Turkey is to Europe what Mexico is to North America

Does familiarity breed contempt? Does distance denote glamour?

If you’re British and you say you’re going on holiday to Turkey you won’t get many brownie points in the exotic travel stakes, but if you’re North American you’ll go straight to the top of the wannabe Marco Polo league.

When I told my North American friends that I was leaving Mexico and moving to Turkey I got a similar reaction to when I had initially told my British friends we were building a house in Mexico. I became weirdly exotic and brave and interesting. The distances involved, the mysterious politics with their reported dangers and the sheer weight of dreams these far off destinations inspire coloured their responses.

Turkey to Brits is no big deal in the same way that Mexico to North American’s is no big deal; there are more political issues attached to these respective countries than there are unrequited dreams to explore their legendary treasures, familiarity and relative proximity have definitely bred more than their fair share of contempt!

To North Americans Mexico, in broad terms, is Spring Break in Cancun, lax drinking laws and it is probably the first country they visited outside of their own borders. Dollars will be accepted as readily as Pesos and everyone will speak English. They’ll visit Chichen Itza (or Chicken Pizza as some call it) and get hot and bothered in the humidity, that’s the cultural element ticked, then its back to the beach and the guacamole and chips and keep those cervesas coming buddy. Sound familiar?

In a very similar way, to a lot of Brits and other northern Europeans, Turkey is a cheap destination with a lot of sun, you’ll be able to read the menus and if you can’t there will be pictures to point at and any colour money will be accepted. You can assuage your guilt at actually being bored by culture by a quick whip around some ruins and then it’s back to the beach and come sunset the waiters will probably dance for you, to Sex Bomb by Tom Jones, that well known Turkish cultural icon.

To a lot of North Americans Mexico is all about illegal immigrants, the slow overwhelming of their culture by people from another country and the wrong brand of religion sliding surreptitiously across their borders, give them half a chance and they’ll all move over. Mexicans marry Americans to get visas. Mexicans can’t be trusted; they are all after your money and they will cheat you at the drop of a sombrero. Mexico is getting expensive; if they don’t drop their prices their greed will drive away the tourists. Again, does this sound familiar?

To Europeans Mexico is exotic, it is jungle and desert, twisted cactus and sharp edged palms against a deep blue sky, white sand beaches, strange civilisations that vanished leaving golden relics in liana wreathed ruins, bizarre rituals on holy islands before stone gods with spaceman eyes and deep, glassy cenotes of cool fresh water shaded by tropical forests. It is distant mariachi music on hot evenings in the malecon where the smell of churros mingles with the perfume of the beautiful women swaying the evening promenade. It is sultry and exotic and moves to the sexy beat of salsa and guitar played by dark eyed men in low crowned hats who can trace their ancestry back to some adventurous 17th century Spanish Don.

To North Americans Turkey is the exotic east, it is Ottoman Empires stretching across the trade routes, ancient civilisations rising and falling in the dust of crashing marble, legends and gods, minarets in the moonlight in mighty Istanbul, spice bazaars where the beams of sunlight are aglow with the powdered gold of turmeric and the scent of saffron fills the air. Turkey is a dream destination, a chance to walk in the footsteps of saints, to see frescos older than your country, to touch history and feel the breath of Odysseus in the hot Meltemi wind.

Obviously not all Brits and Americans have negative impressions about these two beautiful, individual and fascinating countries but enough do to create the stereotypes. I’ve walked away from conversations in Mexico where the discussion wasn’t about whether there should be a wall between Mexico and the United States but how high it should be to work. And I’ve kicked people out of my house in Turkey when they have insisted all Turks are lazy and can’t be trusted.

I don’t wear rose coloured glasses, I didn’t wear them in Mexico and I haven’t here for the last six years, but I choose to see it all as a beautiful adventure and I do believe that every country, no matter how familiar, has beneath the thin veneer of populist tourism, an exotic and enchanting soul to discover. Sometimes we need to listen to dreams of others to find it, but it’s there.