Card games are a universal way to show off talent, learn a new skill or just blow off steam after a hard time at work. And the day we went to the Grand Bazaar, we saw just that: four men, however, instead of of poker or Go Fish, the game of choice for the men was ellibir, or “51.” Many also know it by the name “Okey,” or American Rummy.

Like everything, there are different ways to play the game; the Turkish version usually involves tiles, but that day, the men were doling out cards. Since there were four men, each started with seven cards, and drew more once the game was underway.

The general object of the game is to be the first to get rid of all your cards. You do that by getting rid of a card when you have a “meld.” Melds are created either by getting three or more cards of the same rank (a “set”), or getting three or more consecutive cards in the same suit (a “run”). Players can only form melds during their turn.

Okey players, when they play competitively, get penalty points for things such as 10 penalty points for a stalemate, or opponents receiving 40 penalty points when a player gets seven meld pairs.

Watching the men play definitely didn’t turn me into a ellibar star in 10 minutes. However, it did remind me that despite cultural differences, we’re not that different from one another. After all, we all need to find some way to pass the lunch hour somehow.

Bizarre Warnings

We all know that smoking cigarettes is bad for our health. We also know most of the diseases that result from this habit. In America, cigarette packages have plain black and white health warnings on them that most smokers overlook and that some non-smokers don’t even know are on there. Ironically, it’s different in Turkey and warning labels are much more bold. I say ironically because not even a tourist could miss the warning labels on cigarettes here, yet 37.6% of male deaths are caused by smoking-related illnesses according to the World Lung Foundation and Turks are known for the saying ‘Smoke like a Turk’. To clarify what I mean by bold warning labels, these packages have distressing graphics to show people what happens when they smoke. The pictures cover pretty much the entire package and they range from showing a couple on opposite sides of the bed portraying that smoking ruins or hurts relationships to hospitalized babies. It definitely shocked me and made me more aware of the dangers of smoking.


Walking along the bustling street of Istiklal-the main thoroughfare between Tunel and Taksim square, one can wander off on many side streets filled with vendors, bazaars and cafés. Many of these cafés have seating outside where one can enjoy tea or coffee, play backgammon and smoke nargile. Also known as hookah or shisha, this waterpipe is used for smoking flavored tobacco. It’s very popular in India, Pakistan and the Middle East, where it originated, though it’s also catching on in other countries as well. The Mayi Nargile Café broke down the process of packing a hookah for me.

Cross-Cultural Connection: Kids are Kids

Yesterday morning after our delicious breakfast of Turkish pastries, we were given a crash course in foreign correspondence via Skype by NPR journalist Kelly McEvers. A piece of wisdom she gave us was to look for certain universal signs that we all share in human experience. Across the globe, the birth of a baby is a joyous occasion. A funeral is a day or days of mourning. The universal I have caught on to while in Turkey is that no matter where you are, children are children.

Whether you are taking a stroll through Beverly Hills or roaming the Tarlabasi in Turkey, when you see children, you can expect certain similarities. Even with the supposed overexposure of technology in some populations, when a child sees a piece of unfamiliar technology, their interest is piqued, and so begins their pursuit of their “new toy.”

I noticed this in our evening trip to the Tarlabasi, an impoverished and neglected neighborhood in Istanbul, comparable to an inner-city housing project in Chicago. As soon as my fellow reporter and roommate, Caroline, set up her tripod and camera on the street, she was swarmed with curious children anxious to look in the viewfinder. The less reserved ones insisted Caroline give them the camera, so they could take their own pictures. One boy asked me to take a picture of his soccer jersey then proceeded to show me his soccer skills by kicking a small ball across the street.

As we grow up and become more inhibited, it is a lot easier to spot cultural differences in the way we conduct ourselves, but this is just not the case with kids. All children like to play, and all children visibly display their fascination with new and unfamiliar toys. If you would like to put my observation to the test, next time you see a small child, whip out your cell phone and see what happens.

Cat culture

They’re everywhere. Screeching late at night, napping in every windowsill, scurrying across the street: Istanbul’s wild cats seem intrinsic to the city’s culture.

Seeing  eight or nine cats strolling along a single street is not uncommon and most are quite social; one of them even greeted President Obama on his visit to Istanbul (Youtube it!) causing Obama to pause and pet the feline as Turkish President Erdogan smiled on.

Many Turkish people don’t actually keep pets in their homes, cats or dogs, but they take excellent care of their street-dwelling pet population. Often, people leave out animal carriers and makeshift beds equipped with pillows and carpets – cat hostels, if you will -for cats passing through the neighborhood.

Food is also provided. Most often, you’ll see bowls of food and water tucked away in street corners, but sometimes people will actually leave their leftovers on a tray outside their door; I came across one dog feasting on someone’s leftover pasta with meatballs.

Wild dogs are also prominent in Istanbul’s street culture though not as well liked as their feline counterparts. More often than not, people will stop to pet cats; not so much with dogs. I read that there are well over 100,000 wild dogs roaming the city, with some estimates being upwards of 150,000.

Most wild dogs, much like the cats, are social and well-adjusted; we actually had a dog follow us down Istikal after we stopped to pet him. He barked at anyone who came to close, as if he were really our pet. After about 45 minutes of proving his loyalty, we named him Scraggles.

A Safe City

I’ve read in numerous travel guides that Istanbul is a very safe city, and though I have only been here for two days, I feel completely safe walking around Istanbul. Of course I haven’t totally let myself loose by walking around alone or giving in to being lured into shops. Just like any other populous city, you still have to take safety precautions.

Besides the occasional pick-pocketer and purse-snatcher (which are the most common dangers to safety), it is best to always walk on the sidewalk (if there is one) and be cautious and aware of traffic because trust me, at the speed that motor vehicles are going, you might not make it if you were hit.

While exploring the bustling streets of Istiklal and Taxim in search of clothing shops and flea markets, I noticed that police cars constantly drove up and down the street. Seeing them gave me a sense of security while venturing into this unfamiliar area of Istanbul. I especially loved seeing them because they were driving the same car that I drive, a Mini Cooper! I could hardly take them seriously in these little toy-looking vehicles.