Jessica, a journalism student at my university, came to Turkey for a semester as an exchange student last year. When she came back to Ohio, I asked her to talk about her experiences in Turkey in our department’s annual Diversity Day program. She was in love with Turkey and said a lot of great things about the country, but one thing she said stuck with me. She was talking about her long train ride to Konya from Istanbul. She said “I met a Turkish lady on the train who had very good English. We kept talking all the way to Konya. We became buddies. We even went to the back of the train to smoke together.” When she talked about “smoking on the train”, everyone in the audience gave her a strange look. She felt like she had to explain: “Of course, you are not allowed to smoke on the train, but everyone does it.” And then she added: “Turkish people do whatever the hell they want.”
I have to admit she has a good point. I just arrived in Turkey about a week ago for the Christmas break. The moment I walked out of the Ataturk Airport after my arrival, the smell of cigarettes welcomed me to Turkey. Luckily, they do not smoke inside anymore but if there is no way to get out for a cigarette break, they will smoke against the law.
It’s not just about smoking of course. When my friends once picked me up from the airport, I sat in the back seat of the car and attempted to put my seat belt on as a reflex. I was thinking out loud “We still don’t have to put seat belts on in the back seat, right?” My friend said: “No, no, you don’t have to put seat belts on even in the front seat.”
Of course, you do have to put seat belts on by law, but people are so laid-back that even when you go to a gallery to buy a car, they teach you different ways to get rid of the annoying seat belt signal. Here is a new invention you could only see in Turkey:
This is a seat belt signal stopper. You insert this into the slot where the seat belt should go and your car will stop beeping while you drive freely without a seat belt. To be honest, when you think of the insane traffic in Istanbul, seat belts become quite irrelevant, since you basically move at about 10 millimeters per hour at times but when it becomes a habit, it gets quite dangerous.
This laid-back nature of Turks is very frustrating sometimes. But, I think it has something to do with our extremely tolerant character, too. In the US, if something is against the law, it’s against the law. There are no exceptions. In Turkey, there are always exceptions. Here is an example:
This is a “no-smoking” sign that says: “No Smoking! But, if you are an addict, please throw the butts in the trash.”
There is a Turkish song called “Macera Dolu Amerika”… It literally translates to: “America: Full of Adventures”. But, I really don’t have a lot of strange adventures in America anymore. Every morning, I wake up, go to work, come back, do the same things every day or do what I had planned to do weeks ago, go to where I had planned to go months ago. Ninety percent of the time, there are no surprises, no unexpected events, no strange incidents… In Turkey, there is always something unexpected that comes up. You plan to meet your friends at 4pm, but because of traffic, you end up meeting them at 7. You want to go to a certain place, but there is a soccer game in that area that day and the fans block the road so you can’t make it. Or, you go to a restaurant and people bring you free food just because they liked you. Or strangers on the street pay your bus ticket. The security guard in the bank breaches the security and brings you a glass of tea while you wait in front of the bank until it opens. Every new day is a new adventure.
So far, I’ve been enjoying this unpredictable nature of Turkey. On Sunday, an old friend of mine picked me and my sister up for breakfast. We went to a restaurant by the sea, which has a huge Turkish breakfast plate. While we were having breakfast, clowns showed up at the restaurant. My friend has two kids so they were pleasantly surprised. Then, my cousin came and picked me and my sister up to have some coffee. We went to take a walk at the famous Baghdad Street of Istanbul’s Asian side. It’s a long, busy street, full of stores on both sides. You see all of the big international brands such as Laura Ashley, Burberry, Marks & Spencer, Gap, etc… The street is full of well-dressed people, walking, shopping or walking their dogs. After a long walk, we sat down on a table outside in a cafe/dessert place. Watching the street from where we sat was quite entertaining. I saw those people walking by:
And this is the Vakko store, decorated for the New Year!
Yes, we are a 98% Muslim country and we do not celebrate Christmas. But, everywhere is full of Christmas trees and Christmas decorations this time of year. Turkish people think this has something to do with the New Year. It’s funny and a bit silly to me but they like the festivities and that’s how they want to celebrate the New Year. What can you do?
Just like Jessica says: “Turkish people do whatever the hell they want.”