The more we travel, the more we are convinced that people are (mostly) good everywhere. But some are even gooder (no, not better) and Turks have always been on the top of our Good European People totem pole, followed closely by the Portuguese.
Our delightful encounters with Istanbulites only enforced our long standing perception. Every day we had warm conversations with people dusting off their English, sharing their opinions and recommendations and if we had no common language, waves, nods, and warm smiles. As many conversations started with “How long are you staying in Istanbul?” our response, “One month,” floored them and excited them. Ah, you are no fly by night tourists! When we added that we have been coming for the last 35 years, they were tickled pink. “Oh, I haven’t even been born then!”
We had a daily check in with our wonderful house manager Hatiçe, who reigned from her downstairs office surrounded by computer, iPad and two smart phones. Within minutes she would pull up a ferry schedule or secure a dinner reservation. She accompanied me to the real neighborhood hamam and was amused when I ordered the works, including the coffee grounds scrub. With hair still wet, we met our significant others at their favorite sidewalk kebab place for some unusually spicy and delicious kebabs. Her funny boyfriend Ergul was Kurdish by birth but could not speak Kurdish anymore, because his parents wanted the kids to assimilate.
We had a lot of Kurdish connections. My tarot reader Baran’s father was Kurdish and his mother Jewish. I don’t know much about tarot and this was my first time I had a reading, but he was the nicest tarot reader ever and only told me all the good things, predicting wealth, fame and grandchildren in near future. 😉 Told me I kept picking the very best possible cards. I asked him how he came to be a cafe tarot reader. He said he was on a volunteer stint with UNESCO in Iraqi Kurdistan and narrowly escaped a road side bomb and a bullet that pierced his bus window. It was after that trauma that his mind became really sensitive and in tune with people’s destinies.
Another Kurd we visited was a carpet seller in our favorite Dhoku carpet store in Grand Bazaar. We came across this store many years back when we brought our three girls to Istanbul. Our then 11 year old daughter took one look at a small green patchwork carpet and declared she had to have it. She was going to pay us back with her savings and future allowance money. She still has it 17 years later and can be proud of her pick as the company has become quite famous in the world of interior design by promoting the unusual reworked traditional carpets. Over the customary complimentary little glasses of strong tea we chatted about life, nationalism, politics and family. He complained that his three little kids spent way too much time on iPads. He admitted that there were way too many carpet stores in Grand Bazaar and most of their own sales were now actually online. “We, Turks, work too hard,” he said, “always a-hustling, morning till night, striving for profit, not having enough time for family and friends.”
“I much prefer the lifestyle of our neighbors, the Greeks. They take it easy, they are not stressed. They work a bit during the summer tourist season, and then they relax.”
Funny enough, two years ago we had been on a small boat island cruise through Greece and Turkey and we could certainly compare their attitudes and lives. Whereas in Turkey, if we came to a store two minutes before closing they would enthusiastically start showing us their wares, offering us a special last sale of the day price and a cup of tea, whereas in Greece they would ignore the browsing customer or worse – chat with the seller next door. In one of the museums on Rhodes they actually started shooing us out half an hour before closing time. When we complained, they explained their work shift ends when they get home, not when the last visitor leaves. And they needed the extra half hour to close up and catch the bus. I kid you not!
Well, lest we be generalizing too much, our carpet seller was quick to point out that Turkish Anatolian farmers happily espoused the Greek lifestyle, letting their wives do all the work on the farm and in the home.
Just looking at the Turks walking by one can notice a big variety in body type, facial features, hair color and eyes. Modern day Turks are quite a mixture of peoples that have been absorbed into the Ottoman Empire.
The ones that you might not have heard of are Circassians. They were people of the Caucasus like Armenians or Georgians, but as a nation they did not survive, because of the Russian occupation and policies. Circassian regiments were famous in sultan’s army and Circassian slave women were very admired for their beauty, spirit, and elegance. No wonder many became wives or favorite concubines in sultans’ harems in Turkey, Egypt and beyond. The Servas friend we met one afternoon for a gallery visit and dinner exhibited all the attributes of a “Circassian Beauty”, including the customary dark blonde hair and green eyes. Arzu Nur told us her grandfather was a Cherkez (Turkish for Circassian) fighter who worked closely with Ataturk. She had been a shipping trader for most of her life until a hearing loss in one ear took her on a different path.
Not sure if this lady was of Circassian descent, but she surely was beautiful and made beautiful hand knitted designs in a tiny store that I loved visiting. It was interesting to talk to her about her business and how she was empowering many Turkish village women knitting her delicate designs and making an income at home. ￼
She had grown up in Germany and came back to have her own family in Istanbul.
Close by her store Nananko Knits was a fancy Sofa Art & Antiques. On my first visit the owner gifted me a yellow envelope. I took it with me to lunch and as we waited for our food to arrive I opened the envelope and pulled out a handful of Turkish poems he had translated into English.
As I started reading the first one ‘I am Listening to Istanbul’ by Orhan Veli, the waiter arrived, took one look at me and started reciting the poem in Turkish. He quickly called over his boss and they were both really touched that I was reading a famous Turkish poem. What a magical moment of connection! Some weeks later as I was walking down the street in our neighborhood I ran across the owner of the antique store. I told him the story of the reciting waiter and now it was his turn to be touched.
That area of Beyoglu was a fun and funky place with lots of great corners where many fashion photographers found their inspiration. I always had fun photographing the photographers and then one day decided to jump into the shoot. The models and the photographer were all good sports, the ladies posed and the photographer took some shots on my iPhone. How nice is that?! Sometimes I simply found my own models. At the most funky dark fantasy designer leather shop of Emino Tillo amongst the chain mail and candelabra, and old treasure chests worked a handsome young man. Would you mind posing for me in some cool outfits? Not at all… It must have been a slow day or he was just simply another oh so nice young Turk. In an altogether different area we found a traditional archery store and the owner Hasan who spoke perfect American English, because he studied at Georgetown University. He showed us around and explained everything even though it was clear that we were not on the market to buy a bow or a set of arrows.
It didn’t take long to find our favorite coffee shop and of all the staff at Coffee Brew it was a young woman who concocted the best capuccinos. We stopped there nearly daily and she was always happy to chat and recommend a cocktail bar or a restaurant.
Another young Turkish woman that was a delight was Nisa. She stepped in when we were looking lost searching for the right ferry to take us to the Asian side. “I am taking the same ferry, just follow me.” On the ride across the Golden Horn we chatted about her studies (psychology) and her desire to study for 6 months through the Erasmus program in Europe. Turns out we were all planing to go to the Princes Island the next day and she introduced us to her friends and showed us around the art Biennale that was on one of the islands. A few days later she came over to our place for the terrace sunset view with a visiting friend Jenn from England, who was on her way to India. What a hoot talking to two young women from such different backgrounds, one a practicing Muslim, the other a practicing Free Spirit! As the sun went down Nisa said, “Why don’t you join us for dinner at my parents’ house, my mom is cooking up a storm?”
So we jumped on the bus and travelled to the modest apartment of her family. What a lovely home cooked feast and what a lovely family. At the end Nisa’s mom gave me a lovely scarf to remember her by and her dad, who was an air condition repairman, pilled us all into his van and took us to a well know Boza drink (fermented bulgur) shop. We were lucky to have another home cooked dinner at Mirek’s former colleague’s house. Melis studied civil engineering at Stanford, where she met her future husband, who was also from Istanbul. What a lucky find! Well, the parents were not quite as enthusiastic as she was Muslim and he Jewish. But love conquers all and they have been happily married for more than twenty years and have two children! Her husband is a descendant of Sephardic Jews who came to Istanbul in 15th century after expulsion from Spain. It is incredible that some Jewish-Turkish families still speak Ladino, a Jewish-Ottoman language with Spanish sentence structure that has barely changed from that time. We conversed in English, but their cook could only communicate in Russian. Turns out she was from Moldova of Gaugazian minority. She could not believe that just a few months back we drove through the tiny Gaugazia when we made our foray into Moldova on our Balkan driving adventure.
Sometimes no words are needed to communicate. Or let’s say the language of art was the communication tool between my traditional paper marbling teacher Nurala and her beginner student. I found her little studio on a walk through Balat neighborhood and watched her work with some Syrian refuges. They helped translate for me when I inquired whether she would teach me also. She said yes and the next morning I was back for a private lesson. For an hour she helped me make my first marbling paper masterpieces. Even though we could not talk, it was so much fun! We sure did a lot of talking when we finally met in person the owners of our fabulous Airbnb: Zeynap and her mother Salmin. Zeynap has studied in US and worked in New York for many years.
“What made you come back?” I asked.
“She did,” she answered, laughing and pointing at her mom. “One evening I was talking to my mom on the phone. Everyone had gone home, but I was still in the office. My mom said, ‘What kind of life is that? You are rotting in the corners of New York!’
“So I came back to Istanbul with my very new American boyfriend who loved it here and became my husband.”
With two small children, an educational consulting business and a large Airbnb house to run Zeynap surely had no time to rot in any corners! Luckily her mom was of great help to her. She used to run a gallery in Ankara and had an impeccable taste and great knowledge or art and history. She took us for a tour of the neighborhood and showed us all the historical houses.
Lastly I have to mention a great couple, even though they are not Turkish. I met Hilary and Don from Portland, Oregon in the Georgian mountains. They had taken a gap year off in the middle of their careers to travel the world and we had many notes to compare. They told me they were finishing their year in Istanbul and I told them to make sure to let us know when they arrive as we were going to be there at the same time. They did and we spent a few days together exploring Istanbul. And eating and drinking, of course!It is really special to meet up again with traveling friends that share your passion for travel and discovery. I am sure we will see them again sometime somewhere. Once the travel bug bites you, you can’t help but long for more adventures. Istanbul is a fantastic city to explore and enjoy, made even better for the diversity and vibrancy of the people. It feels like a very happy place, full of life and joy. As proven by this random group of people dancing one evening undeterred by the light rain.