I’ve been in Istanbul for three days, and aside from getting tear-gassed on my first night in town it’s been a nice experience. The city is frustrating, however, and I’ve experienced a cavalcade of disasters (mostly of my own making), so as a balm for my frustrations here are three cute Turkish things I found while I was here.
- In the Grand Bazaar, a gallipoli-themed chess set. One side is the forces of the Ottoman empire, the other the invading allies – and the pawns are ANZAC diggers, unmistakable in their slouch hats. This is maybe just one of many examples in which Turks and Australians share a common political sense …
- Nescafe! In a quite sophisticated restaurant today, two Germans came in and ordered coffee, and were asked “espresso or nescafe”? Many restaurants and cafes have nescafe on their menu, not necessarily for less than the espresso. I also noticed this in Greece, where it was even more pronounced – cafes would put up signs saying “We have NESCAFE!!” Why? What are these people thinking? Especially in Istanbul – the Starbucks below my hotel tells me that Istanbul’s first coffee shop was established in the 17th century, and Wikipedia tells me that the Turkish word for breakfast means “before coffee” – how can such a culture voluntarily serve Nescafe?!? This is like going to France and finding every bakery advertises croissants “made with pure margarine.” The only explanation I can think of that is not embarrassing for Turkish culture is that it represents the pernicious effect of British tourists on local cuisine.
- Mussels with lemon! All down the main street from Taksim square you can find men selling mussels from the shell, with lemon. These seem to be raw, though I can’t tell (the shell is closed so I guess they’re raw), and they’re on sale late at night. This means that when people come piling out of the local pubs and bars they suck down a few raw mussels with lemon. Which is particularly strange because Turkey is, obviously, the land of the kebab. While in the UK or Australia the kebab is the late-night drinker’s food of choice, here in Turkey kebabs are food and the late night drinker has a penchant for mussels with lemon. Truly, some cultural differences cannot be understood, and must simply be accepted.
Overall I’ve enjoyed my stay here and I can recommend Istanbul as a holiday destination. I also recommend coming for more than two days, get one of the museum passes (you can skip queues and save money if you push your museum visits within a 72 hour period), and don’t stay in Taksim – unless you want to get tear-gassed on your way out the door. Also, familiarize yourself with the transport network, it’s good, and if you like metal I recommend a visit to the metal bar in Taksim (can’t give the name or location, but it’s great and really friendly). I prefer Athens (Athens was great!) and the two seem to have a lot in common, generally, but others would no doubt disagree with me, but one thing is for certain: Turkey’s historic sites are more accessible and more impressive. And do visit the Blue Mosque, it’s awesome!
fn1: Starbucks in Istanbul is really good, incidentally. But it doesn’t serve baklava
fn2: which is fine: I’m going to make myself unpopular here and state that Turkish baklava is no better than that you can find in London or Sydney; and furthermore, German beer is boring and over-rated.
fn3: what did they call breakfast before they invented coffee?