The Modest Arsenal: 24 Hours In Istanbul With Only A Few Turkish Words

Even on my first day in Istanbul, a handful of words and phrases unlocked situations that would otherwise have remained out of reach.

This January, I traveled overland from Berlin, Germany to Istanbul, Turkey. I had intended to study Turkey’s beautiful language beforehand, but the trip snuck up on me – I didn’t start until I was gliding along the Elbe River, aboard a southbound train.

Over two-and-a-half days on the rails – when I wasn’t staring out the window marveling at the landscapes sailing by – I studied words and phrases in Turkish. As the sleek German train plunged through Bavaria, I paced up and down the aisles counting from one to ten. Rolling past the switch signals out of Budapest, I chanted the words for water, wine, and bread. Waking up the next day to see the snow-covered Carpathian Mountains, I tried forming the phrases for “Good morning,” and “Nice to meet you.”

In such a short time, my rough introduction to Turkish didn’t even include the mechanics of grammar. I only gleaned a handful of words and phrases, and I have to admit I felt a bit defeated when I arrived at the Turkish border at 3 a.m. and told the man x-raying my bag “please” instead of “thank you.”

The final train pulled into Sirkeci terminal at dawn. There were silhouettes of toothy palm trees outside and a stray cat flicking its tail behind the not-yet-open ticket counter. I had arrived.

To me, the joy of traveling is twofold. There is the windswept exhilaration of immersing yourself in a wholly unfamiliar world, and then there is a more grounded pleasure in finding ways to interact and form connections, ways to break through the shell of isolation that can surround you as a foreign traveler.

As it turned out, the few words and phrases I had learned were crucial to this second step of enjoying traveling. Even in my first 24 hours in Istanbul, they served as a lens to clarify situations that would otherwise have remained opaque, and let me become an active player in my own fate.

Stepping out into the street from the station, I found myself ravenous. I’m vegetarian, and right off the bat I was able to tell the man behind the counter at the café that I didn’t want the meaty börek he had slapped onto a plate. “Etsiz, etsiz!” I said. To my relief he instead handed me one with spinach, cheese, and dill.

Later that morning, I met my friends Cemil and Özlem to take a ferry across the Bosphorus Strait to the Asian side of the city. I tuned out for a while, gazing at the water as they spoke together in Turkish. At one point, Cemil somehow managed to roll and light a cigarette amidst the wind, spray, and seagulls. Özlem was also a zealous smoker, and, eyeing the glowing embers, she leaned over to him as he took a drag. Gazing imploringly into his eyes, she asked, “Bir puff?”

Puff?” I cried, and couldn’t help but laugh at hearing an English word woven into her Turkish. “One puff?” Özlem laughed as well, surprised to realize she had said a word in English.

On my own that afternoon, I visited the Süleymaniye Mosque. I circled around its enormous dome, and wandered into an old Ottoman cemetery. The cemetery was maintained with tremendous care, and the oblong, rounded gravestones were striking. I was traveling with a large sketchbook, and this seemed like a perfect moment: I propped the sketchbook up on my lap and took out my charcoal to draw.

A few moments later, a man approached me to see what I was doing. I wasn’t sure of his position, but he strode over with an air of authority and a stern demeanor. I suddenly realized I wasn’t sure if I was even allowed to be here, and in panic I wondered if the Islamic dictates against representation applied to drawing graves. Wanting to convey my good intentions, I grasped for any linguistic tools that might help. “Güzel,” (beautiful) I said shyly, pointing at the cemetery. He looked from my drawing, to the cemetery, then back again. Suddenly he broke into a wide grin. He said several things to me very quickly – I didn’t understand a word – and then walked away. I breathed a sigh of relief.

Later that evening I met Özlem for dinner at her favorite restaurant, a place that serves mercimek çorbası (lentil soup), grilled vegetables, balık ekmek (fresh fish sandwiches), and, yes, chicken pudding. Özlem talked with the waiter for a while, and then she said, “Somethingsomethingsomething üç tane Çay, lütfen.” My ears pricked at the words for “two teas” and I realized she was ordering tea for both of us. I normally avoid caffeine and had already had about twelve glasses over the course of the day, as tea seems to punctuate every activity in Istanbul. “Oh no, no, no,” I said, “I don’t need any tea.” Taken aback for a moment, she stalled, then quickly changed the order.

“You understood what I was saying?” Özlem asked incredulously as the waiter walked away.

I almost didn’t have the heart to tell her that no, I had not mastered Turkish in a day, and that secret number one for learning language is: You don’t have to know every word. I’d only recognized two, and those words didn’t stand naked in abstraction. We were at a restaurant, she had been talking to the waiter, and every meal in Istanbul is served with black tea. Any amateur detective would have been able to guess that she would order tea at some point. Knowing those two words was still important, but they were reinforced by everything happening around us.


Putting my modest collection of Turkish words to use had been rewarding, and meant all the difference to me in terms of feeling engaged with the world around me. It was encouraging enough that, before falling asleep that night, I stayed up an extra hour to study a few new words for my second day.


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