Geography was my favorite subject in school.
It’s hard to say that it was always my favorite, because it’s not the kind of subject that you take for years, like math or English. But by the time I took a World Geography class in 8th grade, I had already possessed extensive knowledge of the world at large. Back then, if I had been given a blank political map of the Earth with only the outlines of countries, I could have labeled almost every one of them correctly, along with the capital cities of each. During all three years of eligibility–6th, 7th, and 8th grade–I represented my school at the state level of the National Geography Bee. Not to brag, but I’ve since forgotten more geography factoids than many people have ever known in the first place.
The seeds for such knowledge were planted during my elementary school days. One of my more prized possessions at the time was a spinning world globe that fascinated me more than such a thing really should. For a time, my favorite computer or video game was Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? I also frequently watched the PBS kids’ game show derived from that same game. And I apparently had a strange interest in road maps as well, which often led me to taking on the role of navigator during family road trips. During down time in class, when other kids would often be doodling, talking, or passing notes, I sometimes drew up road maps for fictitious places of my own creation.
Ironically though, despite having all of that in my background, I very rarely traveled any farther from home than the neighboring states of California, Utah, and Arizona. By the time I graduated from high school, I’d been out to the Chicago area once or twice to visit family, and I had gone to Orlando for a week with my dad…and that’s really about it. So it’s fair to say that I simultaneously built up a wealth of knowledge of the globe and yet remained very much in the dark about most of the cultures it housed. It’s one thing to hear the stories of others who have visited, say, Paris. It’s an entirely different thing to go there yourself and create your own stories.
And thus, by the time my cousin and I had decided to take that two-week trip to Turkey and Greece, both places seemed somehow exotic and yet familiar at the same time. I could’ve easily identified both countries on a world map, but how much more did I really know about either place? Athens and Istanbul both rank highly among the world’s oldest and most famous cities, and they each house several major landmarks that stand as testament to their lengthy histories. The Parthenon, for example, was constructed in the 5th century BC, and still stands atop the Acropolis overlooking the city of Athens. Istanbul is home to the Hagia Sophia, an enormous church built in the 6th century AD. And there are plenty of other historical sites worth visiting in both cities.
But while I had seen places like the Parthenon in photographs, it’s fair to say that my true knowledge of both cities was pretty limited. Growing up on computer games like Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? or the Civilization series, it’s easy to just think of Athens and Istanbul as ancient cities defined largely by these monuments to their past. The reality is that both cities have developed into gigantic, and very modern, metropolises extending well beyond such relics. Coming from Las Vegas, a city that is barely a century old, and within a country that is only about twice that age, it is fascinating and nearly unfathomable to see this stark contrast of such ancient buildings surrounded by standard 21st-century architecture and technology.
To that end, perhaps the single biggest takeaway from the entire experience was that, despite the obvious differences in languages, customs, cultural norms, and history, daily life in both cities is far more comparable to life in a major American city than what one might expect. It seems to be just about as common to see local Athenians browsing the Internet while sipping their morning coffee as it would be in New York. Likewise in Istanbul, it admittedly looks a bit odd at first to see a Muslim woman chatting on a cell phone while covered head to toe in a burqa, but after spending a week within the city and seeing this happen numerous times, it begins to seem far more commonplace and even expected.
Both cities are quite accustomed to welcoming thousands of tourists from around the globe on a daily basis, and as such, most of the locals working in such areas learn to speak passable English, thus greatly reducing the language barrier one might expect to face. The cuisines are obviously different based largely upon the availability and popularity of certain foodstuffs regionally, but ultimately, they still eat many of the same meats, vegetables, and grains that we do in America. Natives of these Mediterranean cities can be every bit as passionate about sports as Americans, with the biggest difference being that soccer is the game of choice rather than football or baseball.
In short, the differences between such foreign cities and ours are readily apparent, which makes such destinations exotic and intriguing. But at the same time, there are enough commonalities between here and there that is surprisingly easy to absorb and enjoy the foreign culture without feeling completely awkward and out of place. Having finally experienced this for myself a few years ago, I’ve since expressed a far greater level of interest in exploring the next one, whichever it may be. There are, in fact, many potential destinations out there that are just waiting to be transformed from dots on maps and answers to trivia questions into living, breathing places that generate invaluable memories and stories for years to come. Thirty-three years passed before I was able to experience a foreign culture in a foreign place. It won’t be another 33 before I do so again.