Travelers Roundtable

The sun sets over the Blue Mosque in Sultanahmet. ©Robert Bundy

Around Thanksgiving, I always recall the time my wife and I were in Istanbul near the end of the festival of Ramadan.

Ramadan is a period of prayer, reflection, charity and good deeds that takes place during the ninth month of the Islamic calendar.

During this time, Muslims fast—no food, drink or any other earthly pleasures from dawn until dusk. Once night falls and the moon rises, then the faithful take to the streets, offering food to the poor, and then coming together to feast.

On our last night in Istanbul, which was also the final night of Ramadan, we were getting ready to go out to dinner with some local friends, and I discovered that we were out of toothpaste. While my wife showered at the hotel, I set out into the coming dusk to replenish our supply.

As I walked down the twisting, cobbled lanes, the sun began to sink behind the ancient buildings, and rose-colored clouds framed the Blue Mosque like an impressionist painting. The shadows grew longer, and I still couldn’t find a store, so I kept wandering further and further afield.

Finally, as the sun was setting, I spotted a tiny corner shop on the corner of an out-of-the-way little side street, the door standing open and spilling light out onto the newly darkened street.

I walked in and was instantly in the middle of the store; it was that tiny. There seemed to be a little bit of everything on offer there, with a cluttered hodge-podge of items piled high on overflowing shelves all the way to the ceiling.

I greeted the shopkeeper and asked in Turkish if he spoke English. He smiled and said no, so I thanked him, and went hunting for a tube of what would hopefully turn out to be Crest and not Preparation H. Snagging a likely candidate, I turned back toward the counter to pay for it.

To my surprise, the smiling shopkeeper was waiting for me, holding out a paper cup with one hand while clutching a bottle of the anise-flavored spirit Raki with the other.

For an instant, I hesitated. I was in an unfamiliar part of the world, at night, no one knew where I was — heck, I barely knew where I was — and I was being offered something to drink by a total stranger.

But finally there was something in it I recognized; a universal gesture of welcome. So I returned the smile, accepted the cup, and we toasted each other and drank.

I made my purchase, we said goodnight in our respective languages, and with a wave I left as the evening call to prayer began to echo out over the rooftops.

To this day, my first memory of that great city is not of its treasures and monuments, but of a smiling stranger and a proffered cup. Food and drink are two of the oldest currencies of friendship. They are the instruments of welcome and fellowship, and remind us of the importance of charity. Toward everyone. Especially the lost strangers and the less fortunate.

The act of Thanksgiving is not really about bounty, but about bounty shared. And I hope you’ll join me, in drinking to that.

Click here to listen to Rob read this essay on 89.7 FM WUWM Public Radio’s Lake Effect.

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Robert Bundy

Robert Bundy

Robert Bundy has visited more than 300 cities and 32 countries in the last ten years and still gets a charge out of getting his passport stamped. He convenes The Travelers' Roundtable is part of Lake Effect with host Mitch Teich for WUWM 89.7 Public Radio Milwaukee.

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