Istanbul rising: Every experience is a gift

Last month I had the opportunity to travel back to Canada for a long, wonderful visit. One lovely Sunday, I found myself sitting at a small micro-brewery surrounded by old friends and family, where we spent the day sampling selections of hand-crafted and limited-run ales and lagers. Hours went by, and as our conversations meandered through the afternoon, things got heated, things got hilarious, fantastic beer was consumed, and I felt grateful that even as the years are passing by, I still have these wonderful friends to share my time with.

However, one of the most interesting things that struck me about that day was how central the concern of authenticity seemed to be to everyone around me. After all, look at where we were: a small micro-brewery off the beaten track, where locals of all ages were pulling up on bicycles all day to grab a few pints with friends. The place, not even really a bar per se, but rather a cafeteria-like watering hole was sparse and simple — nothing fancy, nothing made up or decorated — just like their beer, made from simple, local ingredients, and fresh glacier water. From the beer, to the clear views of the North Shore mountains, to the people inside (no tourists here, well, except for maybe my husband and me), this was literally a taste of real Vancouver. As a visitor, it struck me how deeply invested everyone seemed to be in ensuring this was the experience that everyone was having that afternoon.

In fact, the longer I stayed on the West Coast, the more I could see how fiercely attached people were to having authentic or real experiences. There is a serious demand for local food, and face-to-face conversations (no smart phones allowed at the table), and of course, organic, natural experiences like biking, hiking, and camping. To me, it seemed obvious that the pursuit of such things revolves around connection — either to others, or the world around us. But the nagging question that lay underneath these pursuits was, do people feel so disconnected that they can only find solace in these activities? I began to wonder, because the demand for authentic experience doesn’t really exist in Turkish culture — or, at least not to the extent that it does in the West. The only time you hear about it in Istanbul is from travelers: ask any of them where they want to go in Istanbul and the response is always the same — somewhere locals go and nothing “touristy.” In fact, many visitors will often cringe or get deeply uncomfortable at any sign of something that hints at something made for tourism (which would be therefore false or inauthentic). It’s often a baffling experience to take friends out to busy parts of Istanbul and see them equally recoil at their perception that the place might be touristy, but also openly complain about how annoyingly different everyone is acting than they would be say, in the streets of Canada. The fact that Western travelers get uncomfortable when things aren’t the same as they are at home but nonetheless insist on having a “local” experience tells you how deeply engrained the value of authenticity is to our culture.

The funny thing is, in the quest to learn some truth about the world in the purest most authentic way all we end up doing is reaffirming the ones we believe to be the most sacred about ourselves: that we are sensitive, organic beings who connect to the world on a deeper level than what is otherwise superficial, easy, fake, or contaminated.  We cultivate exclusive experiences that we hope will reflect our truest form, and close ourselves off from ones that don’t seem authentic to ourselves or what we imagine to be an authentic representation of other things. In other words, all it does is feed ego. When I say ego, I’m not talking about being boastful, I mean it in a sense of something self-centric that defines how we interact with the world around us. While we talk a lot about letting go of ego in yoga, I rarely contemplate it in my day to day life. Going home showed me that it’s an important thing to think about, especially in a culture that is authenticity obsessed, but also woefully isolating and lonely.

Reflecting on my travels to the West Coast, my plan is to take a step back and see where I obsess about authenticity in my own life and get a sense of humor about it. But we should all try this. It has always made me sad to see people limit themselves to only exploring their own preconceived idea of what is authentic to another culture when they are traveling abroad; however, it was equally troubling to see how people have disconnected themselves from a variety of experiences in the place that they live. The truth is — there is no authentic experience, there’s just experience. Whether you drink local crafted beer or just plain old Miller Light, whether you visit a touristy place or whether you go somewhere completely away from anything at all — it’s what you make of it. That’s not to say that some things aren’t for you, or that you have to like everything and everyone. I have to admit that I loved sipping on hand-crafted beer while enjoying time with my friends. But the point is to be open to anything, and be grateful – every experience is a gift.


Meg in AlcoveMeghan MacIver is a Canadian writer and Kundalini pre-natal yoga instructor who lives in Istanbul. She has had a love affair with the city for nearly 14 years, and she is deeply excited about the opportunity to finally write about it in a spiritual way. When she is not writing or teaching yoga, she can be found exploring the city and contemplating life’s little intricacies. Her other work has been published in The National Post, CBC, RNW and ROOM magazine, amongst others.

Photo by Elias Bizannes, used with Creative Commons license.

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