Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Turkey, Part II

A mosque seen through the bougainvillea near Kalkan,
on the Mediterranean coast.

Dearest blog readers,
For those of you who have popped your heads in here in the hope of some interior decorating inspiration, I am afraid you might be a little disappointed. I here continue my side-stepping form my normal blog themes, and devote one more blog entry to Turkey and my experience of living there for a year, six years ago. Only a few photos of our year will appear here, as the majority of all our photos then were taken with a non-digital camera...

View from our kitchen window, facing away from the centre of town.

The first thing that struck me, despite always having been quite good at geography, was how I had not realised just how vast a country Turkey is. The fact that it extends over two continents, and that the divide Europe/Asia goes straight through Istanbul, becomes quite apparent when living in this colourful culture for a while. The further East you go, the more Middle-Eastern or Asian it feels, and the poverty in the far East of Turkey is very remote - in every sense of the word - from the extravagant and modern hotels and shops in the capital and, perhaps even more so, in Istanbul. And the primitive living conditions in the East equally far from the mod cons of the big cities in the west, with Starbucks coffee shops just around the corner...

On the whole, it is a country of contrasts. My partner's employer put us up in a modern flat in the fashionable area of Ankara, where posh flats rub shoulders with most of the embassies and consulates, and the living is easy... However, anyone desiring a reality check only had to venture two blocks away, to see shacks with roofs made of corrugated iron, horse and cart outside, and - if one happened to travel through the area at the end of the Ramadan - goats' throats being slit in the street and the blood running in little streams into the gutter (at least I think that was at the end of the Ramadan, if my memory serves me right, and if I am wrong, please forgive me, any Muslim readers).

As with every encounter with people and areas of the world financially less fortunate than my own little spot in the universe, this is a very humbling experience. And from humble, - feeling embarrassed and slightly nauseated at my own - in comparison - good fortune is only a short step away... However, the Turks I met, regardless of wealth, never reinforced those negative feelings. Instead they were gracious and incredibly friendly, especially when hearing my staggering efforts to speak Turkish.

I had, of course, heard about the Turks' fondness of children, but never could I have guessed just how child-friendly they are! Having a 10-month-old, blondish boy with blue eyes on my arm did perhaps help, as these looks are considered beautiful and exotic to the Turks. Both my son and I soon learned that it was not to be considered unusual for him to be picked up by the nearest member of staff, as I walked through the door to shop, and passed around between every person working in the shop (goochie-goochie-gooing him), while I carried on with my browsing, and ten-fifteen minutes later be handed back to me as I was ready to go.

This would be true for walking down the street too, where young or old, man or woman, would cuddle my son and lift him up. To me, one of the most memorable moments was when I at one time was struggling with some bulky food shopping bags, and my son ran far ahead of me in a crowded shopping centre, right in between the lanky legs of four tall teenage boys. In many other cultures, these ultra-cool teenagers with trendy jeans - baggy in all the right places-, would have been far too "cool" to pay any attention to this little one-year-old making them nearly trip over him. Not here. With big, warm smiles, these four boys gently picked him up, gave him a cuddle, tickled him a little and looked around to see where his parents might be, to make sure he was not lost in the crowds. It was a very touched mother who was handed her son by these lovely young men. Being macho means very different things in different cultures...

Needless to say, my son was incredibly confused when later, back in Sweden, he tried to make eye contact with the other people in the queue at the supermarket, with zero result... "Outbound" and "inbound" culture shocks...

Ulus, the old town area in Ankara.

Ankara is not famous for its beauty, and it is not surprising, perhaps, that the only tourists there are travellers passing through to renew their visas or passports, and stray business men and women having a few hours to kill before their return flight after a business meeting. However, after the initial oh-why-could-we-not-have-been-offered-a-job-in-pretty-Istanbul-moan had settled, we discovered that to live, Ankara is actually possibly preferable. Instead of eleven million crazy car drivers, we only had no navigate around four million, instead of constantly being harassed by shop vendors who would not take no for an answer, we were soon recognized by the shop owners in the old town of Ankara, and instead offered to browse in peace and a glass of Turkish tea to accompany the browsing! And if we did not decide to buy, no hard feelings, they knew I would soon be back. And there are pretty areas of Ankara, do not get me wrong, just perhaps not in as much abundance as some other parts of Turkey.

My favourite part of town was Ulus, the old part of Ankara, with certain parts more run down and much scruffier than the modern area around the Sheraton Hotel further north. But so much more genuine, more interesting, friendlier. This is where I got my fabrics, my ribbons, my craft material and my son's clothes. This is also where the food and vegetable market would delight my partner and horrify me in equal measure, as it displayed sheeps' heads and other supposedly edible animal anatomy of which I will spare you the names and details. Let's just say they are rarely seen on a Swedish smorgosbord...

Above and below: The big mosque in Ankara.

Someone once described Turkey's religion to me as "Islam Light". Even though the statistics point to 98,8 % of the population being Muslim, many would claim a lot of the people are fairly liberal compared to some of their neighbouring countries. Very rarely did I see women wearing burkas (an all-enveloping cloak where only the eyes are -sometimes -visible), and in the bigger cities, many women did not even wear head scarves, unless they were entering a mosque.

However, religion is omnipresent and this was my first experience living in a Muslim culture. The minarets (the tall spires on the mosques) calling out the prayers five times a day soon became a pleasantly recognized "noise" for us (even though the echo across the valley of nine different minarets calling out the dawn prayer took some getting used to...), the mosques - beautiful, interesting, peaceful and spiritual places to visit, and - to some ham-loving expats - a painful lack of pork meat in the supermarket... Lucky for me, I am not a porky kind of girl, but happily attacked the giant peaches, the gorgeous fresh vegetables and everything else that the fabulous Turkish cuisine has to offer. More importantly, though, was of course to learn from some Turkish friends in what ways their religion affects their lives, traditions, thoughts and values, and by doing so, to learn more about myself and the values that guide my thoughts and actions.

Above: Istanbul, The Blue Mosque, or as it is called in Turkey: Sultan Ahmet Camii.

Above: Istanbul: Rüstem Pasa Camii, near the Spice Bazaar. Seems to be quite unknown to tourists (as opposed to the Blue Mosque, which is over-crowded by hoards of tourists) and with the most exquisite blue and white tiles I have ever seen. It is a stunningly beautiful mosque, very often almost empty and very peaceful, a real haven in the chaos that is Istanbul. It is hidden away and can be hard to find, but well worth searching for!

Above: A shop in the spice bazaar in Istanbul. Some serious sales arguments not impressing the by then experienced bargaining queen, i.e. me. Speaking a bit of Turkish certainly helped, as did being able to say that I lived in Ankara and therefore was no "ordinary" and potentially gullible tourist... Did I buy anything from this gesticulating vendor? No, we parted with our respective stubborn mindsets on what cushion covers should really cost...

However, in the container later shipped back to the Swenglish home - then in Sweden - were many cushions, throws, scarves and hanging lanterns from other more accommodating salesmen...

Istanbul: The underground water storage tank (70m wide, 140m long)
known as the Basilica Cistern, built in year 532.

This is quickly turning into my longest ever blog entry, and some of you readers may not even get this far (as you may have given up and gone to prepare lunch or browse other parts of Bloglandia), and as you may have guessed by now, I could go on forever to talk about this extraordinary country and people.

However, I will end here, but let me just say that I am aware of there being things in Turkey that are not as rose-tinted as my enthusiastic admiration hymn hints here, and I am fully aware that there are for examples political issues that certainly need to be dealt with, people treated in a less than desirable manner, and both social and political difficulties in eastern Turkey. I have chosen not to talk about that here, focusing instead on the beauty of a culture that has, as I wrote a few days ago, left a big heart-shaped imprint on my global soul...

I have also spoken in generalising terms of 72 million people, which of course is impossible, as they are all individuals and some of whom would perhaps not recognize the portrait I have painted here. I have however tried to share my experience of the Turks that I have met, and I hope my words carry the fondness and respect I feel for them.

Iyi günler, everybody!


  1. Great again...beautiful story.........lots of hugs from me........have a great day !!

  2. Hej Helena,
    det er spændende læsning, og det åbner (mine) øjne for en helt anden del af Tyrkiet i forhold til hvad vi ellers ser og hører om. Måske aligevel et besøg værd?
    Mange hilsener, Anette (Tante Tulle)

  3. Vilken otroligt spännande erfarenhet att få bo i ett land med en helt annan kultur och religion! En personlig och vacker beskrivning! Har själv aldrig varit där, men nu blir jag verkligen frestad.
    Bilderna är sagolika!

  4. Hej Helena!

    Min kommentar bara försvann så jag skriver väl en gång till. ;)

    Tack för den härliga resan du tar oss med på denna morgon. Det är underbart att höra dina fantastiska skildringar av ert år i Turkiet och se dina vackert magiska bilder. Du inspirerar helena och jag får en känsla av "Tusen och en natt" och orienten som möter det sydeuropeiska. Dessutom gör din målande beskrivning att jag nästan känner dofterna, smakerna, livet och intensiteten. Men också stillheten, tystnaden och det magiska. Tack för att du delar med dig så generöst vännen! :)

    Kram Lotta

  5. Vilken härlig resa vi får följa med på.
    Spännande läsning med mycket känsla.
    Måste ha varit ett berikande år på många sätt.
    Kram Lena

  6. Interesting...it's clear we can learn from other countries and cultures!

    Hugs, Ingrid

  7. Hei! For en fin blogg du har! Jeg er ogsa utvandret Skandinav bosatt her i England. ;-)

    Veldig fint innlegg om Tyrkia. Jeg har vaert der to ganger og elsker landet. Min mann kommer fra Iran sa kulturen er veldig kjent for meg. Gleder meg til lese mere pa din blogg bade om Tyrkia og dine interior-prosjekter!
    Ha en fin dag!


  8. Hallo Helena,

    I love your new header.
    Your turkish pictures are grate,

    have a nice evening Sabine

  9. Hej!
    Spännande och intressant läsning!! Måste varit ett annorlunda och lärorikt år!

    Kram Malin

  10. Tak for turen, dejligt at få et anderledes indblik i landet.

  11. Hi Helena!! thanks for your visit and kind comment!! i was really curious about your story, how you happened to live in the cotswolds...i spent 3 dreamy days there, when i saw those villages i realized that was the place i've always dreamt about. do you like living abroad, do you ever feel homesick?? I don't know if i could live outside Italy....

    A warm hug xx

  12. Hej Helena!
    Mmm nu sitter jag här och njuter och längtar till sista Juli då det bär iväg till Marmaris. Av dina bilder får jag flash backs och kan nästan känna dofterna, rytmerna, se gesterna, känna smakerna. Jag vill dit NU!!
    Ha det// Suzan

  13. Vilken intressant läsning Helena...... Måste ha varit hur spännande som helst att bo där i ett år och få lära sig kulturen på ett helt annat sätt än genom en semester...

    Åh, förstår också att det blev en del shopping inför hemresan.......


  14. Lessen att det tog sån tid för mig att kommentera. Var tvungen att läsa hela inlägget först, och nu är jag klar. Puh! ;)

    Kan tänka mig att det var en spännande kultur upplevelse att bo där i Turkiet. Det är många ställen som är så här i USA att du kan gå på en fin gata med fint folk och alla ser ut att ha det gott ställt. Sedan behöver man bara gå några kvarter och pang bom så är man mitt i fattigdom och farliga kvarter. Att det kan vara sådana kontraster med bara några hundra meters avstånd finner jag lite förbryllande.

    Minareterna måste blivit ungefär som kyrkoklockorna här, något mysigt som man tycker om att höra. Och mosketerna måste varit en himla fin upplevelse i hantverk och konst. Ser väldigt vackert ut.

    The Spice Bazaar verkar spännande och den affären du står i ser ut att ha lite intressanta saker, till för dyrt pris. Bet you drive a hard bargain, Helena!

    Det är okay att generalisera 72 millioner människor. Jag generaliserar typ 300 miljoner dagligen. Men akta sig den som generaliserar svenskarna.

    Kram på dig Koffert Helena!

  15. Åh vad vacker den där dimmiga bilden på templet var!!! Jag vill också åka på semester!
    Hälsningar Malin

  16. Hej Helena,

    Oj det var en stor moské! Den skulle jag gärna besöka, man känner väl sig ganska liten i den kan jag tänka mig. Det blå kaklet är ju underbart! Så vackert. Jag tycker det är intressant att du visar upp en annan sida av Turkiet som vi inte får se. Tack så mycket för titten! Känner du för en avstickare snart igen så säger jag bara - varsego! ;)

    Ha en skön dag,


Dearest reader, I am sorry you have to go through the extra trouble of word verification to leave a comment here. After having received around 250 spam comments for each post recently, I have unfortunately had to add this filter.

Thank you so much for your comments!