A Dane, a Mexican and an American in Istanbul: the highs and lows

The Dane’s guidebook called the country Tyrkiet. The Mexican’s called it Turquía. Mine called it Turkey. We all agreed that it was vidunderlig/maravilloso/wonderful.

The Best and Worst of  the Trip

1. Tourist Moment

Best: Visiting any of Istanbul’s historic tourist sights. If pushed to make a firm decision, there were two very special standout moments: (1) Rounding a corner in Beyoğlu at night and gazing up at the crescent moon glowing above the azure-tinted Galata Tower (photo below). (2) Walking through the ancient grander of the Aya Sofya while people-watching tourists of every nationality and religion gape together at the majesty and historical significance of the space.

Worst: Listening to the piss-poor recorded commentary on the jump-on-and-off “Big Bus Tour.” For example, one large, modern building on the shores of the Golden Horn was breathlessly described as having, “room capacities of up to 900 people and facilities to host conferences, meetings, expos and other large events!” (paraphrased). I would like to personally offer my services to re-write the tour script. (Hint: talk about the city’s sweeping history, explain why there are so many street cats, refrain from saying anything about the dimensions of ugly concrete buildings.)

Galata Tower by night

Galata Tower by night

2. Food

Best: Every single meal in every randomly selected Turkish restaurant we stepped into. Every meal was delicious and we learned quickly to always order lamb, eggplant, tomato and bread in some formation.

Worst: Every single meal served on my Emirates flights to and from Istanbul. Though I can’t fault the graciousness of the Emirates service, the slickness of their very new airplanes, or the delicious flavor of the chocolate milkshake I spent a breathtaking USD 8 on at Shake Shack in the Dubai airport.

Eggplant + tomato + olive oil + bread = heaven

Eggplant + tomato + olive oil + bread = heaven

3. Turkish Bath Experience

Best: Visiting the 300 year old Cagaloglu Hamam.  We relaxed in the gender-segregated, warm, marble hamam and were scrubbed and massaged by a charming Turkish grandma called Fatma. Highly recommended. If it’s good enough for Chevy Chase, Kate Moss, John Travolta and Franz Liszt, it’s good enough for me.

Worst: Entering the basement of a hotel which housed a mixed-gender Turkish bath and being scrubbed and massaged by a kind, but handsy, old Turkish man. Not recommended, but if you do go, go with a liberal Scandinavian friend who will keep you laughing throughout the entire experience.

Entrance to the Cagaloglu Hamam

Entrance to the recommended Cagaloglu Hamam featuring photos of famous guests

4. Interactions with Locals Working in the Tourism Market

Best: Tie (1) Being mercilessly, but gently, teased by a shopkeeper while trying to buy a backgammon set (commonly played in tea houses). We pointed at various wooden boxes in his shop, only to have him pull out each box and slowly open it to reveal the velvety interior of yet another jewelry case. The last box we pointed to was an actual backgammon set, which, he explained apologetically, was for his own personal. The timing of his repeated false-reveals was spot-on-hilarious. Afterward he took mercy on us and found a shopkeeper up the street with backgammon sets for sale. Everyone was all smiles.

(2) Placing bets with friendly restaurant touts on whether or not they could guess all three of our nationalities. I was the easiest: the American with the obvious accent. My Danish friend was harder, but their skill allowed them to quickly narrow it down to a Scandinavian country. My Mexican friend was the enigma. They wanted to guess Turkish based on her face, but knew it wasn’t right based on her accent. One guessed Egyptian, another guessed Chilean and yet another guessed Moroccan. When a tout struck out, we won our wager of a free round of tea and baklava.

Worst: Returning to our hotel one day to discover that we’d be “upgraded” to a room featuring: a column in the middle of the floor plan; a TV turned on but that could only be turned off via a remote control that contained no batteries; and, a window that would not close in temperatures almost touching freezing (hotel staff later “shut” it using packing tape). It was still amusing and, hey, they gave us free apple tea.

Playing backgammon with my two friends. This round the photographer (me) happens to be winning!

My two wonderful friends and Istanbul travel companions.

Istanbul in sum total: highly recommend by three women of three disparate nationalities and mother tongues, even in the dead of winter.

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22 responses to “A Dane, a Mexican and an American in Istanbul: the highs and lows

  1. Turkey is one of my all-time favourite places to travel. Unfortunately Istanbul was ruined by simply having ended up there last and having so much to live up to. Meaning, it was still good, but we were kind of used to good by then and finished with being bowled over.

    Love your bets – well done on getting free baklava! A trick I’ll have to remember. Glad you got your backgammon board! Getting scrubbed sounds like good fun (though funner by a grandma than a grandad…)

    • Fourteen years ago I spent six weeks wandering all over Turkey, but even during that trip Istanbul impressed! (But now that I think about it, I started that trip with a week in Istanbul. And that trip was my first international trip after a harrowing trip to India where I was sexually harassed and came down with malaria, so I my impressions were very skewed!)

      I wonder if I can figure out a way to make wagers with Hong Kong waiters for view tables or extra large portions of Beijing duck?

    • You’d love Istanbul! Meanwhile, it’s 45F in Hong Kong right now and, even with the space heaters, it’s probably just over 50Fin my house. I am so cold. And it’s raining.

  2. Sounds like an amazing trip where you really covered all the bases. I was in Turkey as a child and must return as I don’t remember too much of it. I am always impressed by your blog as you seem to really enjoy writing it. I, to be honest, see it as more of a chore but love the end result and hope my family will one day, too! Great writing!

    • Turkey, in warmer weather, would be a great family trip actually… I may have to schedule that in sometime (as should you!).

      As for writing this blog: I do really like it. But I’m also not trying to record everything. I simply write about what I feel like writing about. So it’s a sort of personal therapy! I enjoy reading about all of your adventures, but I would also fine it a chore to write up everything we do as a family (Though I’m sure my kids would thank me for it one day if I did. As it stands, they’ll have to live with the photos, memories and my stories!).

  3. Pingback: Pictures of strangers | Expat Lingo·

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  5. Hi Jen- Ah, you’re tempting me here! You choose to write about my favorite place on earth. I have so many lovely memories about exploring all over Turkey with my local friends. If you haven’t already ditched Emirates (wink) take at look at the Skylife magazine put out by Turkish Air. I used to go by the TA office in Baku each month to say hi and ask for the new issue of their magazine. Wonderful reading, and some really good side trips to other places they fly to.
    Here’s the lnk: http://www.skylife.com/en/

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