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It’s Never too Late to Study Abroad: Turkey Part V

Girl sorting food into packages in Kisme Yok Mu
A young volunteer sorting food into packages in Kisme Yok Mu' food bank

CHASS Dean Jeff Braden is traveling in Turkey as part of a delegation from North Carolina’s Divan Center, a nonprofit committed to promoting cultural understanding between the United States and Turkey. He is sharing his experiences and perspectives through a series of blog posts.

3:55 pm on the bus from Istanbul to Anatolia, 6 July 2013. The flight from Izmir to Istanbul was, once again, happily uneventful. We landed at the smaller airport serving Istanbul on the Asia side of the city. From the airport, we went to Kisme Yok Mu (Turkish for “Is anybody there?”), a Hizmet nonprofit that provides a variety of services to respond to humanitarian crises around the world. I was struck both with the range of services offered, and the top-flight video they’d produced to tell their story. Clearly, this is a group that not only tries to do good things, but is also quite polished at telling their story. They made a point of saying that, although virtually all of the volunteers and donors supporting the group come from Turkey, the group provides services to people regardless of race, gender, or religion. The warehouse reminded me of the Wake County food bank, in that there were literally metric tones of food and supplies (including zodiac inflatable boats, propane stoves, and literally tons of dried food, oil, and grains. I was pleased to see a young girl sorting food from pallets into deliverable boxes; she graciously allowed me to take her picture so that I would have an image to go with my memory of the visit!

After leaving Kisme Yok Mu, we enjoyed our first normal meal of the trip at a modest cafe that served incredibly fresh and delicious fish. By normal, I mean instead of a dozen courses of copious amounts of food, we had bread, soup, salad, and fish–without question half the amount of food we’d been served everywhere else. I confirmed with our co-leader Kamal that Turks don’t normally eat a dozen or more courses at each meal; the feasts we’d been served at least three times a day were copious in the amounts and variety served because we were guests. I was relieved; I had been wondering how Turks could look so fit with all that they seemed to eat at every meal.

The restaurant was near the summit of a hill with an outstanding view of the Bosporus. We drove over to take in the view, and in so doing, enjoyed a small piece of night life along with other Istanbul residents. I love the open air cafe culture that is so prevalent in Europe and the Mediterranean; it as a relaxed, open feel, with music, street vendors, couples, and families walking about enjoying the night air. I thought to myself that this is something I truly miss in most places I’ve lived in the US, and remind myself that the same is probably true for many residents of Istanbul. That is, there are millions (literally) who live in the suburbs and watch big screen TVs, hang out with their families and neighbors, and don’t capitalize on the cafes and night life. So, part of the difference is that I’m traveling rather than being at home–although part of the difference is also that we don’t have quite the same level of welcoming open air cafes arranged in a critical mass to encourage people to spend the night walking about, either. Unfortunately, there can be too much of a good thing: Our driver elected to drive us back to our lodging taking the thoroughfares that were clogged with throngs of auto and pedestrian traffic, with people out shopping, dancing, dining, and more. Although I wish the Triangle had a night life to rival Istanbul, I was relieved it doesn’t have the traffic to match!

A view of the Straights of Bospor
Evening over the Bosporus Straights
Jeff in fez hat in grand bazaar, Istanbul
Getting my shopping thing on!

This morning we headed to the world’s first shopping mall (I think): Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. I had been twice before, and frankly, had been looking forward to this item on our itinerary since before we’d left. I headed to the ATM, got a wad of Turkish Lire, and went shopping. Now, you have to understand… I usually hate to shop. I go when I must, and when I do, I typically get things as quickly (and cheaply) as I can so that I can get on to other things. Ah, but not here! First, the collection of exotic items for sale defies the imagination. Beautiful backgammon boards with incredibly fine wood and mother-of-pearl inlay; evil eye emblems of all sorts and sizes; incredibly finely crafted meerschaum wine stoppers; silver and gold jewelry ranging from contemporary to Ottoman to Byzantine to Roman influences; and, of course, the ubiquitous carpets of every design, size, shape, and price. Second, there was the thrill of the hunt. Ever since my last visit, I’d vowed I’d return, first buying a rolling suitcase, and then wandering through the bazaar filling it with goods.

I threw myself into it, eager to bargain with the best of them. I decided to put some of the principles described by Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast and Slow. He explained ways in which the habits of rapid thinking (specifically, the “centering heuristic”) may lead us to accept prices that are too high (or, if you are selling, too low); I was determined to put this knowledge to good use. I also reminded myself that my tendencies not to want to disappoint others and to please people could be used to my own disadvantage by shrewd merchants. I was, therefore, ready–and jumped into the process with a zeal Jill found disturbing. Half of the fun came from being able to buy things that I couldn’t get at home (e.g., a Turkish flag for my son; Turkish earrings and a scarf for my daughter), and half being able to test my mettle against seasoned shop keepers. I would smile and introduce myself (Turkish people are, at heart, warm and friendly, and I think genuinely appreciate others who are open and friendly as well)–but that didn’t stop me from using every tactic I had at my disposal, including shock (Wait–you want 50 Turkish Lire for that? For how many of them? 10?) walking away, adopting pained expressions, and, of course, using Kahneman’s insights to try to drive the price point in my favor. About half of the negotiations ended in a purchase, with the other half giving me valuable information about where other shopkeepers drew the line on prices. I was in my element; I’m embarrassed to admit that I could have stayed there all day!

I emerged from the fray about 300 Turkish Lire (about $160) poorer–but I had a suitcase full of treasures to show for it. Yep, I did by a rolling suitcase (for 25 TL, or about $13), and stuffed it with gifts for others. I realized as I was leaving the bazaar that I hadn’t bought anything for myself, but it didn’t matter–I was utterly satisfied. It was something I’d been intending to do for 11 years, and if I had the chance, I’d do it again tomorrow. Who knew–shop ’til you drop now applies to me!

Group at the Journalists and Writers Foundation
Group at the Journalists and Writers Foundation

4:30 pm, flight to Heathrow, 7 July 2013. Our next stop was on the other side of the Bosporus, which (like all other trips we made across the bridges) involved a pretty serious fight through thick traffic. We arrived at the Journalist and Writers Foundation, a nonprofit that comprised a number of different initiatives, all with the goal of encouraging writers and the media to focus on those things that unite, rather than divide, us. The group was started by Mr. Gulan, leader of the Hizmet movement, and the leader of the group we met (Tolga, a Turkish-American journalist) was both an advocate and a relatively candid observer of the movement. Much like Kisme Yok Mah, the video describing the group was informative–and quite professionally done to present their work and goals in the best possible light. I was struck with the fact that every building we visited associated with the movement (with the exception of the women’s center, which clearly had rented a flat in an apartment building they didn’t own) was ultra modern, clean, and immaculately furnished. Although I embrace the goals of the group, I found myself wondering about the sources of support for the group and the movement in a broader sense.

Photo of Maiden's House with Blue Mosque and Sulymana Mosque in background
Maiden's Tower and Istanbul skyline

Because we ended at the Foundation earlier than we expected, we had to kill time–and did it in style! We drove along the waterfront in brilliant sunlight, enjoying the cool breeze whipping from off the channel as we jumped out of the van and took in the sights at the Maiden’s Tower (a small lighthouse in the Bosporus). It was a great scene; we saw people lounging against pillows as they sipped tea and cappuccino looking out over the water, folks strolling along the walkway, and, as we were getting ready to leave, a bridal party arrive complete with the wedding cake. We watched in fascination as they loaded up pastries and a three-tired wedding cake onto a boat to head out to the Maiden’s Tower for (our guide, Serder, explained) the wedding and reception. The brilliant blue sky, bright sunshine, and breathtaking views made for a pretty good way to kill time.

Photo of wedding cack on boat
The party behind the wedding party....


The last item on our agenda was dinner with another family on the Asia/Anatolia side of the city. We found our way to a lovely flat,where the family, their two teenage children, and a few friends welcomed us with open arms. We ended up eating in shifts because the dining room table could seat no more than a dozen, and our group was a little over half again as large. I decided to wait and eat in the second shift, instead spending time chatting mostly with a guy who had a knitwear business. It was a great conversation, including a bit of time talking to the son of the family who would be entering university a little more than a year from now. Our hosts were an architect and a house spouse (given the rather traditional nature of Turkish society, it was the male who was the architect–although I reminded myself that it was just a few nights ago when our hosts included a female architect!), who provided us with food and a wonderful welcome. Once again, I was struck with the similarities that we shared–they had the same large screen tv, standard of living, and (most importantly) love of family and friends that we shared. Although exhausted, I left content, well-fed, and thankfully happy as we had a relatively shorter trip back to our lodging.

Me and our hostess


This morning (Sunday), I woke up at 6:30–about an hour and a half before the alarm. We’d agreed that Jill and I would join Toni (from Meredith) in taking a cab to the airport at 11:00 am, while others would take the van into the old part of the city.

Box turtle in natural habitat
A new friend I met while running

They were extending their time in Turkey, but we were headed back (in our case, at least as far as London) today.

View of modern Istanbul skyline on morning run
View of modern Istanbul skyline on morning run

So, I thought I’d have plenty of time for a good run, then time to join the group for a farewell breakfast so that they could take off while I took a leisurely shower, packed, and otherwise prepared myself for departure. Alas, that was not to be. Although my run was terrific (I found my way to a huge green space, which I believe was municipal land as it was not designated as a park on any map I could find), I discovered upon my return that plans (once again) had changed. Instead of three of us sharing a cab to the airport at 11:00, we’d decided to join the group and head to the old city at 9:00. We made this decision at 8:15–which meant I had to get showered, shaved, dressed, packed, and be ready to leave in 45 minutes. I (barely) made it–although I was the last one on the bus, I did make it at 9:00 am on the dot. Our trip to the old city was, alas, a bit of an adventure. Our driver followed the GPS directions and wound his way througgh a warren of narrow alleys and streets around Aghia Soophia, the Blue Mosque (Sultanamet), and cistern, only to end up exactly back where we’d started. Perhaps the most memorable moment of the trip was when we were winding our way through a narrow, one-way street, we suddenly came upon a car parked facing the wrong way–and completely blocking our ability to proceed. The driver got out, banged on a few doors, and eventually found the driver, who backed up into a side street and allowed us on our way. We regrouped, went around the old city, and entered from the back side. We found the hotel where the other couples were staying in short order; however, by that time, we decided we’d have less than 90 minutes to enjoy the ambience of the city and so we opted to head to the airport with the van and arrive early. Although the trip to the airport was reminiscent of a NASCAR race (our driver felt compelled to make up lost time by weaving in and out of traffic), we arrived in one piece at 10:30, almost three and a half hours before flight time. It was with a sigh of relief that we kicked back, relaxed, and wound our way through duty free (Did you know they give free samples of high-end whiskey?) and to our flight to Heathrow. Thank goodness the woman at the counter had the presence of mind to ask us whether we wanted our bags checked through to Raleigh–despite promising myself dozens of times that I would make sure we could retrieve our bags for our overnight in London, I had completely forgotten to ask….

Me in front of the Sulimanya Mosque
Wolfpack around the World!

And so, it is with a mix of regret (that our journey must end) and relief (that we will soon be home) that I sign off at the end of this blog. I appreciate your indulgence in following my travels, and hope to be writing again soon about the warm and wonderful people of Turkey!