The mysterious gold key of travel. No one really knows what it is, but when you stumble across it, you feel this one thing opened up an aspect of a particular place, culture, or event to you. It allows you to get a glimpse of something deeper, to gain somewhat of an understanding of the life around you, the one in which you are just a visitor.

Gold keys are highly subjective and personal and they’ll never unlock everything about something. But if you do find one on a trip, it makes you feel as though you managed to make a connection of some sort rather than solely skimming the surface. Turkey offers one of my favorite gold keys, as I have been pleasantly reminded on this trip.

The ubiquitous offer of çay (tea), both free and not free, is something to look forward to during a visit to Turkey. It’s pretty much only not free when it is a waiter offering it to you in a restaurant–everywhere else, feel free to accept the offer since the çay is, well, free. The cynic would say someone is only offering you çay because they want you to let your defenses down and buy something. But I’ve learned in Turkey, for the most part, it really is an offer of tea with no strings attached. I’ve been offered çay by random people, Turkey’s version of Kinko’s, shops where I’m not buying anything, and even in the Grand Bazaar while passing an antique stall. Hospitality truly is part of the Turkish culture.

Note: If you are in the touristy parts of Istanbul or in areas such as Cappadocia, you might be offered “apple tea” (which tastes vile; plus, it’s powdered so who knows what’s in it). Instead, ask for Turkish tea (black tea). You will get a smile and a better tasting cup (which will probably need a cube of sugar or two; this from a woman who never sweetens her tea).

So, say yes to an offer of çay and experience a bit of Turkish culture!