Places of My Heart / Relationships / Turkey

Turkey: Coming home (1 of 3)

–“On this sacred mountaintop looking out, here love endures and, like these intertwining smells embracing me of jasmine, sea, and olive trees, I breathe it in deeply.” —


Sunset over Istanbul, Turkey Photo copyright: Helen Holter

Day is done. (Istanbul, Turkey)
Photo copyright: Helen Holter

I’M NOT TURKISH, I don’t speak Turkish (much), and I don’t have ties to anything Turkish in the U.S.A.  Yet when the plane touches down at Istanbul’s airport — my eighth trip so far — and I taxi into town, my heart still flutters as if it’s the first time: a 17-year-old high school exchange student who’d never been anywhere in her life, until Turkey.

Minarets and mosques swirl around that haunting call to prayer.  Hawkers pitch pipes, spices, tiles, and rugs.  Mustachioed men nod and head-scarved moms smile as I pass them on the cobblestoned streets toward my old haunts.  It’s good to be back.

I am a Montana-born, Lutheran-raised, Norwegian-blooded, 25-years-in-Seattle gal, and no foreign place feels more like home than Turkey.  This crossroads nation resonates with clashing, compelling debate:  Is Turkey East?  West?  Neither?  Should it embrace Islamic fundamentalism or hold fast to its secular foundation?  Does European Union admission even matter, anymore?

Hanging out with the saints in Ephesus, Turkey.

Hanging out with the saints in Ephesus, Turkey.

AGAINST THIS LIVELY BACKDROP, I keep returning to Turkey because it’s a serious workout for the body and brain — challenging, yet exhilarating.  But more than an exercise, Turkey is my teacher.  Here is where I first learned of hope, and of heartbreak.  In the 38 years since I was a wide-eyed teenager living in a backwater Muslim town, Turkish friends and strangers keep setting higher standards for my heart and home; to be more generous; and to more willingly consider— accept — cultural and religious differences when I might choose otherwise.

This is my parallel country, my parallel sense of place: For this I love Turkey.  This is why I’ve come home.


HOŞ GELDINIZ, HELEN!”  A trim, dark-haired, 30-something manager stands at his computer, welcoming me in this simple Ottoman-style hotel in Istanbul’s Old Town. I know him. 

“Hoş bulduk, Ahmet! ” I reply – “I’m glad to be here!’

15 million Istanbulus, and more. (Istanbul, Turkey)

Keeping company with 15 million Istanbulus, and counting. (Istanbul, Turkey)

And it’s so true: Returning to Seattle after several years of isolated Montana country life with an increasingly distant husband who suddenly declared divorce and disappeared (mental illness), my homesick heart needed to reconnect with places and people I loved: not only in Seattle, but in Turkey as well.

Flying to my favorite city, Istanbul, I knew fifteen million people would keep me company.  That’s why I start at the ancient, sprawling Grand Bazaar, its 4,000-plus shops filled with touts and tempting souvenirs.

– “Let me help you spend your money!”

– “Lady, buy my carpets!”

– “Please, come to drink tea!”

Rare spices permeate the Grand Bazaar. (Istanbul, Turkey)

Rare spices permeate the Grand Bazaar. (Istanbul, Turkey)

Nodding in acknowledgement to the assertive touts, I don’t bite.  No time to dicker over deals, just yet. Spicy smells — cinnamon, cumin, garlic — permeate these crushing crowds with their jabbering languages:  Yes, I just want to swim in people, more in one day than in all my time in Montana.  I pause at Eğin Textil, a 150-year-old Grand Bazaar shop selling its famous peştemals, traditional body wraps used in Turkish baths.  Many of the costumes in the brawny movie, “Troy”—starring actor Brad Pitt—came from this shop.

But it’s not peştemals I’m after, today.  It’s the shop’s fragrant olive soaps, deeply inhaling jasmine, lemon verbena, rose.

“You like?” the bearded shopkeeper, Süleyman Ertas, asks.  I know him.  These smells are so exotic, so un-American, like Irish Spring or Dial.

“Yes, Süleyman, I like.”  I finger a bar of plain green olive soap, the kind I’d scrubbed with when I lived in Turkey so long ago.  “I’ll take this one.”

I sink into the cleansing pool of memories…

 [Next: Part 2 ]  

[Part 1]  [Part 2]   [Part 3]

{All photos ©Helen Holter}