Sunday, June 17, 2007

Cultural Highlights (Turkey)

Each day is full of new cultural adventures. Here are some highlights:

Haircut – What a seemingly simple task to get a haircut. You arrive, sit for a few minutes, chat a bit about current events, and leave a little lighter. Imagine that you have to go to a new barber and all you can say is, “Hello,” “Thank you,” “I don’t understand,” and “I am American.” I entered the Turkish barbershop as I always do, with my hair a little too long and the usual air of patience. I don’t know what it is about the barbershop, but unlike so many other aspects of my life, patience pervades the experience. Anyway, back to the story, my barber and I spent the first few minutes trying to agree on what I actually needed. I pointed at the sides and top of my hair showing different lengths with my tweezer fingers. I thought we were in agreement until huge chunks of hair started to fall in my lap. I must not have been clear. I stopped the Turkish barber and showed him once again the length of hair to cut off, but this time using my newly cut locks as a reference. After the cut, he washed my hair twice and then dried it. Now I must admit that I am not used to other people washing my hair, but I decided that the old “When in Rome” adage might be a good rule to follow. I have to say that in spite of the language barrier, my Turkish barber cut my hair better than many of the barbers that have scissored me in the States. The experience was well worth 15 Lira.

Traffic –A few days ago, I was in a bus that was driving down the main road that runs parallel to the Bosporus and we suddenly came to a standstill. Now traffic in Istanbul is not an unusual occurrence, but this time, there seemed to be no way to pass. A bus with its blinking hazard light sat diagonally, blocking the outgoing lane, while a smaller truck was blocking the incoming lane. Obviously, the bus had been involved in some kind of accident. Just when I began to embrace the fact that we were going to be sitting for a long while, a policeman arrived on the scene and motioned for the truck to back up and make room for the incoming traffic. The truck driver slowly navigated the small spaces around him, following the police officer’s every order. Just enough space had been cleared for a police bus to pass. The officer returned to his comrades and the vehicle sped on by, leaving the scene in chaos. By some miracle, we were able to pass the wreck.

Driving – Driving etiquette in emerging markets is slightly different than in much of the developed world. Now New York City has its quirks, but Istanbul has been a whole new experience. Firstly, there are no exit numbers or road markers at all. Now that doesn’t really matter when you are driving in your hometown, but for people not accustomed to the city, it’s extremely helpful. Directions here are similar to much of Latin America, where landmarks are the key. In Costa Rica, we always joked that directions in the countryside went like this: “Go 400m and take a right at the lemon tree. Continue on the dirt road until you see a herd of cattle. Take a left, drive 200m east past the church…” Anyway, back to Turkey, the second quirk about driving is the invisibility of lanes. Unlike the West, staying in lanes is optional, especially in bumper-to-bumper traffic. Every evening I spend at least 30 minutes maneuvering through the traffic towards the bridge that crosses the Bosphorus back into Europe. Even though there are only three official lanes, Turkish drivers take advantage of every possible inch of asphalt. I guess the logic is why stay in three lanes when there is room for five.

Food – Plain yogurt is a staple of meals here in Turkey. They even have a homemade drinkable yogurt that is essentially regular yogurt mixed with water. Pistachios are the nut of choice. They are everywhere, in the ice cream, on the ice cream cones, in the desserts, in salads, etc. Fruit and vegetables are incredibly fresh here in Istanbul. Cherries, apricots, green plumbs, watermelon. Often a plate of fruit is served after meals in Turkish restaurants. The lamb here is incredible! In fact, most meat is very tastefully prepared.


Joel Montgomery

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