“It’s up to the guest when they arrive, but it’s up to the host when they leave.” In a culture where hosting guests is a great honour, your host doesn’t let you out of the house that easily. On an evening visit, following dinner, tea, and sweets, the emergence of the fruit plates is the earliest sign that it might be appropriate to start taking your leave — but you’re sure to begin this process long before you hope to make it out the door. The intricate dance of “farewelling” begins with the guest saying Yavaş yavaş kalkalım — “Slowly slowly let’s get up to leave.” This will inevitably be met with “Oh, but how nicely we were sitting!” or, even in the dead of winter, “But we were going to cut a watermelon!” meaning, “The night is young — stick around a while longer!” After the back-and-forthing of excuses and pleas (and perhaps a cup of Turkish coffee and another half hour of conversation), your host will show you to the door, where your shoes will have already been arranged for slipping on. With the ensuing cheek-kissing and requests that you come again soon will come profuse apologies for anything that was missing or unsatisfactory in your visit. If you’re going on a long journey, or your hosts won’t be seeing you again for a long time, they’ll bid you Su gibi git, su gibi gel — “Go like water, return like water.” And toss a pitcher of water after you to wish you a smooth journey.
If your only experience with Turkish delight is Cadbury’s “Big Turk” chocolate bar and that soapy rose-flavoured stuff Brits eat at Christmas, you’re in for a treat. Truth: Fresh Turkish delight is like biting into a sweet, gummy cloud. Lokum comes in a variety of flavours, like double-roasted pistachio, pomegranate, lemon, and mint, and is usually coated in icing sugar or coconut. Some cities have their own local specialties — like the clotted cream with chocolate chip in Afyon and the saffron in Safranbolu. Even Starbucks has its own twist on the traditional, with chocolate-covered coffee flavoured lokum — little cubes of caffeinated happiness.
“Veggies for breakfast” took a bit of getting used to, but elaborate kahvaltı spreads quickly became one of your favorite aspects of Turkish culture. Cucumbers, tomatoes, briny olives, eggs, several types of cheese, and a generous helping of fresh bread are staples on every breakfast table. And of course, çay. Cup upon tiny cup of piping hot çay. Pansiyons and hotels often include local jams, fresh fruit, börek (a kugel-like pastry filled with cheese or spinach), Nutella, and tahin pekmez (a mixture of tahini and grape or mulberry molasses) for spreading on your bread. Many restaurants, often located in the forest or countryside, serving köy kahvaltısı (village breakfast) expand the menu further to include offerings like hot, buttery, giant English-muffin-like bazlama and sucuklu yumurta (fried eggs with sausage.)
Turks have no trouble finding an excuse to dance, anytime, anywhere. Versions of the halay — the Anatolian “line dance” involving linked pinkies and grapevine steps — varies from place to place, but the dance is a universally accepted response to any joyous event. News of a baby being born, a goal scored by one’s football team, or an election victory is reason enough to grab a friend and bust out in a jig. In the northeastern province of Trabzon, it’s common to see a whole carload of people pull over and break out in the horon on the side of the road for the sheer joy of having returned to their hometown after a long absence. While in Istanbul, you’ve probably spent an evening watching live Black Sea music and traditional dancing at one of the many folk bars around the city. How easy it was to just a grab a pinkie and join in.
Europe to Asia in four minutes flat? Sure, that’s impressive. But what the Marmaray, Istanbul’s two-year-old Metro line connecting the two shores of the Bosphorus, offers in convenience can never replace the wind in your hair and the magical feeling of sailing past the Maiden’s Tower, the Hagia Sophia, and Topkapı Palace as you make the intercontinental journey. Whether you’re headed to Kadıköy for a stroll through the Fishermen’s Market, up to Beşiktaş to watch the sunset from Ortaköy, or over to the Prince Islands for a day of bike riding and a horse-drawn carriage tour, you grab a seat outside and inhale the salty sea air and the view of the Imperial City.
Your first experience with the alcohol-based kolonya was probably after a meal at a kebap restaurant, when the waiter poured enough into your hands to take a bath in. Lemon kolonya is also offered as a way to refresh upon arrival, and is a staple of Ramadan Festival and Sacrifice Festival house visits. But the uses for the miracle-liquid extend far beyond cleaning grimy hands and faces. A whiff is guaranteed to revive someone who’s fainted. A good dousing will freshen up a greasy head of hair. Slather it on a stain on a wooden table and (no joke) light it on fire — that stain will vanish before your eyes. You might even notice it sprayed into the air vents and generously sprinkled on the aisle floor by the attendant on a long-distance bus ride — an olfactory relief during a hot summer journey.
Turkish barbers take the meaning of “close shave” to a whole new level. Tell any barber you want a sakal tıraşı. Using a horsehair brush and a bar of soap, he’ll whip up enough lather to make you look like St. Nick (who, by the way, was born in Turkey.) With a sharp, straight blade, he’ll masterfully rid your cheeks of unwanted whiskers, then rinse and repeat. After he’s trimmed the hair around your ears and neck, the real fun begins. The barber will douse a wire swab with cotton on the end in flammable fluid and light it on fire. This is not some form of medieval torture — he’s only out to singe every last rogue hair off your cheeks and neck. Once he’s waved the flame around your face to his satisfaction, he’ll do the same for your ear hair. (And, if it’s particularly jungle-like in there, he may also resort to waxing.) Then, after he’s trimmed your nose hairs, he’ll give you a good rub-down with lemon cologne, which will leave you momentarily feeling like your face really is on fire. Before you have a chance to cuss the barber out, he’ll have followed up with soothing lotion and a relaxing face massage to make up for the pain he’s inflicted. For good measure, he’ll throw a steamer cloth over your head and let you marinate in there for a bit before washing and blow-drying your hair. And voila! Skin as smooth as a Turkish baby’s butt. Don’t forget to leave a few lira tip.
How would you like to face the word muvaffakiyetsizleştiricileştiriveremeyebileceklerimizdenmişsinizcesine in a spelling bee? Turkish is an agglutinative language, meaning that rather than wasting time pressing the space bar, Turks just stuff suffix after suffix into their already hefty words — making them Scrabble rock stars. Maybe the above example is a tad exaggerated, but in everyday conversation you’ve come across temizlettiremeyecekmişsiniz, which means “apparently you aren’t going to be able to have it cleaned.”
One buzz of the intercom is all it takes for the neighbourhood çay guy to show up at any shop or office with a tray of steaming hot tea in thin-waisted “tulip glasses.” Offered to customers and guests, it’s the lubricant of choice for both business transactions and gossiping tongues. It’s what wakes Turks up in the morning, keeps them talking late into the night, and brings them together every hour in between. Çay is supposed to be the colour of tavşan kanı — rabbit’s blood — and is served straight or with sugar. No cream. No pinkies. Just Turkish hospitality in liquid form. You’ve learned that when you sit down in a carpet shop and the guy spinning the “flying carpets” asks if you’d like some çay while you browse, you should skip the apple tea (which Turks jokingly refer to as “tourist çay”) and tell him you want “tavşan kanı.”
As cheap as domestic air travel is in Turkey, you miss out on all the great landscapes at 30,000 feet. Fortunately, long-distance buses offer nearly all the comforts of an airplane: reading lights, personal TVs, wifi, and an attendant who makes his rounds with a cart full of pretzels, Pop Kek (mini cream-filled cupcakes), tea, Nescafe 3-in-1s, and, if you’re lucky, little personal ice cream cups. The only thing missing, unless you’re on a luxury bus, is a toilet.
The central Anatolian region of Cappadocia (Kapadokya in Turkish) is a plateau formed of soft volcanic “tuff” rock, eroded by millennia of wind and water into conical pillars and “fairy chimneys.” Citizens of the early Roman Empire carved cave houses (many of which are now hotels), churches, and monasteries from the rock, leaving behind spectacular frescoes painted on the cave ceilings, most of which can be found in the area around Göreme. While the landscapes in Cappadocia are out of this world (hot-air balloon ride over the fairy chimneys at sunrise, anyone?), the wonders below the surface are a whole other kind of incredible. In the 7th and 8th centuries AD, locals seeking to escape invaders outwitted their would-be pursuers by digging underground cities like Derinkuyu and Kaymaklı, which are up to 13 stories deep. These cavernous hideaways, complete with animal stalls, pantries, chapels, and school rooms, could house 20,000 people. Ingenious little add-ons, like millstones used to seal off tunnel openings in the event of imminent danger, and ventilation shafts that carried smoke from cooking fires miles away from the cities so it wouldn’t give clues to their location, enabled whole communities to safely carry on with business as usual for up to a year. Istanbul has its own subterranean world, which is well worth exploring. Emperor Justinian’s sprawling underground Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarayı) in Sultanahmet is open for tours of the ancient royal reservoir. The Binbirdirek (1001 Columns) Cistern is used as an unforgettable locale for art exhibits, gala nights, and weddings. And the Yedikule and Anemas Dungeon, located in towers in the Theodosian land walls, offer a chilling glimpse into the last home of many prisoners and out-of-favour Ottoman sultans.
If you see a throng of merrymakers making their way down the street on foot, drums beating and bride in tow, you consider it an invitation. While you wouldn’t be advised to pull up a chair at a sit-down wedding dinner in a restaurant or hotel, the attitude at village and neighbourhood weddings is “the more the merrier!” Plastic chairs in a wide circle in an empty lot, little bags of nuts and crackers for refreshments, and dozens of people dancing the halay in a long, snaking line are a sure sign that no one is checking invitations at the door. Turks are extremely hospitable and most would be honoured to have a curious foreigner join their party.
It’s said that a cup of Türk kahvesi (Turkish coffee) has a 40-year memory, meaning the sipper is indebted to the server for his kindness in offering it. Traditional coffee culture is about slow sipping and togetherness, and the shared experience is meant to seal friendships for decades to come. Old family companies like Kurukahveci Mehmet Efendi and Fazıl Bey’s have been bringing people together in kahvehanes and living rooms since the days of the Ottomans, while Osmanlı, a newer arrival on the caffeine scene, is reintroducing the coffeehouse culture for the younger generation by offering traditional Türk kahvesi in a funky café atmosphere. Coffee also plays a starring role in uniting families through engagement rituals. When the family of a potential suitor comes to ask for a girl’s hand in marriage, she prepares them Türk kahvesi as part of the two-way screening process. Not enough froth might cause her potential mother-in-law to have second thoughts, and a pinch of salt in the young man’s cup is a face-saving hint that he should look elsewhere. Southeast Turkey has its own particularly bitter brew, mırra, which is said to be “Hot as hell, as dark as the devil, as pure as an angel, as sweet as love.” In the old days, if the person drinking the mırra placed his or her cup on the table when they were done, it meant they agreed to marry the server or pay for their wedding. So, if you’re not rich or looking, you’d best keep that cup in your hands, or an engagement ring may arrive with the second round. (Though perhaps a pinch of salt would get you off the hook…)