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Hospitality brings Istanbul culture to life

By Lara Bockenstedt

"Istanbul: They call it chaos. We call it home." 

My classmates saw these words on a sign inside a shop in Istanbul and they've reverberated within my memories of a trip that immersed me and seven University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire students in Turkey for two weeks earlier this year.

They call it chaos.

Long before enrolling in the Geography Field Seminar class that took me, my classmates and two professors to Turkey, I knew I wanted to someday travel to Istanbul.

Photos of the Bosphorous' sparkling waters next to colorful buildings and mosques seemed enticing. The array of people and their diverse beliefs were intriguing. Muslims, Jews, Kurds, Greek Orthodox, Armenians and Catholics are among the seemingly endless list of people who call Istanbul home.

When my friend approached me with the idea of taking this class, taught by a respected professor with immense knowledge of the region, I couldn't believe my luck. Why wouldn't I jump at such an amazing opportunity?

Turns out my family and many friends had a lot of reasons. Convincing them that this would be a safe learning experience was a challenge. 

My parents grew increasingly protective and concerned as ISIS made headlines. A woman I met told me that she'd pray for my safety after learning about my travel plans.

Family, friends and acquaintances all told me that I'd be treated differently because I'm an American and a woman — I would be oppressed and somehow limited in behavior and where I could go. 

While I know they all meant well, this did not make sense to me and contradicted my experiences and perceptions. I was excited to learn first-hand as I traveled to this important and often misunderstood part of the world. 

We call it home  

A well-known Turkish proverb says, "One greeting elicits a thousand feelings."

That proverb captures perfectly what we experienced once we arrived in Istanbul. While the common greetings directed at us were not unexpected, the hospitality that followed those greetings were a wonderful surprise.

As my fellow Blugold and classmate Galen Keily shared, "There are so many people, you have to interact, but the interactions are so much less taboo there."

Invitations to tea were frequent; people everywhere opened their schedules, wallets and hearts to facilitate conversations with us. Through their generosity and hospitality, they made learning about another culture tangible and heartwarming. 

An evening we spent in Bursa is one of many memories I have from our trip that reflect the hospitality of the Istanbul people. Paul Hoça and Cyril Hoça (Dr. Paul Kaldjian and Dr. Cyril Wilson, the faculty leaders on our trip) brought us to a folk music cafe to listen to musicians sing and play traditional songs. As we sat sipping çay amidst walls covered with concert advertisements and colorful rugs, we listened to centuries' worth of house music.  

We shared music, tea and friendship late into the evening, participating in a valued but disappearing music custom. We clumsily danced and Google translated. We didn't speak the language of those with whom we celebrated but we found ways to connect.

With our professor as a translator, we learned the earthy voices we were enjoying were singing of human emotions using environmental metaphors of doves, trees and mountains. 

Galen, who plays multiple string instruments, was handed a Saz, a Turkish stringed instrument. He explored the unfamiliar musical intervals and tried playing along with the others, an act that had everyone exchanging smiles. 

Josie Kallenbach, the artist of our group, drew a picture in her sketchpad of one of the singers. The singer eagerly inspected it, but his smile quickly turned into a frown. He told Josie she'd made a mistake; his nose was drawn much too big. Several of his friends darted over, and congratulated her for having gotten the nose just right. Again, smiles all around. 

While the lively evenings experiencing Istanbul's vibrant nightlife were memorable and gave us a glimpse into the local culture, our daytime experiences were equally meaningful. 

As part of the class, we were charged with conducting research during our time in Turkey. This included a transect study as well as collecting data in the neighborhood bazaars. On two different days, we spent nearly 10 hours counting customers in the bazaars in occasional chilly spring rains.  

Weekly neighborhood bazaars have long been an important part of Istanbul's food distribution systems. The vendors selling fresh produce, household goods and a wide array of clothing endure long days in all sorts of weather, as they have for generations. 

As vendors became accustomed to our presence and our intent, they actively welcomed us into their community. They continuously offered tea, simit (a delicious bread), conversation, makeshift places to sit and rest, and ways to keep warm. 

Josie (the artist) and Galen (the Saz player) experience with a fish monger — whom they affectionately dubbed Fish Guy — is among the many stories we had to share about how we were treated by locals.

During Josie and Galen's second rainy day in the markets, Fish Guy cut up a couple of his fish for frying, fashioning lunch for himself and some other vendors. He motioned for Galen and Josie to join him, pantomiming making a sandwich with the bread and fried fish. For the rest of the day, he regularly gestured for them to make another fish sandwich. This hospitality extended to all from our group who joined Josie and Galen. 

That this vendor was so generous with his fish — which really is his income — surprised us because it was so different from what we would expect for find in the culture in which we have been raised. 

We all witnessed vendors being equally as generous. They shared laughter and food with each other, and made space for their new American friends even as we tried to talk with them using the little Turkish we knew. It was an honor to be allowed into such a community for even just a few days.

During the trip, our group came together multiple times to discuss our experiences immersing ourselves in a new culture as researchers and not just tourists. 

Our professors in addition to my classmates (Galen, Josie, Anna Waller, Danielle Schroeder, Jessica Trampf, Mercedes Johnson and Nicholas Bartelt) emphasized the importance of creating something from our trip that was worthy of the experiences we enjoyed. 

Sharing stories about the kind vendors who work so hard yet take time to celebrate life and friendship is my attempt to create that something worthy. 

Tensions among people and places persists. Reports from the Middle East will continue to highlight situations that bring negative attention to this part of the world. But those of us who experienced the beauty of the Turkish people and culture will share our stories in the hope that others will be motivated to look past stereotypes to what we can learn from this part of the world. As Josie pointed out when talking about how the Middle East is so often represented and stigmatized, "Don't let fear hold you back from traveling there."

I could not be more grateful for having had this transformative experience, which I am determined to share with others. 

Until next time Istanbul, tesekkür ederim.

Lara Bockenstedt is a sophomore English education major and a journalism minor.