Book Review: Turkey: Bright Sun, Strong Tea
We've been very lucky to feature the work of Tom Brosnahan on our site a few times. Tom is an unstoppable traveler and writer - he's written over 40 guidebooks for Berlitz, Frommer's, and Lonely Planet. He also publishes travel articles for various magazines and journals. He's the creator of Turkey Travel Planner, and the author of this week's book review and author interview, Turkey: Bright Sun, Strong Tea.
You know, when you're reading any of Tom's work, that he knows his subject, and can relate even the tiniest nuances of Turkish culture well. When I first delved into his book, I was quickly drawn into his story - that of a Peace Corps Volunteer who lived life fully in Turkey. He explored different areas of Turkey, shared life with many incredible friends, and eventually turned his curiosity and love of travel into a writing gig, that of researching and writing Frommer's first Turkey on 5 Dollars a Day. What a life! He is so intrepid, so full of curiosity and life that you just gladly follow him through these pages, laughing with him, learning a bit of Turkish, and definitely exploring the culture of Turkey, of which he writes so well. We also travel along through periods of loneliness, medical problems, great friendships, lots of Turkish history, and even some unique food...
""Sure, let's try it," I said...
It's part of a travel writer's job to be a guinea pig, to experiment with foods and report to readers. I have done this many times. As you already know if you've read this far, I'm not squeamish. Aside from roasted eyeballs and syrupy Moroccan mint tea, I'll ingest almost anything. For my first guidebook I steeled myself, strode purposefully into an iskembeci (tripe soup restaurant) on Istiklal Caddesi in Istanbul, and sat down to a bowl of stewed cow's stomach. My first bowl was also my last, but I ate it, slimy squares of squishy stomach lining and all...Sometimes taking a fling into the culinary unknown results in delightful surprises, sometimes in forgettable novelties, but if it's forgettable it couldn't have been all that bad. Tripe soup, for the record, is unforgettable."
Tom's sense of humor is a constant in this book, teaching us all that humor and a sense of flexibility go a long way in intercultural adaptation, wherever you are. We also learn from his explorations - not only of Turkish history, but of the challenges for Peace Corps Volunteers in a country that doesn't want them anymore, of the great amount of research that goes into writing a travel guidebook, and also to enjoy life, wherever you are.
We were lucky enough to sit down with Tom and talk about his memoir, Turkey: Bright Sun, Strong Tea. Here's what he had to say...
WE: Please tell us about your book, Turkey: Bright Sun, Strong Tea...
TB: It's a humorous travel memoir: a memoir, because I wanted to delve
into what I had learned during 35 years as a writer. Travel, because that's what I've always loved, and how I've made my living. Humorous, because that's what life is a lot of the time, and laughter is a good excuse for spending time reading a book.
WE: Your life of travel and adventure has always had a focus on Turkey. Are first impressions of travels abroad (places) often lasting ones?
TB: Yes and no. Certainly first impressions are lasting, but the place itself isn't. Places exist only in time. How a place appears, how it acts on the traveler, depends as much on the time of the visit as the place.
The traveler changes too. When you return to a place, you are not quite the same person as when you first saw it. Because of how you've changed, you see the place as changed also. You may see things you missed before, and find unimportant things that loomed large on your first visit.
WE: How has travel guidebook writing changed over the last 30 years?
TB: In 1968, when I began to write my first guidebook, travel writing was
pretty simple: a month or two of research, a month or two of writing whatever I thought the traveler might want and need to know, a few months of editing and the book appeared. The books were simple and inexpensive. Back then, few guidebooks had many maps or photos, and many guidebooks didn't even have indexes.
Back then, I was paid royalties, and I did pretty well.
Over the years, guidebooks became more comprehensive and complicated,
with encyclopedic author contracts, committees of authors working on a
single destination, full-color photos, special sections, elaborate layouts, detailed indexes, and way too much editorial direction. These days books are technically complex, editors tell authors exactly what (and what not) to write, and pay is on a flat-fee basis—and very low. Guidebook writing today is a difficult and to me unsatisfying way to make a living (or TRY to make a living).
WE: Can visitors to Turkey truly get to know the people and culture, or do you feel that comes from living there?
TB: Certainly, living in a country gives you more insights, but reaching out to local people is often all that's necessary to be welcomed into the fold. I was on my Rumi Tours of the whirling dervishes last December. A tour participant found himself alone in a restaurant one evening, chatted with the waiter, expressed an interest in Turkish music, and ended up listening to the waiter and two fellow musicians play for hours, a private jam session just for him. He made friendships that'll probably last for years. All he had to do was
express curiosity in a friendly way.
WE: How do you suggest travelers deal with cross-cultural experiences?
TB: The best approach is to truly believe that at heart people are the
same the world over. They are curious about strangers, they want to
welcome you, they love their families, they make mistakes, we all make
blunders but we also all perform random acts of kindness. This truth
transcends culture, language, religion, gender, age and status in society. If you can speak and act from that core belief, your experiences will be richer and more rewarding, your awkward moments fewer and unimportant.
WE: The heart of a place is its people. When you head back to Turkey, do you always try to make new contacts and friends?
TB: I mention several of my most cherished friendships with Turks in my
book, and reading it, you see what happens. As I mentioned above, places change, people change, we change. Making—and then losing—some of my dear Turkish friends taught me how short our time on this planet really is, and how important our friends are to our happiness.
My work brings me to new people all the time. As anywhere, some become
friends, others are valued business associates, others just acquaintances.
WE: Is there anything else you'd like to share with us?
TB: Just this: most travelers on vacation, and even many travel writers, visit a place one or two times, learn something about it, and fix it in their minds. Good! But I've been extraordinarily fortunate in that my work has taken me back to my favorite places over and over, for decades. I've seen how the world changes, how countries and people can make progress, but in their hearts remain the same. (Read de Tocqueville's "Democracy in America" (1835-40) and you'll recognize a lot of the American character, still with us after nearly two centuries.)
The real journey, I now realize, was within myself.
WE: Thanks so much, Tom. Your book and interview are both so very interesting to read. Thank you for sharing of yourself.
For more information, to read free excerpts, and to order the book, please see: