Cultural Clarity by Car

I used to think that food offered one of the best (not to mention the most enjoyable) ways to gain insight into another culture. The way food is displayed, where one buys it, what types there are, how it is prepared and served, if there is more fresh vs. preserved…this gives you an eye into the heart (or, rather, stomach) of a culture.

For example, in Turkey, one can buy food in supermarkets, of course. However, supermarkets are just the modern complement, or supplement, to the traditional outdoor markets that abound. Each neighborhood has its own market on one particular day of the week. It is at these outdoor markets that hundreds of people buy their fruit, vegetables, fresh bread, fish, spices, clothes, and other sundries. The food is fresh and presented to the buyer with a flourish of hands and adjectives. In restaurants, meze style is popular – an array of small dishes intended to be shared, flavorful, appealing, and comforting, not unlike the Turkish people.

In Russia, our home before Turkey, there are both the supermarkets and the outdoor markets. The markets are open year-round despite the long and often harsh winters. The food is presented in take-it-or-leave-it manner and is, like the people, hearty and direct. Meat, mushrooms, root vegetables, honey, rye, wheat, barley abound (beets are a steal). Warming, rich soups are a must – almost on a daily basis – for most Russians. Pickled is popular, especially when one is tossing back one (or a dozen if you are drinking with a Russian) shots of ice-cold vodka. Vodka, by the way, also goes mouth-watering well with blinis (pancakes) with caviar and sour cream, not to mention long, flowery toasts that Russians do so well.

So food is one great way to get a flavor of a culture, literally and figuratively. However, it’s also clear that there is another path to cultural enlightenment: by car.

In Moscow, traffic was horrendous. Terrible. Awful. Day or night. Practically always. So you would think that the Russian motorways would resonate with honking and screams of rage, maybe even a Kalashnikov pulled out every once in a while for good measure.

Nothing of the sort. It’s shhh-ilent on the roads. Sure, people cut you off, nose in when there’s a millimeter of opportunistic space, drive on sidewalks and tram lines. Drivers go the wrong way down a one-way street; treat traffic lanes like they are parking spaces, and their only perceived speed control is traffic congestion. But there is rarely any honking. No yelling. No road rage. Everyone just treats every vehicular act as a given and bears it with a stoicism that is characteristic of the Russian people.

In Istanbul, though? The cars chatter non-stop. Communicative, like the people themselves, horns sound in short blasts – often accompanied by piercing whistles – to let other drivers know they are coming, going, stopping, parking, slowing, speeding, etc. etc.

In fact, so often are horns being honked, it’s difficult – as a non-honking driver – to know from where and for what reason a horn is honking. In the beginning, it’s a bit stressful. You wait for the next blast in anxious anticipation. Luckily, after a while, desensitization kicks in and the beeps fade to background noise.

Which is perhaps not the best thing if the honk or whistle is trying to tell you something useful.

Like when I tried to edge our SUV through our street that was narrowed to half a lane by cars parked for the important Friday prayer.

Fortunately, drivers here are pretty flexible.

Even after I rubbed side-view mirrors with one guy’s car when I tried (unsuccessfully) to squeeze by.

However, with the help and cheerful encouragement of what seemed to be a few dozen Samaritans, our cars came out of the confrontation unscathed, and we drivers went on our merry way with a friendly “Iyi günler.”

Tolerant and civilized.

Just like the culture.

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