In preparation for my upcoming trip to the Balkans this summer I’ve been reading The Hidden Europe by Francis Tapon, a hilarious and bitingly accurate personal account of travelling in Eastern Europe. Tapon’s goal is to visit every country in Eastern Europe and find out what its people and culture can teach us lowly ‘westerners’ (his take on what constitutes as ‘Eastern’ is particularly amusing – basically ask anyone no matter where they are on the continent and they will tell you Eastern Europe begins in the country directly to the east of their own). It’s got me thinking. Turkey has had a difficult few weeks (nay, months) – with the tragedy of Soma, deaths on the streets and a government intent on making every marginalised group in the country suffer as much as humanly possible – and there hasn’t been too much positivity in the media coverage of this country of late. While living here does have its difficulties (a life without bacon is no easy feat), on the whole Turks have got it pretty worked out. So I decided to compile a by-no-means-definitive list of the things that Turkey can teach us.
1. The hospitality.
If you ask any visitor to Turkey what they love about the country, it’s almost a given that this will top the list. Turks are the friendliest, most hospitable people I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. It’s something that I see almost on a daily basis, and after almost a year it still blows me away. Even when I first arrived in Istanbul as a hopelessly lost tourist, there were always a long line of people practically falling over themselves to help me get around. One day when I couldn’t find the metro an elderly couple pointed me in the right direction and the wife almost beat her husband up for not offering to walk me there himself (he readily agreed to). But a fair warning; even if they have no clue as to where the place you’re looking for is, they will still attempt to help you. Exhibit A: an afternoon spent running back and forth around Bursa trying to find the bus to the ferry, where everyone would point us in an entirely different direction, positive they were doing us a favour even if they had no clue where the bus stop really was. I’ve had random ladies knock on my door and offer me pudding, been invited to dinner after meeting someone on the street for all of five minutes, and am constantly given chocolates from my students at school (although I suspect that they may have ulterior motives for this). It’s almost impossible to say no to Turkish hospitality – partly because the food is always so delicious, but mostly because you will be physically unable to – ‘hayır’ isn’t really an answer here.
2. Don’t buy from supermarkets.
In the west the supermarket is the shrine of convenience. Everything you could ever want is there, and in Australia at least the war between the two main chains ensures it’s cheaper than anywhere else too. But in Turkey the best produce isn’t in Migros or Carrefour, but rather at your local street vendor or corner store. I’ve already banged on about how fantastic the bazaars are here for cheap and fresh produce, but it’s a tired and true cliche for a reason. The fruit I buy at a market lasts twice as long as anything bought from Şok, and it’s usually a third of the price. The convenience argument is effectively moot, too: on my street alone I have a greengrocer, egg man, pharmacy, butcher, baker and candlestick maker all at my fingertips. And if you’re lucky enough to be over 60 then you automatically win the ability to lower a basket down from your window and demand for the nearest person to buy whatever it is you want.
3. Show some affection!
During one of my numerous failed dates in this city I was listening to a boy rant about how westerners are all so cold and closed and that we all probably had something terrible happen in our childhoods to make us so emotionally barren. Naturally I just smiled and nodded and kept eating my kunefe because getting angry would have been so passé (which admittedly did nothing to disprove his theory). While he may have drawn to some questionable conclusions, it’s true that we could definitely learn how to show a bit more affection to each other. When I first came to Istanbul I thought I’d arrived in some kind of homo heaven, given all the men walking around arm in arm. Of course I soon realised that this is a purely platonic form of affection, which is almost just as impressive. No-one thinks twice about kissing on both cheeks (this in itself took a while to master) or picking up a random baby in the street and pulling their cheek exclaiming ‘Mashallah’. Even the teachers at school are always giving the kids hugs and patting them on the shoulder; in Australia or the US so much as a smile is enough to put you on probation. We are naturally loving beings, and it couldn’t hurt to show that a little more often.
4. Let’s get entrepreneurial.
It’s a scenario familiar to most people in this city: You walk out the door to a beautiful morning, only for the clouds to come rolling across the Marmara and the heavens open up on your perfectly manicured hair right as you step off the Metrobüs. But never fear! Seemingly out of nowhere, there are dozens of people offering you five lira umbrellas. Where did they all come from? I have never seen anywhere more entrepreneurial than here. Whether it’s the eskici‘s carting around their second hand wares in the streets or the men with the bunnies who will tell you your future, if there’s a way to make a quick lira, the Turks are on it. When the weather started to get cold a previously empty storefront near my apartment was suddenly full of scarves and beanies, and the guy in Kadıköy who sells fairy floss out of the back of his station wagon is simply the best thing to accompany a Moda sunset. It’s so widespread that sometimes Istanbul feels like one giant room of requirement: next time you need something, just think about it hard enough and you’ll probably be rewarded.
5. We’re all in this together.
This is somewhat related to almost all of the above lessons, but I think is one of the most wonderful things about living in Istanbul (and Turkey as a whole). In the west society is so focused on the individual; it’s all about personal gain, even if it’s at the expense of others. Maybe it’s just the village spirit still shining through the big city atmosphere, but it doesn’t feel like that here. Everyone is incredibly willing to lend a hand to those in need. You see it every day: in the young man helping the teyze onto the bus or the taxi driver giving some fruit to the Syrian refugee. It’s there when you catch a bus that’s so full everyone hands their Istanbulkarts down the crowd for the person at the front to swipe. When I was struggling with Turkish bureaucracy (who am I kidding, it’s hardly past tense), people came out of the woodwork telling me they knew friends of friends of friends who might be able to help. While the Soma mining disaster was undoubtedly tragic, it was incredibly heartwarming to see people all across the country wanting to chip in. And not just individuals, but companies too- almost every music festival this summer is donating the entirety of their profits to the aid effort. Last year during the Gezi Park protests, football teams that were sworn enemies came together to save a patch of earth, and maybe just while they’re at it, all of Turkey. This country may have more than its fair share of problems, but when the people work together like this, I have nothing but high hopes.
There are so many great things about living here and this list only scrapes the surface (I haven’t even started on how great the moustaches are here and how I may or may not be currently sporting one). Getting to know Istanbul and Turkey over the last ten months or so has been incredibly rewarding and I know I am going to sorely miss it when I come back to Australia in September. Did I tell you I was coming back to Australia in September? Sorry if you missed that bit. The current plan is to spend the summer travelling and then crawl back into my parents arms without a dollar to my name, rustle up some cash somehow (seeing as I won’t be getting Newstart anymore) and move to Melbourne in time to start a Masters degree in 2015. I know doing the whole gap year thing to ‘experience new culture’ and to ‘grow as a person’ is incredibly cliche, but I do hope I can keep doing at least some of these things back home. At the very least, there will always be moustaches.