Born and raised in the former Yugoslavia, I grew up with a slight identity crisis most people of the Balkans suffer from. We are, in fact Europeans, more central than eastern, even though the misinformed media, always puts us back behind the iron curtain. To add insult to injury, we are in fact a melting pot of multiple cultures, religions and customs that even the most educated anthropologists manage to misunderstand. So besides the six republics, three languages, three religions and multiple ethnicities we deal with, we have a little chip on our shoulders that dates back to the Ottomans.
Ignoring historic details, its enough to point out that we as people have been suffering from post-Ottoman stress disorder for centuries, an affliction that refuses to heal, even though today’s generations can’t find Turkey on the map. Most of us grew up being forced to memorize mind-numbing epics depicting victories against the Ottomans, being taught to loathe anything Turkish, even though its culture still pervades the Balkans. Despite the fact that the past is history, we just can’t seem to get over it, and continue to pour salt into the wounds that should have healed centuries ago.
For me, Turkey has always been a curiosity. Having grown up bombarded by media stories depicting young Yugoslav girls kidnapped to slave away in Turkish harems (think the movie Taken), and shun anything that reeks of Turkish culture, my appetite to see Turkey for myself was unmentionable. Even a slight hint of the country, is enough to get eyes to roll and tempers to flare, especially among the Balkan community, so I couldn’t resist to make Turkey my first Eurocircle Travel destination.
Of course, most of my Eurocircle travelers who grew up far away from the Balkans, were not aware of my background. We, like all tourists descended upon Istanbul eager to see, hear and taste everything. The group was composed of Eurocircle members from countries like Peru, Brazil, China, India, Colombia, Serbia, Greece, and the USA, and from all walks of life. It was clear immediately, that these were people who were experienced travelers, looking to travel with Eurocircle to meet new people and make lasting friendships.
We bonded immediately, and soon embarked on an 8 day journey across the country to discover the history, the culture and the people of this misunderstood country. Along the way, we were greeted warmly by people who were as eager to show us their cities, as to get to know us too.
What I found the most interesting is how much Turkey, its people and customs resemble the Balkans. I was always aware our cultural heritage stemmed from the Ottoman empire, but had no idea how similar the people of the Balkans are to Turks. The people were warm, generous, inviting and extremely proud. They are temperamental, stuck on tradition, jovial and love to laugh. Their culture is rich, colorful and very intense. The cuisine of the Balkans is identical to Turkey’s, and I was in culinary heaven. Like a complete glutton, I devoured everything, knowing I couldn’t take it all back with me to the US.
And what’s a Eurocircle trip without a little adventure. Late one night we reached the ancient city of Bursa, whose name stems from the word Bourse. This city lies at the end of the fabled Silk Road, and was once the trading center and largest “stock market” of Asia, where traders came to buy and sell stock in silk and fine fabrics. The city is also famous for its hot springs and for the oldest hamam in Turkey, founded in the 6th century by emperor Justinian and renovated in 1522, the Yeni Kaplica. So I chose this hamam for Eurocircle’s first experience with the traditional Turkish bath.
Having grown up in a country where Turkish baths are quite common, I approached it with a bit of caution. I knew that the group would enjoy the experience, but worried that the treatment would be a bit harsh for those used to American spas and saunas. As we approached the cashier dressed in nothing but robes, we mused about the low prices displayed on the menu of services. Basically, we had two options: a bath for $1, or a traditional Turkish scrub for an additional $1. A new, unused loofah could be purchased for an additional $5 ( a good investment). So given the bargain prices, who could resist the whole shebang? Despite my protests, pretty much everyone bought the full package, not prepared for what was waiting for us inside.
The hamam was a floor to ceiling marble bath, with a pool of hot, mineral water flowing into the center of the room. Inside were 8-10 local women ranging in age from 6 to 75. Needless to say, no one was wearing a towel, and the lack of modesty made us all blush. The heat in the bath was well above 110 F, which made it hard to breathe, and the pool of water was scolding hot. As we did our best to adjust to the scene, we noticed two employees lead customers to a marble slab in the center of the room, and proceed to scrub them with much intensity causing skin to shed in long shreds to the floor. There was no room for modesty here, as bodies were splayed and contorted on the marble table so that no body part was left unclean. Judging by everyone’s faces, I knew exactly what they were thinking, and my immediate reaction was to try to escape, but we survived, and later marveled at how everyone’s skin glowed from the mineral water and the hand scrub. Nevertheless, after enduring this traumatic experience, we had dinner in a dead silence, uncomfortable to make eye contact with each other. Note to self, avoid any plans for nudity on future Eurocircle trips. This experience, was too much adventure for all of us.
Overall, Turkey gave us a memorable adventure. We visited Istanbul, Canakkale, Troy, Pamukkale, Izmir, Bursa and Ushak. Istanbul is now my favorite city, as its a complete sensory overload that I have yet to recover from. As for the rest of the Eurocircle travelers, everyone agreed that the country is absolutely beautiful, its people warm and its culture rich with history. Personally, I am amazed by the similarities between mine and the Turkish culture, but as of yet, none of my friends from former Yugoslavia are interested in hearing about this.
Photos from Eurocircle Travels to Turkey, 2012
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