November 7 – 15, 2015
Kyra: Turks seemed to be much more in tune with politics than in the US. We learned from host and friend Umut that Turks are given election day off. Umut himself was quite vocal about the current government and misperception that Turkey is exclusively a muslim society, which is a source of tension in the current political landscape. After chatting with him one night regarding the corruption he felt was taking place, I read a bit more background here.
How we got there
Kyra: We flew Pegasus Air into SAW airport, then took a bus (Havatas) to meet up with Emily and Umut, who graciously invited us into their home for seven nights (wow). Emily and I met on Birthright two years ago, to the day. At the time, she was living in New York and very possibly, maybe, perhaps considering moving to Istanbul to be with Umut. Since moving to Istanbul nearly a year ago, Emily has developed a profound love for and reverence of the city that is contagious. I will reference it throughout our post but she’s been documenting her adventures from culinary to cultural on her blog Istanbul Inspired.
Ben: The noteworthy item was meeting with Emily and Umut in Kadikoy, Istanbul after midnight. We didn’t have a map and didn’t speak the language, but Emily ran into us on the road halfway to our meeting point. She guessed that we had just arrived on the bus and she and Umut spotted us across the road. This was a serendipitous arrival and a preview of the following week.
Where we stayed
Kyra: As mentioned above, we stayed with Emily and Umut in Kadıköy, which is a more liberal area on the Asian side.
Ben: I believe Umut and Emily made our time in Istanbul 10x better than it would have been otherwise. Most people are happy to offer guests a place to sleep or leave their bags, but they offered so much more. From recommendations to cooking breakfast to treating us to the best Turkish cuisine, they were stellar hosts.
Kyra: At no point during our time in Turkey was I even remotely close to hungry. Emily’s blog chronicles all the new food she’s trying in Turkey and Umut is a chef for Turkish Airlines, so especially when it came to food, they spoiled us.
Kyra: Ben has been borderline obsessive about getting/making pancakes on the trip. Shortly before we arrived in Istanbul, Emily posted about Munchies, which features endless sweet and savory toppings.
Ben: We each got 4 small pancakes and I scoffed at the idea when we ordered, thinking I could pack away at least 10. After adding a myriad of toppings to each, I was silenced.
Ben: Another delicious cuisine was Iskander – it’s a plate with pita bread that has amazing thin slices of meat on top. It would be good as is, but after you’re served, they come around first with a pot of tomato sauce to pour over it, and then with a pot of melted butter. You can smell the butter from tables away and it was incredibly delicious. Pair it with Ayran, a salty, yoghurt-like drink, and you get a result that changes your taste buds.
Turkish Breakfast and Simit
Kyra: Our Turkish breakfasts included fried eggs with Sujuk (spicy sausage), an assortment of cheeses and olives, cucumbers, tomatoes, Simit (Turkish version of a bagel), and tea.
Kyra: Ben and I grew particularly fond of the Turkish version of string cheese, Cecil Peyniri, one of the many cheeses on display for breakfast.
Kyra: Until Turkey, we hadn’t bought any souvenirs, but then Emily showed us Kofte spice (similar to five spice). Kofte are most commonly referred to as Turkish meatballs and are served with Ezme, a spicy red-pepper sauce. When I last visited Turkey, my friend Natalie and I ate it by the spoonful any time we could get our hands on it and have longingly reminisced about in the years following.
Kyra: One night, Emily made us chicken with kofte spice that was completely unreal. The meat was accompanied by a garlicky yogurt sauce and salad (with the only dressing Turks use: lemon and olive oil).
Ben: I could’ve eaten just the dressing with a side of lettuce for the entire meal – it was that good.
Kyra: As if the chicken Emily made us wasn’t enough, she also brought home four types of Baklava for us to try.
Kyra: On Princes’ Island, we tried our first Turkish ice cream, which is made with mastic for elasticity.
Ben: This ice cream (and its servers) are famous for tricking people used to non-elastic ice cream:
A couple other staples:
Kyra: Emily lamented Anthony Bourdain’s description of Lahmacun as Turkish pizza, instead referencing Pide as Turkey’s closest cousin to pizza. In the name of sound science, we tested both and soundly agree with Emily’s stance. While both are typically cooked in a wood-fire oven, but the cheese and toppings on pide make it more similar to pizza.
Kyra: Emily put it quite aptly, Turks are teaholics. I had a strong memory of apple tea from my first visit to Turkey, but Emily told us that for the most part, only tourist drink apple tea. Nevertheless, all Turks drink tea, or “chi,” essentially perpetually throughout the day.
Ben: As we walked through the Grand Bazaar, it seemed that many of the vendors had a “tea guy.” Many tea-laden young men would just go from shop to shop, dropping off teas but never collecting money. Emily explained that they more than likely paid monthly because of how many teas they ordered.
Kyra: Historically, a good Turkish wife was supposed to be able to make Monti, or Turkish dumplings, that were small enough to fit 40 in her hand.
Our Last Supper
Kyra: For our last meal all together, we went to a Raku place. While deciding where to go, the four of us were talking in front of a fish stand. Umut said, “let’s go to a place behind the fish stand,” but none of us realized he literally meant behind the stand. They bring over a tray of dozens of little dishes that you pick from then a bottle – or two – of Raku is split between the table.
Kyra: Umut ate the whole fish, including the head, but kindly taught us how to pop the head off and debone them.
Kyra: At one point, a man selling fresh almonds on ice wandered through the restaurant. I have become an almond elitist now that I know fresh almonds are so phenomenal.
Local View and Lessons Learned
Kyra: Turks are unbelievably gracious hosts. Umut was legitimately upset when we told him we would be staying at a hotel close to the airport the night before our flight. After over a week on their couch he was more than willing to host us for more nights.
Ben: To reiterate, Emily and Umut were the most gracious hosts of our trip. I was repeatedly astounded at what they would offer and even how it was a challenge to convince them of something that we said we didn’t need 🙂
Kyra: Randomly we kept seeing men with loads of little red dots on their scalps or beard areas. We asked Umut and he said hair transplants are decently common. My friend Sarah McGivern, who did a Fullbright in Istanbul for a year, once told me that in her experience Turks care quite about hair, but I wasn’t prepared for such drastic measures.
Ben: Every morning, Simit was sold by men carrying it on their heads while walking up and down the street. Each had a distinct call which Emily and Umut could recognize from blocks away. When they heard their preferred vendor, they would open the window and wave, signaling the Simit salesman to come over and raise the basket over his head for them to grab as many Simit as they liked. This was a staple of our breakfasts with them and I already miss it.
Cats and Dogs
Kyra: Emily told us that each year Istanbul has 150,000 stray cats and dogs. What’s more impressive than that, is that the animals are occasionally fed, clipped, left to sleep, and petted by the people of Istanbul. Walking down the street, it is not uncommon to see a box set up as a cat house or food left out on the sidewalk for strays.
Ben: The best part about the stray dogs on their street was that they would try to “protect” the street in the morning. Cars would sit on the road outside the apartment window and honk at the dog in the middle of the street until the dog stopped barking and moved along. It was a morning exercise of sorts and by each afternoon the dogs had found warm cars to nestle on or under.
Kyra: The percent of a city that is occupied by parks and green spaces has played an increasingly prominent role in Urban Planning in recent years. Governments selling off common, green space to developers without public consultation is also an issue we heard about in Belgrade. Similarly, Istanbul has unfortunately also experienced issues with rapid development and building density driving out parks. To combat the trend, citizens of Istanbul have protested in Gehzi Park and painted park stairs across town rainbow, admonishing the rapidly disappearing land that makes their city beautiful and communal.
Kyra: Apparently for women, going into public with wet hair means you just got laid.
Kyra: Not once during our week in Istanbul did we see a female server or hostess. Men hold a number of positions in Istanbul that society has typically designated to women in the U.S., such as hairdresser and seamstress.
Kyra: At age 18, military involvement becomes mandatory for all Turkish men. It can be deferred due to school but you may be denied a job if you haven’t completed your obligation.
TV and Movies
Kyra: There is no Netflix in Turkey. This isn’t necessarily uncommon in foreign countries, but what makes Turkey unique is the reasoning behind why Netflix is banned: all alcohol and cigarettes must be blurred out on screen.
Ben: Kyra and I have been using a VPN to access such things and spent about 45 minutes trying to get this to work on Umut’s TV…no luck.
Kyra: Slippers are to be worn in Turkish homes. My feet were too small for Emily and Umut’s slippers so I wore socks instead…
Ben: Kyra’s feet were also too small for my flip flops:
Emily and Umut
Kyra: Ben and I loved staying with Emily and Umut. For the first half of our week while Umut was gone, Emily played perfect host and guide. It was eminently clear that she had put a lot of thought and effort into making sure our stay was truly Turkish and not touristy. One of the best parts of visiting someone who is a new transplant to a country is that they remember what distinguishes their new home from their old one.
Kyra: Our first day, Emily showed us around the neighborhood.
Kyra: We visited Dürümcü Emmi, a restaurant that specializes in food from Gaziantep, a town in Turkey, twice. Maybe my favorite meals of the trip were had there. The restaurant is open 24 hours a day, which I absolutely couldn’t believe. On our second visit, I kept asking Emily, “who the hell is getting soup at 4 in the morning?” which prompted her to check her watch and say, “Kyra, it’s four in the morning.” On that visit, we got a healthy dose of Turkish hospitality from Umut’s coworker, Mehmet Ali, who is from Gaziantep and treated us to our meal. Both Ben and I were unimaginably full, yet portions of dessert and coffee were pushed our way endlessly.
Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, and Spice Market
The Grand Bazaar
The Spice Market
Kyra: I am so incredibly grateful to Emily for not only teaching us how to use the ferry, but for insisting we use it in the first place.
Kyra: One night at drinks, Emily and Umut asked us to describe the difference between where Ben grew up, Plymouth, and where I grew up, Golden Valley. For a brief period of time, my parents lived in Plymouth, and have often relayed the popularity of Bridge to me. I was mentioning that fact and mistakenly said “backgammon” instead. “What’s wrong with backgammon!? Backgammon is great” Umut countered. “I meant Bridge! Bridge! Sorry,” I tried to backtrack. Despite my best attempts to move on, Umut’s passion for backgammon required that he reaffirm his support for the game periodically for a number of minutes following the incident. Umut certainly is not alone in his unwavering admiration of the game – men playing Backgammon can be spotted along most streets, in restaurants, and backgammon halls throughout Istanbul
Kyra: No idea why or where this came from but we saw a lot of teenage boys doing photo shoots with one another.