After Samothraki, Joe and I had two last places to check out in eastern Europe before we headed to the west coast: Istanbul (just to see it) and Bucharest (to visit Joe’s uncle and aunt). We said our goodbyes to Daud and the many animals on the farm, then hitchhiked down to the port to have one last coffee and gyro at our favorite cafes before the boat arrived. We were exhausted and both a little sick with some kind of stomach bug, but giddy with the thought that we would soon be taking hot showers and sleeping in clean, warm beds (we left our sleeping bags, work boots, and other camping supplies on the island for the next round of volunteers). We had wisely decided to have a couple days of rest on the mainland near the island, which was enough to see us revitalized and ready to tackle the next leg of the trip: Istanbul.
We took an overnight bus to Istanbul, which was just a few hours away from Samothraki (the island was so close to Turkey that cell phones would sometimes pick up Turkish signal there). We had to buy an unexpected visa sticker at the border, but we made it into the country and to the city without issue.
On our first night we stayed in an Airbnb in the European city center, then for the rest of the trip we stayed with a guy named Berhan, a middle aged business consultant we found through a couch surfing app. It was our first experience with couch surfing, and we had no idea what to expect; our plan was to stay out of our host’s way and keep to ourselves, and generally try not to be a bother. So when we arrived to Berhan’s home early in the morning, we said our hellos and dropped off our bags, and then said we were going back out into the city right away to explore.
“Oh, leaving so soon?” Berhan said with some dismay. “Well, have a good day. Let me know if you need anything.”
“Sure, we’ll see you tonight!” Joe said, and I smiled and nodded along, trying to cover the apparent confusion.
“Did we do something wrong?” I wondered later as we headed into the city.
“Maybe he expected us to hang out with him? I figured he would have work,” said Joe. We shrugged it off and focused on the task at hand: sight seeing.
City of Crossroads
I fell in love with Istanbul almost immediately; the people, the food, the architecture, and the bazaars were all entrancing. The city was a mashup of western and eastern culture (literally straddling the continents of Europe and Asia) and had a chaotic energy that all of the residents seemed to be in tune with. Women in hijab mingled with women in miniskirts, men pulled huge carts loaded with supplies through pedestrian and automotive traffic alike, and dance clubs and restaurants glittered in the shadows of mosques. The smells of street food floated everywhere, especially sesame bagels, grilled corn, roasted chestnuts, and fresh squeezed juices, all available for less than $1 on every street. And then there was the tea; Turkish people drank tea at all times of day and night, and men carried trays of Istanbul’s iconic tulip shaped glasses through the streets for anyone who needed a spot of the hot drink then and there. There were also people hocking goods on the streets and in the bazaars and food markets, each shop keeper eager to draw in a new customer with free samples or interesting tidbits of information. Luckily, there was always a park or cafe nearby to step into for a break from the chaos.
A few of my favorite things from our week in the city included the elaborate Turkish breakfasts (especially bal-kaymak, clotted cream with honey on bread), the beautiful hand painted tiles that adorned mosques and palaces, the ferry rides between the three peninsulas of the city, reading and napping in the lush parks, and getting scrubbed down in a Turkish bath. And, of course, interacting with the people of the city.
The people we met in Turkey was friendly and helpful, more so than in any other place we’d been so far. We had one encounter at a cafe where the owner spoke very little English; we overheard as he asked a group of Turkish students how to say “How is the food?” and "Thank you very much!”, which he practiced to himself several before coming back to us with a big smile to try the new phrases. Although we couldn’t communicate much, he brought out tea at the end of the meal and sat with us for a few minutes, going through the few English words he knew to ask where we were from and if we liked Turkey. Sometimes he would call over a student to help translate. When the tea was finished, he asked excitedly, “Turkish dance?!” and pulled Joe to his feet for an improvised dance lesson, much to the amusement of everyone present. Another time, a couple at a cafe paid to have a tea brought to me when they saw me sketching nearby, responding with just a friendly wave and smiles when I gestured my thanks. We soon learned from our host that Turkish people love hospitality, so maybe that had something to do with it; either way, these moments made the city as a whole feel more welcoming to me.
We returned to Berhan’s place late, tired from a long day of walking, and after some brief polite chit chat with our host and his girlfriend, Joe and I got ready for bed. When I went to the living room to wish Berhan good night, he again looked upset.
“Bed? What about dinner?” he demanded. “We were waiting for you to eat!”
“Oh, we already ate,” I stammered, taken aback.
“But why?” said Berhan, seeming genuinely confused.
Joe appeared, and together we tried to placate our host, explaining that it was our first time couch surfing and that we didn’t want to be a bother, and we didn’t know how these things usually work. Berhan nodded as we spoke, and a mischievous twinkle appeared in his eye that make me think the gruffness had been for show. “We will plan to be back in time for dinner tomorrow, if you like,” Joe finished. Berhan nodded, seeming satisfied with this plan.
“Come, sit! Tell me about yourselves,” he said cheerfully, all awkwardness finally cleared from the air. We sat and talked for an hour or so, tell our host about ourselves and learning about him as well (though he was much more interested in learning about us and the unique “energy” we brought from our homelands). Once we were all on the same page, it became clear that Berhan was a friendly and welcoming host who took pleasure in making sure his guests had the best experience they could in Istanbul. He and his girlfriend made us dinner twice and he took us out for Turkish breakfast one morning, all while refusing our offers to return the favor. We learned from Berhan that Turkish people take honor and pleasure in hosting guests, and the only time he seemed upset was that first day when we unintentionally declined his hospitality. He provided useful recommendations for everything from haircuts to hammams, and made sure we were enjoying the best of the city. When we told Berhan that we’d decided to leave a day early, he squinted at us with that mischievous twinkle and said he’d have to think about it. There is a Turkish saying that a guest decides when they arrive, but the host decides when they may leave; luckily, Berhan relented, and walked us down to the train station to wish us safe travels.
As we headed to Bucharest, I wished sadly that we had more than a week in Istanbul. I hadn’t expected to fall for the city this way, and I hope to return someday for a longer stay. But for now, Joe and I were ready to make the jump over to western Europe to see what adventures await us this summer.