Reckoning over Raki

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While we were stuffing our face with delicious Turkish food and drinking Raki (pronounced Rak-eh), we came back to our apartment to find stock markets around the world had woken up to themselves. In one session they had fallen by around two per cent.

The Aussie market spent last week ‘recovering’. The ASX200 rallied all the way back to the technically important 4,700 level, which also happens to be where the 200-day moving average is. But it could go no further. In one day the index gave up a week’s worth of hard-fought gains and plummeted back to 4,600. In a few weeks we’ll probably be closer to 4,500.

But we’re in Istanbul at the moment and worrying about where the ASX200 is heading seems a tad trivial. So for the end of the week we thought we’d give you a break from financial markets and bring you some thoughts on one of the world’s truly remarkable cities.

Istanbul defies accurate description. It is chaotic and sublime, ramshackle, noisy and peaceful.

The chaos is most easily seen from street level. Road rules are there to be ignored. Use of an indicator is optional, tooting your horn is mandatory. Like Rugby League, driving in Istanbul is a game of inches. Crossing the road is a feat of wit and skill. Pedestrian crossings offer no more refuge than any other part of the road. But with a bit of practice, it becomes easy enough.

People sell just about anything from anywhere. Lottery tickets, nuts, bread and pastries are all on offer from roadside stalls. Shops teem with fresh fruit and vegetables.

In a country that seemingly has the heavy hand of state looming over it, interference at the individual level appears minimal.

In Australia, you can’t park your car in the wrong place for more than a minute without copping a fine. Here, you can park on the sidewalk and no one seems to mind. As long as you’re not hurting anyone, it’s OK.

The contrast with Australia is striking. In a seemingly free society, Australia – or we should say Australians – are being drowned in bureaucracy.

We caught up with an old Aussie friend here who works for Deutsche Bank in London. So he’s no stranger to rules and bureaucracy. He’s been away from Australia for a few years now but returned late last year for work.

He couldn’t believe how expensive and regulated Australia had become. He and his English colleagues thought Australia was increasingly becoming a nanny state.

Walking the streets of Istanbul makes you reflect on how this type of regulation squeezes the life and soul out of a place.

Obviously wealth has a lot to do with it. The commodities windfall has provided justification for a lot of people to have their say about how that wealth should be divided and redistributed.

You could argue that Australia’s nanny statism is the result of a wealthy and compassionate society. Fair enough. But what is unseen in this interpretation is the abdication of personal responsibility that goes with a growing welfare society.

Individuals look to the state for help whenever things go wrong. People peer over their fence and think that their neighbours’ grass is a little bit greener. So they look to the state to even things up…to get their ‘fair share’.

The contrast between a wealthy, welfare state and an emerging economy like Turkey is starkest at the family level. Because there is no widespread welfare here, the family unit remains the cornerstone of society. An individuals’ welfare is taken care of by the family. True, without a family you’re going to do it tough. But there is something endearing and nostalgic about a society that values family so highly.

We are travelling with our two-year-old daughter. The attention she gets is incredible. Strangers pinch her cheek, men pick her up, cuddle her and give her sweets. Children are the stars of the show in Turkish society. They bind the family together. They are adored.

Children are certainly adored in Australia and elsewhere in the West. But not to the same extent. The advent of the debt and welfare society in the West means our children, through economic necessity, spend two, three, four and even five days a week in day care. To afford the mortgage, two-income households are a necessity in Australia these days.

When the welfare state gets taken to the extreme, we become Greece.

Our society may be wealthier in the monetary sense, but we are also losing a richness that poorer societies seem to have in spades.

These observations are of course the romanticised thoughts of an infrequent visitor. They may be completely wrong. But the hustle and bustle of the streets makes you feel alive. You can feel the soul of the city here. Sometimes back home, we can barely feel a pulse.

While ‘the street’ moves without rhyme or reason (some bloke tried to sell us a stethoscope this morning!) the chaos down below turns to sublimity from the heights.

We are staying near the Galata Tower built in 1348 by the Genoese traders who had established themselves in the area. Built on a hill, it provides sensational views (as does the apartment) over the Golden Horn (a natural harbour) and across to the old city.

At night, you can see Aya Sofya and the minarets of the Blue Mosque in the distance, bathed in light. Aya Sofya (also known as St Sophia) was built during Emperor Justinian’s reign between 532 and 537AD. For 1,000 years it was the largest Church in Christendom.

But the Byzantine Empire crumbled from internal fighting and, for the last few hundred years of its life, was but a shadow of its former glory. In 1453, the Turkish Sultan Mehmet II, with the help of a new weapon, the cannon, breached the once impregnable walls and took the city.

As the Turkish soldiers streamed through the walls, the remaining Christians sought refuge in Aya Sofya. But it was a refuge no longer. The city was lost. John Julius Norwich recounts the moment the Sultan entered the church for the first time in The Middle Sea – A History of the Mediterranean:

That was the moment. Cross gave way to crescent; St Sophia became a mosque; the Byzantine Empire was supplanted by the Ottoman; Constantinople become Istanbul.

After more than 1,000 years as the capital of Christendom (Emperor Constantine moved the centre of the Roman Empire east in 330AD to establish Constantinople) the city became an Islamic one.

It is these vast sweeps of history that you can feel from high above. It is what gives the city its character, charm and peacefulness. It straddles continents, faiths and long-diminished empires like no other.

Until next time, when we’ll talk about the food…

report. But they are what they are.

Greg Canavan
Daily Reckoning Australia

Greg Canavan
Greg Canavan is the Managing Editor of The Daily Reckoning and is the foremost authority for retail investors on value investing in Australia. He is a former head of Australasian Research for an Australian asset-management group and has been a regular guest on CNBC, Sky Business’s The Perrett Report and Lateline Business. Greg is also the editor of Crisis & Opportunity, an investment publication designed to help investors profit from companies and stocks that are undervalued on the market. To follow Greg's financial world view more closely you can subscribe to The Daily Reckoning for free here. If you’re already a Daily Reckoning subscriber, then we recommend you also join him on Google+. It's where he shares investment research, commentary and ideas that he can't always fit into his regular Daily Reckoning emails. For more on Greg go here.
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12 Comments on "Reckoning over Raki"

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Nikk
Guest
Greg, I read with great interest your article, and your feelings about Istanbul and the soul of the city. I have not been to Istanbul but have worked throughout SE Asia over the last 6 years. I find the cities there are as you speak of. They have this amazing vibe and energy that we just don’t see here anymore, and it saddens me. We need rules I agree, but the bureaucracy here has gone mad. “Don’t Park Here”, “Keep off the Grass”, don’t do this, “don’t do that”. We are all becoming robots! It feels like you have more… Read more »
Petr
Guest

Great article. Speaking as someone who’s been to Istanbul 3 times in the last 5 years (and I’m not even turkish by descent) and many other beautiful places around the world, I wholeheartedly agree. I’ve been living in Melbourne for the past 11 years and I’m depressed here. It’s turned into total bureaucracy, just like the poster above (Nikk) has already said. I’m yearning for the moment I finish my studies and move to the countryside for a year or so, where things still seem to be a tad more relaxed, and then maybe move to a different country altogether.

yasemin
Guest

Hi Greg,l’m from istanbul and l only been in Australia 5 years,when l read your article l feel very emotional, Thank you very much,and what you write they all so true,Australia is beautifull country but somethings missing and what is missing you write it…

Ross
Guest

Great work Greg, I’m as jealous as sin.

Lachlan
Guest

Yeah, peak government for Australia at present.

Greg, that piece had me engrossed, with your weaving together diverse yet related themes and colourful tidbits. Looking forward to more.

JJ
Guest

Greg,

Bravo! You’re a romantic at heart it seems…

You have a rare ability to lace your words with silk.

Respect! :)

ronur
Guest

Greg,

It is a lovely article. As a Turkish citizen I witnessed the same conditions when I compared Copenhagen, Hamburg and Amsterdam with Istanbul and Ankara. Even though the latter two European cities were known with their spirit and night life, I found out millions of rules and angry sad people.

Somehow in developing parts of the world, communities can handle 4 times larger traffic volumes with only 10% of the rules in western metropols.

Bargeass
Guest

The Nanny State is the final stage in the cycle before extinction.

Fred
Guest
I asked my next door neighbor, a lively 85 year old lady, what life was like before TV. I barely know life without it, apart from the occasional journey to some distant land where there is none or there are so few channels no one bothers watching. Life in Australia sounded like it was a lot more like Turkey. One notable difference, then to now, our older generations knew everyone in the area well. It was far more sociable. Now we barely know the people across the street. We and our neighbors are confined to our own homes in the… Read more »
Siimon
Guest

Enjoying watching the polarity shift with you Greg.

alexander
Guest
I am currently living in rural Bali and I can relate to what you say about feeling more free at am individual level. here shops open when they want, close when they want, sell what they want, kids adults dogs and anything else you can fit ride motorbikes, dogs, chickens and little kids wander around, there is a much greater focus on community and family than back home. having said that, the individual communities wield great power over their members. Each banjar (village) puts a lot of expectation on its members to attend festivals meetings, ceremonies etc sometimes 4 or… Read more »
Lived there - been excluded
Guest
Lived there - been excluded
Yes, it is a highly romanticised, westerners perspective on life in Istanbul. As a single woman who lived and worked in Istanbul for 2 years I have never felt such isolation or judgement. I did the right thing, lived with another female, we did our best to respect the cultural norms around us, but we were completely rejected by our neighbours. If we had the temerity to invite male friends or colleagues over for lunch or dinner, we, and they, would be tut-tutted as they left the house in the evening. Where did I live? Some conservative suburb? Not at… Read more »
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