Audrey Cheng, Public Health in Europe, 2013
One of the greatest advantages of studying abroad in Paris is the benefit of having Thanksgiving weekend off, the second longest weekend after Toussaint during which most people decide to travel. For my weekend, my friends and I decided to visit the Turkish city of Istanbul. My initial interest in visiting Istanbul came during my high school days, when we learned about the vibrant and rich history of the Byzantine and Ottoman empires and the changing of the name from ‘Constantinople’ to ‘Istanbul’ when Islam overtook Christianity. But in my mind, it had always seemed like a faraway land that I could only dream about visiting, so when my friend asked me to go with her over Thanksgiving break, I ecstatically agreed.
We arrived Thursday afternoon and I immediately noticed the difference in infrastructure: the tight, cobblestone roads forced the drivers to become reckless when they navigated through busy streets. That night, we enjoyed a nice Turkish dinner with apple tea and dessert and just took in the atmosphere around us. Having told us that the restaurant was situated above ancient Magnaura Palace, buried deep underneath the ground since its construction in 324 AD, the waiter led us downstairs after dinner to dimly lit passageways still under renovation. Being a history geek, I couldn’t fathom just how lucky we were to be there and I could almost feel thousands of years of history through my fingertips as my fingers glided along crumbling archways and walls. Needless to say, our first introduction to Istanbul left me in awe at the sheer extent of history well-engrained in each crevice and corner of almost any structure.
On Friday, we went to the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque, and the ever-present sound of chanting and praying was amplified from the mosques and could be heard from various parts of the city. Although the intricate designs and architecture were beautiful and like nothing I had seen before, what struck me when we passed ‘local’ mosques was how male-dominated the religious spaces seemed to be. There are noticeably well-renovated sections or even full mosques dedicated for men, but I could not find an equivalent for women anywhere. This was my first indication of how patriarchal the society is.
Saturday and Sunday, we visited Tokpaki Palace and walked around the Grand Bazaar and Egyptian/Spice Bazaars. Knowing that we obviously didn’t look Turkish, we were aware that the prices were docked significantly higher for us, and that bartering was the only option to buy things for a reasonable amount. It proved to be a lot harder than expected–for me at least–and though it was challenging and fun at first, after while, I realized that it wasn’t a style of exchange I could ever be used to.
It was obvious during the weekend how our easy-going nature as Americans conjured a sort of fascination from the Turkish people, as many Turkish women do not have the opportunity to experience the same freedoms as we do in their culture. This idea saddened me, because so often in life, I realize that I’ve taken for granted so many of what I’ve been given by society–like basic human rights. We’re all born into this world, but what we get out of it is completely different simply based on the society we are born in. I can’t say that my life is better or worse than other people’s, but I do know that the freedom I enjoy is not one that others–especially women–can enjoy. Needless to say, my trip to Istanbul opened up my eyes to more than I expected.
And now, here I am, with two weeks left in Paris. And I can’t even fathom the experiences I’ve had in the past 3 months, let alone this year. The amount of gratitude I have for everything–from being born in a relatively ‘free’ society, having the opportunity to study abroad and travel with no expense to my family to exchanging ideas and life philosophies with people around the world to experiencing the cultures I have always dreamed about–really cannot be put into words. Although being abroad hasn’t changed who I am, it has altered the way I see how others live their lives and taught me that there is always something to learn from people’s experiences. Though these last two weeks will be filled with mostly finals and papers, I can’t even come close to complaining for I would not trade the past 3 months for the world.