I admit my tastes in sports are decidedly American. No matter where I am in the summer, I can usually tell you how the Mets did yesterday. Soccer was not really on the scene when I was growing up in New York, and I’ve never followed the sport. But when we arrived in Istanbul, the city was awash in soccer fever, for the European Cup was on and Turkey was surprising everyone. Fatma and Ayhan showed us the highlights from Turkey’s recent miraculous last-minute victory over the Czechs and announced that we all had to go to a large arena in town the next night to join thousands of others gazing up at large screens to watch the national team play Croatia, against whom Turkey would again be the underdog.
It was quite a night, as Riley, Jesse and I found ourselves getting religion real quick, fervently waving the Turkish flags they gave us and seriously thinking it was important that Turkey win. We joined in the cheering, and even the songs and chants, our chests swelling with nationalistic pride. It was great fun, even if a voice in the back of my head kept worrying if rooting for Turkey meant I was in denial over the Armenian genocide or the condition of today's Kurdish minority. Living in the United States, I’ve always mistrusted patriotism, the “last refuge of scoundrels,” as a club used by war-mongering politicians to pound the population into submission.
But I set those thoughts aside long enough to join in the fun, and was rewarded with yet another come-from-behind-victory by Turkey in the final minute of the final overtime. In fact, droves of fans had started to leave the arena, resigned to defeat, when an “impossible” Turkey goal tying the score brought them streaming back in to celebrate. Minutes later, Turkey won the sudden-death, penalty-kick playoff, and the place erupted in singing and cheering that was still going on when we boarded our boat 20 minutes later. The man on the left in the picture below was crying those tears of joy for most of those 20 minutes.
The party continued on the boat with boisterous group singing, and when the leaders noticed that the passengers on the other ferry boat boarding next to us were relatively quiet, they shouted over and were soon leading them in songs as well.
Three nights later Jesse and I were back in the arena again to see Turkey go for another miracle, this time against the heavily favored Germany. The Turks had sustained a series of injuries and their goalie was sitting out a two-game penalty, so they came into this semi-final match badly depleted. Despite that, they played well, outhustling Germany most of the way, and with the score knotted at 1-1 until Germany managed to go ahead with just a few minutes left. Another miracle was in order, and again Turkey delivered with a game-tying goal that was so beautiful even I could recognize its brilliance. Unfortunately, the joy was short-lived, as Germany answered with yet another goal and held on to win.
I had of course wondered how this “fanatic” crowd would handle defeat. To beat Germany would have been especially sweet, as Turkey has often found itself in a subservient role to the Gremans. It was the German archaeologist Heinrich Schlieman who plundered the ruins at Troy. Germans are the #1 tourists in Turkey, and many Turks have immigrated to Germany for work, where they are often treated as second-class citizens. So, yes, a natural rivalry.
So I was surprised to see that the fans took it all in stride. They were disappointed, but seemed rather philosophical about it all, more mature than a lot of baseball fans I know. And though Turks do drink wine and beer, and beer was on sale in the arena, there didn’t seem to be that same need to get drunk to root for your team, or any great anger at the other team when they lost. I, on the other hand, was really mad at Germany and glad Spain beat them in the finals.
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.