The whole family of nine in Turkey. Photo by author.

How to Overthink a Family Vacation

by Jenna van Schoor Oct 14, 2011
Here’s what happens when you combine food, family, and Istanbul.

RYAN IS HUNGRY, but the rest of the family isn’t stopping so that he can buy a lamb shawarma from that white, glass-paned restaurant along the Sultanahmet tramline that we all ate at yesterday.

And by the rest of the family I mean the four members at the front of the group, led by an insistent younger sibling, Megan, who is intent on getting to the Hagia Sofia just down the street.


She’s walking ahead of everyone else, with her long hair and long legs, and the others–my father, mother, and other brother Jamie—are following suit.

I’ve been with Ryan when he’s hungry in a foreign country before. Well, to be more specific, on a plane in Brussels. A plane that was stuck between the runway and the airport for about three hours…three hours that felt like an eternity without being able to eat anything.

I remember Ryan pacing up and down the aisles, trying to ease his frustration. In hindsight, I think he handled it well.

So I know what this current situation is. This situation, with the debated shawarma buying on a Sultanahmet street, is that moment when some manifestation of family allegiances will become apparent, and the potential for tension and fighting arises.

I hate it, I can’t handle it. You would think that growing up in a family of seven would have taught me some necessary confrontational skills. Instead, it’s made me ridiculously passive.

And in this particular situation I’m torn, choosing instead to take photos of a ridiculous lion cartoon cardboard cut-out whose tail is positioned awkwardly between his legs, which makes it look like something else. Something I tell Jamie and Megan in between bickering. Something I’m not sure they fully appreciated.

I continue to hang back, halfway between the family upfront who are in pursuit of the queue ahead to the ancient Turkish mosque, and my hungry older brother behind me, unfailingly supported by my sister-in-law Suzi.

I don’t really see why we can’t stop, but in between trying to balance the tension between the need to move forward and the resistance behind me, I get anxious. I’m worried because I know Ryan is going to be upset, and hungry.

And hunger has led to anger before.

But hunger is never a problem when Russ and Ilze are right next to you. My other older brother and sister-in-law’s love for good food makes them the best people to visit for dinner, and secondly, the ideal trip food foragers.

In fact, they were the ones who serendipitously discovered bouregi, a roulade style cheese-stuffed pastry the day before, when we were all hungry, dirty, and trying to negotiate a city on a plane journey’s worth of sleep and a last minute hotel change.

But today, things are different. Yesterday, members of the family had tasted shawarma they knew they weren’t going to have access to forever, and they didn’t want to give up this food, especially considering their predisposition to beef.

And then something else happens that changes everything.

In an ideally timed split from the main group, Russ and Dad go on a mission to find shawarmas. Ilze decides to go on a food mission too, and has an interesting conversation with the man behind the pistachio-in-everything pastry counter, who sells us bouregi, but who is unconvinced that South Africa is really a country.

It’s during this time that Russ thinks he’s lost Ilze, Dad makes his way back to the family in the queue, and we all manage to have a much-needed break from each other.

I’d had a brief moment of concern before we left on this trip, actually…the realization that all nine of us, sister-in-laws and in-utero future family members included, would all be together.

For a whole week.

All nine of us.

It scared me a little bit, but I was mostly excited, and in disbelief. I was scared because I thought there would be more of these tense moments, or that somehow all of our collective idiosyncrasies would eventually combine to create a huge fuck-up.

But that’s the interesting thing about family.

After the foraging incident, Ryan eating, and all of us finishing off a cardboard box filled with cheese and mince stuffed bouregi and five shawarmas from another restaurant, everything was actually okay.

We went on to take cheesy group huddle-over-camera-on-the-floor-in-a-circle photos under the Hagia Sofia dome, laughing at the weird and still incomprehensible activity of having to put our thumbs into a hole in a sacred mosque pillar while turning our hands clock-wise in a complete circle around it to get granted a wish.

And then laugh more while taking photos of each doing said thumb-twist thing.

Maybe it was the combination of historical awe and respect for the volume of the mosque dome, the bizarre museum rituals, or the calm atmosphere created by the glow of the low-hanging gold, flower-shaped lights above us, but after that it felt like the family trip had really begun.

We even found more of that fresh watermelon on sale outside the gates when we left. Juicy, fresh, slightly sticky watermelon that we all ate with our hands like some kind of newfound tradition, for a few minutes, everyone engrossed in eating something that requires fairly consistent attention.

And after that I didn’t really think about it again, the fear of the family fuck-up. It was just a minor disturbance exaggerated by hunger and my tendency to over-think.

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