Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Turkey: First Observations

My wife and I are now in Turkey, where we came to receive training in the form of the four-week intensive CELTA course. In the weeks before the CELTA starts next month, we are traveling around Turkey as tourists.

For my wife this country has special significance; her ancestors on her mother’s side were Armenians who were forced to leave Mousa Dagh, in southern Turkey, in extremely dire circumstances. She is the first member of her family to return to Turkey, and we will be visiting the Mousa Dagh area shortly (with a watchful eye on the Syrian political situation, of course).


We spent Monday stumbling sleep-deprived around the sights of old Istanbul. The Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, and the exterior of the Haghia Sophia (the interior is closed on Mondays, the day we were there).

Of course I’d obviously known before that Istanbul / Constantinople has one heck of a high density of historic sights, but I didn’t really feel it until we were just outside a tram station on Divan Yolu Cad, saw a large and beautiful mosque, used the guidebook to identify it as Nuruosmaniye Camii, and realized that the guidebook said nothing else about it, because this beautiful historic building near the old city center just wasn’t quite beautiful and historic enough to make the cut. Gorgeous old mosques are a dime a dozen in Istanbul.

A Broad Generalization.

I will now run the risk of making an extremely broad generalization about Islam, now that I am in my third Islamic country.


There are a lot of cats in Muslim countries, and the street cats appear to have somewhat better lives than stray cats elsewhere. My wife and I were immediately greeted by a friendly little cat as we entered Sultanahmet Square in historic Istanbul, and we continued to see cats, often surprisingly clean, well-fed, and approachable, throughout Sultanahmet and the grounds of Topkapi Palace. The touristy town of Goreme in Cappadocia is full of cats. Sometimes we saw ones that looked genuinely hungry. More common were cats like the little guy who meowed for food and love at the tea garden in Goreme. He appeared uncommonly well-groomed for a street cat, despite the manager’s insistence that we shouldn’t hold him because he had fleas (at least we think he said this; neither of us is good at understanding Turkish).

Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to hold for Gaziantep, as every cat we’ve seen here has been a rather pathetic looking stray.


If I may make another sweeping generalization, East Asia is not so great at coming up with decent sweets. Korea’s got a traditional sweet cookie called yaggwa that I rather like, and Taiwanese shaved ice is excellent, and some southeast Asian nations do some very interesting things with coconut milk, but on the whole nobody’s claiming that any East Asian country is leading the world when it comes to sweet snacks and desserts. In fact, the region is pretty lackluster.

Contrast with West Asia. Actually, the whole cultural area that stretches from Greece on its western end to India on its east is awash in higher-quality sweet desserts than any other part of the world. And Turkey has given me uncomfortable sugar rushes every day I've been here. Baklava is the worst offender; even the cheap shop in the otogar (bus terminal) in Istanbul was unfairly good, and now we are in Gaziantep, known throughout Turkey as the home of baklava, where you pass baklava shops on practically every street. (Edit: OK, the same is true in Sanliurfa.) The most mediocre baklava I've had in Turkey is better than the best baklava I've had outside of Turkey.

It's not just the baklava. Turks are better at tasty sweet things than people of any other country I've visited. We stopped at a roadside cafe on our way back from hiking outside of Goreme in Cappadocia, and we got these ordinary-looking ice cream treats from a freezer (not traditional gooey Turkish ice cream, but simple 'convenience store' fare), and despite trying different things we both agreed that they were far better than shabby factory-made ice cream treats had any right to be.

I'm convinced that we Westerners learned the art of sweet things from Near Eastern people. They're still better at it than we are.

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