Discovering My Turkish Roots in Istanbul

May 13, 2015

Growing up, I was the only person in my group of friends whose mother and grandparents weren’t from this country. As an American in a nation of many immigrants, my family’s background has always been a source of pride for me. But as a child, the countries from which my ancestors hailed were merely names on a world map. My mother often spoke fondly of summers as a teenager spent with her relatives on the Mediterranean Sea but those were her memories, not mine.

After discovering and solidifying my relationship with her birthplace of Israel, there remained a part of me eager to make that connection with another part of my heritage. I knew these places existed somewhere across the world, but I needed to see for myself where my family and I came from.

After years of yearning, months of monitoring my travel fund and weeks of planning my trip, I finally stood in line at New York’s Kennedy Airport to check in to my transatlantic flight clutching the handle of my suitcase a little too tightly. The music of an unfamiliar language filled my ears. I looked around at my fellow travelers and saw people who didn’t quite look like me: there were older, well-dressed men; elegant women with their hair wrapped in beautiful scarves; children and very few young adults. I was a fly on the wall, an American traveling solo among families of foreigners. I became even more eager to unite with my own relatives.

I needed to see for myself where my family and I came from.

I had no idea what I was getting myself into but I was ready for my adventure. I would be spending time with family I hadn’t seen in many years and discovering my Turkish heritage in the process. I knew that my grandmother would have been proud of me for taking this trip back to her roots – to our roots. At the time, it had been four years since she had passed away but I saw her in the older women sitting at the gate, in everything from their mannerisms to their clothing and accessories.

I was heading to Istanbul, Turkey for the first time. Two of my grandmother’s brothers still live there with their families since living Israel as young adults. After a few days in Istanbul, I would go to Israel just as she had. I’d previously spent much time in Israel and was elated to be returning, but I was first eager to dig deeper into another part of my family’s past and present in Istanbul.

I spent the flight across the Atlantic anticipating the whirlwind of culture shock I’d face upon landing. After arriving late, discovering my American phone wasn’t working and wandering the arrivals terminal at Ataturk Airport for what seemed like an eternity, I finally heard someone call my name. It was my cousin whom I’d only met once before, several years ago. We embraced. I was so happy to be found.

As my cousin drove from the airport to her family home, I looked around mesmerized by the views. I saw old stone buildings and more mosques than I could count built into the hillsides. I couldn’t wait to explore and put real meaning to the #BackToTheMotherlands name I’d given to my trip.

Hanging out with family members who were around my age for the first time was truly bizarre. Not because it was weird, but because it felt like we had known each other all our lives. Our grandparents are siblings; our mothers, cousins. I quickly learned that family treats you like royalty because that’s simply what family means.

Discovering My Turkish Roots in Istanbul

From the first night when the family got together for dinner on the Bosphorus Strait, I knew that I was home away from home. Seeing the expressions of happiness on my relatives’ faces when they first saw me, looking just like my mother at my age, was beyond heartwarming. The smiles on my great-uncles’ faces reminded me of their older sister, my grandmother. I also began to truly understand the meaning of family and the unconditional love that comes with it. That’s not to devalue family in the U.S., but rather reinforce the idea that family in other parts of the world means something much different.

I quickly learned that family treats you like royalty because that’s simply what family means.

Having never really known my Turkish family before visiting them, I saw my grandmother in everyone and everything. The mannerisms, the languages, the personality, the art and even the home decor reminded me of her. Just as everything in Israel had reminded me of my Israeli-born mother during my first time there, everything in Turkey made me think of my grandmother. I heard the familiar Ladino language she spoke and used my college Spanish to communicate with my older relatives across a vast language barrier.

After leaving my great aunt and uncle’s home, I waved to them out the car windows as they stuck their heads out of the apartment windows from three stories up, looking down at us below before we drove away. We always did the same thing when leaving my grandmother’s Brooklyn home growing up. So much of the behaviors, foods, sights and sounds seemed familiar and wonderful.

While my trip to Istanbul was a vacation, it meant so much more to me. I saw my family’s collective past come alive to the present. Throughout my life, my mother had painted a gorgeous picture of Turkey and our Turkish family as she told stories of her visits there growing up. I knew my grandmother also loved her birthplace.

Whether you have family still living in another place or not, it is a truly magical thing to see and understand where you come from. Being able to finally visit and connect with the place where your ancestors lived feels like an epiphany in which everything you’ve ever known about yourself and your family finally makes sense.

Discovering My Turkish Roots in Istanbul photos by Lili Sajecki.  

About Lili Sajecki

Born and raised in NYC, I’m a media nerd, language lover, writer and traveler. Constantly living with feelings of wanderlust and a strong curiosity about the world around me, I am always eager to learn about people and places very different from my own life and to tell those stories. Learn more about me on my blog and follow me on Twitter @shigahon.

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