I’d never been to either Romania or Turkey before my holiday. A new country is always a new experience. In this case, the east Europe is much closer than many places I’ve been to, but I was still very unsure what to expect. Both countries were wonderful, confusing and full of contradictions.
Romania is a beautiful and bountiful country. On the way to the delta, there were miles and miles of fertile ground, a breadbasket of corn and sunflower. Passing through the villages where we crossed the Danube for the first time, men on the road sides made a strange sign, moving their hands apart like an prayer in reverse; actually, they were miming the fish they have caught and were selling. Despite the natural wealth, the poverty in Romania is obvious; horse-drawn carriages are common. Some of the towns in the Danube, like Mila 23 are built from wood, on a small island between the channels. From my experiences, though, the signs are good. It’s a bit chaotic, a bit strange and a bit ramshackle but, put together, it seems to work. It needs a lot of time, and much investment, but if they fix the infrastructure, it could become an amazing place to live.
Turkey was very different; or Istanbul, I should say, as it is probably as unrepresentative of Turkey as I find London is of the UK. It feels much more European than Romania, in terms of way of life; I’m aware comparing the rural delta to a metropolis is unfair. It’s resources are less natural more human created, over history. But laid over this, is a sense of strangeness; much of this comes from Islam; from muezzin’s calls which echo discordantly across town; to the scrum around the cabinet which contains the belongings of the prophet. This leaves me with a sense of disquiet that I felt, for example, in the Vatican, that I always feel in the presence of religion. In a strange way, Turkey feels more like America: the sharp practice — trying to avoid extras at the dinner table in US, requires the same sense of purpose of leaving Sultanahmet without a carpet; the large military — signs about honoured citizens in the US, and the forbidden zones of Turkey; to the ever present, familiar but deeply incomprehensible religion. Maybe these ingredients will make Turkey as powerful as the US is now and it will be the seat of another empire. Stranger things have happened.