The day was warm and breezy, and the promise of baklava gave me an extra boost of energy on our first day in Istanbul. After missing the ferry that never came, we tried to find directions to the next dock to catch a tour of the Bosphorus. My dad had scribbled on one of five different maps of Istanbul after a half hour conversation with the concierge about all of our options, should something go wrong (which usually does).
My dad took the lead with his maps, determined not to ask for directions. I was not far behind and my mom and sister trailed along in the back. Ten minutes and lots of complaining later, I forced my possibly Turkish, but definitively stubborn, father to stop at what looked to be a University to ask for directions. There was an echo of agreement from behind as my sister spotted the Starbucks across from the building. We entered the building, only to be stopped at a security gate by a male and female guard whose English was very limited, not unlike many of our encounters.
The funny thing about the scene is that it seemed so familiar yet so foreign. The air had a whiff of freshly put out cigarettes, with styrofoam coffee cups littered across tables. The dull chatter of young students as they played a game of backgammon.
In Turkey we sought comfort in English, in things that had some semblance of familiarity. We sought refuge in fast food and Starbucks, while cringing at the sight of a whole fish being served to us at a restaurant. A whole fish that was likely caught that day, given the restaurant was nestled in an alley of a fish market. Buckets of seafood surrounded the restaurant and the thought of any meal that did not include kebab gave me hope in Iskele Balik.
As we sat in the back of a restaurant on plastic flimsy chairs after searching for a good two hours, what visibly looked like a fish came before me and almost immediately my mouth flew open. The fish had a brown and charcoal complexion, with the skin lightly fried and small teeth visible in the open mouth of the fish. In utter disbelief, I knew this was the only dinner I was getting, and I attempted to carefully maneuver my fork around the fish to avoid picking up anything inedible. In that moment there was nothing I wanted more than to be at Wildfish in Newport Beach, with a clean filet of salmon over a bed of mashed potatoes with a scoop of mango salsa.
The feelings transcended spaces and it was in places like the Grand Bazaar and Topkapi Palace that I felt out of place. The Grand Bazaar, what I considered a huge tourist trap and frankly a waste of time, is an obligatory stop while in the city. But as you walk down the shops lining the allies, all selling the same souvenirs, with shop owners trying to attract you to their store, there isn’t just unfamiliarity but general discomfort.
Turkish trinkets such as evil eye ornaments and keychains constantly reminded me that I didn’t belong here. That these shops weren’t for my own pleasure, but for someone’s livelihood. And that these desperate attempts for us to take a second glance at a store was part of someone’s story that I just disregarded because of my own determination to get out of the bazaar as fast as possible. We were fleeting guests who were weaving through stories of people we will never know.
As an American traveller, I find it easy to disconnect from the realities of the ground and take myself back home. Given the relatively short nature of my travels, my nostalgia for familiarity can get the best of me. But often times I never quite realize it until I’m buckling my seatbelt, descending into LAX, asking myself: why is everything here so bland?