My First Trip to Turkey



After graduating from college, I worked for a year, saved up some money and then headed out for one of my greatest adventures so far: a 5-month trip that took me to see my brother and sister in Western Europe, down through many of the Eastern European countries and into the Middle East ending up in Egypt. The trip took place over 10 years ago now and was life shaping.

I spent a plurality of my time on that great trek in Turkey. I had wanted to travel there for a long time, ever since my brother went to Istanbul with a friend while in high school. (He ended up naming his band, Aya Sofia, after his experiences there. The Aya Sofia, or Hagia Sophia, is a famous church-come-mosque in Istanbul.) I arrived in Istanbul in the late summer of 1999, stayed there for a couple of days and asked around for a “nice town on the beach that wasn’t too touristy.” A couple of Turks recommended Akçay.

I took a bus there the next day, with a detour to climb Uludag – 40-some degrees and visibility of 10 feet at the top compared to 80 and clear skies at the bottom. (I hiked with a German guy who didn’t have a tent. He comically laid out a nice rug he had purchased in the bazaar in Istanbul on a rock and went to sleep. It started raining during the night, and, soon after, I heard a frantic un-zipping of my tent as he threw all of his stuff in on top of me and jumped in, as well. I was not excited about this even though I had a “2-person” tent. You always have to subtract about .75 persons from whatever they say on the label.) Upon arrival in Akçay, I walked around town for a few minutes, found a nice place to stay – a pansiyon – and booked a room there for one month at $150.

Live Music, Istanbul

Live Music, Istanbul

That moment in my life was really when I first contemplated pursuing music. The place I stayed at was run by a family who let me borrow a classical guitar. I played and wrote on most days, and compiled notes on the grand album I wanted to write, which was modeled after Richard Strauss’ “Death and Transfiguration.” (I was fascinated then – as I still am now – with the idea of a tone poem.)

I took notes on everything I saw there and as I continued to travel and thought extensively on how the new things I experienced fit in to what I was writing. While I continued to pursue this project, I lost steam – or belief – primarily because I simply couldn’t visualize the next step in writing a song and, therefore, let myself be distracted. The dream languished for about 4 years.

Bazaar, Istanbul

Bazaar, Istanbul

Tea, Istanbul

Çay (Tea) Istanbul

While in Turkey, I hitch-hiked for the first time and then extensively throughout the rest of the trip, which led me to meet a lot of interesting people. One couple picked me up with their 5-year-old son near the Troy historical site. (I think few people realize how many of the ancient Greek and Roman cities, including many places referenced in the Bible, were located in present-day Turkey, e.g., Sparta, Ephesus, Philadelphia) I ended up having dinner with them, staying the night and then joining them and their friends on a boat the next day. After the boat trip, we had a huge lunch outdoors followed by Turkish coffee. One of the older women in the group read my coffee grounds, a tradition in Turkey, and said that she saw a guitar and that I would end up making a living by playing it. I want to make her prophecy true.

I hung with them and some of the people they introduced me to on multiple occasions during that trip and have maintained contact ever since. One of the hard lessons I learned while hanging with them was to be careful with raki, the Turkish version of Anise. On at least two occasions, I had to lay down and pray that I would fall asleep and the spinning would stop.

Early on during my stay in Turkey, I was on a bus about an hour east of Istanbul when I met a young girl, Gamze. She was extremely interested in learning about other places in the world, and while we were on the bus told me about where she lived, about Turkey, etc. At one of our stops, she also introduced me to ayran, a yogurt drink that is extremely popular in Turkey. The first was a bit odd, but I have since become a huge fan. During my latest trip in Turkey, I had 2 or more each day. According to all my friends there it is easy to make. Gamze and I stayed in touch via old school mail for a couple of years and then became Facebook friends.

In the run-up to planning my trip to Europe I found out that a) she was a part-time radio DJ at an extremely cool online radio station called Radiofil, (check out the beautiful artwork on their website) and b) flights to Turkey from Germany are less than $200. I floated the idea of organizing a show, and, with the help of her friend, Serkan, ended up being able to make this happen.

Turkey 2012

I booked my flight to Turkey for the weekend of June 15th before we had the show details worked out. Serkan, one of the creators of Radiofil, as well as a full-time musician, put in a lot of work for me and ended up setting up a gig in the super-cool Moda neighborhood on Istanbul’s Asian side. I’ll speak more about that in a second.

I arrived on a Friday and headed to a hostel I had booked in the very fun Taksim neighborhood on Istanbul’s European side. Before I could get out of the airport, however, I had a little snafu. As I was going through customs, the officer flipped through my passport a couple of times and then asked me why I didn’t have a visa. Oh, shit! I didn’t know you needed one. I guess I had forgotten that, or maybe the policy had changed for US citizens. At any rate, you thankfully can buy a visa at the airport for only US$20. This didn’t end up being a big deal, but it meant I had to go through a long visa line and then back through customs.


That Friday night I was blown away by how prevalent music was in Istanbul. I saw solo guitarist/vocalists playing at about ten different bars in Taksim. In addition to that, I could not tell you both how many stores around that area sold musical equipment and the number of people I saw walking by carrying a guitar, saz or other musical instrument. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a concentration of music, music stores and musicians anywhere. Another thing that I thought was cool was that all of the live musicians I saw were playing Turkish songs. Respect. So often when traveling abroad, I have heard local musicians playing English-language songs.

In addition to the heavy concentration of music, I was blown away by the sheer intensity of partying in the area. The entire city seemed to be one big party: people in bars, clubs and restaurants, spilling out into the streets, while others, having purchased alcohol from convenience stores, were hanging with friends on stoops of houses and shops. The streets were literally packed with humanity and stayed packed till well past the closing times of bars in Chicago.

That night, I went into one of the bars advertising live music. It was still early so there weren’t many people in the bar. I ended up meeting the bar manager and most of the people that were there, including the two guys playing music and their friends. I told them I was a musician and they asked me to come play a couple of songs. That was really fun. I left for a few hours and came back to catch the end of the show. The bar was much more crowded at that point. Again, I got to get up and play a few. I was psyched. I thought I played well and was very well-received. (In a previous post, I mentioned the prevalence of the Blues Brothers. This is one of those places! They have Jake and Elwood stenciled on the wall behind the performers. You can see it in the video above, at left.)

Some quick props for Turkey: Yes, this is Istanbul, and, therefore, not an accurate portrayal of the entire country. Nonetheless, I wish more Americans would experience this city and this Muslim country. Turkey – its cities, food, incredible beaches, hospitality and wide variety of historical sites – would alter their perceptions of the Middle East, I have no doubt. Some other places you should consider for the trip you will now be planing 🙂 : Cappadocia (Flinstone-like rock dwellings), Efes (one of best Roman sites), Bodrum (sick beaches), Marmaris (more beaches and nightlife), Nemrut Dag (amazing Hittite ruins), Pamukkale (hot springs)…


Arkaoda, Kadiköy, Istanbul

Arkaoda’s beer garden, Istanbul

The rest of the weekend I was is in Kadiköy, the Asian side of Istanbul, hanging out with Gamze, Serkan and friends. We primarily hung out near Sunday night’s venue, Dunia (the Guardian voted it one of Istanbul’s top ten bars), which is located on a street filled with bars and restaurants not too different than Taksim, although with much more of an indie feel. Once again, I was blown away by the amount of partying. That Saturday night, the streets were again choked with humanity living it up. We went to a number of bars, but primarily drank at a place called Arkaoda, in their back beer garden and front patio. Really gorgeous place with a hipster vibe, also with live music. I could see both this bar AND all of my Turkish friends being easily dropped into the Ukrainian Village neighborhood of Chicago. The Turks I know would absolutely blend in there, with their similarities in style, dress, hairstyles and proclivities – chain smoking hand-rolled cigarettes, for one.

After partying that night till the wee hours, we headed back to one of the guy’s places and kept the beat going. I petered out early, but a few of them went on till after 7am, all the while smoking those hand-rolled cigarettes.

The next day we got up and a handful of my friends made a beautiful Turkish breakfast – coffee, tea, bread with cream and honey, börek, an onion and egg quiche-like dish, cucumbers and tomatoes in balsamic vinegar, etc., etc. – a great spread. I wish I had a pic for you but my phone had died and I had left my charger, along with all of my bags, at Sunday’s venue. Afterward, we went out to a park along the sea. Just beautiful. High 70s, clear skies, light breeze, shooting the shit and drinking some beers along with hundreds of others interspersed throughout the miles-long coastal park.

Dunia, Kadikoy, Istanbul

Dunia, Kadiköy, Istanbul

Live at Dunia

Live at Dunia

At around 7pm, we left the park and headed to Dunia, where I was set to play at 9pm that night. Dunia is a three-floor bar located across the street from Arkaoda. The bottom two floors feature chairs and small balconies at the back of the building and are where most people hang out. The top floor was fairly new and reserved for live shows. While the space was beautiful, I wish they would have done the show on the first floor, which would have captured a lot more street traffic and Dunia’s natural crowd.

Turkish friends after gig

Turkish friends after gig

Turkish friends after gig

More Turkish friends

That night, I kept my experimenting going. I played guitar and harmonica, piano – I borrowed a microKORG from Serkan (which was definitely micro – tiny keys) and used sequencing on two new songs, Amiens and Saturday, both of which will be twoheartstwo, coming out soon. I had peeked in at a show at Arkaoda previously that night. The room was packed, and everyone was seated on the floor – I’ve never seen that in the States. At my show, everyone sat on the floor, as well. The show was very good and well-received. I don’t usually talk a ton between songs, but, I think because I knew everyone’s English wasn’t quite up to what it would be at a US show (which I realize is a lame reason), I was very chatty and explained the origin’s of just about every song.

The most interesting conversation I’ve had while on tour: After the show, we did a near repeat of the previous night, hanging out on one of the balconies at Dunia till the wee hours. At some point during our conversation, we started talking about pornography, which is banned by the Turkish government. If you try to look up a porn site there, you will get an error message – just like you might see at your office. Two of my girl friends told me, nonetheless, that they like to look at porn. “You know every woman looks at it, even if they say they don’t.” I told them that, while I am sure there are many women who are not fully honest about their interest in porn, I actually don’t believe that most American women do. Maybe I’m wrong?

Anyway, they were adamant about liking porn, “I like anal,” one of them said to me. Wow! I didn’t expect to hear any of this in a Muslim country. I inquired as to how they were able to look at porn online if it were blocked, and all of the girls told me how easy it was to change their computer settings to bypass the government firewall. I told them how shocking this news was to me, and they just laughed. When the bar closed, we headed back to the apartment and some of the hard core ones drank and smoked till after 5am (only).

Breakfast in Istanbul

Breakfast in Istanbul, Coffee and börek

The next morning, I sadly got up early and trudged down to the ferry, where I had to take a boat and then a taxi to get to the airport. Before I caught the boat, I had a nice breakfast of Turkish coffee and börek, a Turkish pastry of which I am a big fan. I have seen it sold at a couple of places in Chicago. One I know is on Lawrence just west of Ravenswood.

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