One of my favorite customs in Turkey is drinking tea, or as it is called here, çay. It is such a simple thing but it really defines a lot of social interactions between people.
Tea culture varies all over the world, from intricate combinations to intensive brewing methods. In Turkey, çay is a simple black tea brewed in a special dual-compartment teapot. It is served plain, but there is always a bowl of sugar cubes nearby to sweeten it a bit. I always take mine with two pieces. 🙂
Turkish people drink çay all day, every day. Most commonly it is taken after a meal to settle the stomach, on average at a rate of about two cups after breakfast, one after lunch, and another two after dinner. However, there are always additional opportunities throughout the day to stop and have an extra cup.
I’ve found that every little shop will have a pot of tea ready to be served, whether in the spice bazaar or on Istiklal Street (the main avenue downtown). One of my favorite things to do when I was first exploring Istanbul was to stop and have a çay and a chat with shop owners. It was a great way to start meeting people and get to know the city. Now, I will often go out for çay with a friend and play a couple games of tavla, which is Turkish for backgammon.
One of the aspects I find so enticing about tea culture in Turkey is the hospitality linked to offering çay. Similar to the shop owners offering me to stop and have çay, it is an action that demonstrates the generosity and goodwill of the Turkish people. They are so eager to please people, especially foreigners. Every time I am with Turkish friends, or in a Turkish home, I get asked more than once if I would like anything to eat or drink, if I am comfortable, if there is anything at all that I need.
Once I mentioned to a friend that I was a bit chilly and she literally gave me her own coat, insisting I wear it, even though it was too small and she was wearing only a t-shirt underneath. By now I have learned to be careful not to complain around my Turkish friends for fear they will subject themselves to discomfort to make me happy.
The best part about stopping to have çay with a new person is that everyone is always keen to converse, no matter what linguistic barriers might exist. I have had many theatrical and amusing conversations with people who spoke no English whatsoever, but it is those types of interactions I love the most. People will make such an effort to share a little bit about themselves and their culture with me and in return I share my appreciation and try to communicate how happy their efforts make me.
Truly, it is these cultural exchanges that make me so excited about living abroad. On a very small scale, I feel like I am actually making a difference in uniting cultures and making the world a more global community, one çay at a time.