I arrived in Istanbul shortly after 11 pm. By the time I got through the line to purchase my entry visa, and then through the line for passport control, it was well after midnight. I'd pre-arranged an airport pickup with the hostel, so when I stepped through customs and into the arrivals hall, I spotted my cab driver waiting for me with a sign labeled "Rebecca Horts." Not only did it amuse me that I was one of the people on the signs, but the creative spelling of my name was pretty amusing as well. (Though not as amusing as this classic booking from my OZ 08 trip through Australia last year.)
The Call to Prayer:
I first heard a call to prayer on a fieldtrip to the Richmond Mosque in my 9th grade world history class. We'd spent a whole semester learning about Islam, and this was our practical application. I remember that the trip made such an impression on me at the time--as a 14-year-old WASP from the 'burbs I'd never had any interactions with Muslims--and for years afterwards I appreciated that trip and our Q&A session with the imam after the Friday prayer service for broadening my horizons beyond everyday Chesterfield County. That being said, I was 14 years old and had never heard a call to prayer. And I won't pretend that my first reaction wasn't to suppress a giggle at the weird foreign sounds of the chant. But fortunately I managed to stay composed, and by the end of the call to prayer I wondered how I could have even wanted to laugh.
The second time I heard a call to prayer was in Istanbul.
Just as the church bells in Austria chime at regular intervals 3-5 times a day (depending on the day), the call to prayer rings out through the city 5 times a day. Even my earplugs weren't enough to mute the 5 am call to prayer, a much earlier alarm than its 7 am churchbell counterpart in Austria. When it's time for a call to prayer in Istanbul, all the different mosques send out a live transmission on loudspeakers secured on the minarets, and pretty soon you're surrounded by a round of calls to prayer. At first it was a little strange, just because it is such a different noise than what I'm used to--it was a regular reminder that I was a guest in a country whose culture is far different from any other country I've experienced; however, gone was the 9th grade propensity to giggle. I came to enjoy the calls to prayer and found them melodic and interesting, especially when we found ourselves in a particularly interesting part of the city when it happened, like the video below.
The Turkish Flag Challenge:
It didn't take us long to realize that there is a Turkish flag from nearly every vantage point in Istanbul. It is omnipresent. (...And you thought Americans were patriotic...)
When we realized just how ubiquitous the flag really is, we decided to initiate a challenge: the Turkish Flag Challenge.
Participants: 2 or more players
Equipment: A Turkish flag and a buzzword
Preparation: As a group, determine a mutual buzzword (for example: "Strudel"). Any player may initiate the Turkish Flag Challenge at any time.
Rules: When out and about in Istanbul, any player can call out the buzzword (ex: "Strudel!") at any time. The other players must stop in their spot and search for a Turkish flag within eyesight. The first player to point out the Turkish flag wins that round.
Winners: There are only winners, never losers.
Türkçe konuşur musunuz? *
Before I left for Turkey, a few friends had given me some helpful phrases in Turkish, such as: "Hello;" "Thank you;" "How much?"; and "I want to get off the minibus!" But I always try to pick up as much of a foreign language as I can while I'm in the country, so I made it a point to constantly ask friends, the hostel proprietor, and pretty much anyone else I was dealing with how to say things in Turkish.
But it was hard, man. Turkish is tough. It was really difficult for me to distinguish the different sounds, let alone the different words. Once I had a better understanding of how to pronounce written Turkish, it made it a little easier to order things. And it was the little victories--the baby steps--that made it so rewarding. Sometimes it helped to use pneumonic devices; for example, the Turkish word for "thank you" is Teşekkür ederim, which sounds very similar to "tea sugar dream." (N.b.: Similarly, some visitors in Graz have found the German word for "excuse me"--Entschuldigung--to sound like a mumbled "I'm chewing gum.")
First I ordered, "Three teas, please," at a teahouse when my companions had left the table. I was able to throw in the numbers 1-3 in any setting, actually...but mostly where drinks were involved. When haggling, I could even use a sad-looking, "No, too much." But my crowning moment in Turkish was after my oil massage in the Turkish baths: I was able to whip out a confident, "Thank you. Good. Super." ...I mean, what more can you really say about a good massage? Finally, I went to meet a friend in Istanbul on my last afternoon in town. I was alone and took the tram to her stop. When I got off, I felt a tap on the shoulder, and I turned around to see a Turkish bottle blond who immediately said, "Pardon..." and then a bunch of Turkish I didn't understand. This was it--this was my moment. My moment to use a real sentence and say, "Sorry, I don't understand," or "Sorry, I don't speak Turkish." But when the words came out, it was a very English sentence and I'd lost my chance to use a real Turkish sentence in a real-life situation forever. But I was flattered by being taken for Turkish.
*Click on the link to hear the phrase "Do you speak Turkish?" in Turkish.
I Scream, You Scream:
We all scream for Dondurma!
I am a huge fan of ice cream. Forget chocolate, just tell me where the ice cream is. In Rome, I had the gelato at least once a day. In Graz, I can hardly get out of town without visiting one of the ice cream shops placed tantilizingly on every street worth walking on. And in Turkey...well they have ice cream too. And I couldn't wait to get my hands on it.
I first became suspicious of the Turkish ice cream when I went to give my order and the ice cream man pulled out a long-handled metal paddle. Now that's odd. And then when he put my two scoops on the cone...something wasn't quite right. They seemed to glisten unnaturally, and although mine was the first to be served, it hadn't started dripping down the sides of the cone by the time my two friends got theirs. And then we all tasted it.
It was cold. Now's that's familiar, I'm feeling it. But wait! It's...it's...chewy?! Yes, Turkish ice cream is downright chewy! It's got the consistency of a marshmallow turned into ice cream, which is an odd sensation indeed. The Turkish consider this type of ice cream "normal;"our stuff--like gelato, soft serve, and what you and I consider normal ice cream--isn't real ice cream from the Turkish perpective. And after more investigation, I was happy to find out that my first impressions of this Turkish ice cream were right on: the special features about dondurma are its texture (chewy!) and its resistance to melting. Very weird, but very cool. If you ever find yourself in Turkey, this experience should not be missed.
I am so glad I was forewarned about the Turkish toilets. So glad.
As I mentioned before, being in a new country with a new culture brings new experiences. Such as squatty potties. Those of you who have spent time in Asia are probably laughing at me right now, and rightly so. But I am a spoiled, modern Westerner who values her clean, porcelain toilet bowls very much.
I was only able to avoid the inevitable for one day. Then, on my second day in Istanbul, I just had to go. The good news is, there's any number of public restrooms all throughout the city. In fact, just find a mosque (which is pretty much at every turn) and you've found yourself a restroom too. The bad news is, they are almost all squatty potties. Oh, and the other bad news is, you have to pay to use them.
The funny thing is, in places like Vienna, I will rather hold it in that pay for a public restroom...either that, or I spend way too much time searching for the nearest McDonald's, which is universally gratis. However, in Turkey one has no such luck. Sometimes you luck out when paying the bathroom attendant the 50 kuruş to 1 lira (30¢ - 60¢) "entrance fee" and you'll also get some toilet paper as part of the service. (Although I use the term toilet paper loosely: this could mean anything from a napkin to a couple sheets of actual toilet paper.) This is why the well-informed traveller carries travel tissues at all times. The actual device one uses to complete one's business is basically a glorified hole in the ground. A porcelain hole with ridges on either side to provide traction for your shoes, but a hole nonetheless. In the corner of your stall is a waste bin to throw in the used paper/napkin/whatever-resourceful-thing-you-find-in-your-purse-to-do-the-job, and in the other corner is a spigot and a small plastic container, for what I can only assume is rinsing off a sticky load. Ironically, although you hardly ever find toilet paper in a public restroom, I found that--without fail--there was always soap.
The first time I had to use one of these, I was terrified. I am not a go-in-the-woods kind of gal. Women just aren't designed for this kind of maneuver, and I think I was jusifiably concerned over the outcome. But let me tell you--I nailed it. A perfect 10 on the first try. And by the end of the trip, it was no biggie. So...anyone ready for a long hiking trip in the woods?
Street dogs--and cats:
Lots of stray cats and dogs roam the streets of Istanbul. I was quite surprised by the number of stray cats--something I've not seen in other countries--and pretty impressed at the docile and non-agressive nature of the dogs. They just kind of went around and did their own thing. (Compared to the Romanian strays, the Turkish variety belong in a petting zoo.)
Women and the Workplace:
It took me a while to notice it. Almost a week, actually. But then it occurred to me: you don't see women working in Turkey. Not in the shops, the markets, the restaurants, or the info offices for the tourists. In fact, the entire time I was there, I only saw three women at work: one heavily-armed policewoman for Obama's visit in Istanbul, one reporter for said Head of State's visit, and one shop assistant in Cappadocia. That said, it should also be noted that people tend to work really long hours. The hostel proprietor was basically working 24/7, the guy behind the counter of the coffee shop at 7 am was still there at 9 pm, and the shopkeepers seemed to work at their shops every single day.
...Ok, still with me? Good. I think that's enough grab-bag for today. Next up: more potpourri and then--oh man, my stomach is growling already--the food!