TRAVEL PURSUITS — How We Get Behind the Scenes. Exhibit A: Turkey.

Me and the Blue Mosque in Istanbul
Me and the Blue Mosque in Istanbul

It is easy to arrange a trip to visit the top attractions in any destination. It is also easy to select great literature, art and music to use as a lens to better glimpse the heart and soul of our destination. I also know how to find fantastic leaders and guides. It takes a bit more work to figure out how to do all this while avoiding excessive crowds, queues, noise, heat or cold. It requires some digging to find unusual restaurants offering authentic local food.

But one of the distinguishing features of a Classical Pursuits trip that I pride myself on and find the most fun to arrange is to visit unusual places and meet diverse local people with stories to tell. One of the hardest places to do this was in East Germany, where I had hoped to find a variety of people to speak to us of their experience of the Weimar Republic, the Nazi era, life under Communism, and after the reunification of East and West Germany. Two obstacles made this all but impossible. First, people of an age to have lived through this momentous sweep of history did not speak English. If they had a second language, it was Russian. Secondly, even though they were free to talk openly, they had become so accustomed to severe restrictions on freedom of expression, that the kind of conversation I sought was unthinkable.

Fashionable school girls at Topkapi Palace

At the moment, I am working on arranging special experiences in Turkey, where the population may be increasingly polarized but where people are eager to talk. Of course we will visit Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, and the spice bazaar, but I am especially interested in arranging visits to a mix of residential neighbourhoods to see how Turks live, work and play. And I want us to have casual and informal encounters with Turks from different walks of life and with and ex-pats living in Turkey to hear what they think about present day life in Turkey and what their hopes are for the future.

Victor Levin in Turkey, 2009
Victor Levin in Turkey, 2009

An obvious place to start my search was with Victor Levin, Classical Pursuits veteran (and frequent photo contest winner). Victor went on the first Classical Pursuits trip to Turkey, but more importantly, he lived there for several years as a Peace Corps volunteer. He is kept up his Turkish and his contacts. Through Victor, we met, last time, teachers, Mufide and Frank and their young son, Sinan.  Over an informal meal, we will hear about “Turkish-Canadian” family life in Istanbul.

Victor has remained in touch with a fellow volunteer Heath Lowry, who grew up to become the Atatürk Professor of Ottoman and Modern Turkish Studies at Princeton University. Professor Lowry is currently a Distinguished Visiting Professor of Bahçeşehir University in Istanbul, where we hope to meet him and some of his students.

We will also break bread with an ex-pat couple from England. Carolyn Taylor, new to Classical Pursuits last year, and a novelist whose latest work is set in Turkey, put me in touch with Carolyn and Andrew Finkel, from the UK and long-time residents of Turkey. Andrew has been a foreign correspondent in Istanbul for over 20 years, as well as a columnist for Turkish-language newspapers. He is the author of the book Turkey: What Everyone Needs to Know, a book we will read as background for our trip.

Ustun Bilgen-Reinart
Ustun Bilgen-Reinart

Carolyn also kindly introduced me to Ustun Belgen-Reinart,  author of Porcelain Moon and Pomegranates, a unique blend of memoir and travel literature in which the author explores the people, politics and passions of her native country, especially the lives of women. Over a delicious Indian lunch in Toronto, I plied Ustun with questions – where do we find the best book shops, coffee shops, how do we find diverse people to talk to, where is the best hiking in Cappadocia, the best hamam? On and on… And Ustun was full of ideas, contacts, and references. And, best of all, she will be at her home in Cappadocia while we are there.

Istanbul 12So, there you have it. This trip is still a work in progress. But you can see that it is very much a matter of catching one thread, often from a Classical Pursuits connection, and then following where it leads. Sometimes it is nowhere, but more often, it leads to ever more fascinating connections. And then it becomes a matter of assembling a varied and balanced meal from the many options.

Click here for more information on Talking Turkey — Where East Meets West: Must They Choose? November 2-13, 2013.

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