I hope everyone has had a wonderful Thanksgiving! Despite not eating Turkey, I had an enjoyable Thanksgiving. A group of us went to a nice restaurant and shared a nice meal together. We even went around the table saying what we are thankful for! It was great to share this not only with other Americans, but to introduce the holiday to some of our other exchange friends.

About a week ago we had a week off from school for what is known as Bayram (it is basically a general term for a religious holiday). This particular Bayram was in honor of family and friends who had passed away. Generally, everyone goes home and spends the week with their family. One of my exchange friends, Memik, a Turkish guy from Germany, invited me as well as two others, Julien, and Kyo, to spend the week with his extended in Gaziantep. Gaziantep is known for the role it played in World War I in preventing the French from taking over the region (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gaziantep). Gaziantep is a city of about one million located in southeastern Turkey, approximately thirty minutes north of Syria.  By bus it takes nearly eighteen hours from Istanbul. We opted to fly there instead which took a mere hour and a half! When we arrived in Gaziantep I knew we were in a different world. There was hardly any traffic noise, the sun was much brighter, and the air, since we were in a deserty area, much more dusty. Memik and his cousin met us at the airport, excited to introduce us to a new city and culture. As we drove towards the city center, I laughed when I saw a rather large bull standing in the bed of someone’s truck. Memik explained that it was customary on the first day of Bayram, which was the following day, to sacrifice and cook either a bull or sheep. In certain neighborhoods all over Gaziantep, you could see sheep being sold and carried home. It was quite the sight!

Gaziantep is famous for its cuisine. Ask any Turk and they will tell you that Gaziantep has the best kepab and Baklava in all of Turkey. We were all hungry, so Memik and his cousin took us to this small restaurant in the middle of a park. We were served chicken kepab wrapped in a thick bread called pide. It was incredible! I practically inhaled the sandwich. The rest of the day we wandered the city, the Gaziantep castle, and the old bazaar. In the bazaar we discovered an old Ottoman hotel that had been converted to a cafe. In the middle of the cafe there was a large platform covered in carpet with pillows and cushions set all around to act as seats. We came back that night and enjoyed some of the best nargile I had ever had!

The next day was the first day of Bayram and the city seemed like a ghost town compared to the previous day. Memik took us to his uncle’s countryside home where we spent the afternoon learning to play the Turkish domino game ‘okey’. That evening, Memik’s family invited us to share dinner with them for the first night of Bayram. It was such a treat to see at least three generations of Memik’s family gathered around! As we entered the house, we were greeted with great big smiles, hugs, and kisses. If I hadn’t known better I would have thought I was Memik’s long lost cousin! We all sat in the living room as the family gathered around, curious about us. Some of Memik’s family members had never met anyone from another country. I think it was a treat for me as well as the family. I practiced the little Turkish I knew and blushed whenever I could not understand something. Everyone was very patient, especially Memik’s mother, coming all the way from Germany. She spoke slowly and clearly. Speaking with her I felt like an expert in Turkish! As we waited for dinner the women in Memik’s family invited me into the kitchen to watch them make homemade çiğ köfte (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chee_kufta). Traditionally, çiğ köfte is made with raw meat, however it is illegal to sell it with raw meat in shops and restaurants. So, the only way to eat authentic çiğ köfte is to have someone make it in their home. Well, I was lucky enough to do that. I watched Memik’s aunt mix, by hand, meat and spices in a large vat! All the women watched my face as I smiled and took pictures. Dinner was soon brought out: sheep, killed that day, and çiğ köfte. It was wonderful! As guests we were served first, then the oldest to the youngest man. It was interesting to see the more traditional and formal side of Turkish culture, especially within a family setting. We spent the rest of the evening chatting with Memik’s large family. They asked us about family life in our countries and we asked about their’s. At the end of the night we took a group picture. It was such a treat to be welcomed into a family with open arms and experience their traditions.

The next day in Gaziantep, was even better! We woke up early and enjoyed a typical Gaziantep breakfast of soup! I had never had soup for breakfast but it was a delicious surprise. After breakfast we headed out of Birecik and Halfetti. First was Birecik, a small town about an hour outside of Gaziantep. In Birecik I certainly felt like I was in the near east. It was dusty, crowded, and exhilarating. We climbed a cliff containing old castle ruins. The ruins were run down but an amazing site to see. Climbing the dusty cliff was quite a feat. It was steep and a few times I slipped. At the top we explored and admired the view. After, we made our way down, stopping at a freshwater fountain to clean off. The water was cool and incredibly clear- very refreshing after climbing in the heat. After Birecik we went to Halfetti, the birthplace of Memik’s grandparents and a small town along the Euphrates river. The small town looked majestic as we drove towards it, nestled perfectly along the Euphrates. Halfetti was partially flooded a few years before to support a new dam. Near the shore line you can see the tops of houses and even a mosque! In Halfetti we went to Memik’s grandfather’s childhood home which had been converted into a lovely restaurant by the Euphrates. After lunch came the highlight of the entire trip.

All of us boarded a small boat and began a tour of the timeless Euphrates. I could not stop smiling and I nearly cried at the thought of traveling along a river which has supported some of the most influential ancient civilizations. For me it was equivalent to seeing the pyramids of Egypt. Something I had studies since primary school, I never would have imagined that I would ever step foot into where ancient Mesopotamia once lied. The waters were clear and as I touched the water as we floated along I soaked in the experience. Towards the end of the boat trip we climbed up a large cliff to Rumkale, meaning Roman Castle in Turkish. It was  a fortress used by both Byzantines and Armenians. From the top, the Euphrates seemed to stretch on forever. We lingered for about an hour; none of us could stop taking pictures of this natural beauty.

After our journey of the Euphrates we headed back to Gaziantep. For dinner we ate something quite unsual, Paça Çorbası. It is a soup made from the brain and tongue of a sheep. I asked for only ‘normal’ meat in mine, but after admitting I liked the taste, Memik and his cousin confessed to me that I was enjoying tongue! I must confess that it was rather tasty.

The next day was relaxed and we went to the Mosiac Museum displaying mosaics from the ancient city, Zeugma, located near present day Gaziantep. The following morning, our last day, we enjoyed a large Turkish breakfast, complete with soup, fresh cheese, and olives, with Memik’s family.

I really enjoyed seeing another part of Turkey where life seemed much different than in Istanbul, however I realized that I was now beginning to consider Istanbul home! Coming back to the large, crowded city, was oddly relaxing and comforting. I was home.


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