ISTANBUL: Couchsurfing With a Student Protestor and a Civil Rights Activist

Breakfast with Cansu and her friends
Breakfast: Bilal, Cansu (our host) and Gözde

There is something special about the people who welcome strangers into their home. We ate, showered and slept for the cost of a day’s company and conversation (but gifts for your hosts are customary!).

Your first host participated in the Gezi park demonstrations. She takes you around her neighbourhood, translating the anti-government graffiti and showing you pictures of the streets on fire. She points out a staircase on your walk, painted in the colours of the rainbow.

“We did that.” She tells you proudly. “The government is making life hard for us, but we will not give in.”

Breakfast with Cansu
Another breakfast

The next morning, over breakfast, Cansu’s two friends ask you about the night before.

“I hear you had kokoreç.. do you know what it is?”

You admit that you don’t.

“It is cow bowel.”

You consider his answer for a moment. He is waiting for your reaction with a lopsided grin on his face.

“That’s what Cansu meant when she said it wasn’t popular. Though we do eat offal in Britain. You can get haggis, which is a sheep’s stomach stuffed with heart, liver and lungs. It’s quite nice.”

To which the three of them pull a face.


Your last night in Istanbul is spent with Meryem, a civil rights activist and charity worker. You stay in her family’s second apartment, two floors below their main one. Corduroy sofas and chintz-upholstered armchairs are set in a circle in front of old fashioned wooden bookcases with out-of-date copies of Encyclopedia Britannica on them.

Her mother makes you dinner; three types of salad, soup, schnitzel, stuffed aubergine, vegetables cooked in a spiced tomato sauce and, of course, a heap of buttery pilaf. Limited by the capacity of your stomach, you just about  finish your third plate of food.

“Are you ready for desert?”

You and your friend exchange stricken glances. You had not accounted for there being another course. Nonetheless, you soldier on. A generous hunk of Nutella layer cake and a traditional semolina pudding later and you are in the happiest coma there is.


  1. I have such fond memories of my two visits to Istanbul, one of them bang in the middle of the protests Cansu and so many others participated in. I went back there in August this year and there’s very little to remind you of what went the previous year. As my friend Ayse said, “at least they actually look after the park now!”
    I like your style of writing: spare but with humour and livened by dialogue. I haven’t tried writing in the 2nd person but you’ve shown that it can work well!

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