Turkey hadn’t been on the top of my travel destination bucket list until Betül the coffee maker showed me with her iPad photos of all the stunning scenes of Istanbul one night after coffee drinking. At the end of Sheffield, she gave me her coffee cup as a gift, and I said someday I will go to Turkey for the coffee pot so I can make Turkish coffee at home. It was also through Turkish coffee I acquainted and befriended with Sena, who would bring chocolate to coffee drinking sessions but has a problem getting jokes from Cards Against Humanity (lol). I didn’t realise the “someday” would arrive so soon and not to mention at the end I took so much more than a coffee pot from Istanbul back home.
Landing in Istanbul was a long story which I shall write about in another post along with some other “stories” I had on the road. I finally saw Betül at the airport after spending over an hour in line at the immigration. She was wearing a Sheffield Uni t-shirt as if she was afraid I would forget her face so she wore that to remind me we went to the same uni for exchange (haha). We met up with Emre, her little brother who has a complex personality (if you know him as a person) but first and foremost absolutely funny. I have a little brother myself but we are around the same age so towards the end we kind of found a link and did the same things to annoy Betül. But to be honest, it was really cozy and broke the ice instantly.
Throughout the 5 days I have learnt a lot about Turkey thanks to the very knowledgeable Aydın family, and surprisingly found many similarities with my own culture.
Traffic and cars
On the car ride back to Betül’s home, they told me about the traffic congestion in Istanbul and Turkish men’s attitude towards cars. It makes sense that the traffic is busy when you have 14 million people in 594 sq. m. (Hong Kong has 7 million in 426 sq. m.), but it is interesting Turkish men and Chinese men share similar attitudes towards their properties. I was told that for Turkish men, it is more important to have a nice car than a nice home decor because people can see your car and they will relate your social status with it. Of course everywhere in the world a Ferrari is a symbol of wealth but it is the dedication to have a nice car that makes a difference. It is the same in Hong Kong, especially in China. If we had a surplus in income, we would definitely decorate our outer-selves that are visible to the world.
Addressing the seniors
Betül gave me a quick Turkish lesson so I could greet the parents the good way (and impress them haha). She specifically elaborated that even your friends’ parents are not biologically related to you, you still call them Name + Amca (Uncle) / Teyze (Aunt). Here in Hong Kong, we automatically address the parents Uncle / Auntie but if we are closer, we add the name too.
That’s just a few examples for now because there are more amazing things to do in Istanbul than thinking about your own culture. We spent the first evening in a cafe facing the sea on a hill and it was exactly my type of a night out. I enjoyed it a lot. We ordered Turkish coffee (of course), shisha and a dessert. When the coffee was served, they gave us the water too. For some reason, I think the water exists for a reason so I asked why do they give us free water even when we didn’t order it. From Betül’s mother, Zeliha Teyze, I knew that it is a practice of Turkish hospitality.
Which one to drink first – Coffee or water ?
When there is a guest, the host offers both and see which one the guest drinks first. If the guest drinks the coffee, s/he is not that hungry (or has some food in the stomach to “withstand” the acidic coffee). If the guest drinks the water first, it suggests otherwise and the host will bring some food so the coffee doesn’t make the guest sick. I was absolutely impressed because even though my mum suggests me to eat before drinking coffee, we never have such tradition. This shows that we share the same dietary wisdom, but Turkish people take a step further to care for their guests.
A good activity for such a night out is playing Tavla/ Backgammon. In fact, it is such a national activity the Turks even extended the game field to online on mobile apps (which I am now totally addicted to thanks to them teaching me). It is a game that requires a lot of counting and guys are just naturally more disposed at it. Betül says Emre likes to play it more because he always wins, which is true.
Tavla with the parents-in-law-to-be
Moreover, Tavla is a marriage ritual. The father will ask the boyfriend/ fiance to play a Tavla game with him before letting his daughter go with this strange guy with malicious intentions. Throughout the process the father observes and the boyfriend has to lose gracefully. You can’t appear like you lose on purpose just to please the father, and if you are a shitty player the father probably won’t be very pleased either. For some people in Hong Kong, we invite the boyfriend/ girlfriend to play Mahjong which is a 4-people game and see how they behave when the odds are not in their favour. People who appear grumpy when they realise they are losing will be frowned upon and the son/ daughter will be advised not to marry him/ her.
It was also interesting to watch other Turkish people in the cafe. Earlier in the day I asked how to identify a “Turkish guy/ girl”, as there are people of so many origins living in Istanbul. Betül gave very descriptive responses and I was able to witness it, which was interesting. According to Betül, a typical Turkish guy walks with his chest up and always look masculine and confident. A typical Turkish girl is also confident, when they walk on the streets they seek for attention like models, but when she gets it, she appears as if she didn’t care or even offended. Haha. I got to identify many guys, but I think the girls’ sassy-ness is even harder to resist.
Enough of cultural comparisons and let’s get to the meat of the visit. Although Turkey’s capital is set in Ankara, Istanbul remains the centre of history, culture, etc. First and foremost, you have never been to Istanbul if you have never visited the Ayasofya. First it was a Greek Orthodox Christian Basilica, then it became a mosque, and now it is a museum. Not to be sarcastic here, but for those who praise Christianity and criticise Islam for whatever reasons, inside the enormous dome of Ayasofya you can see both the paintings of Jesus and teachings of Mohammed. Now what. For a high resolution view of the Ayasofya, I recommend this video (from 2:30, turn on the highest resolution possible).
No one prays anymore in Ayasofya, so we went to the Blue Mosque to see how Muslims pray and appreciate the highly reputable architecture. I remember specifically three reasons why I didn’t take any photos inside the Blue Mosque: 1. it was too grand, too delicate, too beautiful I was in awe and I forgot; 2. even though I am not religious the Mosque is a very serious place and I think taking photos while others are praying is not a very decent thing to do; 3. I’d rather spend some time looking at the details of the mass praying hall, than to take out my camera, snap and leave.
Before entering the hall, everyone takes off their shoes, females have to cover their head and bodies, and those who do namaz praying have to perform a ritual called abdest where you cleanse yourself within 2 minutes (so not to waste water). Emre demonstrated it and explained that for women who are at that time of the month, they even have to take a shower before praying. The purpose of this practice is pretty self-explanatory.
The Turkish toilet
I was more interested in how women could efficiently clean themselves during that time of the month. Before I have only used a bidet if I was staying in a lux hotel but Turkish people took it to the next level. I only discovered the use of the mysterious small pipe sticking out of the toilet bowl wall at the end of my visit. Also, if I had discovered it earlier, I could have saved some toilet paper and trees. Anyways, after you finish your business, reach the back of the bowl and find a small “tap” on the wall. Turn it and the mysterious small pipe will clean whatever the jet of water can reach. Just be careful not to turn the tap fiercely to control the water flow.
That is a genius idea and I will never forget the faces of Betül and Sena after I came out of the toilet, feeling like a brand new girl with a damn clean pussy. For guys, it is the same as showing up to your buddies the day after getting lucky. This way the toilet paper is only for drying and you will never have infections caused by bacteria. They finally revealed that it was so painful in Sheffield because they had to use the British toilet paper which could be really rough (does that say something about the nation lol). Also it is not only homes, in restaurants and cafes they have this too ! This is genius and should really be implemented anywhere in the world.
The Old Town
Back to the city, we also visited the Grand Bazaar which is all about shopping and looking at interesting things. In the sea of people we try not to spend too much time in one shop or leaving out anyone. In fact, getting lost in Istanbul is scary enough, Betül said a few times if I don’t behave, she will leave me in the sea of 14 million people. Lol
The Fuji Instax 210 is sensitive to light. In outdoor areas sunlight is needed for a good photo. Inside the Grand Bazaar the lighting is actually quite dim for my camera, but this turned out well because the only light source is from the many gorgeous Turkish lamps.
On the European side of Istanbul there is an area called Taksim which basically is a huge spot for leisure, shopping, cafes, etc. As we were walking around I spotted a pen shop and stepped in (of course). It was strange to see a pen shop on the main shopping street as other shops are mostly western fashion brands or food places. Turned out the shop has already been there for more than a century and so as the original wooden furniture. I was very satisfied and chuffed of my good sense in spotting good old things. Haha.
Also famous in Taksim is the T2 line tramway. One of the photos Betül showed me was a bright red vintage tramway car against the photoshopped grey scale background. I had a strong impression because this reminded me of the tram in Hong Kong, which is also old, but green and is a double decker. We affectionately call them “ding ding” for the sound it makes when moving towards the stops. “Ding ding” is only on the southern side of Hong Kong across the Victoria harbour, sort of similar to the Taksim tramvay because T2 is the only tram line in Istanbul still using the vintage tram car.
City of experience
Turkish bath sneak peak
It just so shamefully happened that I missed the Hungarian bath, then the Turkish bath. Fortunately, the lady in the authentic Turkish bath place allowed me to sneak peak what’s inside the hall even with the shoes on just because I am a foreigner. Indeed summer wasn’t a good time to take a Turkish bath I guess, as it was so steamy and hot inside, I still fancied a bath experience because the hall was designed like it was to treat guests as kings and queens !
Fortune telling cafe
What I got to experience is visiting this cafe famous for fortune telling. This place is popular because all the Turkish girls come here when they have some troubles or questions with their relationships, haha. The waitress was also very good at people reading that she guessed it right my Turkish friends’ horoscopes in a very short period of time. She didn’t guess mine though, probably because she was not so familiar with east asian faces ?
Betül kept this part of the visit a secret surprise and I only knew when I got there. I was very excited because I liked her fortune telling in Sheffield (who doesn’t ?!) but she knows she is not very professional in that. Elif and her kindly planned this so I could get my future read “properly”, which I am very thankful for their sweet surprise. The fortune telling really wasn’t the main point, (as I bitch-faced the Turkish fortune teller the whole time so he doesn’t say things judging from my reactions, but the girls were worried my fortune wasn’t good, haha) but it was a nice activity to do with girl friends, share our “fortune” and spend an afternoon just chatting and having Turkish coffee.
This kind of activity is also crucial to Turkish young girls’ mental health I imagine. Some research suggests that women get strength from other women’s support. This activity involves spending time together, experiencing high (excited or when told a good fortune) and low (when told a bad future) emotions together, and at the end feeling relieved for each other. Even myself, whom I regard as a pretty strong girl most of the time, feels very supported after the experience. Needless to say, it was funny to see Betül talking non-stop in Turkish to Elif and Sena about her fortune. 🙂
Cross continental commute
Istanbul is the only natural transcontinental city in the world. I don’t know what is it about that yet, but apparently many travellers are fascinated by this idea. Does that make us feel the world is smaller, or that we humans are more powerful because we can travel from Asia to Europe everyday ? Nevertheless, it was nice to be on a ferry and enjoy the view. Istanbul even opened its Marmaray which is an underwater rail across the Bosphorus strait in 2013, making cross continental commute even faster. I was very silly and imagined that we could see the see or some fishes swimming from the metro car but it seems like that was only my wild imagination.
Ever since Sheffield I have noticed that Turkish girls have fantastic eyebrows always on fleek. Betül, Sena, Özge in Strasbourg, Elif … all the Turkish girls. My eyebrows were only good looking once when the Iranian flatmate of my host in Leeds threaded my face. Therefore I asked Betül to bring me to a coiffeur and get my face together. It was painful but the lady was very skilled. Betül was very enthusiastic about giving instructions. After that when I went back, Zeliha Teyze said I really looked like a girl that day … Lol
One of my philosophies of life is leaving the best at the end. You may have noticed and be wondering: are you missing out all the Turkish food you have eaten in Istanbul ?! That would be a sin ! As a matter of fact, being a vegetarian in Istanbul is unbelievable. (Sorry Betül, but I really don’t get you on this !) Hong Kong is famous for the variety of international cuisines available, but Istanbul offers a specialised Turkish savoury experience, which was equally delightful. I have eaten the MOST type of foods in Istanbul than any other city I have been, and even that was just a very tiny part of the Turkish cuisine. I strongly recommend vegetarians to pause being vegetarian when you visit Istanbul.
I think a good way to describe Turkish cuisine will be “rich and savoury”. Rich meaning each dish is a colourful mix of many ingredients, spices and seasoning, that taking out any will render the dish boring and dull. Savoury meaning there are more salt, aroma (of oils) and spice than sweets. This description concludes only what I have tried.
Full Turkish breakfast
Bread (toast), cheese, olives, sausages, cucumber, tomato, honey, butter, Turkish tea (coffee), home grown beans, TV remote
I have fallen in love with Turkish breakfast ever since Betül brought us to a Turkish restaurant in Sheffield. I love that there are many things on the plate. It could get quite heavy only with the cheese, olives, butter etc, but the vegetables and the tea will remove the oily after taste and leave the aroma in your cheeks. Not to mention a Turkish breakfast is always meant to be shared. If I were to wake up to Turkish breakfast everyday, I would never have a problem leaving the bed in the morning !
Soup with lentil, onion, tomato paste, carrot, mint, cinnamon and love from Zeliha Teyze, great with rice and chick beans
First meal I had after arriving in Istanbul. Zeliha Teyze is not only good at cooking, but also at deciding what to cook. This soup absolutely calmed me down from the crazy trip from the airport, also opened my appetite.
The best meatball in the entire world, made of lamb and herbs, grilled
Tender, well-grilled, with perfect spices and herbs, Emre had two portions and I was very tempted to. I think the main point of a good meatball is that textually it has to taste like a ball that bounces inside your mouth. That means the meat can’t be too old, there needs to be a good mix of the meat and the fat, and there shouldn’t be bread crumbs inside the ball. I wouldn’t go as far as adding gelatin, but I haven’t tried yet so that’s yet to be concluded but for some reason the Köfte I had is really, really good.
Self rotating meat (what? lol)
I am not experienced enough to tell the difference between Turkish kebab and say, kebab from the more middle eastern countries. But the sauces are slightly different I would say. Turkish sauces are less spicy but more savoury.
Circular bread produced in Istanbul since 1525
This bread is insane. In Sheffield Sena went to a Turkish market and on the way she brought me a Simit in a plastic bag. I know I should have eaten it fresh but since it was at night I didn’t want to eat before sleep. I opened the plastic bag to smell it, however, and almost instantly my whole room smells like Simit ! What’s even more insane, the aroma didn’t go until – well, until I ate it ! It is SO fragrant it almost could be made a perfume. Of course, the taste was good too.
Ice cream made of orchids and goat milk
This is an ice cream you have to eat with a knife and a fork. It could be accompanied by sweet pastries but I will be totally happy to eat it just on its own. It is not too sweet but very milky. A very interesting dessert.
Sweet pudding made of chicken and milk
This is a very crazy dessert. At first I didn’t believe that chicken could be made a dessert but apparently Turkish people can ! The “meatness” disappeared but the texture of chicken meat strands remained. This gives a special taste apart from traditional sweetness from fruits.
Yogurt, herbs (mint), cucumber
The mint really brings out the “richness” and instantly turn the after meal dish a refreshing cleanse of the tongue.
Yogurt, water, salt
Ayran is a bit different from the Cacık because 1. Ayran is a drink but Cacık still needs to be eaten with a spoon; and 2. there is salt in Ayran. The salt gave the Ayran some magic and it is the same when you add salt in 7up and lime (which is a common Southeast Asian drink). It is very hard to describe.
The last supper
I was a bit sad in the last day, partly because I would have to miss the Turkish cuisine and Zeliha Teyze’s cooking soon. But it was also rewarding because I got to spent more time with the family of Betül and Sena. Betül has amazing parents, they are both “science people” but also very sensitive to arts. On the living room there were many of their decent paintings, they could throw a beautiful Saz (a Turkish string instrument) jam (with singing) session naturally and instantly, Bülent Amca even published a book of his poetry. (One of his copies are standing on my bookshelf now, waiting for me to understand after I learnt Turkish.) Art is not only a way to develop aesthetic sense, but also the sensitivity to carefully understand the world we are living in. This is a thing most of the people in Hong Kong or our generation is missing.
I find a lot of similarities between Betül’s family and mine. Apart from that Emre plays tricks on Betül (Betül, like the new “sound control” TV) and so does my brother to me, my own background allowed me to appreciate Betül’s parents’ wisdom in keeping a family. For what exactly is this wisdom, I wouldn’t know until I have my own, but I am thankful that they raised Betül to be such a lovely and kind friend who never hesitates to help. Not only did she planned my visit enthusiastically with Emre, she actually had to postpone her vacation with her Aunt just because I sent her a text that I would be visiting. Also she took care of me so well even she was really tired after a long day walking in the city. (That’s why at the end, I couldn’t help but called her abla (big sister) a few times…) From the dinner table, Betül is really caring and took a lot of effort into translating because I don’t speak Turkish (maybe she wanted to show off a bit her English also lol). I told her a few times but the world needs to know that she will be a very good diplomat for her country because of her sincere personality and good language skills.
It was also a chance for me to know Sena from a different perspective. I think I enjoy some sort of privilege because I am from a different country and I am younger, but Sena was like a role model of how we should behave when we were being guests in a Turkish home. Also she looked really like an admirable adult when she dressed in suits for an interview. It sounds evil but her overly calm life style is also very easy to make fun of. Haha.
In Betül’s room there hung a painting of a street in Hong Kong. She bought it just because she thinks it looks nice and had no idea where it was portraying until me the foreigner recognised it. It would be impossible now that I hang a painting of Istanbul in my room without knowing it is Istanbul, but I look forward to that one day my Turkish friends understand my amazement for Istanbul when they come to Hong Kong. 🙂