Thursday, July 19, 2012

Welcome tourists and springtime


Welcome tourists and springtime

The peak tourist season begins around mid April and lasts through to September. Turkey has four seasons, but spring to me always seems too short.
Dear Charlotte: I will be visiting Turkey in April. Would you tell me what it is like in İstanbul then? I am so looking forward to it. One of my dreams has been to go to a Turkish bath house. I have read about the different bath houses in İstanbul. My friend and I plan to visit one of the historic ones. I believe it is cemberlitash and was built in the 1500s. I am so excited! From Lucinda (Michigan)

Dear Lucinda: Thanks for your question. April is a great time to visit İstanbul. I am always glad for the warmer weather that brings us many of our favorite things: birds, flowers, butterflies and, best of all, an end to being cooped up inside the house during cold, wet, nasty winter days. In more recent years, the İstanbul Municipality has been going all out every year to plant flowers, especially tulips, since there is a tulip festival for two weeks in April in the city. If you are here then you should be sure to enjoy the festival. People who have not visited Turkey do not realize that Turks believe they have a rightful claim to this wonderful bulb, the tulip! My friend from Holland was surprised to learn that it is said the first tulips to be grown in Europe were in the gardens of Topkapı Palace. In April, you will see tulips everywhere you look in İstanbul. No wonder the local authority has planted so many of them in the parks and along the roads.

I like the wild flowers that grow in the grassy areas along the freeways. Cherry blossoms, yellow wildflowers and poppies are just a few. Unfortunately, mowers come along and mow them down. A friend of mine says they tend to mow so close to the ground that this is the reason why from June onward the green areas along the roads and motorways become brownish or burnt-looking from the heat. I love going for drives outside the city and seeing the wildflowers in pastures, woodlands and along roadways. Here is a lovely poem I found on the Internet for springtime by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:

“Kind hearts are the gardens, Kind thoughts are the roots, Kind words are the flowers, Kind deeds are the fruits. Take care of your garden, And keep out the weeds. Fill it with sunshine, Kind words and kind deeds.”

Lucinda, you must visit a hamam if you have time during your visit. “Hamam” is the Turkish word for the traditional bath house. Men and women have separate sections. You will be given the bathing essentials when you begin to undress: a large towel (peştamal), special wooden block shoes and a bowl. You should bring your own soap. In the bathing room, it is very steamy. You sit in front of a traditional water faucet with hot and cold taps and fill your bowl and pour the water over yourself. Turks believe that bath water should be kept running. Some believe to sit in a bathtub of water is unclean. You wash in the steam room and can have a pummel and a vigorous massage by a strong-gripped masseuse while lying on a slab of marble that is heated underneath. Every thing is marble and very hot! The whole bath area has under-floor heating. Don’t forget the göbek taş is hottest! That is where you lie if you really want to sweat.

It used to be that the hamam was not just a bath house, but where people would go to socialize. It was a sort of social center. It may still be for some, but not like it used to be. Certainly during the Ottoman Empire, it was a place for gossip, for women to choose future daughters-in-law and for men to clinch business deals.

You probably have not heard the well-known Turkish Proverb that says it all: “Hamama giren terler” (he who goes into a hamam will sweat) -- if you don’t like the heat, get out! If it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, go for the works (e.g., the rub with rough gloves, the soaping and the facial and foot massages).

It is too bad that springtime does not last longer…
“All through the long winter, I dream of my garden.
On the first day of spring, I dig my fingers deep into the soft earth. I can feel its energy, and my spirits soar.” -- Helen Hayes

Note: Charlotte McPherson is the author of “Culture Smart: Turkey, 2005.” Please keep your questions and observations coming: I want to ensure this column is a help to you, Today’s Zaman’s readers. Email:


Thursday, July 5, 2012

Falling over cultural cliff edges


Falling over cultural cliff edges

Where do you think you might experience the greater degree of culture shock -- when moving to İstanbul on the edge of Europe or when moving to Göreme in the heart of Anatolia?
I wouldn’t mind betting most of you went for the second option, which is, I must admit, what I also assumed would be the case when I first moved here. But the strange thing is that I’ve actually been caught out at least as often in İstanbul as I have in Göreme.

Years ago while teaching travel and tourism in Bristol in the UK, I read a book about how to protect against potential safety hazards. One of the snippets of information that wedged itself most firmly in my memory was the author’s suggestion that it was not always the most obviously dangerous things that caused the largest numbers of accidents. The example he cited was a dangerous cliff top. Fencing it off, he said, was not always necessary since most people would immediately recognize the risk and stand well clear (although not after dark and not after a couple of beers, I would contend). It was more important, he said, to fence off the less immediately obvious dangerous stretches where people might be tempted to take greater risks.

It’s a bit like that with culture shock, I think. Göreme being a small Turkish village of about 2,000 people living far from the major population centers and their broader cultural opportunities, I knew that I would need to make adjustments if I was going to fit in, and so it became automatic to dress more conservatively, to behave more sedately and to anticipate difference at all times. There were some horrendous mistakes, of course, and I remember most vividly taking up an invitation to an iftar (post-fast) dinner during Ramadan which was probably offered out of courtesy rather than with any actual expectation that I would show up.

Imagine my horror, then, when the door of the restaurant swung open and inside the room I saw around 70 men and absolutely no women seated at long tables. The friend who had invited me rushed to collect me, and everyone moved up to make space as if it were the most natural thing in the world when it so obviously wasn’t. But to be honest there haven’t been all that many outright clangers like that over the years.

In İstanbul, though, I have sometimes come unstuck because I’m sucked in by the superficial similarity of things and retract the antennae that should alert me to problems in the offing. In Göreme I suppose that by now I know instinctively how different social circles relate to each other, and what it is and isn’t reasonable to expect from them in terms of support. Conversely, I’m probably pretty clear about what it’s reasonable for people to expect of me, too. In İstanbul, though, I’m all at sea, confounded sometimes by demands that seem completely unreasonable but which a Turk, I conclude, must think quite normal.

When I look back over my time in Turkey, it’s clear that the cultural cliffs over which I’ve fallen have usually been the seemingly safe ones with İstanbulites and other foreigners. I’ve done rather better, I think, when it comes to the more obviously treacherous ledges of Göreme.

Pat Yale lives in a restored cave-house in Göreme in Cappadocia.


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