I was selected to participate in a summer exchange program to Turkey through my mother’s company, Evonik, this past summer. When I arrived in Ankara, my host family was so warm, and my Turkish sister, Esra, and I became inseparable during our four weeks together. The high point of my summer occurred though when my Turkish family took me to Istanbul.
First Esra, her mother, her younger sister and I took to the Topkap? Palace where the Ottoman Sultans once resided. The ornate designs of the various courtyards and chambers were enchanting. Emerging from the treasure rooms, we were met with an excellent view of the Bosphorus, the body of water that separates Europe from Asia. I realized that I was at the juncture of two massive continents, two worlds, and the diversity this idea encompassed was exciting. A group of three Muslim girls approached me at this time and requested to take a picture with me. Aside from negligibly feeling like a circus sideshow (I stood out like a sore thumb in Turkey as one of the rarer Asian-American tourists), I was pleased because this instance showed me that others were willing to embrace diversity as well. This was only the first of several encounters I would have with strangers in Istanbul.
In the iconic Hagia Sophia, as I was poring over the monumental details of the museum, a fellow foreigner asked me whether I was a professional photographer (I wish!), where I was from, and the like. He helped me take a photo of myself, and I in turn took a photo for him and his friend. The same amity was found in the mosques of Istanbul from both foreigners and locals alike, in particular the Blue Mosque just across from the Hagia Sophia. Chance encounters like these seem trivial but they always leave me glowing because I feel as if I have somehow connected with others despite clear barriers such as language.
And of course there was the Grand Bazaar. When pocket money is limited, this is the place to spend it. The historic covered marketplace was a world within itself: colorful, crowded, and smelling of merchandise. I spent quite some time in one shop that sold gorgeous book pages from the Ottoman period depicting scenes from the Koran, harems, and so on. The selection was overwhelming in the best way possible; unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately, as they probably controlled my expenditures) their prices ran rather high, but the shopkeeper and I promised we would see each other in a few years. After navigating the stalls of the bazaar, we sat down for some Turkish coffee and baklava—some simple pleasures of Turkish life. (By the way, Turkish cuisine deserves an essay entirely to itself.)
There was something about the air in Istanbul. It was so infused with the life and history of its residents: Turkey’s culture concentrated into one vibrant city. And I was smitten. It was hard to feel sad during my last night in Istanbul (especially since Esra’s family took me to eat at a restaurant on the Bosphorus waterfront, which along with a Bosphorus cruise is a must when in Istanbul). I could only feel the slightest sadness after I had already left. And even then, I still find it hard to associate anything negative with my memories of Turkey. I know I will be going back when the opportunity arises, and for that matter, I will be traveling wherever I can, because in going to other places, we learn about others and come to appreciate their ways of life: we connect.
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