We sometimes get stuck in our comfort zones. I remember the first time someone suggested that I visit Istanbul; it felt too far away.
“What would I do there?” I’d ask.
Plenty of people would rave on about how Istanbul’s one of those really great places with great markets and interesting sights to see.
“Sure, but what would I do there?” I’d still ask.
No one ever really had a concrete answer. Until one day, a friend of mine suggested that we go to Istanbul for a few days. I’m not really sure what made me suddenly want to go visit Turkey, but I agreed to go. I then realized how different Istanbul was from most of the places I had been travelling to. I had been mostly traversing Western Europe, and though Istanbul seemed to be somewhat European, it was still completely different from anything I had seen thus far.
Walking through the city, it didn’t feel too foreign. It definitely wasn’t anything like Spain, but it felt reminiscent of a place I had never been before.
How is this even possible? How can this feel familiar, if I’ve never seen anything like this before? I’d think to myself.
My friend and I walked around to see the main sites – the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia, the bazaar, the water, even one very empty Turkish bath – but it was really my experience with the people of Istanbul that defined my trip there.
Never one to expect anything significant to be directed to me, I really expected most people to ignore me. The friend I was travelling with was very obviously foreign to Turkey, whereas I could easily blend in. So, it surprised me how much the locals took an interest in me.
“Where are you from? No, where are you really from? You could be Turkish.”
I would hear the above line consistently throughout the trip. And whenever I would insist that I wasn’t Turkish, it was always met with skepticism. Until I would confirm that while I was Canadian, my parents were originally Afghan.
“Oh, wow! I really like Afghan culture! Here, have a discount!”
It was unexpected. For most of my life, I had to explain why I looked different from the average person in my city. Most people thought I was Spanish, to the point that sometimes I would hear unflattering things about the region of the world where my parents actually came from. I got so used to not saying where my parents are originally from, if only to save myself from having to explain things further.
In Istanbul, however, my origins were appreciated. And in Spain, it was the same thing. It was really the first time I had ever felt happy to explain my parents’ origins, my origins, and the whole story. I never felt the need to explain myself the way I felt I had to with people of other places. Turkish people simply understood.
Istanbul is one of those few places where I think I could go back multiple times and enjoy it every time. The city is so vast, varied, and impossible to get to know in one trip. It’s also culturally familiar, for me, without being completely removed from what I feel comfortable with. It is, essentially, a meeting point between the east and west.
It’s also where I had my first overwhelmingly-positive experience in regards to my background. Although I had also received mostly positive feedback in Spain, my origins story made me feel like a friend of the people I met in Istanbul.
We take moments like this for granted. We think nothing of it, until we realize, years later, that moments like this impact us in a great way. I don’t have many photographic memories of this trip to Istanbul, though I made myself take a few pictures as the city itself was stunning beyond words. But I’m glad that I didn’t capture every little moment, nor every little exchange, because the memories have stuck with me more than a moment of instant gratification ever could. I’m grateful that I was able to visit Istanbul, and I hope to go back again soon.