Me in Hagia Sophia
When we arrived in Istanbul a few days ago, I found it very hard to believe I was in Turkey. I suddenly realized I would have to adjust to a new country, culture and environment rather quickly to fully understand and enjoy this new place during our time here.
In hindsight, I never realized how quickly I adjusted to Italy and each of the cities I got to visit and experience. I think the ability to adapt came from the moments in which I was lead to be outside of my comfort zone. It was when I was in them that I became most comfortable with the new country and environment I was in and found I was able to adjust.
As I attempt to adjust to Istanbul, Turkey, I begin to realize I may have to step away from my comfort zone in order to adjust and feel the most comfortable in this new place. Although I’m not quite sure how to step outside of the box that is my comfort zone, I’ve come to realize how unfamiliar I am with two things here in Istanbul: transportation and language. In many ways understanding the language will transport you to where you want to go in any country, but for me, I’m speaking in the most literal terms.
During our week in Italy, I realized how unfamiliar I was with public transportation and their version of the subway. In Rome, we would go on class “walkabouts” at night to different historical sites and jump on the metro. It was during these instances, as a group, that I personally realized how inexperienced I was with the means of transportation. Many local people take the metro and in any given ride from one stop to the next, you’re surrounded by a language that you can’t always understand. In many cases, it wasn’t just English or Italian, sometimes I could hear German, and sometimes I wasn’t even sure of what I was hearing. In any case, as I’d wait for our stop, I would listen to the conversations that surrounded me, much like the other passengers could listen to our English exchanges with one another. Even though I couldn’t understand the language, I desired to. I wanted to. Occasionally there would be a word or phrase I could pick up on, sometimes I would be able to understand bits and phrases of what the over-head voice would say. When my ears were able to pick up a small amount of Italian at a time, I could feel my comfort level increase and my ability to adjust was much more natural. With time, I became more comfortable with public transportation and the people who surrounded me. We got to know the lines and the stops and could navigate our way around Rome. Although we did not experience as much public transportation in Venice, it was much more a matter of foot to street. In Venice, it took us a few days and several times across the same path before I found myself comfortable enough to navigate my way around Venice. To get to know the area, I found looking into many store windows and keeping an eye out for memorable restaurants and stores, much to my surprise this helped me the most. In fact, one night, when I was on my way to St. Mark’s square with a very small group, we found ourselves slightly lost. This was only because we had walked down a street that we had never been down before. Since I was able to remember some of the displays I had seen in the store windows, having walked by them several times, we were able to find our way back…with the help of an Italian or two. It felt really great to be able to find our way back to our hotel on our own. Although an instance of this kind doesn’t seem like a big deal, at night piazzas look very similar to one another, and to me, it felt like a major accomplishment to find our way back. At the time, I had been very unsure about where I was, but this experience definitely helped me come into my comfort zone by putting me outside of my comfort zone. I was able to adjust to Venice.
As I reflect on my time in Italy and the way I adjusted to that country, I consider how and what it will take for me to adjust to Istanbul fully. In many ways, I think transportation and communication are two barriers that I look to overcome as a way to better adjust this city. Istanbul is absolutely beautiful, it feels like no other city that I’ve ever seen before, although it has attributes that remind me of New York City and what I imagine parts of Greece to be like. Since the city is so large and there are so many sights to see and learn about, we find ourselves using public transportation. I’d say this has been the most difficult thing for me to overcome since I’ve been abroad. I realize each time I step on the metro here in Turkey I’m among local people who are commuting like they would on any other day. Riding from one part of the city to another may not seem like a big deal, but I feel a leap outside of my comfort zone each time I do. As I politely take in the scene around me on each train, I wonder how American I appear to be. I recognize myself as being very American in Istanbul because of the communication barrier.
I never realized how much of a barrier there was in Italy because I felt well acquainted with the language, much to my surprise. Being able to understand basic phrases, question words, numbers, and polite expressions is a major help to any traveler. It wasn’t until we arrived in Istanbul that I realized the unfair advantage I had had in Italy. Here in Istanbul, Turkish is spoken all around me and I’m unable to recognize even a word of it. Even with a guide book’s pronunciations, it’s much more difficult than I could have ever imagined. I think a reason I’m having a harder time adjusting to Istanbul is because of the language barrier. I wonder how far outside of my comfort zone I will have to go, in terms of language, to fully feel adapted.
Many of the Turkish we encounter can understand some English, they’re able to answer your questions, greet you or ask you where you’re from. But from where I’m standing, I can’t even tell what they’re saying when they switch to Turkish. I feel a great desire to understand what people are saying and I wish that I could communicate with them. I never realized how much the verbal word really does tie people together.
Tonight at dinner, I encountered an instance of the communication barrier when we tried to ask for our check. We had a wonderful meal at a really great restaurant, but we, as Americans were unable to ask for anything in Turkish. On the flip side, our waiters were able to understand what we wanted to order, but exchange of conversation or any small request was much for difficult for them. In the process of asking for our check, we somehow asked for tea, and after talking to three different waiters to try to communicate, we realized we weren’t even able to meet in the middle to understand one another. Although we were able to pay for a very enjoyable meal, I found myself wondering why the barrier is so great when it comes to communication here in Turkey. I wonder if I’ll be able to pick up a Turkish word or two, or do my best to pronounce at least a simple phrase. I feel this kind of exchange will help me to fully adjust to Istanbul, if not fully, at least the way I want to…because until then, it’s all Turkish to me.