There’s a feeling that I get whenever the realization that I’ve entered a new country hits with its full weight. A description of this feeling which is both simple and effective escapes me. There isn’t a word that expresses the phenomenon without taking away the potency and uniqueness it has. It’s something that touches me at my depths and stirs up the sort of childlike wonder we once had about spaceships and dinosaurs, that we forget about as we grow older and jaded with the world. It’s a feeling that allows me to put aside my past disappointments, even the truly crushing ones, in order to live in the moment. It enables me to forget the stresses that come with living another precarious day as a working class person living out an expensive fantasy life of travel and adventure.
Dumas described the hard-drinking, womanizing Musketeer, Porthos as having a “lust for life” and while I’ve been known to get totally lost in the bliss of a particularly enjoyable moment, that’s still not quite what I mean. I’m talking about the sensation that comes at the end of the herculean effort required to climb the next ridge in order to survey a landscape previously hidden from view. It’s not contentment. It’s a zeal for the experience of the new and unfamiliar.
In Turkey, that moment did not come right away. It did not come for me when I first stepped off the plane and saw the signs written in a language that I could not read to save my life. It didn’t come when I was gazing out the windows of the bus at the minarets on the horizon, so exotic in the casual Orientalism that pervades even the most liberal consciousness in the West. It didn’t even come as we searched for our friend’s flat on the streets of Istanbul, bustling with the nightlife of young people raised in a culture so different from mine. It actually came the next morning during breakfast.
We sat drinking tea and eating Menemen, an amazing dish that was unknown to me a mere 30 minutes prior. Through the open windows I could hear the steady beat of drums in the distance accompanied by the distinct sound of a Zurna, a wind instrument common across the Middle East and Central Asia. Curious as to what was going on outside, we crossed the street and climbed a short stone wall to peer down into what appeared to be the courtyard of a school. A group of small children were gathered in circles, performing some sort of folk dance under the watchful eyes of their parents on one side and a bronze bust of Mustafah Kemal Atatürk (first president of the Turkish Republic) on the other. Above the whole joyous scene, fluttering lazily in the breeze, was the red banner adorned with a white crescent and star that has been Turkey’s national flag since the founding of the republic, and the symbol of the late Ottoman Empire before that.
That moment brought it all together. That’s when everything I had seen, smelled, heard, and tasted since stepping off of our flight from Malta two days ago finally hit me:
“We’re in Turkey! Can you believe it?”