How to Meet People Abroad: Turkey

2014-04-19 11.16.41

turkey1In this month’s edition of “How to Meet People Abroad” series, we tackle a country instead of a city. Carleigh Morgan shares her wisdom about meeting people in this lively and culturally complex country.

If you have been following the news lately, you might be slightly alarmed at the tumultuous state of Turkish politics, watching television screens fill with scenes of street demonstrations curtailed by disproportionately violent police brutality; reading publications collecting the burgeoning public outcry against internet censorship; or simply awed by the conflicting conspiracy theories circulating about the very public displays of animosity between Turkey’s newly re-elected Prime Minster and his “archnemesis” Fetullah Gülen, a Turkish politician living in self-imposed exile in the calm recesses of Pennsylvania. Regardless of your position on these issues, I’m here to tell you that you should not be deterred from visiting this beautiful country: in fact, now is the perfect time to visit, especially considering the real possibility that as Turkey retreats from its democratizing arc of development and caters to a more conservative religious base, visa restrictions are tightening.

Now, it strikes me that this opening paragraph to this article hasn’t painted a very enticing portrait of Turkey. Let me amend that immediately. If you come to Turkey, prepare to bear witness to a land as contradictory and complicated as its past. You can look forward to an upheld reputation of tremendous hospitality and care, from strangers who speak excellent English to locals in small villages who are honored to assist with precise gesticulations and a language sardonically but affectionately referred to as “Tarzan Turkish,” a pantomime often adopted to help travelers in need who speak none of the local tongue. You’ll be mesmerized by the lush and varied vegetation bursting out of the Aegean Terrain: Istanbul alone has a more variegated collection of plant diversity than the entire spectrum of flora contained in Europe. You can meander through the bustling, crowded bazaars, replete with intoxicating patterns, colors, and the din of shopkeepers hawking their wares while the escalating buzz IMG_0217of price negotiations swirl around you. Or you can slink away to the secluded beaches that dot the coastline, basking in the sunlight and sand in an oasis that place high rise hotels and crooked Ottoman streets in close quarters. If you’re feeling really adventures, you can take a short flight or endure a grueling 15 hour bus ride to the heart of Turkey, the Anatolian province, and see the craggly, folded terrain and fairy chimneys of Cappadocia; marvel at the Sumela monastery etched into the rock in the Black Sea region; or visit the birthplace of Abraham in the sprawling Southwestern hills. Turkey is a land of reconciliation and contradiction: not so much a bridge between East and West as a leaking dam, holding the East and West in dialectical opposition and acting as much as a buffer as a sieve, letting strong torrents of each culture interact and converge in powerful, sometimes conflicting ways.

As a Fulbright Grantee living in Turkey, I did not have my choice of living accommodations. I live in Uşak, a small city nestled in the Aegean region: it’s really a large village that doesn’t attract visitors and offers painfully little in the way of nightlife, but it has some redemptive charms. Although I teach full time, I’ve travelled extensively in Turkey and have outlined below some general guidelines and insights essential for ensuring that your stay in this vast, breathtaking country is safe, ecologically friendly, and respectful of local Turkish customs and traditions.

I always encourage travellers and tourists to brush up on basic lingo before making their excursions, and in this case of long term stays in Turkey, this suggestion is especially true. In fact, if you plan to visit cites other than Istanbul, your transportation woes and general level of satisfaction will be greatly improved by learning a few basic phrases, such as “Hello” (Merhaba) and thank you (formally: teşekkür ederim). Since many Turkish citizens do not expect to hear foreigners attempting their language, they will very likely immediately warm to your earnest efforts to engage them in Turkish and spend more time and effort helping you through your series of inquiries. Don’t be surprised if the demonstration of a small amount of Turkish, particularly key basic phrases uttered with convincing pronunciation, urges your new Turkish acquaintance to drown you in a deluge of animated questions and long threads of conversation: once you exhibit that you can speak even a small amount, many Turks anticipate that you understand more than you reveal and permit themselves the opportunity to indulge you in conversation, one of the many valued and highly practiced traditions of Turkish culture. Don’t be daunted; even if you can barely mumble out a few Turkish syllables, Turks are tremendously helpful and you won’t have any problems finding camaraderie in strangers. One other component of basic “travel-language” competency that will really be of practical help is to familiarize yourself with some key elements of Turkish non-verbal communication: a “tsk” noise and the side to side motion of the head signals disapproval, while a cluck of the tongue and simultaneously lifted eyebrows (kind of like a variation on the bro-tastic head nod of silent acknowledgement) means, simply, “no.”

Another cultural tip that I cannot endorse enough is to learn to love to bargain. Whatever conceptions you may have of the back and forth financial sparring that occurs in the marketplace, you can be sure the pop-culture allusions to the haggling that occurs in the Middle East aren’t far from the mark. Turks revel in the repartee captured in driving a hard bargain, and learning to firmly and steadfastly stand your ground when arguing over prices in the marketplace will ensure that you do not get overcharged or become a victim of the “foreigner tax,” a constant risk in a country where many items do not require price tags. I must advise you to be polite but firm, and exercise your natural charm and charisma to walk away satisfied with your purchases—believe me, Turks will respect you much more for standing your ground and convincing them to make financial concessions than if you had buckled under the argumentative pressure and conceded to their first offer. Side note–as an Irish American, I find that there’s something about the challenge of negotiation and the lure of testing a stranger’s character, an exercise in rhetorical fortitude, that’s very fun. Furthermore, it’s good personal challenge to complete before ending your journey.

As you wind your way through the labyrinthine streets of Istanbul or “gez”(wander) through the cities, beware of vehicular traffic: pedestrians, despite what the traffic lights might indicate, should never presume they have the right of way, because the simple fact is that they do not. You’ll have to quickly learn to make stern eye contact with taxi drivers if you want to cross the street, whether you are jaywalking or briskly bounding through designated crosswalks. It can seem like you’re living the more disastrous iterations of fjording the river on the Oregon Trail, but sometimes the only way to get from A to B is to assert your right to weave through taxi drivers, leaping through a blurry sea of yellow to make it to the safety of the crowded sidewalks on the other side (but not the “other side, if you are fortunate). Making eye contact with drivers is especially helpful, and walking with purpose and intention broadcasts your route to other pedestrians and drivers: even if you are merely strolling around, it’s best to concentrate your gaze at shoulder length or above at a random point in the distance, keeping your pace steady to avoid clogging the busy streets or causing a bottleneck in traffic. I am naturally a fast walker and fast talker, but even I learned to feign urgency and direction when walking in order to whisk my way easily through the very crowded streets. You’ll notice that city infrastructure like sidewalks and meridians are lacking except in the most touristic sites in Turkey, so learning to make your way through gridlocked crowds and slow movers give you much more time to actually visit places as opposed to getting to them.

turkeywomenThough it might seem like mundane advice, dressing suitably is also a crucial part of being in Turkey, and this advice is doubly important for the ladies out there. Unfortunately, Turkey ranks very low on the World Economic Forum’s annual report identifying gender disparities and violence against women all over the world, so dressing acceptably is a central issue for women. As much as I reinforce education over appeasement when it comes to demolishing the patriarchy and dismantling the victim blaming structures endemic to rape discourse, the fact is that many elements of Turkish culture favor men and marginalize women. As an American woman, I have visited all different types of cultural climates in Turkey, and I highly recommend dressing conservatively—particularly if you are traveling to smaller cities. Bringing a light, all-season scarf to wear that can be handy if you are planning on visiting any mosques, where head coverings for females are always mandatory. Baring parts of your shoulders, cleavage, and calves will prompt stares ranging from innocently curious to downright discomforting and lecherous, so I recommend erring on the side of caution and conscientiousness and layering your dress to conceal these areas. Females should also avoid lingering eye contact and unsolicited smiling, as they may be interpreted as sexually inviting or passively accepting of male advances. There is no systematic rule to adhere to when it comes to chatting with strangers: just rely on your own intuition and instincts and make sure that you use discretion when going anywhere unaccompanied.

Whatever your reason for staying in Turkey, be sure to leave some of your time unscheduled: all of my most memorable encounters stemmed from embracing spontaneity and allowing myself the unstructured time to explore the customs and cities of Turkey. I advise having a mixed agenda: one half of a blank agenda left to luck, spontaneity, and whim; the other half, to accomplishing travel goals and setting up structured explorations. Leaving some flexibility and space in your schedule will give you time to happen upon people, places, and events that are farther off the grid, and will give you the leniency you need to say yes to the numerous chai invitations you will inevitably receive from earnest Turks wishing to treat you to the traditional perks of hospitium. Shopping, sitting, and eating are generally acceptable times to enjoy pleasant and stimulating conversation over chai, and you will receive many 2014-04-11 18.18.38invitations to tea from strangers who are eager to speak with you and learn about your heritage and cultural traditions. Accept these invitations if you feel comfortable: there really are very few instances in which Turks refuse chai, and typically the offer to drink tea is made at least three times, beginning with polite refusal by the guest and ending with demurring consent. After a few weeks in Turkey, prepare to have a more nuanced appreciation for chai and drinks lots of bottled water (not tap!) in order to rehydrate along the way. Turks really prize conversation, and will spontaneously restructure their schedules to prioritize catching up over accomplishing their tasks, so typically an invitation to coffee or tea is assumed to mean “Would you like to have a drink now?” rather than “Let’s get together sometime for a drink.” I admit, it took me a few months to shirk off the nagging irritation I carried whenever my Turkish colleagues opted for conversation over work, since in American culture sharing drinks with a friend is considered a leisurely social reward for taking care of business, and workplace mingling and social outings are generally more segregated spheres. In Turkey, working is talking, and you can always find out more information from asking around than you typically can by opting for Google. Turkey is a very socially intervenient country, so embracing time spent with people over time spent achieving goals—even at work—is much more in tune with Turkish values work ethic.

Safe travels! Iyi yolculuklar!

carleigh2About the Author:  Carleigh is a falconry-obsessed flaneur who loves testing the permeable boundary between adventure and danger. She holds honors degrees in English Literature and Philosophy from Wake Forest University, and will continue her education at King’s College, London in the fall of 2014. She’s most at home when she’s not, and has spent an immersive year in Turkey founding and developing Usak University’s first intensive English-language program, where she has lectured and taught extensively to engineers, film directors, and nanotechnologists. When she’s not scrubbing ink off her nose from having it pressed into the crinkled pages of an old book, she explores open-air museums and archaeological excavations and dedicates her time to studying cultural heritage conservation, art preservation, Gaeilge, and international politics. When she grows up she wants to be a Death-midwife who creates graphic novels in the memento mori tradition.