I was on a plane headed to a new land, different from any other that I had been. I was extremely excited but nervous to travel to a new place, alone and not knowing the language, but two of the nicest people I had met while studying abroad in Italy were from there – how bad could it be? Friends in Italy, where I was living at the time, had mixed reviews, some loved the country and some hated it and called it dirty. On the plane ride over, I already started judging the people around me and sadly doubted my vacation choice.
A woman in a headscarf and her two children waited at the departure gate along with me and several others. Her children ripped up magazines, threw things, climbed on strangers (myself included), were dirty, and smelled like the chocolate ice cream that crusted on their dirty little faces. They had no sense of personal space or respect for those around them. As we began boarding the plane, the pieces of magazine, candy wrappers and empty bottles lay on the floor where her children had left them - no one picked up after themselves.
Upon arrival to Istanbul at 4:30a.m., passengers warily lined up to gather their baggage and go through customs. I found myself directly behind the scarfed woman and her 2 children. Her son, without warning, had gotten sick – maybe from the chocolate ice cream still crusted upon his face – and this time, instead of leaving behind a trail of candy wrappers, her son left a behind specks of vomit. The scarved women seemed to have a little more respect to those around her as she half-heartedly wiped up the floor before escorting her son to the restroom. Unfortunately, I found myself heading in the same direction. My last memory of this woman, and my first impression of Turkey, was of me trying to wash my hands in the restroom and her vomit smelling child standing in my way.
I was tired, irritated and I’m sad to admit that my first impressions of Turkey were not good and I did not have a very good outlook on what the week would bring. Luckily first impressions aren’t everything. Friends picked me up from the airport and we headed east. It was still dark when we began our journey to Ankara, the capital, but slowly, the sun began to rise and things became brighter and clearer. Around me I saw beautiful and green lands bordered by a sky so blue it looked like the sea. The farther we drove from Istanbul into the countryside, the more isolated we were - it was peaceful. I noticed people with horse drawn carts and it brought to mind how my grandparents in Italy may have lived their youth.
Along the way we stopped at a roadside inn for breakfast. The breakfast consisted of fresh tomatoes and cucumbers, hardboiled eggs, cheese, olives, bread, butter, honey and tea. It was perfect in its simplicity and just what I needed to turn around the rotten experience from my flight hours earlier. And the genuinely happy people I interacted with quickly helped me forget the scarved women.
Upon arrival to Ankara, I was impressed by the organization. The streets were large and traffic was actually following in some kind of organized and regular pattern: a complete 180 from Sicily. And then they started to pop up… tower after tower. Minarets, the towers of a mosque, speckled the skyline and it seemed so odd to me. “What religious people,” I thought. This thought would later come back to me and my preconceived notions would once again change, but in that moment, I was preoccupied with the beauty around me and asking thousands of questions about this new far away land.
At 4:30a.m. the following morning I was startled awake by something that sounded like a man chanting right outside my window. Still a bit sleepy from my flight the previous day I ignored it, rolled over and quickly fell back asleep. Hours later, when I woke up for the second time, I realized that it was the first prayer calling of the day - there are five a day. And once again the thought “What religious people,” popped in my head.
My trip continued from Ankara to Kapadokya and Konya, and ending back in Istanbul and I continued to have amazing experiences with amazing people. It would take me hours to describe the days filled with spinning Dervishes, mosques, ancient ruins, food, friends, culture, museums, language, joy and so much more. But it wasn’t until my final day in Istanbul when I finally understood. When I finally felt it. We are all one. Headscarves or not, mosque or churches, Muslim or Catholic, we are all the same, together, in this world, in the search for happiness.
I remember the exact moment in which this feeling came over me. We had just spent the day in and out of some of the most famous places of Istanbul. We had visited the Hagia Sofia, the ‘blue’ mosque, an underground cistern, open air markets, the spice bazaar and were heading to our next location to smoke hookah, or as they say in Turkish, narghile. It was almost 5p.m. and we were walking across a huge plaza along the water, which was surrounded by mosques, when the afternoon prayer call had started. It was beautiful. The moaning of Allah’s name vibrated through the air from one mosque to the next instigating the other mosques to follow its lead. One began, then the next followed, and then the next, and the next, until they all were calling the name of God. “What religious people,” once again popped in my head, but this time was different.
I don’t call myself a religious person, but I would say that I’m spiritual and it was in that exact moment when I felt it. It felt like a movie – the typical big city hustle and bustle, hundreds of people walking through the plaza, pigeons scavenging for food, being startled and flying in unison overhead, and the words of God filling in the empty spaces around me were so powerful I could feel the vibrations. I could not hide the smile that came over my face – we are all the same, we are all one. It was no longer “what religious people” but rather, “what an amazing connection they have here.”
As expected, upon return home to Italy my friends all asked about my trip. I was happy to prove the naysayers wrong, and to even prove my own first impressions wrong. In Turkey, they have hundreds upon thousands of minarets attached to beautiful mosques, and in Italy we have hundreds upon thousands bell towers attached to beautiful churches. Instead of a prayer call five times a day, in Italy they ring the church bells to remind us to pray. These were the differences I initially noticed that weren’t so different after all.
At the time I didn’t truly understand the magnitude of my experience. But now I understand and wanted to share it with whoever is inclined to read. If we listen closely, no matter where you are in the world, we are being called upon to stop and listen to the world around us everyday. Urged to stop and pray. Begged to stop and notice that God is all around us; to stop and feel that God is within us. I use the word God since that is what most people are familiar and comfortable with, but it is peace, it is compassion and it is love. And if we are able to stop notice our differences, we will finally be able to notice our similarities. And we might just have a chance to live our lives peacefully, enjoying what has been created for us and loving one another instead of taking from or judging one another.
Shared by Jessica Pino