Happy Turks and smiling friends

You might remember from a previous post our less-than-entirely-successful attempt to get a taxi driver to take us to Rumeli fortress in Istanbul – our fault;  the locals know it as ‘Rumelihisarı’, and if you can’t communicate the ‘fortress’ part of the name to a taxi driver who doesn’t speak English, then you’re just left with ‘Rumeli’, which just refers to the Roman (ie European) side of Istanbul.

After the taxi driver gave up and just picked a random spot on the European side of the bridge to drop us, we started walking in what we figured was probably the right direction for the fortress.  We’d become reasonably good at asking directions during the day, and so we employed this skill once more.  Walking through a residential area, we interrupted a large group of people – I think a family – talking on the street, in front of what I presume was their house.  They helped as much as they could, communicating a surprisingly large amount of details with a few basic gestures, repeated emphatically.  (Apparently it was shaping up to be a longish walk.)  They even called over a friend from down the road to help, since she had a little more English than the rest.

And so we walked off in the direction they’d indicated.  Only to hear, two minutes down the road, polite honking from behind us.  One of the party had gone and fetched his car, and was waving us in:  he drove us to exactly where we wanted, which turned out to be about ten minutes’ drive away, through a series of narrow winding side streets.  (The meandering drive provided us the opportunity to bond with the driver as all three of us marvelled and laughed at the big removals truck bravely soldiering through roads that he really didn’t quite fit down, and around corners that he surely couldn’t make).  This despite our new friend speaking very limited English, and us speaking no Turkish;  all purely on the basis that we’d looked lost and asked for directions.

So this is the other thing I loved about Istanbul, and in fact about all of Turkey.  It’s friendly.  Everyone is.  Not in the sense that people are polite and patient – they are, but that’s not the point.  In the sense that people will naturally treat you the way you would treat your friends.  And they’ll be happy in their interactions with you, and with other people.

By way of comparison, the last bus trip I took in London (out to Gatwick) and the first bus trip I took in Istanbul each featured a bus driver loudly talking into a phone.  For all I know, I suppose the Turkish driver’s conversation may well have involved just as much swearing as the Londoner’s one – but I doubt it.  The London trip certainly didn’t involve the grins and laughs that the Istanbul one did.  Seriously, when did you last see a happy bus driver in the UK?  In Turkey, they all were.  Every time I got on an intercity bus, it was to be greeted by a face that seemed to be glad to see me from behind the steering wheel.  And likewise every interaction with the staff (what do you call the guy who roams the bus checking tickets and bringing water and making sure people get off at the right stops with the right bags – an attendant?  a steward?  a maître’d?!).  There was always a huge store of patience and helpfulness, regardless of level of English.

And it wasn’t just the staff.  I was slightly bemused to get a particularly friendly and earnest waved goodbye from the (non-English-speaking) Turkish passenger who’d been sitting next to me on the bus from Izmir as he got off a couple of hours before the bus’s destination of Çanakkale.  My contribution to our apparent friendship in the few hours we’d been on the bus so far consisted basically of dozing and snoring myself ungracefully awake, but that was enough to warrant a fond farewell, apparently.

There isn’t really much of a point to this post, I suppose.  And there aren’t any pretty pictures, either.  But it seemed worth mentioning anyway:  it makes a big difference to your travels to see smiles on everyone’s faces, and it obviously makes a huge difference when everyone is so willing to help and to be patient, even if they don’t speak your language and you don’t speak theirs.  Other places I’ve stayed have certainly had their moments – don’t get me wrong, there have been lots of friendly people pretty much everywhere I’ve been (and I’m sure I’ll be told off mercilessly if I don’t mention that the Spaniards can be some of the best at this, and ditto if I don’t admit that I haven’t been to Brazil yet, but am told to expect great things) – but Turkey pulls it off better than any other destination I’ve been to so far.

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