a way to communicate.
Short taps on the horn are friendly warnings: I’m coming; get outta the way!
Longer taps show a little impatience: You’re pushing it – better move – and make it fast.
If the driver leans on the horn, it’s become quite serious: Now you’ve really ticked me off and you’re lucky I just don’t mow you down.-of-way.
I had to get used to that, quickly, after almost getting ran over by a cab driver the first night I was in Istanbul. It was clear to me: we’re not in Moscow, Idaho where people cross the streets anywhere, anytime, and know the drivers will wait for them.
20) Spoons come in two sizes: very large and very small.
A soup spoon – big enough to be considered a serving spoon, and a tea spoon – about the size of a play tea-set spoon.
21) Overnight bus trips are for younger, smaller people.
Enough said. (Even if they advertise that the bus has “roomy, reclining seats! television! wifi! – save it for the youngsters. Fly instead.)
22) Western influences are not always positive.
Does Istanbul really need McDonalds? Burger King? Starbucks?
23) Café owners want you to linger over lunch/dinner.
Please don’t hurry. The more people eating at their place, the more people will join. So, eat slower. Order more. Stay longer. Have another cup of tea.
24) Cats are everywhere.
And they aren’t considered strays. Everybody takes care of the cats.
25) The “Call to prayer”
occurs five times a day from every mosque in the city. It became part of the whole experience of living in Istanbul. I tried not to be annoyed when it woke me up at 4:00 in the morning.
26) “Cat and Mouse” street vendors
Our neighborhood was close to bus stops and the Metro, so there was a lot of foot traffic. Each afternoon, dozens of vendors would set up shop on the sidewalk, selling jewelry, clothes, purses, souvenirs, fruit, and all kinds of other products – until well after midnight.
One night we noticed that the vendors suddenly packed up their goods and disappeared. Several cops were cruising through the neighborhood very slowly. After the cops left the area, the vendors set out their wares again.
We later learned that it is a game of “cat-and-mouse” – something to do with licensing and authorization. I don’t know if there was some sort of bribery going on as well.
27) Playgrounds aren’t just for kids.
At first, it looked like men in suits playing on the playground equipment – until I looked a little closer and noticed that they were using adult-sized fitness equipment. What a great idea!
28) You think you’ve got traffic jams?
We were in a mega-size traffic jam – it took several hours to go three miles. But the locals take advantage of the opportunity – it wasn’t long before there were vendors between the lanes of cars selling water and snacks. Some people decided walking would be faster, so they abandoned their cars on the side of the road. Some families knew it would be a long haul, and pulled over, spread a blanket, and had a picnic.
TRAVELING TO TURKEY CHANGED ME A LITTLE
I think that I am a little braver
because of my month in Turkey. It has made me feel like I could go anywhere – wwwwell – except for places like Iran or Libya
I learned that half of the experience is getting there!
I made a conscientious effort to appreciate every step of my adventure, whether it was getting to Istanbul, or traveling inside Turkey. This included long layovers, crowded trams, cramped buses, traffic jams – all of it was part of the whole experience and I (for the most part) loved every bit of it.
“I am not the same having seen the moon shine on the other side of the world.” Mary Anne Radmacher