Actually, I wouldn’t have any idea if it was a moonlit night – the cloud cover was too thick – but I did try Turkish Delight late one evening. There are, thankfully, varieties that don’t involve nuts or coconut – two ingredients I generally avoid as I am not terribly fond of them. After all, as the saying goes, when in Rome… And, for that matter, Istanbul was once a capital of the Roman Empire.
One of the fun things about visiting a foreign country is learning and immersing yourself in another culture and another language. Sadly, I learned very little about the Turkish language itself – I was surrounded most of the time by English-speakers (my fellow classmates) and many signs were easily readable or interpretable by English-speakers or included English translations. But, I did want to learn, at least, how to pronounce Turkish.
The first challenge, in that case, is learning what certain unusual diacritics used in Turkish mean.
Some time ago, if I read my history right, Turkish was written using arabic script. This is evident in the arabic calligraphy adorning the Ottoman palace we toured. But Mustafa Kemal Attaturk, the founding father of the modern, democratic Turkish nation, apparently instituted a standardization of the language, including the use of a roman alphabet. But this alphabet includes a number of characters marked with diacritics. The easiest to figure out were the letters “Ç” and “Ş” The latter represents the sound that in English is spelled “sh”, while the former represents the sound that in English is spelled “ch” (it may be worth noting that the sound we spell “ch” is phonetically pronounced “tsh”).
Most other consonants were the same as in English, with a few exceptions. “c”, for instance (with no cedilla), is pronounced as an English “j”, whereas “j” is pronounced as the French “j” or English “zh”. (Again, it may be interesting to point out that English “j” is in fact pronounced “dzh”.) The vowels were another story – made the more interesting because there were 6, not 5 vowel characters. That is, there is both a dotted-i and an undotted-i (“i” and “ı”).
My “Epic Quest” was helpful in learning some of these pronunciations – each stop on the tram was announced in a clear voice. Here, then, I learned that the stop “Fındıklı” is not pronounced “fin-dik-li”, but, rather, “fuhn-duh-kluh”. Or, in other words, the undotted-i represents a “schwa” sound (a neutral, mid-open vowel). The other vowels were straight-forward. The “i” with a dot (and, interestingly, the capital “İ” also has a dot to distinguish it from the dotless capital I) represents an “ee” sound, consistent with other European languages, “a” represents an “ah” sound, “u” an “oo” sound, and so on. This Turkish Pronunciation page I found indicates that “a”, “u”, and “o” also have slight variants (“â”, “ü”, and “ö”), but I don’t recall seeing many examples of those characters used, so I suspect that they occur rather rarely in Turkish.
But the character I had the hardest time figuring out was “Ğ”. On the tram, when we pulled up to a stop where this character was in the name, I either didn’t hear it pronounced, or could’ve sworn I’d heard it pronounced something like an “o” or “aw” or another soft vowel sound from the back of the throat. That didn’t make any sense. Everything else was fairly consistent with the standard use of the roman alphabet. Why would they use a consonant figure to represent a vowel sound?
Luckily, one of our classmates on the trip was actually from Turkey (and, of course, spoke Turkish). So, I asked him. He said it was a soft, faint sound. It’s a guttural sound, made far in the back of the throat, but it isn’t pronounced strongly. I tried it out by starting with a “g” sound and moving it further back in my throat and turning it into a fricative (like the “ch” in German). That came close but not quite to getting it right. It seems to be pronounced so quickly and softly in Turkish, though, that most of the time it hardly sounds like it’s even there.
That, unfortunately, was about the extent of the Turkish that I learned. If I were to go again, I’m sure, I would probably learn a little more. But I was probably put off slightly by a fear on my part that Turkish would be very different from most European languages and therefore much more difficult to pick up on in the short time I was there. Warranted or no, the fear remained. At least I could pronounce the words on the signs, though. (Actually reading about the Turkish language suggests that the fear is most likely unwarranted, as it contains features that should be readily easy for me to adapt and understand.)
As for the culture – I had my first contact with that almost as soon as I was off the plane. As I recounted in my previous post about an “Epic Quest“, almost immediately upon passing through customs, I was “waylaid” by the concierge at the desk of a taxi company. I say “waylaid” because at this point it was fairly obvious I was in unfamiliar surroundings. I was busy looking at signs, trying to find my way to the metro. (Initially, I was anticipating trying to take the Metro all the way to my hotel.) Instead, in a feigned act of helpfulness the concierge asked where I was going, and proceeded with a hard-sell for his taxi service. The price would be exorbitant – so exorbitant that I am embarrassed to admit to the actual amount I ended up paying. When he quoted the price, I should’ve bailed. But something in my naive little heart was already afraid of trying to find my way around, alone, in a foreign land.
What I did not realize was this two-fold aspect of Turkish business culture. The first: feigned kindness as a means of producing a sales opportunity. The second: an expectation that you will attempt to negotiate a lower price, thus inspiring excessively high opening price quotes.
I encountered this again, later, in the Grand Bazaar, but even then I did not recognize this for what it was. I had decided to try to find a pice of jewelry with a local flavor to bring back as a souvenir for Dear Wife. So I stopped in a couple jewelry shops. When I found a piece I liked, I started talking to the shop-keeper. When he quoted me a price on the piece I liked, I initially balked. It seemed like it was just on the edge of how much I’d be willing to pay, and I wanted to probe my inner soul to see if I really believed Dear Wife would appreciate me spending that money for a trinket. The shopkeeper, I now realize, took my initial hesitation as a negotiating ploy rather than the soul-searching it really was. He quickly dropped the price – but not by too much.
Had I understood what was happening, I would have known to make a counter-offer that was substantially lower. He would’ve feigned offense, but then would have countered with another offer slightly lower than his last. Because this is what actually happened when I witnessed the brother of one of my classmates (who just “happened” to be in Turkey at the same time) negotiate with a shopkeeper in the Bazaar the next day. He talked a merchant selling Turkish tea glasses (“unbreakable!” ones, and demonstrated to prove it) from an opening bid of 90 lira down to a final selling price of 20 lira. Incredible. How much better a deal could I have gotten had I known that I needed to tune up my negotiating gears?
I also encountered the “helpful” Turkish merchant again in my first attempt to locate the underground Cistern. The cistern was a water storage tank built by the Romans during the latter part of the Roman Empire and the early days of the Byzantine Empire. The entrance, today, is a small, unassuming little building. Ages ago, before it was rediscovered, the cistern was forgotten as the Byzantine Empire gave way to the Ottoman Empire. Folklore says that women in this part of the city used to be considered unnaturally lucky, as there was always water when they dropped their buckets in their wells.
As I walked down the street, consulting the map in my recovered guidebook, I nearly missed the building. Then, a helpful, English-speaking passer-by – clearly familiar with the tell-tales of a tourist – asked where I was going and if he could help me. He told me the Cistern was very near-by, and offered to walk me to it. I found myself, instead, at the door to his shop of Turkish rugs. “Oh, it’s after 6:00,” he said, “The Cistern is closed, now.” (He was right.) “Come into my shop, instead.” “That’s alright. I’d just like to go check myself. I’ll come back after.” I excused myself from shop, and quickly found the entrance to the cistern, which had, indeed, closed at 6. I managed to see it the next day, anyway.
It was the same near the entrance to the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia: loiterers handed us tourist guides as soon as we got off the bus. “Oh, thank you,” I said, thinking naively that they were perhaps employed by some antiquities administration or tourist board to hand out these free guides. One of my classmates saw through the ruse. “How much are these?” The loiterer quoted a price. “They’re not free?” I said, and quickly handed mine back, insisting then that I didn’t need it.
This is just part of the culture, in Turkey, it seems. It’s a part you have to be ready for when you go. It’s not good or bad, you know; it just is.
The other thing you’ll notice, at least in Istanbul, is just how cosmopolitan the people are. It feels very much like any other city anywhere in the world, in the mix of young professionals, the poor, the upper-class, the tourists, and everything in between. Really, it makes you realize that we have a lot more in common across cultures than we have in difference.
And, of course, you can’t help but notice the mosques – they’re everywhere, and their architecture is varied and beautiful – and you can’t help but notice the ululating calls to prayer. Every time I heard the calls to prayer, it made me feel like I was in the part of some Hollywood Adventure Movie that takes place somewhere in the middle east. It was like one of those little cues in the movies that’s supposed to tell the audience you’re someplace else. But, in the context of Istanbul, it felt… normal. Which, of course, in the context of Istanbul… it was.
The final observation about Istanbul – which was actually my first observation upon seeing the city. It’s old. And dirty. The architecture of everything that isn’t a lovely historical site is outdated and unattractive. (Oddly enough, it’s the oldest stuff, the historical stuff, that’s the most attractive.) Even new construction, strangely, looks decades-old. In part, I think this could have been a factor of the perpetual gray skies we “enjoyed” during our stay – without good sunlight, everything looked gray and drab. Still, if I were visiting Istanbul purely for pleasure, I wouldn’t be terribly interested in seeing the urban sprawl – all big cities have that, and whether a little dated or no, it’s pretty much the same the world over – what I’d be coming to see would be the ancient sites and to experience the local flavor and culture.
Which brings me back to the beginning of the post. Culture is kind of a fuzzy thing to pin down. But there are a few things that are universally agreed upon as either expressions of or factors of culture. One of those is language, which I’ve discussed. You could include art and local customs – which brings to mind the “evil eye” stones (“Nazars”) that you see almost everywhere in Istanbul, a symbol which is supposed to ward off the effects of the evil eye. Another of these, of course, is food. And the food in Istanbul was great. Most famous, of course, are the kebabs – not only shish-kebabs (which means kebabs on a skewer) but the more common döner kebabs sold out of small shops along the streets – the kind with a hunk of meat rotating on a spit, from which meat is sliced off and served with veggies wrapped in a pita (or “pide” in Turkish), a dish very similar to the Greek gyro.
Coffee and Tea are also common in Turkey. Turkish coffee effectively is a super-strong brew with the grounds mixed into the water. But although Turkish coffee is supposedly a big deal people in Istanbul, at least, apparently drink a lot more tea – and there are many varieties of tea, some wholly separate from the kind made with tea leaves. I don’t drink coffee or black tea, personally, but several times I enjoyed a warm cup of Apple Tea. It’s basically hot apple cider, but it’s brewed from dried apple bits.
But probably the most amazing and uniquely Turkish or at least uniquely mediterranean thing I had while in Istanbul was a cup of fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice. Watching it prepared was like watching art in the making. First the server sliced two pomegranates, then in turn stuffed each half on the end of a juicer, pulled the lever, and I was just amazed at how much juice poured out. He did these with each half, then took the juice and poured it through a strainer into another cup, to cull out all the seeds. (In fairness, most street vendors I saw did not strain the seeds, but I got my first cup while waiting for my classmates at the Çemberlitaş Hamam, where they did strain it.) The juice was sweet and delicious… I think I could drink fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice every day.
Or at least, I’ll try to if and when I make it back to Istanbul.
The other posts in this series: