People who regularly practice a martial art know that sometimes the greatest power for the positive is the redirection of the negative. People who regularly practice travel and human interaction know this, too.
This little story is case in point.
A man at a corner cafe off a side street in Instanbul’s Taksim neighborhood asked me to photograph him.
I fired off a few shots, showed him the images in my camera’s display and he burst out laughing. We shook hands and had a moment, a friendly non-verbal moment. Then we waved goodbye.
Audrey and I continued our walk and crossed to the other side of the pedestrian lane to check out the lunch menu of a café selling çiğ köfte, our target snack of spiced raw meat.
“It’s expensive there, but if you go a couple streets away, it will be cheaper,” an older Turkish man standing nearby suggested.
We turned to him in agreement, “This seems expensive. Over by us, it’s three lire.”
He nodded in approval as if we’d passed some kind of test.
“Are you living here?” he asked.
“We are here for just a week, staying in an apartment down the hill.”
“Where are you from?”
Before I could even finish the last syllable of my response, a young man standing next to him responded in reflex, “I don’t like America.”
Now stop for a moment and put yourself in my position. What would you do in this situation? How would you respond? (It doesn’t matter if you’re American, of course, just fill in your country’s name above.)
I responded immediately. “What matters right now is whether or not you like me,” I said smiling confidently, two thumbs pointing back at my chest. My timing was impeccable, my unintended deflection pitch perfect. The young man couldn’t deny it. He smiled and laughed, the ice was broken and the conversation reset.
I suppose I could have instead become defensive and asked, “Why don’t you like America?” But I don’t take that sort of bait.
I also understand that regardless of the young man’s outlook, I probably wasn’t going to change his mind. But maybe we could have a conversation.
And that we did.
“I don’t have any problem with the people. I just don’t like the politics,” he offered to clarify his emotion, his opening position.
“I don’t like the politics either,” I agreed.
Meanwhile, the older man looked a little uncomfortable, embarrassed, almost disappointed in his young friend’s approach. It wasn’t the most elegant or appropriate way to engage a visitor — after all, Turkish culture is big on hospitality. Or maybe something in his experience told him confrontation was unproductive.
In any event, he genuinely came to America’s defense: “America is a dreamland.”
“I’m not so sure about that. At least anymore,” I replied. “Have you been watching television?” (Occupy Wall Street was in full bloom around this time.)
The young man began complaining about increasing prices in Turkey.
“I don’t know if it’s exactly the same, but we have that problem, too,” I suggested.
“There are no jobs here, especially for young people,” he continued.
Check. “We have that problem, too,” I commiserated.
As the conversation continued, it revolved around the problems our countries both have, the challenges we all share.
Similarities. Not differences. Dialogue.
We avoided a bitch session on America, which was where he was likely headed when the conversation first began.
Instead, it was a rather enlightening conversation for both of us about what life is like for ordinary people on the streets of Turkey and the United States.
The four of us probably spoke for another 15 minutes or so about Istanbul, food, our families, the world — and how “Switzerland was the best place to live in Europe.” (The older man again showed his non-confrontational bias.)
Then we came to a natural break in the conversation. We shook hands and let the men go about their day.
As is often the case, I wanted to make an impression, a different impression. The next time the young man thinks America, maybe just maybe a faint hint of me and Audrey — and his conversation with us — will creep in.
As we travel, I continually like to think that little actions can eventually make a big difference.