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Turkish Smells
by Rachel Kaufman

Abundant Spices
Spices abound at the local market.

I had been in Turkey one and a half weeks and I already smelled like a Turk. But I get ahead of myself. Why did I believe this to be fact? How did I end up this way? I will tell you.

Upon my arrival in Istanbul, Turkey, I was fascinated. The sparkling ocean whizzed by on my right outside the speeding taxi, and on my left were the crumbled remains of a wall so old that it blended into the landscape, as if part of the topography. We were headed to our posh hotel, a stones throw between the famous Hagia Sofia church-come-mosque, and the enchanting Blue Mosque. Stereo history. We had come to Turkey for many reasons, but in a family where our stomachs often dictate the daily and nightly activities, we were ready for the famous Mediterranean cuisine promised to us by guidebooks, lovers of Turkey, and past taste experiences. I was ready, armed with my sometimes alarmingly overactive sense of smell and my willingness to eat almost anything once.

Turkey often seems like the center of world culture-after all, the Turks invented the towel, the cymbal, and hosted the Trojan horse for one last hurrah-what more could the world want? This country, which casually straddles Europe and Asia, but which refuses to be classified as either, has been host to a true melting pot of cultures since at least 2000 BC.

Eating Turkish food is a great way to experience the amalgam of cultures that have criss-crossed the mountains, lakes and fields over the millennia. However, there is one main ingredient that represents strong and permeates any righteous food-loving Mediterranean cuisine--olive oil.

Olive oil is the bloodline of Turkish cuisine. Olive oil oozes and drips onto your taste buds from almost every mezze dish that one chooses from the waiter's overflowing tray. You point to the dishes you desire, excited by the possibilities you see before you-chopped eggplant with tomatoes, succulent muscles stuffed with rice, tender squid-it goes on and on! The waiter waits at attention with his offerings. Your mouth salivates profusely as you try plate after plate bursting with flavor, and of course, olive oil. It seemed that almost everything we ordered in Turkey had basted and bathed for hours, perhaps days, in olive oil. The more days that I spent in Istanbul and along the Aegean and Mediterranean's azure coastline, the more in sync I felt with the rhythms of the culture, language, and of course, the food. Many natives, mistaking me for one of their own, which may have been attributed to my dark, curly hair, may have been sensing something else entirely, something intangible.

You may ask, might not the Turkish people have other uses for this yummy elixir? You would be correct. There is an annual event unlike any other in the world that,upon learning the nature of it, sealed forever for me the fact that Turks love olive oil. A huge wrestling match dating back to over 600 years ago occurs annually in a town near the border of Greece, where the spectacle of a hundred pairs of squirming men wrestling simultaneously can be seen. Turks and tourists come from all over to view this unique event. The last man standing is deemed the winner. This is no small feat for him, as the wrestler has been covered, smothered and lubricated in a complete head to toe olive oil dip. One wonders what happens to the lubed-up losers after their fall from grace- do they lie on the ground or perhaps just slither home to eat delicacies as drenched as they are? But that is not the only way that olive oil affects the Turks.

It seemed to me that many coastline Turks were not fond of antiperspirants. Perhaps the combination of that behavior mixed with a sultry mediterranean sun creates for a losing battle against odor. It took my family and me a while to figure out from whence came that particular odor emanating from many a Turkish person's body, and I must admit that I figured it out first. The air was clean and as pure as can be possible in busy cities, but taking a ride in any sort of public transportation vehicle became an olfactory adventure, or nightmare. It wasn't until I went native that I figured out why these beautiful, friendly people smelled so, well, unfriendly at times.

This odor wasn't the type of smell that one gets after exercise, nor after walking all day in the hot sun. No, this odor had an edge to it, a personality, a place in their everday lives. It said, "here I am, you can't escape me." It was pure Turkish and it was pure olive oil. Eating olive oil 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, it seems, will help any tourist become a native in Turkey in about a week and a half.

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