Istanbul Part I: Toto, we’re not in Berlin anymore! Or are we?

by Heidi Obermeyer


My trip to Turkey started off with that dinging bell iPhone alarm that makes it feel like someone has slowly started playing xylophone in your ear while you’re lying in bed. It also started with my bag of liquids, carefully packed, organized, and tightly sealed against explosion… on my windowsill, as I realized when I got to security and attempted to find them. Know what makes flying way easier? Forgetting all your liquids at home and intentionally not bringing your laptop. Know what makes showering after sweating all day under Turkish sun because you are a creature of the cold frozen north way easier? Remembering your liquids and intentionally not bringing your laptop. I mean, I guess you could bring your laptop to that too. I’d be interested to see how that goes.

But I digress. We are, after all, here to talk about Turkey! I flew from Berlin to Istanbul on Turkish Airlines, which is officially one of the best airlines I have ever flown. I prefer Southwest while I’m home, but Turkish Air was fantastic for getting to Istanbul! On the 2.5 hour flight from Berlin to Istanbul (and the opposite direction) they had multiple movies and T.V. shows to choose from on personal screens for each seat, and full meals on both flights! I slept much of the way there since I left Germany so early in the morning, but on the way back I watched a (very convincing and questionably translated) Krygyzstan tourism video and Life of Pi. Side note: I am so behind on all American cultural happenings in movies and T.V. since approximately summer 2011. I have missed a lot of movies I want to see and will have to catch up while I’m home. Since Netflix doesn’t work here, I also have to wait for new Arrested Development. The anguish!

Flying in to Istanbul- a city of 12 million people that sprawls out as a tan mass underneath you as your flight comes in to land at Atatürk- was mesmerizing. Having never been to a Muslim country before, I was delighted to spot mosque after mosque dotting the cityscape below me. I’ve been feeling rather uninspired by the prospect of visiting more Western European countries for the past few months, and Turkey seemed like a perfect (and very different) new frontier. A new frontier I had reached indeed- I paid $20 for my visa and waited in line at passport control with people from all over the world, some holding passports that I had never seen before, from Iraq and other Middle Eastern and North African countries. I came looking for adventure, and even in the airport, adventure I got!

I made it to where we were staying in Sultahnamet (the touristy/historical area of town) with relative ease (after refusing about a thousand brochures offering me a great deal on various bus and boat tours) and dropped off my stuff. I then spent some time walking around the Hippodrome (the site on which Byzantine emperors used to hold horse races in which the winners could affect political standings) and visited Sultahnamet Mosque, more commonly known as the Blue Mosque for the thousands of hand-painted original tiles that decorate its interior. Pictures from my first day are what you see here, but I can’t talk about the trip without talking about something that had a relatively large impact on my desire to visit Turkey, an issue that was in the back of my mind for much of the time we were in Istanbul- German-Turkish immigration. So I’m going to take a few paragraphs to get down to brass tacks on that, and then we’ll return to my regularly scheduled programming of super fun travel-related wit, humor, and charming prose in later posts. Sound like a plan?

The German-Turkish bond, however different the two countries may seem, runs deep. Berlin is the city with the second largest Turkish population after Istanbul in the world, and Germany has been at the receiving end of Turkish immigration since the 1950’s, when Turkish Gastarbeiter (guest workers) came to Germany to help rebuild the country after WWII. My flights each direction were full of the people who are invested in this relationship between the two countries- young and old, speaking German and Turkish, all with ties (to varying extents) in each country. There can be a lot of tension between Germans and Turkish immigrant communities (see a whole host of articles on the subject), and after so much time in Germany I was very intrigued to see how the other half lived. One related story comes from a friend who once had her German tandem partner in Munich tell her that she would never move to Berlin because “Berlin is just full of dirt and Turks.” That sure doesn’t make it seem like the Germans are making much headway in becoming multikulti (multicultural), although opinions on immigrants obviously vary widely.

To my great (and now very ashamed and completely unfounded) surprise, Turkey was one of the friendliest and most vibrant countries I have ever visited. In walking around and talking to Turks throughout our trip (yes! We actually SPOKE to Turkish people! It takes me somewhere around 6 months just to get a German to say hi to me in class around here! :P) I had such a blast getting to know more about Turkish culture and found helping hands offered readily anytime we needed one. Instead of being cold and direct about how to get places when giving us directions, Turks were patient and helpful, even when their English wasn’t perfect. It made me sad to see so much overlap between the two cultures that manifest in ways that the other side might not understand. Turks and Germans alike love to ask about children, care deeply for family members, and enjoy their friendships immensely. In many instances, I saw aspects of Turkish culture that would actually do Germany good to adopt- a willing and ready smile for strangers, for example, or a more flexible attitude towards new things in general. I think that Germany is afraid to lose its identity and the things it holds dearest- both culturally and economically- but this rigid attitude is also preventing modern Germany from being able to shine for what it really ought to be- a wonderful mixture of old German traditions and new immigrant communities, who also contribute to the success of the country.

I spent a lot of the trip thinking about this, and was happy to get some perspective on the situation through Turkish eyes. I think it always helps to know where people are coming from, so my Istanbul visit was very eye-opening in that respect. I certainly wasn’t on the anti-immigrant bandwagon that’s making the rounds in Europe before I went to Turkey, but seeing the transition that immigrants have to make gave me a much better feel for the issues they face and where they are coming from (literally and culturally) when they make the journey to Western Europe.

Anyway, that’ll be all for this leg of the Istanbul series- more on what we actually did while wandering around the artist city formerly known as Prince Constantinople in later posts. What do you think about Turkish immigrants in Germany? Berliners, have Turkish communities been able to integrate in some ways into your neighborhoods? What are your experiences with Turkish immigration in the rest of Germany? I’m looking forward to hearing what Germans (or anyone else really) have to say on the matter, so please speak up! 🙂