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7 Lifesaving Tips for Travelers in Turkey

by Alexandra Thomas May 29, 2014

Living and working in Turkey has been quite the experience to say the least; I’ve been stressed out, freaked out, inspired, smitten, rescued, amazed, educated, thoroughly bathed, and so on. And, after that short amount of time, I’m quite a different — cleaner — person with some serious Turkish street smarts.

Here are 7 things to learn before traveling to Turkey.

1. Don’t stand in the front of a dolmuş.

A dolmuş (“dol-mush”) is a minibus that takes you to the locations stated on a sign in its windshield at the cheap price of two TL. They’re a godsend in Turkey when you don’t have a car, and they’re everywhere, which means you can catch one at any time.

But as a foreigner on a dolmuş, say your destination to the driver, pay, and then move to the back. The people who stand in the front of the dolmuş — by a default cultural norm — have the job of passing up money to the driver and relaying at which destinations to stop. If you happen to find yourself in the front, holding passed-up money, and have no idea what the hell is being said to you, calmly say, “Pardon, Türkçe yok,” (Sorry, no Turkish) and move to the back. Everything will be fine. You won’t understand either way if they’re cursing you or not.

2. Roll up your jeans up before entering a public restroom.

Regardless of whether or not you end up being blessed with a normal toilet or cursed with one of those holes in the ground, you might want to roll your jeans up before entering — not just the actual stall, but the entire restroom itself. Because without fail, there’s always a ton of water on the floor, and a water-combo in the stall itself. If you forget to do this, my advice would be to not speculate too much on what’s soaking the bottom of your pant legs. Just pretend it’s majority water and go about your day.

3. Çiğ köfte may be delicious, but pace yourself.

Çiğ köfte (“chee-kof-tey”) is typically a side dish, looks like raw meat, is red in color, spicy, and you wrap it in iceberg lettuce to eat. It’s delicious and most of the time is made of bulgur, a type of grain. Regardless of its composition, if you eat too much it will run through your body like an Olympic sprinter holding a blowtorch. So my advice, limit yourself to two pieces. It will be much easier on your body this way.

4. After eating out, always pocket the wet wipes.

Because I’ve obviously had quite a few bad run-ins with Turkish restrooms, another tip would be to pocket the individually wrapped wet wipes provided at every Turkish restaurant. The probability of there being any toilet paper in a public restroom, and it being dry, is not very high. I’ve definitely come to appreciate Turkey and their strong wet-napkin culture.

5. Fenerbahçe or Galatasaray? Pick one and be ready to be chastised for picking either.

Fenerbahçe (“Fin-er-ba-che”) and Galatasaray (“Ga-la-ta-suh-rye”) are the two biggest football teams in Turkey and are based in Istanbul. Every Turk is one or the other first, with their hometown football team in a permanent second.

You have about a 50/50 chance of the person with whom you’re talking liking either Fenerbahçe or Galatasaray. You won’t know which team they like because they want to know first which team you like. Once you say, “Uh…Fenerbahçe?” they’ll then proceed to throw their hands up in the air and spout off some Turkish but smile simultaneously. Because the Turks just like to cut up and revel in watching you squirm for that small moment.

6. During Ramadan, don’t eat before the 8pm ezan (call to prayer) in a restaurant.

One night all of my coworkers and I had to attend a mandatory business dinner. This was during Ramadan; I knew all about this holiday because my students were zombies during the entire month due to fasting, and we talked about it in our classes. But when your stomach is growling, and there’s a bowl of bread sitting in front of you at 7:45pm, and you haven’t eaten all day, minor details like that tend to escape you. So I unwrapped the bread bowl and began to eat.

Mid-chew, one of my Turkish coworkers looked at me with a forced smile and a look of what-the-hell-are-you-doing on her face and said, “Not yet!” But the Turks in my group, being the hospitable people they are, just smiled and said go ahead. If you’re hungry, you’re hungry, but I will never make that mistake again.

7. When your English student has the choice of having dinner with anyone in the world, it will always be Atatürk. Deal with it.

When teaching one particular unit, we begin by asking our students one question: “If you could have dinner with anyone in the world, who would it be?” Without fail the answer is always Atatürk before the question leaves our mouths. This can be quite aggravating at times, because you’re dying for some answer like Sting or Tom Cruise, just to break the monotony.

But it will never be, because this is Turkey, and all Turks feel, after they’ve explained why Atatürk is the perfect dinner mate, that you as a foreigner also deserve to know the history of the Republic. Let’s just say my high-school world history class has officially been refreshed tenfold.

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