To a resident of Japan, Turkey, with twice the land area, seems vast. We traveled hundreds of kilometers around the western half of the country, much of which was cropped with wheat, rice, sunflowers, cotton, grapes, fruit trees and endless olive groves.
A limited number of ingredients are combined into a dazzling Mediterranean cuisine. Fish. Meat. Eggplants and peppers. Olives prepared twenty different ways; dozens of cheeses and honey-drenched desserts; various yoghurts, both sweet and salty; fruits dried and fresh; nuts and seeds; fresh baked breads.
There are mosques everywhere. The national flag and images of Atatürk, who founded Turkey as a secular state 90 years ago, are ubiquitous. There is separation of sexes similar to Japan, but with even less equality: Men socialize with men in public, often sitting in groups of six to eight, relaxing and talking (about, I’m told, soccer and politics), or playing cards and a mahjongg-like game with numbered tiles. When women are out and about, it’s for utilitarian reasons such as shopping. (Less so in Istanbul: walk down Istiklal Avenue and you might be in Paris.) But on holidays, families go out together, with children secure and indulged. On the west coast, women wearing headscarves were the minority; there were more in the inland areas. Some restaurants are dry, but beer and alcohol is widely served and advertised.
The Turkish lira is the official currency, but prices for tourists are as likely to be quoted in euros or US dollars, with yen and other major currencies also accepted. The digital cash register in a coffee shop at Istanbul Airport displayed its prices in six currencies.
Service is efficient but sparked culture shock: it’s delivered with none of the empathetic friendliness found in, say, the US and Australia, or the polite obsequiousness displayed in the UK and Japan.
There are well-fed cats everywhere, and a lot of unthreatening long-legged dogs. Motorcyclists ride without helmets.
Part II follows tomorrow.