A Western family’s first impressions of Istanbul

We awoke to the droning timbre of a man’s voice singing.  Unrecognisable words.  No rhythm like we’re used to.  But a song nonetheless, projected from a distance, vibrations reaching out to thousands of sleeping people.  It was 6:30am.

“What is that?” asked Lindsay beside me.
“I think it’s a call to prayer.”
“Oh.”

We listened for a while to the strange melodies and unfamiliar cadence then Linds fell back to sleep.  After all, they weren’t calling Canadian tourists to pray – were they?  It was clearly meant for all to hear . . . I laid awake listening and thinking, mixed feelings when it stopped.  This was more than a song – not an order to pray, not even a request – the call to prayer is a ribbon of culture, religion, of life that is woven into the fabric of daily living here.  A sign of shared priority (though not necessarily belief) that seems so foreign to someone raised in a secular society.  Wherever you are in this city you will hear it five times a day.  Every day.  It was a powerful reminder that we are the strangers here.  Strangers who are welcomed with open arms, but strangers nonetheless.  We had just arrived in Istanbul.

A long way from home

Both geographically and culturally this is the furthest from home we’ve been on this full time family travel journey.  Some families would be apprehensive about traveling in Turkey.  We decided to make this our first “slow travel” destination.  Six weeks in a place that inspires very different reactions in different people.

What is it like to experience Istanbul as a Western family?  Let me tell you the story of our first day here.  You can be the judge.

Image result for map of turkey

Our Airbnb is called “The Little White House” and is located in Kuzguncuk, a subdistrict of Istanbul located on the Asian side of the city.  For those who don’t know, Istanbul is unique in that it is the only city in the world to span two continents:  Europe and Asia.  The border is the Bosphorus, a marine waterway connecting the Black Sea to the Aegean.  We are on the east side of the Bosphorus in one of the oldest residential areas in the world.  Makes you wonder what stories lies beneath the foundations of the quaint shops and trendy cafes that line the village.

Our first day in Istanbul

On this particular day the woman who manages our Airbnb, Songul, is coming to pick us up at 11am.   We enjoy a lazy morning, family breakfast, the boys build a double-decker restaurant out of their bunk beds using Plus Plus blocks for the food, Jake and I get a workout done on the big terrace.  Songul is coming over because I told her my laptop needs repairing at the Apple store which is located across the Bosphorus.  She offered to accompany us at the same time showing us how the public transit system works.  If you ever get such an offer from a local in Istanbul, you’d be a fool to pass it up.

Songul, who has lived in Turkey all her life but has also traveled extensively, arrives right on time.

Songul, Owen and a neighbourhood cat

“Hello, family!!”  She is so excited to see us – especially the kids.  Every time she sees Eli she let’s out an excited “Ayee!!” and her face glows.  Eli doesn’t quite know what to make of it.  All of the boys have their hands clasped and get their own greeting.  They feel special.

After teaching us how to use the dishwasher and checking on a few other things, we head out.  On our way down the street, Songul teaches all of us the Turkish names for the different stores:  fırın [furun] is bakery, kasap is butcher, kafe is cafe.  As we walk, she introduces us to Apo the butcher, Akun from the grocery store, Cibel, the owner of a cafe who has offered to teach Lindsay how to cook some Turkish food.  It takes us a while to reach the bottom of the street but our Istanbul education is already rich with content and meaning.

Songul explains that to get to the Apple Store we are going to take a dolmuş (minibus), then a ferry across the Bosphorus, and finally a city bus.  Flagging down the blue dolmuş as it rockets toward us, Songul leads the six of us on board and hands the driver some money.   I try to pay her back.  “No, no!  I want to support you on your trip!”  I argue with her but clearly I will have to find other ways to circumvent her generosity.

The dolmuş takes us to Uskudar which is where many ferries leave from on the Asian side.  Here we purchase “smart cards” which you can load with money and use to ride the ferries, city buses and metro.  Very convenient (and cheap), except that the machine will not accept the bills I have.  Songul slips in a bill of hers.  It works and again she won’t let me pay her back.

Turkey and the history of everything

As we cross the Bosphorus, we talk a little about the history of Turkey.  You just can’t avoid it.  It is everywhere and everything, story upon story of conquest and struggle, hope and meaning.  You could spend a lifetime peeling back the layers – 40 000 years worth.  If Africa was the cradle of civilization, Istanbul was the place of our formative years, forging our human identity, struggling to grow up.

Complicated, compelling Istanbul
Photo credit: Getty

Given it’s strategic location between Europe and Asia as well as its access to both the Black and Mediterranean Seas, the land has been fought over, conquered and ruled by multiple empires over the centuries from Persians to Assyrians to Greeks and finally the Ottoman Empire.  If you read about Byzantium, New Rome, or Constantinople, these are all the same place:  Istanbul.  In fact, the Ottoman Empire began in Turkey as a small Anatolian tribe.  Over six hundred years it became one of the most powerful empires the world has ever seen before finally collapsing during the first world war.

But it’s not gone.  Under the leadership of an Ottoman general named Mustafa Kemal (aka Ataturk, “Father of the Turks”), in 1923 the Ottoman Empire was transformed into the Republic of Turkey.   It wasn’t easy.  Most empires over the course of history have gone down in a blaze of glory, their legacies constrained to historical accounts and imprints left on other societies. 

Who is Ataturk

Image result for ataturk
Ataturk “Father of the Turks”

Over the course of our day with Songul we heard Ataturk’s name mentioned numerous times.  Posters and banners with his image are everywhere.  She spoke of him like a hero, even a saint – but one with a very real and very relevant impact on Turkish society.  Considering the glacial pace of change we are used to, his fifteen years in power were mind-blowingly productive.  Ataturk replaced the Arabic script with the Latin alphabet.  He banned women’s head coverings, he separated religion from politics and generally westernised the new nation.  In a nutshell, he made Turkey secular.

But much of Turkey’s population is conservative Muslim.  Before his death in 1938, Ataturk knew that the progress he had made was fragile so he legislated power into the hands of the military, charging them with the responsibility to maintain the secular foundations of the society that had so recently been established.

Turned out, this was a incredible bit of foresight.  Over the next 80 years there were numrous coups by a military that was still loyal to Ataturks’s ideals.  Even though each successive coup destabilized the country, they were all successful . . . until 2016.

Turkey is changing . . . again

Many credit his savvy use of social media for Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s successful quelling of the 2016 coup.  As tanks stormed Istanbul, the conservative Muslim President of Turkey appeared on news stations via video chat and pleaded with the nation to gather in the streets before the tanks and soldiers to “save their country” once and for all.

Image result for erdogan
President Erdogan

It worked.  Since then Erdogan has continued to consolidate his power which gives some people hope for stability and others concern that Atakurk’s progress is being undone.

Songul didn’t mention Erdogan during our day together except to point out the gargantuan mosque he had built on a hill beside the Bosphrus.  “Totally unnecessary.  It can hold 30 000 people.  Why do we need that?” she says, “Except maybe to show his power.”

It’s all about the people

Songul ended up spending the whole day with us.  She helped us find delicious Turkish food for lunch.  When the Apple store couldn’t fit me in for a week she walked back in to give them an earful.  She took us to the Turkish Naval Museum and ordered sahlep for the kids (a thick, delicious creamy drink made from orchid root flour and sugar) from the kafe there.

The boys outside the Turkish Naval Museum

Everywhere we went, Songul would be chatting with Lindsay, discussing politics with me or running and laughing with the kids.  I have to remind myself that we just met two days ago.  She is our Airbnb host.  Wasn’t this supposed to be a business arrangement?

No, this is Turkey in all its diverse, imperfect, and impassioned glory.  To see how this country is depicted on the news you might think it is hostile, alien, even dangerous.  Our first impressions are quite the opposite.  The words that come to mind are friendly, interesting, proud, and welcoming.

Countries are recent inventions.  Friendship is as old as humanity.

A short walk down the main street in our neighbourhood tonight we bumped into Songul who brought a basketball from her house and joined in a family game with us at the park.  Apo the butcher waved at me as I walked past.  And the young man at the grocery store asked me where I was from and then taught me how to say good evening (iyi akşamlar) in Turkish.

What would you think about a place like this?


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21 Comments

  1. Dad and I spent several days in Istanbul, but your experience shows me what we missed. Being a tourist is very different than immersing yourselves in the culture.

    1. I don’t know if we have a complete explanation, but somehow seeing amazing sights makes sense on shorter trips – super fun and exciting. But after a while we started valuing that less and the day to day experiences more. For example, just this afternoon we went to the park up the street for a family game of basketball, which was great in itself. After about 30 minutes a twenty year old guy came and just stood at the fence with his hood on. It was strange, but we kept on playing (as I kept an eye on our backpack!). A little while later two young boys who had been at the park yesterday arrived with a soccer ball and the twenty year old took down his hood and asked us if we wanted to play with them – three of them against six of us 🙂 An hour later we were all sweaty and sore and smiling. We played together and that was better than any mosque or church or castle. I guess its not about what you see but the meaning it has – not just for us but for them too. It can’t be one-sided. Maybe that’s the difference.

      BTW, they beat us 20 – 19 (and they were quite generous!).

      1. I love this! This gives me more excitement for our Slow Travel, even though I know we’ll be missing things. But those cross-cultural memories will be life changing for you all. Thanks for sharing and can’t wait to read more of these stories.

        1. Slow travel, fast travel, we’re always missing things! There is far too much to see in any given region – we simply don’t have the time, energy, or money to do it all. I suppose we could spend our time disappointed about this or just accept it and enjoy what we do get to see and do even more.

  2. The vibes that you put out into the world come echoing right back! Your open-minded, cheerful and relaxed spirits are creating an amazing family adventure!

  3. All I can say is Wow? You do seem to meet the best people in your travels which credit goes to the warm, fun, eager to learn family you are! I think most of all you will enjoy the slowing down segment of your travel and after reading the blog, looks like you are in a great place! Thank you for educating us Matt!

    1. I have to admit, Colleen, that I worry about you worrying about us while we are in a place that has had some bad press! I’m so glad you’re reading the blog and able to get a taste of these places through our travels. And you’re right, we are enjoying the prospect of staying in one place for a while – especially this place!

  4. My wife and I have visited Turkey 4 times over the past 15 years or so. We’ve been all over. From the usual tourist destinations of western Turkey (Istanbul, Ephesus, Troy, Cappadocia), the Mediterranean coast and even the far eastern parts where Turkey shares borders with Armenia and Iraq (where few Western tourists seem to venture to).

    Every trip has been wonderful. Turkish people have been friendly and helpful. The culture is very accepting of foreigners. We have always felt safe. The history is fantastic. Where else could you see fantastic ancient ruins that are 11,000 years old (Göbekli Tepe)?

    I think Turkey is a very under-rated, under the radar destination to travel to. People have the wrong impression of Turkey. (As noted by a common question from friends upon my return, “Was it safe”?) It is perfectly safe! There are so many options as to what one might get out of a trip to Turkey. You can have a sailing, beach trip if you want. Or one full of history. Or natural beauty. I simply love the entire immersive experience (but the great food and low-cost help as well)!

    1. Hi Ken, thanks for throwing your hat in the ring on this one as someone who has travelled extensively in Turkey. We couldn’t agree more that Turkey is under the radar and under-rated. For some other places I might say this is ideal for the traveler, but in our era of Muslim vs Western phobia, I think it is more important than ever to tell everyone what an amazing place this is. A single Muslim friend or trip to a Muslim country will forever inform our consumption of mass media news stories. It is a sad paradox that what sells is fear when what we want is peace.

  5. Hi Matt,
    I am a subscriber to Canadian Moneysaver and came to know about your travel plans from that magazine.

    I must say that I am very inspired by what you and your family are doing. I have a little one (3 years) and it takes so much preparation traveling with her. I can only imagine how you are able to do that with four young kids. It’s amazing!

    I know that most of the people reading this blog are family members or close friends. However one of the other blog that I am reading is called Millennial Revolution. It is quite number-focused as can be seen from one of their articles – https://www.millennial-revolution.com/freedom/how-much-does-it-cost-to-travel-the-world-for-1-year/

    I am wondering whether you have ever considered putting out some numbers for your travel? I know that traveling with kids is not that cheap as laid out in the Millennial Revolution blog. And there are always some extra things you have to keep in mind with kids. Doing something like this also helps you to keep up to date with your actuals vs. the budget you may have set before the trip.

    Just a thought as I know there are quite a few people out there who would be interested in knowing a bit more about how much such a trip actually costs!

    Thanks again for all the updates and being an inspiration for a lot of us.

    Best,
    SR

    1. Hi SR! I do know about Millennial Revolution – it’s a great site. I haven’t delved into financial stuff on this blog yet, but not because I’m avoiding it. When we were researching for this trip we were VERY interested any time someone published something about costs, so I know you are right when you say that there are lots of people who want to know what our costs are! In fact, now that we have been to nine countries over more than three months perhaps we are at a good point to review and publish our costs. Thanks for the reminder! (and if anyone else has content recommendations, please tell me in the comments!)

      As for the prep time involved in traveling with kids – if you pack light, it’s easy! Packing light (then teaching the kids how to pack up themselves) is one of the best decisions we made.

  6. Hi Mat, I also found out of your family trip from Canadian MoneySaver magazine! We also heard the call to prayers in the early A.M. during a one night stop over in Kusadasi, Turkey!
    We were quite surprised visiting shops which were open but the owners were at prayers! Have been enjoying your travels and I believe it must be an eye opener for the children and your selves to see so much of the rest of the world! Enjoying your pictures and blogs
    My one question is family medical insurance for one year of traveling? Cheers Herb

    1. Gotta love that Canadian Moneysaver 🙂 Yes, I think the whole point of this was to open our eyes in ways that only travel can do. If they do it at all, most people save hard core travel for their later years. Our educated guess is that the kids will benefit even more from these experiences because they are coming at this point in their lives.

      As for travel insurance, we did quite a bit of research on this. We assumed that we would get it – and priced it out at a little over $2k for the family for the year from a company called World Nomads – but we haven’t done it yet for a few reasons. First of all, being an ER doc, I am in a unique position to handle most minor issues. Second, by western standards, health care is cheap in most of the world (unlike the US or Canada)… Lastly, we are still insured by OHIP which will reimburse most expenses (although I’m sure it would be a giant PIA).

      As a western-trained ER doc I have thought about offering a consultant service for other full time travellers, being someone to call for advice on medical issues while traveling – what to take for diarrhea, should I worry about my child’s fever, etc. I would be interested to hear from readers if this is something they would be willing to pay for.

      1. Hi Matt! We would be interested in that kind of service! We’ll be getting travel insurance (thanks for tip) but may have to get something else too (as Americans to comply with our crazy system here), even though we hope not use to use any of it.

        1. Thanks for the feedback, Angie and Dan. Fortunately, health care is cheaper pretty much everywhere outside of the US! But having a little help in knowing when to access foreign medical services, when it is safe to wait, and knowing treatment options for various ailments might make the prospect of traveling less anxiety-provoking.

  7. You totally scored with that AirBnB host. Wow! What an experience. We love staying in AirBnBs much better than hotels. When Paul and I were in Iceland a few years ago, our AirBnB hosts were highlights of the trip. How else would we have met Ragnar, the sheep farmer who told us his adventures of hunting puffins in the cliffs. You don’t get those kinds of interactions staying in a fancy hotel.
    Completely agree that the touristy stuff is interesting, but can get exhausting and repetitive. One of our kids’ favourite memories from our trip to the Czech Republic a couple of summers ago was throwing around a baseball on the front lawn of our AirBnB and at my aunt’s house in a little village. They enjoyed learning the history and culture and visiting old castles too, but their faces still light up when we talk about playing catch. Our Czech AirBnB hosts later told us that people in town wondered what was happening – baseball is not a thing there!

    1. TOTALLY! I have a half-written post about using Airbnb and the best things about it. Number one is the people, for sure! Hostels were great when I was a solo traveller way back when, but Airbnbs are the best for full time family travel! (Ragnar sounds like an incredible guy!)

      That’s a funny story about the baseball and it certainly rings true for us. Our kids love parks. We try to find them everywhere we go and it’s actually really interesting to see the differences between them. Some are absolutely incredible (the Gulliver Park in Valencia comes to mind), others not so much but they are still what the kids appreciate most. Where we are now there is a small park that the kids can go to by themselves, which is awesome..

      . . . oh, wait a second, isn’t Turkey supposed to be dangerous? . . . ha ha:)

  8. Love your blog. We are looking forward to our own version of travelling slow for a couple of years or so… Reading about your experiences is so much more meaningful than just scouring the internet for random information about any one location. Thank you for sharing your adventure.

    1. Hi Irene, glad you found our little blog then. If you have any questions about planning, just let us know. And definitely send us a link if you are starting a blog of your own!

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