Those Little Oddities
Old bread seems to be left everywhere!
In Turkey old bread is not thrown into the garbage but rather put in a bag and hung off a fence, the side of a dumpster or, if does get put on the ground, then it will be done in such a way that birds can get at it. This is one thing that I’ve been trying to get a proper handle on for some time now. I’ve asked a number of my Turkish friends and the answers have ranged from not knowing what I was talking about, to religious or practical reasons. The religious aspect seems to be that bread is considered a symbol of Allah’s provision and so is almost seen as sacred and to be treated with respect. And so throwing it in the garbage or stepping on it is not OK. The non-religious reasons that I was given were simply that people in Turkey buy way too much bread and, rather than wasting bread that is only a bit stale, they put it out for the poor. My guess is that it’s actually a blend of both of these reasons depending on the individual.
The Evil Eye (Nazar)
This is one that many of you may know about already. It can be seen all over the place: cars, trucks, apartment doorways, trees, pinned on babies’ clothes, or, just as likely, in great heaps at tourist shops. The amulets are meant to ward off curses called the Evil Eye (though the fact that the amulet is made to look like an eye has also, confusingly, led to people referring to the amulet as the evil eye) and so they are put on things that are thought to need protection. As Turkey is a nation with a wide variety of developed-ness, and political and religious views, different people see the Nazar in different ways. Many just consider it an old superstition with no value beyond cultural heritage while others still see it as deeply important.
Cats and Dogs
First of all, street animals in Turkey differ in the major city centers and the countryside. In Istanbul, for example, the dogs tend to be well-fed, decently healthy, tagged and chill to the point of lazy café bums. Starbucks will often have a handful of resident dogs that mostly lay around the patio. People tend to go well out of their way so as not to disturb them. The same can be said for cats. I was in a lesson once where my Turkish friend had sat on the front of his seat for 5 hours so as to not disturb the sleeping cat that he was sharing the chair with. So in the cities at least, leave the animals alone, be nice, be gentle with them, and resist the urge to kick them unless it’s actually going to attack you.
Unlike the wealthier areas, people in the poorer neighborhoods and the countryside won’t go out and buy huge bags of pet food just to regularly feed the street animals, and they are less likely to have food scraps to put out and so the animals are a bit more scarce as well as a bit more ‘lively’. So sometimes they are lazy bums like their over-fed metropolitan relatives whereas they can also be a bit more aggressive.
All this to say don’t pay the city animals any mind, keep an eye on the ones outside of the city but it’s not something to be overly worried about. There is an exception however and that is guard dogs, in the cities as well as those in the countryside. Be wary of approaching a flock of sheep in the countryside as the local breed of sheep dogs are not to be messed with!
If you’re a Westerner like myself and used to having a rather large personal bubble then the way guys interact here will seem rather weird. When two friends meet they either kiss cheeks (it’s more of a forehead-to-forehead bump or a cheek-to-cheek tap much of the time though some still make a kissing noise) close friends will walk arm in arm, and they will tend to sit close to each other or, if really relaxed, lean against one another.
While this doesn’t really fit with this set of articles I thought I would include this little point in the ‘Male Affection’ part of this post because I think that it is somewhat helpful in understanding this aspect of the culture. Getting a scrub from a dude in a hamam (Turkish Bath) is something that, although not super common these days, does happen in Turkey (it’s called a Turkish bath after all). So you would think that a culture that has men scrubbing each other would be more accustomed to guys getting dressed in front of each other. This is NOT the case. Even though you’re wearing nothing but a towel while getting sandpapered (that’s what the hamam feels like) you DEFINITELY stay covered. When you change the towel, keep yourself covered the whole time. If this modesty is expected at the hamam, expect it in any other change room or such place.
OK, I admit the parrots aren’t limited to cemeteries but that’s where I was when I first noticed them and it’s a catchy title. The bright green Parakeets (there are other types as well but the vast majority are Ring-Necked Parakeets) number in the thousands and are believed to be steadily increasing in number despite originally being from much warmer climates. While I first saw them in a cemetery they can also be seen in any other heavily treed place such as the older public parks and or some palace grounds around the city of Istanbul. If you see any in Turkey outside of Istanbul let me know!
While no one knows for sure how these Parakeets ended up becoming so numerous in the city over the past two or three decades, there are a number of theories. Unfortunately none of these involve aliens. One theory suggests that they are escaped zoo birds from Iraq during the Gulf War. Another suggests that they escaped from the airport after being seized by customs officers. However they arrived they appear to be thriving and are definitely one of the odd sights of this city.
People with Scales
It’s not uncommon to see people sitting by the side of some busy street with a scale. Basically you pay a small fee (.50 – 1 lira usually) and weigh yourself. I had originally thought there was something more to it, like they guess your weight or something. Turns out I was wrong and it’s as simple as paying to weigh yourself. So if you want to support these people who attempt to earn a living by doing this go for it and be generous even if the occupation seems pretty weird.
Garbage Collectors and Recyclers
Istanbul is an ancient and very crowded city. As such it faces many challenges regarding waste disposal. In some areas only very small vehicles can get through the streets and so garbage is piled in agreed upon spots and collected by tiny trucks frequently. In newer neighborhoods where the streets are wider public dumpsters are used and emptied daily. And while designated recycling bins are slowly starting to appear (though they’re not often used properly yet), the vast majority of recycling is done by people who walk the streets pulling huge sacks on carts. They’re paid very poorly to scavenge any recyclables out of the trash and bring it in to be processed. Keep this is mind when disposing of your trash and try to keep any recyclables separate to make their work easier and keep recycling more efficient.
NOTE: Since writing this, the culture has changed. In 2019 a new law came out so that plastic bags now cost 25 kuruş. This was met with a lot of anger at first as well as some hilarity. Some people were even attempting to return the bags to get their money back and others set up tables in front of grocery stores selling bags for only 15 kuruş!
On the surface the way people use plastic bags here seems quite normal. However, being from a place where we’ve been trying to get away from disposable everything we often go out with our own reusable bags. Our neighborhood shopkeepers thought this was hilarious, even to the point of bringing our bags to the attention of everyone else nearby! Not long later we were watching a film in Turkish (Babam ve Oğlum) when an older man is in a shop and gets mad at the clerk for not giving him a bag for carrying his things in. “What am I a child that I would carry it in my hands?” he yells.
Clerks may seem a little pushy about giving a bag when you buy something, and if you don’t want it you can refuse it of course (say ‘gerek yok’ or there’s no need), they may just think it a little odd, though I have heard one shopkeeper say he thought it was a good idea. In the end just remember they do it out of a desire to serve their customers well.
This comic sums it up well:
Crazy Loud Vans and Chanting Mobs
These are really two separate things. The first is the loud vans blasting music. These are usually to do with elections or other such political events. I’m writing this right before a referendum and so these vans with speakers mounted on the roofs have taken to the streets to blast their messages. One party has rewritten Queen’s We Will Rock You anthem and are playing that all over.
Chanting mobs aren’t what we would usually like to hear as a tourist in a foreign country. And while there have been protests and mobs in the past, often enough it’s actually something much more benign. In Turkey military service is mandatory and before the young men leave for their service there’s often a parade (though it looks and sounds more like a mob) of young men lighting off fire-crackers, chanting, honking horns, and other such things.
Çınar Ağacı (Plane Trees)
If you’ve been to any of Istanbul’s old parks or historical sites you will probably have noticed the large, sometimes humongous, and ancient trees. The vast majority of these are plane trees (Çınar Ağacı) and while one can easily appreciate them just as beautiful trees, the plane tree has a special place in Turkish culture and landscape.
While the relationship between the Turks and the plane tree goes back to a time before spreading westward out of central Asia, the plane tree became especially prominent during the Ottoman period. The reason given for this is rooted in a story about Osman, the founder of the Ottoman empire. While Osman was still a young prince he fell in love with the daughter of a famous and important sheikh (the daughters name was Mal Hatun, Mal means stupid in modern Turkish so let us assume that the meaning has changed over the last 700 years) and asked the sheikh for her hand in marriage. The sheikh did not agree to the arrangement due to the disparity in their social rank, and later the melancholy Osman went to sleep. As he slept he dreamed that he saw himself sleeping near the sheikh when suddenly a full moon began to rise out of the sheiks chest then settle upon his own chest. Then he saw a plane tree sprout up when the moon had sunk. The tree grew tall and broad and its canopy spread over the whole horizon. In its shade was three continents and four mountain ranges. From the base of the tree flowed four great rivers, the Danube, Nile, Tigris, and the Euphrates. When he woke Osman shared his dream with the sheikh who understood it as a good omen; it showed how Osman would become a powerful ruler over vast territories. Because of the dream the sheikh no longer considered the match to be unfavorable and the pair were married.
As a result of this dream the tradition of planting a plane tree next to any important site began so many historical sites will have plane trees nearby. Some of these trees are so huge and ancient that they have become tourist attractions themselves.
Like many places that have been urbanized for centuries, public fountains are a common sight in Turkey. While some Hellenistic and Roman fountains are still in use the vast majority are of Ottoman origin. Many of the more grand mosques will have a plane tree and a monumental fountain as a part of the complex. Whether or not the water is safe to drink will vary from fountain to fountain. Fountains will range from the grand and the ornate, to the utilitarian, to the ruinous.
Who Atatürk is and why he’s important is the subject of many a long book and so I’m not going to even attempt to explain Turkey’s intricate and ever evolving relationship with Atatürk. However, as his face is on (nearly) every piece of money, his statues are all over, his signature is one of the nations most popular tattoos for men and women, his bust is in nearly every schoolyard, his portrait is in most shops (there is a rug portrait of him at a restaurant by my house), and every town will have at least one street named after him, it is important to have an idea of who he is. His name is Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and Atatürk means the father of the Turks. This was a last name he took on after founding the republic of Turkey following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire during WWI. He reformed the language (as a language learner I am VERY grateful that Turkey uses the Latin rather than the Arabic script) and pushed hard for modernization, secularization, and Westernization. But like most important historical figures there are strong opinions surrounding him so by all means, speak respectfully of him but probably don’t go and buy a shirt with his face on it then go hiking in Hakkari. If you want to stay in everyone’s good books, be respectful of him but remember that he’s not universally loved.
If you want to know more about him, his life, and his ever evolving legacy in modern Turkey there are plenty of good, and well researched books on the subject out there.
One truly weird yet common sight are the numerous men with bloody scalps and head-bands touring Istanbul. This isn’t some mystery illness, rather it’s one of the many reasons that people flock to the country. Turkey attracts tens of thousands of visitors for hair transplants every year, most of them Arabs, who get the surgery and see the sights sporting a weird bloody grid pattern on the front and back of their heads.
If you see anything else that seems odd to you please send us a message! We’d love to help explain or discover a new oddity we know nothing about yet!