While mindlessly scrolling through Facebook, I stumbled upon an ESC project and it was the perfect opportunity to spend my summer. There was only one catch, they didn’t accept Croatian volunteers, but still, I decided to send a message just in case. And within a few days, I was buying plane tickets. Even though I was excited, coming to Turkey was a difficult decision, I must admit because the people around me were very sceptical and concerned. And my poor knowledge of Turkey didn’t help. A year ago, I thought that the capital of Turkey was İstanbul. So for me, going to Turkey was really stepping into the unknown and mysterious world.
That unknown and mysterious part of the globe soon enough became my second home. And it wouldn't have been possible without the kindness and hospitality of Turkish people. Wherever you go, they will welcome you with a warm cup of çay. If you are lost, just call your Turkish friend and give your phone to the dolmuş driver; he and your friend will help you find your way home. That’s why I never felt like a stranger in Turkey. And, it was so easy to meet friends here; in cafes, libraries, restaurants, you name it. Everybody was so excited to get to know me as foreigners in Ankara are not common. Apparently, being a Croat in Ankara is a very exotic thing to be. I must admit that, in the beginning, it was difficult to meet new people because not a lot of people speak English, but, as soon as I showed interest in Turkish culture, everything sorted itself out. And the host organization provided Turkish classes to help me assimilate even more. Besides that, we did a variety of activities, such as tennis classes, Zoom language classes, project writing, and of course travelling around Turkey. As much as I enjoyed exploring different regions of Turkey, I enjoyed exploring Ankara even more. Ankara is twice as big as Croatia, and coming from a town that counts barely 80 000 people, it was a drastic shift yet an adventure to live in such an enormous city. Always something new to see, a hidden cafe in Tunalı that I haven't been to, or a type of kadayıf that I haven't tried yet.
Yet, two months passed so quickly, and it was time to go home. It was heartbreaking to leave the culture and people that opened their hearts and homes to a complete stranger from Croatia. 2020 was a chaotic year for everyone, yet how lucky am I to say that it was the best one so far. I have returned to Croatia enriched with new experiences and thousands of stories to share.
Turkey is not baklava and the Ottoman Empire everyone knows about. If you thought that the Turkish dish Tavuk göğsü (milk pudding made with shredded chicken breast) is rich, just imagine how rich is the Turkish culture with old traditions that date back to Turkish shamanism.
To sum it all up, I have learned so much about Turkish culture, history, geography, politics, religion and more. I can't wait to share my experience with others and to break the Western stereotypes of Turkey. But most importantly, I have returned home extremely motivated to better my local community. I hope to motivate young people to see the world, get a new perspective on life, and then return home ready to make the change.
Written by: Jelena Samac (member of ESN Osijek)
Proofread by: Željka Gligora (Vice-chair of the Croatian Communication Committee)