Getting a glimpse of everyday life in Turkey isn’t easy for a tourist. So our group was especially privileged to share two meals with Turkish families. One reads a lot about Turkish hospitality. Experiencing its warmth is another matter entirely.
In Antalya, our group split up to visit two families. Sibel and Haydar Yildirim live on the 11th floor of an apartment building surrounded by about 50 others just like it. Everywhere we go, we see acres and acres of these high rises. Stepping inside one feels like pulling back a curtain. Haydar has a business growing and exporting flowers around the world. Sibel taught English before she had Bashir, a two-year-old ham who quickly became the night’s star.
Gift exchanges are part of every encounter we have here. We bring a bag of Texas treasures. But the Yildirims outdo us – mammoth flower bouquets for all the ladies – red and white roses – at least 20 in each bunch, carnations, irises, lilies. Silvery white tablecloths for everyone. And chocolates that Bashir hands out to each of us.
Half of us ate in the kitchen, half in the dining room – fresh salad with cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers and herbs, bread stuffed with sausage, rice, and a fragrant stew of chickpeas and fork-tender beef. Homemade yogurt to drink. After dinner, we all gather in the living room and chat about life in Turkey – the Yildirims spend weekends on the Mediterranean – we see a glimpse of the water from their apartment – or with Haydar’s family, who live nearby. It’s very common for friends to pop over for tea or coffee around 8 in the evening. They are puzzled when we tell them that busy Americans rarely entertain in their homes during the week. Haydar works a 10 hour day, but always has energy – likely draws energy – from hanging out with friends, discussing “hot topics.”
Tea is served. We sigh. Then desert comes. A huge plate for everyone – tall cake with layers of pistachio and vanilla cream, topped with chocolate covered pistachios and chocolate brittle. 6 cookies each. More tea. Then coffee.
We are about to explode.
It’s time for fruit. Serving bowls piled with grapes, watermelon, and melon hit the table. It’s enough for 30 people. We stare at it, wondering how we’ll dent it. Then come plates for each of us with bananas, peaches and more melon. Someone mentions how much we’ve enjoyed the peaches here. (Sorry Texas, but these are even better, like peaches used to taste.) Five minutes later, a heaping bowl of peaches appears before us. Eventually, after photos and dWe roll onto our bus and drive to pick up the other group, who are all wearing fez they received from their family.
We returned to Istanbul Wednesday. The city is truly a place where east meets west – one part in Europe, the other in Asia, sliced by the Bospherous. After a day touring sites on the Asian side, we wound up and down and around a wooded hill then rolled up on the gate to the home of the Turan family. Just inside, we landed in a gardener’s paradise. Ibrahim and his wife Nese, and their 27-year-old son Ahmet, who organized the dinner, gave us a tour of 24 different kinds of fruit trees dotting their property – we plucked cherries and admired ripening pear trees, ate raw hazelnuts and tried some berries I’d never seen before – super sour. Then the Turans led us up to a terraced vegetable garden and picked fresh peppers to pass at dinner.
After admiring the view – we could see the Bospherou
s from their hillside retreat- we settled in for dinner. The table is outside with a view of the garden and the surrounding hills.
Another feast begins with several salads, beans in olive oil, and progresses through soup, stuffed peppers, grilled meats and types of bread, before winding down with baklava and other honey-soaked deserts. And, of course, lots of tea. This dinner was thrown together on a few hours notice – our guides Alpay and Alp reached Ahmet earlier in the day and he invited us over. But still, when we handed over our gift bag, they reciprocated with gifts for all of us – beautiful glass candle holders featuring the Istanbul skyline or coffee mugs from a fine shop in Istanbul.
The Turans run a family business selling machinery to fabricate wood furniture around the world. Ahmet has started a second business with a cousin, selling industrial glues and fasteners. Ahmet’s younger brother Alican is working this summer in the US. As we share photos of our families, someone brings a photo of Alican out to Nese, who shows it off, looks at it, and begins to cry. She’s anxious for her son to return home.