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Letting Go of Fear in Turkey
"Seeing the world through Toronto-tinged glasses is no way to live"

In Europe, looking out on Asia at the Conrad Hilton Istanbul

They say change is the only constant in life, but, on a recent trip to Istanbul, it struck me that some places have a very different relationship with change than we do in North America. While we talk a big game about superficial change, we fear the real thing and even mock it (see Occupy Wall Street). Governments haven’t been overthrown here, Christianity has always reigned supreme, and our relatively cushy lives have rocked us into a state of comatose comfort.

That’s why it’s so important to get out and travel. It’s not easy and it’s not cheap, but seeing the world through Toronto-tinged glasses is no way to live.

When Turkish Airlines first invited me on a four-day press trip to Istanbul, I was both extremely excited and nervous. North American media has done such a fantastic job of knotting us into balls of nerves when it comes to travelling anywhere outside of the EU, whether it be fear mongering about wild protests and terror alerts or Hollywood blockbusters filling the streets of Eastern locales with Bond villains and gross misrepresentations of the culture and people.

Turkish Airlines’ business class is how you should travel if you have a lot more money than I do

Granted, arriving via ultra-luxe business class and staying in the Conrad Hilton (the Thompson’s rooftop patio has nothing on their view of the Bosphorus) helped soothe my nerves, but I felt safer walking through the streets of Istanbul than I often do around parts of Toronto. The locals were extremely friendly and eager to show off their beautiful, historic city to tourists. Now, this isn’t to say that a certain degree of caution isn’t required when travelling, but not experiencing an amazing place like this out of fear? Now that’s truly stupid.

The Blue Mosque’s hand-painted ceiling

I didn’t know that simply standing in a building could elicit such strong emotional responses, but it does when taking in the magnificence of the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, and Topkapi Palace. The only reaction to the Blue Mosque’s incredibly intricate hand-painted ceiling is to stare straight up, neck staining, in awe. The Topkapi Palace is home to such relics as Moses’ staff, David’s sword, and Joseph’s turban. The Hagia Sophia is a physical record of Turkey’s tumultuous history. The immense architectural beauty was originally a Greek Orthodox patriarchal basilica, later turned an imperial mosque, and now a museum. Byzantium and Ottoman influences mix to honour both the Muslim and Christian religions–evidence that change, while not easy, can be beautiful and healing.

Inside the Hagia Sophia

The Istanbul Modern museum of modern art cemented itself as one of my favourite places on the planet. Outside of the fact that Turkey is home to some seriously talented artists, the space’s galleries are inspirational and thought-provoking displays of all the Turkish people have been through, both good and bad. Particularly hard-hitting was Hale Tenger’s video installation “Beirut,” which confronts viewers with footage of the hotel in front of which Rafik Hariri was assassinated by a car bomb in 2005. Haunting and terrifying, Hariri and other artists’ works explored the profound effects of specific moments in history. Through other pieces I came to appreciate the intense, calculated modernization the Turkish government undertook after the abolition of the office of the Ottoman Sultan in 1922. Things have rarely been stable in Turkey, and it’s resulted in some of the most interesting art.

Perhaps most amazing of all, Istanbul got me to like vegetables. Going into the trip I was a little worried as I mostly subsist on a healthy diet of frozen pizzas and mac ‘n’ cheese, but I shouldn’t have because Turkish cuisine is way underrated and just so good. I can’t even express how I felt about their cheeses (why do we pasteurize anything, ever!?) or their fresh smoked salmon, but the real kicker were the vegetables. Because they’re such a large part of the diet, they marinate and prepare them in ways that practically turn them into a whole new food group.

Delicious food and lots of vegetables at the Hilton Istanbul

The history was overwhelming in the best way possible, the views were stunning, and the food was phenomenal– but, while I hate to admit it to myself, those memories will fade over time. What won’t is the new outlook, however cliché that may sound, I found in Istanbul. In world so riddled with anxiety, it’s unbelievably therapeutic to visit a place that isn’t crippled with fear. A place where things can change, and often do, for the better. 


Sabrina Maddeaux is Toronto Standard’s managing editor. Follow her on Twitter at @sabrinamaddeaux.

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