EVEN IN NEW ZEALAND WE EXPERIENCED A LANGUAGE BARRIER. More than a few beats were spent staring blankly, as we'd try to decipher the rather-proper English being spoken at us. The accent wasn't the trouble, it's the slang. In Oceania they take colloquialisms to a whole new level. It takes a bit of time to work back and figure out what they're saying. To our surprise, this part of the world was trickier than others.
Our trip has included many stops in rather remote places. But, it must be said, language hasn't been our biggest struggle. I'm more than a little embarrassed to say we haven't learned many words since starting this trip. We say "reckon" more than we ever thought we would, though mostly as a joke. But, seriously, I cannot say "Hello" or "Good bye" in Thai and we spent 30 days there. I can tie a mean damn sarong and mix one hell of a Mai Thai, but didn't spend a hot second absorbing the language.
Here's what: My brain couldn't really wrap itself around Asian languages. Bali was a bit easier, the alphabet and sounds more familiar. Rolled-R's and Latin combinations. I could sound-out things on a menu and get-by. While I made no effort to learn much, I could hear something in their conversations that I was accustomed to. When we landed in Singapore, I lost it altogether. This got worse as we moved through Thailand, the written language a lovely combination of characters dashed with lots of accents and markings, but not at all familiar. There was no way to train my brain to recognize combinations or eke out words. "Oh, there's the word for 'bathroom'," was not something we managed to figure out.
But, through Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, it was surprisingly simple to communicate. In the rare instance that someone couldn't speak English, we'd work together to sign our way through an interaction. As we laid our heads down at night, we'd often marvel at how easy it was to make our way through Bangkok or Hanoi or the smaller towns of Thailand. People seemed willing to scrabble together enough words, share a self-conscious giggle, and leave us to enjoy whatever dish arrived at the table. It seemed to me there was no shame or judgment on either side.
This is all to say we were surprised to find Turkey our biggest struggle.
It wasn't until arriving in Istanbul that we walked into a wall. English is notoriously hard to come by here. Wedged somewhere between Asia, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe, it's understandably low on the priority list. (And, I should clarify, I don't expect anybody anywhere to speak or understand English. I'm only observing our experience.) More than a few times, when we'd sit down at a restaurant or approach a customer service person, they seemed to ignore our obvious linguistic limitations and just repeat what they said, each time with slightly more resentment in their voice. I'd shrug politely, my crumpled eyebrow/mouth combination stating the universal sign for "Oh god, I'm so sorry, I have no idea what you're saying and I feel like total shit about that!" When the interaction devolved further, I'd shake my head and walk away, feeling like I'd inadvertently performed a crime against humanity. Maybe I did. But I think, perhaps, they were just being rude. I felt ashamed and self-conscious more times than I'd bargained for in Istanbul.
On our last night we went to a local restaurant around the corner from the apartment we rented. The streets in this neighbourhood weren't exactly brimming with tourists, but rather gentlemen gathered for tea and cigarettes on every stoop and curb. We moved through them and up the steps into the restaurant, which at this point was nearly empty. It was obvious the two guys working didn't speak English and I took a deep breath. I'd looked up how to say wine (sarap; I have priorities) and started pointing at things under the Kebap heading. Soon a dish of butter, a plate of crumbly cheese? and a stack of thin pitas arrived at the table. We weren't sure how to combine these things but in a flash of confidence, I waved over the short-statured man with one eyebrow. I gestured to the ingredients and, in an instant, created the universal sign for "Please do this for me, I have no idea how I'm supposed to eat this." He nodded, slapped a pita on my plate, scraped butter across it, crumbled the cheese over the top, then rolled it into a thin burrito and thrust it into my hand. We all laughed and, without a word, began the greatest meal we had in Istanbul.
1) Even after being in the Middle East, there seemed to be more mosques here in Istanbul. Call-to-prayer was frequent and beautiful. We really came to love the sounds echoing through the city, even at 4:30 in the morning.
2) The city is currently embroiled in a rather big kurfuffle with the government over Taksim Square, a central hub for leisure, business, culture, and transport. The media, as it's wont to do, has blown this into a global story, but the origins of the debate/protests aren't particular global. The violent reaction of the police, however, against protestors is the cause of the brouhaha. There's a large police presence, but most are playing on their mobile phones while fiddling with a machine gun. Uh huh. We considered, briefly, shifting our plans away from Istanbul, but we're glad we didn't. While Saturday nights tend to erupt, police have gotten ahead of it and are keeping things rather calm.
3) One day we ferried to the Princes' Islands. While it was nice to get out on the water, the cheap ferry was really crowded and rather uncomfortable, not unlike herding cattle. We were disappointed by the island as well. It wasn't the "beachy escape" we'd hoped it would be, but rather a lovely, small town 90 minutes away. I can see how locals would want to leave the urban centre for the day, but after a week on Mykonos, "island getaway" has a new (and impossible to compare) meaning.
4) Parks and public squares are bustling with activity all the time. It makes me sad that North America didn't embrace the public space as they did in the rest of the world. Yes, we have parks and squares and things, but not like the rest of the world. Our modern-day reclusiveness and fear of organized groups squashed any hope we had of enjoying this sort of thing in a truly meaningful way.
5) A startling number of homeless women with small children in the streets of Istanbul. And not, like, fake homeless, but like street-urchin-homeless like something out of Les Mis. This trend continues in Paris.
6) Public transit is an efficient way to get around, but not quite as cheap as other places we've visited. Cabs are quite affordable and metered.
7) Hot. cops. everywhere.
LOCATION: Paris, France
DATE AND TIME: Thursday, July 11, 2013 12:00PM Central European Summer Time/Thursday, July 11, 2013 6:00AM EST
Location: Istanbul, Turkey
Accommodation: Economic and Comfort Studio (AirBnB) ★★★
Accommodation: Economic and Comfort Studio (AirBnB) ★★★
It seems as though Istanbul is in a constant state of repair or construction. While this neighbourhood looks a little shabby, it's actually really great and full of conveniences. This apartment is terrific, brand new (we were the first guests) and has everything you'll need for a few days. It's small, but well-appointed, and really nice and clean. Thoughtfully decorated for short-term visits (simple and tidy) and has air conditioning, which is a rarity here. Really quiet with a small balcony. Near to a few mosques, though, which are loud several times a day. I happen to love the call to prayer, so consider this a plus, even at 4:30 in the morning.
We ate at two restaurants within a three minute walk of the apartment. They were the most-notable and quite special. Service was really kind and patient (with the aforementioned language barrier thick.)
> Cafe de Kofte offers really great pizza, of all things. Often on our first night in a new place, we seek out something quick, cheap and familiar. The owner was a great guy and waved at us every day when we walked by. The food was legitimately as good as the service. They do not serve alcohol.
> Gular Ocekbasi is a super-traditional, really local spot in the same neighbourhood. When we walked by each night it was chock-full of locals, even spilling out onto the street drinking tea. Detailed above, this was really a special experience. The kebabs were out-of-this-world - Moist and incredible. An easy recommendation.
We also ate (many, many times) at various döner shops, their recipes varied, some with thick tomatoes, others finely sliced. No rich tzatziki like in Greece, rather a shaved sweet pickle and a few onions. Almost all were delicious. A great cheap-eat.
★ RATING OUT OF FOUR BASED ON OVERALL EXPERIENCE.