What do you do when after a year of pandemic you still cannot travel? You read of course! I’ve had this book on my shelves for a few months, if not a year, saving it for the dark hour that I knew would come. And when it did, this book was a glorious read.
I read Istanbul by Agata Wielgołaska two years ago and had mixed feelings about the book, but the cooperation of the authors on this one definitely worked better. Or I was so starved of reading about foreign places 😉
It is a guide to Turkey, but not a traditional one. There are no descriptions here of places to see or beaches you must visit. It is a guide to a country and a nation written by two expats, who consciously chose Turkey as their place in the world. One of the authors lives in Istanbul, the other in Alanya. Their goal is to show us the country a little bit more in-depth than any two-weeks vacation can.
They write about many facets of life in Turkey, starting with love, through work, religion, politics, and travel. They share anecdotes about mishaps that they had before they learned their lesson, but also take on common myths and misconceptions about Turkey.
Is it an objective account? No, absolutely not. Both authors are in love with the country and while they make an effort to give us an objective account it is still impacted, by their situation. And there is nothing wrong with that. The writing is engaging, the material they selected allows us to find out more about the forces shaping the ‘national Turkish personality’.
I won’t try to squeeze all their observations here, but I will mention three that I found interesting. Starting with how Turkish people think about dogs. Because it is shocking to a westerner – in Turkey dogs are not liked. In Islam, they are considered dirty animals, and in secular Turkey, they are considered loud and dangerous. Many people in Turkey actually fear dogs, and if you’d like to live there and take one, be prepared to obtain your neighbor’s approval beforehand.
The second thing that was interesting was the stark warning repeated multiple times about falling in love with Turkish men while on vacation. Given that both author’s at some point worked, or still work, in tourism it is certainly based on direct observation. Turkish men are very gallant, they will make a foreign tourist feel like a princess, but we have to remember this is all a game. And maybe it is a typically Polish trait as the author’s Turkish friend noted that ‘Polish women fall in love instantly’. So I think the repeated warnings are well justified.
The third thing and the most interesting in my opinion is about society and politics. Turkey is often called the bridge between the east and the west. And the bridge idea assumes the connecting point. But it is not as peaceful as we’d like to think. Being a bridge comes at a cost. Trying to connect the eastern and western values systems is never frictionless. So while Turkey has the benefit of knowing and experiencing both it also bears the cost of certain schizophrenia, caused by trying to live by two opposing values systems. A nation valuing community over individuality, but yet endlessly striving to join the EU, where the individual is king. It is a society torn, in small daily ways, but also in big dangerous ones too, by two opposing forces. Do we want to be western? Or are we proud of our origins and inheritance and want to keep it? Why cannot we be both?
It is a fascinating dilemma, in theory, sadly in Turkey, it happens in practice, daily. Impacting people’s lives, their safety, excluding or including them. Putting the nation at war with itself. Trying to reconcile differences that simply just cannot be solved.
I started reading Snow by Orhan Pamuk right after this book, and it is a beautiful literary exploration of exactly that dilemma and how it plays out.
I’m sure there’s a ton of books about Turkey in English, that provide you a similar depth of information, but this one was certainly fun for me to read. Taking me back to the time when the biggest problem while traveling was to have my passport and be on time.
Photo by Violetta Kaszubowska