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*What have you found to be sparks of conversation in your days? I’d love to hear, so connect and let me know!
Connection is interesting to me. What behaviors, places, things, etc. make us feel connected, and disconnected? What can, and do, we do to control and create those experiences, those feelings?
As someone traveling in Turkey for the first time, where I speak basically 0% of the local language (outside of “Hello” and “Thank you,” yes I am currently One Of Those, though not proud), I am interested in what elements create conversations, or some form of communicative bond. Often, I find myself in the middle of an interesting interaction and, after working backwards through time, will realize it was something seemingly random, or tiny, or mysterious that sparked the whole thing.
This is where I will keep an updated log of some Turkish sparks I encounter (in no particular order)…
1) Open Palm Change, Dickies, and The Turkish Texans: While taking a boat back from Büyükada, the biggest and most popular of the Princes’ Islands (which are located about 75 – 90 minutes from Istanbul’s city center, depending on which boat line you take) – Burgazada, Heybeliada and Kınalıada are the other three open to the public – I ordered a tea from the man walking around the boat selling çay (pronounced “chai,” traditional Turkish tea, similar to black tea). Not knowing exactly how much to pay, or speaking much Turkish, I grabbed a few 1 TL (Turkish Lira) coins from my pocket and extended my hand towards him, palm open, with the money offered so he could grab what I owed. This clearly showed I had no idea what was going on. Immediately after he (kindly) took just what I owed, a guy (named Serdar) that had been sitting just a few feet away on the bench right across from, and facing, me, said, “Hey man! Where are you from?” After telling him “America” (which I’ve found to be more instantly recognizable here than “United States” or “U.S.” though for some reason I like saying it least of the three), he replied, “America! Are you from Texas?” This was odd for a few reasons: 1) I wasn’t immediately sure why Texas was his first guess, as I wasn’t wearing a cowboy hat or boots or something similar, 2) I actually had just come from Texas, having spent a week in Austin before departing from there >> Dallas >> London >> Istanbul just a few days prior, 3) Texas is the place I’ve spent the most time outside of my home state of Michigan, having lived in Austin for ~ 10 years.
His reaching out opened up a conversation between the three of us (he was traveling with the guy sitting immediately to my right, named Ertan – Rice University PhD, currently working in oil surveying all across Turkey, misses Chick-fil-A, finds connection being in nature during his work out in the field – his good friend, both of them mid-20’s, and originally from Turkey, Serdar here to visiting his friend in Istanbul over the summer) about their experiences in the US, growing up in Turkey, where they find connection in life (for Serdar – getting his PhD from Texas A&M in Mechanical Engineering – it was dancing, especially salsa which he was currently learning “going out 4-5 times a week all over Houston,” he also told me I should’ve recognized his American connection because he was wearing an American Eagle shirt), and insights on Istanbul (the story of the Maiden’s Tower, history of some bridges and landmarks, created/mapped a walking tour for me in my iPhone notes). When I asked them what tipped them off that I wasn’t Turkish (and signaled Serdar to speak to me), Serdar mentioned that my face didn’t really look Turkish, and he noticed I was wearing Dickies shorts, while Ertan mentioned seeing me having no idea what to pay for tea, and mentioned that the man selling the tea also said something else (a kind greeting) to me, which I completely missed.
We talked for most of the 75 minute boat ride back to Istanbul, shared pictures and contact info, reached the Euro-side pier, and then parted ways into our diverging afternoons.
2) Random Right Turn to Ukulele-land: This spark led to a really neat experience and magical afternoon, so it’ll get its own blog post (“Atolye 2”) but in terms of conversational sparks, it began with a day of wander-walking and a random turn down an Istanbul alley (Asian side), intrigued by an ivy-covered doorway in the distance. As I walked up the alley in the early afternoon, I noticed a mid-to-late 20’s man playing ukelele (his name is Emrecan) on the sidewalk, being photographed, in front of what appeared to be a coffee house-ish type place, with 5 or so people sitting near him, casually chatting, smoking, drinking coffee.
The setting felt straight out of a Concert-un-emporter video, or how I imagined one feels. I wanted to sit and listen, but wasn’t really sure how to approach, so I walked about 10 feet past where they were, and pretended to be intently looking at an apartment building’s wall, windows, and accompanying skyline while the music washed over me. After about a few minutes of me awkwardly standing there, Emrecan and I made eye contact, and he initiated conversation.
(Click below to listen to recordings of Emrecan playing ukulele and singing from this very slice in time, the first clip is a full song, the second just a snippet)
Him: “Hello. How are you?” Me: “Oh…hi! Is it ok if I stand here and listen to you play?” “Sure, do you want to sit down?” From there, I sat and joined the group, he played a few songs for us while others casually sang along to the known choruses, and I wound up spending the rest of the day and part of the evening there, at what turned out to be a workshop / artist collective / community space, talking with those around me about human connection, their lives, interesting spots in Istanbul, and more. When I asked Emrecan and his photographer friend about the spark of our conversation, they both said they noticed me standing there, which was odd to them, and were curious what I was doing. The photographer thought, “Hmm, he must know someone in this building, I guess,” and Emrecan thought I must be looking at something very interesting on the wall, so he had walked over while playing to check it out. When he saw there was nothing there, he realized what I was doing.
3) Curious At The Metro: A few days after my arrival in Istanbul, a Learning Designs volunteer (Baran) kindly offered to take me on a historical tour of the city. I was to meet him (for the first time, I learned of his tour offer from Tugba) at 10am the following morning at a Burger King in Taksim Square (a popular meeting spot, really, apparently), which would require me to travel about an hour, since Taksim Square is on the European side of Istanbul and I was staying in Moda, a neighborhood on the Asian side.
I do not have a Turkish SIM card for my phone, so I can only communicate with others in-country over Whatsapp or connect to resources on the internet when I have wifi, which is common at cafes but not so much elsewhere, or at least not easily accessed. I was only familiar with taking the boats across the Bosphorous River to either side, and getting to this BK would require me using the Metro subway, tram, bus, or some combination of the three. The night before, I looked up the bus that I would need and figured I was all good.
The next morning, after walking to the main Metro (bus, tram, subway all located here) station by the pier by about 8am, I found the bus stop, and tried to ask a man also waiting there if this bus would get me near Taksim Square. He consulted with another man, kind of laughed in a “Oh jeez, ok, let’s try to communicate this” kind of way, and pointed down, indicating I should take the subway, and tried to express (which I would later learn) that I would have to change subway lines a couple times, different stops, etc. After realizing, partially, that this would be more complex than I thought, and not wanting to miss my meeting time with Baran (no phone communication, meeting for first time, length of transit in front of me) I thanked the man and hustled down the flights of stairs to the Metro subway. I found a Istanbulkart machine (for purchasing one-time and recurring Metro transit tickets/cards) and tried to follow the Turkish directions for buying a pass for the first time. I grabbed a 5 TL from my pocket and inserted it in the machine. It spit the money back out. I tried again. Same result. I smoothed it on the corner of the machine, like I used to as a child at arcades, frantically, hopefully trading the paper for access to precious coins and the more precious video games that could be played only in exchange for quarters, only in this hellish, adult version of that scenario, the money is repeatedly denied, and my mind begins to race realizing time is flying past, as people rush behind me through the turnstiles to catch their respective trains. In the moment, I realize this is one of Those Moments, really not a big deal at all that feels larger because I’m to meet a new person in a new place via unfamiliar transit without the aid of immediate communication via phone, one of Those Moments that soon enough gets figured one way or another, life goes on, and is typically forgotten in time. This soothes me a little, and I think it’ll be fun to write about later, but the problem still persists…until it doesn’t. By some twist of mechanical fate, my money is soon accepted, and I’m able to buy what appears to be a one-way ticket, which I hope will be enough for wherever I’m going.
I get to the side of the subway I guess/hope will take me the direction I need to go, remembering a bit of what the guy at the bus stop said, a part of a word that sounded like a city or stop name. I approach a guy sitting alone, waiting for the train, to ask if this is the direction I need to go to get to wherevers-ville. He says yes, speaking a bit of English, and after I thank him he puts headphones in, to keep other people like me from interrupting train space peace, I assume. I hop on the train, and get off at the first stop, then walk over to a map on the wall to hopefully figure out where/how I am to go from here to get to Taksim. I notice a teenage-ish girl get off the train at the same stop, walk quickly past me, and turn right into a tunnel about 50 yards away. While I’m looking at the map, with the zero-est of clues, out of the corner of my eye I see her come back out of the tunnel, and gently approach me.
“Are you going to Taksim?” she asks. “Yes.” “Come with me. I can show you.” “(!!!)”
It turns out she is going the same way, getting off two stops after Taksim. She proceeds to lead me to the other train line, onto three more trains (navigating various terminals, directions…aka it would’ve taken me forever, if ever, to have figured this out) using her Istanbulkart to pay for me each time through the turnstiles (saying “it is too much, what they charge” when I tell her how much my one-way train ticket was), and entertaining my questions throughout the 45 minute journey. I learn she’s a fashion design student, studying in Istanbul, hoping to pass her TOEFL class so she can move to New York City to work in fashion, and she used to want to be a professional volleyball player, before injuring her ankle numerous times. She shows me some of her sketches, talks about how bad her English classes have been (this seems to be a common theme, as well as complaints about the Turkish education system), and ultimately points me in the right direction at my stop for Taksim. I wave goodbye, and hurry off to catch Baran at the BK. Her name was/is Cenil, I think, or something similar. She helped me immensely that morning, completely changing my day’s story from the potential “disaster” it could’ve been, for no reason other than just to help, and let me learn a little about her life along the way. Then off we went.
4) Yawn Espionage: Coming soon!
I’ve noticed that a million things happen when traveling that seem significant, or funny, or interesting, in the moment but get quickly swallowed in the wave of newness that comes with experiencing new places and people.
I really like these moments, maybe even more than the big, grand, sweeping ones, for their grounding qualities, their humility and offering of delight in the heightened ordinary that comes with travel, so it seems. In order to preserve the significance of these, the tiniest of tiny moments, the very slightly funny (not hilarious, maybe even just barely smile-inducing, if that), I am dedicating this section to their existence, and will continue compiling them as they arrive.
1) Five in the Back, Two in the Front: this is the tiniest of tiny moments, but was a quick smile (for me at least, luckily riding in the passenger seat). Leaving the workshop we had just finished at the Turkish Youth and Sport Ministry in Izmir, hustling to Pi Gençlik Derneği (Pi Youth Association) for our next meeting, we were faced with an interesting situation: we had seven adults, and a car that would fit four comfortably (pictured above).
Being the troopers that they are, the Learning Designs volunteers from Izmir piled in the back, scrunching, smushing, packing, and folding, and kindly offered me, the guest, the coveted passenger seat for our 20-ish minute journey to the next NGO. There were no complaints, mostly smiles and giggles, and a semi-memorable (perhaps for different reasons) car ride had by all, as other cars on the road snapped pictures and yelled (what I imagine to be supportive, positive phrases 🙂 ) at us during the trip.
2) Learning Locks: a host family was kind enough to give me a copy of the key to their place, so I could come and go freely, which was much appreciated. Coming back to their apartment late one night, I arrived at their apartment building’s front door, and prepared to open it as I had passively watched one of them do before, never having gone through the process myself. For context, I have no wifi, so I can’t communicate with them, or anyone else, at this time, maybe somewhere around 2 or 3 in the morning. They have given me two keys, one for the front door and one for their door. I try one key, which slides in perfectly but doesn’t turn at all either way, no matter how hard I pull and push on the door (“I think this is how you do it. Hmm, no maybe it was like this?”). I try the other key, which doesn’t really fit, and I don’t mess with it too much, not wanting to bust the key in the lock, at least not on the first night. I go back to the first key, try to turn it a little harder each way. Nothing. Thoughts begin to creep in my head for the first time of, well, what will I do if I can’t get this to open? I don’t want to bang on the door of the whole apartment, I don’t really want to randomly buzz some apartments on the intercom, I guess I could wander around all night seeing what there is to see, which wouldn’t be the worst thing. The thoughts, they creep and creep. A person walks past, and I wonder if it looks like I’m doing something shady at the apartment. Eventually, I try pulling and turning the knob simultaneously while jiggling the key and turning…and it works after a while. Relief, and the promise of knowing how to do that one simple, important task moving forward. I walk up the stairs to their place. It’s dead silent in the building, so I’m trying to be extra quiet, especially in opening their door, as I know their room is somewhat close by. Again, I quickly realize I haven’t really paid attention when they were unlocking this door, or was I ever there when they did? No matter, it’s unlocking a door, like riding a bike…or something. There’s an overhead light for the landing just outside their door that turns on with motion but turns off pretty quickly, so, as I fumble with the keys in the occasional dark trying to fit the other key into the hole, I have to continually swing my arm in the air to keep the light on. I consider how silly this would look from the outside, which brings a smile, but doesn’t solve the issue. I slide the key in and try to turn it. After jiggling it a bit, I turn the key all the way around and a loud thump of metal lock slamming against metal door frame echoes through the landing (and, I imagine, their entire apartment, waking them). I twist the key back around the lock slams back the other way. I try to turn the door knob but it just spins and spins, no traction, like a trick doorknob or something. I continue swinging my arm in the air to keep the light turned on. It turns off approximately after every 1.5 seconds. I have no idea how to solve the doorknob mystery. Have I broken it? No, it was like this, I am sure. Was it possibly accidentally broken earlier in the day, and they tried to inform me but could not get in touch (given my lacking Turkish SIM and rare wifi)? I try twisting the key the other way and the door lock slams loudly inside the door. I am completely positive, in my mind, that they are now both completely awakened by me, very late, both having work early in the morning, as I, the loud, moronic American come bumbling in late night after walking all over the place. Thankfully, I realize I can just push the door open at this point, not needing to turn the knob at all, but rather needing to keep the key turned so as to disengage the lock temporarily. Once inside, I try to silently close the door, and as I go to lock it, the lock slams loudly into place against the metal door frame, adding insult to injury. While I shudder for the harm I have surely caused their sleep on this night, I also feel relief knowing the mechanics of getting in and out of the apartment from here on out, incredible peace found in a previously unexplored nook of life.
3) The “Fortieth” Floor: after arriving from a long day of travel to one host’s apartment with all of my stuff (backpack, semi-heavy, semi-large rolling suitcase because I’m not smart), the host kindly offers apologies, for their apartment is upstairs and there is no elevator. I am in complete positivity mode, so I think nothing can faze me at this point, still over-the-top jazzed to be in Istanbul, explore, and just be.
“It’s no problem at all,” I say, “I need to get my exercise today anyway.” Haha, hilarious every time. The host, still learning English, and kindly speaking it to me, the one that visits Turkey knowing zero Turkish, says, “well okay. My apologies, our apartment is on the fortieth floor.” On the outside, I say nothing other than a cheery, “Ah, no problem at all!” and I try to maintain that mentality, truthfully, but I’d be lying if I said the thoughts didn’t creep in a little bit, like, “Wait, fortieth? As in 4-0? I was only half paying attention, but I could swear this apartment building was no taller than like 7 floors. Jesus. 40!?” Again, nothing but calm and cool on the outside, yet the inside was cracking a bit as we went up the flights. They were just two flights to a floor, and maybe 10 – 15 steps per flight, so it was not bad at all, but the anticipation was semi-excruciating, not wanting to clarify with the host for fear of pointing out a potential mispronunciation by someone just doing me a favor by speaking my native language. As we gained each floor, I thought, “ok, that means either 3/2/1 more, or 38/37/36 more” gauging my stamina, the strength in my legs, my will to survive. Eventually we reached the fourth floor, and I could see there were no more steps to take, this was the top, and salvation was mine.