It’s been one year since I left New York to embark on a journey in Istanbul. As I reflect on the past year, I’ve tried to narrow down and summarize what I’ve learned and experienced.
Mark Twain visited Constantinople and wrote in depth about his impressions of Turkish life in his book, ‘The Innocents Abroad’ published in 1869. I’m a fan of his writing and have included some in past posts, however the excerpt below I thought perfectly described how I first felt when I came to this beautiful city.
Seen from the anchorage or from a mile or so up the Bosporus, it is by far the handsomest city we have seen. Its dense array of houses swells upward from the water’s edge, and spreads over the domes of many hills; and the gardens that peep out here and there, the great globes of the mosques, and the countless minarets that meet the eye every where, invest the metropolis with the quaint Oriental aspect one dreams of when he reads books of eastern travel. Constantinople makes a noble picture.
Tea instead of Coffee
When I moved here I had to change my coffee intake drastically. Even though Turkey may be known for Turkish coffee, Turks are tea drinkers. Tea-aholics might be more accurate, since they drink tea often; during breakfast, after lunch, in the afternoon, after dinner…I consume at least two glasses everyday. Now of course there are coffee shops all around Istanbul like Starbucks, Caribou, Kahve Dünyası and Lavazza, but outside of these ‘specialty coffee’ shops Nescafe Original (instant coffee) is the cup most commonly ‘brewed’.
A New Way of Eating
I came here with an open mind and have enthusiastically tried everything that’s been offered to me. As a foreigner you typically don’t have a say in the manor since it’s part of Turkish hospitality to shower a guest with food. Somethings have been harder to adapt to than others. For example, it’s hard to leave a NY bagel and cream cheese behind – but a typical Turkish breakfast is a great alternative and has become one my favorite aspects of Turkish cuisine. (Watch this video to the end, to see for yourself how the Turkish breakfast compares to others). Also, compared to the States, here they use EVERY PART of an animal from its head to its feet and everything in-between. I’ll admit I’ve tasted the heart, ankle, tongue and head of a sheep and to date, a kokoreç sandwich made of sheep intestines has become one of my favorites. Whereas liver I’m not a fan of and I’m also too scared to try the brain or testicles. I also have to constantly de-head and de-bone a fish, which I was never prepared for.
Fresh, Cheap and Unprocessed
Unlike in the States, local produce and ingredients are readily available – from meats, cheeses, fruits and vegetables so processed and packaged foods are rare. Of course they exist, but besides the occasional chip or chocolate eaten, I haven’t bought anything processed or pre-packaged. I swear it’s one of the main contributors of my healthy weight loss. We have a manav (greengrocer) near us that is open 24 hours and 7 days a week. Not only are they constantly offering native fruits of Turkey but they’re fresh, high quality and cheap. Last week I bought a handful of tomatoes, cucumbers, onions and a head of lettuce, and it came to a total of 8TL ($2.60).
LIVING IN TURKEY
Remove Your Shoes
Before entering a Turkish home or a mosque you’re expected to remove your shoes. Upon entering a home, sandals or slippers are given and the sense of ‘feeling at home’ is instantly felt. I don’t mind it at all, and in my home it’s made cleaning a lot easier without dirt and grime from shoes around the house. However, it was something I had to get used to and to also be mindful to never wear dirty or holey socks.
An Apartment in Istanbul
When renting an apartment here the only thing guaranteed in your home besides walls and windows, is the toilet, shower, and sinks. Everything else is BYO. For example, you’re expected to bring your own stove. Because of our lack of space we currently don’t even own an oven, which is working out fine, especially since the ovens here look like a large toaster oven. Like any major city, apartments are small and expensive so you have to get creative to make the space work. I was elated to discover that under all of our furniture (bed, couch, and chairs) an easy accessible storage space can be revealed. Because space is limited, narrow showers stalls are installed, and like Europe there is not a stationary shower head – it’s a removable shower head and hose that you hold yourself. Why? My assumption is to save water. The other note I’ll make is that Turks don’t use clothes dryers. Maybe they do exist here, but I’ve never seen one. Either you hang your clothes on a drying rack inside or hang them from the balcony or clothes line outside. Reasons for not using: they take up too much space, an increase in the electric bill and make clothes shrink – on that note, I don’t miss a clothes dryer.
Street Cats and Dogs
Streets all over Istanbul are filled with hundreds of stray cats and dogs. At first it’s a different site to see since in the States we immediately take a stray to the pound, so it’s actually become quite comforting. On my street alone there are 5 dogs that live along the street and I see them every day. Even if I were to open my door to them, I don’t think they’d want to come in. They get to roam as they please, they’re fed well and are taken care of and loved by many people in the neighborhood.
Turkish hospitality is a way of life and is unlike anything you’d expect. Turks are the most gracious and generous hosts I’ve ever met, and it all comes naturally. Wherever you come from, whatever your background, however long or short your relationship/acquaintance is you will be welcomed in the best manner. Just be prepared to come with an appetite, because you will be overfed for sure. And if you throw in a Turkish word here or there, be prepared to stay awhile because they’ll want to talk more and show you their culture and city.
I think Turks show pride in everything they do. Whether while at work doing their job or expressing their national pride and love for Atatürk (the founder of the Turkish Republic) or on a night of a futbol match. I find Turks to be very passionate and they’re never afraid to express how they feel. You’ll constantly see rallies and ceremonies to remember the past or to fight for a cause. I find it quite admirable.
Only in America do we use the term ‘soccer’, and it makes no sense because soccer is played with your foot and a ball, so doesn’t football make more sense? Here in Istanbul there are 3 main futbol clubs: Beşiktaş, Galatasaray and Fenerbahçe. You have to choose a team and live, sleep, breathe their colors. Even if you don’t follow futbol, you’ll know when there’s a match and whose playing based on what color everyone is wearing around you. Because of Umut and my locality (a 10 minute walk away from the stadium), I am a Fenerbahçe fan.
Istanbul is BIG!
Let’s compare Istanbul to New York City to get a better understanding: IST is 5,343 km² – NYC is 789 km². IST has more than 15 million people – NYC has 8 million. Istanbul is so big that it spans not one, but two continents (Europe and Asia and is divided by the Bosphorus Strait). Whether you were to stay for 2 days, a week, or to live here for 5 years – there is so much to see, do and eat!
Compared to NYC, Istanbul’s public transportation isn’t good – it’s not as well thought-out, planned or laid out. There are a lot of public transits to choose from: ferry, bus, metrobüs, dolmuş, metro…but the timing, availability and traffic make it a challenge to easily navigate through the city. Riding the ferry is the best by far because it’s always on time and is never affected by traffic. However, the ferry is closed from 9pm-7am and the metro is closed from 12am-6am – it’s mind blowing to me that the metro at least doesn’t run 24/7 in this metropolis city. I will note that I like how the Istanbulkart scans to enter, unlike having to swipe NYC’s MetroCard at the turnstile. (Any New Yorker can imagine it makes the experience faster, easier and less stressful – plus adding money is a cinch.)
Rich in History
Istanbul, formerly known as Constantinople, served as the capitol of three Empires: the Roman, Byzantine and the Ottoman. (Today Ankara is the capitol of Turkey, not Istanbul). Istanbul is the crossroad between Europe and Asia, West and East and Christianity and Islam. My blog is mostly about Istanbul, yes, but so much of Turkish history, culture and food is brought and melted together here in this city. Of course, see the tourist attractions, especially Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, but make time to explore different neighbourhoods up, down, along and across the Bosphorus. If possible, go outside of Istanbul and explore more of Turkey and experience authentic things firsthand.
NEW TO ME
When the Ottoman Empire fell and Atatürk came to power, he devised a new phonetic Latin alphabet to replace Arabic script. Since 1924, Turkish has been the official language of Turkey. As an American, the Turkish language is hard. There are new letters and vowels, words I can’t pronounce and the sentence structure is usually opposite compared to how you speak in English. But, after 1 year (of hardwork and perseverance) I’m able to communicate. My reading and listening are much stronger than my speaking, but I’m quite determined to one day prove fluency. Don’t think you have to speak Turkish to live (or visit) here, I’ve met people who have lived here for years and don’t speak a word of Turkish.
I struggle often with weights and measurements since America is completely different compared to Europe. Here it’s kilometers instead of miles, celsius instead of fahrenheit, kilos instead of pounds, centimeters instead of inches, meters instead of feet…so sometimes I don’t really understand how far I may have to walk or how much something actually weighs. When it comes to money, America uses the dollar, Europe uses the Euro and here, the Turkish Lira. Even the 24 hour clock has been a challenge for me to memorize and get used to.
Lack of Convenience
Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, but it’s definitely a lifestyle change. In the States everything and anything is readily available and for a low cost. There are times I really miss and wish there was a thrift store, dollar store or Wal*Mart around, but at the same time it makes you really think and appreciate what you have and what you actually need. The last care package from my father included items like Emergen-C, ziplock bags, DayQuil/NyQuil, cough drops, ‘women personal care items’ and good IPA beer – because either the product or brand doesn’t exist here or it’s too expensive. For a price example, drinking here is a waste of money, a (cheap) bottle of beer costs 12TL at a bar.