Kahvaltı, Turkey

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Each day, I read through my inbox and take time to glance over the emails from airlines and travel companies advertising flight deals, inserting a bit of wanderlust into my mornings. Sometimes, the deals are so good I spend the rest of the day contemplating whether or not I should simply pack a bag for the weekend, book a hostel, and hope on a plane. Monday KLM sent an email announcing lowered prices from Amsterdam-originating flights in Europe: 199 euros roundtrip from Amsterdam to Istanbul, it advertised. It was as if KLM knew just what I needed to set my week off on the right start.

This time last year I went on a super secret mission to Istanbul to surprise one of the most wonderful people I know for her birthday. “Surprise!” I screamed as I stood in front of her door in Ümraniye, a suburb of Istanbul. “Happy birthday! I’m here to see you … for two and a half weeks!” That trip to Istanbul, of all of my trips to Turkey throughout the years, was my favorite as I was able to spend time with one of my dearest friends whom I no longer get to see easily and frequently, and, for the first time, I had the opportunity to explore Istanbul on my own time and on my own terms while she was at work each day.

Since 2007 I have been to Turkey six times (visiting the most recent time just a few months ago,) have taken more than 95,000(!) photographs, and have innumerable stories and memories. (To be honest, the thought of sorting through all of those photographs is almost overwhelming.) When I received that email Monday, luring me to Istanbul once again, I asked myself, if I could make just one post about Turkey, what would I say? What would I share about this special country and its people? What does Istanbul mean to me?

Most certainly to think of Istanbul conjures up images of mosques, bazaars, sultans, and harems. But that is not the essence of the place. Perhaps Istanbul is about the noise, the bustle, the dirt, the crowds. But, again, that is not the life force of the city. When I think of Istanbul, my clearest, most shining memories are of one thing that truly embodies the spirit of the Turkish people: kahvaltı or breakfast.

First, the practical information: There may be no other society in the world that does breakfast like the Turks. Here, breakfasts are true feasts with olives, cheeses, salads, breads, homemade jams and jellies, tomatoes and cucumbers, eggs, green peppers, nuts, fruits, honey and sweet butter, cold cuts or sausages, and various other small plates. And, of course, copious amounts of black çay. Whether in a restaurant the Bosphorus or in a family home, the menu is the same. So, yes, there is the food that makes the breakfast, but this embodiment of Turkish people runs much deeper than their love of nibbling on small plates.

In Turkey kahvaltı, not dinner and drinks, is the time to catch up with friends or family, and invitations to breakfasts come as freely as the tea.

Kahvaltı is a time to linger over the table eating with your fingers from communal plates, dipping your bread into the sauce-filled dishes, perhaps letting it rest there for a while to soak up the juices as others eat around it.

It is the time to talk about life’s serious topics (politics, sports, business, and love) with bottomless cups of warm tea nestled in your palm, your conversation fueled by sugar, caffeine and passion.

It is the time to tease your anne or your teyze, who most certainly prepared the breakfast for you while you slept or laughed with friends. “But you’re not our kitchen slave,” I like to tease Güngör teyze gently.

Children play on the floor around your feet, and the laughter and hugs flow freely.

Friends whom you have not seen for years bring small presents, a handkerchief or a pair of hand-knit socks. “Take them, canım, take them,” they insist, pushing them towards you over a plate of roasted vegetables.

Kahvaltı is the opportunity to set the day off right and with a happy, full heart (and belly.) It  epitomizes what it is about this country that makes it a place I continue to love and is the spirit that keeps me going back year after year. It is what leads me to send a link for ultra discounted plane tickets, asking “So, Istanbul this weekend?”

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