Modern Turkey is vast and varied country. Throughout history, various Turkish empires controlled huge swathes of land ranging from the north of Africa across to Persia and large parts of Europe. The end result is a massive influence of different cultures that have been uniquely shaped into one dynamic Turkish identity. The country is huge – spanning 2 continents – and while travel in Turkey is ultimately as safe as in Europe, it is a good idea to have some understanding of the culture and people as things can be very different here from back home. It can all be a bit daunting at first, when you see everything you would in western Europe side by side with camels, the intense action, strange smells, noises and sights of the bazaar and the wailing of the muezzin five times a day calling the faithful to prayer. But when you get your bearings and understand the culture that is going on around you, the country is fascinating.
Let’s start by looking at the currency of Turkey. While Turkey is an associate member of the European Union, it is not on the Euro yet. This makes travel there cheaper than in much of western Europe. But you can still easily spend Euros or even Pound notes in much of the country. I would suggest using local currency, as most of the time you will get a better deal. At the time of writing, 10 Euros was equal to about 26 Lira. If you are aware of the exchange rate you will know if you are getting a good deal. You might be offered something in the bazaar for 10 Euros, but if you bargain well and pay in local currency it may cost you only 20 Lira.
In Turkey, the customs are very different from those in Europe or the States. For one thing, they are a very friendly lot, and may ask you all sorts of very direct questions that in your own country my seem personal. An example could be “How much money do you earn?” or “Why are you not married?” This is not prying behavior, but rather genuine curiosity. Don’t consider it an intrusion but rather just people being straight-forward. You’ll be offered coffee or tea at any shop you visit in the bazaar. This is not to trap you inside, this is a good-natured offer. The Turks prefer to discuss any business over a cup of tea and would actually find it rude not to conduct a deal this way. You’ll meet some amazing people if you sit and have a chat. And if you don’t buy anything or can’t agree on a price, no harm done.
Remember, that although Turkey is a democratic country that recognizes free practice of religion, it is essentially a Muslim country, though it is a very relaxed form of Islam. But still it is best to dress somewhat modestly (when anywhere away from the beach) and try to keep your public affection with your mate to a minimum. This isn’t Iran, and you will often see beautiful Turkish women dressed to kill, but just show respect, especially if you visit a mosque.
Communicating in Turkey can be a challenge sometimes, English is spoken widely in all the coastal resort towns and many people in the bigger cities speak it too. Ironically you can often find German speakers too. Turkish is a difficult language to learn, but a little effort made will go a very long way. Try to learn a few phrases and you will be well received. But as the language is so different, even yes and no are not at all similar to the English or European equivalent. Pay attention to the unique body language of the Turks and you’ll understand better.
A single nod of the head means yes. A head tilted back with eyebrows arched means no. If you shake your head back and forth, it literally means “I don’t understand”. When shopping, If you want to indicate a certain length don’t hold your hands apart like you would back home but hold out your arm and place a flat hand on it measuring from your fingertip to the hand. Another gesture often misunderstood is when a person is saying “come here” or “come this way” they will swoop their hand downward toward themselves. Think the opposite of the western version. Also, don’t ever give a Turk the “thumbs up” sign or wag your finger at them, unless you are trying to be offensive.
Turkey is generally a safe place for all travelers. Of course you need to be aware of your stuff, but this is the case anywhere in the world. Woman can travel safely alone in Turkey too, but just exercise caution, dress somewhat modestly and respect customs. A lot of visitors don’t understand that while the country has gone through amazing social changes in the last 30 years, it was not long ago that a woman was not allowed out of her house unaccompanied. Of course don’t accept food or drink from strangers on a train, but in the bazaar it is ok. There are a few scams about, like in any place, but if you are vigilant you will recognize them. Street crime is rare, and while the media love to play up demonstrations and terrorism reports, the fact is that almost all of the country is probably safer than a walk through New York City. When traveling in far eastern Turkey, it is probably best to travel in a group, as this is still somewhat of a “wild west” area. Having said that, I traveled all the way to Van, on my own, and never had a problem.
This blog first appeared here, as I was doing a lot of travel writing a while back. Turkey is by far one of the most interesting countries that you’ll ever visit, with surprisingly fantastic beaches, well-preserved Roman ruins and strange and interesting natural site. I suggest visiting soon, before the Euro becomes the national currency.