In my post “Sign Language,” I wrote of a very friendly hotel cleaner. That was just one of many friendly encounters in Türkiye.
The most outstanding thing upon my arrival in Türkiye was the overwhelming warmth of the welcome my former students extended to me. I expected a bit of somewhat obligatory courtesy and then possible dismissal. Life goes on. I did not realize I would find that students from thirty years ago would now become my adult friends and lifelong ones at that. Color me touched, thrilled, grateful.
But this post is about nice moments shared with strangers. Who do we first meet? Taxi drivers. And they were – um – not great. In the case of one hotel transfer across Fatih, the driver did not take the direct interior streets to my hotel, but exited the zone to the major boulevards and dropped me off three and a half tram stops away from my destination. That’s far with luggage! On this trip I had two 25″ suitcases and my laptop backpack, heavy with electronic gear. The taxi driver insisted he could not enter that zone, but later when I got to my hotel, I saw several taxis navigating that street and neighboring blocks, so it was not true that the zone was closed to taxis at that hour. It was still early enough. But there I was, dumped on the sidewalk with my bags. And of course my direction was uphill. It’s not really steep there, but still fatiguing. I’d gone half a block when a slender, elderly gentleman in a suit offered assistance. He looked far frailer than I felt, and the way he was dressed – not a fine suit, old, but still very presentable and proper – I would have been afraid that giving him money later could have been offensive, and I didn’t want to impose, so I smiled at this lovely gentleman and declined, and went on. I must say, the spinner wheels on these new Delsey bags of mine are really sturdy, and handled stone sidewalks and rough areas very well. After the next intersection, two men dressed very roughly appeared on either side of me, each grabbing a suitcase wihtout a word, and then marching along with me. There was no doubt that this was assistance, not theft! No worries! And these fellows would surely be happy with tips, I thought, so I was relieved. When a tram stop came up, I pointed to it and we crossed to the middle of the boulevard to the platform. They struggled a bit to get my suitcases past the turnstiles, but we managed, and I gave them each 50 TL. When I got off the tram, I thought I knew where my hotel was and that it was only two and a half short blocks, but – no. And I learned that because a young American couple was right there, and stepped up when they saw me checking my phone map. The fellow said he knew the hotel and how to get there, and he took one of my suitcases, and they accompanied me – six to seven twisting blocks that I would probably have turned into double the distance with some wrong turns.
A smile-inducing moment around Burhaniye, at the beach. I was on my phone chatting to an American friend by wifi and saying how happy I was in Türkiye, how friendly and kind Turks are, how safe and happy I felt, how beautiful the country is, how delicious the food. A small group of Turks passing by overheard and obviously understood, as they broke into the broadest of smiles and gave nods of appreciation.
I was on my way back to Istanbul from Burhaniye: a bus to Bandirma and then a ferry to the city. It’s a very easy transfer at Bandirma, but there was a bit of time, and just one little burger restaurant on site. I entered, like almost everyone else did, but stood against the back wall mulling it over. It’s not like I wanted a burger and fries. On the other hand, I hadn’t eaten aside from a small breakfast, and by the time I got settled in my hotel, would I really want to go out to find something to eat? Many hours yet. Better to eat there and be done with it? People didn’t know what to make of my hanging back, not ordering, not leaving, gesturing others to go ahead of me. And then a very attractive young woman came up to me and through gestures indicated that she wanted me to come sit with her. Okay, why not. I ordered. We got our food and went out to the area of picnic tables and shade trees. Now, phones out and a text-translation exchange began. She is a gymnast, physical education instructor and model. Similar to what other Turks had told me, she’d studied English and would love to recover it but had no confidence at the moment. We passed the time until ferry boarding very happily, and set up mutual follows on Insta. Oh, wow. Her Insta! She is a model of an extremely liberated style for anyone in this region. A beautiful and confident woman who will not be restrained. I came to understand her taking the initiative to make contact with a Westerner, a solo woman, an English speaker – even one like me, closer to her grandmother’s age than to her mother’s.
I had a day of somewhat complicated transfers across Istanbul. Started with a city ferry, always a nice way to travel. The ferry piers are numerous and it can take a little time to find the right terminal and then the right turnstile for one’s route. On the extensive tarmac in the region of large ferry stops, there will be a centrally placed, independent little information office with a white sign. The staff speak English and are very helpful, so it’s a good place to start. This time, I didn’t need to, I knew my terminal building, but was a bit anxious about entering the right turnstile and being in the right line. There are so many departures! Each exit serves multiple routes, just as airport gates do. The signs show the destination, but I need to be sure I’m getting the best route to whatever stop along the way I’m heading to – and that the ferry does indeed make that stop. I checked with some workers in the terminal, got on the right ferry. But a woman in hijab had been observing me, and when we arrived at our destination, she was determined to take me in hand, even though she spoke not a word of English. She had me show her, on my phone map, where I was going. I indicated by pointing at the buses – so many, in a huge lot – that that was the next form of transportation I wanted. Very difficult to find the stand for my route. She spoke to several workers, walked with me, pointed things out, made sure I was okay as I wheeled all my luggage around the lot. She was not letting go of me till she was sure I was settled. How extraordinary an outreach, how kind!
The Grand Bazaar in Istanbul is overwhelming: thousands of shops, dozens of streets, quite a world unto itself. There are shops selling what I’d call tourist junk: t-shirts, knockoff designer clothes and bags, cheap souvenirs. Ignore that. Stunning craftsmanship and design abound in the wares here. There are carpets, naturally. Lots of gold jewelry. Brass, wood, leather, fabrics, ceramics, glassware … everything you would look for from artisans. Plenty of spices, teas, pastries and all sorts of temptations. And yes, hundreds of shops sell pashmina and other scarves, but some of those shops have unique jackets, robes, other clothing made of exquisitely decorated cashmere and silk. Those stores would ask that I not publish photos online, to avoid their designs being copied. But beyond being struck by the quality of much that is here, what pleased me was the friendly vibe of the place. Truly aggressive sellers were few. I could enjoy looking at things, chatting with the sellers, engaging with people rather than having to fend them off. I visited on several days, and always thought it great fun. I even made some whatsapp video calls to show the place and the goods to friends.
Wandering around touristy areas of Beyoğlu, I stopped at a coffee bar. No one else there. So, I sat and chatted with the young fellow tending the place. A bit in English, a lot by phone translation, an exchange of Instagram follows and an hour of conversation about life, the turns things take, the things we wish to do, his dreams for his future.
My outreach this time. Took a little cruise out of Antalya. Photographer was going around getting people to put on hats and such, so he could take pictures to sell them. Nonsense. But sitting near me was a family with a young son who was targeted by this hustler. He put on a pirate hat, did some posing. The hustler took normal photos of me and others. Comes sales time. I decline. Family next to me declines. Understandable. But I saw the boy disappointed. I am well aware that I still have photos of that great European summer when I turned eleven, and how much I love having them. This boy looked about ten. I told the hustler that I wanted to buy the boy’s photo for him, and so it was settled. I tried by gestures to have the family understand that I simply wanted to do this, no condescension intended. How hard is that to communicate! I showed by phone that I thought it would be fun for the boy to have the memory and I had treasured a few similar things, even if the hustler was someone who should be rejected (meaning, I thought they were right. Trying to have my gesture accepted.) It turned out fine. We also exchanged Insta contacts and they followed up in the next weeks with numerous messages and invitations to visit them in their home. Can probably never happen. But we had a nice connection. The hustler, on the other hand – I was to go to the office to pay by card after the tour, which I did. He tried to double the price and I firmly said that he had quoted a price I had accepted. Done and dusted, as it were. But I did buy my own photo at that original price, though I hadn’t had any intention to. Do we call that win-win? He got a bigger sale, and I got a souvenir. Not to mention, a very pleasant harbor cruise on a gorgeous sunny day around a town I liked a lot – Antalya, where I stayed in Kaleiçi, which thoroughly charmed me.
On my last afternoon in Istanbul, the woman on duty at reception signaled to me when I came into the dorm, and asked, “Nescafe?” I said, “Evet,” (yes) and went up to my room to drop my totes and get my instant coffee, milk, stevia, and mug, and returned to the reception. Silly of me, but I thought perhaps she knew I was drinking other than Turkish coffee, and wanted to try it. But of course, she was offering, not asking. Her coffee gear was already out on the desk when I returned. We made our coffees and I took a seat at the desk as she gestured me to do. We smiled and nodded at each other and picked up our phones to begin a text-and-translate conversation. The first note she showed me was, “I loved you. Even you don’t know it, your personality shows.” How sweet! From previous translation encounters, I feel sure that “even you don’t know it” was “even though you don’t speak Turkish.” Can you imagine how surprised I was? The reception was tended by half a dozen different staff members, so I didn’t see any one person very frequently, and I’d had no previous interactions with this woman who had apparently been observing me at times. We continued with translation-chat for perhaps an hour and a bit. I learned she is on her own, is not sad about that, has two grown sons, one a banker in the east and one an academic in the capital region. She was a tailor and had her own business, but Covid put an end to that because of the close contact involved. So working as a receptionist and clerk for this dorm organization was her solution for now. I learned that she has known English, but without chances to practice it, it’s mostly forgotten, though she’d welcome refreshing it. She was eager to exchange contact info, wants to keep in touch, wants me to come visit her next year when I return to Istanbul – as I surely will.
I hope these little vignettes convey how pleasant and comfortable my time in Türkiye was, and why I so like the thought of returning, even regularly. Would you share some experiences of yours in the comments?