Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday of the year (a big gathering of family and friends with tons of great food, no gift obligations, and easily avoidable religious overtones), but I have no good Thanksgiving travel stories, because with the exception of one year when I was 17, I’ve always lived in the same metro area as the bulk of my family. So you’re getting a story about Turkey.
Istanbul was not the first trip I took solo, but it is the trip where I learned to break out of my solo bubble and engage with the people living in the place I was visiting. On the day I arrived, I was a little disoriented, as you often are after a ten-hour plane ride to a country on another continent where you don’t speak the language. After I got settled into my hotel (the highly recommended Hotel Hali) I went out in search of food. I wandered around for a little while before finding a little hole-in-the-wall place serving pide (basically, Turkish pizza). I sat down and ordered something with some meat and peppers, which was much tastier than this photo would suggest.
It was so good, in fact, that I asked the waiter/owner/only dude in the place how you say “delicious” in Turkish. And so I learned the word I would find second-most-useful in Istanbul after teşekkür ederim (thank you): lezzetli.
This started me and the owner off on a conversation about where I was from (“Oh, Obama!”), why I was in Istanbul, where he was from (just down the street), how long he had worked at this place (I can’t remember, but many years), and what he would recommend I see while I was in town. He offered me a free cup of the nasty apple tea that people liked to give to tourists that I was smart enough to avoid in favor of the real thing throughout the rest of my trip. At first I declined, because my tough-and-whatever-Chicago-lady radar said, “Don’t ever take free things or accept hospitality because you never know what they’re going to want in exchange.” But he basically, nicely, said, “Don’t be dumb, here’s some tea,” and that was that.
And that set the tone for the trip. The rest of the time, I was a little more chill, a little more open to people who wanted to chat, and because I actually made that little bit of effort to just be open to the people around me, I found that they were some of the nicest people on earth. I met zero jerks in Istanbul and a long list of lovely folks, everyone from a waiter who wanted to tell me about the Kurdish village he was from to the girl on the bus who used her transit pass when I had the wrong kind of token.
Istanbul remains my absolute favorite place I’ve ever visited, and I have to wonder if it was really that it’s such an amazing city (I mean, it is completely gorgeous and full of lezzetli food, but is it really that much better than Paris or New York or Barcelona?) or if it was just the place where I first managed to let my guard down and let the city in. Whatever the reason, my memories of Istanbul are the warmest and most beautiful and happiest of my traveling days so far. I’m so glad not only that I got to see it but that I was in the right frame of mind to experience it the way I did.
And if that’s not appropriate for Thanksgiving, I don’t know what is.