Tuesday, July 15, 2008


I know I can be cynical with the best of them, but the truth is I tend to like people, which certainly makes travel more enjoyable. As a former French major and hopeless Francophile, I often find myself defending (sincerely) the French people against the standard criticisms. I’m not being a snob. Though they’re more formal and not as gregarious as some people and, yes, proud of their culture, the French I’ve known have been friendly and kind and quite intelligent.

I recall fondly, for example, sharing dinner (Spring 2007) in the apartment of a Parisian home exchange family whose teenage son we were going to host in New York. The food and wine were, not surprisingly, excellent, as was the conversation (all in French and, yes, mine is admittedly rusty). I was especially impressed by the father who prepared the duck and told us all about the recipe, and likewise could discuss the wines at length. Pretty standard in France, but as the topics veered from music to literature to politics to travel, he spoke about every subject with enthusiasm and intelligence. The punch line is that he’s a cop. A chief homicide detective, but still…. And that’s what I like about the French.

So I prefer to let people surprise me, which of course leads me to Istanbul and the Turks.

Backtrack to the week before my departure: I’m in the office of my orthopedist having my sprained hip flexor tendon checked out before leaving town. He asks where I’m going and I say Turkey. He’s astonished that I would want to do such a thing. Why go to Turkey? They’re nasty there. They lie, they steal, they cheat. They just want your money. Not a good country.

Did I mention that he’s Greek? And I’m guessing in his late 60s? Apparently the Greek-Turk rivalry is finally fading, at least among the young, but this otherwise intelligent man was convinced the Turks were a lost cause.

And of course when you travel in the most touristy areas, you have to contend with all the cheats and hustlers a culture can produce, be you in Beijing or Paris, Istanbul or Moscow. Taking the bus into town from Ataturk Airport, I paid for three 9 lira tickets with two 20s, and was given only 3 lira change. When I pointed this out, the guy pretended that he hadn’t noticed that the bills I gave him were both 20s. Yeah, right. Likewise, touristy restaurants in Istanbul are known to add hidden charges to bills and pull a variety of bait and switch tactics. So it is easy to have a bad experience that can sour you on the whole trip, but if you’re wise you’ll keep things in perspective. I know whereof I speak, having managed to have a great time in China after getting my $2,000 video camera stolen in Beijing.

Now (finally) to the point: the people in Istanbul were great! Except for a couple of hustlers, we were treated very well indeed by friends and strangers. We had the great fortune of being hosted by the incredible Fatma and her cordial husband Ayhan, our home exchange partners who will be visiting us in New York next year. This was a non-simultaneous exchange, with them staying elsewhere while we occupied their house and played with their cat and dog. But Fatma was ubiquitous, showing us around town, taking us to the arena twice to see Turkey in the European Cup (see next post), hosting a dinner party for us on her patio with ten of her friends, helping us shop for anything we needed, leading us and our friends and her friends on a cruise up the Bosporus for dinner in a fishing village at the mouth of the Black Sea. Fatma is a doctor twice over, an eye surgeon and a doctor of forensics who works for the court. Walk down the street with her and it seems on every block she knows someone or has a friend who runs this store or restaurant. We’ve had some wonderful home exchange experiences, but she certainly wins the first-place prize as our most ingratiating host. We’re already intimidated trying to figure out how we’re going to match her efforts when she and Ayhan come our way.

As many of you have no doubt heard me say far too often, this is the second great advantage of home exchange (the first being money). You get to meet people who aren’t trying to sell you something. Through Fatma we met and hung out with about twenty people from Istanbul. I’ll write more about my impressions of the city in a future post, but if there’s a Turkish stereotype, so far it’s definitely a positive one.

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