Beyond Berlin: the Istanbul Connection

Istanbul gives Berlin its baseline. In kind, Berlin is richly integrated into the complexity of Istanbul. For no relationship is ever purely one-sided. And so a Berlin : Istanbul connection, which moves beyond Gastarbeiter music and Fatih Akin films, is what one can find after six days immersed in the shapes and silhouettes of this city of 13 million.


Europe meets Asia

The guest-worker program between Turkey and Germany is often cited as the beginning of a long-standing socio-cultural and economic relationship, though such ties got their start long before the post-war boom period of the 1960s. The ‘Turkish factor’, regardless of how it came to be, makes Berlin, and Germany for that matter, the place we know. Without it, students would miss their late night meaty snack in the likes of Döner, the skyline would miss many of its stunning minarets, and the census would be sorely missing the strength of difference (just to name a few).

But being Turkish, German-Turkish, or Turkish-German in Berlin are states of being without a formula. In other words, there is more to the Turkish factor than just culinary contributions and street-side renditions of “walla” taking place on German soil. There is, in fact, also a ‘German factor’ abroad.

Traveling to Istanbul opens up the possibility for a more two-sided conversation, where the German traveler can encounter home and the foreign at the same time, in a place familiar but distant in its urban position. And that is just what we (me and my German companion, Juri) did just a few weeks ago.

Day 1 in Istanbul: Stammtisch

Upon our arrival into Istanbul’s (proudly named) Ataturk airport, we were led like lost sheep into the belly of a beast, i.e. Turkey’s passport control. All around us the air buzzed in German, repeating the ritual of my everyday commute on the metro, this time with the confusion and frustration of a forced queue in a city far away from German-land. A mustached man holding a sign for Studenten der Humboldt Universität (students of Berlin’s Humboldt University) stood on the other side of the human barrier, shifting his weight methodically. Entering behind us would certainly be this year’s study trip from Humboldt University’s Turkish German Master’s program in the social sciences, which sends Berliners to Ankara and Istanbul every year.

As we wandered into one bookshop after another on our first evening, it seemed that not only visiting German students would be speaking the language of Sauerbraten and Goethe. Residents of Istanbul are learning Almanca (German), maybe now more than ever.


advertisements for German language learning in a bookshop

Day 2 in Istanbul: Book Swap

Juri and I stumbled upon a German bookstore on an afternoon of gray and drizzle, just off the pedestrian-friendly thoroughfare of Taksim. Within seconds of walking through quaint double doors, we could hear – once again – the language of my daily commute. A young German woman chatted enthusiastically with her father, a yellow Reclam paperback of some German classic in her hand. Her father peered over his narrow reading glasses, raising his eyes just to hit the inventory at the back of the store – stacks of imported magazines and newspapers, including the kitschy tabloids older women with orange hair read at the bus stops in Berlin.

I wandered to the western edge of the dimly lit shop, discovering 20 ft. high shelves of children’s books in German. Perhaps kids in Istanbul will also grow up reading Pippi Langstrumpf.


German children’s literature

Day 3 in Istanbul: Sharing the Lunch Box

The Germans take their bread seriously, carefully kneading in all kinds of goodies the average American baker might omit out of concern for dental integrity. The so-called Turkish bread one can purchase in Berlin, from Dönerbrot to Milchbrot, has no fit-for-a-squirrel seeds to offer. Enter Vollkornbrot – your triple whole grain bread – to be found in your average Istanbul super market. For all the yoga-bending heath nuts in Berlin: this bread is manufactured in Turkey, though ingredients on the package are also translated into German.

And the bread fun doesn’t stop here. Even the Döner in Istanbul is served in a bun much robuster than Berlin’s ‘Turkish’ prototype.


just your everyday super market

Day 4 in Istanbul: The Döner Stories

The picture of this Döner? No, it wasn’t taken in Berlin. This dripping lance of assorted protein can be found on the lively streets of Istanbul, where Döner kiosks are visited with as much enthusiasm as in Berlin (so it appeared). There are slight differences in the composition of the sandwich, or shall we say differences in Döner before it became Döner Kebap in Berlin. As the rumor goes, Döner Kebap was invented by a Turkish-German named Mahmut, who happened to serve the traditional vertical meat in a triangular cut of flat bread, instead of in more pita-like Istanbul fashion. The reason, as stated in this same rumor: more bread, so that drunken Berliners might stumble home with saucy meats intact.

Thirty some years later in Istanbul, meat on a spit can now be received with french fries and fried veggies in that bread package. Berliner style.


is it lamb? chicken? beef? everything? it’s Döner.

Day 5 in Istanbul: Gimme Some Cake with that Coffee

The German concept of Kaffee und Kuchen (coffee and cake), which inspires the strip of torte-laden cafes in my neighborhood, has made its way to Istanbul in a rich way. Istanbul has its fair share of home-grown sweets, the most delicious ones in fact, involving large amounts of crude honey and nut-laced syrups. Yet, cake with layers of unsweetened cream and a buttery crust, a small apple tart without cinnamon, or a cream-puff styled torte reminds me of my Sunday afternoons devouring Berlin’s Kuchen culture with friends. And this in the city of the best Baklava I have ever put in my mouth.

In Istanbul’s trendy harbor-side district, Karaköy, we doused ourselves in familiar sugars at a cafe called Karabatak. A locale where locals in tweed jackets and horn-rimmed glasses slowly sip syrup-sweetened black coffee from delicate (read tiny) French presses. The influence of the Viennese coffee genius and founder Julius Meinl saturates the deco. Dressed up like a Freudian coffee salon, tiles lining the walls, jazzy serenades rolling into ‘intellectual’ conversations, one could also be in Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg. The extensive magazine selection: Der Spiegel, Marie Claire Deutschland, Vogue Deutschland, dispersed among the newest copy of The New Yorker and Turkish design magazines. A cosmopolitan coffee date full of Berlin swag and Turkish youngsters.


Day 6 in Istanbul:

Repeat cosmopolitan coffee date with Berlin swag and Turkish youngsters. For hours and with many forks.

Day 7 in Istanbul: What I Know

We boarded our plane in the dark and found ourselves again in German-land, surrounded by the lucid colors of night and the strangely familiar. The smells that had once been part of a Berlin immigrant cityscape were, after the return, now an experience tied to a place, constitutive of a tangible and pungent cross-continental connection. Two worlds connect. In fact, they were never separated.

We had only heard one side of the conversation.

By Kelly Miller

Approximately 3 million residents or citizens of Germany have Turkish background, meaning either they or their parents were born in Turkey, according to the German system of demographic classification. The Turkish population in Germany intensified with the guest-worker agreement between Turkey and Germany, which allowed for the reunification of families four years following the initial agreement, thereby turning the ‘guest-worker’ into an immigrant with, in many cases, children. Today, more and more Germans (with or without background) are considering a move to Turkey, learning about Turkey, or learning Turkish, reflecting the true nature of a two-sided relationship. 

All photos were taken by yours truly.

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