Cultural experiences and funny musings by two twenty-somethings living abroad
My first time in Turkey was an absolutely amazing experience and granted, it might not be everyone’s first choice of holiday destination (it definitely wasn’t mine at first!), I was very pleasantly surprised and enthralled by the culture and the city. There are many interesting quirks that I saw in Turkey thanks to such a different culture and pace of life. I stayed in Istanbul and Bodrum and had a chance to discover a bit more of these places than the typical tourist might, because of a friend living there and being a wonderful guide to all things Turkish. Here are some of the things I discovered along the way.
1) Chaos – but in a good way. Coming from Paris, I am definitely used to swarms of people all around me and as Istanbul is twice as big as Paris, I was definitely a bit worried of being a little too overwhelmed in Istanbul. However, this really was a different kind of chaos as the city was just full of life and not just the typical; people rushing around, all ignoring each other, bumping into you kinda thing. Instead,I really felt as part of the crowd here, which only intensified my experience and there was always something to see and hear when walking down the streets, especially when they come alive at night. You get to see groups of Turks dancing the traditional Turkish dance, ice cream vendors captivating an audience with some astounding tricks of sleight of hand before they give you your ice cream and cheery restaurant and bar owners who try and get you into their place, that will already be packed with people enjoying beers or Turkish delicacies outside. Seriously, compared to anything that I’ve seen in Europe, this was definitely a delight and made it for a very fun stroll late at night across the city. It was indeed chaos, but in a good way!
2) Haggling is an art. Now, this is a huge part of Turkish culture and something not many tourists know about. Therefore the price that you see in the shop is usually the price that Westerners will pay. The locals, however, will haggle the price down until it’s something that they are prepared to pay. Now, Turkey isn’t very expensive and being British meant that at first, it’s a bit embarrassing to try and lower down the price. However, once you realise that not only is it part of the culture but also that the shop-owners actually love this kind of interaction, it then becomes really quite a fun thing to do!
Tip: Basically, when you lower the price, just say that you can find this exact thing cheaper elsewhere. This is definitely not a lie because the amount of stalls and bazaars in Istanbul is crazy and rest assured, that there will be something somewhere that sells it cheaper.
If they don’t budge on the price, just walk out of the shop. 9 times out of 10, they will call you back and will give you a chance to offer your price. If they don’t, then you know that that item can’t be bought any cheaper so basically, there is never any harm in trying and once you have the hang of it, you’ll be bummed you can’t do the same when you’re back home.
3) Religious identity. Now, as Turkey is a Muslim country, you’d be inclined to think that it would be conservative in many ways and you may worry about dressing or behaving inappropropriately when there. Speaking for Istanbul (and Bodrum), you will see that it’s incredibly tolerant and in that way, very European when it comes to their religious values. When walking down the street, you can see a woman wearing a full burka next to a woman wearing hotpants and a crop top. There are some restaurants that are Muslim therefore you will not find any alcohol on the menu and there are others, where you will find many groups of Turks drinking beers, singing and dancing on the tables. Basically, it’s a real mix of Middle East and European styles which makes this place very rich and diverse. Of course, common sense will tell you when to dress/behave in a different way but otherwise, you will unlikely feel out of place there.
What was very new to me, was to hear the Muezzin’s call for prayer, that was played 5 times a day on the street. This is when traditionally, the men and women go to the nearest mosque to pray (separately of course) but nowadays, many people do this at home as well. The mosques in Istanbul are astounding and I was lucky enough to see the famous Hagia Sophia mosque, which is now a museum and has the most beautiful mosaic patterns and religious paintings dating back to the 13th century! The Muslim mosques nearby were also very beautifully decorated inside and as long as you’re all covered up, you can get the chance to go in and visit these (before the call to prayer of course!)
4) Ingleesh speakers are hard to come by. Which made this trip even more fun! Although some people could get frustrated by this, I thought it was great because you had the chance to unleash your charade skills when talking with the locals, or get your pen and paper out and try and talk in numbers (if paying for something!). It definitely, definitely helps to know a few basic Turkish phrases and you will have a lot of opportunities to practice these as well! My friend knows only 5 phrases in Turkish yet this has got her by very well in the last 10 months so you definitely don’t need to be a #porygrot for this! Here is what everyone going to Turkey needs to know:
Hello – Merhaba (roll your r’s if you can)
Thank you – Teşekkürler (pronounced: te-she-ku-lah)
Very good – Çok güzel (pronounced: chalk gazelle), is basically used all the time for everything! Food, people, weather – if you like something, it’s “very good” in Turkish!
How much – Ne kadar?
Good bye / Good evening – İyi akşamlar (pronounced: yak-sham-lar). Said with a funny accent too, and you could almost pass off as Borat!
5) Enjoy the cats! You know how over in Europe, we have these cat cafés where you have to pay an entrance fee, then you can have a cup of tea or coffee and stroke the cats. Well, here’s a cheaper alternative – come to Istanbul. There are so many stray cats and dogs on the street, they are as common as pigeons in London, albeit much cuter and friendlier. They are generally very well looked after by the people of Istanbul and they are indeed quite safe and friendly. Obviously, you should wash your hands still afterwards but otherwise, they are all so lovely and we spent a lovely hour in the park stroking the cats.
One night, we also kindly got walked home by a group of stray dogs all the way through the city. Whoever said you feel unsafe in Turkey clearly forgot about this amazing protection.
6) Pack the suncream! I got so burnt in Bodrum, I was unable to walk or move or be touched. The sun is so much stronger out there so even if you’re used to a sunny climate, it’s worth still taking precautions. My solution to my lobster-y body was to smear yoghurt and butter all over me (a fantastic home remedy), hence the entourage of the pack of dogs walking us home (see above)!
7) Mustafa Kemal Atatürk is like a god in Turkey. Be prepared to see many, many statues and pictures of this guy. Long story short, he was the founder of the Republic of Turkey, he completely changed the Turkish language, and he has incredibly funny eyebrows.
8) Move over Germany, Istanbul’s transport system is top class! I was so surprised by how modern, punctual and reliable the transport system in this city was. From buses to trams to metros to boats – pick whatever you like and it will take you anywhere cheaply and punctually. There is even air-con! The traffic here is a big problem however, so you might be stuck in 3 hour queues in the taxis to move just 500 metres but no fear, as the taxi driver might offer you a cigarette or two to smoke in the taxi to pass the time.
9) If the waiters offer you Turkish Tea (çay) at the end of the meal, it means it’s on the house. If you ask for it however, then you will have to pay up!
10) Turks love contact! In my first hour of being in Istanbul, I saw two Turkish men walking down the street and holding hands. That really shocked me but it turned out, it is the total norm here. Many men hold hands or pinkies walking down the street, they kiss each other almost everywhere when they greet and they really don’t shy away from being physically close to each other.You will also see that the Turks are quite separated when it comes to gender. You will see either groups of men or groups of women, and many places like the Hamam (Turkish baths) will have separate areas for both genders to relax in.
Unfortunately, I did not stay long enough to really delve deeper into the culture however, from what I experienced, it really was wonderful and full of life and laughter. The Turks are incredibly hospitable people and it was a pleasure to see their life, even if just for a week. Whoever is yet to plan a summer getaway, I can really recommend giving this place a try. Many of my opinions changed after visiting this place and although nowhere will be fully perfect and to your taste, Istanbul in particular is definitely worth a visit!