A Turkish Experience

Words by Dalene Heck / Photography by Pete Heck
“This is their first English experience,” Mustafa said as we sped towards nearby Ören. Just a few days before, he had stopped by to invite us to a picnic with a class of his students. His statement was a quick reminder of where we were – when shut in the house working or out seeing the more touristy parts of Turkey, we would forget about our entirely remote setting. It sometimes seems impossible that such areas still exist in the world, but there we were, about to bear ourselves as representatives of North America (and the English language) to a group of Turkish youths.

Teenagers are teenagers everywhere, it seems. Quickly we could divide and categorize the group as we would at home, easily picking out the jocks, the badasses, the artists.

But there were other, startling differences between them and what I would expect in a similar group of North American eleventh graders. These kids were constantly laughing, teasing, playing with each other. Cliques were non-apparent or at least hidden well. None were absorbed in their cell phones or other devices, and they all willingly joined in every activity. Not to mention that this was a school holiday, yet they were spending it together at a picnic with their English teacher.

Teenagers are teenagers everywhere, it seems.


They treated us with the utmost respect. They directed us where to sit and served our food, also ensuring that our cups were never empty. We were reprimanded for trying to help clean up. They were extremely polite and friendly, but some were quite shy to test their English on us.

Mustafa intended to break that barrier. After the first of our two meals, we all sat on a large carpet and as the foreigners, we began the discussion. We shared our history, our travels, the make-up of our families back home and what brought us to this obscure corner of Turkey.


Photo by: Kirsten Alana

Then it was their turn. We asked questions of them and them of us. We spoke slowly and with simple words, careful to make their first English experience an encouraging one.

We talked about sports, music and movies. Like good-little-Canadians we told tales of hockey and curling games, and also apologized repeatedly for the infliction of Justin Bieber.

But then came one exchange that truly stunned me.

“Do you know Atatürk?” one of the shier girls asked.

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was the founder and first president of Turkey. After the defeat handed to the Ottomans by the Allies in World War I, his provisional government and continued military campaigns against the Allies won Turkish independence in 1923. His visionary leadership shaped Turkey into a non-secular and westernized country. He is heavily celebrated to this day and his likeness can be found everywhere – pictures of him hang in every store and restaurant, banners hang from some apartment windows. I once noticed a cut-out of his head taped to the top of a bus. Sure, I knew him.

“Do you love Atatürk?” was her next question.

I hesitated, and then ridiculously stammered, “Um, I think he’s really nice.” Pete saved me at this point, jumping in to comment on the respect we have for how much Atatürk has done for Turkey, while my mind still reeled at the question.

This is not the first time we have been asked of our knowledge of Atatürk, and their deep love for their founder has always startled me. Not that he is unworthy of high praise, but the constant and open profession of devotion, still 73 years after his death, is beyond fathom. Thinking back to my teenage years or of Canadian teenagers today – is there any one historical figure that comes close to evoking such admiration and respect? Impossible. It is without question that more kids will know who Bieber is than the Greatest Canadian, Tommy Douglas.

This at once made me sad, but even moreso amazed at the Turkish people, and the depth of their pride for their country.

Had these kids gotten as much out of their English experience as we got from our Turkish one? I hoped so, but somehow I doubted it.

I was amazed at the Turkish people and the depth of their pride for their country.


50 Comments... Read them below or add one of your own
  • May 21 2012

    What a great way to breakdown barriers – tea and food 🙂

    I’m always blown away by Turkish hospitality. Sounds like these kids were raised well!

    • May 22 2012

      The Turkish continue to amaze us every day. We are so sad to be leaving soon…

      • DİLAN
        October 21 2014

        I am a student of Mustafa Özkaya from Burhaniye. He talked a lot about you.

        • October 21 2014

          You are very fortunate to have such a great teacher! We hope to come back and visit someday soon. 🙂

  • May 21 2012

    Brought tears to my eyes and I had already heard the story the day we met in Ayvalik. I just love it here.

    • May 22 2012

      🙁 I think we all have cause to come back someday, right?

  • May 21 2012

    That is odd! I can’t think of too many places where a country’s youth would profess their love for a government leader. Makes me want to learn more about both him & Turkey’s history.

    • May 22 2012

      We have had a wonderful history lesson being here, and the same goes for me, I just want to learn more.

  • May 21 2012

    What a great story. I remember you telling us a version of this in Istanbul. It was a good story there and still a good one here.

    There is always a give and take in all of these situations, even if both sides don’t really understand fully what they offered to the other. We can definitely touch and change lives without our knowledge or memory.
    Andrew recently posted..Dogs in Public in Germany

    • May 22 2012

      That is true Andrew! We may not even realize it for years to come. I know that I am a better person for having spent three months here.

  • Chrystal McKay
    May 21 2012

    This sounds like a wonderful day. I agree that Bieber is the only outstandingly famous Canadian that the Canadian youth (and Global) would know. It is a shocking thing to think of! I can’t wait to experience Turkey and feel their devotion to someone.

    • May 22 2012

      The funny thing is that most people around the world don’t realize that Bieber is Canadian (at least the people we talk to assume he is American). Pete and I really should just shut up about it. 🙂

  • We found the same thing with young people in Mexico. Entirely different atmosphere.

    • May 22 2012

      Amazing, right? So many things take more priority in North America then adoring our leaders for what they have done for us. (Well, some of them anyways 🙂 )

  • What a lovely and touchings story!

    • May 22 2012

      Thanks Andi! I could start a whole new blog of wonderful little stories from our time here. So many beautiful memories.

  • May 21 2012

    Awww, heart warmed. We’re all just glad we get work off on George Washington’s birthday.

    • May 22 2012

      Haha! Isn’t that the truth!

  • May 22 2012

    Urg when I lived in the UK, my boss asked me about Canadian theatre. In Canada, I livex near Stratford so I started talking about the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. My Canadian co-worker then shouted out “OMG isn’t that where Justin Bieber is from?!” Yeah…from then on no one took my insistance that Canada has great artistic talent very seriously.

    This is really a lovely story though. It’s great that they can be so proud of who they are and where they are from at such an age.

    • May 22 2012

      It was very refreshing to see, for sure. Amazing kids, they are.

  • May 22 2012

    Such a great way to deeply experience another culture! Kids have no filter and you can learn a ton from them.

    Maybe American kids professed their love for George Washington 70 years after American independence? Seems like this is something that would diminish over time.

    The most shocking thing is that the kids were all there on their day off! That is truly incredible!
    Tony recently posted..What Mad Men Can Teach You About Success & Pursuing Your Passion

    • May 22 2012

      I suppose it would be something that wears off over time. Although, there are others in the last 70 years that we should show some love for (it doesn’t just have the be the founders!) My Canadian example, Tommy Douglas, only died in 1986. He was voted the “Greatest Canadian” in a nationwide contest in 2004, yet I can bet he is virtually unknown by many kids today.

      • May 22 2012

        So true! If you held a greatest american contest right now, a celebrity would most likely win. Heck, i’d probably vote for Jon Stewart myself…

        • May 23 2012

          Haha! If I were there I’d probably be tempted to throw a vote his way as well. 🙂

  • May 22 2012

    WOW! Sounds like such a fun interactive session! How I wish I could join in too!
    Arti recently posted..Brahmand Ghat: Purani Gokul – Mahavan, Mathura

    • May 22 2012

      It was a wonderful experience, that is for sure!

  • Ali
    May 22 2012

    This sounds really great! I remember seeing Ataturk’s picture all over Turkey, and it also amazed me how much devotion they have towards him so many years later. I think it’s so wonderful that you got to know these students while you were staying in Turkey, such a different experience for you and for them.

    • May 22 2012

      These kinds of experiences are exactly why we love traveling slow, to really get to know the people and culture. Although, of course, I’ll be crying buckets when we leave this week (slow travel sucks for that)!

  • May 22 2012

    Wow, what an awesome experience. This kind of thing is one of the real benefits of the slow travel you guys are masters of 🙂
    Laurence recently posted..Australia–a land of contrast

    • May 23 2012

      Absolutely Laurence! Can’t get involved with these things without sitting still for awhile. 🙂

  • May 22 2012

    What a cool encounter! I’m learning so much about Turkey through your posts. And it’s all quite fascinating.

    I certainly can’t think of any American figure that would command such admiration and love, either. At least, not one that deserves it!
    Amanda recently posted..Photo Essay: Yosemite National Park

    • May 23 2012

      I am glad we are able to convey (at least a little) how fascinating Turkey is. We have a tendency to come into a country not knowing anything, and then just devouring all the information we can get on it, this country has such an incredible history that I feel like we have barely scratched the surface. This is one place we DEFINITELY will be back to.

  • Gaby
    May 22 2012

    I loved this story, but i love Turkey, so I guess I’m biassed. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

  • What an incredibly awesome experience! And yeah, I totally would have stumbled over that question as well (kudos to Pete for having a great answer on the fly like that).

    We experienced something similar in Thailand with the current king – we just couldn’t understand the deep devotion to a political figure, as we don’t have anything comparable to that in the U.S.

  • May 23 2012

    Love that you found this, sounds like such a great time.
    Ayngelina recently posted..I’m so over hostels

  • May 23 2012

    Love your photos, as always. This is a great story, I immediately flashed back to a statue of Attaturk I saw in Istanbul years ago.
    ‘Do you love him?’ is such a beautiful, innocent question ( that would get you laughed out of class in any western school), but your answer, ‘I think he’s really nice’ tops the lot! Love those awkward situations!!!!
    Sarah Somewhere recently posted..Moments Like These

  • May 23 2012

    Look, you guys need to lay off the Biebs. He’s a good Canadian kid, and at least our most famous exports aren’t named Snooki and Octomom.
    By the way, who’s this Tommy Douglas guy? He sounds like he produced records for Anne Murray.
    Steve recently posted..How to Pose with a Disney Castle

    • May 24 2012

      When Pete first read this, he thought that Tommy Douglas was the guy who wrote “The Good Ole Hockey Game”. Badddd Canadian. 🙂

  • May 23 2012

    It’s good to see how you got along so well with the kids. And their passion for their country’s founder certainly is strong. It’s certainly refreshing to see.
    Alexa Meisler recently posted..Texas Hospitality: Massages, BBQ, Wine Tasting and the Kimber Modern

    • May 24 2012

      Compared to the apathetic teenagers I know, it definitely was refreshing!

  • gunes gunter
    May 23 2012

    I loved the way you described your day with the teenagers. As for Ataturk, I don’t think I would be who I am, if he had not done, what he has done for our nation. He changed the way we lived, our alphabeth, the way we dresed, the laws of this country for the better, in a very short time.
    I am so sorry that I could not come to visit you while you were in Turkey and meet your friend Mustafa who dosn’t blieve that I exist. I hope the best for your next post. Pls keep in touch and we will surely meet again

    • May 24 2012

      Gunes, you brought up a very good point in that I don’t think any historical leaders (at least in Canadian history) could compare in what Ataturk did for Turkey. And the fact that he is still so celebrated (and the teens aren’t apathetic as they generally are in North America) was such an incredible thing to see.

      I am sad we didn’t get to see you again as well, and I hope you are feeling better. We will cross paths again, I am sure! We will without a doubt be back to Turkey.

  • Lisa
    May 24 2012

    What a great experience for you both. It is very admirable that they have so much love for Ataturk, I agree there are few students here in the US who would have so much knowledge and love for a former president.

    • May 24 2012

      No kidding, right? And really sad, I think. Although maybe (in all of North America), we have no one that compares…

  • May 24 2012

    Wow. I thought we had an awesome experience with the Turkish people, but this? I was smiling the whole way through. I loved it over there, and much of it had to do with the people. They are just so amazing. Warm, generous, intelligent, kind…this totally exemplifies that.

    • May 25 2012

      We have so many of these great memories with the Turkish people, like you said, they really are amazing!

  • Argon Konay
    May 25 2012

    One reason why we -Turks- love Atatürk: Do you know another leader that can tribute soldiers of an army -ANZACs- to be enemy once with similar words below?

    Those heroes who shed their blood and lost their lives, you are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side in this country of ours. You, the mothers who sent their sons from far away countries wipe away your tears, your sons are now lying in our bosoms and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they become our sons as well.

  • Wow, what a huge take-away. In the USA, I’m guessing (hoping) that Americans could recite famous leaders names, however I’m not sure they could say with certainty what they did to become famous. I hope I’m wrong.

    • July 14 2012

      Maybe not the older folks, but with kids that age? I’d be surprised if they really knew.

  • Alimert Özsoy
    October 6 2017

    I am a student of Mustafa Özkaya from Burhaniye.Get well soon

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