Our three-month working vacation in Istanbul resulted in yet another thoroughly enjoyably social, cultural and professional experience. We made close friends among the faculty as many had studied in the U.S. and were eager to renew professional contacts with American academics. We spent a good deal of time with Albert and the other summer school TAs who let us join them on excursions to local bars and music clubs.
Since I taught in the morning, afternoons were free for trips to tourist sites such as Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sophia, and the Blue Mosque, as well as more leisurely activities like riverboat excursions to the Black Sea, meetings with members of the Turkish Jewish community (courtesy of Albert), and a visit to the small village of Kanlica on the Asian side of the Bosporus. According to colleagues Kanlica is famous for making the world’s richest, creamiest, and most delicious yogurt. After traveling there by water taxi and enjoying a bowlful at a local restaurant, we could only agree. Our “yogurt outing” is typical of the delightful, off-the-beaten-path day trips you can take when given adequate time. Kanlica would certainly not be part of the typical four-day/three night “Highlights of Istanbul” packaged tour.
Since I did not teach on Friday (I asked the chair to schedule my classes between Monday and Thursday) Ruth and I had time for three-day weekend jaunts to sights farther afield, such as the three thousand-year-old archeological ruins of Ephesus, the volcanic cave homes of Cappadocia, and the beach resort of Bodrum. These tours were purchased from a local travel agent after our arrival and paid for in lira, making them quite inexpensive.
Many days we would not go into the central city but, instead, sit on the lovely outdoor terrace of the Bebek Hotel, walking distance from campus and overlooking the Bosporus. We would sip coffee (in the morning) or enjoy a glass of wine and a plate of meze (in the evening) watching river traffic sail by and the setting sun illuminate the Asian side of the straits.
To learn about a country and its people most visitors, ourselves included, head off to museums, historical sites, churches, mosques, and parks. Food, however, is an important component of culture, and a cooking class can be an entrée into a different aspect of a country’s history and traditions. Turkish food, although not as well-known to American palates as French, Italian, or Chinese, has influenced eating habits throughout the Mediterranean. My wife and I signed up for a cooking class that included not only cooking instruction—and eating, of course—but also an introduction to local agriculture, shopping habits, and Turkish mealtime rituals.
When thinking about how to use the extended time provided by a working vacation, consider not only the sites listed in The Lonely Planet but also some less well-known introductions into the traditions, habits, and customs of your host country. This includes not only cooking classes, but courses on language, dress, music, and traditional crafts; visits to people’s homes; sporting events; involvement with a local religious community; volunteering at a neighborhood school; or assisting at a community center or senior citizen home. It is difficult to participate in these types of activities on a tightly scheduled packaged tour, but they fit quite comfortably into a working vacation whose duration is measured in months not days. Colleagues and neighbors, as well as the Web, are good sources of information on how to locate and sign up for classes, home visits, community activities, and volunteer opportunities. And finally, when deciding what kind of cultural experience you might wish to have, be adventurous and thoroughly unconventional, like my wife who signed up for one of the more unusual aspects of Turkish culture–at the Serap Su Belly Dancing Academy of Istanbul!