In Turkey, tea is an invitation.
It may be presented as a means to draw you in to the musty confines of a carpet shop deep in the belly of the Grand Bazaar. It may be offered as a gift at the end of a meal, an establishment’s way of saying, “We enjoyed your patronage. Come eat with us again, lutfen.” In the case of sixteen lucky St. Olaf travelers, it became a welcomed glimpse into the intimate intricacies of daily life in Istanbul, away from the overwhelming hubbub of the Old City and the bright, pushy excitement of city nightlife.
After spending nine hours leading us through the Sultanahmet, from the Blue Mosque to the lofty underground cisterns, through bumbling backways heading straight to the best of the Egyptian Spice Market, our tourguide Serap Chan offered us such an invitation. As if her dedicated time and energy, her secrets and stories, hadn’t been enough, this beautiful soul of a woman extended us an invitation.
“This is not the real Turkey,” she said frankly. “You are nice students. Come have tea at my house tomorrow, and I will show you how we really live.”
True to her word, the following day, after a long day of Turkish lessons and attempting to navigate the Turkish bus system (an unbelievable feat, I promise), Serap met us at the Akmerkez Mall and immediately set off, ready to show us her side of this great city. We began our trek up in our own area of Istanbul, called Elemier, down the long, steep lengths of the cliffs that line the glittering Bosphorus, set out before us like a postcard. We were headed down, down, down to Ortokoi, a little town on the banks of the strait, known today for its glamorous nightlife and ritzy restaurants.
I think it’s safe to say that while we all assumed this destination was the “real Turkey” Serap had promised us, the walk itself was beyond enlightening. As we passed steep stone steps receding into the cliff side, Serap would point to the tall, looming buildings to which they led: ancient, dilapidated wooden homes dating to the Ottoman Empire, built into the walls above us. We’d turn a corner, past a young Turkish girl on her front step licking a popsicle and yet another stray cat, and find ourselves staring at an immense length of these homes just across a small valley, hundreds built one on top of another staring out over the Bosphorus with watchful eyes.
“These homes can go for two or three million dollars,” Serap throws to us, before she is yet again off around another bend in the road, while we are still managing to pick our jaws up off the ground.
Eventually, we find ourselves around yet another corner, stopped at the wooden door of one of these tall homes, richly colored like oxblood in front of us. A quick turn of the key in the door frame informs us that this is indeed Serap’s house, the place she recedes to each day after hours of wandering the same well-trodden tourist path with American and Japanese travelers with cameras slung around their necks, attempting to capture the city in a single shutter snap. It feels almost pushy to enter her sanctuary, but a warm smile and a “Come, come. What on Earth are you waiting for?” is enough to draw us in.
We are immediately greeted with a staircase. These homes are slim, but they are tall, extending both above and below us as we enter, layers upon layers of cultural intimacy. This house can, in a way, be indicative of our time in Istanbul. At first, we reside in the entry way of the city, seeing only that which is directly beyond the front door, what is offered to every visitor. If Istanbul was one of these Ottoman houses, the entryway would contain such marvels as the Hagia Sofia and the Tokapasi Palace, offered in plain sight to every traveler that wanders to its door.
Only upon climbing these stairs, that is, delving deeper into what Serap calls the “real Istanbul,” can we find the heart of the city: its people and their daily lives. A boy’s bedroom here is indicative, perhaps, of the local education system. A washing room there may represent the daily errands a mother makes to supply for her family. Finally, as we reach the top of the house, we reach the kitchen and seating room, an area that combined may take the name “living room,” a term which implies what we have truly come to witness in this house in Istanbul: life.
Over the next hour, time passes slowly as explore this lifestyle. Serap pours water into an electric kettle, and then pours some lush Turkish pastries in a bowl for us to eat.
“My neighbor will be so upset if I don’t bring him some first,” she mumbles. And she races across the kitchen to the open balcony where her neighbor, a German journalist, sits on his own balcony typing on his laptop while taking in the incredible view before him. She tosses a bag full of bread over the abyss, fifty or sixty feet deep to the street below, and he absentmindedly reaches out to catch it, looking up from his work only for a moment to offer a small smile and a wave. Later, some of us would adventure back to this balcony to ask him about his work, to discuss with him his day, to practice our German. These casual interactions seem to be just another piece to the life Serap lives. She makes small moments with each person she encounters and makes it meaningful. We are only hoping to do the same.
What we converse about is not important. We are simply enjoying ourselves, sipping tea, eating pastries, letting the warm Bosphorus wind tickle our hairs as it makes its way across the floor from balcony to balcony.
Eventually, it becomes time to leave. We pack our things and Serap takes off once again, around corners and under scaffolding, stopping to chat briefly with each person we encounter (whether she knows them or not). For a moment we pass a small church, a quiet café where two greying men sit and play backgammon over some tea of their own. Then, suddenly, we are facing a road, heavy with the chaotic Turkish traffic, and we are in Ortokoi. The bridge above us is lit up with blue twinkling lights, and across the street from us, nightclubs, restaurants, and street vendors mingle with locals and hip tourists (those smart enough to get past the front door of the Istanbul home, and up to, perhaps, the second floor of cultural intimacy). It is apparent that, while exciting, what lies before us is an entirely different part of Istanbul, one more open to public eye, and what lies behind us is something more private, more special.
As we break off for the night and say our good-byes to Serap, we ask her for some recommendations for dinner.
“Go there,” she says, pointing to a small hole-in-the-wall lokanta. “They have good tea.”