Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Observations on Istanbul

Omnipresent Atatürk

The much beloved father figure of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, is everywhere. It is pretty creepy because in many of his bronze sculptures he looks like a vampire about to sweep in and suck your blood.

In others, he just looks like a benign Grandpa Munster.


Like a modern day Cincinattus, Mustafa Kemal is credited as the man who could have turned Turkey into his own personal fiefdom, but instead relinquished personal power in favour of modernising and democratizing the nation. He chose the less trodden path at the same time that Germany, Italy and the Soviet Union were all opting for totalitarianism as the way forward. As such, he is a revered figure, and rightly so. Every politician who comes after him is just that- a politician, an elected flunky. Mustafa Kemal was a commander, a war hero, a patriot, a reformer, a statesman, and a leader.

His image is on Lira notes and coins, in plazas, parks and squares, and his portrait hangs in every room in which government or education work is done, including every classroom. To the casual observer, the Turks seem to have deified him, in the manner of a dead pharaoh. His presence is made all the more conspicuous by the lack of any other represented historical figure. I can’t think of a more worthy kind of individual for this kind of treatment, honestly, but it’s still a bit creepy.


Baklava is strong evidence that that there is an Allah and he wants us to be happy. In Istanbul you can get this sticky, honey-sweet pastry treat just about anywhere. It is inexpensive, fattening and tastes fantastic. There are lots of different types of baklava over here, many of them making use of the excellent nuts the Turks produce in massive quantities: walnut baklava and pistachio baklava are excellent, there is also crushed peanut baklava, chocolate baklava, cashew baklava. My favourite is sütlu baklava, a very moist type of baklava made from honey, milk and almonds. It is good as dessert, or afternoon tea. Or breakfast. You can eat baklava for breakfast. There is nothing wrong with eating baklava for breakfast. No one can tell you not to eat baklava for breakfast. No one.

Soooo Turkish!

Yesterday I was doing a writing exercise with my students, where they wrote a paragraph about themselves in English. The theme was travel and holidays, so I gave them a mock-up application form to “Balmy Holiday Club” to complete, in order to get them thinking on the topic. It had questions on it about where you might like to go on holiday, what foods you liked, and so forth.

One of my teenagers, Mehmet, was the first to start distracting other students. “Are you finished Mehmet?” I asked. “Yes, teacher!” came the enthusiastic reply. I looked over his work.

“So, Mehmet, you are saying that you aren’t interested in going to Greece, or Italy, or China, or America, or any other country? You would only like to travel in Turkey?”

“Yes, teacher, only Turkey! I only go Turkish!”

“And you don’t like Chinese food, or Italian food, or French food or British food or Japanese food. You don't like food from anywhere but Turkey?”

“No teacher! I am Turkish! I like Shish kebap. I like Adana Kebap. Only Turkish food!”

"What's the best country in the world, Mehmet?"


I went on to show them a map of the many countries that Alix and I have travelled to. They were mildly interested. Then I showed them a postcard I got from Gallipoli when we went there. There were gasps of appreciation and the students suddenly lit up with inner light and joy.

Sooooo Turkish...

Turkish globe of planet Earth. Turkey is in the middle of the light blue bit. There are a few countries that border Turkey, and the vast dark blue part is vaguely known as 'over there somewhere...'.


The mosques and other historical buildings that grace the city skyline are truly beautiful here. I call them the ‘giant spiders’; with their bulbous domes and tall spires they remind me of gigantic huntsman spiders crouching all over the city. They are very nice to look at.


When we first arrived here, we felt like we had arrived somewhere quite special. Now that the weather has turned to a nice hot summer, it positively sparkles.

The Bosphorus is a beautiful waterway, and the entire harbour area is very pretty to look at. Every day, fishermen throw their lines over the Golden Horn Bridge to spend a day fishing for sardines.

Every day I catch the minibus to work. I look out the window to my left, see the Bosphorus, and it is wonderful to be in Istanbul.

Aya Sofya, from the rooftop bar of the Ambassador hotel (thanks Denise and John!)


Turkish food. Food, food, food. Bloody good food. The Turks absolutely love kebabs and anything barbecued or grilled. It’s not just the Turks that have migrated who have taken their passion for meat-on-a-stick fast food with them. It seems like all Turks, especially Turkish men, love to eat meat, and I can really relate to that.

Thankfully, the food is also very well-rounded. Turkish food includes lots of good salads, and they eat lots of good, freshly baked bread. The fresh produce available is Istanbul is abundant, cheap and largely organic. In colder weather there are meat and bean stews served with rice that are quite tasty. Of course there is Turkish Pide, the most popular type is the ubiquitous and tasty mince meat pizza they call Lahmacun, which I prefer to Italian-style Pizza any day. Gozleme, Turkish savoury crepes, make an inexpensive and excellent lunch.

Turkish seafood is really good, they eat lots of high quality fish and shellfish. By Aussie standards everything is very reasonably priced.

As well as baklava, which I can’t get enough of, the Turks do some really nice traditional custard/ rice pudding desserts and of course, then there is lokum- Turkish delight, which you can get in myriad colours and flavours.

The large cylindrical delights on the top shelf are called "doner delights" because of their shape. Like doner kebabs, they slice ribbons of tasty goodness off them with a knife

Why can’t you walk straight?

It must be in the DNA or something. After months of trying to figure it out I have pretty much given up. I do not and perhaps never will, understand why Turks can’t walk down the street properly.

First, let me describe ‘properly’ for you. Let’s say the footpath (that’s a ‘sidewalk’ to you Seppo types out there) is wide enough for four people. That means two people walking side by side in one direction, and two people walking side by side in the other. Your group of four need not walk four abreast in the middle of the footpath. Walk two abreast and leave room for people coming the other way, for the love of Allah!

Because you drive on the right hand side of the road over here, try walking on the right side as well. When you are passing the people coming the other way, you just walk straight past them, not directly at them. Why walk at people coming the other way? Why weave aimlessly from one side of the footpath to the other?

If you decide you need to go into a shop, drift over to the side out of the mainstream of traffic, then step inside. Why would you stop dead, blocking everyone else on the footpath, then do a direct 90-degree angle turn and push past people to go inside? Why would all four of you stop abruptly to have a conversation in the middle of the footpath? Why, when you can see someone else is going to occupy a physical space in a nano-second’s time, would you step out randomly in front of them as if they aren’t actually there? What the hell is wrong with you people? I’m talking about walking! You’ve been doing it your whole life! Why is it so bloody difficult for you!?


Maybe because no one seems capable of walking properly, the transport around Istanbul is excellent. It puts any city in Australia to shame. First, it is cheap. You can buy a token for a buck and go anywhere you like. Travel passes and whatnot are even cheaper. Secondly, it is fully integrated. The same travel pass will get you on a bus, a tram, a train, a funicular or a ferry to anywhere you need to go. Thirdly, it never stops. You can get to anywhere, from anywhere, at any time.

This little magnetic thingamabob is called an Akbil. You charge it with credit and swipe it to catch the bus, or ferry or train, or whatever. Terrifically convenient.


Before we settled on Istanbul, Alix and I were tossing up where to settle and teach English. It could have been Egypt, or anywhere in the Middle East, or further east, deeper into Asia. One 'pull factor' was the oil money on the Arabian peninsula.

One of my students, Fikret, said to me, in his upper-beginner level English: “Saudi Arabia very good for money, very bad for life. Istanbul, ‘so-so’ for money but very wonderful life!” I think he had it right. On my street, I know almost everyone, and I have lived here only a few months. The prevailing wisdom is that nothing serious should ever be done without a nice cup of tea served in a tulip-shaped glass and a long chat, if you can spare the time. Tea is served with every social event, no matter how small. A cup of tea, a waterpipe, a game or two of backgammon, lots of handshakes, and a few kebabs. It is a generous way of life. Have some baklava while you are at it. I did tell you about the baklava, right?

Our landlord, Tamar, drinks a glass of tea at the shop where I get my lunch kebabs. It is next door to our apartment, 2 seconds walk from our front door.

The baker across the street who sells us fresh bread every day. His shop is 10 seconds walk away.

The barber up the road who cut my hair. A haircut is typically a two-glasses-of-tea and life story type appointment. His salon is 15 seconds away.


  1. I really love Istanbul. and these pics are remind me this great place.

    1. Likewise! Istanbul is a great place too. I like how you describe the place and it's history. Keep going :)

      Hotel Istanbul

  2. Hey, that's my baker too :) I can't believe you were living just around the corner from us (or maybe on the same street) and I didn't get to thank you for resident's visa blog in person. Well, thank you- I also know at least 3 other people who have benefited from it!

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  4. "for the love of Allah!"
    Nice Turkification haha.

    I take it you talked a little bit about Gallipoli with your class, back when you showed them the postcard? What did you think of their response?

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