Widening the circle: Friends of friends of friends in Istanbul

As we ride our train away off to Eskişehir, Istanbul remains one of the most remarkable places in our travels. I know that sounds kitschy and cliché but go to Istanbul. Check out some of the tourist attractions and then figure out how to navigate the buses, trams, ferries a bit and head out into Istanbul proper. Meet somebody. Take a chance. It’s so easy to do in Istanbul, you just have to try.

We lucked out and found a cheap accommodation in the bustling European neighborhood of Beyoğlu (pronounced: Bay-oh-loo). A Turk, a Greek and a Hungarian all came together and built an upcoming and busy little hostel called the “Stray Cat Hostel”. You might think of the band but it actually references the cats that wander in from time to time off the city streets. If you don’t mind them, in general the cats are a clean bunch, then it’s a great place to choose as a homebase to explore the city.

Sadath, Maya and Chris were always near when a question arose or we just needed to know something practical about how to get to a local site. Tracie and I, as usual, were always challenging the limits by asking about areas not even on the tourist maps. We lucked out and visited places that most tourists would never see. That’s partly because we really aren’t tourists and partly because we are a fortunate pair.

At the Stray Cat Hostel you can choose to get up and head out as early as you please or wake up in the leisurely way that is Istanbul and rise in time to catch a Turkish breakfast from 9am to 11am. For us it turned out to be filled with a trove of remarkable individuals, many we spent countless hours passing the morning and evenings discussing our “plans of action” present and future. The Stray Cat hostel provides just enough amenities and space to sleep well, get ready for your day and get the information you need to enjoy the delightfully European city with an Islamic flare. Anyone willing to step out and off the tourist map just needs to come armed with a little information and a few questions to get Sadath going.

Of course we checked out some of the most intriguing sites of Istanbul but there are enough to keep you busy for a lifetime. Mission bound as we have been we set our sights to find out about volunteering for a farm stay somewhere in Turkey. Before we left the states we had found an organization called Buğday (Pronounced: Boo-dye-meaning wheat in Turkish) but the majority of their information seemed to be in Turkish so we opted to procrastinate and head to Turkey before we really got our nose into planning. This lead to a lot of down-to-the-wire communication and coordination that eventually cleared into clouds with silver lining. We finally got in touch with the right person, a gentleman named Victor Ananias who has been working with the organization for over twenty years. Victor told us to come find him at an upcoming Saturday organic market close to the Osmanbey Metro stop.

We set out late on Saturday morning and eventually found the market. The way it works when you want to find something, not just in Turkey but any country that has a foreign language you don’t know, is to copy down the words as best as you can and show them to people. One person sends you to one corner with some hand gestures and tells you to ask again when you get there. And you do, and eventually you find it. We ended up at a crossroads of a road and what seemed to be a walled parking lot and a Turkish woman overhead me saying that “…I don’t know if this is a road…” that it was. This took us across to another road where a bicycle bound Turk asked in Turkish if we knew where the market was and switched to English when we looked perplexed. We told him no and he said he’d ride down and check. He waved us to the right place.

Once we arrived we found the Buğday information table front and center and managed to track down some people that knew where Victor was. We sat down at a table and met a Woman named Gizem and a woman named Esra that both spoke English and were chatting with a Turkish friend that was there to play saxophone for the market’s 4th anniversary. Gizem it turns out was the communications director of the organization and Esra was on the board, so we’d stumbled into the hands of the right people. Victor was also there and we talked to him intermittently until he got up to greet a few people that had come to visit with him. Victor was a busy man and the charismatic and intellectual leader of the organization and was being beckoned at every turn.

But Esra and Gizem had dropped in just to hang out and celebrate the market’s 4th anniversary and welcomed us with some local food and flavor. We quickly all hit it off, them recounting how our blog had made the rounds in the office, which explained while they shook their heads yes as we introduced ourselves to them and we all settled down to talk. We chatted about everything and nothing and eventually Esra declared it was time that they (Gizem and Esra) figure out who we should try to volunteer with as it seemed Victor had his hands full with just saying hello to everyone that had come to celebrate the market’s four years of success and hard work.

Esra and Gizem quickly settled on a woman named Gürsel Tonbul (Gew-sel Tahn-bull) and her farm and restaurant near a city called Izmir. When Victor finally was freed up they mentioned this to him and he explained her requirements and some things we could do to try and set it up and then we launched into a short history of his experience with the organization. The market itself, thriving over the past years took six years to build via the bureaucratic layers as they are and continues today as one of the four examples of organic markets for the ordinary consumer in Istanbul today.

Victor recounted how Buğday began as a restaurant, as he was a cook for many years who traveled the world learning many ways of vegetarian cooking. He decided to open a organic vegetarian restaurant to help educate and spread the word about sustainable ways of living. He figured a restaurant could be one of the most direct ways to connect with people and eventually, eight years later, the restaurant spawned an organization that works to connect people of all levels of experience and profession to organic and sustainably raised foods. They also provide trainings on sustainable living and much of there work is hands on learning. Not only did his early ideas sound akin to our own, but his passion and sense of direction radiated from his being and he quickly helped us realize we’d stumbled into a group of golden individuals. Our luck had come again.

Not only were we lucky to meet Victor, but we were lucky to meet Gizem and Esra. We chatted about the World Cup as it seems it had taken two more victims, both of their husbands, Esra’s from France and Gizem’s from the United States. Both were home separately watching the game while we shared Gösleme in an organic market. When we finally all decided that we’d better explore the market and say our goodbyes Esra invited us to join her, her husband Damien and friends for a dinner later in the week. We said yes and exchanged information.

A few days later we were standing in her kitchen looking south out the kitchen window into the Sea of Marmara and North into the Bosporus. You could stand in one place in the kitchen and see both. That evening we met her friends she’d grown up with since middle school and we chatted about food ad life and ate food, drank wine and enjoyed the evening. We all sat around the table at one point and Esra declared that this wasn’t the “real” Istanbul and let out a shriek of laughter. But for us it was Istanbul is nothing if it isn’t diverse. We experienced the streets and the mosques by day and the European blend of partner pair ups at a party like this. Istanbul is truly a city where cultures and continents collide.

Take the fact that a simple email to my sister, who has a Turkish friend that she hasn’t seen in over a decade, whom we’re on a train heading towards. We called up Nusret and he not only welcomed our visit to his home in Eskesehir, but seemed genuinely determined to help us find our way in this vast beautiful land that is Turkey. He even went as far as to call up his brother who live in Istanbul who then offered to come welcome us to Istanbul, Hosgeldiniz Istanbul! We called up Selvet and he arranged to pick us up the next day for lunch.

Selvet showed up right on time the next day. He whisked us off to a lovely fish restaurant in his neighborhood near Levent that sat overhanging the Bosporus. We chatted about our ideas for farming and his life. After lunch, gracious of another host that brought us to another beautiful place in the world I sneakily paid for lunch, much to my regret. Selvet boiled at the server in Turkish about how a Turkish host was supposed to pay and we left under a weight of silence.

I felt terribly bad for having insulting him, that wasn’t my intention. It began to clear up a bit after I re-iterated our thankfulness at his welcoming us and the fog cleared and he announced we’d share dinner together too. He took us to his house where we relaxed for the remainder of the afternoon chatting about ideas about life. He told us about his business, his farm and his family and we told him about our ideas for our project. We finished off the day watching Japan lose to Paraguay in the quarter finals of the World Cup and then set off to a lovely dinner that served up fare from his hometown area Adana. After stuffing ourselves fully he took us up and over the mountain back to our cozy little hostel.

Despite ourselves, things work out. Despite our inability to speak or read Turkish we saw things and went places few tourists from other countries have or will. Over the course of the previous week we finally figured out that the bureaucratic way is not the favored way of making connections in Turkey and that meeting and talking to people is the best way to operate. We got in touch with Gürsel Tonbul who welcomed us to come visit and told us where and how. So, now we’re nearly to Eskisehir, and by the time I post this we may already have come and gone from there. But we travel in a familiar landscape into friendly hands thankful for the goodwill that truly fills the globe.