(DISCLAIMER: This blog is not an official Fulbright Program blog; the views expressed are my own and not those of the Fulbright Program, the U.S. Department of State or any of its partner organizations.)

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

"We are the center of the world," our restaurant manager declared to us, "and the whole world comes here to Istanbul." He began to address passing tourists in the crowded lane next to our table, in Arabic to four young women covered in brightly colored head scarves who blushed at being addressed and hurried on, in German to passing tourists in shorts, black knee socks, bucket hats and cameras, in English to a group of college students, again in Arabic to two men in galabiyya, the traditional Arab garment (then sotto voce to us, "There goes Osama bin Laden!"). When he spoke to a passing black man, "Hello, African!" the man gave a sharp retort, "Don't tell me who I am! You don't know who I am! I am Nigerian, not African! I am who I am; you don't know who I am." The Turk quickly replied with a submissive apology smoothing over the exchange.
This Turkish man was proficient in language and extraverting skills that will take him far in the tourism industry. Elsewhere in Istanbul, you are assaulted with less skilled pitchmen hawking their restaurant, carpet shop, or souvenir shop, "Excuse me! Excuse me! Excuse me!" or "Where are you from? ...I have a cousin who lives there!" I was amazed to find how many Turkish relatives are living in Helotes and Monahans, Texas. I, like the Nigerian, often objected at being verbally accosted, the hawker was quick to smooth over the exchange, "I'm sorry, sir; I meant no harm. I just wanted to show you the most beautiful [tourist crap] in Istanbul." But outside the tourist areas, Turks are eager to be helpful.
When we walked the ancient walls of Constantinople, we met a older man outside the only store in the neighborhood, "I was watching you walk here, and you look like you would want something to drink. Come in. What do you want?" He was not the shop keeper, just someone from the neighborhood whose hospitality made us feel welcome. I also felt some relief to know that someone was watching us, because we had been walking among more burkas and galabiyyas than we had ever before, clearly one of the few tourists that venture into that neighborhood. He told us about what a beautiful ride the nearby ferry provides to take us back to the more trafficked area of town.
    Turks are proud of their country. Cami's Turkish friend from Duke wanted to show us the best of Istanbul outside the typical tourist attractions. We got an overview of all the historic sites in Turkey at a children's park with over 100 scale models of historic sites. Where else could we see the Halikarnas Mausoleum of Mugla, one of the ancient seven wonders of the world, and the Sumela Monastery, six stories carved in rock inside a mountain cave, both located near the borders with Iraq. Our host showed us the best traditional foods (grilled mixed meats over bulger wheat pilaf; boza, a fermented wheat pudding--Yumm!; seven types of baklava from the best baklava maker; and the traditional Turkish liquor Raki--"you only really know someone after you have shared Raki together") and the best traditional music. Our host also wanted us to see modern Istanbul, taking us to the financial district to see Kanyon, the futuristic multi-functional mall, condo and office complex.
   Istanbul has the best people watching in the world. Part of what makes people watching so interesting here is the mix of the familiar and the strange [to us]. This morning outside the local Starbucks, a dozen high school girls gathered for coffee and smokes before school, all dressed in the latest named fashions, with fashionably named handbags. The other end of the spectrum were the teenaged girls in black burquas with only their fashionable eye glasses and colored Converse hightopped shoes showing to the world. The less conservative Muslim women wear colorful head scarves with matching accessories. The men span the fashion spectrum as well, from the stylishly casual to some wearing the galabiyya and taqiyah, traditional Arab garments.
    So what does Istanbul have to do with Romania? Well, Romania was under Ottoman rule during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. This was the occasion for the most famous historical Romanian, Vlad III, prince of Wallachia, known to the Western world as the fictional Count Dracula. Many Romanian words are similar to their Turkish counterpart, reflecting a century of Ottoman rule. More currently, Romania is equally distant from modern economic powerhouses, Russia, Germany and Turkey. Romania is linked to the German economy through EU membership, to Russia though oil and gas, but the Turkish economy, growing at 11% per year, must be a magnet for Romanian commerce.

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