Saturday, June 6, 2009

Travelogue: An American in Istanbul

Recently a friend spent 11 days in Turkey, mostly in Istanbul. I wrote the other day about the amazing Turkish delight she brought back, but thought it would be fun to do a post about the trip. She graciously agreed to answer my questions and share a few photos. Enjoy!

Why do you travel internationally?

I like travelling period, always have. There are many places in the states that I really want to visit, and some places internationally that I don’t. I think the reason I like traveling overseas is twofold. First, I am a big history buff and I love my American history, but we are still a relatively new country and it is fascinating to visit places that have been around for a thousand years or more. Secondly, I enjoy learning about other cultures and finding all the quirks and nuances of other people. But most of all I think I enjoy the realization that everyone is basically the same, no matter what country you call home.

Why Turkey?

I read several books that either mentioned Istanbul or were placed in Istanbul and the city seemed fascinating. The book that was the main inspiration is called The Historian and takes place all over Eastern Europe, but Istanbul really seemed to stand out. I also spoke with several people who had been there and I kept hearing things like “it’s the best place I've ever been” and “one of my favorite cities.”

What does Turkey smell like? (I ask because compared to the U.S., other countries have distinct smells -- for me, Paris smells like freshly baked baguette; China smells like soot and pee and cooking oil. India's smell is indescribable -- too many smells competing for space, from animals and exhaust fumes to jasmine and cardamom.)

Turkey’s smell is more like India’s, lots of smells competing for space. Instead of animals though, it’s people. Some people had some pretty bad funk going on, but then other smells were wonderful like the spice bazaar and the coffee shops and patisseries.

Did you have any trouble with the language barrier?

95% of the people speak at least a little English, so it really wasn’t much of an issue, but Turkish was the first Slavic language I’ve tried to learn (other than a couple curse words and the national anthem in Croatian), so it was a little hard to get some of the pronunciations correct, but I was getting pretty good at it after 11 days.

How did it compare to the other countries you’ve visited?

I found it to be very similar to other European cities that I have been to, except for the Muslim influence and the size of the city. The city really represents east meets west since half of the city is in Europe and the other half in Asia. The food and the carefree attitude of the people reminded me most of Barcelona, but the terrain reminded me of San Francisco, believe it or not. Lots of hills and houses crammed together.

The people in Turkey were some of the friendliest people I have ever met, and the traffic was the worst I have ever seen. I’ve never been to New York, so I can’t compare the traffic and the crowds, but Istanbul has 16 million people and at times the closeness got to me. The Turkish don’t have the same personal space requirements that we do here in the states.

Where did you go, exactly?

We were in Istanbul almost the entire time. We intended on taking a two day trip to Cappadocia (these cool mountains referred to as the “fairy chimneys”), where you can take a hot air balloon ride and stay in a cave hotel, but we got distracted once we arrived in Istanbul and when we finally got around to talking to a travel agent, all their guides were booked. We did take a day trip by ferry to the Princes’ Islands. That was one of my favorite days. We went to the largest island; no cars are allowed, and we took a horse carriage up to a park at the foot of the tallest peak. Then we climbed the peak (and it was certainly a climb) to reach an old monastery at the top where we had a great lunch and amazing views of the other islands and the Marmara Sea.

Did you visit any mosques?

We visited 3 mosques (one active and two former mosques that are now museums) and one Orthodox church. The most interesting thing that I learned about mosques was that Aya Sofia, which was originally built by Justinian as a Christian church, was not designed after a mosque – and the Turks like the design so much that all mosques are designed after it.

Were there things that surprised you?

There were lots of things that surprised me, but two that jump out are:

Istanbul has to be one of the world’s largest melting pots. I have never met so many people from so many different countries all living in or visiting one city. The food options reflected this, as you could get any type of cuisine you wanted. We met an Italian-American from Philadelphia who said that Istanbul rather than New York is the true melting pot of the world, and he just might be right.

About 35% of the women we saw wore some type of head scarf. We saw very few women in the full covering, but what amazed me about them was how fashionable most of them were. Some of them were covered in long coats that were not as stylish, but still came in a wide variety of colors, and others just had the scarf on with funky clothes that covered all extremities, but were still very hip. I guess I shouldn’t have been too surprised by that as Istanbul is a very fashion-conscious city, but I was.

Beyond the Turkish delight, was there a local food that bowled you over?

There were several local foods that bowled me over. The Turkish meatballs (kofte) were wonderful and they were always accompanied by this simple bean salad that we came to love. We also had kebabs that were the specialty of one of the local restaurants and contained sliced pistachios that were amazing. And a dessert that is hard to describe. The shape resembled a flan, flat and circular. The outside was made of crunchy bird’s nest material (probably phyllo dough cut up), the inside had a creamier consistency like a pecan pie without the nuts. Then it was covered with shredded pistachios and topped with fresh cream. Sounds weird but it was delicious.

Were there any interactions with locals that stick out in your mind?

We took a 2.5-hour ferry to the Princes’ islands, which are a popular place with everyone, so the ferry was really packed. There was a large group of older teenagers, maybe college-age kids who wanted to sit outside (the outside seats were a hot commodity), so they laid down towels and blankets and sat at our feet, laying on each other and sleeping. At first I was annoyed by it, but they were so sweet – not intrusive at all in spite of the fact that they were practically lying on top of our feet. It was fun to watch their interactions and have no idea what they were saying but still understand their joking and teasing each other.


  1. thanks for the interview, sounds amazing!

  2. A good interview that represents the city very well.

    But Turkish is not a Slavic language. Not even related.


  3. Thanks for the comments; apologies for not fact-checking the origin of the Turkish language. Clearly, I was not a journalism major. Thanks for setting the record straight, Nina.


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