Monday, September 03, 2012

Reflections on Turkey – Part 1, Closeness

Turks by-and-large are an open, outgoing people, more so than North Americans and Qataris. One word I sometimes use to describe them is “huggy”, and once they know you they tend to engage in closer contact than you might find in other cultures. This is important to know if you are someone who is big on "personal space" as Turks don’t follow that to the same degree as elsewhere.

For example my friend Murat and I were walking in downtown Mudanya. We were going to see a friend of his who ran a mobile accessory store as we needed to buy a Turkish SIM card. When we got there he greeted Murat enthusiastically, shook my hand with a smile when I was introduced as Murat's friend, and then we went just outside his small shop where he had a couple of chairs so we could chat over some tea. There was another person in the store at the time and he joined us outside as well.

As there were only two chairs I was sitting while our host was standing, and while he stood next to me and chatted with his friend and Murat he kept his hand on my shoulder. In North America it would be pretty unusual for that to happen with someone you had only met two minutes ago but in Turkey I guess that is not unusual at all. That probably wouldn't be done with a stranger but I was a friend of a friend so I guess in Turkey a friend of your friend is your friend as well.

Openness appeared to be a hallmark of the culture. There were times when people on the Mudanya Corniche would ask me questions, or if they knew Murat we were immediately invited to their café table to chat about whatever. I received invitations to people's homes for snacks and tea. And all it would take is an introduction from my friend and workers at restaurants would come over to say hi. One visit and the barber remembered me. Someone else offered to take me to the Hammam in Bursa so that I could see the place and to tour around the city.

As a frequent traveler I usually get suspicious of such out-of-the-blue offers of hospitality. Sadly it's difficult nowadays for a tourist to not assume such things are some kind of scam. Knowing that I was with a Turk, and also not in a city frequented by foreign tourists, it was great to be able to accept the hospitality without worrying about any ulterior motives.

Another example. When I was in Bodrum I managed to find a small café in an alleyway where the owner sold tea and coffee (at reasonable prices) to the other shop owners so he and his assistant were always running back and forth to the shops to deliver cups of tea. Seats primarily consisted of small stools out in the alleyway. Every day I would stop by there for a Turkish coffee, or a tea if it was later in the evening, as in my opinion it was one of the few "authentic" places in central Bodrum, tucked away from the fancy shops and restaurants. I never saw a tourist there but there were always Turks from the neighborhood sitting around chatting.

The owner didn't speak any English so conversation consisted of me ordering a drink but given I was one of the few tourists who came to his café he quickly recognized me whenever I would come up the alleyway. During my last night in Bodrum after paying for my coffee I gestured that I was flying home so the owner came up and gave me a hug (consisting of hug on one side of the face then the other, kind of like the double kiss that Europeans do only without the kiss) and said what I assume was Turkish for goodbye.

All I had done was have maybe five or six drinks over the week at his café. We couldn't talk to one another. He didn't even know my name. Yet I was still given a goodbye hug.

Even at the airport in Ankara the lady working at the café, when she realized I was trying to use Turkish to order, spent time to teach me the Turkish words for the various pastries and drinks that were available, as well as the Turkish words for small and large so that I could better order in Turkish. She understood English perfectly well yet wanted to teach me Turkish words so as to help me order in Turkish. (No, there was no one else in line so it's not like other customers were impatiently waiting for me to figure out Turkish)

It's a sharp contrast to Canada where people are generally polite but not as open, or Qatar, where locals can be very friendly and hospitable once you get to know them -- but it takes a lot more to get to know them.

The Turks I know have been unable to really explain why Turks are open like that, they just are.

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