Bosphorus Bridge by night, serving as a gateway between Europe and Asia

I’ve always wanted to come to Turkey – it seems a place out of an Agatha Christie novel as much as a real country. Steeped in history, intrigue, and delicious candies worth betraying your family over; who wouldn’t want that? Then, while attending college, I took an Islamic Art & Architecture class (with the glorious and magnificent Professor S. Aberth, one of my favorite professors EVER outside the psychology department, shout out to Bard kids reading this) that sent Turkey rocketing to my Top Three Destinations list. It assumed a vaulted position of great import, alongside Ethiopia and Iran.

And luckily so, because Istanbul has been everything I dreamed it would be, and then some.

Sipping Turkish Coffee while contemplating the domes and spires of the Hagia Sophia. Be still, my geeky travel-oriented heart.

Domed walkway in the Topkapi Palace

My earphoned Audioguide and I at an overlook of the Bosphorus Strait.

The food is excellent, the coffee plentiful – although, I’m sorry to say, still not quite as good as Ethiopia’s – the history rich, the art beautiful, and the people extraordinarily welcoming. To a fault, almost. In the United States, we really like our privacy and our personal space. I’m well aware that many, perhaps even most, cultures are more social than we. (Kenya was certainly no exception: many a PCV was troubled to discover that the response to telling someone you’re sick is to have the entire village descend on your house to visit, chat, check on you, wait to be offered tea, and offer their discursive opinions about everything you’re doing wrong in terms of your health.) But Turkey seems to have the most genuinely social people I’ve encountered in all my travels, which now exceed 30 countries.

World’s oldest love poem, written in cuneiform and displayed at the Turkish Archaeological Museum in Istanbul.

I arrived in Istanbul near sundown on an ordinary weekday, and as my taxi wound its way through traffic towards my hotel, I found myself enchanted by the site of hundreds of people happily throwing down elaborate rugs to picnic. Every green space, every park, every patch of bare ground along the Bosphorus had been claimed: families, couples, endless groups of friends. Even sidewalks weren’t safe from revelers. It gave the air of having stumbled upon a very large street festival in the process of engulfing the whole city. I commented on this to the taxi driver and was told that this isn’t merely the result of Ramadan restrictions; year-round, people will take every opportunity they can to sprawl in the outdoors with a hamper full of Turkish treats, or gather around family tables piled high with food. Eating is a social affair. Everything is a social affair, at that. An experience isn’t quite lived unless shared, he explained.

Even traveling alone, I did not find myself exempt from this cultural gregariousness. If you’ve traveled enough, you’re uncomfortably familiar with “confidence men” and cons of every kind who make their livings preying on tourists, many of them setting up lures and ploys under the guise of hospitality. Someone approaches you and strikes up a conversation. They compliment your looks or express a desire to practice their language skills with a “real English speaker.” They offer tea, or fruit, or special “shortcut” directions to a much-sought-after landmark. But almost inevitably, these pleasantries come at a price: you are offered a hard luck story about an aunt with “heart cancer” and asked for money, or met with increasingly obtrusive demands that you return the generosity by buying some overpriced crap from their shop. You are propositioned for a green card, a work sponsorship, or (especially for women) a “special date.” There are 1,000 variations, and at this point I feel like I’ve heard them all. Istanbul is no exception. It has come as a genuine shock, then, that I’ve met so many people who AREN’T trying to sell me something, secure immigration sponsorship, or sweet talk their way into my bed. I hope I don’t sound cynical in saying that, but it’s a truth known to virtually all Peace Corps Volunteers – and Turkey has charmed me completely by bucking the trend.

I’ve spent many, many hours wandering through sites of historical significance, and I would guess almost as many hours chatting with ordinary people about Turkey, America, or my life in Kenya. I’ve found myself in carpet-filled sitting rooms taking tea with legions of neighbors/cousins/family friends, keeping them enthralled with Life In The Village stories, while an eldest son (currently on holiday from attending university in America) translates. I’ve met women from such far-flung locations as Sydney, London, Tokyo, and the Carolinas who came as tourists and never left. I’ve giggled at furtively-told stories of ostentatious celebrity tourists who think nothing of dropping hundreds of thousands of dollars in an afternoon on opulent Turkish furnishings. I agreed to help a restaurant owner’s nephew practice his English, and ended up discussing European economic policy for nearly an hour, with someone who’s living the financial crisis in real time vis a vie their proximity to Greece. I’ve had conversations as to the relative health benefits of water-pipe tobacco as compared to traditional cigarettes with garrulous waterpipe attendants. (Verdict: Yes, the smoke temperature is lower, and the tobacco doesn’t have the added carcinogens and added preservatives found in a pack of Lucky Strikes. But one cube of hookah tobacco is the weight equivalent of 22 average-sized cigarettes. This I was told right before the attendant asked, very sweetly, “Shall I add another coal to your pipe, madam?” Erm, no thank you, I’m good.)

There were some people who wanted me to give them money, either through buying things or just flat out. There always are. But the majority of people were merely polite, welcoming, and genuinely curious about my unique travel and life experiences. With a handful, even the suggestion of obligatory shop patronage or offering to share nargile was met with an unexpectedly chilly response: was I unfamiliar with Turkish hospitality? The timeless rules of host and guest?

I’ll say it again: thoroughly and utterly charmed. Five stars. I’ll be back.

Underground Cistern dating back to the Romans.

Inside the Hagia Sophia

View from the upper gallery of the Hagia Sophia

Baklava: breakfast of champions.

Me resting against some of the 500-year-old tiles in the Harem of the Topkapi Palace. One of my favorite things about Islamic architecture is the exquisite attention to detail; I could talk all day about the colors and patterns in different kinds of tilework alone. (No, seriously, I could. Be careful about asking unless you have nowhere else to be.)

Closet door in the Topkapi Palace paneled in 100% real mother-of-pearl

Sitting area – see what I mean about the detail?

Sun setting over the Blue Mosque and Sultanahmet Square, decorated for Ramadan.