Saturday, October 20, 2012

A Taste for Turkey - Day One

Taksim Square, Istanbul

 Could anything top Egypt?  After our last trip there, still overwhelmed by this strange, yet magnetic country, my husband Peter and I talked about other possible travel destinations.  The city that kept coming up in our talks was Istanbul, the largest city in Turkey.  Istanbul, like Cairo, is an ever-expanding city, sucking people from the surrounding countryside like a vacuum cleaner.  Like Cairo, no one is sure exactly how many people live there, but the estimates are, also like Cairo, somewhere between 15 and 17 million inhabitants.

Before this city was named Istanbul it was called Constantinople, the capital of Byzantium, a city we read about in history class.  Constantinople is the name of the city I was most familiar with, because of history classes.  But now that I live in Germany, I keep hearing about Istanbul.  And Istanbul seemed a logical place to travel to – it is another Muslim culture to explore, now that we’ve seen much of Egypt.  It’s also a city with a lot more sunshine and warmth in October, when we decided to travel, than Cologne.  

            But Turkey as a travel goal?  The name is reminiscent of big, fat, clumsy Thanksgiving birds.  Believe it or not, the two names are connected.  Way back in the 1500s or so, traders brought a bird species from Madagascar to Europe through Turkey, the guinea fowl.  It was thus nicknamed the “turkey fowl”.  When Spanish explorers to the new world returned to Europe with a similar-looking bird, they simply called this species “turkey”.  Turkey – something to eat for Thanksgiving.

            Turkey gets a pretty bad rap in Germany.  Turkish immigrants form the largest group of foreigners living in Germany – estimates range from one and a half to two and a half million people, depending on whether children are counted.  Turkish children born in Germany are considered German until the age of eighteen, when they must decide which nationality to take, so they don’t count in the statistics.  We hear stories about parents who keep their children home from school, or children who do go to school, but who aren’t allowed to take part in sports.  We hear about strapping macho teenage boys who terrorize other students, who then have to keep their mouths shut about it, because Germans dare not say anything negative about non-Germans.  Germans are always afraid of being called Nazis if they open their mouths to protest about anything.  We hear about Turks who have lived in Germany for over thirty years and who don’t speak a word of German.  I heard my mother-in-law talk when she was still alive, of unhygienic Turks who polluted the air with their garlic breath.  Of course, these people are different from those in Istanbul, many Germans are quick to say.  Germany gets the uneducated, religiously conservative peasants from villages in Anatolia.  I have even heard it said that the Turks living in Istanbul are a different race from those living in east Anatolia.

            On the other hand, Turkey is one of the USA’s most important allies, and it is a very important, strategic NATO power.  Turkey has been trying to get into the European Union for several years, but roadblocks keep getting put up in their way.  They are not modern enough, not democratic enough, not western enough, Turkey is not in a literal sense even European, write the pundits.  And yet, we also hear of tremendous leaps forward in their economy.  We hear that this is a nation that is working.   

            It was time to go and see for ourselves.

            We travel with a group of Germans through the same tourist agency as our first trip to Egypt.  On a soggy, cold, gray October morning, we leave Cologne, arriving in Istanbul’s glistening, modern Ataturk airport in warm sunshine.  I, as an American, have to buy a visa at immigration, but Peter, as a German citizen, doesn’t have to.  After picking up our baggage, we are met immediately by our agent, who leads us into a van with a bunch of other Germans traveling with the same company.  Before long, we view the sea, which is really a narrow stretch of water separating Europe from Asia, on our right.  But it’s broad enough to remind me of the sea.  We drive on along an endless grass-lined beach, filled with families barbecuing, enjoying Sunday off.  You can almost smell the mixture of meat and charcoal burning from our car, but the windows are sealed shut.  From this drive into the city, we can already see that Istanbul is doing a lot better financially than Cairo.  Everywhere we look, we see green trees and lawn.  OK – no desert here, so no dust.  But everything looks clean and tidy too.  The roads are in great shape, the buildings we pass look like something we could live in, and the Bosphorus looks awfully inviting for a swim.  In October!  Back in Cologne, it’s in the 50’s.  Here, we’re enjoying a balmy 80° Fahrenheit on this sunny afternoon.  In a way, it reminds me of a California beach city filled with apartment buildings.  The people we see picnicking look more like the Turks we see in Germany – most of the women have headscarves on, but the teenagers, kids and men are dressed like any European.  

The Golden Horn, with the Galata Tower inthe center
            It takes us over an hour and a half to get to the hotel – Prime Minister Erdogan happens to be officiating at the opening of a water purification plant which also just happens to be on the road we’re driving on, so we pass car after car, red Turkish flag after flag.  Finally, we get to the famous Golden Horn, a stretch of water turning inland from the sea.  Our hotel is on the other side of the bridge, in the modern, western part of Istanbul.  The city’s many mosques are laid out in front of us, their slim minarets gracing the blue sky.  The city looks a bit exotic, maybe like a movie set, with all those minarets, and yet fully European.  “There’s the Galata Bridge,” says our escort.  “And the tower over there.”  I’ve heard of the Golden Horn, the Galata Bridge and tower.  I’ve seen them in movies.  But now, I can finally see the whole thing.  Now I know how they fit into the rest of the city.

            One of the things I have discovered about living and traveling abroad is that a place becomes one’s own as you actually physically begin to inhabit the squares and buildings you may have heard about.  You may have seen Central Park a hundred times in movies, but until you’ve set foot in it yourself, it can’t become a part of you.  Now, Istanbul is already becoming a part of me.

            We check into a lovely hotel, the Larespark, located in the middle of a section of Istanbul called Taksim Square.  Four and a half stars!  Our room is roomy and comfortable – western!  Everything looks so European.  Well, why not?  We are in Europe!

            Later in the evening, we meet our guide, Harun, a pleasant-looking man with laugh wrinkles around his eyes.  He’s got a three-day beard, and looks like he’s under forty.  Harun tells us we shouldn’t drink the water in the hotel, but there’s no problem using it to brush our teeth.  And I can eat the salads in the hotel with no reservations – they use filtered water in their cooking!

            Harun tells us that our hotel is located in the most European, most progressive-thinking part of Istanbul.  It’s the area where Orhan Pamuk lives when he’s in Istanbul.  Pamuk won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2006.  A waiter walks into our conference room, and Harun tells us to order drinks.  He first lists all the non-alcoholic drinks we can choose from before he gets to the alcohol.  He announces that he will be drinking juice, but we’re welcome to order alcohol if we want to.  I order a raki, expecting it to taste like the ouzo I drank in Greece.  It does taste of anise, but I don’t like it.  

            Later in the evening, Peter and I walk out onto Taksim Square.  “This is THE hot spot of Istanbul,” he tells me.  It certainly appears so.  There are people out all over, strolling along the pedestrian zone outside our hotel.  We pass fast-food restaurants and general stores selling everything from toothpaste to animated stuffed animals that dance for us.  Young men speak to us in English, trying to get us to eat at their restaurants, but leave us alone when we say we’ve already eaten.  They don’t seem to have that Egyptian pushiness.  They’re more like the hustlers in New York City.

            It may not be as exotic as Cairo, but I know I’m going to feel very comfortable here in Istanbul.            

2 comments: said...

Enjoyed going on tour here with you Noreen! said...

Enjoyed going on this tour with you Noreen!