Here’s an Istanbul travel tip you probably won’t find in any guidebooks, a guest post of mine at JetSettlers Magazine.

When you love something, you understand its good side and its bad side are two sides of the same coin. Whether your love is for a person, a place, or a thing, you have no choice but to accept that person, place, or thing in its entirety. You have to take the bad with the good. You don’t get to cherry pick the parts you want in your life.

As we grow old, we want someone next to us who knows our history as a human being, someone who understands our actions today against the backdrop of our past. When the wrinkles are spreading across our faces and our stomachs are sagging and our butts are heading south, and east, and west, we want someone next to us who will see the youthful exuberance we had so long ago. In order to have that in life, you need to come to understand that love is a nuanced thing, that you can’t be with someone unless you learn to accept the bad along with the good.

Just like you can love a person, you can also love a place or a thing. I am not a city person. In fact, in my more extreme moments I will thump my chest and loudly proclaim that the truest beauty in all the world can only be found when no man is present, and that cities are nothing but cesspools of human filth. The more subtle truth, though, is that I love cities in general and Istanbul in particular. Despite the scuffles over parking and the cops who don’t care and the cats who fight in the bushes and the exhaust fumes that belch forth from buses and the warbling screeches that come out of the loudspeakers, Istanbul is one of the most beautiful places on earth. It is where natural beauty and man-made beauty come together to build on each other.

Istanbul is the Beyaz Firin bakery and the beautiful buttery crispness of its pastries. It is the tall glasses of fresh-squeezed orange juice so fresh they don’t even cut the oranges until you order it. It is the blond, creamy grain of the bakery’s wood block tables. It is the professional and courteous, but not obsequious, deft hand of the counter help who load up your tray and ring up your sale. It is the tiny bubbles that rise from the sugar cubes you drop into your tea, sugar cubes so fresh they begin breaking up before they even land on the bottom of your glass.

Istanbul is a cool summer night when the square just north of the Ortakoy mosque is filled with people young and old, milling about, chatting easily with each other, enjoying the clear skies and the brilliant full moon as it rises over the hills across the Bosphorus. It is sitting in the square’s tea garden, mere inches from the currents of the Bosphorus, using a toothpick to munch on a late night plate of french fries while a massive tanker from the Black Sea sails silently down the Bosphorus, so silently that you only know it’s there because its silhouette blacks out the twinkling lights on the other side of the river as the ship glides smoothly towards the open sea.

Istanbul is knowing that on Sundays between eight in the morning and noon, you can hop in the car and see the city before the masses awake and return it to its crowded chaos. It is knowing that during this time you only have to drive 20 minutes in order to stumble upon a peaceful, sparsely-populated pocket of the city, a place where goats still graze and vegetables still grow, and chances are you will have to slow down for a cow standing in the middle of the road, refusing to budge and looking back at you like he’s challenging you: “What are you going to do now, huh?”

When you are crowded onto a standing-room-only bus and a soccer game just got out and traffic isn’t moving an inch and you are watching old people with walkers speed past you on the sidewalk, you think of the expression on that cow’s face. You think of the juice so fresh you can still feel the orange essence dancing on top of the liquid as you lift the glass to your nose. You think of Fatih Sultan Mehmed, someone who lusted after the city so much he was willing to pull his ships overland in the wee hours of the morning just to have it for himself.

When the city tries your patience, when it makes you fight just to be there, these are the things you think of, and that is how you love it.


This is an excerpt from Matt Krause’s book A Tight Wide-open Space. In 2003 Matt met a Turkish woman on a flight to Hong Kong. They started going out, and within a year Matt found himself adjusting to a new life in Istanbul. A Tight Wide-open Space is about that adjustment — going through the culture shock, becoming one of the family, learning to love the country. The book is available on Amazon.com as a paperback and for the Kindle.

I climbed past the riot police deeper into gece kondu territory. The houses at the edge of the gece kondu, the ones nearest the riot police, had tapped illegally into the city’s electrical grid, and leading from each power transformer was a rat’s nest of wires strung to the nearby houses. As I climbed further, even those amateurish attempts to wire the homes for electricity dissipated, and soon there was no sign of any power whatsoever going into any of the homes. Some of the homes had doors propped open and I could peer inside to see kitchens with no appliances and living rooms with no TVs. Even the old Datsuns had disappeared and I could walk in the middle of the street with impunity.

I began to notice the residents were staring at me, not because I was a foreigner, but simply because I obviously had no business to conduct there. No one just passed casually through that neighborhood, because there was nowhere to go. There was only one road winding up the hill at that point. It was the road I was walking on, and it had narrowed from a two-lane road to a one-lane road, and that was narrowing to a half-lane road.

I was almost at the top of the hill, with less than forty vertical feet separating me from the huge rock outcropping I had seen from below. What had appeared from below to be a park at the top of the hill was just an empty lot next to the rock, a place where the locals hung out at the end of the day, drank themselves silly, and left behind their beer bottles. They couldn’t afford to ride the bus, but they could apparently afford to drink.

As poor as Basibuyuk was, it was high enough up the hill to have one of the most spectacular views of the city I had ever seen. Looking west from just below the top of the hill I could see the skyscrapers in Taksim and Sisli, and the long ridge that forms the spine of Istiklal Caddesi. Panning to the left, I could see dozens of tankers and dry cargo ships queuing up for a chance to pass north through the Bosphorus into the Black Sea. Further left along the Asian side of the city I could see the neighborhoods of Kadikoy, Fenerbahce, Bostanci, Maltepe, Pendik, huge parts of the city where millions of people live and work. I could even see urban forests I had never realized were there because they had been so easily lost in the urban sprawl.

With only a few vertical feet left before reaching the top of the hill, I began feeling exposed and vulnerable. I was starting to feel a little freaked out by all the locals staring at me. I stopped climbing, turned around, and started hiking back down quickly, trying to keep a lid on the panic suddenly welling up inside of me. I became acutely aware of the fact that there was only one road out of this neighborhood, and I wondered what would become of me if some drunk, testosterone-pumped teenagers decided I needed to be harassed. I began to long for the safety of riot policemen and witnesses who might speak up if they saw something happen to me. I was anxious to duck back under the safety blanket of the state, eager to return to a place where legal electricity, televisions, and city buses would tell me I was in the arms of a society I knew.

Once I descended past the riot police I knew I was safely back in the maw of Istanbul. As beat-up old Datsuns and taxis and city buses began passing by me I relaxed back into the rhythm of the city. I reached the bottom of the hill much faster than I expected, and I walked quickly along the completely deserted four-lane arterial leading out to the coastal highway. Within 20 minutes I was standing next to the highway, happily breathing exhaust fumes and waiting to catch a bus home.


This is an excerpt from Matt Krause’s book A Tight Wide-open Space. In 2003 Matt met a Turkish woman on a flight to Hong Kong. They started going out, and within a year Matt found himself adjusting to a new life in Istanbul. A Tight Wide-open Space is about that adjustment — going through the culture shock, becoming one of the family, learning to love the country. The book is available on Amazon.com as a paperback and for the Kindle.

When I got to the top of the hill, I saw the police setting up barricades and pushing back a gathering crowd of onlookers. I started asking what had happened. My Turkish wasn’t very good, but I managed to latch onto and understand the word bomba. There had been a large bomb blast near the British consulate just off Istiklal Caddesi a few minutes before. Some people were dead, many were injured, and the streets were quickly filling with ambulances and police cars.

Istiklal and the surrounding streets were littered with glass. The cell phones were down, so I skirted the barricades and stopped by my girlfriend’s brother’s workplace, about 3 blocks from the blast, to make sure he was okay and to tell him I was okay too and to try to get word to my girlfriend, who would be worried about us.

I stepped back out onto the street and saw the police busily cordoning off the area, so I cut through their barricades and quickly made my way home. I’ve never walked over so much broken glass in my life. I think there was so much of it that I walked a half mile without my feet ever touching the pavement.

After that second set of bombings the city was definitely on edge. A single set of bombings it could write off as a one-time event, but two? For a couple hours that day people didn’t even know how many bombs had gone off around the city. At one point it was rumored there had been six. Later that day we learned it wasn’t six, it was just two, the one at the British consulate, which I walked past, and another one a couple miles north at the HSBC bank building.

In the days that followed, the Turks did a lot of soul searching. The United States was fighting a war in Iraq, one of Turkey’s neighbors to the south. Turkey and the US had been close allies for decades, so Turkey wanted to stand by its pal, but was this going to be the cost? Were things like this going to happen on a regular basis now? After years of relative peace and prosperity, was Turkey going to slide back into civil war and martial law?

I was confused, too. Did this mean I should go back home to the US, like some of the other Americans I had met were going to do? Would I have to walk down the streets of Istanbul now with teeth clenched, wondering if the next parked car was going to be the one with the bomb?

As nerve-wracking as the situation was though, I never gave serious thought to actually leaving Turkey. What captured my imagination more powerfully than thoughts of returning home was the idea of sticking around to see how the Turks were going to respond.

The next morning I walked back down to Istiklal Caddesi to check out the neighborhood. It was abuzz with people carrying brooms and trash cans and busily clearing the last of the debris from the streets. The sidewalks were not clogged with ambulances and police cars anymore, they were clogged with trucks delivering new panes of glass for the shops.

After a major bomb blast that brought death, blood, and destruction, the city was busy cleaning up so it could be fully operational again 24 hours after the blast. And what’s more, two days later a Turkish friend of mine was having a birthday party just a few blocks away from one of the blast sites, and the party was NOT cancelled.

The people of Istanbul did not need to know what was going to happen next. They did not need to know if attacks like this would become a regular occurrence. All they needed to know was that their world was a mess, and it needed to be cleaned up. They were showing the world that they were bigger than the men with the bombs. They were showing the world that they felt the fear, but would rise above it.

When I saw that that was how they reacted to an attack on their own soil, I fell deeply in love with that country and its people.


This is an excerpt from Matt Krause’s book A Tight Wide-open Space. In 2003 Matt met a Turkish woman on a flight to Hong Kong. They started going out, and within a year Matt found himself adjusting to a new life in Istanbul. A Tight Wide-open Space is about that adjustment — going through the culture shock, becoming one of the family, learning to love the country. The book is available on Amazon.com as a paperback and for the Kindle.

Late one morning in Istanbul I was walking back to my apartment in Harbiye from a teahouse in Taksim. The normal phalanx of shoeshine boys started running after me, chanting, “Shoeshine, shoeshine, shoeshine.” After a block or two of me ignoring them they gave up and fell by the wayside, all but one who pursued me with unheard-of tenacity. This kid would not take no for an answer.

He walked alongside me for an extra block or two and then, from the corner of my eye, I saw him dip two of his fingers into one of his dusty tins of shoe polish. He scooped up a good-sized chunk of the black gunk and held it up in the air. He waited until I glanced over at him, and then he smiled at me mischievously and glanced down at my shoe.

I knew what he was going to do next and I thought, “Oh no, you don’t.” But oh yes, he did. As we walked next to each other, he reached down and dabbed that big glop of shoeshine on the top of my shoe.

That was when I completely lost it.

I laid into that little boy with the longest string of obscenity I think any kid anywhere has ever heard. And when I was done cussing him out, I escalated my verbal barrage to threats of bodily harm. I threatened to kill him. I threatened to kill his friends. I threatened to kill his brothers, his sisters, his mother and father. I threatened to scorch every square inch of earth that kid had ever stepped foot on. I threatened to forever turn his world black and burn it to the ground like some post-nuclear hellhole.

When I was a kid that age, if someone had yelled at me with a small fraction of the fury I was showing I would have pissed my pants, but that kid stood his ground. He rocked back onto his heels and stared at me with wide-eyed shock and horror, and his face was white with fear, but he wasn’t going anywhere. He was a brave kid.

When I was done with my tirade, I pivoted abruptly and stormed off down the street without looking back. I walked briskly and kept a stoic face, trying to hold back the shame and embarrassment welling up inside me, trying to look normal for each new crop of strangers passing me on the street.

The walk back to my apartment took less than ten minutes, but it felt like an eternity. When I got home, the moment I heard the door click shut behind me, I collapsed to my knees, dropped my forehead to the floor, and started crying. What on earth had possessed me to act like that? I had just blown up at a little kid on the street in broad daylight. I had just threatened to snuff the life out of a little boy barely tall enough to reach my belt. I hadn’t even been in Turkey for three months yet. What was I becoming?

Even a traveler needs a change of scenery every now and then, and right there I decided it was time for me, too. The next weekend I hopped an overnight bus for Sofia, the capital of neighboring Bulgaria, for some much-needed R&R.

By the way, one night about a year later my girlfriend and I were walking down a side street in that same neighborhood. I had my arm around her and it was winter, so I had pulled my cap down low, the brim hiding my face from the wind, my chin tucked inside my collar. There were some beggar kids hiding out in a nearby doorway, and as we approached we caught their eye. A couple of the older ones skipped out to approach us.
Spotting their approach in my peripheral vision, I slowly raised my head, showing my face and making eye contact with the beggar kids. They stopped dead in their tracks and their faces froze as they whispered a panicked warning to each other, “Stop, stop, it’s the crazy one.”


This is an excerpt from Matt Krause’s book A Tight Wide-open Space. In 2003 Matt met a Turkish woman on a flight to Hong Kong. They started going out, and within a year Matt found himself adjusting to a new life in Istanbul. A Tight Wide-open Space is about that adjustment — going through the culture shock, becoming one of the family, learning to love the country. The book is available on Amazon.com as a paperback and for the Kindle.

I wrote a guest post on Turkish food and learning to love sucuk, over at Being Koy.

I could take bus #139 or 139A from Istanbul to Sile, but today I am in a car. In fact, I have always taken a car up to the Black Sea, because in a car I am better able to feel the gentle, wavelike rhythms, the sweeping curves and the swells and dips of this particular highway.

The grasses, shrubs, and hills we pass remind me of the scenery along California’s central coast, north of Santa Barbara but south of Paso Robles. When I was small, my mom and my Aunt Mary used to take my brother, my two cousins, and me to play in the surf at Pismo. This outing reminds me of those times.

On the road to Sile there is a string of rustic restaurants where my companion and I like to stop for breakfast. The restaurants are far enough from Istanbul so that my spirit has had time to begin decompressing, but not close enough to Sile that the expectation of arrival can overcome my hunger. All the restaurants look the same to me, and they are staffed by short, stout elderly women who are at least 100 pounds heavier than me. These women could easily take me in a wrestling match, but their faces are gentle and their eyes calm. They dress peasant-style in colorful scarves and patterned cotton dresses. I wonder whether they dress like this all the time, or just for work.

About ten kilometers outside of Sile we turn and begin heading west along the coast, the sea visible now to our right. I am looking for a beach with no people, no loud music. It is late enough in the summer that most of the beaches are empty, but we need one still open to the public. We find one, completely deserted. Even the house on the nearby bluff appears to be empty. Its owners probably went back to the city a few weeks ago. We park at the edge of the pavement.

Before I even step out of the car the surf begins calling to me. I dance on the balls of my feet as my companion and I pull our things from the trunk. She shoots me a strange look. I wonder why she is not enjoying this trip as much as I am, and then I realize she is probably nervous because she knows if something happens to me out here, there will be no one around to help. I think it’s great there isn’t a soul for miles. She finds it nerve-wracking.

As I run out to the waves I notice storm clouds coming up from behind us, heading north. They have already passed over Istanbul and are now beginning their journey across the Black Sea towards Ukraine. I watch them approach, wary of them until I see they are going to pass us to the west. They have brought rain to the suburbs of Istanbul, but they are not going to bring rain to us. I know clouds do not have feelings, but I cannot help but admire these for their bravery in venturing out over the Black Sea. I swear that every time I glance at this sea I spot a flicker of anger, isolation, and loneliness before it puts on its beautiful face. I love playing in it, but I also fear it.

I dance and bob around in the waves. If I stand, the peaks of the waves are not high enough to block out the horizon, but their troughs are low and if I crouch down the peaks appear higher than they really are. As the cool water crashes over me I shed the worries and stresses of city life. I remember what it’s like to feel joy.

The undertow here is so strong I know that if I stumbled it would pull me out beyond the breakers before I even knew what was happening. In the back of my mind I tell myself that should that happen, don’t fight it, just relax and float up to the surface where the undertow has no power. Another wave approaches and as I crouch down I grab onto the waistband of my shorts, knowing that my shorts hang on me loosely and the sea will take them if I am not careful.

The wave breaks over my head and passes. I shake the water from my face and glance back at my companion sitting on the beach. She is watching me nervously. If she had any idea how strong the undertow is out here, there is no way she would allow me to play like this. She calls me back, waving at me because she knows I cannot hear her above the roar of the wind and waves. I run back to her, careful not to kick sand onto her towel. She asks me can we go now? I say five more minutes, just five more minutes, okay? as I kiss her forehead and run back out to the sea.

IslandsI am vacationing in a tiny village on Turkey’s Aegean coast. Less than a hundred people live in this town, perched on a narrow shelf at the bottom of a cliff that from the top looks like it drops straight into the sea. The town is so small, its cobblestone streets so narrow, no one drives anywhere. On foot they can cross from one end of the town to the other in less than a minute.

I spend the day lying in the sun. Actually, I lie in the shade, shade created by a beach umbrella I guard with a territorial defensiveness probably unbecoming to me given the village’s relaxed vibe. Without the umbrella I would burn easily, my skin pale from many months sitting indoors staring at a computer screen.

To break up the hours snoozing on my chaise lounge, I slip into the sea a few times each day. The water is so clear I can’t tell if it’s one foot deep or ten. The orange and blue and yellow stripes on the fish are so vibrant I wonder if God photoshopped them just for me.

In the evening I dine on a stream of appetizers, cool cucumber slices in yogurt with garlic, red bell peppers marinated in oil pressed from olives grown nearby, and then the main course, steamed fish, accompanied by a bottomless glass of raki, a clear anise seed-based drink that turns white when the waiter adds water.

First-time visitors to this region often marvel at how close the Greek islands are. Some of the islands are so close I can practically stand on the Turkish mainland, pick up a rock, throw it really hard, and watch it land on Greek soil.

Because the Greek islands are so close to the Turkish mainland, they are a hotbed of illegal immigration. Today it is Iraqis, Afghans, Somalians, and Palestinians heading west, trying to enter the EU via Greece. Seventy years ago during World War II, the tide went the other way, people fleeing war-torn Europe for a neutral Turkey and the free world beyond.

But the Greek mainland itself is 150 miles away. Why are these islands Greek?

A couple hundred years ago, these islands were part of the Ottoman Empire. They were controlled by Turkey.

Then as Greece tore away from the Empire in the 1800s, the inhabitants of most of these islands chose to go with it.

The death knell for Turkish control of the islands came in World War I. The Ottoman Empire lost the war, and the Allies occupied Istanbul and began carving up the Turkish mainland. Eager Greeks invaded and pushed to within 50 miles of the new Turkish capital Ankara before being repelled by the Turks and shoved back into the sea. In 1923 the Treaty of Lausanne formally recognized a new Turkish nation. The Turks had overcome the terms of their WWI defeat, terms which would have lost them even the mainland, but in the process they had to formally accept Greek control of the islands.

Then during World War II Germany invaded Greece, occupying its mainland and its islands with the help of fellow Axis members Italy and Bulgaria. Towards the end of the war the Allies pushed the occupiers out and returned the islands to Greece.

Humans have been fighting over these islands for thousands of years. They have been controlled by the Greeks. They have been controlled by the Persians. They have been controlled by the Romans. They have been controlled by the Turks. Someone is always controlling them, and someone else is always lusting after them. Today it is the Greeks doing the controlling, and the Turks doing the lusting. Tomorrow it will be someone else.

Lie in the sun, feel the sand between your toes, snorkel in the clear water. And then at the end of the day, when you watch the sun set behind the islands, remember that you are sitting on the Turkish mainland, but most of the islands you are gazing at are Greek.

I am not saying that the islands should be Turkish, or that they should be Greek, or that they should be anybody’s in particular. What I am saying is that if you have the privilege to travel to this region, don’t get so distracted by its beauty you go home without imagining how edgy you would be if your mortal enemy lived next door to you, where he could stand over his kitchen sink and peer into your bedroom window. The next time war breaks out over these islands, you will be better able to understand why.

Mexican bakerBack in 2003, shortly after I arrived in Turkey, I went with some of my Turkish friends to the countryside northeast of Istanbul, up near the Black Sea. We went for a walk along a dirt road, and we passed by a farmer clearing litter from a pathway next to one of his fields.

There wasn’t much litter for him to pick up, just a few scattered pieces here and there.  But he was diligently removing every last scrap, determined to make his little plot of land as spotless as he could.  He nodded at us and smiled sheepishly, shaking his head and lamenting, “How will we ever be accepted into the EU if we treat our land like this?”

Six years later, I found very few people in that country who cared much about EU integration. Turkey had gone from a place where even toothless, sun-worn rural folk were preparing their corner of the world for entry into the EU, to a place where practically no one, not even the most Europeanized of urban professionals, cared anymore.  What happened?

Turkey’s most recent wave of economic integration with Europe actually goes back decades. In the 1960s and 1970s, hundreds of thousands of Turks moved to Germany under Germany’s Guest Worker program. The men worked in Germany’s factories and mines, helping to fuel the country’s rapid economic growth, while their wives provided domestic labor and cared for an entire generation of German kids.

In the 1980s and 1990s Turkey moved further up the value chain, exporting textiles and then manufactured goods to Europe. At one point, half of all the televisions sold in Europe were made in Turkey. Today the outskirts of Istanbul are home to huge Ford, Toyota, and Hyundai plants that crank out a million cars a year for the European and Central Asian markets.

Over the past decade the rise of China has challenged Turkey’s preeminence as a cost-effective manufacturing base for Europe, but Turkey continues to climb the value chain, now providing Europe with professional services. Some of the world’s largest companies — Coca-Cola, Microsoft, Unilever — base their regional operations out of Istanbul. They don’t need to staff their Istanbul offices with expats, because in Turkey they find no shortage of intelligent, well-educated, cosmopolitan professionals eager to run their regional operations. Turkey has become Europe’s farm team for international managerial talent.

So over the past 50 years the Turkish and European economies have become closely integrated.  Why isn’t this economic integration translating into EU integration?

Some people cite disagreements over Cyprus, or integration fatigue after nearly all of Eastern Europe joined the EU in 2004 and 2007.  In my opinion these are red herrings.  The real reason EU members resist absorbing Turkey is very simple: humans love to draw borders around their lands and around their gods, and not only does Turkey begin a new continent, it begins a new religion.

In many ways, Europeans’ relationship with Turkey is like Americans’ relationship with Mexico.  For Americans, Mexicans are an unwashed other. In the early 1990s when NAFTA was in the headlines in the US, Americans worried about dirty creepy-crawlies riding in on the undercarriages of Mexican trucks storming north across the border. Americans appreciate the cheap labor, the tasty food, and the inexpensive beach vacations Mexico offers, but they don’t want a dirty, unwashed “them” infecting American soil. Similarly, Europeans appreciate the cheap labor, the tasty food, and the inexpensive beach vacations Turkey offers, but they don’t want a dirty, unwashed “them” infecting European soil.

There are people who believe the EU-Turkey question is an important one, and in some ways I suppose it is.  But in a big picture sort of way, a world where Turkey is part of the EU probably wouldn’t be very different from one where it is not.  After all, the American relationship with Mexico is bigger than NAFTA.  The two countries trade with each other, and they fight with each other. They’ve done so for hundreds of years, and they would have continued to do so with or without NAFTA. Europe and Turkey have traded with each other, and fought with each other, for a thousand years, and they will continue to do so with or without the EU. The parties do not need integration, because they already have it.

Years ago, for dinner on the evening of my first full day in Turkey, I went to a cafe on Istanbul’s Istiklal Caddesi. Istiklal is the busy outdoor pedestrian mall that anchors the city’s nightlife. I had spent the day touring the city’s headliner tourist sites — the Aya Sofya, the Blue Mosque, the Kapali Carsi.

I had sipped tea in the shadows of minarets. I had eaten doner, burrito-like wraps stuffed with thin slices of roasted mutton shaved from cylinders of meat on spits. I had guzzled entire cartons of ayran, the popular Turkish drink of yogurt, salt, and water.

My full day of sightseeing had left me feeling tired and overwhelmed. For dinner I wanted something bland and familiar. In the days to come there would be plenty of time to continue getting to know Turkey. I was in no mood to make this dinner that time. So instead of opting for uniquely Turkish food, I found a restaurant on Istiklal where I could get a simple club sandwich with french fries on the side.

I was not familiar with Istiklal, seeing it for the first time only minutes before sitting down to my club sandwich. As I ate, I was struck by the endless stream of people passing by on the street below. It was like someone had opened a fire hydrant on the street corner, but instead of releasing a torrent of water, the hydrant was spewing forth a river of people.

Now, even years after first witnessing Istiklal’s human river, I still marvel at its deep, relentless flow. When I stand on the street and watch people entering the river from its headwaters at Taksim Square, I feel like one of those kids I see in the movies, the kids who run around with their friends on a New York city street on a hot summer day, playing in water spraying from a street corner’s fire hydrant. I soak up the waves of humanity washing over me, the peoples’ laughter and light banter refreshing me after a day of intangible thoughts, words, ideas.

When I look at these people more closely, I realize that they all look different. I don’t mean some people have blond hair while others have black, or some people have light skin while others have dark. The differences are deeper, in the bone structures and the body types. It seems like every single person has a completely different shape.

These aren’t people who grew from the genetic stock of just a few people. These are people who grew from the genetic stocks of all the different peoples who over thousands of years have rampaged back and forth across this particular piece of land.

And yet these people all call themselves Turks.

Watching these Turks, these people who are a mish-mash of genetic stocks and yet identify with each other as if they were one, is a reminder that we humans do not migrate across the planet in discrete chunks, keeping our identities intact as we move about.

We like to think we do. We like to think Chinese have a land they call home, and when they come to Seattle they are the others. We like to think Poles have a land they call home, and when they come to London they are the others. We like to think Africans have a land they call home, and when they come to Istanbul they are the others.

But the lands on this planet do not care about the distinctions we humans make. The lands do not think of one group as the locals, and the others as the immigrants. We humans like to call our particular pieces of land home, but we are really just short-term renters.

When you travel, notice the people in front of you. Notice the Italians in Italy, the Germans in Germany, the Turks in Turkey. But think also of the people who came before them, and imagine the people who will come after them. Those people did, and will, have as legitimate a claim on the land as the people who occupy it today.

Travel helps you see the flow of people around the planet as an ocean current, as an infinite mixing process, not as the well-defined movement of discrete pieces on a chess board.

On a warm summer night the plaza outside the Ortakoy mosque is one of my favorite places to watch Istanbul kick back and relax. The plaza is only 3 miles from Taksim and Istiklal, the stars of Istanbul’s nightlife, but it’s a different kind of place. Taksim and Istiklal easily overwhelm me with their busy crush of humanity, but the plaza outside the Ortakoy mosque is a place where I can breathe freely and let my guard down.

Young couples snuggle on its benches while older married ones walk hand in hand through its square. In this neighborhood there are not many tourists, but the ones who come stop to take photos of themselves standing next to the brightly-lit mosque. Ortakoy’s is a pedestrian-only plaza where people stroll past vendors selling grilled fish sandwiches, stuffed baked potatoes, chocolate-covered waffles, and, of course, ice cream. Restaurants and bars line the walkways, but there is no pressure to enter, no hawkers standing outside calling at you aggressively.

Less than a quarter-mile north of the square the Bosphorus bridge leaps from the hills above and stretches out across the water to the Asian side. The bridge is incredibly busy, completely full no matter what time of day or night, but it towers above the square so high the traffic crossing it seems completely silent. The lights from the bridge shine down onto the waters of the Bosphorus, and the bridge’s suspension cables are often lit up in brilliant, shifting hues of magenta, ice blue, and lime green. Huge tankers pass underneath, gliding by so silently you wouldn’t even know they were there if you didn’t spot their silhouettes against the twinkling lights on the opposite shore.

The Ortakoy mosque is officially named the Grand Imperial Mosque, but don’t call it that, because you will be hard-pressed to find even one Istanbullu who knows what you are referring to. Locals refer to it simply as the “Ortakoy camii” (Ortakoy mosque). The original mosque was built in the 1700s, which would make it quite new by Turkish standards. In the 1850s it was replaced by an even newer mosque commissioned by the Ottoman sultan Abdulmecid. That is the mosque we see today. As ornate as it is, it was built at a time when the Ottoman Empire was passing its peak, beginning to sway under the nationalistic pressures brewing in its outer territories, pressures that in the decades to come would begin carving away at it.

Istanbul is represented by no shortage of iconic images. The Aya Sofya. The Blue Mosque. The Kapali Carsi. The Ortakoy mosque is one of these iconic images, too. The image of the mosque, with the massive Bosphorus bridge behind it, is a favorite image for anyone who wants to express the idea that Turkey is a bridge between East and West, that Turkey straddles two continents, that Turkey connects Christian Europe and the Muslim Middle East.

When US President George Bush wanted to show he too understood this connection, when he wanted to salve the wounds two simultaneous wars in Muslim lands had reopened, he came to Istanbul and stood on the patio outside the nearby Ciragan Palace, allowing the world’s media to broadcast the image of him standing tall with the Ortakoy mosque and the Bosphorus bridge in the background. The image’s iconic power could, for a moment at least, overcome even the animosity stirred by one of recent history’s most divisive US presidents.

The image of the Ortakoy mosque and the Bosphorus bridge could just as easily, though, serve a very different purpose. The mosque is on the European side of the water, and the bridge, viewed from Ortakoy’s perspective, is crossing over from the Asian side. We use the image to symbolize warm, fuzzy spiritual connectedness and commonality, but it could just as easily serve as a threatening image of a Muslim beachhead, Islam planting itself on the Christian shores of Europe.

I am not suggesting that this alternative perspective is truer than the one we have already assigned to the image. I am simply suggesting that the meanings we layer onto the objects around us come from us, not from the objects themselves, and for every meaning we assign, there is usually an equally plausible, but opposite, meaning we choose not to assign.

Being able to analyze an image, object, or thought from multiple perspectives at the same time, even when those perspectives are counter-intuitive or distasteful, is a muscle. Muscles become stronger when they are exercised, and travel provides endless opportunities to exercise this particular muscle. Next time you travel, remember that you have left your comfort zone and are being presented with precious opportunities to exercise that muscle. Work it out, build it up, and show it off when you get back home. Your friends and family want to see your vacation slides, but they also need you to remind them how to use that muscle.

My Grandpa Hofer passed away in 1999, when I was 29 years old. He died of pancreatic cancer. At the time of his diagnosis the doctor said he had 3 months to live. The doctor was about right.

My grandpa was a retired music teacher. I never met any of his students, so sometimes I wonder if he put onto them at least a tiny portion of the stamp he put onto me. I imagine so. After all, no matter what he was teaching, he taught by example. People remember when you teach by example, because teaching by example is so rare.

When the doctor’s diagnosis came there was little debating whether to fight the cancer or not. My grandpa figured his time had come, and every moment he spent trying to prolong his life would be a moment he did not spend preparing the world for his exit.

Knowing his wife would need care he would not be around to provide, he sold the home he had built with his own two hands and moved himself and my grandma into a retirement center near my parents. My grandma still lives at that retirement center today.

My grandpa had lived most of his life within a 100-mile radius of a small farming town in central California, and he began guiding my dad on drives through the communities where he had grown up. As my dad drove along dusty, dilapidated country roads my grandpa pointed out key sites important to his life’s stories. Sometimes he would ask my dad to pull over by the side of the road so they could get out and walk around and my grandpa could point out an old building or a tree that was playing a starring role in one of his stories.

Towards the end of one of these drives, my grandpa told my dad, “When I am gone, I want you to take Matt and Mark (my younger brother) on this exact same route, and I want you to tell them these exact same stories. Word for word. I want them to know where they came from.” Now when I see an old barn that looks like it’s about to collapse, I don’t see a useless barn, I see someone’s story.

About two months after the diagnosis, the cancer was ravaging his body and he was quickly growing weak. One day he picked up the phone and asked my dad to take him on an important errand. He needed to go to the funeral home to make arrangements. My dad took my grandpa to the funeral home where he picked out and paid for two adjacent plots, chose what kind of service he wanted, and picked out his own coffin. He wanted to make sure the details were taken care of early, so his family would not have to worry about them in the difficult time that was to come.

In those days I was living almost 1,000 miles to the north in Seattle, busy with a life doing work I loved, hiking in the mountains, and settling into the home I had bought earlier that year. I knew what was happening in California, though, and I kept close tabs on the situation. As the long Thanksgiving weekend approached it was clear my grandpa would not last much longer. My parents called to tell me it was time to come say goodbye. I hopped in my car and drove 16 hours overnight, arriving at my grandpa’s side early on Thanksgiving morning.

In his last week my grandpa had moments when he was lucid, but he also had moments when he was not, and the moments of not were quickly becoming the majority. The family didn’t have much of a Thanksgiving feast that year. No one was in the mood. Everyone was drained. We just stuck close to each other and waited together, spending most of our time at the retirement center where my grandpa was passing his last few days.

I had to be back at work in Seattle Monday morning. The night before I headed back, my mom told me it was time to say goodbye to my grandpa. I had never done anything like that before, saying goodbye to a loved one who expected me to openly acknowledge that we would never speak to each other again, at least not in this life. There would be no empty declarations of hope for recovery. This was going to be it.

I sat in one of the side rooms down the hallway, steeling myself, trying to muster the courage to look my grandpa in the face and say my final words to him. When he was lucid enough to know who was in the room with him, my mom came down the hall to get me. “It’s time,” she said. I stood up and walked down the hall with her, trembling from the stress. At one point I stopped suddenly, and my mom, knowing why, turned towards me and steadied me as my knees buckled and I started sobbing. I pulled myself together again, took a deep breath, and walked the remaining few steps into the room where my grandpa lay in bed.

I knelt down next to the bed, took my grandpa’s hand, dug down as deep as I could, and told him the things I knew I would never have another chance to say. I told him I loved him very much. I thanked him for the love he had shown me and the guidance he had given me over the years. Tears streamed down my cheeks and my voice cracked with every word, but I kept on. I told him it was okay to go now, don’t worry, Grandma was safe and we would take good care of her and we would make sure she never felt alone. I told him to say hello to Heather, my cousin who had passed away some years before.

My grandpa’s eyes were closed and he couldn’t speak, but I knew he was listening because his hand was squeezing mine, giving me the courage to say what I needed to say. I finished speaking, I squeezed his hand one last time, I kissed him on the forehead, and I stood up. I turned and hurried out of the room, unable to look anyone in the eye as I brushed past. I ran down the hall and burst out the front door to take a deep breath of the fresh night air.

A few days later I was back in Seattle when the phone rang. It was my mom. My grandpa had passed away. When he had taken his last breath, my dad had been sitting next to his bed and they were listening to one of his favorite pieces of classical music.

There are times in life when we want to collapse into a corner, to curl up into a fetal ball and shake and weep and dissolve into a trembling bunch of nerves. But in his parting gift to me my grandpa reminded me that every single one of us can choose instead to tap into a vast pool of inner strength, and when we tap into that pool we become bigger people. Those around us desperately want us to tap into it, because they are trying to tap into it too, and they need us to show them the way.

When you learn how to tap into that pool of strength, you must begin living a life that requires you to tap into that pool every single day. If you do anything less with your time here on this earth, you are wasting that time and you are wasting the gifts god gave you to use.

Since my grandpa passed away, I have tried to live this lesson every day of my life. There have been times when I have stumbled, but I have never stopped trying. I will live it until the day I die, because my grandpa lived it for me, and now I must return the favor.

I have a neighbor who likes to call black people coons in private. He won’t call them coons in public though. Instead, he will stop mid-sentence, smirk and wink, and say, “I have a word in mind, but I’m afraid to use it in public.”

The social pressure on him does not keep him from thinking of black people as coons. But it does keep him from polluting the public space with his inner fears.

When an unknown assailant blows up a bomb in Oslo and opens fire on clean-cut white kids at summer camp, our emotions run high and we want to grab torches and a piece of rope and march off into the darkness to lynch the nasty people who did this to us.

Anger and fear and the desire for retribution are completely normal responses to an attack. Only someone cold and heartless would deny his fellow human beings the emotions that flow naturally after an event like that one.

But the strength of the emotions swirling inside of you does not relieve you of your responsibility to not pollute the public space with your fear and anger.

About a day after the attacks in Oslo, I was talking to a friend of mine. She is an intelligent, articulate person whose opinions I often disagree with, but always like to hear.

She commented on the Oslo attack and blamed it on “the Muslims.”

I mentioned that the police hadn’t arrested anyone yet, and that it was too early to know who did it. Her response was simply, “They have a lot of Muslim immigrants there, they are creating problems, it’s a shame.”

We like to tell ourselves our initial reaction to an event doesn’t matter much. We like to tell ourselves that it’s okay to let our emotions flow unfiltered past our lips, as long as we will let our cooler heads prevail when the facts begin to come in.

But how we choose to react in the moments immediately following an event does in fact affect what the world will look like afterwards. Our reaction might not affect who will go to jail for a particular attack. But it does affect what will and will not be acceptable drivers of our society’s actions in the unrelated events that will follow in the weeks and months and years to come.

If we allow our neighbors to use the word “coon” in public, we signal to them and to others that it is okay to disrespect black people. Similarly, in the hours after an attack on Oslo, if we allow our neighbors to blame Muslims even though no one knows yet who is responsible, we signal to them and to others that it is okay to displace our anger and fear onto Muslims.

My neighbor calls black people coons because when he was growing up, people around him taught him it was socially acceptable to lash out at black people when he was feeling scared and confused. Today it is socially acceptable to lash out at Muslims when we are feeling scared and confused, as long as we tell ourselves we will allow our cooler heads to prevail when the facts come in. It is a childish way to react to the world, and we need to stop it.

I never saw him until I moved into that place on 13th Avenue Southwest, and then I began seeing him regularly.

He would appear in the dim light before dawn or after dusk. Unsure if my momentary glimpses of him were just my eyes playing tricks on me, I would quickly look away and then glance back at him, but by that time he had noticed me noticing him and he was gone.

He usually wore a crumpled old fishing hat and a long-sleeve T shirt with horizontal stripes. Because his hat was pulled down low over his eyes, I never saw his face clearly, just enough to know he looked a little older and his nose was a little beaky. Think Freddy Krueger from the Nightmare on Elm Street movies, but not as threatening. His spookiness did not come from him, it came from me not knowing why he was there.

I never saw what kind of pants he wore, because when I spotted him he was almost always on the other side of the fence looking in. I could tell he wasn’t particularly tall, because the fence came up to the middle of his chest, while it was barely waist-high on me.

Only once did I see him inside the yard. It was almost dark out, and I had come outside on a lark, stepping off the front deck to go around to the basement door on the side of the house. He was crouched down next to a fern that grew in shade thrown off by the deck during the day. I think he was as surprised to see me as I was to see him. He disappeared instantly, gone before I could even finish turning my head to look at him.

Four years later I moved away and have not seen him since. Perhaps he was not watching me. Perhaps he was watching the house. I wonder if he appears to the people who live there now.

Coolness is a detachment from yourself and therefore an insult to the gifts god gave you. Do not ever be cool again, not for one moment, not for the rest of your life.

Spill your blood onto the floor.

When I was 5 years old my family lived in Oakland, California.

We didn’t live in Oakland anymore when I was 6, so I only have a few memories of that place, some random, disjointed mental pictures. A scary German Shepherd loose on the street. A teacher pinning a strip of green construction paper onto my t-shirt so the other kids wouldn’t pinch me on St. Patrick’s Day. A spindly-legged mosquito eater butting its head against the back wall of the house.

A kid at school had told me mosquito eaters could inflict a more painful bite than the mosquitoes themselves, so to this day I still get nervous when they are around, even though not once in my entire life has a mosquito eater ever given me any guff.

I had a friend who lived around the corner named Leo. Leo was five and a classmate of mine in the kindergarten. He also had an older sister. I don’t remember ever seeing her, but she was probably about eight, and thus much older and more worldly and experienced than Leo and I could ever hope to be.

It was from Leo’s sister, via Leo, that I first learned the f-word.

One day as Leo and I were outside running around playing the games 5 year old boys tend to play, I heard him muttering the phrase “f*** a ditch, f*** a ditch, f*** a ditch.”

I asked him what this meant, this phrase “f*** a ditch.”

“It’s when a man and a woman have sex in a ditch,” he said while running around in a circle.

Amazed to have stumbled upon such a useful piece of information, I stopped Leo and asked him how he had learned this phrase.

“From my sister. F*** a ditch, f*** a ditch, f*** a ditch.”

I was only five, and I had an inkling sex was something men and women did together, but I didn’t quite understand the mechanics of it. I hadn’t yet realized men and women have different parts, so I just assumed a woman’s parts looked much like a man’s. How they would mate up smoothly was beyond me, but I had grown used to the fact that the world was a place full of mystery.

As for the ditch part, I just took it at face value that when adults did it, they preferred to do it in a ditch.

For the next five years I figured the f-word was the abbreviated version of the full phrase “f*** a ditch.” It was not a stand-alone word for sex, and it could never be divorced from its ditch origins.

As time passed, though, the idea that adults preferred to do it in a ditch grew stranger and stranger. I started noticing men and women kissing in movies and on TV, and rarely was there a ditch nearby.

Still, I never sat down to seriously think it through. As I grew older I just picked up other pieces of the puzzle, and by the time I was ten I knew very well, thank you, that men and women had different parts, and that when they had sex, it often did not take place in ditches.

I never asked myself how ditches had entered into the picture in the first place, and then one day when I was in my mid-twenties I was at Safeway doing my weekly grocery shopping. As I reached up to pull some paper towels off the shelf a random thought came to me, “Oh, Leo’s sister heard it wrong,” and I burst out laughing right there in the aisle.

Thirty-six years after Leo taught it to me, that phrase still rolls smoothly off my tongue, because that’s how I learned the word.

F*** a ditch, f*** a ditch, f*** a ditch.

Under my feet I can feel twigs and rocks too small for the eye to see. A discoloration on the pavement is a thin layer of dust, not a stain. In one fluid, uninterrupted motion I hop sideways onto the street, a move I’ve made because I want to bypass the pavement in the crosswalk coming up, pavement that is broken and choppy because it lies at an intersection of two streets on different repaving schedules.

As I begin running up the short, shallow grade west on Galer I remind myself to resist the urge to lunge, push, power. Stay low, stay light, stay gentle. Cycle through quickly. When you wonder whether to take one step or two, take three.

It feels good to be running again. The cool morning air rushes past me, and my perspective on the city changes every few seconds as I move through it. I turn a corner here, turn a corner there, run up one hill, run down another. The sky opens up as I pass a park on the left, then closes as I run between two rows of tall buildings, then opens up again as I pass another park and run downhill towards the bay.

For the past three months I’ve let my running slide completely. I used to love popping my bare feet up on an ottoman in the evenings while I watched TV, flexing my toes and arches during the commercials and watching the muscles spring to life, muscles I didn’t even know existed. Now my feet are just weak, passive slabs I shove into shoes each morning when I dress for work. It will take another month for the muscles to reappear.

Sometimes people think I’m kidding when I tell them I run like this, but then when the disbelief subsides they ask me three questions. The second question is usually about calluses. I tell them that I don’t get calluses partly because the road is one huge emery board, but mainly because running barefoot is about learning how to run so gently walking seems violent in comparison, learning how to be physically and mentally intimate with your surroundings, reminding yourself that the barriers that limit you in life have often been erected by you, that they are there not because they are, but because you think they are.

I pull into a no-name truck stop north of Sacramento. I step out of the car, flick the door shut, and pause to soak up the sun’s warm rays.

I know from experience the locals see the bright sun as a harbinger of the oppressive heat that will begin stifling the Valley in a few weeks, but I don’t see it that way right now, because I’ve been in the car since northern Oregon and up there the air was cold and wet.

A few miles back was a Starbucks, but I stopped here because leaving one place to go to another is one of life’s simple pleasures, and few things kill the buzz faster than the sameness of a chain.

I push through the glass door and enter the store, a bell on a string jangling against the glass as my eyes adjust to the indoor lighting. I nod at the clerk and head over to a large bank of candy bars to the left, doing a quick systems check to determine what snack will best meet my body’s needs at the moment. The relative cravings for sugar, salt, flour, and fat will determine whether I buy chips, a candy bar, a hot dog, or a tuna sandwich.

I decide to go for a candy bar, but the large selection overwhelms me. Too much choice. Spotting the familiar brown and orange of a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, I instinctively grab two and head for the refrigerated beverage case.

I pull out a chilled Starbucks “gas station mocha,” partly because I like the taste, but mainly because I enjoy the friction the cap’s rubberized threads make against the smooth glass, plus of course the metallic pop the cap makes when I open the bottle for the first time.

I turn from the case and head towards the register as the refrigerator door slams shut behind me. The clerk smiles at me. I pull out my wallet and briefly wonder owner or employee? It’s an idle thought, as the next word out of my mouth will be “Hey” regardless.

I lift the egg from the stove and slide it onto cheese melted over wheat toast. A favorite breakfast of mine. Break the egg’s yolk and it becomes a lazy man’s Eggs Benedict.

Where is the Canadian bacon, you might ask, suggesting that perhaps you do not understand what I mean when I call it the “lazy man’s Eggs Benedict.”

The kitchen is small but it serves its purpose just fine. A window looks out over Elliott Bay, Alki to the south and Bainbridge to the west. Ferries crisscross the bay and on Sundays cargo ships from Asia dock at terminals I can’t see because a tree is in the way.

A storm moves north over Alki towards me. Actually, Seattle rarely has storms, it just has “permawet.” I know before I leave the apartment the umbrella will come in handy this morning.

It’s 6:05 but I delay my departure a moment while I finish reading a magazine article. The article is not particularly interesting, but I’m almost done and I want to finish it. At 6:06 I drop the magazine on the table, put the dishes in the sink, and walk towards the door, relaxed in the knowledge that as long as I leave by 6:09 I’ll be okay.