07 January 2007
My observations gleaned from 2.5 amazing months living in Istanbul :
Dec 31, 2006 - Istanbul Tr | Cult of Hospitality
Jan 01, 2007 - Istanbul Tr | Father Turk
Jan 02, 2007 - Istanbul Tr | Football, Turkish-style
Jan 03, 2007 - Istanbul Tr | Yoghurt, Yoghurt, Yoghurt
Jan 04, 2007 - Istanbul Tr | "Hello"
Jan 05, 2007 - Istanbul Tr | One-Way Rivalry
Jan 06, 2007 - Istanbul Tr | Bumper to Bumper
Jan 07, 2007 - Istanbul Tr | T(ea) is for Turkey
Cult of Hospitality
Istanbul, Turkey - Dec 31, 2006
It only seems fitting that my first topic about life in Turkey as a foreigner is the incredible culture of hospitality I've encountered just about everywhere. Maybe it's the fact that I know some people in Istanbul and so have already have a slight 'in', but I feel like I've been welcomed with open arms more so here than any of the other places I've been. In my first few days in Istanbul I was without a cell phone (having unintentionally taken mine swimming in Malta), meaning I was dependent on finding public phones in order to get in touch with people; on multiple occasions I stopped in small restaurants or shops to try to ask where the nearest telephone was, and rather than being gruffly pointed in a vague direction, instead found myself being personally escorted there. This friendliness toward guests has manifested itself a myriad of other ways, from friendly banter to suggestions of where to go and how to get there to invitations to dinner. It's an ancient tradition which has been reinforced by the influences of islamic teaching, but it has held out remarkably well in the face of Turkey's 20th century modernization (especially compared with what seems to me the dying art of hospitality in many other post-modern Western countries). There are stories of prisoners-of-war captured and held in provincial Turkey during WWI being made to ride donkeys while their captors trudged alongside on foot, because after all, what self-respecting host would make his 'guest' walk while he himself rode beside him? And just before the pope made a 4-day visit to Turkey in November, a trip greeted with widespread consternation and protest due to some of his previous comments interpreted as criticism of Islam, the Turkish Prime Minister appealed to Turks simply to uphold and display the long-standing tradition of hospitality shown to guests. Despite being deeply rooted in traditional Turkish culture culture, the treatment of guests in modern Turkey is also very closely tied to a tremendous sense of national pride. Almost without exception Turks are proud (and justifiably so) of their history, their cultural heritage, and their country in general, and so there's a genuine desire for visitors to see and experience the best that Turkey has to offer. I'm certainly not complaining...
Istanbul, Turkey - Jan 01, 2007
No matter where you go in Turkey, it's not easy to avoid Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. His picture, most often with some variation of a steely gaze, is everywhere, including on every banknote and in most offices and homes: in my gym, he's exercising with an old-fashioned rowing machine (although I still haven't figured out whether it's an advertisement for or a motivational poster); above the sign for the restaurant across the street from my apartment he's striding purposefully at the head of a pack of government officials and military men. And every November 10 at 9:05 AM, the country comes to a complete standstill for a moment of silence marking the anniversary of his death. It was one of the very things that struck me about Turkey, because the cult of personality that surrounds Ataturk and the reverence with which his memory is preserved seems more befitting of Cuba or Soviet Russia than a functioning modern democracy. That is, until you realize that that democracy owes its existence to him probably more than any other democracy in the world owes its existence to a single man (if not in fact, then certainly in the minds of its people), and that the preservation of his memory still acts as a powerful weapon against any forces attempting to make Turkey less democratic or less secular. Almost anyone you talk to here gives Ataturk nearly singlehanded credit for defeating the Allied forces at Gallipoli in WWI (and thereby repelling the invasion of Turkey), creating the Republic of Turkey, reforming the Turkish language to use its current alphabet rather than arabic script, and secularizing Turkish government and society by disbanding the title of caliph and banning the wear of fezes (I guess that's the plural...) by men and headscarves by women, among many other things. When the usage of family names was adopted in the 20's/30's and normal people were assigned last names that pertained to where they were from or what type of work they did, Mustafa Kemal was given the name of Ataturk: basically equivalent to 'father Turk'. That name now graces Istanbul's main airport, its biggest stadium, and probably thousands of other buildings, parks, etc. across Turkey, and the same name was invoked during the series of military coups engineered to prevent the government from introducing any form of religion into the running of the Turkish state, just as it is any time anything is deemed a threat to the modern, secular, progressive society Ataturk worked to build. It's interesting, because it raises fascinating questions about the nature of the relationship of any one individual to a democracy and the role of a certain style of authoritarianism in developing and maintaining that democracy, but it's impossible to deny that all that the name Ataturk - and that steely gaze watching over Turkey from almost everywhere - represents is one of the main pillars of modern life here.
Istanbul, Turkey - Jan 02, 2007
Turkey's been quiet lately. This has especially been the case for the past few days, because a lot of people used the four-day religious holiday of Kurban Bayrami (which this year happens to coincide with New Year's) as an excuse to get out of Istanbul for a little while. Yet there's another reason as well: professional football (or soccer, if to you 'football' conjures up images of helmets and oblong balls) is on a month-long winter break. Like in most other European countries, football is MASSIVE in Turkey, and the passion for the game and teams here runs probably at least as deep as it does England, Spain or Italy.
The Turkish football landscape is dominated by three clubs from Istanbul, one of whom has won the SüperLig for each of the past 22 years. Almost every one in the country supports one of these three clubs, which traditionally have a fan-base from different socioeconomic levels: generally speaking, Besiktas is the people's club, Fenerbahce is the club of the upper-middle class and the nouveau riche, and Galatasaray is supported by old money and the traditional elite. The Galatasaray-Fenerbahce-Besiktas rivalry is massive and acrimonious, but Fenerbahce (of the three, the one with the most money to splash around) is the biggest lightening rod for passion; if you're not a Fenerbahce fan, you generally fervently root against them at every turn. A fourth club, Trabzonspor (from the city of Trabzon in the north of Turkey) hovers somewhere above the rest of the teams, but definitely isn't quite on on the same level as the big three. If you're not from Istanbul, you likely have some sort of dual allegiance: your hometown club, and one of the Istanbul clubs.
Since I've been in Istanbul, I've gone to four Galatasaray games: three league games at the Ali Sami Yen stadium, and one Champions League game against Liverpool at the Ataturk Olympic Stadium. Apparently I'm some sort of good luck charm, because Galatasaray won all four games handily. With the exception of the Liverpool game (whose outcome was meaningless), the atmosphere in the stadium was crazy. Rather than just sitting and watching and occasionally yelling about one player or the ref, the entire crowd is on its feet, singing and chanting for the length of the game except for a brief break at halftime. Think of the student section at any college football or basketball game, and then imagine basically an entire stadium filled with those fans. The away section (although small, and segregated from the home fans by fences and cordons of police) was in good voice as well - singing and taunting the home crowd whenever there was a decent opportunity. But since Galatasaray won all of the games I was at, I got to see some disgruntled away fans as well - with the police pretty much passively looking on, they ripped up part of their seats (apparently a lot of new cheap plastic seats are installed after every game), and proceeded to throw them - along with water bottles and anything else readily available- at the nearest home section.
In general, the match atmosphere is one of tolerated chaos. Security exists at the entrance to stadiums, where you walk under a 'metal detector' (which I suspect may not make a noise if you carried a steel bar through it), get padded down, and are asked if you have any forbidden items like lighters or batteries. You're not allowed to bring coins into the stadium, but if you buy anything inside, you get coins as change, and the minute you pull out a cigarette, someone is offering you a light. In the last league game before the winter break, we arrived too late to grab seats (not that we would have been sitting anyway), and had to spend the first half wedged along the railings. At halftime, we squeezed our way up to the nosebleed section, then climbed up onto the roof of a luxury-box section for a bit of space and an amazing view of the pitch. Nobody said a thing.
But the passion for the game extends far beyond the matches. Because everyone (most women included) are ardent supporters of a team, there's always something to talk about. And yet between all but the most die-hard of fans, there's generally good-natured banter about whose club is better. After one match we stopped at a restaurant for a late dinner, and as one of the waiters held the door open for us on the way out, he noticed my Galatasary jersey and told me just to wait until the derby match next week (implying Galatasaray might have won that night, but wouldn't beat their archrivals Fenerbahce). Another night, again walking back from a match decked out in jerseys, etc., a guy pushing his kid in a stroller had to stop abruptly while crossing the street as a car came swerving around the corner - he looked at me with a smile and said 'Asshole. He must be a Fenerbahce fan.'
Yoghurt, Yoghurt, Yoghurt (and some other stuff as well)
Istanbul, Turkey - Jan 03, 2007
I remember going to a supposedly very good Turkish restaurant in London several years ago, and being decidedly unimpressed. I don't know whether the food that night actually wasn't very good, or I've become a much less picky eater over the course of this trip (my money's on the latter), but i've definitely changed my opinion of turkish food for the better. It's actually not terribly easy to define Turkish cuisine, because it varies significantly depending where you are and due to numerous regional influences. In the west along the Aegean it's lighter and very similar to Greek food, with a lot of fish and meze (small 'appetizer' dishes comparable to tapas); food from the central and eastern parts of Anatolia are heavier and more meat-based (to match the harsher, more mountainous climate), with a more middle-eastern flavor; there's also 'Ottoman cuisine' and different fish-based cuisine from the northern Black Sea coast.
One of the few constants is yoghurt, and plenty of it. Yoghurt (yoğurt in turkish, meaning it's pronounced more like yo-urt) probably makes up the biggest part of the refridgerated section in turkish supermarkets, where it's available in everything from the Danone snack cups we Americans are eminently familiar with to industrial-sized vats. It's certainly one of the staples used most widely in Turkish food, and has a wide variety of uses: there's ayran (after rakı, probably the national drink), a roughly 50-50 mixture of yoghurt and water; a variety of thickened yoghurts with vegetables as meze (many similar to tzatziki); and iskender kebab, a plate of sliced döner kebab with pita, a tomato-based sauce, and - you guessed it - yoghurt.
For all of the variety in Turkish cooking, there's also a simplicity to many of the main dishes. Turkish breakfast is a relatively straightforward affair: fresh bread or sliced simit (ring-shaped sesame rolls) with a variety of cheeses and jams, complemented by fresh vegetables (usually tomato, cucumber and pepper) and olives. Lentil soup, jazzed up to taste with lemon juice and chili flakes, is available almost everywhere, as are köfte (meatballs, which come in literally dozens of different forms), kebabs (various types of skewered meat), and pilav (buttered rice, sometimes with chicken).
Of course to list all of the other dishes I've had since coming to Turkey would take forever (not to mention be really hard, since half the time I haven't known whatever it was I was eating), but I'll try to go through some of the highlights. Of the zillions of different meze dishes, one of my favorites is acılı ezme, a fairly spicy tomato and chili paste eaten with bread. Menemen is a tasty alternative to the normal turkish breakfast: spiced scrambled eggs with tomatoes, onion and pepper. I've also had some fantastic seafood while I've been here: grilled palamut, an oily Black Sea fish not dissimilar to salmon; both grilled and fried hamsi (which I've seen translated as anchovies but remain unsure as to whether I completely buy the translation), 2-3 inch fish served and eaten whole except for the head (although I'm not too keen on the tail myself); and some grilled octopus - served almost whole - which was AMAZING. For dessert, of course there's baklava (which apparently should be served with a dollop of super-heavy cream that's basically unsalted butter), but also some sort of warm sesame-paste dessert (tahin?) that after a few spoonfuls will have you bouncing off the walls in no time at all. And I've also had some really good General Tso chicken at a great Chinese restaurant not far from my apartment, but that doesn't really count...
(in Borat voice) "Hello"
Istanbul, Turkey - Jan 04, 2007
There's really only one way to properly greet people in Turkey: with a kiss on each cheek. Except this isn’t your froo-froo high-society, ‘hello dahhling’ cheek kissing; it’s done by everyone, everywhere (the only exception being devout Muslims). I’ve seen big, hairy Turkish men who make Borat's producer Azamat look eminently smoochable in comparison peck each other in greeting. To keep things simple, it's been pretty much standardized: there are always two kisses, almost invariably starting with the right cheek, and men generally shake hands first and then lean in... But there's room for variation as well, namely in whether you actually pucker up and/or make the smoochy noise. It's perfectly acceptable to simply touch cheeks, and in some circles you touch foreheads (i guess more like temples) instead, which is supposedly a slightly nationalistic / right-wing gesture.
All of this is so ingrained in Turkish culture that it's not even really a conscious thought, and some of the Turks I've met who haven't studied in the US were surprised to learn that it Americans don't generally kiss each other on the cheek, and to do so with guy friends would be considered a little ahem... strange.
Turk (astonished): "So how do you say hello to your friends?"
Me (as if this was a question I never expected to be asked): "ummm... you just say 'hello', or a lot of times you shake hands, or I guess sometimes hug..."
So although I've now gotten used to it, in my first few weeks in Turkey the fact that I was a foreigner led to some slightly awkward moments when I said hello to someone and shook their hand, followed by that little pause - not dissimilar to the end of a date - where we both gave each other the 'so... are we going to kiss?' look, and either leaned in, or let the moment pass...
Istanbul, Turkey - Jan 05, 2007
As I was traveling through Greece before coming to Turkey, I was repeatedly chided for wanting to come here. I knew Greeks and Turks weren't the best of buddies, but I was still surprised at the amount of lingering animosity felt by many Greeks toward Turkey. Numerous times, when I told people I was on my way to Istanbul to visit an good friend from university, I was politely 'corrected': "No, no, no, not Istanbul... It's Constantonopouli" (making me want to quote They Might Be Giants in reply). The capstone came during my stay on Mt. Athos, when one guy (who was admittedly a couple gyros short of a greek picnic) warned me against spending any time at all in Turkey, because almost all Turks 'practice black magic' and/or 'worship demons'.
Then I arrived in Turkey, and nobody's really had a bad thing to say about Greece (despite my goading in the form of repeating what I had heard from the mouths of Greeks). The only example I can think of is watching Efes Pilsen (one of Turkey's top basketball teams) play Panathanaikos (one of Greece's), while my Turkish friends were going nuts for Efes. Although the game had maybe slightly more meaning because it was against a Greek team, I'll attibrute most of the display to sporting passion, since most Turks (at least my friends) are fanatic supporters of their favorite teams and will almost without exception support any Turkish team (even a hated domestic rival) against foreign competition.
Apart from it possibly being a function of the people I've happened to meet in both countries, there are a few reasonable explanations for the disproportionate extent of the Greece-Turkey rivalry. The first is that everything is relative: as Emre pointed out, when you share borders with such fine, upstanding nations as Iraq, Iran and Syria, you're not going to be to terribly inclined to complain about Greece as a neighbour. Apart from Turkey, Greece's options for #1 cross-border rival are the oh-so-intimidating Albania, Macedonia, and Bulgaria (although it's not terrifically friendly with any). The second is a geo-political reality: Turkey has a population of over 70 million (not to mention one of the largest standing armies in the world), approximately 7 times larger than Greece. There's an old quote from some Turkish army general: "[When we invade Greece] I'll drink a coffee in [Thessaloniki], and burp in Athens". Although NATO and the EU might have something to say about it, and Israel is certainly proof that a larger army doesn't guarantee victory in conventional warfare, most Turks seem to feel that if it ever came to out and out war with Greece, they don't have much to worry about. I think Greeks, whether they'll admit it or not, feel slightly threatened by Turkey. Third, and maybe most most significant, are various historical factors. While in Greece, I noticed a definite bitterness toward the course of history, as if it was decidedly unfair that one of the superpowers of the ancient world and cradles of western civilization should be reduced to a small and comparatively insignificant modern nation. One of the main reasons for this tremendous indignity (at least as perceived by Greeks justifiably proud of their storied history) is the long suffering of Greece at the hands of the Turks, in the form of the Ottoman Empire. The lingering animosity of Greeks toward the Turkish oppressors of their past is therefore not that dissimilar to that felt by Poles toward Germans, or Koreans toward Japanese, except in this case older and arguably more deeply rooted. Turks, on the other hand, have historically been the conquerors rather than the conquered, and so aren't terribly bitter toward any particular nation or people. In addition, one of the legacies of the Ottoman Empire in modern Turkey is that of multi-culturalism and tolerance. The ancestors of many Turks were from northern Greece, Albania, Romania, or other areas formerly within the Ottoman borders; they came to modern Turkey either during the times of Ottoman Empire or shortly after its fall, and brought many of their local customs with them, gradually infusing them into what has become modern Turkish culture.
Bumper to Bumper
Istanbul, Turkey - Jan 06, 2007
It's funny -- before arriving in Turkey, I used to think traffic in and around NYC was bad. Not anymore, because it seems like a drive down an empty highway compared to Istanbul, where traffic is absolutely insane. The worst part it's completely unpredictable: for reasons I haven't yet figured out, rush-hour is a lot more loosely defined (almost to the point where there isn't one), meaning you're almost as likely to get stuck in traffic on a Sunday at 11 AM as you are on a Thursday at 5:30 PM. To drive in Istanbul you have to have the patience of a saint, the resignation of a death-row inmate, a hefty masochistic streak, a flair for driving on sidewalks, or some combination of the above. Yet amazingly, I haven't seen that many accidents -- maybe because no one's going fast enough to be unable to avoid them.
This is somewhat surprising, because at least theoretically the extremely high prices of both cars and gasoline (more on this in a later entry) should act to severely curb both automobile ownership and unnecessary driving. The public transport network is extensive and comparatively cheap, although excepting the few subway, tram and light-rail lines and the ferries plying the Bosphorus, it's mostly road-based in the form of public- and private-run buses, taxis, and dolmuses (a sort of combination taxi/bus). I expected to see a lot more scooters a la Italy and to a lesser extent Greece, but for some reason they're not very popular (I still think Vespa could make a killing here with the right marketing).
But Istanbul is a very spread-out city, with several different districts which could be construed as a 'downtown'. Partially because of this, there's only one subway (itself only completed in 2000), currently with six stops, although it's being extended. The Bosphorus also cuts the city in two, and apart from ferries shuttling back and forth between the Asian and European sides, the only means of crossing the strait is by driving (or being driven) across one of the two existing bridges. These bridges are two of the main choke points for traffic. A railway tunnel is currently under construction, which should significantly increase public transportation usage and ease the cross-Bosphorus traffic whenever it's finally completed (current tentative date is 2009, although most Istanbul natives seem to regard that timeframe with a heavy dose of skepticism). Plus there's not a lot of parking garages, meaning that in the older areas of the city where the roads are narrow to begin with, they're made worse by being choked with parked cars. Apparently there are some discussions of various methods limit/discourage driving in the neighborhoods suffering from the heaviest traffic, which is a good thing. Several hundred thousand new cars are registered every year in Turkey, meaning without a lot of work the traffic in Istanbul isn't going to be getting better any time anytime soon.
T(ea) is for Turkey
January 7, 2007
Europe > Turkey > Istanbul
It's a very common sight in Istanbul: a man hustles down the street, a medium-sized tray laden with small glasses hanging from his hand and swaying gently as he walks, but not nearly enough to upset the glasses (because that's the entire point of the ingenious hanging tray). He ducks into a small shop and emerges shortly thereafter, either with a few less full glasses, or a few extra empty ones. The tea deliverymen are kept perpetually busy, because Turkey leads the world in per capita tea consumpion (even higher than the tea-loving Brits).
It was originally a little surprising to me at first (after all, it's called *Turkish* coffee), but tea is definitely most Turks' hot beverage of choice, and they drink pretty much constantly: at breakfast, after (and sometimes during) meals, and at multiple other points throughout the day. Social visits and informal business meetings or negotiations - no matter how brief - are almost always accompanied by a glass of tea. Except it's often not made in-house, because proper Turkish tea involves much more than boiling water and plopping in a Lipton tea bag. It's made with a special double kettle, where regular water is boiled in the larger, lower kettle, and a small amount is then added to loose tea leaves in the top kettle and allowed to steep. The remaining hot water from the bottom kettle can then be used to dilute the tea to the appropriate strength. The tea is served in small tulip-shaped glasses, with two sugar cubes on the saucer (although artificial sweetener is generally available for diabetics or calorie counters). The glasses are small because the tea is strong (and never served with milk or lemon), but despite having asked a lot of people, I have yet to get a definitive answer as to why they're tulip-shaped. Two of the most logical are that the shape of the glasses makes them easier to hold, and that the hourglass-type shape affects the circulation of the liquid as the glass is tilted, meaning the hottest tea reaches the lips first (not sure if I buy this). But my personal favorite is simply that the glasses were designed to mimic 'the shape of woman'.
The other thing I have yet to figure out about Turks and their tea is how they drink it so damn fast. It's served piping hot, and to try to avoid burning the hell out of my tongue I generally sip it slowly. But I'm invariably the last one finished (usually by at least a minute or two). Can you build up an immunity to scalding yourself? Apparently so -- I guess I'll just have to up my tea consumption to match the average 8 glasses a day...
Read Mark's Travelogue Notes on Turkey: