The ultimate Istanbul exchange blog post
I was just about to show off my underwear before I was instructed that Turkish people might not appreciate it very much. Another reminder that it’s remarkably easy to offend people if you don’t know about their cultural views. I just wanted to hang my washed clothes outside so I could wear dry boxer shorts the next day. I already saw dozens of other clothes dangling across the streets on thin washing lines, but I failed to notice that underwear wasn’t a part of that collection. Luckily, there was still some space above my bed:
This is just one silly example of the many stories that shaped my experience in a different culture. Since I call it the best 4 months of my life, I feel like I owe it to myself and to Istanbul to dedicate one last blog post to the entire adventure. I wrote this as an entertaining post for my friends, a nostalgic story for fellow exchange students, and a lesson for current exchange students. Most of all, I wrote it for myself so I can never forget about the joy and wisdom that my time in Istanbul has given me.
From September 10th until January 15th, my life was ruled by the philosophy of ‘carpe diem’ and I exploited exchange life to the fullest of my capabilities. With my bed acting as temporary pit stop, I raced from one experience to the next, maintaining a lifestyle that was both exhausting and exhilarating, and definitely not sustainable for longer than 4 months.
The reason I call this time the best 4 months of my life is because my horizon was broadened and I got to enjoy life on so many different levels: I made new friends and spent a lot of time doing cool things and eating delicious meals. Through my courses and the local culture I also learned so much about history, international relations, politics, culture and empathy.
Another reason for calling it ‘the best 4 months’ is the city of Istanbul. Let me state something clearly: If you haven’t been to Istanbul, you have absolutely no clue what it’s like. My friends joked about headscarves, while you will find more headscarves in Rotterdam than in the center of Istanbul. My mom was worried about my safety, until she visited the city herself. I’m not sure how to tell you what Istanbul is. All I can say is that you should visit this incredibly beautiful and diverse metropolis at the Bosporus, and experience all its historical and cultural charm yourself.
One thing I do want to stress is religion. Of course Istanbul is a “Muslim” city, but the Netherlands is also a “Christian” country. In other words, Istanbul is far less ruled by religious rules than you might think. Istanbul is literally and figuratively the bridge between Asia and Europe, and so while it’s culturally Muslim, it’s also quite ‘Western’.
A nice example of a Muslim city with Western influence:
As December rolled along, I was pleasantly surprised to see Christmas decoration everywhere. When I naively asked why they were putting up Christmas trees and Santa Claus figures I learned that there was in fact no Christmas decoration, but it was all New-year’s-eve-decoration! Christmas obviously doesn’t exist in Muslim tradition. Yet it was actually relaxing that I could forget about the commercial frenzy and the stress of buying presents, and instead focus on the real Christmas. It was a blissful day of 15°C, with carrot cake after church and good conversations with new friends. Still, I did miss my family.
Many Turkish students often asked me why I had come to Istanbul. My main reason: because it’s different. These differences made everything so interesting – whether it was waking up to the prayer calls of the Imam instead of church bells, or eating mussels, Simit, and wet hamburgers instead of ‘Kapsalon’ with garlic sauce.
As a result of being ‘different’ and meeting the Turkish culture, I have matured on an academic, social, and spiritual level. But I don’t call it the most awesome 4 months, I call it the best 4 months of my life because not all the differences were awesome. A lot of the differences were immensely annoying, but full of humbling lessons.
It was tiring when your shower was also your toilet, and nothing worked like you were used to back home.
It was frustrating when you had to pay more, because your looks gave away your status of a tourist.
It was irritating when you didn’t understand the Turkish culture, like the waiters taking away your plate when you were still enjoying your last bite of mussaka.
It was tough when people stared at you with critical eyes, gossiping in a language you don’t understand.
It was pathetic when the gazes of old men made your female friends feel unsafe, pushing them to wear more conservative clothing (how much of the headscarf/burka is forced and how much is desired by women themselves?)
It was maddening when the country’s #*$%# paper bureaucracy left you with more questions than answers and an urge to rip apart their entire office.
It was heartbreaking when you saw a barefooted 2-year-old girl, trying to survive on the streets and asking you for money.
It was enraging when you witnessed aggressive police forces aiming to choke the people’s call for justice.
It was inspiring when your Turkish friends claimed their democratic right and reminded you how much you have taken for granted.
Whenever something doesn’t make sense to you and it’s different, it makes you feel irritated. I had the same experience with the conservative culture in Kansas. Leaving aside the truly annoying differences like political injustice and male hegemony, most of these cultural differences are weird, tiring, and annoying simply because they’re different to you. It’s impossible to think objectively in a different country; better accept it and move on.
But I found some other controversies that simply puzzled me and really don’t make sense:
- The Turkish never stand in line, but when they are waiting for their mini bus called dolmuş (literally „too full“), they form a line that a Swiss would be proud of.
- When you ask for directions, Turkish people would rather send you into the wrong direction than admitting they don’t know where it is.
- Their #*$%# bureaucracy is run with paper, yet post offices are more difficult to find than a clean toilet.
- At restaurants they present you with massive bowls of honey, but it’s ridiculously expensive in stores.
- Turkish people are always late, but busses leave early (especially when I wanted to take them).
The differences attracted me to Istanbul, because you can learn the most when you have to deal with people that are different than you. The differences give you a ‘culture shock’. Especially the last couple of weeks this culture shock came through for many people. It’s not a ‘where the heck am I?’ shock, but it’s a constant comparison to home. A comparison where things from home are normal and better, and things here are weird.
Luckily for me, I had already experienced such a culture shock when I lived in Kansas for a year. I compared everything to home, told everyone how much better Europe was, and generally became a sour and agitated person
Four months can be difficult when everything is different, you’re tired, and you can’t understand a word people are saying.
So far I’ve told you that I had a great time because I didn’t have to study much and the only negative were all the annoying Turkish differences. It almost sounds like I enjoyed myself in Turkey, while I was frustrated with Turkish culture. But that is far from the truth.
Since I started my exchange looking for differences, I was more prepared to deal with the frustrations that came from them. Instead of comparing it to my own world and criticizing it, I was able to view as it is, and appreciate it much more.
Turkey is a beautiful country and I have fallen in love with it. It has a stunning countryside and proud and beautiful people.
I laughed at their lively markets, where fish fly through the air and an ongoing ‘Merhaba, merhaba, hoşgeldiniz’ invites you to take part in their busy bargaining. I chuckled at their salesmanship and vigorous tactics to convince me of buying their merchandise. With great charm and mighty mustaches, the Grand Bazar was the ultimate trading square, filled with colorful carpets and tourist price tags. On the corners of İstiklal Caddesı you were bound to meet patient mussel sellers and Ice cream shops, whose employees turned selling ice cream into a magical art. The colorful and picturesque shops of Galata stored all the souvenirs you could possibly yearn for, from elegantly decorated vases to pink booklets with Atatürk’s cover. Walking across the Galata bridge, the fishermen’s daily catch was waiting for you in the form of balık ekmek, while the next corner introduced you to the orient express and the delicious world of Baklava and eastern spices. Further up the hill, the majestic structures of Topkapı palace are waiting to cast its historical spell on you, taking you back to the Ottoman Empire, where no carat of gold was spared to magnify the Sultan’s power.
All of this can be discovered by a 60 minute walk and describing the rest of the city I leave to tourist guides. But while this material tourist culture may have little to do with the daily lives of locals, it does illustrate the cultural riches and history that have made the city and its people what it is.
The Turkish take pride in their hospitality and will offer you their finest foods. In the Netherlands guests might get some coffee and a cookie (at least in my case that’s true), and even when we do our best it’s hard to match the fabulous cooking skills of Turkish mothers. Mothers in general have a prominent role, since neither children nor husbands could survive without them. That is of course true for the entire world, but probably even more so in Turkey.
Since Turkey still has a strong masculine culture, a lot of women stay at home and you encounter mostly men in the streets. But the emancipated women that you do see at universities or in the mall, my oh my, you don’t want to mess with them! It’s better to avoid a fight with those piercing, beautiful, dark brown eyes, shining through the black locks of hair that elegantly cover the temperamental head of these sweet Turkish ladies.
Sharply dressed, well-trimmed men usually accompany this female eloquence. The streets are full of barbershops where the bushy black beards are tamed, and their pride is clothed in well-tailored suits. Something as foolish as dressing up to be a Ninja Turtle wouldn’t cross the smug minds of many prideful Turkish men, so I’ve been told.
In general I found the people of Istanbul to be both calm and busy, striking a pleasant balance between drawing your attention with loud acts, and keeping the volume of group conversations below the state of a European bar crowded with drunkards. Except of course, when it’s about football. Then all bets are off, men and women lose their eloquent gestures and the Turkish proudly chant on their team and maintain spirited rivalries with the other two clubs in town.
If not caught in between rallying Galatasary, Beşiktaş or Fenerbahçe fans, Istanbul also feels calmingly safe. A wise lady told me it’s because they treat tourists differently to avoid any newsworthy stories and trouble. Either way, I really enjoyed the general atmosphere of the city.
What really characterizes this sphere of Istanbul is that everything happens outside. Even late at night there are bearded men selling mussels and street performers tinkering on their snare xylophones. Spontaneous dances of men rhythmically moving arm-in-arm were a regular occasion. At every part of the day you see people hunched over tiny tables playing backgammon, right next to the old man selling fruits and vegetables.
It’s understandable then, that when an uncommonly cold winter covered the city under a tiny blanket of snow, all of Istanbul came to a stop. We were highly amused by how little snow it took to shut down the university for 2 days during exam times.
Other amusements included the general lack of English other than “my friend, my friend”, which lead to some curious items on the menu such as “olive oil daily download”, “above rice chicken”, or “fighting pepper”.
Turkey’s own language is another hidden beauty that many people don’t know about out. It sounds nothing like the rough Arabic sounds, but is built upon logical rules, vocal harmony, and poetic phrases. Some of my favorite Turkish expressions include
- “Çok yaşa” (much health!) – “sen de gör” (may you live to see it)
- “Hoş geldiniz” (welcome) – “Hoş bulduk” (I’m glad to be here or welcome back)
- “Afiyet olsun” = may it be healthy (for saying bon appetite)
- “Iyi geceler” = good nights (when you say good night)
- “Kolay gelsin” = may it come easy on you (to people working, like your bus driver)
I tried to learn some Turkish, but even though it’s very logical, it’s completely different than anything I knew before. By the time I left Istanbul I was able to have a very basic conversation if the other person spoke simple Turkish. Still, it really helped to understand more of the Turkish culture and it was heartwarming how happy people were when I tried speaking it! I should’ve stayed a bit longer, which would have legally been possible since I was the only person who got his residence permit extended until the end of may (for reasons that remain a mystery).
Not that I actually read many of their beautiful poems or really know about their enchanting music, and I’m probably orientalizing all of Istanbul and stereotyping their culture with Western dreams, but heck, Istanbul makes for a beautiful story. With all its magnificent mosques, silk textiles and water pipes you can’t help but feel like you are in the midst of an oriental fairytale.
I am writing all of this with my emotional self, while the rational Frank keeps reminding me that I shouldn’t generalize an entire country and boil down their culture into nice experiences and nice buildings. I’m doing it anyway because this is how I experienced it.
From an objective standpoint, it’s impossible to tell you about Istanbul in my own words. Every person will tell you a different story, and the most critical stories you will hear from Turkish students. A lot of them are angry, ashamed, and disappointed with many of their own people. I pray and hope that Istanbul will be able to grow together under rightful democratic circumstances, so that its beautiful culture may blossom and it can continue to be the bridge between Asia and Europe.
My time in Istanbul was everything I had hoped for and more. The differences that can be frustrating have become something to celebrate, and I will continue saying: If everyone went on exchange in a foreign country, our world would be a whole lot nicer!