Standing at the Crossroads
THE FIRST THING that struck me about Turkey was the warmth of its people. It seemed that, wherever I went in Istanbul, people would enthusiastically introduce themselves and offer to help me. After frequenting a particular café near my university for a few weeks, the owner, a kind and hospitable middle-aged woman named Vildan, began to refer to herself as my “Turkish mother.” She would invite me to her house for dinner with her son, practice her English on me and tell me about interesting places to visit in the city. One day, I wanted to buy some Turkish delight, or lokum, a sugary confection eaten with tea. I asked Vildan where I should buy it. Instead of telling me, she left her work at the café and rushed out into the streets. “Where are you going?” I shouted from the café. “To get you Turkish delight,” she yelled back. She returned 20 minutes later with samples from five different pastry shops. “Well, which one do you like the best?” Vildan asked.
“I think this one, with the almonds in it.”
“OK. Let’s go buy a box!” The next thing I knew, Vildan was guiding me through the streets to the pastry shop where she found the Turkish delight I preferred. The shop was at the back of a cobblestone alleyway, with hundreds of sweet pastries and confections glistening in its front window. As soon as we entered, Vildan started a rapid exchange in Turkish with the shopkeeper as he measured out my order of lokum on a brass scale. The two were speaking too quickly for me to understand them, but afterward I discovered that Vildan had bargained down the price of the Turkish delight to nearly half its original cost.
This accommodation was a sign that my status as a U.S. citizen was likely helping rather than harming the Turks’ opinion of me. Having been warned repeatedly about the poor reception Americans presently receive when traveling abroad, I had anticipated locals would disapprove of, if not disdain, my nationality. Imagine my surprise when Turks embraced me as an American, eager to practice their English and endlessly trying to impress me with their knowledge of American sports and popular culture. On one of my first nights in the city, I was wandering around the bustling Taksim District with some friends from the university. We were exploring the shops and getting a feel for Istanbul’s labyrinthine streets when some Turkish students approached us and asked where we were from. “The United States,” I said for the group.
One of the Turkish students, Yasin, seemed ready to burst with enthusiasm: “America! I love America! Do you follow the Boston Celtics? They’re my favorite team!”
“Uh, no, sorry, I don’t really follow football,” I replied.
“Do you like Britney Spears? What about Justin Timberlake?”
"Ah, no, not really. Sorry.”
The questions continued for several minutes, and by the end of the conversation I had concluded that the average college-aged Turk probably knows more about American pop culture than I do!
STEEPED IN RICH CULTURE and history, Istanbul was the perfect place to explore my intellectual interests. After all, Istanbul owns thousands of years of history and has played an important role in two major empires.
Formerly called Constantinople and Byzantium, Istanbul has been the capital of both the Roman and Ottoman empires. It is considered the bridge between Europe and Asia, and was called the capital of the world by Napoleon. Similarly, the French writer Alphonse de Lamartine claimed that “if one has but a single glance to give the world, one should gaze on Istanbul.”
The inspiration for these kinds of statements became strikingly clear when I wandered around the city’s Old District, Sultanahmet. As I meandered through the bazaars, mosques and alleyways, the history and diversity of the place hit me. The Hagia Sophia, Istanbul’s most famous structure and a palimpsest of history, religion and art, literally knocked the wind out of me the first time I saw it. An enormous sixth-century building with an expansive dome and four towering minarets, the Hagia Sophia was originally a cathedral, then a mosque, and is now a museum. Inside is a mélange of cultural treasures, from a Byzantine fresco of Jesus to a passage from the Koran written in Arabic calligraphy.
Down the street from the Hagia Sophia is Topkapı Palace, the centuries-old headquarters of the Ottoman Empire. On the palace grounds is a building called the Hall of Holy Relics, which purportedly contains King David’s sword, Moses’ staff and the sandals of Mohammed. Exploring Sultanahmet was tantamount to having 2,000 years of world history at my fingertips.
As a French minor, I was also quick to notice the French influence on Istanbul’s culture and language. Many French words have been adopted into Turkish. For instance, it’s common to see pâtisseries throughout the city and hear the words pardon and merci when walking around the bustling streets.
I discovered the reverse phenomenon when I visited Paris during my spring break. Throughout Paris, I saw reminders of Turkey: vendors selling Turkish döner kebab; whole galleries of French art portraying Turkey in the Musée d’Orsay; boutiques selling hookahs, lokum and backgammon sets. I later learned that these cultural influences were spurred by an intense mutual interest between the two countries during the 19th century. Dozens of French writers, including Flaubert, de Nerval and de Lamartine, took months-long voyages to Istanbul and wrote about their adventures extensively. Conversely, the Ottoman court sent scores of painters to Paris for formal art training, in an effort to westernize Turkey’s image. This was part of a larger, westernizing movement in Turkey that has been underway for about 150 years, and is part of the reason I was so welcomed as an American.