I’ve slept in some really weird places – trains, gers, tents in the middle of nowhere, cars – but a little apartment in Istanbul was the strangest I have experienced to date. In fact, I’m sitting in the living room of the shared apartment now and I can hear the drilling – a constant hum – but the windows are closed and the drilling isn’t coming from outside – it’s coming from inside. The drilling isn’t from the construction of a building or home repair – instead, the drilling noise comes from the construction and repair of teeth.
I’m staying in a dentist’s office.
As the eternal budget traveler, I decided to book a room in a shared apartment for the last 5 days of my stay in Istanbul. I have done many shared apartments before and they are generally all great. But I never saw this one coming – this apartment in Istanbul completely floored me with its strangeness. It was amusing to me to be in such a situation, but more than that it was fascinating for me to learn just how much American and Turkish culture is different when it comes to visiting the dentist.
When I saw the cute little room and apartment in Istanbul’s Sisli neighborhood online I exchanged emails with the Irem who was managing the place for her parents who didn’t speak much English. Via email, she told me that no one lived there and that her father simply came in each day from 9 to 6 and is in the apartment but that he doesn’t stay there overnight and I would have the place to myself. I thought this was slightly odd – but maybe her father needed a man cave or something and he came to the apartment to get away and have peace and quiet.
Irem met me at the apartment entrance and walked me up the 3 flights of stairs to the apartment where there was a big sign on the door. I tried to slowly pronounce it with my slight understanding of Turkish pronunciation and asked, “What does Dis Hekimi mean?”
Irem replied, “Dentist” so the mystery was solved, her father was a dentist. Once again I thought – that’s strange for a retired dentist to be renting out his office, but it was a bed and I wasn’t going to overthink it too much.
I walked in, put my bags down, and surveyed the place. It was a lovely 4-bedroom apartment with a nice view. Two of the rooms were bedrooms and the other two were dental rooms. The apartment sort of smelled like a dentist’s office – a sterile sweet smell that immediately brings childhood memories of trips to the dentist rushing back.
When Irem left I was quite surprised that the dental room with all of the equipment was left completely open – heck I could sit in the chair if I wanted – but I didn’t…at least not yet. After an hour, Irem’s father, Dr. Mustafa , showed up and sat at the desk in the living room and read a magazine. We couldn’t really communicate due to the language difference, so I could only conjure up explanations in my head and thought once again that he must be retired and this must be a ‘get away’ apartment for him.
The next day the bell rang and I buzzed the mail delivery person in. He came up to the apartment and delivered teeth to me for Dr. Mustafa. It was at that moment that my mind’s explanation of the retired dentist started to crumble. I looked at the teeth in the plastic envelope, thanked the man, and placed the small package on Dr. Mustafa’s desk.
Dr. Mustafa showed up that afternoon with a friend and I heard them talking in the dental room as I got up to refill my tea in the kitchen I noticed that they were doing their afternoon prayers (Salah) – which made me feel slightly odd and intrusive – but I went back to the living room and kept working.
Two other women arrived and Dr. Mustafa let them in and led them to the living room where I was sitting in my bare feet, shorts, tank top, and working away on my laptop. The women sat down and Dr. Mustafa chatted with them in Turkish – soon they all walked away down the hall and that’s when I heard it – the drill.
The door to the dental room was left open and my ears perked up to the noise. My mind went into overdrive as I thought…this is totally strange. For the next 40 minutes the drilling went on, some slight yelps of pain came from the room, and then finally it was finished. The women came out with Dr. Mustafa and sat with me again on the couch (which I realized is actually the waiting room) – they talked a bit and then said goodbye to me and left.
I’m used to living in uncertainty and confusion when I travel. I actually like it – I don’t have to ‘know why’ or have all the answers – you just learn to accept when you are a traveler. However, this experience was stretching my limits only because it was so vastly different than how Americans look at Dr. visits or dental appointments. My mind was spinning with questions and confusion.
Then my savior walked in, a young man named Deniz who came into the waiting room where I was sitting. He looked at me and said, “Hello! Where are you from?” I was startled out of my internal thoughts. I looked at him and said “America” in a dazed state of mind.
I was a bit shocked because I had no idea how he knew I was a traveler and that I was staying here at the office. I quickly learned that Deniz had been here on numerous visits and he had met many travelers who were staying here so he immediately knew that I was renting a room and simply hanging out in the waiting room/living room. But most importantly – I realized that this fine English-speaking man could be my chance to figure out what in the heck was going on!
Deniz could translate for me with Dr. Mustafa who came out and joined us. The three of us sat and talked and made me feel as if the fact that I was a traveler staying in a dentist’s office/apartment was no big deal at all. It wasn’t out of the ordinary for the Turkish. Not that dentist offices often double as hostels, but more that dentist offices are frequently in homes and aren’t as ‘formal’ as we experience in America. I also learned that Dr. Mustafa has been hosting travelers in his office for the past 7 months and he enjoys it. He is close to retirement at 61 and will most likely retire this winter. But in the meantime, he said that he wishes he knew English so that he could communicate more with his guests.
Then was time for Dr. Mustafa and Deniz to ‘get to work’ and soon they disappeared down the hall and the drilling started up again.
I felt like I was finally out of the dark and sort of understood my situation better – in fact, I understood it well enough now to take things a step further. As a traveler, I seldom get to have dental checkups – and here I was staying in a functioning dentist’s office. Maybe the universe was speaking to me!
I called Irem and asked if her father had ever done dental work on a guest who stayed in the apartment. She giggled and said no. I went on to ask what a teeth cleaning would cost for me. For about $50 US, I decided that it was a good enough deal to throw caution to the wind and see Dr. Mustafa not as a renter – but as a patient.
The next day Dr. Mustafa showed up and I putzed around making breakfast and working. Then at 11 AM I shuffled down the hallway and became a patient! Armed with my iPhone in my lap poised on Google Translate – I sat in the dental chair with my feet bare and tried to remind Dr. Mustafa that I only wanted a cleaning today.
Thirty minutes later I walked back down the hall and was back in my little bedroom working on my laptop. I was done, my teeth were happy, I was happy, and Dr. Mustafa was tickled as I’m guessing he never expected that renting rooms would lead to customers! Lord knows that having my teeth cleaned in my Istanbul apartment was the last thing I had ever expected on this trip. But then again – traveling is about the unexpected, the unusual, the connections, and opening your mind and welcoming in new experiences.
What’s the strangest place you’ve ever stayed on your travels? Share in the comments!